Monday, August 02, 2010

I feel free, therefore I'm free?

Jonah Lehrer counters recent philosophical skepticism about the existence of free will: 
And yet…There’s a certain frivolousness to all these eloquent arguments over free will. The fact is, we are deeply wired to believe in our freedom. We feel like willful creatures, blessed with elbow room and endowed with the capacity to pick our own breakfast cereal. Furthermore, there’s probably a very good reason why this belief is so universal. Consider this recent study by the psychologists Kathleen Vohs, at the University of Minnesota, and Jonathan Schooler ,at the University of California at Santa Barbara...
The study in question indicates that when people are given reason to believe that free will does not exist, they behave less ethically (e.g., they are more prone to cheat on a test after reading an argument against free will). Lehrer concludes with an argument that affords some authority to intution:
All I know is that all the sophistry doesn’t really matter. We’ll continue to believe we pick Cheerios for the simple reason that we want to eat Cheerios; I feel like the cause of myself, even if I “know” that I have many other causes, from my genetic inheritance to the marketing team at General Mills.
While an argument from what we feel to be true may seem weak, perhaps the apparent fact that it's good for us to believe in free will indicates that there is free will. What keeps me agnostic rather than out-and-out atheist is the mystery of consciousness itself, of which the experience of will is a subset. There's no reason for consciousness to exist, and no one knows what it is. The perception of free will seems as ubiquitous as the perception of God (or gods), hard-wired into consciousness for most people.  That all those predispositions arise purely from the laws of physics seems as implausible to me as that they were planted by a shaping external consciousness.  I don't see how any knowledge of physics or neuroscience affects the speculation that gets hung up between those two almost equally unlikely scenarios. 

From the same font of circular but unstoppable speculation comes my personal weakness for mysticism.

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