Posts Tagged william james
Continuing on a similar theme, I wish to discuss how our experience of free will can be accounted for by hard determinism and why I don’t think hard determinism truly presents a problem.
William James believed that we live in a world of possibilities — determinism does not allow for that, because for there to be an otherwise, there had to have been an otherwise in the past. Personal freedom seems self-evident from our lived experience, but I contend that the illusion of free will and free will itself are indiscernible. In terms of epistemology, we — being finite physical beings — cannot have access to every piece of information that would be required to predict and retrodict events with certainty. (I am leaving the metaphysical question of whether this is even possible for a god in the open.) I’m not denying the possibility of there being sufficiently simple events where we can have complete knowledge of the determining factors leading to those events, but I think most of our knowledge lacks such convenience. Thus, while we can conceive of these possibilities, according to determinism, there is only one that was/is ever possible — this is the best we have.
In the view of determinism, the ‘world of possibilities’ is simply a world of illusions produced from our epistemic ignorance. William James was bothered greatly by this, which is why I suspect his conclusion of indeterminism and free will was a bit rash (as discussed in the link above). Again, how does one tell the difference between true free will and the illusion of free will? I don’t think it can be done, which is why if it so happens that I’m wrong, my lived experience would remain identical. I treat my ignorance on a probabilistic basis even while maintaining the position of hard determinism.
(I titled this post with ‘hard determinism’ to prevent confusion, because while soft determinism argues for a form of ‘freedom’, it’s not free will as hard determinism and libertarianism understand it.)
I’m not sure what to make of the arguments for free will in my philosophy book. The argument that William James makes doesn’t impress me much (which I summarize and interpret):
- We cannot, from events that have already occurred, conclude that they were determined. Given that the experience we have in everyday life (of what seems to be free will), we should conclude with indeterminism rather than determinism.
James states that in a world possibilities, there are genuine alternatives to events, whereas in the world of determinism, there could never be an alternative. I take it that the same conditions are assumed, from which I establish my criticism. If the conditions leading up to a certain event are unchanged, how could the event be any different? It seems that James, at most difficult point of the argument, appeals to common experience and states that because determinism cannot account for the lived experience of free will (in a way that he wishes, because determinism does account for it by referring to it as an illusion), we ought to accept indeterminism because we don’t have good reasons for accepting determinism.
Having sufficiently established free will for himself, James goes on to explain the utility of holding such a worldview (the common theme of deriving truth from utility, which I discussed in another topic). How does James deal with the implication that indeterminism potentially destroys any possibility for consistency in our world?* He doesn’t (at least, as far as the book is concerned — I hope a sufficiently complete summary of his argument is presented in the book so that I am critiquing something James hasn’t already addressed).
*Examples can come to mind, such as, in one instance, putting the keys into your car to initiate ignition starts the car’s engine, and in another instance, causes the car to spin like a top for no apparent reason (different outcome from the same conditions).
I find myself rereading this quite often:
Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself!
I can’t seem to get over it; it always puts me out of comfort (comfort being used as a very relative term).