Determinism and choice | Paul Bloom

Some determinists would balk at this. The idea of “choosing” to stop (or choosing anything at all), they suggest, implies a mystical capacity to transcend the physical world. Many people think about choice in terms of this mystical capacity, and I agree with the determinists that they’re wrong. But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it. The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of what it means to say that people make choices, and in this regard, the notion that we are responsible for our fates remains intact.

Yes, the hard determinist position, with its dire connotations for the notion of free will, has always struck me as somewhat improbable. Doesn’t our capacity to imagine, to reflect, to conceptualise, to (attempt) to empathise of itself create continuous swirls and gaps in the causal stream?

That said, over the years I have moved further away from a strong “free will” position. Indeed the term itself should probably be set aside in discussions of this sort. It suggests a degree of freedom that ignores how heavily handicapped our choices are by genetic make-up, life experience and current circumstances.

The real question, I think, is whether we have any choice at all. Some, like Sam Harris, don’t think so. At any particular moment for an individual, they see his/her detailed state of mind as fully (rather than only partially) determined and whatever actions are taken therefore follow inexorably. Subsequent events, feedback, even the individual’s thoughts about what’s happened form part of future detailed states of mind and consequent actions. And so on. So it’s not that they say we can’t learn, or that incentives and punishments have no effect, it’s just that at each given moment we are entirely in thrall to all its antecedents. The individual concerned, on the other hand, experiences all this as a series of choices.

It’s slippery territory and our subjective perceptions about these matters are likely to be unreliable. Still, once again, what about that capacity to imagine alternatives, to consider consequences? Are each of these thoughts, these flights of fancy also to be boxed and labelled as not ours, as something effectively imposed upon us? And while our actions in response to sudden shocks are mostly or entirely involuntary, is that still true when we have time to reflect?

Our imagination is capable not only of reshuffling the cards that comprise our mental hand but of introducing new ones, and our reason of trying to make the best use of them. If that’s so, then we do have some measure of choice. The relevant question instead becomes the degree to which we’ve become used to conjuring with our perceptions, expectations and understandings in this fashion.

Someone who hasn’t wouldn’t have much more choice than a beast. For the rest of us, however, to preclude this capacity to play a sort of deux ex machina role in our lives seems to me to go too far.

via The War on Reason – Paul Bloom – The Atlantic.

Further reading: Daniel Dennett’s critique of Sam Harris’ “Free Will” / Harris’ response / Daniel Miessler backs Harris


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