Free will

Jerry has a post on free will (the latest of a series) and it has set off an interesting discussion; see especially the comments by Tom Clark and Russell Blackford, and several by Eric MacDonald.

This subject doesn’t fret me the way it does some people, and I suspect that’s because I’m lazy about it. I’m lazy about a lot of things. It doesn’t fret me because I always end up thinking “but it feels as if I choose and in a way that feeling amounts to the same thing as really choosing.” That’s probably lazy because of the “in a way” or the “amounts to” or both. It’s woolly. And yet –

And yet if we all do live that way, feeling all the time as if we choose various things, then for the purposes of living that way, it does amount to the same thing. Or at least it seems to. It’s like the self, and other such illusions. We can agree that they’re illusions, and yet in everyday life, we go on living and thinking as if they’re not, and we can’t really do anything else.

It’s like vision, too – we don’t really see what we see; what we see is a confabulation – we fill in all kinds of missing bits with our brains to make a seamless whole that our eyes don’t in fact see. I’m aware of that, but I certainly can’t refrain from doing it.

It’s perhaps a little like reading novels or hearing stories, which rely on the convention that the narrator – whoever that is – knows what every character, or some characters, or one character is thinking. Some novelists point out or play with that convention in the novel, but lots don’t; the convention is just there, and we’re entirely accustomed to it so that it seems natural, but in fact it’s radically different from life, in which no one knows what anyone else is thinking.

The fact is human life is full of illusions of this kind; narrative combinations that knit things together that are actually fragmented and all over the place. Most of them are really difficult to set aside for more than a few minutes; some of them are impossible.

And yet…quite often I will suddenly notice how unconsciously I have just done something quite complicated, while thinking about something else, and then I will have a little jolt of awareness of the illusion of free will.

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