Free Will

Last nite I went to a philosophy meeting of the North Yorkshire Humanists. The title is as the above, with a reference work called Free Will by Sam Harris. David was chairing the meeting and his main question revolved around how we can know, if at all, that we have free agency and control over our decisions. I thought his intial question to each of us what good.

Think of any city in the world!

Most people picked something random, which reflected their own experience and outlook, which is unsurprising. As I was tired I was not being inventive and chose London. I found it quite odd that most other people had said they had thought of London first but wanted to put “something of themselves” into the decision. I thought the fact that that was the first choice really indicated how much is pre-determined for us. It was almost as if the majority had to fight against their initial decision to demonstate to themselves that thay had a choice.

David was interested how Harris seemed to align liberalism with the determinist ( we do not have control) view while the conservatives with the Libertarian view , which is related to a Christian view that we have choice to do good or bad etc (I really think this was a bit of a Democrats vs Republicans rant myself). It is wothwhile that this was only in the chapter on politics.

Harris generally posited the idea that we have no free will and the sooner we get used to it, the better. He layed out the thought experiment of 5 scanarios in which a murder is committed, in a sliding scale from 1 to 5, 1 being the case of a small 4 yr old boy shooting a woman dead with his fathers gun on through more 3 greyer areas (a man with a brain defect killing her, a man with a terrible childhood killing her) onto a man from a good family killing her for no reason other than the fun of it. Of course everyone agreed the kid was not cuplable and the the man from a good family definitely was. Its the areas in between where the grey contentious areas lie. Harris was also quite dismissive of Compatabilism (there is pre-determination , but we still have choice withing this) as:

“a puppet is free as long as it loves its chains”

which I interpret as rather too emotive a statement for a rational argument ( does Harris secretly resent the lack of free will?)

David then returned to the main question. He mentiioned the experiments outlined inHarris’ book that indicate our brains action our intentions and movements microseconds before we are concsious of what we intend to do. Many did not agree that this provided conclusive evidence, including myself. Most other people said they did agree with the Compatilist view, that 98-99% of the time we have choice. I mentioned that we are on automatice pilot for most of our lives. When I was learning the violin my teacher told me I would only really play when I did not have to think about it. He did not like that, saying we will always have automatic reflexes and the like. I do not agree with that. I think we do have auto reflex actions, ok, but we are not aware how many of our actions and decision happen this way. Otherwise , if we had to make every decision, or work well in groups, we would get nowhere (not sure if I explained this well as I was tired from a bad nites sleep before).

The convesation then centred around the punative vs rehabilitative perspectives of prison. We discussed the Jamie Bolger case, the tabloids outrage in the UK at the time in comparison with a similar case in Sweden, where the perpetrators were merely viewed as mentally ill and not wicked, as was the case in the UK.

A novel called The Diceman by Luke Reinhart was then recommended. David summed up in the main conclusion was that we cannot fully know if we do have free will and full agency, but we can only witness it, as sometimes our consciousness drives us and not the other way around. I agree.

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