Determined freedom

I was all set to comment on a paper at the upcoming annual Tennessee Philosophical Association meeting, but had to withdraw in favor of one more college-search roadtrip.  Maybe we’ll finally get over to Graceland too, this time.

I’m still thinking about Blake McBride’s pseudo-compatibilist conclusion, though, that we’re all both “determined” and, if you hold the mirror just right, sorta free (if you want to call it that) too. Not sure I’m buying it, but I’m choosing to consider it:

There is no real freedom in the sense that anything could be different than it is. There is also no metaphysical freedom. All action, will, thought can be entirely explained by prior causes. On the other hand, at a given moment in time we do exercise and experience freedom in the sense that our internal states sometimes determine our future states rather than being controlled by causes. In this way, we perceive freedom, and this freedom operates totally within a deterministic framework clearly and without conflict.

Sounds a bit like pulling your own strings, doesn’t it?

Does any of this touch the claims of the French Existentialists that we’re all condemned to freedom, like it or not? Not really. They’ll still say we have to bear the weight of our choices, we’re still without excuse and without a blueprint to specify our essential human and personal natures in advance of choosing. “Existence precedes essence,” not to choose is still a choice, treating yourself like an object without free possibilities is in bad faith [wiki], and existentialism is a humanism.  Life will still often feel like a heavy boulder we must forever shove up a steep hill, until or unless we choose not to.

My main kick against the existentialists, aside from the fact that many of their statements are literally false (which, as I was saying the other day in class about Nietzsche’s atheism and James’s truth, is not always a criticism), is that they tend to wallow in the specter of nothingness while neglecting the bright side: with freedom comes responsibility, sure, but also opportunity. We’re free to make our choices, bad and good; free to learn from our mistakes, to ameliorate our condition, to pursue our happiness. Camus imagining Sisyphus happy is a nice touch, but it lacks credibility.

William James, on the other hand, faces the Dilemma of Determinism straight up and with a smile.

The great point is that the possibilities are really here. Whether it be we who solve them, or [God] working through us, at those soul-trying moments when fate’s scales seem to quiver, and good snatches the victory from evil or shrinks nerveless from the fight, is of small account, so long as we admit that the issue is decided nowhere else than here and now. That is what gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle… This reality, this excitement, are what the determinisms, hard and soft alike, suppress by their denial that anything is decided here and now, and their dogma that all things were foredoomed and settled long ago.

Determinists, compatibilists, and existentialists all fall short when they suppress our excitement at being alive and a-tingle with reality’s possibilities. I choose, then, to believe with James that when things should be different, we should err on the ameliorists’ side of supposing that maybe they they can be. So mark me down as one of those waffling free will fatalists, straddling the tough and tender divide. No need to foreclose possibilities in advance.

PostscriptThe program says my old pal from Huntsville is co-commenting on his own paper, “A Minimal Schema for Endless Regress Paradoxes.” I thought it must be a misprint, but no: turns out his daunting epistemological subject scared everybody off, so he volunteered to do it himself. What a nice new twist on the regress problem!


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