Thursday, June 9, 2011

"you" May Not Have Free Will but "YOU" Do

This post is in response to Sam Harris' article on Huffington Post: You Do Not Choose What You Choose.

With apologies to Strother Martin: What we have here is a failure to equivocate.

In other words, this entire argument is based upon a fallacy of equivocation, defining a word in different ways within the same argument. Sam Harris narrowly defines the word "you" to mean "one's conscious self" at some points of this argument, but uses it to mean "all of one's body and brain" in other parts of his argument. In fact, he does so within the headline itself.

By stating that one's conscious self is not aware of or able to directly control the mechanisms by which one's unconscious self makes decisions, Mr. Harris seems to believe he has made the point that we have no free will. Instead, he has merely made the point that a small subset of what we commonly call "me" does not have free will. I will accept, as much research has shown, that my conscious self is usually - if not always - not directly aware of what is going on on the back burners of my brain. My conscious mind is not able to direct which synapses form where or how strong or redundant the connections will be.

However, I do not accept that my conscious mind is all there is to "me." Perhaps the distinction is between "me" (with a little 'm') and "Me" (with a capital 'M'). Both are nevertheless part of the collective "ME." I assert that - even though my conscious self may not be aware of what is going on - it is still "ME" who is ultimately making the decisions. My conscious self may not choose to choose "rabbit" instead of "elephant" but my unconscious self did. My conscious self may not know why my unconscious self chose one over the other but my unconscious self may. Or it may not. It is still "ME" that is making the decision. Even if that decision is entirely random and based on the quantum state of a couple of molecules of neurotransmitter. Those molecules are still part of "ME" and I claim them as my own.

In the end this "free will" debate is moot. Like creationism, free-will arguments will always be "gap-based" arguments. Anything that can't currently be explained will be treated as proof for one side of the argument or the other. We are unlikely to ever be able to definitively settle the dispute. What ultimately counts is our perceptions (as well as the reactions within our unconscious minds which those perceptions trigger). As long as our collective perception is that we can actually do something to make ourselves and our world better then I will be satisfied.

The contents of this post is Copyright © 2011 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

1 comment:

  1. Recently, I have had conversations with people who claim that the universe is entirely deterministic. They claim that the only reason for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that we do not have the technology or scientific knowledge to calculate the values said Principle states are impossible to predict. I do not have enough math or physics under my belt to state the specific theories; However, I am under the impression that - even if we could measure the exact position AND velocity of a quantum-level particle - there would still be a lot of fundamental randomness within Space-Time at the Planck level to create true randomness. While this randomness may average itself out at the macro level, I believe it can have enough of an effect at the molecular level to influence neuronal activation.

    This, then, gives me just enough of a window - wishfully imagined or not - to continue believing in free will. Similar to my claims in the above post, even if those random fluctuations are actually part of space-time, they occur within the space of my skull and influence molecules that are part of my neurons. So I claim them as my own. If you want, you can call those fluctuations part of my "experience," like the weather.

    I know what follows is an entirely fallacious argument, but: How can one be expected to go on, believing that - regardless of one's decisions - those decisions were already predestined at the Big Bang? How can one who is struggling for self improvement continue said struggle believing that, if they just give up, that decision was predestined. Yet if they continue to struggle, that decision was also predestined. That even the conundrum of whether to struggle or not - to be or not to be - was predestined before one was even born.

    So, despite my abhorrence for fallacy, I have an even greater need to believe in my own free will, however imaginary that may be. Perhaps you could call this my "religion." My one thing that I must believe, on faith alone. For, without free will, I do not believe I could continue to suffer those slings and arrows; nor would I have the strength to take arms against that sea of troubles - whichever said free will may choose.