Monday, November 10, 2014

Freedom and Normativity

Whether or not we humans have freedom of the will is one of the original questions of philosophy. While I have my own answer to this question (I see it as a confusion resulting from reification of the self), I will argue here that it does not matter. From the interior, subjective, phenomenal viewpoint, all our choices are completely unrestricted. This does not mean that we can choose to succeed at any particular effort, or that we do not experience drives that may need to be overcome, or that everything we do is the result of a conscious choice. It just means that, when we do consciously select an action to be effected by our body, we experience that process as an unrestrained choice.

At the moment of making a decision, say between two alternatives, we feel that we could go either way. We do not experience molecules moving, neurons firing, brain areas activating, or any other apparently mechanistic processes that we know are happening inside our skull. We only experience the choice, and when we have made the choice, we do not experience it as having been compelled (motivated, surely; and constrained by our desires and circumstances, definitely; but not compelled). It is nothing like when we take a spill while skiing and tumble uncontrolled for a moment, or when as a child the neighborhood bully pins us to the ground.

Furthermore, we often remember the moment of decision, that we were faced with alternatives and chose one; and in particular we remember making that decision when we experience consequences that result from it. We think “it is a good thing I closed the windows before I left, so that the rain did not get in,” or “I almost bought that stock, and now it has appreciated dramatically.” As children, most people learn an association between how they make choices and the consequences of the choices. This learned association may guide how we make future choices, but for our purposes here the point is that we learn that we could have done otherwise.

Another original question of philosophy is normativity, or how we evaluate choices, both our own and those of others, both in advance and afterward. It subsumes such apparently large issues as “what is good?” and “what is my purpose?” Answers to normative questions always regress to a subjective choice of some kind, despite many attempts to argue otherwise, to claim that “is” implies “ought.” I can provide two examples where this fails.

Christians hold that there is a metaphysically real deity and that each of us has a transcendent and immortal soul. At death, God evaluates our life and decides the eternal fate of our soul. While at first glance this seems sufficient to provide a basis for evaluation, one must still choose to prefer the eternal “good” in exchange for choices that otherwise oppose our inclinations for earthly benefits. Alternatively, one must choose whether to follow the dictates of the system of belief to which one subscribes, or not. Further, one must originally choose to follow this particular set of beliefs.

Objectivists hold that there is a logical implication between the reality of our lives as humans and the values we should hold (therefore the choices we should make). The argument for this turns on the nature of humans, in particular that reason is the primary means of one’s survival. Whether or not this is correct, there remains an irreducible choice to survive, or to survive well or in a certain manner. There is also a choice to be made between consistency of one’s beliefs and actions. Even granting a necessary connection between that which exists and what one should rationally choose, the choice for rationality either is, or relies upon, a subjective and unjustified choice.

Consequently, our ethical stances and our purpose in life are also completely free. There seems to be no transcendent and universal mechanism for justifying our choices in this regard. Along with the perspective described earlier, that we experience our will as completely free, this leaves us rather untethered. While our decisions have consequences (some of which are largely deterministic), we can choose the consequences we prefer or even choose to operate passively and make no explicit decision. We can choose our beliefs freely, and even whether or not to act consistently with those beliefs, and there is no transcendent, fundamental guidance.

There seems to be no transcendent, fundamental guidance.

All that said, most people have a basic, difficult-to-oppose instinct to survive, and a less intense but still strong desire to live well, whatever that subjectively means to them. This leads to certain types of decision paths that, if not fully determining one’s subsidiary purposes, at least constrains the problem somewhat. But what if this need to provide for basic survival and even relative comfort were relieved? Today, this applies only to those who are supported by wealth of some kind, whether an adequate retirement, an inheritance, a partner who supports them, or similar circumstances. In the future, though, we can envision a world where virtually all economic considerations are removed. The advance of technology, and in particular that of technology that emulates functions that previously required human-style intelligence, represents an accumulation of wealth that could serve to support humans and liberate them from the final tether.

What then? How will we decide what to do? And if you are already free of such concerns, how do you do it now?


  1. eloquently put. thanks for posting. since adolescence I've been a believer that I own every decision I make; every time.

    I've enjoyed my kiddos telling me "I don't have a choice" or "she made me do it!" the latter is my favorite. they of course hate it when I subsequently bust out into an explanation as to how that's impossible, and she couldn't "make" you do anything.

    I'm grappling with some personal decisions, and have been for awhile. I've found it amazing how decisions in business were relatively simple and easy to make. in biz, I often feel like there is a pretty darn simple/objective measure as to whether or not a decision was/is good; does the result of said decision result in more money? if yes, good decision. if no, bad decision. obviously not so black and white, but the point is there's a commonly agreed upon metric system.

    in personal life... not so much :).

  2. The initial, foundational decisions are the hardest; in a business, the context implies the foundational decisions (for the most part - there is still an independent ethical framework that has to be applied - even the Mafia has that).

    It seems to me that an evaluation of where the decision will or might *lead* is most crucial - in other words, prediction.


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