Rebuttal: Crash Course Philosophy “Determinism vs Free Will”

This subject gets my imaginary goat every time I see or read it. It’s a subject that is presented to me as an iron-clad “this is how the world is” sort of fact and I just don’t see philosophy being that cut and dry.

The homunculus free will idea is surely dead and there is no separate non-physical part of us that’s directing our choices. This idea of a super-natural spirit injecting choice into our heads from outside the universe is the old free will idea that is very much defeated by the above video.

But, at the same time, the above argument about determinism requires that we are looking at the system of a person from /the outside/ perspective. Every time proof is presented, it argues that you can’t have free will because the system that makes you is deterministic. This sort of perspective fine if you’re doing science and need a non-subjective perspective to sort out what is objectively true; but this is philosophy and we don’t need to stick to those kinds of rules here.

From the subjective perspective we are physical beings with stored data in our heads. It is ours, we own it. Just like we own the bodies we control. Actually more than own, we incorporate it, we are it. So when the data in our heads “makes” us choose a thing, that data is /us/ making that choice. Even if the data is mixed with data from our sense of smell rendering a tasty oatmeal breakfast in our attention one morning.

The only way we subjectively wouldn’t have free will is if the data that causes the choice never becomes incorporated into the self and the choice is thus forced upon us from the outside. Information in this rebuttal is truly a thing of self and non-self. Information you are, and information you are not. And it promotes the brain further in importance as it stores a great deal of self referential information and both a sense of self and the conscious thought process.

This is fundamentally different from inanimate objects like balls rolling down hills, because they don’t have any information about their trajectory, it only becomes information when we measure it and incorporate it. That’s why we can predict where a ball will go and the ball can not predict where itself will go.

We can pick a harder problem for ourselves though. Imagine your body’s immune system; it’s a bag of information too. It “knows” about different threats and it chooses to fight things based on that information. It’s very deterministic, you can make vaccines to prompt it and prod it in various ways. But at a fundamental level, it is /you/. We talk about our bodies as if they are creatures we look after or meat machines we drive around in. But I think this way of talking obscures the deeper truth that when our bodies fight infection, it is we who are fighting that infection. How it chose to fight is not a matter for our conscious mind, there was no introspection on the data and the systems are simple when compared to the brain at least. But my argument requires that you have to be choosing to fight that infection, the choice is somewhat out of the control of one part of you, but not all of you. The cleaving of self into conscious self and “the rest” would need to be a mistake in order for this rebuttal to be effective and you must take ownership of all of you.

The definition of self gets to a deeper point I like to make about our own extent. I think we want to imagine freedom to mean that we are capable of separating ourselves from the universe, so we’re disappointed when we find ourselves inseparable from it. But just because we’re a mutable constituent of the deterministic universe doesn’t mean that we aren’t owners of that piece of the universe determining it’s path, our view of ourselves must take into account the subjective ownership, the self conjuring separation we make of ourselves from the universe that does create freedom within the determined system. Magic.

We’re always going to need to understand things around us in order to understand ourselves and why we make the choices we do. But I think it’s a mistake to drive so far to the inanimate automaton perspective that we choose to stop enjoying the universe’s wonderful roller-coaster ride that is life.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below and my thanks to Hank Green and the team at Crash Course for delivering such good content for the mind.