Saturday, September 30, 2006

Free Will

I recently discovered a brilliant blog by the creator of the Dilbert cartoons. You should it check out. No really, you should.

The wet bit of the machine?At the moment they are discussing free will (First, second, and third posts on the subject), brought on, as are so many theological and philosophical questions, by the Pope's propensity to label millions of people evil because their religious dogma is different from his.

It all began with this simple question "If a man goes into the forest and pokes a bear with a sharp stick, and the bear kills the man, whose fault is it?" (it gets more involved but you'll have to go there to read the whole thing)

Some people seem to think the stick (or the manufacturer of sticks) was to blame, which seems rather "clever, clever" to me rather than having any real meaning. What was particularly interesting though was the fact that the Dilbert creator (aka Scott Adams) basically thinks the answer is forget fault, all we are is "moist robots" whose actions are entirely predetermined by the mechanics of our brains, bodies and the way we interact with the environment.

His argument boils down to this: The bear is going to kill anyone who pokes it with a stick, but the man, although he may have more general ability to appear rational is just as confined by his poking desires, all his life has led up to that moment and he could do no other - you might as well blame the stick for as much ability either had to change course. "Each creature acted according to its nature and its programming, as all moist robots must." Whew! Full on.

I did muse about the meaning of life (of all things) in an earlier post (here) in which I big up the main man Sartre (who I spelt wrong, doh) who believed that we are *condemned* by our free will and therefore responsible for our actions - but I also think that Wittgenstein is handy here too, in that he questions the very paradigms we use when posing philosophical questions. In some senses philosophical debates are often word games, where the shape of our language limits and shapes the argument, rather than being plausible explorations of the truth.

We think, we feel, we make decisions - in what way is it relevant to say could I have chosen another path at a certain point in time if I did not? What bearing do the concepts determinism and free will have upon us apart from as convenient moral cloaking devices to back up our positions on other questions. "He chose to murder" / "he's a product of his environment" would be the classic example - and in my mind BOTH things are true and useful simultaneously.

HmmmmmmmIf we want to reduce crime (for example) we know that crime is a social phenomenon whose rates vary according to a number of social factors. Looking after the health, wealth and happiness of the population has always been a better method at reducing rates of crime than prison, the noose or 501 new flavours of law. But it's also true to say that if you kill your wife you bear "some" responsibility for this. The individual should not be lost whilst looking at the way social factors shape the members of that society.

Certainly it's no use expecting Islamophobic cartoonists not to be offensive, just as there's little point pretending that people will not get offended if you deliberately target their beliefs - but we should behave as if we can make a difference in the world and that our actions can change the outcome of events, preferably for the better.


troutsky said...

I like your solution of embracing both ideas simultaneously, rather than being "framed" into an either or.Expanding on that we get into the idea of creativity, and all the nuanced contingincies that play into actions if we are willing to go a little deeper in our analysis. By the way ,Im a big fan of Walter Moselys.

Jim Jay said...

Walter Mosley is absolutely brilliant. I'm a big fan. You've peaked my curiousity though, what does he have to say on this?

mich said...

This may sound a bit muddled, but yes, we could use both concepts. And in a sense even if you accepted determinism, we are of course a cog in the machine. Our decisions may be fixed if you like, but that's only because you can predict (in this case) how someone is going to decide and not because it is in some way not their choice...

Jim Jay said...

mich - i think it might feel muddled because we/i'm trying to fuse concepts that are traditionally seen as binary opposites... which is why i like the idea, but perhaps in order to it more thoroughly there needs to be a more comprehensive reworking of the framework itself...

i'm a big fan of wittgenstein and i think he could be helpful here - if only it wasn't so hard to understand!

mich said...

I also love Wittgenstein, he's great... I might think about this when I have time and get back to you. I don't know if you were at meeting today coz I didn't recognise you but I was... maybe I'll get to meet you sometime

Are you perhaps suggesting something along the lines of the fact that decision language and moral language are different 'games'?

Jim Jay said...

Well and also the way that language sets the paradigms inside of which we can discuss these things. If we cannot say something, we cannot think it - but that's a limitation of language rather than the world's as it is-ness.

In other words if free will and determinism are part of one and the same thing the fact we find that difficult or even impossible to express does not mean it isn't so - and by exploring more deeply and being willing to subvert the linguistic shapes we're pushed into when exploring philosophy we can push the bounds of what we (mis)understand.

It's all very hard though for my poor little brain.

Oh, and i wasn't there today, but I'm sure we'll meet soon :)