Wednesday 13 June 2012

A morphic field metaphor for Free will?


NOTE: I have already had second thoughts about this post! More to come on this topic. But it may be worth seeing my 'workings' and the comments by Nathan, for those who find Free will 'a stumbling block'.


Free will is an intrinsic part of Christianity - there can be no Christianity without Free will.

Yet Free will is a metaphysical assumption, not a discovery - no experience, no evidence can make any difference to the reality of Free will: either it is assumed or it is not.

But what is it? How does it work?


Ultimately, the question is bogus, and did not trouble our (most intelligent and thoughtful) ancestors; the question is unnecessary, unanswerable, pseudo-profound...

But why does the question nonetheless torment some people spontaneously?

How can the question be dealt-with; can anything be done to clarify matters?


One reason for this question may be that we spontaneously see Free will as a little man inside our heads who chooses between alternative courses of action: a homunculus controller sitting at a console in our brains pressing button A or button B.

Obviously this is a grossly simplified metaphor, but it is hard not to think along such lines.

Is there an alternative metaphor for free will? One which captures its essence to some extent - rather than merely kicking the can down the road from ourselves to another but smaller person doing the choosing?


Perhaps the answer is to break out from linear, sequential causality and to try the alternative of field thinking - along the lines of Rupert Sheldrake's version of morphic fields which organize and impose form.

If free will was conceptualized as an organizing field - perhaps something like a magnetic or gravitational field - it could be seen as exerting its influence by a tendency to impose a pattern on human behavior (as a magnet imposes a pattern on iron filings).

As a field, Free will might vary in its strength and range, and might interact with the consequences of its own action (as a magnetic field attracts iron, and the closer the iron moves the stronger is the effect of the magnetic field).


As yet the metaphor of Free will as an organizing field is vestigial - but promising enough that I think it could perhaps be helpful in breaking-out from the apprent inevitability of a homunculus controller.



Nathan said...

I think that even likening free will to a morphic field is perhaps going about the question in the wrong way (although I may be wrong).

I think that the question that must be asked is, "What does it mean for free will to exist?" Thinkers and scientists often look for what could only be described as an "invisible substance" that is free will, and if/when this substance is not located (or can be explained away), then one believes he has disproved or has reason to doubt the existence of free will. But isn't it possible that this is missing the whole point?

Why must free will be something that can be pointed to or proved? I believe that free will is something of a completely different kind. Instead of looking behind the scenes, why don't we look at what is actually going on? Our language, actions, laws, and much else are, in and of themselves, testaments to the "existence" of free will and of its ability to sometimes be taken away (e.g. "He was forced to..." "She had no choice but to..." etc). Words like "responsibility", "I", "you", and "they" also show how free will "exists". Another example of this can be taken from the word "time". There is nothing which "proves" time's existence, but does that mean that there is reason to doubt its existence? Our language is made up of verbs with different tenses, and we observe change going on all around us.

We'd find it quite odd to hear of a man doubting whether he can smell because he cannot smell his nose, and I think that free will should be treated similarly.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathan - good points. I don't myself anymore suffer from this problem of worrying about Free will I was cured of it by Aquinas, in fact - or somebody reporting Aquinas - when he said that Free will was possible because God made it so. God made FW an *intrinsic* part of man, but not of other earthly creatures. So it is not easy to think of a non-human and earthly analogy for FW since it is unique.

Nathan said...

@bgc - I'm very glad that you no longer are gripped with worry about free will. It can definitely be one hell of a monster (I am speaking from experience here), and escaping its clutches is no small feat!

I do think, however, that Aquinas's argument (as well as arguments by Augustine and others) does not go down to the root of the problem. This does not, however, mean that it is ineffective, and your case is a wonderful example of this.

When one speaks of God making free will an "intrinsic part of man," I am inclined to ask, "But what does that mean?" I believe that a number of hangups could occur here, as we are often inclined to look for a mystical or invisible force (such as a 'morphic field') which is behind the scenes instead of looking at what is actually going on.

Again, I do not in any way discount looking at free will as Dr. Sheldrake or Thomas Aquinas suggest, but one cannot look at it as a kind of "invisible force" and at the same time try to convince others of its visibility, and this is why I think that one must dig a little deeper to get to the root of the problem.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Nathan - thanks for you comments which have stimulated further reflection.

Rather than continuing the above line of thought, how about this: it seems to me that Free will is an 'unmoved mover', or 'unchanged changer'.

In other words, that attribute of God - of being able to cause, without being changed by the process, was 'implanted' into Man by God - a little bit of divinity.

By this account, Free will makes choices but is not itself changed by these choices (although the soul is changed by them).

So Free will is never corrupted nor lost - whatever happens in life, the soul, the body - Free will remains.

Thus for Free will to (pretend to) deny itself is a denial of God - it is to deny God in us. Of course that does not affect the reality of God in us - but sets us against it.

Nathan said...

@bgc - Thanks again for the response. I still have a few points that I'd like to discuss, if you are willing (freely, I hope!) to continue.

My main point of contention is not about what free will is, but rather what it means for free will to be. I am not trying to distinguish various characteristics of free will (although these are worthy of discussion), rather, I am trying to raise some questions about what counts as proof.

I am not proposing that one should offer a scientific or philosophical (deductive, inductive, etc) argument for free will (such as the Aristotelian and/or Catholic arguments), rather, I'm hoping to show free will in another light.

This 'new light' is to simply look at the context in which we use the word/concept (free will) and to look at its various expressions. I don't know if you have read anything of Wittgenstein's, so I won't belabor the point, but I do believe that this outlook is essential to avoid confusions and misunderstandings.

I apologize if I am simply beating a dead horse here - oftentimes something I feel to be insightful and significant is something that is a no-brainer for everyone else and signifies nothing but my lack of intelligence and common sense.

Thordaddy said...

It seems the root of the problem is the materialist assumptions that necessarily restrains the "free will" of the typical modern Westerner.

Whereas the Christian doesn't voluntarily confine his existence to the purely physical/material world and thus can experience that momentary instance of ABSOLUTE "free will" (think of an instance of experiencing grace), the radical liberal self-confines to a purely material world while feverishly extending and expanding the scope of his "free will" that then must inevitably reach an impenetrable barrier. Even when the radical liberal has his "free will" to take him to the ends of the universe, he must be denied from going any further. His "free will" is of limited scope and is voluntarily chosen to be this way. The radical liberal seeks an absolute "free will" while simultaneously limiting the scope of his own "free will." He simply has no sense of "free will" in any other manner and flatly refuses to solve his own self-created predicament.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathan - es, I think I understand your point - but I don't think the argument would 'work' for people stuck on this problem- at least not when they are suck in the way that I was.

I spent a long time reading Wittgenstein, much too long, and in general found him whatever is the opposite of helpful...

Lordy! said...

Using Rupert Sheldrake's metaphor is an interesting choice given his main interests. Free Will could be seen as being like Psi.

It would be a field interacting with the world, and a kind of nexus between what we think of as the spiritual and material worlds.

The main difference would be that animals also apparently use Psi.

The main similarities are that if Psi and Free Will are closely linked then the saints development of spiritual gifts, and the call to develop them in Corinthians, makes a great deal of sense. If Free Will is Divine, like a shard of God within us, and if Free Will is like Psi, then the saints who are more infused with the Divine have more Free Will to move towards God and therefore also more spiritual gifts (Psi).

We are also called to develop the same in Corinthians - it is a call to strengthen the Divine in us.

Nathan said...

@bgc - I'd be very interested to hear more sometime on the way in which you were stuck on the problem of free will. Whether more on this may be to come, or if you've already posted it somewhere, I'd be happy to read about it.

Anonymous said...

Scientific naturalism as it is today does not allow free will's existence.

It is not that new scientific advances can discover the mechanism by which free will works. It is that the limitations imposed by naturalism make impossible for free will to exist.

This is why you see so many scientists claiming that free will does not exist even if the scientific proofs are not conclusive. They KNOW it doesn't exist because they KNOW naturalism is true. As usual, it is a philosophical assumption disguised as a scientific fact.

When a fact does not fit the paradigm, there is two options: rejecting the fact as an illusion or rejecting the paradigm. When Kepler detected a mistake of eight seconds of arc in the observation, he concluded his theory was wrong so the orbits could not be circular.

Regarding free will you could dismiss the fact, but this is impossible when it comes to conscience. Conscience is impossible if naturalism is true. Naturalist scientist want to hedge the question, telling conscience is an illusion (they use complex terms to do that), but there is no illusion if there is not conscience.

So it is obvious that naturalism cannot account for reality and some other paradigm must be used. The same as Aristotelian physics was replaced by Newtonian physics.

But, the scientific and political establishment is heavily invested in naturalism so, no matter how many facts they have against naturalism, they will hide them under the carpet. Then you see that theirs is not a scientific position.