Monday, 24 August 2020

The Necessity of Free Will

Eric Hanson, ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, Mar/Apr 2013
by Thomas Scarborough

I propose to solve the problem of free will.

The problem is, quite simply, the view that we live in a world where causality reigns supreme. If causality reigns supreme, then there can be no free will. And if we admit quantum indeterminacy to the picture, neither is indeterminacy free will.

I propose that the problem rests on an ancient conceptual dichotomy: the things-relations distinction. I propose, too, that this distinction is illusory. Aristotle called it the features-dispositions distinction. Wittgenstein called it the objects-arrangements distinction. We find it, too, in language (the nouns-verbs distinction), and in maths (variables-operators).

The alternative is obvious: there is no such distinction, but rather a fusion of things.  The philosopher Mel Thompson describes our world as ‘a seamless web of causality that goes forwards and backward in time and outwards in space’. ‘Seamless’, if we take it to mean exactly that, implies that there are no seams; there is no separation between things; therefore there is no relation between them.

Our reality has been variously described as an undifferentiated stream of experience, a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions, a swirling cloud without determinate shape. To make sense of this, then, we need to separate it into sounds and sights, surfaces and motions—which is individual things. We take aspects of a seamless whole, and we isolate them from the whole. Once done, we are able to trace relations between them.

With this, we have the basis of causality.  But in a seamless reality, where there is a fusion of things, all things cause all things. Even the language which we speak has an urge towards such fusion. There is an ‘evil’, wrote the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, in defining natural and material things.  ‘Definitions themselves consist of words, and those words beget others’.  Ultimately, our words reach into everything.

In the midst of an undifferentiated expanse, therefore, we create things, and we create causes. We isolate causes from the seamless whole—and with them, effects. But these causes must always strip something off.  This is why our thinking in terms of causality—which is supremely embodied in the modern scientific method—must bring about unwanted side effects of all kinds, through stripped-off relations.

When we say that A causes B we are, as it were, placing our drawing compass on the seamless web of causality and demarcating a circle in the midst of it: 'A'.  Outside of this circle lies the entire, seamless universe, and this knows no 'things'—until we create them in its midst. And when we create them, we create the intractable problem as to what a relation actually is.  A property?  An attribute?

Someone might object. Even if we have no things, no objects, no features (and so on) with which to create causality, we still have a reality which is bound by the laws of the universe. There is therefore some kind of something which is not free. Yet every scientific law is about A causes B. Whatever is out there, it has nothing in common with such a scheme—that we can know of anyway.

One more step is required to prove free will. Every cause that I identify is a creation of my own mind, in that it is freely chosen.  I am free to create it—which is, to demarcate the circle with the drawing compass. When I say that A caused B, I omit C, D, E, and every other possible cause, with the exception of what I want to create.  This is a choice without any kind of necessity.

I fire a shot at a clay pigeon. I choose the cause, and with the cause I choose the effect, and the pigeon shatters in the sky.  Now I see a nearby church bell.   I choose the cause, and I choose the effect, and an entire village awakes from its slumbers on a drowsy afternoon.   In this lies free will.  Cause and effect might seem iron clad—yet it is itself freely chosen.

But did I not cause my causes to be created?  Are not the causes and effects we invent themselves caused in some way?  This possibility is excluded.  We would need to readmit A’s and B’s to our scheme before we could claim cause.

David Bohm wrote that quantum theory is ‘the dropping of the notion of analysis of the world into relatively autonomous parts, separately existent but in interaction’.  In fact, this applies in every sphere.  Causality is illusory.  Not only that, but to say that any such illusion is caused is to admit causality through the back door.  There is no back door. 


Andrew Porter said...

I find it a fascinating idea that you express, Thomas, that "causation" is a supposed state created by one's mind and free will. We set up separation and then notice it. Surely 'non-integration' is more illusory than we customarily think, and the assumption of disparate entities runs into trouble. I am comfortable with a view of reality that sees an integration or wholeness of things at least in complementarities: wave/particle; autonomy/correlation; freedom/order; corporeal/incorporeal, etc. These are repeating patterns. There is wholeness with variegation. Consciousness as Nature/Divinity is a likely source. Free will at the top, what is fitting everywhere else—including human free will.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Andrew. I would see three possible views.

• There are things and relations. Ferociously defended by Bertrand Russell.
• Things are so intertwined that we can no longer clearly or fully distinguish causes.
• The view expressed here, that causality in principle does not, cannot exist.

My idea does have some similarity with others, for example Francis Bradley. Anyway, if one accepts the third view above, it surely means that any notions of causality are freely created by ourselves. I have wondered what else it means, but have not been able to put it into words.

Keith said...

You present, Thomas, an interesting view. Intriguing.

I would like to pose four brief questions, if I may, based on this statement: ‘Every cause that I identify is a creation of my own mind’.

So, if we take the statement above as true …

Can we be sure that every cause created by ‘my own mind’ is indeed ^freely^ made rather than influenced, or predetermined, in a yet-not-understood manner?

Why did our intellectuals through history mostly become convinced that they identified a reality made up of discrete causes and effects rather than seamlessness?

Have we therefore been operating on the basis of a ‘subjective reality’ — that is, ‘of my own mind’ — presumably not comporting to ‘actual (objective) reality’?

Separately …

Would a seamless reality mean that our presumed understanding of the natural laws of the universe is wrong? Or can the two ideas be reconciled, without harm to either?

Martin Cohen said...

My reservation with this typically philosophical attempt to mock common sense, endorsed by one of our learned contributors too! is that, well, a stone does move when kicked, as Bishop Berkeley's critics always said. There does seem to be some sort of arrow to time, x causes y and we all, for example, grow old and die - whatever the philosophers may say. Go on, tell me where I've one wrong!

Tessa den Uyl said...

I can embrace this idea by Thomas, and somehow see it connected to the koan where one should get the goose out of the bottle without harming the goose. The bottle is our own illusion, the goose is outside, therefor our doings are almost always projected inside the bottle; we live in the bottle for we are unable to think ourselves outside of it. I guess once the coin of being outside of the bottle drops, the world one sees is rather the same, although the interference with everything has profoundly changed...

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Martin asks, 'Tell me where I've gone wrong.' Here it is. You yourself have lost touch with reality. You conjure up things and relations with the ancient Greeks -- who preferred also to introduce fire, earth, air, and water to their philosophy -- yet you don't for a moment pause to inqure whether these exist.

You kick a stone (Event A), therefore the stone moves (Event B). Ah, we have discovered that the kick is related to the movement of the stone! What is the relation then? Where is it? Show it to us. Is it a substance? Is it an attribute? You are mocking common sense, by spinning yarns about things called relations. Or would you prefer to speak about relations called things? Even the most orthodox of philosophers Simon Blackburn describes this as 'highly problematic'.

Call it pub philosophy. 'I slugged him your Honour, and next thing he was on the floor. The two are related your Honour, clearly. You ask me how, your Honour? It's common sense, isn't it? There's a relation wot sits between him who slugs and the man who lands on the floor.'

Since my ideas may be reminiscent of those of the idealist philosopher Francis Bradley, we may be reminded of the unfortunate incident in which the logical positivist A.J. Ayer ridiculed Bradley for not being common-sensical. Later, Ayer confessed of his own work that 'nearly all of it was false'. The verdict today: Ayer presented a misleading and dismissive stereotype of Bradley.

Presumably you would have a problem with modern physical science, which claims that our reality is 'all space, and none of it empty'. Apart from having a ridiculous contradictory statement here, who would ever believe that the stone I kick is in reality empty? 99.9999999% empty space, by some accounts.

I realise that this is dismantling your case more than it explains my own. Perhaps I shall address that in replying to Keith.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I shall run through your questions one by one. I hope that I paraphrase them satisfactorily.

1. Are causes freely created by the mind? If we have determined that causality does not exist, we cannot reintroduce it in wondering what caused us to identify causes. If there is some kind of causality we have not identified, it will not be the causality that we know. Can it therefore be causality?

2. Why has the things-relations distinction been dominant in the past? Well, to what extent has it? Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method, noted that there is an 'evil' in defining things. Their relations reach into everything. There is, too, a growing sense of unease with the idea. Blackburn causes it 'highly problematic'. Fraser MacBride, a professor of logic and metaphysics, notes that relations ‘are difficult to locate’. And there is the famous Bradley's Regress.

3. Has our view of reality been subjective? That which is subjective 'belongs to, proceeds from, or relates to the mind of the thinking subject and not the nature of the object being considered'. So yes. The proof of this lies in the crises that our world is now facing. Relations reach into everything, yet we are stripping them away in the interests of individuating things to do science. Therefore we have a range of unwanted side-effects, or externalities one could say.

4. Is our understanding of the natural laws wrong? Yes. Apart from the above, our biggest theoretical problem is rooted in insisting on the things-relations distinction. Events are things that happen, so we have a sequence of Event A, Event B, Event C ... but what links them to make them into a law? There are various other indications that something is badly wrong, some of them in Zeno's paradoxes.

All this does not mean that causality is unimportant or non-existent subjectively, in our thinking. We create causes, and always will do. But to understand that we create them is to be more humble in our use of them. Also, take my example of the Church bell. There is cause and effect at work in that example -- one wouldn't hit the Church bell if one were aiming at the stained glass -- but the cause and effect at work there is freely chosen.

These are exploratory thoughts. One of my biggest puzzlements is one that you raise: what then is really going on in the world out there?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Tessa. Interference is the major problem of our world, and it comes down to the things-relations distinction. We individuate things, and on this basis we manipulate them, not understanding that such thinking by its very nature contradicts what is around us. Animals may be a good example to us, of creatures which do not interfere.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

P.S. On a point of clarity, one would not hit the clay pigeon if one were aiming at the church bell. It is not therefore causes alone which we create, but causes with their effects.

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