A Very Short Reading Group discussion

Free Will: A Very Short Introduction
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Stockton Libraries | 87 comments Mixed reviews on this. From "great summary" to "an embarrassment to philosophy". Let's see what we make of this one.


Nigel Bamber | 31 comments Great. Looking forward to this. Always wanted to know more about Orcas.


Stockton Libraries | 87 comments We'll have a whale of a time discussing it...


Nigel Bamber | 31 comments Ouch :-)


Nigel Bamber | 31 comments I found myself getting extremely annoyed with Thomas Pink. In fact, by the end of the book, he had got so far up my nose, I'm sure he could see out of my ears.

His arguments were very dry, and extremely repetitive, for someone who had a lot to fit into a “Very Short Introduction”. But worse than that, his position appeared to be that as causal determinism, and hence lack of human free will, felt wrong from an intuitive and common sense point of view, there must be a sound argument against it. Perhaps he was just playing devils advocate, but it didn't feel like it.

A lot of things that we know to be the case, do not fit with our common sense view of the world. General Relativity tells us that there is no absolute measure of time, and no “Now”. The solid chair that we sit on is mostly empty space, we are sitting on a forcefield. The gravity pulling us down onto the chair is a distortion of space-time. Colours do not exist, but are a fabrication of our brain in classifying frequencies of light. That they are not common sense does not mean they cannot be right.

He seemed to bob around a great deal in the harbour of moral responsibility (it sounded like he wanted to be able to blame people for their actions), and barely dared to go out past the breakwater into the immense ocean of the arguments for causal determinism and even causality itself. I do realise that there is another Very Short Introduction, which deals purely with Causation, so this was a bit beyond his brief, but surely some investigation was relevant to his arguments.

He said that claims have been made for causal determinism, and then waffled about them as Newtonian clockwork, seemingly relying on quantum mechanics to introduce randomness into his universe.

Of course, an extreme sceptical view can cast doubt on even the existence of causality. We have an overwhelming body of evidence that one event can cause another, but we cannot guarantee that it always will. Our science merely reduces this body of evidence to rules, but never ever actually provides an explanation of why it must be so. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “ In physics... the memory disburdens itself of it's cumbrous catalogues of particulars, and carries centuries of observations in a single formula” but we never get a why.

However, it doesn't appear that Pink has a problem with causality itself. He has a problem with it applying to him. With Pre-Copernican arrogance he assumes as a conscious being it cannot apply to the “I”. He has an extreme dualist position, he is the ghost in the machine, but dodges the issue of how this “I” can exist in, and influence a physical universe, without being subject to causality. The biggest and most beautiful mystery at the heart of the problem of Free Will.

His personal arrogance was particularly displayed in the statement “compatibilism is not something naturally believed, but something that has to be taught by professional philosophers, in philosophy books and through philosophy courses.”

He does allow some measure of free will to monkeys and dolphins, but not sharks. Very generous of him but I wonder what dogs, crows, lemurs and octopuses would make of that. Does he not see a scale of consciousness in living creatures? How does he explain non-human intelligence?

The arguments throughout were weakly made. At one points he described his decision to continue his walk along the river to be made entirely freely of external influences, although I think that his unwillingness to miss his dinner, be unable to sleep in his bed that night, and perhaps die of exposure next to the river, may have had something to do with it.

And as for Freedom....”is a special power which, it appears, only rational beings such as we humans can possess...” Complete waffle.

There was one interesting idea that came through... that if causal determinism is false, then all actions must be random and if actions are random, there can be no free will either. Catch 22

Throughout the book, he claims that unpredictable actions must be random. This misunderstands randomness. Unpredictable actions are chaotic, not random. It appears to be impossible to create something random in this universe. The only thing that seems to be random is quantum behaviour, and I suspect that even this will be found to be chaotic some day, and following deeper rules.

No mention is made of some of the fascinating neuroscience experiments which have shown that under some circumstances muscular nerve activity occurs BEFORE the brain activity that decides to do it. It's as if the body is doing something, which is then detected by the brain, which tries to put together a coherent explanation of why it happened.

I am personally interested in the idea that causal determinism is related to the idea of block-time, which grows from some of the concepts in General Relativity. As there is no definitive “now” in the universe, the order in which things happen depends on the situation of the observer. One way to resolve this is to consider that all of space-time exists simultaneously. The future and the past coexist. What happens to any observer is his or her timeline through this pre-existing body of what was-is-will be. Consciousness of an observers “now” is the experience of moving along this timeline.

This doesn't mean that free will does not exist. Our timeline is ours because it is what we would always have done, from the beginning of time, because of who or what we were, are and will be. All our freewill choices were made at the “beginning”, and now we are experiencing them. I am not the apocryphal Mexican taxi driver who doesn't brake when someone pulls out in front of them because to crash is God's will. I try to avoid the accident, because who I am would always have done so.
Some axioms have to be accepted, to allow us to function. We have to assume we have free will on a day-to-day basis, or we can do nothing. We mustn't swing the other way either, and be paralysed by the infinite options that free will presents to us as in Sartre's novel of existential crisis, “Nausea”. If we are overcome by free will, we could starve to death as a result of the choice between two equally attractive meals.

To round things off, on a lighter note, I did find some amusement in this book.
I kept misreading “Libertarian” as “Librarian”.
As for Thomas Hobbes assertion that we voluntarily do what we desire, I can only assume he wasn't married!

However, at the end of the day, I think I would rather have spent my time reading a book about Orcas.


Nigel Bamber | 31 comments In an example of how the VSI's cross-reference and interweave, I've just finished the one on Stoicism. In it there is a much better account of Compatibilist Determinism, than the one given in this book on Free Will.


Stockton Libraries | 87 comments We've just received the paper copy of that in stock. A good topic for a future group discussion.


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