Struggling with the practical implications of non-free will

 
ams264s
 
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ams264s
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26 January 2019 22:30
 

I’ve been listening to the Waking Up podcast for awhile and am a couple weeks into the Waking Up course, and I’m enjoying all of it.  However, I’m coming up against some cognitive friction when it comes to the concept of non-free will, and I’m hoping some of you who have been thinking about these issues longer than me can let me know how you think about the concept of decision making.

I buy the premise that our behavior arises from intention, which can hardly be seen as coming from some will that we consciously direct. The movie example that Sam gave in one of his lessons is a good one.  I have no idea why I chose the movies that I did, and the fact that they rose into my consciousness seems totally out of my control.  However, the concept that our “choices” arrive purely of out of the specific circumstances leading up to them, without us exerting our will, seems to me not to be at all useful in navigating everyday life. 

For example, if the universe leads me to arrive at the cafeteria at work, and I have to “choose” between a salad and a double cheeseburger,  there is clearly one of those that is the better “choice,” at least in terms of health.  Thinking “Well, I might as well get the cheeseburger because after all I really was going to anyway,” will still lead me to die an early death of heart disease over time. Even more ridiculous would be just standing there, because whatever I’m going to do is already decided, so the idea that I need to choose at all is an illusion.  Maybe it’s true that, looking back, I was always going to make whatever choice I make, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in the moment, the choice still has to be made.

It seems to me, that the concept of non-free will is much more useful as a philosophical model to use in examining others’ behavior and our own past with more empathy and forgiveness, and less hatred and prejudice.  If someone wrongs me, I can see it not as a malicious decision, but as the product of forces and impulses that they can’t even understand. However, using the same rationale to justify, in the moment, myself hurting somebody else would be evil and counter-productive.  What I struggle with, I guess, is that double standard.

 
nonverbal
 
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nonverbal
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27 January 2019 09:57
 
ams264s - 26 January 2019 10:30 PM

I’ve been listening to the Waking Up podcast for awhile and am a couple weeks into the Waking Up course, and I’m enjoying all of it.  However, I’m coming up against some cognitive friction when it comes to the concept of non-free will, and I’m hoping some of you who have been thinking about these issues longer than me can let me know how you think about the concept of decision making.

I buy the premise that our behavior arises from intention, which can hardly be seen as coming from some will that we consciously direct. The movie example that Sam gave in one of his lessons is a good one.  I have no idea why I chose the movies that I did, and the fact that they rose into my consciousness seems totally out of my control.  However, the concept that our “choices” arrive purely of out of the specific circumstances leading up to them, without us exerting our will, seems to me not to be at all useful in navigating everyday life. 

For example, if the universe leads me to arrive at the cafeteria at work, and I have to “choose” between a salad and a double cheeseburger,  there is clearly one of those that is the better “choice,” at least in terms of health.  Thinking “Well, I might as well get the cheeseburger because after all I really was going to anyway,” will still lead me to die an early death of heart disease over time. Even more ridiculous would be just standing there, because whatever I’m going to do is already decided, so the idea that I need to choose at all is an illusion.  Maybe it’s true that, looking back, I was always going to make whatever choice I make, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in the moment, the choice still has to be made.

It seems to me, that the concept of non-free will is much more useful as a philosophical model to use in examining others’ behavior and our own past with more empathy and forgiveness, and less hatred and prejudice.  If someone wrongs me, I can see it not as a malicious decision, but as the product of forces and impulses that they can’t even understand. However, using the same rationale to justify, in the moment, myself hurting somebody else would be evil and counter-productive.  What I struggle with, I guess, is that double standard.

Regarding what I’ve boldfaced above—that’s my approach, more or less.

Human will, it turns out, isn’t nearly as free or as commonplace as people perhaps once thought. That’s how it seems to me, at least. To me, generalized human free will seems like an old religious concept that’s gradually losing its applicability. Maybe a more suitable question is, rather, How much free will do people have access to? None at all? A tiny bit? A considerable amount? My quick and easy guess is that it’s quite tiny but it’s there nonetheless. Too much literality to words can destroy any abstract concept, and to utterly nuke some concepts just isn’t necessary and can even be harmful in ways that are difficult to predict.

The way Harris phrases his analysis of free will—cleverly, perhaps, but not exactly helpful to someone looking for a common sense approach—seems like a philosophical-conundrum thought experiment, one every bit as flawed as any you’ll see here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paradoxes

 
 
Jan_CAN
 
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Jan_CAN
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27 January 2019 10:23
 
ams264s - 26 January 2019 10:30 PM

I’ve been listening to the Waking Up podcast for awhile and am a couple weeks into the Waking Up course, and I’m enjoying all of it.  However, I’m coming up against some cognitive friction when it comes to the concept of non-free will, and I’m hoping some of you who have been thinking about these issues longer than me can let me know how you think about the concept of decision making.

I buy the premise that our behavior arises from intention, which can hardly be seen as coming from some will that we consciously direct. The movie example that Sam gave in one of his lessons is a good one.  I have no idea why I chose the movies that I did, and the fact that they rose into my consciousness seems totally out of my control.  However, the concept that our “choices” arrive purely of out of the specific circumstances leading up to them, without us exerting our will, seems to me not to be at all useful in navigating everyday life. 

For example, if the universe leads me to arrive at the cafeteria at work, and I have to “choose” between a salad and a double cheeseburger,  there is clearly one of those that is the better “choice,” at least in terms of health.  Thinking “Well, I might as well get the cheeseburger because after all I really was going to anyway,” will still lead me to die an early death of heart disease over time. Even more ridiculous would be just standing there, because whatever I’m going to do is already decided, so the idea that I need to choose at all is an illusion.  Maybe it’s true that, looking back, I was always going to make whatever choice I make, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in the moment, the choice still has to be made.

It seems to me, that the concept of non-free will is much more useful as a philosophical model to use in examining others’ behavior and our own past with more empathy and forgiveness, and less hatred and prejudice.  If someone wrongs me, I can see it not as a malicious decision, but as the product of forces and impulses that they can’t even understand. However, using the same rationale to justify, in the moment, myself hurting somebody else would be evil and counter-productive.  What I struggle with, I guess, is that double standard.

Welcome, ams264s.

I agree that using a rationale to justify hurting somebody else would be “evil and counter-productive”.  We can try to understand, as much as possible, when someone wrongs us that there are influences that have affected their behaviour.  However, in my opinion, sane people are responsible for their actions.

I may be in somewhat of a minority here at this forum, but I still believe that our level of consciousness has led us to be able to make choices, although there are many influences that affect these choices.  In discussions on determinism/free will, I have noted that many people who think we do not have free will do not see this as an excuse for bad behaviour.  (Sam Harris behaves as if he has free will and interacts with others as if they have free will.)  I can’t say I truly understand the reasoning, but there it is.  It seems to me that there is really no way to live a life without living it as if we have choices, from what we choose at the cafeteria to how we treat others.

 

 
 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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27 January 2019 13:58
 

There a lot of free will threads to pore over if you are curious.

I just have to say that I don’t think the implications you suggest actually exist. I feel like your worries are essentially a confusion of categories. The choices you describe are not nullified or rendered meaningless by a concession to determinism. Quite the reverse. Accepting the deterministic (at our scale) nature of the world actually compels a greater appreciation of the gravity of choice. We still make choices but those choices are composed of lower level events not under our discretion.

The idea that ‘it doesn’t matter’ what we choose is, I think just confused. The value of any particular outcome is exactly identical to the strength of our preference. If you want to be healthy and live a long life that confers value to lifestyle choices whether or not we control initial conditions or not. I think that’s what value is.

I think worry over free will is basically a worry over nothing. Our experience of choice is real. Consequences are real. Our interaction with concepts like earnings or justice or retribution persist because they have the exact same social utility in a free will universe as in a non free will universe.

That’s how it looks to me at any rate.