Freedom of the Will: Reason, Dualism, and Choice

My title here, as you might surmise, is, in part, a nod toward my hometown preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who thought and wrote about the issues mentioned, nearly 300 years ago (in 1754).

An essay in The Atlantic issue of March 2014 by Paul Bloom has a more modern view, and also reveals that the controversies surrounding these issues have not been satisfactorily resolved.

I found the essay to be a fair treatment of Blooms’s own work and the opinions of others, with many citations of views that are contrary to his.

I don’t have the expertise to add much, so I’ll simply report on what I have learned, or at least my reactions, from reading Bloom’s piece.

My first takeaway relates to the issue of modern brain science discovering that many decisions that people report that they are making (exercising their free will) have actually been presaged in the brain, suggesting that, in reality, we have no free will (at least over some things), but are simply reporting on decisions that our brain has made for us.

I think this is an overly aggressive and somewhat narrow view of the processing involved. I question, for example, the brainscan studies that purport to measure the sequence of events; they seem to rely on self-reporting, which is problematic.

Building on that, and perhaps of much more consequence, is my second reaction. An idea that Bloom hints at (though I think does not fully articulate) is that our choice (free will) is predicated on a large database of experience.

What this means, in practical terms, it seems to me, is that our actions at any moment in time will reflect not just a split-second decision, but a culmination of a long process (over our lifetimes) of values and beliefs that we have developed, based on our experiences.

Thus, for example, when we decide whether or not to have a cookie or a dish of ice cream, our brain may appear to make that decision prior to our conscious knowledge of the outcome, but the brain has been cued up for this by our prior beliefs about if and when, and under what circumstances, the action in question is good or bad for us.

Of more pragmatic significance, perhaps, are those decisions we make (or at least think we make) in response to warnings from the limbic part of our brain. In evolutionary terms, this warning system far predates the advent of humans. I see it in my horses, for example, when we are out riding and they see something novel; an object that has been moved to a new location, or one they’ve not seen before. They visibly react with caution, sometimes even with fear.

So, too, we humans react, when we encounter something or someone strange to us. As self-aware individuals, though, we have the ability to override our limbic warning system. The failure to do so, in fact, may be the root of all prejudice. We can evaluate a situation based on its own merits, in light of our experience and beliefs, and come to a decision about how to act.

Yes, I strongly believe that we, as individuals, have Freedom of Will, and that we can improve our decision-making as we acquire knowledge and wisdom. A civilized society is enhanced when its members exercise their ability to make decisions based on such learning.

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