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Free Will and the Notion of Self

Robert Dimuro

Posted on May 23, 2020 19:31

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The theory of free will relies on the existence of a causative agent that has the ability to choose.

In part one of this article, I suggested that the traditional debate between libertarian free will and determinism is framed incorrectly and incompletely. Although I also critique both positions, my argument isn't that they're markedly wrong; rather, it's that alternative positions exist that clarify and modify our traditional disagreements, one of which I will discuss here.

The investigative pursuit of arriving at the true philosophy of mind implies that there is, in fact, an empirical answer to be found. Therefore, we must implicitly reject the metaphysical interpretation of the mind as an epistemological nonstarter. In other words, even if true, such an interpretation is unverifiable, unknowable, and thus it cannot be falsifiable. As such, it doesn't contribute to our growing philosophical and scientific understanding of the human mind.

This is not to say that free will doesn't have a place in this debate. It simply means that the human mind must be susceptible to its body and environment, which we already know to be true. For instance, damaging certain parts of the brain affects certain parts of the mind. As such, we can't ignore causation as having an effect on our minds and thus, on our thoughts, decisions and actions. This is the basis for causal free will (CFW), which is a package term for various theories and interpretations. 

CFW, like free will in general, still relies on a causative agent that has the ability to choose. However, in CFW, this agent lives and dies with its physical body and is influenced by its environment in the same way that said agent influences its environment. In other words, there's a constant feedback loop between an agent causing and being caused. 

It may be hopeless for scientists to untangle this web of causation and parse out which part of the mind is in control and which is being influenced. However, it's clear that our conception of an agent (or self) that causes (or authors) our thoughts and actions is a product of our complex and evolved brains. Whether or not this conception resembles an actual physical entity or is simply an illusion is another story; however, its actual existence is a necessary precondition of any theory of free will.

We can now see that this debate isn't about a self that determines its own fate vs. a self whose fate is determined by prior causes; rather, it's whether or not there is, in fact, a self. In this way, the two sides in the traditional debate are talking past each other. Free will is self-evident if you believe in the existence of self — what else could a "self" imply besides its dominion over thought and action?

On the other hand, determinism's self-evidence, according to its supporters, is based on the fact that the self is an illusion. However, the problem with this view is that determinism isn't the only philosophy that accommodates the nonexistence of self, as we'll discover in part three of this article.

Robert Dimuro

Posted on May 23, 2020 19:31

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Source: Reason

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