Thursday, July 16, 2015

Considering "Free Will" (some more): Towards a Moral Meaning in a Physical Context

The discussion of the topic of free will, up to now, has lent to us a sense that it is a phenomenon which is viably described in physical, empirical, biobehavioral terms.  We understand the root elements involved by direct experience, and they have an intelligible interrelation when coordinated under the rubric of decision-making processes in which the term "free will" is commonly used.  But there are two problems with which we are presented, and I will argue that their relationship with one another is not at all a simple one at first, and that it will not become a simple one until the proper analysis is found for them.

The first issue is the question of what all this discussion means in moral terms.  The second issue is what sort of freedom is it that is implied by the subjective aspect of this phenomenon?  Most discussion about the "problem" of free will revolves around these two questions in some form.  For example, in the first question people will often ask what is the meaning and purpose of blame if the being is simply acting according to its own nature?  Can a being be shunned for behaving naturally "as if" it could have done otherwise?  As if it it should have done otherwise?  What does such moralizing behavior really mean?  At least, what is that sort of behavior in the context already established for examining freedom of will as a "natural phenomenon"?

The second question is actually the "harder" of the two, and so is the less commonly approached.  It involves asking questions about what is the actual nature of the mental phenomena involved in decision-making, and what "freedom" really means in that context.  This is not a simple issue, because it relates to larger questions in the same vein which ask, most generally, what are the relations between mind and body, between psyche and brain. That is the area of philosophy which began to pick up steam more earnestly during the early modern period of philosophy, with landmark thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Malebranche, and quite a few others.  Even till today this issue has not be satisfactorily clarified, although some significant hashing out of the territory of the discussion has taken place.

But while the "easier" topic is the one often broached most, it is the "harder" topic which contains the "first hand" experience upon which we will draw in order to reach meaningful results in any event, regardless of which topic we discuss, and so it will be the second question we will approach first.

The issue here is narrowed down into our present discussion by asking ourselves "what it is like", subjectively, to make a decision.  We may as well go back to our erstwhile peach, the eating of which I must confess is still quite memorable, and in a positive way, for I believe I made the best possible decision concerning how to go about that activity, under the circumstances, so that even now I have the reward of a pleasant memory of the event, unmarked by any negative consequences which might have ensued had I simply eaten it without regard to place.

I ate the peach "at" an establishment which offers food, although the main commodity there is coffee or tea drinks.  I felt there was perhaps some ambivalence in some of the staff there toward myself already, and so perhaps some possible friction which might arise if I did anything to attract any specific negative attention from them.  Knowing that I buy only a minimum amount of coffee there in order to spend a few hours online (using my own hotspot, but their electricity), for example to write the first essay on this subject, and that hence I had barely covered the justification for my presence, and combining this with the sense that there was some ambivalence on the part of staff about my presence, I feel that I rightly induced that blatantly breaking a rule of such a business by eating something right inside, in full view of all staff and customers, would have perhaps been a bit too much. It did matter that one of the staff was a shift leader who seemed quite disrespectful to my custom on one occasion, and that he was working concurrently with the store manager, who herself had seemed to harbor some negative evaluation of me.

I chose, therefore, to eat the peach outside, just as one might step outside to smoke a cigarette or take a phone call.  The sidewalk right outside no more belonged to this cafe than to any other establishment in the shopping center, and I was no less a customer for taking this action, and it broke no rule of the establishment.  It might not have been enjoyed by staff who were ambivalent toward me, but it would have avoided giving any opportunity for them to directly confront me as though I had done anything wrong, since I didn't eat the peach right in there. They know I'm not a big spender, but I'm still a customer, with no less a right to be there than the others.  If anything, this action on my part shows that I have respect for the rules of the establishment and good sense about my precarious position as a customer there, so by all rights it ought to increase the security of my custom more than would have been possible if I hadn't done this at all, and certainly much more than if I had eaten the peach right in there!

So what was going through my mind when making this decision is easy to understand and for some it is something to which it is easy to relate.  Now the groundwork laid in the first essay will be rewarded in what follows, for it will make the subsequent analysis easier and more intelligible.

It was in my nature to desire to eat, and I knew that my doing so would have to be modified as to place of eating in order to maximize the value of executing the decision to eat without leaving that place.  I modified how I did the action, and then I proceeded to do it in modified form. I did this freely in that it is part of my nature to maximize the value of my decisions.  I could have done this in other ways, but none of them seemed to reach the same level of gratification as did this particular way.  I could have left the place entirely, gone to the bus bench outside after packing up my things, left my spot open to be taken by someone else, eaten the peach, then come back in looking a bit odd even to those who might have spited my presence otherwise, as they'd surely be able to see the folly of requiring me to do all that to eat a peach when I'm going to come back anyway as I would be no less right to do than anyone else.

They'd see it as odd even though they were perhaps miffed, at least subconsciously, that I'd avoided going through all that, as well as avoided leaving, and ate the peach outside.  Ironically, they were probably almost as much pleased that I'd not blatantly broken a rule of theirs even though it would have also given them ammunition needed to eject me from their place of slavery, I mean "work". So that method wasn't really better than the method I chose.  It also carried the significant risk of not only looking odd, making me look odder than I already do to some, but also of losing my spot as someone else might have chosen to take it once it was empty.

They might not like me, but they can't blame me for not being foolish, and they can't blame me for eating my peach, and they can't blame me for how I went about it.  I spent less time out there eating that peach than some do on their phones or smoking cigarettes or whatever else.  And it's not like I was eating it in the window, grinning and pointing at it, making a scene at everyone there.  It was an innocuous act the way that I did it.  

I didn't choose to eat it in the place for reasons already explained.  In fact, doing so would be almost tantamount to doing that ridiculous thing in the window at everyone which I of course wouldn't do (so why would I eat inside?).

All in all, it is incredible how much better it is to delay gratification, alter the method of eating, and yet not leaving the place en toto, than it would be to "act freely and naturally" in the other ways.  I was of course FREE to do those other things, if I had felt they would be better for some reason, but I did not.  I wanted to stay longer, but I wanted to eat my peaches, too.  And I didn't want to lose my place, but I didn't want to break the rule, mainly because I didn't want to be kicked out (not because I think that rule is so sacrosanct, or that place "so awesome").  I acted freely in rational terms, according to parameters of decision-making within which I had elected to make my decision.

Yet in all this freedom of mine there were constraints.  They were mainly practical constraints which describe one set of variables in a calculus of pleasure optimization, a sort of utilitarianist methodology of action.  This is especially true when it is admitted that I felt no real ethical or moral motivation for doing what I did, and even rather have some moral motives for jumping over the counter and eating the peach right in the faces of those people who think themselves so fit to judge my presence in a negative way, especially when I know so much more about the reality of the world in which they act as though zombies pulled on the strings of ignorance to dance some ridiculous dance of feeling like they have power in their little place of slavery.

And that brings us to the deeper level of the decision-making process.  What are the ultimate values which guide our decision making process?  How are those formed, and how are they executed in a world where the reference points for our decision-making frame the decisions we make more in terms which are not really consistent with the fullness of our knowledge about what is really best and most appropriate in those very same circumstances?  We know the world's script is defined according to certain norms, and we may navigate our courses of action with some coordination with them.  But we may also experience a significant gap between the total give and take of mental and spiritual energy which is manifested in that "public matrix" of expression and what would be perhaps a much truer expression of who we really are and what all these circumstances really mean to us.

This is the grey area where people skirt many lines.  Here is where art has demonstrated through the ages that is is a domain where anyone is able to stake out a realm of dominion for their own inner life, their own spirit, and thereby live out their own soul, manifest their own animate expression in ways more fully meaningful and rewarding to themselves.  This is all more or less sublimated, and in some cases it can be pretty damned blunt.  And there are interesting ways here where life imitates art and reacts to it, even is changed by it, rather than merely this being a long story of art pussyfooting around the harsh realities of "real life".  But those areas of consideration are too varied and rich to be further sampled in this context, and would amount to a severe digression.

So we found that the inner experience of my decision-making process had a utilitarian calculus which seems to have been optimal, although this can and will be further explored as tentatively sub-optimal, with implications about my so-called "freedom", as well as my so-called "nature".  We found also that there was a distinct set of ambiguities in the interpretation of the environment in which the decision was made, some complexities about which could not be resolved beyond some bare assessment, and which might have been disjoint in their own "inner reality", in many ways, from my "outside" assessment according to my own "inner reality".  And then, most substantively, there was an entire dimension of decision-making which was not properly embodied in that sequence of events and their examination, which in its own way is also subject to further clarification and also embedded with inherent ambiguities which may be situationally and perhaps even metaphysically impossible to surmount except in the most abstruse and abstract ways which are normally only found in the pages of obscure and arcane books.

But our task involves resolving these complexities, ambiguities, and further dimensions, or at least my goal is to fulfill the resolution of those issues in my own mind.  But that will require a space of text, and a duration of time, which exceeds the limits of this second essay, and so will have to await the promulgation of a third.  I have already decided to write it, whether or not to read it is totally up to the reader.  But if the reader has an inclination toward what is in the best interests of his or her own Spirit, I am sure that he or she will not be disappointed.

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