Monday, June 21, 2010

Here's a quote

If science shows that people behave better when they believe they have free will AND that people do not have free will...

... should that information be suppressed so that people will behave better?
That's from Ann Althouse. She uses this teaser to get us interested in this discussion at Blogging Heads.

It strikes me that this quote says a whole lot about just how confused our ideas of "free will" are.

For starters consider this, how could it be that our beliefs have an affect on our behaviour if we don't have free will?

In the  video at the link, the two participants start off by discussing self control and they say we do have some self control. How could we have any self control and not have free will?

Most obviously, let's suppose we didn't have free will, why then would we think it was worth discussing whether or not we can suppress the information that we don't?
What all of this suggests to me is that free will has come to mean something rather mystical and even magical to people of a rationalist bent. The only kind of free will they are willing to consider is a sort of god-like power that would be without restraint. This is more of a child's fantasy of freedom than the real thing. (A child's fantasy that has very deep roots that can be traced back from Sartre through Kant and back to the Stoics.)

Here's the comparison that struck me. Here in Ottawa we have a very ugly monument to human rights. One of the "rights" identified on it is "dignity". Every time I see it, I hear my mother's voice inside my head saying, "Dignity is not a human right but an achievement; a task that you can either succeed or fail at."

Free will is not something that we have but an achievement; a task that you can either succeed or fail at. (That is a grown up notion that can be traced back through my mother to Aquinas to Aristotle.)


  1. Aren't both free will and dignity things we're born with? At least that's what the Church has always taught. I do a lot of work with people with developmental disabilities, and even though their IQs are below 70 they still have human dignity.

    The issue of free will gets tricky because of things we might not even be aware of that can influence our choices, as well as circumstances we might find ourselves in that are beyond our control.

  2. The argument I'd make is that our ability to make free choices in the future is impaired by bad choices we make now. Every time we give into certain kinds of temptation, it gets a little easier next time. Eventually we get to the point where our ability to choose is so degraded that we really aren't able to choose freely anymore.

    As to dignity, we are indeed created in the image of God but that is potential dependent on our recognizing what that dignity implies about how we ought to live.

    I'm not absolutely sure, but I believe both those arguments are consistent with what the Catholic church teaches.

  3. The argument I'd make is that our ability to make free choices in the future is impaired by bad choices we make now.

    I don't think that is always the case. The child, for example, who is raised in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family and comes to adulthood with erroneous notions of what "normal" is, can make bad choices but are they really free choices?

    I think the Church teaches that we are born with and continue to have dignity irrespective of our ability to recognize what that implies about how we ought to live. Even the sinner, or the convicted murderer on death row has dignity, and the elderly person with Alzheimer's who has lost the capacity to discern right from wrong, or the unborn fetus, who does not yet have the capacity to do that.

  4. As to free will, I don't think we're contradicting one another. The formation of our character has an impact on our ability to act freely. Both I and others have an impact on that character. If my character is badly formed because of my upbringing, that is is not my fault. If it is badly formed because have spent years making poor choices, then it is my fault.

    But either way, there is a point where turning back gets to be very, very difficult.

    As to dignity, there is always some dignity in humanity because we are made in God's image but there is sometimes damn little left of it. Again, others can rob me of my dignity and so can circumstances. But there is still a point where I am responsible and can be held responsible for developing and maintaining my dignity.

  5. "If it is badly formed because have spent years making poor choices, then it is my fault."

    But why did I make the first bad choice? That's the major question as I see it, and the 2nd major question is does that determine my destiny? Two very separate yet connected questions with no universal answer. All we can really determine is our own behavior since we can't walk in someone else's shoes. I think, unless someone lacks the mental capacity, e.g. someone with cognitive deficits or pathology, there is always hope for redemption.

    On the other hand, I think we're talking about dignity in two different ways. There is the basic human dignity that the Church teaches everyone has from the moment of conception, and is the lynch pin of its position on abortion. Then there is the other kind of dignity that others or circumstances can rob us of, e.g., a person with dementia who sits in his own feces until someone can change him, or a woman living for years with an abusive husband who has broken her spirit, or the girl who turns to prostitution as a result of sexual abuse by her father. They're all debilitating and, short of a miracle, as hopeless. With some kind of interventions the latter two might be able to break out of the cycle, but they all still retain the dignity they were born with as children of God, even if they don't know it. The task in all of those examples is on those around them, the caregivers, family, friends, to not lose sight of that and to respect it.