Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Considering "Free Will": Towards a Moral Meaning in a Physical Context

It has been said that "free will" is a universal law, and that it would be necessarily the case that it is or else evil would have run rampant over all that resists it long ago.

Leaving aside just what the terms "free" and "will" actually mean, the argument continues that there is empirical evidence that forces of control in various sectors of human existence require a process of gradual control by means of manufactured consent. That there is some sort of "loophole" by which an informed agent who does not affirm against some proposition is thereby "on record" as a proponent for it.

These are relevant phenomena in the discussion, and they do point to an attempt to manipulate a person's consciousness so that it will be more favorable to some proposed situation, or at least bound by some implicit sense of being unopposed to it. That a consciousness can be influenced in just such a way does tell us a lot about what that consciousness is and what it does, what it is capable of, and it is likely that in the cluster of information which can be derived from this evidence we can better develop a functional definition of free will.

When a person or any other thing "acts freely", it simply acts according to its nature, as the philosopher David Hume has rightly observed. That is to say that anything, a living thing for example, will do what it has it "in its nature to do", as long as nothing influences it to do otherwise. In other words, if it does not encounter resistance to how it lives, a living being will live in a way that is in accordance "with its nature".

What makes for the sense of freedom is the situation where there is no other force which acts to resist this living being from acting freely according to its nature. So we immediately have one form of the idea of freedom, as being a state in which a thing is doing what it must, according to its nature, without any interference from anything else.

What kind of freedom is this? That means that the nature of the being is what is free, not the being itself. The being's behavior is simply the effect of the cause, the cause being the being's nature.

What is the nature of a being? We know a being exists, let us say. That is a bare fact which is open to further qualification. We then ask "how" it exists. It has a mode of existence which can be categorized by various paradigms of examination and analysis, or else by other approaches which operate by means of perceptions and intuitive processes that resemble cognition in some ways, but offer more direct routes of relation to those beings for the consciousness which interacts with them.

It is apparent that "nature" is a catchall for what "in the being" acts as the cause of its activities. When we are looking for the freedom of the being to "act out" its own nature, we are asking about the causes of the activity which are anchored in the being's own constitution, whatever the being, whatever the elements of its composition.

Aristotle worked out a great deal of the conceptual canvass in this area of thought which western philosophy has used ever since that time, and which it still uses. Eastern philosophy has likewise found similar approaches in both its Taoist and Confucian branches of thought, especially in the Neo-Confucian schools.

We are, as some have said, in very charted waters, yet we are not quite clear on what we mean by the "free will" yet, not yet with the sort of precision that true clarity would require. Let us accept the simplex formulation of what the element of "freedom" implies, as discussed above, at least for now, and simply for the purposes of a completed circuit of examination in a reasonably short time.

What is this "will"? Is it not a part of the nature of the being which has this faculty? Surely it is. Aristotle categorizes it as part of what is involved in the initiation of action in the living being, and calls it therefore part of the "soul" of the being, which is to say part of what animates the being (De Anima, Aristotle). It is a some sort of capacitor of action. It is some aspect, at least, of the being's capacity for action.

At this stage we are in danger of saying that it is simply that part of the being which is most essentially its unfettered nature! That being the case, we would being saying something in a way repetitively. It is the most natural part of a being's nature, which is simply that aspect of a being which is the cause of its manner of existence, that aspect which gives rise to the manifest actions of the being when it is in existence.

But we are speaking very specifically when we are talking of the will of a being. We are not even speaking of animals generally, but specifically of self-conscious animals, like humans. In this context "will" offers us a bit more to consider. We are in an excellent position to delve into this empirically, as we have first-hand experience in this regard, in that we are, presumably, human beings.

When we experience some desire, we are already well-stocked with a repertoire of actions which we may take in order to fulfill it. We seem to have an inherent awareness that the meaning of the experience of "desire" is something which requires us to act toward its fulfillment. It may be a positive experience in that a possibility of pleasure is promised, or it may be a negative one, in that a possibility of pain lies in its being unfulfilled. Indeed, when it comes to these matters, it is hard to get to a more fundamental aspect of experience than pleasure and pain! Pleasure seems the essence of a desire, and pain seems the essence of something the opposite of pleasure, which is to say something that we essentially do not want, something we essentially "desire" to avoid.

Now when it comes to the question of what a freedom is in this regard, the buck fairly stops with pain and pleasure. We are not free to experience pleasure as inherently undesirable, and we are not free to experience pain as something inherently desirable. This cannot be the case. The "sense" of these experiences just is their sense of being desirable or undesirable.

But even though we may experience some specific desire that we deem pleasurable, such as the tasting of a peach, we may easily consider the means of fulfilling that desire, such as how to acquire a peach, how to handle it, where to produce it for consumption, how to consume it, and so on. These are additional considerations which attend the fact that we don't "just eat" a peach. We must get hold of it, we must handle it, we must consume it by some method. Sure, this is easier for most animals, who just grab and begin devouring. And we could do that also, if we so chose, but we may have other considerations to take into account.

Of those just mentioned in passing, we select the question of where to eat the peach. If I were in a place where I could envision undesirable consequences which directly result from the place in which I eat the peach, I now have an undesirable consequence attached to a desirable goal. That is a problem, a contradiction, which naturally I will wish to resolve, since that is not the nature of pleasure, to be painful. It is also not the nature of pain, to be pleasurable. The "metabiology" and psychological phenomenology of mind both agree on this, all supposed "grey areas" excluded. The desirable goal, the eating of the peach, is still desirable, but some aspect of it is found to be undesirable. Because we can envision a way to satisfy the desire in a way that does avoid the painful aspect, we naturally prefer to fulfill the desire in that way.  Thereby we fulfill the desire, but avoid the undesirable aspect of it which is immediately presented to us.  We will have to delay gratification a bit, but we thereby find more gratification in the final result than if we had not.

This all entails a process of deliberation which is an aspect of the mind directly related to our discussion of "will" and so deserves more attention.  Well, the mind is nothing if not, at least partly, one part of one organism, at least in cases which we are considering here. Whether derived from the organism, transcendent to it but derived from some other substrate other than a mind, or else any other matter of consideration pertaining to origin and further reaches of mind's nature, we'll leave out for now. Just take it that with respect to experiences of desire per a single body to which it is attached, and with respect to its possibilities of fulfillment of said desire, it must act "as one" unit of agency and action.

Perhaps it will accept the negative, perhaps painful consequences of the fulfillment of a desirable goal. But what if the mind can find a possible way of fulfilling the desire, reaching the goal, completing the required actions, all in such a way that the negative, painful consequences are minimized, while the desire is still essentially fulfilled? Would the mind not prefer such a method if it were cognizant of it and had a means by which to execute the actions as revised by these considerations?

Of course it would, as evidence amply suggests. We do this all the time when we interact with events into which our desires and actions relate in a feedback loop which allows us to consider the desirability and possibility of modifying our actions in accordance with two major features:
1) Desirability
2) Undesirability
We want to maximize the first, and minimize the second. Now since our "unfettered" nature would have probably had us act in some less modified way at first, before we were "informed" of the drawbacks to that course of action, we may say in some sense that this was our "free will" in its simpler form. If we were free to so act without any negative consequences, why wouldn't we? Indeed, if we were in some way concerned about possible pains and problems for which we had no evidence, wouldn't that be strange?

In fact, according the meaning of "acting naturally", we would have simply taken out the peach and begun eating it according to the simple mechanics involved, as do the simplest animals when faced with similar prospects. But wasn't or "freedom to act naturally" inhibited by awareness that it wouldn't be as fulfilling as our first impulses had seemingly assumed? Indeed, the environment seems to have inhibited us by arraying before us some evidence of these considerations. But in fact what most proximally caused this inhibition was our own awareness of the loss of value in performing the desired action, and this was specified in regards how. We shall not eat the peach here, but perhaps we shall eat it!

This is where we see that in fact we have "acted freely" because it is part of our nature to consider the full result of our actions, insofar as we are able, and not merely stupidly fulfill some desire without consideration of a context which adds much for our consideration. If this were not the case, how could we have survived in environments where such considerations are often the matter of life and death, and that such issues seem, more or less, to determine the prospects of propagating into (then) future progeny (now alive in the present) the genetic structures which make such behavioral capacities possible?

And these are of the nature of a being which processes pain and pleasure, which is already a bifurcation of consciousness in an antivalently polarized form of goal-directed decision making. These further bifurcations are simply the natural outcropping of a precedent set of bifurcations in the fundamental architecture of the being and are a natural articulation of its fundamental nature.

But what kind of "free will" is this in the human context? Is this just a complexification of animal impulses? Of course it is, in its mechanism, but it is not merely an animal mechanism in its express use. This is because some human beings demonstrate a MORAL PRINCIPLE in their decision-making process, and are capable of utilizing this mechanism of decision making in a moral context.

What makes this especially meaningful in this moral context will be considered in the next essay.

No comments: