Freedom and Its Human Face

– Timothy o’Connor helpfully distinguishes between the ‘capacity to choose’ and ‘freedom’ – the former is necessary but not sufficient for an account of free will. The latter, interestingly enough, can be diminished without the former being so.

– Crucial in o’Connor’s account of free will are reasons – reasons that are acted on (desires, belief, what have you) and reasons that are acted for (goals).  Reasons are themselves non-causal, since o ‘Connor is defending agent causation, but they are causally influential. To use his terminology, reasons structure the agent-causal capacity.

– Self-knowledge plays a significant role here – if a person is unaware of the factors and reasons which motivate his action, then he has a lesser degree of freedom than someone who has a greater knowledge of the factors motivating his action – the more self-aware person will be able to reflect on his motivating factors and actions

– Another crucial aspect for his account of freedom is the integrity of self-formation. Citing Robert Grosseteste’s angelic thought experiment (where an angel is formed for an instant with a full set of memories and psychological dispositions- which he doesn’t actually have, having only existed for an instant – and then makes a decision or chooses to act) o’Connor concludes that a person’s history (his/her full set of psychological dispositions, previous choices, character, etc) is a source of freedom.

– This conclusion is reached by noting that in the above thought experiment, the instant-existing angel merely has his ‘history’ as a ‘given’, which as such determines how he will act/choose – this ‘given’ is more or less the factors that shape our choices. If one has a real history, then one also has a ‘given’, but this ‘given’, as we grow and choose and interact with our world and are exposed to all kinds of rich new horizons, is shaped in such a way as to reflect more of our own action. Thus, our ‘given’ becomes becomes more of our own creation, and through our actions in the world our freedom grows.

‘We come into the world with powerful tendencies that are refined by the particular circumstances in which we develop. All of these facts are for us merely ‘given.’ They determine which choices we have to make and which options we will consider (and how seriously) as we arrive at a more reflective age. However, presuming that we are fortunate enough not to be
impacted by traumatic events that will forever limit what is psychologically possible for us, and, on the positive side, that we are exposed to a suitably rich form of horizon-expanding opportunities, the structure of our choices increasingly
reflect our own prior choices. In this way, our freedom grows over time.’ – (Timothy o’Connor, ‘Freedom With a Human Face‘)

– Simplifying that out a bit: as a person grows and chooses they shape some of the factors that shape their choice. All other things being equal, this effectively grows our freedom since we shape our ‘given’ by our own choices. Perhaps an argument can be extracted:

If persons have a histories, they are free

Persons have histories

Therefore, they are free

– While not very convincing, this may serve to show the point being driven towards.

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Thought Notes on Hasker and Free Will

– Hasker observes that there is next to no empirical evidence for determinism – I’d go a bit farther and argue that empirically and scientifically, determinism is bankrupt, especially since the work done by Ilya Prigione in the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

– Hasker also notes that ‘free will’ really has to be analyzed from the perspective of agent causation – that is, the person, or agent, as a whole has to be taken into consideration when thinking about human action. He also astutely notes that once if one wants to take this position, one has to reject mechanistic explanation and allow for the teleological. I find this refreshing – personally, I couldn’t care less about Frankfurt counterexamples.

– It should be no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I think the ‘free will’ debate is pretty muddled – trying to analyze whether or not any given action is ‘free’ is, to me, a pretty ridiculous idea. My immediate volition may be uncoerced/undetermined in the sense that no one is holding a gun to my head, and that I’m not strictly determined – but a lack of coercion hardly leads to the conclusion that such volition is self-caused, freely. No action occurs in a vacuum – every action I undertake is the product of my having undertaken a previous action, and each action I undertake narrows the choices I can make in the future. Free will conceived as volition simply leads to a self-made prison – my choices growing ever more restricted because of each action I undertake. (Here I’m rather indebted to Maximos the Confessor.)

– I won’t contradict myself and say that any given volition is determined by previous action/volition, which is what it sounds like I’m doing above. But it is, to quote Hart, subordinated and confined:

‘All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it even before it has chosen. Moreover, these possibilites are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent upon other limited and limiting potentialities.’ (‘The Doors of the Sea’, p. 70)

– There has to be some kind of telos for the person – an end to which we are directed, a purpose for which we aim – for freedom, a real freedom, to be conceivable. Those intrigued by Maximos will find what I believe to be a substantially correct account of the person and freedom in his writings.

Note on Agency

William Hasker notes in ‘The Emergent Self’ that:

‘Mechanistic causation and mechanastic explanation are fundamentally nonteleological.’ (p. 63)

In light of this, which I take to be a fairly accurate description of mechanistic philosophy, there cannot be a fully mechanistic account of human action. Human action, and freedom/freedom of the will, require a telos, an end, a purpose, and any account which denies any of those things will ultimately fail to be coherent.

Thoughts on Natures and Freedom

I happened upon a comment made in regards to Johnathan Edward’s book on freedom of the will, in which it is stated that man always acts in accordance with his nature. This is interesting to me, for a number of reasons. What follows are some jumbled thoughts on the subject.

First off, let’s forget about ‘free will’ in the sense of being able to choose X over Y, since as I’ve argued before, the freedom of the will has very little to do with volition or choosing. Edwards’ claim is that we always choose according to our inclinations and affections. This seems to me demonstrably false – it is not my natural inclination to run 2 miles every day (even if it is a slow pace) or to limit from my diet beer, soda and cake, yet I do so in defiance of my inclinations (which is to sit on my couch, drink beer and get fat). I certainly hope I’m misunderstanding something here, because to ascribe inclinations and affections such determinative power seems quite silly.

What then is a nature? It’s not something which determines how I act, since I can always act outside my nature. In fact, I don’t think ‘nature’ has a whole lot to do with volition, or choosing, or inclinations, or any of the standard ways in which the will is usually explained. Theologically, human nature, humanity, is Christ. Jesus is true human nature. Torrance goes a bit more technically into defining nature – he takes a cue from Heidegger and defines it as the being of something which is revealed out from its hidden-ness. He ties it very closely to being.

Man’s nature is oriented towards the Good, though the effects of sin often make this fact a hard one to believe. One is not free by choosing X over Y. Instead of the nature being that which determines how we act, our nature is that to which we are oriented and which we may or may not move towards. True human nature is Christ. True freedom is the realization of our being in Christ. Freedom is not the ability to choose according to our natures. Freedom is attaining that to which our nature is oriented.

Note on Unconscious Activity

The famous Libet experiments are often taken to show that there is no free will – there are a host of other experiments, of the empirical and philosophical, that are along the same lines, which attempt to demonstrate that from a lack of conscious control over our entire mental life we have no free will. What I see, however, is a statement of the obvious. Most of what I do every day is unconscious – from driving to work to typing while talking to someone else, pretty much all of what I do is not consciously controlled by me. David Bentley hart had an interesting insight in ‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’:

‘Whatever that impulse is, then, it constitutes at most a physiological potential for action, not a decision to act. So, even taken entirely on their own terms, these experiments tell us little that we do not already know: that the impulse to act frequently comes before we consciously choose to comply with or resist that impulse. One might almost say that our free decisions seem to act as formal causes of action, imposing determinate order upon the otherwise incohate promptings of our neurons.’ (p. 163-164)

Circling the Issue of Freedom Some More

So far, it seems that, as repeated in other posts, the least important thing about a coherent concept of freedom is volition, or whether or not we can choose from among available options. I made the argument that in order to have any kind of coherent account of freedom, one must have a teleological element as well. What I’m interested in is an account of freedom that isn’t teleological, if there is one. Is there one?

More on Freedom

At this point it seems to be the case that unless you have some kind of anthropological teleology, you can’t get free will or freedom of any kind. Without the teleological, all you get is volition – and as I argued in another post, if you think it through, all volition does is imprison you, which is the opposite of free will. This to me is why so much of the free will debate is muddled – it ends up being about the surface issues, like, ‘can I choose X over Y freely?’, when it needs to be about the underlying metaphysics of freedom or nonfreedom. Whether or not one can freely choose one option from among others in any given scenario is irrelevant to whether or not one is truly free, and that’s the real question.

If, however, you don’t admit any kind of teleology, then your basically banned from the start from having any kind of coherent theory of freedom, and you’ll be forced to argue about volition, which gets you nowhere. My main point here is that if any progress is too be made about any issue, we have to look past the surface problems and go deeper into the issue at hand.