Tlumak on free will

What a treat to hear another of my old Vandy profs in vintage form last night, in the 3d Berry Lecture. Jeffrey Tlumak was as smart, systematic, and comprehensive as ever, in tackling the perennially elusive questions “Do we have free will?” And “Why does it matter?” (Watch this space for the video, coming soon.)

He was as smartly self-distracted as ever, too. I lost count of the always-fascinating “by the way” detours that peppered his semi-scripted talk, and forced him to abandon the bulk of it in favor of hurried synopsis at the end. But everyone in the house was gifted with the voluminous printed text he would have  voiced, were there world enough and time, and three lengthy appendices.

One of those appendices became important during Q-&-A, when Jeffrey’s colleague David Wood wondered if the whole show wasn’t “performatively self-contradictory.”  Doesn’t the very attempt at public persuasion and argumentative analysis presuppose the free will of its audience, presumably malleable enough to choose his view when dazzled by the irresistible force of his logic and language?

Well, Jeffrey replied, if you look at my 3d appendix (that brought an audience chuckle or two, for its characteristically Tlumakian attention to systematic detail) you’ll note that I don’t claim free will to be impossible.

And in fact he’d acknowledged Wood’s worry at the very beginning, in his second paragraph. Both are so elegantly clear and concise, and so cognizant of their context, they’re worth reproducing here:

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the angels debate how some of them could have sinned of their own free wills given that God had made them intelligent and happy. Why would they have done it? And why were they responsible for their sins rather than God, since God had made them the way they were and had complete foreknowledge of what they would do? Milton describes them as “in Endless Mazes lost.” If this is the plight of angels, with what confidence can we approach such questions?

Three weeks ago John Lachs tried to persuade you that good enough is good enough. Then a week later, Rob Talisse tried to persuade you that no life is good enough, that life is tragic. I will now wonder out loud whether you or I have a free choice as to which alternative, if either, to embrace — more generally, whether you have free will in anything you have ever done or will do, or whether you even have a stable conception of what you are affirming or denying. I say “wonder out loud” rather than “try to persuade,” since to be consistent, I equally doubt whether you have a free choice whether to embrace what I say.

What then follows is a clear but complex and “spine-stiffening” disquisition on the varieties of pivotal philosophical issues implicated in the free will debate. In sum, and especially for a rationalist like Jeffrey, they basically all are. He cites Spinoza’s example of a conscious plummeting rock: it might contemplate its trajectory and philosophize about its freedom, but would be incapable of altering it, or softening its termination. Just like Douglas Adams’ whale.

Tlumak praised the new book Power of Habit, which is suggestive: if indeed we do have the power of habit, we must also have something akin to what some will insist on calling free will and others will relabel. But if it directs intelligent choice and action they can call it what they will. That’s Julian Baggini’s line in his review of Sam Harris’s and Michael Gazzaniga’s new books on the topic.

…as a “biological puppet” aware of your lack of free will you can, paradoxically, “grab hold of one of your strings” and “steer a more intelligent course through our lives”. That’s what matters, and if you don’t want to call it free will, feel free to call it what you will.

There was much about Hobbesian mechanism here, and the “thin notion of ‘could have done otherwise,'” and Locke’s distinction between the voluntary and the free,  and Spinoza’s between free will and freedom. Jeffrey’s ultimately a Kantian, on this and most issues. Freedom’s a postulate of reason, but nothing you can prove. “It is practically rational for us to believe that we are transcendentally free and practically irrational not to.” Well, that’s just about good enough for pragmatists like me, too.

But what I liked most, last night, was Jeffrey’s curtain-closing scripted statement, in which he thanked his chair

for scheduling my public doubts about free will on the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate by a group of conspirators, as foreseen (according to Plutarch) by a soothsayer. Perhaps now I can escape intellectual blame by invoking fate.

Perhaps we all can. Then again, perhaps not.

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