Aug 19, 2011

Philosophical Phun – Free Choice?

As far as science is concerned, free will is tricky. Most of us seem to think that we, at least some of the time, face genuine choices and are responsible for the decisions we make. I can choose to drive or take the bus. I can help the needy or help myself. I can choose to be with this person or that one. In the West, our entire legal system hinges on whether doing one thing over another is up to us. If it is, we're responsible for our actions and should pay the penalty for making bad choices.

But this is not squaring well with a modern view of the world. Many scientists and philosophers are realizing that if the rest of the world is governed by natural laws and chance and humans are a part of the world, then humans must be governed by natural laws and chance too. Consider this argument by philosopher Galen Strawson. He says that in order to ultimately be responsible for our actions, we would have to be responsible for the way we now are since the things that define us--our beliefs, desires, goals, environment--provide the basis for the decisions we make. But much of the factors that contributed to the way we now are were out of our control. We aren't responsible for our DNA. We didn't choose our parents or where we were born and grew up. We had little influence over the schools we attended or why we may like red wines over white. So, since we're not responsible for much of the way we now are, we can't ultimately be responsible for our actions.

"Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about the inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us."

This approach focuses more on what experience seems to present us with (or what a sacred text teaches) rather than what we come to learn by analyzing facts about the world. It comes down to how much we trust our intuitions.

I think that the answer is somewhere in between.  As a species, our progression is limited by natural laws and chance, but our day-to-day existence provides many opportunities for choice, and it is those choices that we must be held accountable for.



  1. as rosie said in the african queen,

    "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."


  2. Id rather believe that nothing I do is my fault -- it's the American way!

  3. Genes give us the potential limits for abilities, responses, etc. But the connections our brain makes, and is constantly making, due to our nurturing and experiences, play a huge factor in determine our responses. Lower animals rely more on innate behaviors, which are programmed in genes and we can't control. Higher animals, of which we (for the most part) belong, rely more on learned behaviors. Learning is the change in behavior due to experience and practice. So our responses are for the most part determined by the insights, trial and error, habituation, and conditioning that we gained with experience.
    So Rosie was right! :) In my humble opinion...

  4. LOL @ Toon... there is a lot to be said about human beings raison d'etre...

  5. "But how we play the hand is up to us."

    That's kind of my feelings about it. Yes, we're hardwired in certain ways, and our environment plays a factor (anyone who thinks that an inner city kid has the same opportunities as a suburban kid is not in touch with reality), but I feel that we have to help make things happen...or at least head in the right direction so that good things happen.

  6. I do like to feel I make some things better (I probably make some things worse, but I don't like to talke about those). 'toon' is correct about the American way it seems, we need someone to blame.
    So I guess we will feel better when things go SOUTH, we can blame it on our DNA.

    Seriously, guess there is a middle of the road, at least I hope so.


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