Friday, February 10, 2006

Fighting for freedom

Are we free beings? In politics, we would answer this question by considering one's rights in society. In philosophy, however, we look at in a different light. That is, we consider whether we can have freedom at all.

Hard Determinism is the view that there is no such thing as freedom. At first, I found this argument very convincing:

(1) If an agent freely performs an action, then the agent is responsible for the action.
(2) Agents are not responsible for actions that are caused by factors outside their control.
(3) Every action an agent performs is caused by factors (genes and early childhood environments) over which the agent had no control.
No action is performed freely.

Our actions are dictated by either our genes or our environment. These things are beyond our control, therefore, we are not free. This argument can be used to show that we cannot blame people for their actions. If Bob kills his mother, he either does it because he was born evil, or because his environment shaped him to act in this way. What other alternative is there?

Hard Determinism is fuelled by a scientific theory which suggests that the way the world will be in 10 years is already decided; things can only happen one way; everything in the universe is governed by deterministic laws. So our actions were already pre-determined, even before we were born. Unfortunately, Bob was destined to kill his mother.

In recent years, however, quantum physics has suggested that the tiniest of particles operate in random ways. These small particles are governed by chance, not laws. So maybe the universe is not deterministic after all.

But does this help us? Suppose God is rolling the dice on our decisions. He rolls a three and we end jump off a cliff. We seem to have as little freedom in a random world, as we do in a deterministic world.

So how can refute Hard Determinism? Well, we turn to Hume, who has a new and ready theory of freedom. Hume says that if you could have done otherwise, then you were acting freely (even though you wouldn't have, because of deterministic reasons).

Hume tries to get closer to what we mean when we use the word "freedom". We usually mean that we want to have the ability of doing it another way. But imagine the following situation that Locke described. Suppose that you lock the door of a room. There is a man inside this room that is unaware that the only way out of the room is locked: he thinks that he has the option of leaving the room. Nevertheless, he is quite happy where he is, and decides to stay. Is he acting freely? According to Hume's theory, he is not. But intuively, he is acting freely because he wants to stay. So it is not necessary to have the option of acting another way.

So another new and improved theory of freedom is: we act freely when we act according to our desires. But there are many orders of desires. Second order desires are approvals or dissaprovals about first order desires. For example, if you have the urge to smoke, you are having a first order desire. When you disapprove of this desire, you are having a second order desire. When your second desire corresponds with the first, and you are able to act in a way that fulfills that desire, you are acting freely. So if you feel like a smoke, want to feel like a smoke, and then you smoke, you have just exercised freedom.

But philosophy is never so clear-cut. A person who is brainwashed will have second order desires that are not their own.


Doctor Marco said...

I think your post is interesting. May comments can emerge from it and it is an inspiration for future blog posts.

My point of view is as follows:
I believe for the most in hard determinism. We are prisoners of our genes and of our environment. Even quantum physics does not solve the problem because many random events add up and average in trends (like Asimov's psychohistory). The only way out that I see is knowledge, i.e., education. The more we know about our genes and their effect in our behavior, the more opportunities we have to act against them, i.e, building options.

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