Discussion Questions: Free Will and Free Agency

September 29, 2012 at 18:00 (Philosophy, Psychology)

A few weeks ago, I came across a very nicely done article at Big Questions Online,offering a unique treatment of the classic “free will, determinism, and neuroscience” topic, penned by experimental philosophy star Eddy Nahmias. Though my views differ in some ways from the his, I really dug the presentation of a kind of compatibilism that focuses on reasons-responsiveness and is sort of reminiscent of Strawson’s theories. It made me realize that my own stance toward compatibilism has become both much more nuanced and much more friendly than my writing in previous years might be taken to indicate. Noting that shift, and inspired by the BQO article’s excellent, highly focused set of discussion questions, I decided to set down what my current views are. I can only guess how they will come to differ from what I think another three years down the road …

  • What do you think free will is?

To begin with, I think it is crucial that we differentiate two ideas, the conflation of which has been the source of endless confusion on this topic – I’ll call them free will and free agency. We can think of free will as a property which, intuitively (I am guessing) many people think human decisions and actions have: that they are neither products of strict causality nor random emanations of stoachsticity, but rather the products of a will that is not bound to, but rather breaks from, the causal laws of nature. Meanwhile, free agency can be thought of as the capacity of an agent to deliberately (and deliberatively) select courses of action and effectively realize her preferences. Whether your choice of dessert is or is not ultimately determined by your brain’s mechanistic execution of a complex decision procedure – whether this decision procedure shatters the causal chains of the universe – is a matter of free will. Whether the sexual desires of a pedophile are capable of being reined in by his respect for law and his wish to refrain from causing harm, or whether women in the 18th century were generally free to live out envisionings of the good life that didn’t involve subservience to men – those are matters of free agency. Read the rest of this entry »

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