Sunday, July 12, 2009

An Alternative Take on Free Will

My apologies to anyone who reads this and finds it too technical. This is a more "philosophical" post than most that I have written lately, and its going to read more like a paper than a blog post.

A while back I wrote a post about the tension between free-will and determinism and the seemingly negative consequences both sides of this debate take us to when followed to their logical conclusions. Essentially, it seems to me that determinism logically implies a radical form of skepticism, and at the same time libertarian freedom seems to imply atheism and a lack of causality to the universe. Neither road seems particularly desirable, but I was then unaware of any potential solution.

Lately I have been reading quite a bit on ancient philosophy. Two thoughts have been in the background of this reading. First, I have often wondered if there is an inconsistency in ancient philosophy over the issue of free will. Most ancient philosophers conception of deity (I'm using this term loosely) is one of a completely transcendent deity whose being produces by emanation the world. This is Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" or Neo-Platonism's "Perfect Being." Many of these concepts have been adapted by Christians to form the ideas of Classical Theism- an omnipotent, omniscient God who transcends space and time. In modern terms we consider these ideas to imply determinism. However, in the ancient world, they firmly believed in free will. Is there a logical problem in the ancient systems here?

Another thing that has been in the background of my reading has been a belief that the questions asked by Modernist philosophers off track. For a more thorough discussion of what I think on this issue, look over this post. Basically, though, I think that Modern philosophy, which has replaced the ancient concept of "telos" with scientism, is self-defeating and absurd. Thus, I find the ancient concept of "telos"- that all things are striving toward an innate purpose within them, to be a very appealing concept for explaining not only the regularity of our scientific observations but also avoiding the absurdity of naturalistic scientism.

I think that this concept of "telos" has answered my first question about the consistency of ancient philosophy and provided a solution to the free will dilemma.

In a nutshell, here is how the concept of "telos" works: Everything has a "purpose" or a "goal" that is innate in it. This goal stems from the defining characteristics of the thing- a tree has the "telos" of being a tree- growing tall, sprouting limbs, making fruit, etc. If it doesn't do these things, we consider something to be wrong with the tree- it is defective, it doesn't do what trees do. This idea of innate "purpose" applies to everything, including humans. We have a "goal" of being a human, and maybe more specifically of being a particular kind of human. Its in our "DNA," so to speak, that we will be a certain way. And so subconsciously all our lives we work toward that end because that is what we are meant to be. It is our "telos." As a side note: from a more modern perspective, this is a very similar concept to Heidegger's Dasein (Being).

So far, this sounds very much like determinism. And in a way, it is a form of determinsim/compatibalism. However, I think there is a crucial difference from the more standard versions of compatibalism that prevents us from falling into the trap of skepticism that I have discussed earlier.

This "telos" is internal and subconscious. I don't consciously set out to be a human, I am one. I don't consciously decide that I will like ice-cream, I do. So our "telos," without our thinking about it, sets parameters on what we do and do not do. I don't breathe through gills underwater because as a human, that is simply something I do not do. And I don't eat other people because subconsciously without even having to think about it I believe that to be morally wrong as a human. Yet, specific actions are not really laid out by my "telos." Whether I will walk across the street or not is not really defined by my "telos." Either walking across or staying on this side of it are perfectly consistent with my being a human and being the kind of human that I am.

Lets use DNA as a metaphor again. DNA may define the kind of species an organism is and may define many particular traits of that organism. But it doesn't lay out every action the organism takes. Two oak trees may have very different layouts of their branches. Two children with the same parents may have very different traits. Even identical twins can have drastically different personalities. The cloned sheep Dolly doesn't do everything exactly the same way its clone-partner does, its life is somewhat different.

And so my "telos" may set parameters of who I am and what kind of person I am, but it also leaves a lot open to choice. Exactly how much so may be debatable, and I'm not going to get into that. But this means that ancient philosophers could be consistent in believing in a transcendent deity and in free will. The transcendent deity may impart "telos" on creation, a deterministic act, but this "telos" does not govern every individual action, it simply sets a course to be followed. Hence, I think the theist can consistently embrace both a belief that God ordains how the world will operate and that we participate in this freely. Thus, we neither have to be skeptics or atheists, nor do we have to be hard determinists or radical libertarians.

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