Problems of Philosophy . . . . . . . Phil 1E03

Notes for Week 11: Do we have free will?

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Oedipus and Antigone

In this tragedy by Sophocles (496-405), Antigone knowingly chooses to act in a way contrary to her pre-ordained fate. Can she? Surely what she does will have been fated? She accepts her responsibility to try, even though she believes she is doomed to fail. Similarly, her Dad Oedipus accepted responsibility for killing his father and siring children with his mother, even though he did not knowingly do so. Should he have?

The Oedipus Complex? -- "How oft it chances that in dreams a man / /Has wed his mother!" --Jocasta, Oedipus's wife/mother, trying to reassure him.

The text of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex:

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Aristotle: On Voluntary vs. Involuntary Action

Involuntary actions: those performed (a) under compulsion, (b) as the result of ignorance.

"When a man who has done something as a result of ignorance is sorry for it, we take it that he has acted involuntarily. When such a man is not sorry, … we shall have to call him a "non-voluntary" agent.

A voluntary act:

"one of which the origin or efficient cause lies in the agent, he knowing the particular circumstances in which he is acting."

Was Oedipus to blame for his actions? Couldn't Antigone have argued that she was not responsible for her brother's burial? (The Stoics' "lazy argument".)


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Jean Grimshaw: Autonomy & Conditioning

"In this sort of model of autonomy, what defines an action as autonomous is seen as its point of origin; it must have an "immaculate conception", as it were, from within the self.

Actions which originate from "inside":

"those seen as in accordance with the with conscious desires or intentions"; from "outside": those one would not do if not coerced. But what if the desires are not authentic, not really one's own?

Case in point: "The female self, under male domination, is riddled through and through with false desires."

All three thinkers presuppose

(i) the self is a unitary, rational thing, aware of its own interests;

(ii) splits within the psyche result from the interference of male-dominated conditioning;

(iii) undoing this conditioning can be achieved by understanding the social and institutional effects of male domination.

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Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789)

"The will is a modification of the brain by which it is disposed to action, or prepared to give play to the organs. This will is necessarily determined by the qualities, good or bad, … of the object or the motive which acts upon his sense, or of which the idea remains in him, and is resuscitated by his memory. In consequence he acts necessarily…"

If a person doesn't act because of the impulse received from the motive, object or idea affecting him, "it is because there comes some new cause, some new motive, some new idea, which … gives him a new impulse and determines his will in another way..."

"In short the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequences of his temperament, of the received ideas, of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of his happiness; of his opinions, strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience."

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B. F. Skinner (1904-1990)

How do we achieve what eighteenth century humanists like d'Holbach had suggested? By education. But who, the young Marx had asked, educates the educators? Skinner's answer: scientists.

"As more and more causal relations are demonstrated, a practical corollary becomes difficult to resist: it should be possible to produce behavior according to plan simply by arranging the proper conditions… The scientific study of behavior not only justifies the general pattern of such proposals, it promises new and better hypotheses."

"Designing a new cultural pattern is in many ways like designing an experiment."

"We cannot use good sense in human affairs unless someone engages in the design and construction of environmental conditions which affect the behavior of me."

"We are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of that world has been and will be constructed by men. The question is this: are we to be controlled by accident, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?"

More d'Holbach:

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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

An exact contemporary of Skinner's, Sartre has a philosophy diametrically opposite. For him

"Man, being condemned to be free, carries the whole weight of the world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being."

&emdash;responsible in the normal sense of "conscious of being the uncontestable author of an action."

"He must assume the situation with the proud consciousness of being the author of it, for the very worst disadvantages or the worst threats which can endanger my person have meaning only in and through my project."

"Thus there are no accidents in life; a community event which suddenly bursts forth and involves me in it does not come from the outside. If I am mobilized in a war, this is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. I deserve it first because I could always get out of it by suicide or by desertion… For want of getting out of it, I have chosen it."

&emdash;perhaps "because I prefer certain other values to the value of the refusal to join in the war (the good opinion of my relatives, the honor of my family, etc.)"

But "I did not ask to be born."

&emdash;"This is a naïve way of throwing greater emphasis on our facticity. I am responsible for everything, in fact, except for my very responsibility." &emdash;compare Antigone!

More on Sartre:

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Robert Kane

These two opposing views represent the two poles referred to by Kane:

(i) the hard determinism of d'Holbach and Skinner embodied in the latter's Walden II, which denies freedom of the will, and

(ii) the radical choice of Sartre, which denies that what we choose can ever be determined by the world of things. (Here he followed Kant, who thought that the will operates in "the kingdom of ends" or noumenal world, outside of the realm of things and causal relations.)

Kane suggest a third way:

"we may very well be determined by our existing characters and motives." But these may have been the consequence of certain earlier "self-forming choices or actions."

The idea is that not all choices are predetermined, and not all are radical choices. Only the self-forming ones are. He speculates that there is a physio&endash;logical correlate in "a kind of stirring up of chaos in the brain that makes it sensitive to micro-indeterminacies at the neuronal level." "We make one set of competing reasons or motives prevail over the others at that moment by deciding…"

More on Kane:

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1828-1910)

All the above authors assume that we know what a cause is, and that motives are mental causes. Nietzsche dares to ask: from what did we derive this belief that we possessed this knowledge?

&emdash;"From the realm of inner facts, none of which up until now has been shown to be factual."

"We believed ourselves to be causal agents in the act of willing; we at least thought we were there catching causality in the act. It was likewise never doubted that all the antecedents of an action, its causes, were to be sought in the consciousness and could be discovered there if one sought them&emdash;as 'motives'. For otherwise one would not have been free to perform it, responsible for it."

Equally illusory: the ego, the will. Motive is only "a surface phenomenon of consciousness, an accompaniment to an act, which conceals rather than exposes the antecedents of the act."

Free will is an invention of the theologian, a way of "making mankind 'accountable' in his sense of the word, i.e. for making mankind dependent on him…"

"Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it… The doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, of finding guilty."

"No one is accountable for existing at all, or for being constituted as he is, or for living in the circumstances and surroundings in which he lives… He is not the result of a special design, a will, a purpose… We invented the concept of 'purpose'; in reality purpose is lacking."

More Nietzsche:

Why Nietzsche was not a Nazi:

Explore the topic of free will further:

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