(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes. A follow-up article has also been published.)
|The movement of domino's is fully determined by the|
laws of physics. Are our choices too? Source: Wikipedia.
In my book Why Materialism Is Baloney I briefly discuss freewill. My intent there wasn't to elaborate extensively on the meaning of freewill, but rather to place our intuitive notion of it in the framework of my metaphysical model. That model, as my readers know, could be seen as an idealist metaphysics. It states that reality is exactly what it seems to be: a subjective phenomenon existing in mind, and in mind alone. One of my readers, however, recently posted a very well-argued critique of my rather brief treatment of freewill in the book. His post in my Discussion Forum has prompted me to write this essay, for I think my reader brought up valid and relevant points.
What do we mean, intuitively, when we say freewill? I think most people mean an ability to make an intentional choice unconstrained by factors outside subjectivity. If a choice is merely the outcome of mechanical laws as they apply to the brain, and if the brain exists in an objective world fundamentally outside mind, then there is no such a thing as freewill. After all, what we think of as a free choice would be, in that case, simply the deterministic outcome of particle interactions in a world outside subjectivity. All phenomena in this objective world – like falling domino's – supposedly unfold according to strict causality and are, as such, strictly predetermined.
Under idealism, however, there is nothing outside subjectivity. As I argue in the book, a world outside mind is an unknowable and unnecessary abstraction. We can explain all reality – even its shared regularities – without it. The implication is that all reality is then fundamentally subjective. The difference between the 'outside' world perceived through our five senses and the 'inside' world of emotions and thoughts is merely one of misidentification, not of fundamental nature. Indeed, we merely misidentify ourselves with a particular subset of our stream of subjective experiences – namely, emotions and thoughts – while deeming the rest of the stream – namely, sensory perceptions – to come from a world outside ourselves. Both parts of the stream, however, are still entirely subjective in nature. Think of it in terms of your nightly dreams: you misidentify yourself with a character within your dream, believing the rest of the dreamworld to be external to you. Once you wake up, however, you immediately realize that your mind was creating the whole dream. In that sense, you were the whole dream, not only a character within it.
There is a sense, thus, in which my formulation of idealism directly implies the existence of freewill, insofar as it denies anything outside subjectivity. Yet, this may sound like a copout, for if our choices – purely subjective as they may be – are still the outcome of strict laws of 'mental cause-and-effect,' the intuitive meaning of the word 'freewill' somehow still seems to be defeated. Indeed, I emphasize in the book that my formulation of idealism does not deny that mind may unfold according to strict patterns and regularities, or 'laws of mind.'
To make sense of this we have to look more deeply and rigorously into the meaning of freewill. If we mean by it that a free choice is an entirely arbitrary choice, then we end up with randomness. Clearly, randomness is not the spirit of freewill: we know that we make our choices based on our prior experiences and preferences; it isn't merely random. On the other hand, if we say that a choice is actually the non-random output of a process that takes a number of factors as inputs, we are basically saying that the choice is determined by those factors. At first sight, this also seems to defeat the spirit of freewill. But does it really?
To answer this question properly, we must first bite an unavoidable bullet: it is incoherent to think of a free choice as a non-determined outcome that also isn't random. And a random choice is not intentional. An intentional choice must thus be determined by something; by some set of determining factors. The essential question here, which I think most people overlook, is: What factors? The core of our intuition about freewill is that the determining factors must be internal to us as subjective agents. Because nothing outside subjectivity can be internal to us in that sense, materialism immediately defeats true freewill. But my formulation of idealism again endorses it: according to the metaphysics in the book, our individual psyches are split-off complexes of the cosmic mind within which the entirety of existence unfolds as parallel streams of experience. Since there is nothing outside this cosmic mind, all determining factors of each stream can only be internal to our true selves. Freewill is thus true.
According to my formulation of idealism, choice is the outcome of mental processes. These mental processes may very well be 'mentally deterministic' insofar as they obey yet-unknown mental patterns and regularities that we may call the 'laws of mind.' But watch out: the 'laws of mind' are not necessarily reducible to the dynamics of subatomic particles. My formulation of idealism grants fundamental reality to things like feelings and emotions, and does not require them to be reducible to known physical laws. Since feelings and emotions are clearly valid determining factors in the making of a choice, the 'mental determinism' I am suggesting here is clearly of a very different order of complexity, richness, meaning and nuance than physical determinism. Moreover, the word 'law' must not be misinterpreted here: the 'laws of mind' are simply a metaphor for the observed patterns and regularities inherent to the natural flow of mind, not external constraints prohibiting mind from doing this or that. They describe what mind happens to be, not what it must obey. They are ways to describe observations – like the observation that most human beings happen to be born with two arms – not an imposition of limitations – like some nonsensical law requiring every human being to be born with two arms. When correctly understood in this manner, 'compliance' with the 'laws of mind' does not contradict the spirit of freewill.
In summary: my formulation of idealism states that reality is the unfolding of experience in a kind of cosmic mind. Since this entails that all choices are purely subjective, my metaphysics endorses our intuitions about freewill. Yet, it is inevitable that the unfolding of experience must obey determining factors: whatever processes unfold in the cosmic mind, they must necessarily be the result of the inherent properties of the cosmic mind. Its behavior and choices can only be a deterministic consequence of what it essentially is; there is nothing else they can be. In this sense, existence is 'mentally deterministic.' Finally, since all factors involved in this unfolding of experience in the cosmic mind are necessarily internal to it (there being nothing external to it), our intuitions about freewill are again endorsed: choice is fully determined by the internal subjective dynamics of our true selves.
POSTSCRIPTUM for readers of Why Materialism Is Baloney: I have intentionally avoided the argument above in my brief discussion of freewill in the book. I didn't want to lose the main thread of my story there by getting too deeply entangled in a difficult and contentious sideshow. That said, some readers may think that my position in this essay contradicts what I do end up saying in the book. After all, while here I acknowledge that free-willed choice is ultimately determined by unknown 'laws of mind,' in the book I take free-willed choice to be non-determined. This contradiction, however, is only an artifact of language: to say that a choice is non-determined in the sense of not being determined by anything other than what the chooser intrinsically is – which is what I implicitly say in the book – is the same as to say that a choice is only determined by what the chooser intrinsically is – which is what I say in this essay. To say: 'I chose A but I could have chosen B' is an assertion of freewill. Yet, it is entirely equivalent to saying that 'I chose A because it is my intrinsic nature to do so, although there were no external factors preventing me from choosing B.' Do you see what I mean? More on this article. Moreover, the hypothesized 'laws of mind' I refer to here cannot be explained, not even in principle, by the metaphors of mind that I use in the book (like the vibrating membrane metaphor). These hypothesized 'laws' far exceed the explanatory power of any intellectual model or metaphor, since the intellect is but a small subset of mind. Therefore, from the perspective and scope of the metaphors in the book, freewill is indeed non-determined.