24 April, 2006

The practical reason of free will

N., who reads this blog, said something when he was about 19 that was probably more profound than anything I've ever thought of myself. He said, "If one behaves rationally at every given moment, then one isn't free—one's choice is predetermined by what is rational." It was an astute point, I thought (and think), even if wrong. The problem with it is that all acts are rational, in the sense that all acts are performed with the view to an end; this is simply inescapable. If I make the 'wrong' choice in a given situation, for the sake of irrationality, of 'being free', then in fact my end is not practical benefit but the well-being which (I hope) accompanies the sense of acting freely. So my choice turns out to have been rational: I have done that which I think is best overall, valuing emotional over practical gain. This means that the notion of a 'rational act' is tautologous, empty of meaning; an 'unrational act' is logically impossible. Man, as Sartre famously said, is condemned to be free.

These days I don't believe in free will in any metaphysical sense; I'm confident that it is effectively done away with by a verifiability criterion of meaning. In other words, a world A with free will, and a world B without it, can't be meaningfully distinguished, either externally or from the point of view of the conscious agent.

But N.'s succinct argument was very much in tune with the great modern philosophers. By Kant's time, discussions of free will were secular, struggling not with divine predestination or foreknowledge (as through the Middle Ages and Renaissance) but with the determinism implied by Newtonian mechanics. Kant wrestled with the issue in the Critique of Practical Reason (which, I must confess, I haven't read, only read about—Kant, as Lewis Beck wrote of Christian Wolff, "moves with glacial celerity. He ruthlessly bores.") Even without a positivist formulation of the verifiability criterion, Kant was aware that the determinism / free will debate could not be resolved on its own terms. It is impossible to escape the implications of empirical physics, he said, and yet man is compelled to act as if free. Determinist constraint exists on the level of phenomenal reality (ie. reality as we perceive it), but metaphysical freedom has its place in the noumenon (the reality of the Ding-an-sich* or thing-in-itself, beyond our objective perceptions). Like much of Kant's philosophy, this was clearly a fudge. For my money, on Kant's terms even the notion of the noumenon itself is unjustifiable; he claimed strenuously that he believed in the real existence of things beyond man's perception (despite our inability to know anything about these things), but I can't make much of his argument for this belief. Still, I'm really just beginning to deal with Kant, so perhaps there really are good arguments to be discovered.

* The Ding-an-sich was the subject of a pompous joke I once made at a bar, with N. himself as it happens. We were accosted by some half-stotious lummox, who insisted on boring us with talk of 'dings', by which he meant sexual liaisons, and the various types thereof—the romantic ding, the opportunistic ding, and so forth. I suggested the 'ding an sich', but sadly nobody had a clue what I was talking about, least of all myself, and so the joke was lost. In another situation, perhaps, it would have caused general mirth. . . ah well.

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