Sunday, May 30

Free will and determinism

The perennial debate over free will and determinism of recent times has reignited interest as studies on the brain have suggested prior ideas of freedom of choices may be illusory. Rather than being truly responsible for your actions or choices it is suggested they are subject to waves of biological or metaphysical  determinism. I watched with interest the debate between Jordan Peterson, in favor of freewill and Sam Harris who entertains the possibility of unconscious brain activity predetermining those actions or choices. Both provided credible alternatives which suggested to me maybe they were both correct except in fact they were arguing from different perspectives. 
Ken Wilber provides an interesting solution under his integral style philosophy as per below.             

Saturday, May 22

Do we really desire Freedom?

The perennial philosophical debate between Determinism and freewill has never been satisfactorily resolved but Siobhan Lyons (January Edition of Philosophy Now) asks the question do we really desire freedom. 

The question concerning free will and liberty is mostly answered in the affirmative but I recall watching a program on incarceration where inmates didn’t want to face life outside. One confirmed he had deliberately staged an armed robbery in order to return to prison life. He waited around for the police to arrive to ensure arrest, subsequent conviction and a return to prison life. The dread of liberty curtailed when imprisoned doesn’t apply to everyone. For that particular individual the certainty of daily meals, a roof over your head and an ordered existence was vastly superior to the responsibility of existence outside. Similarly a poll at Berlin University found a majority preferred the prior communist rule in East Germany. We may like the idea of freedom but it carries with a responsibility that many don’t find appealing. Jean Paul Sartre, who believed in free will though it meant we undergo this dizzy realisation of a radical freedom. He expressed the idea of the self, before itself, was a nullity. What this means in his existential philosophy is he proposes an inner freedom of the self (our consciousness) which is free to decide what to think as we come into this world and to be free to pursue such subsequent actions as we encounter.         

Lyons similarly references the BBC America series Killing Eve, where Russian assassin Villanelle breaks out of jail with another inmate. Upon exiting the escape vehicle, the inmate appears anxious, and asks: “What should I do?” Villanelle replies: “I don’t know. Run. You’re free.” But the inmate simply replies: “I don’t want to be free.” Villanelle looks understandably perplexed. She has, after all, been struggling for freedom – from police, from employers, from obligations and from circumstances – all of her life. But her inmate’s response is not all that strange. Morgan Freeman’s character Red, in The Shawshank Redemption, gives us some insight into the experience of being institutionalised: “These walls are kind of funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

The important point to make is one lives a life as if we are free as otherwise one risks any motivation to make moral decisions. The law and our personal choices is also predicated on the basis we are free to choose.  Indeed on an even more basic perspective it can be perceived that the very act of believing in free will is to exercise your free will.     

The western Jewish Christian tradition was based on this premise and has its roots in St Paul. Freedom generally and more specifically from the Law was central to his philosophy that remains to this day.       

He is of significant interest to secular philosophers because his ideas carry with them the idea of a universal unencumbered system of unity which presupposes through grace existential philosophical aspects to life; to hold our life existence as sacred, to ascertain and acknowledge ones gifts for the benefit of the whole community, to joyfully exist in a state of grace without fear of death, to be free and remain free from guilt, to share in all this and to place love and affection ahead of all other known things.

But in life it seems (according to Jean Paul Sartre) there is always a real risk of continually reverting to bad faith as we are covering up this frightening reality of a freedom to make choices. He suggests this bad faith arises every time we place reliance on some other convention or form of authority. In other words to allow others to make choices for us based on how you ought to live. He doesn’t accept there is a narrative to our life or that to find meaning to our life we need to go back to our roots. All of that kind of thinking for Sartre is in effect bad faith.

This is a somewhat bleak assessment in keeping with his atheistic perspective. However, I don’t think it is a very good argument for atheism. One can adopt a theistic or agnostic perspective so long as you accept that a cause did not interfere or influence our freedom or to make decisions embodied in the concept of free will. Bearing that in mind his philosophy might be described as the secularized version of Soren Kierkegaard.

In fact Lyons quotes Søren Kierkegaard who analysed the particular feelings associated with an awareness of freedom, arguing that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” (p.75). For Kierkegaard, freedom signifies a specific kind of anxiety, or dread, relating to the infinite number of possibilities presented to us by freedom. It compels dizziness. When we’re choosing what sort of milk to buy, what sort of career we might want, and to which destination we should travel, we are plagued by the burden of freedom. He wrote that “freedom now looks down into its own possibility and grabs hold of finiteness to support itself.” By this he means that we look for some way of mentally reducing the infinity of possibilities that present themselves to our choices.

Our anxiety also stems from the realisation that we have the capacity to ruin our lives by our decisions. Kierkegaard uses the Fall of Man as an example of this particular anxiety: knowing full well that he is forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam does so anyway, provoking his own downfall.

This anxiety relates to what the French call ‘ appel du vide’ – the ‘call of the void’ (nothing to do with apples). When looking down from a great height, or sitting in an exit row beside the door on a plane, some people feel the compulsion to jump or to pull the door open mid-flight, not because they are suicidal or eager to kill people, but just because they are curious about whether or not they are even capable of bringing about such an action – whether they are capable of disobeying their most primitive instincts of self-preservation and survival. This demonstrates the dizziness of freedom. They understand exactly what would happen, but they’re unsure of whether they could bring themselves to actually do it, to test the extent to which they are free. In other words, for Kierkegaard, our existential feeling of dread or anxiety is spurred by the knowledge of what we need to do to prove that we are free.

This thinking however seems at odds with Frederick Nietzsche who proposed the idea of a love a fate, presupposing determinism. The freedom he implies is how we live and react to our fate. Conclusion

The important point to make is one lives a life as if there is free will as otherwise one risks any motivation to make moral decisions.  

But for many the idea of freedom and having a dizzying number of choices is not desired.  A tonic of inevitability or to accept ones fate may be what some people end up adopting. After all do we really desire total freedom?      

Thursday, May 6

Persisting NOW

To persist is simply to exist… in the now.


In the January 2020 edition of Philosophy Now an interesting article by Dustin Gray concludes that continuing to exist isn’t as simple as one might think. 

He asks the question as to what it means to say that we and other things persist through time.

Note he is talking about objects and living things, including human beings and not abstractions such as formulations in mathematics.    

A simple example he talks about is that of a filthy car whose dirt, grime and prolonged wear and tear renders it a far cry from its original sparkling new state. The question is as to what extent does the car (or anything for that matter) persist despite becoming barely recognizable? The argument goes as it maintains a degree of sameness, described as a concrete particular and mostly this proposition, is considered a matter of common sense.

Endurance & Perdurance

He discusses these two different ways of thinking about persisting through time.  

Endurantists maintain a sameness, claiming that at any one time an object or person remains a certain identity at any other time it exists. Hence the rusty old car always remains a car until it becomes scrap metal.   

Similarly ‘the John of today’ and ‘the John of yesterday’ are referring to one concrete particular whose spatial parts are wholly present at any given time throughout Jack’s existence. The endurantist claims an object’s spatial parts are the only genuine parts of it.


In contrast, perdurantism claims that along with a thing’s spatial parts, it also has temporal parts. Perdurantists argue in addition of the 3 dimensions of space,  a 4th dimension of temporal parts exist; so that John yesterday, John today, and John tomorrow, are different parts of John.  

Its persistence through time consists of an aggregate of different temporal parts present at different times. The temporal parts are real as spatial parts: since temporal parts have properties – the property of ‘being John last week’. So, along with having spatial extension – the perdurantist will claim additional to the concrete particular is the temporal extension. By way of for example, John yesterday, John today and John tomorrow. There are also temporal parts of temporal parts- John this morning is a temporal part of John today.

He cites the example of the bearded John is an additional temporal parts of John, just as is John with a clean shave.

But all of this boils down to a rather elaborate explanation that doesn’t sound very convincing.

Another Possible Answer

Rather, Gray advocates the idea of presentism, which tells us that what is real is only what exists now. To the presentist the past and future simply don’t exist. Reality is not temporally extended. The present is the only real time. “To be real and to be present, the presentist wants to say, are one and the same thing”

In summary he finds no objections in giving a clear account of events that have transpired – with the fundamental qualification that those events no longer exist. At the same that applies to events that might take place in the future. Those events may be predicted, but they are not real, yet. Until an event is happening in the present moment, no degree of reality is ascribed to it by the presentist.

He gives an example of - ‘George Washington had false teeth’- whereas that expression could be verified as a true proposition. The presentist responds by saying that it’s a true proposition about conditions that used to exist but no longer do.


To describe events accurately, he asserts we must use accurate tenses, saying that events in the past existed and events in the future will exist. When we do so, his claim is that the only real time is now holds water, and he maintains it  miantains e other problems  nor abtract also effectively describe past and future events.

In that strictest sense, he points out we do not persist through time. The only real time is now, so I can do nothing but persist. Therefore, all that is necessary for me and other things to persist through time, is to be. To persist is simply to exist… in the now.

In fact I believe living in the Now’s, without past regrets is the key to living a good life. But what do you think?