I should be entertaining myself with homework and assignments, but I've realised there's something bugging me far too much for me to let it go unnoticed any longer. I've been out of the whole online debating scene for a few months. I'm not sure whether I've grown tired of always fighting the same people or if I've become physically unable to tolerate their use of the same, old, stretched arguments over and over again. Whatever the reason, the mere idea of logging in on a public forum and engage in a debate makes me feel nauseous. Still, I sometimes check out boards and blogs all over the web and I sometimes feel the urge to bang my head against the wall, just like the good ol' times when I had to dodge ad personams Matrix-style to get my point across.

One of the last debates I took part in was one concerning the existence of Free Will and Free Agency and the issue of whether or not the mind is a physical entity bound to the principle of causality. Now, of all the arguments I've heard there is a recurrent one I find extremely annoying. Believe it or not I've happened to stumble upon people who contend the mind is a non-physical entity linked to the physical brain by a process of feedback loop because the most common definition of mind as used by most speakers of all natural languages is that of a non-physical entity.

Admittedly all this transcends the particular debate and mine is a criticism against a debating technique used by some people regardless of topic. Dictionary entries and the use we make of words - which are, I'd like to remind, nothing but conventions - reflect the mainstream way of understanding reality and the universe we live in. They by no means build the reality we live in or constitute proof of anything. Our use of words and the meaning we attach to a particular utterance and to its representation in written language is directed by our ever changing understanding of reality and not vice versa. Do you want to prove that the mind is a non-physical entity beyond the reach of causality? Then you must provide an instance of physical changes in a living brain, be them traumatic or not, producing no change whatsoever in the behavioural patterns of a living organism. It would also be nice if you could explain how anything in the physical world we live in can be uncaused above quantum level - and even at quantum level we might one day find out that the apparent randomness of microscopical systems is actually not that random at all. Time will tell.

An equally irritating argument used by many Free Will proponents goes as follows:

1. we live and act throughout each day of our existence with the clear perception of having free will and agency.
2. therefore free will and agency do exist.

Wrong. Perceiving free will is no more a proof of its existence than seeing the sun move through the sky is proof that our system is geocentric. If anything, one might argue that our perception of free will is but an evolutionary defence mechanism to preserve self-image. So many people are so manifestly unable to cope with the mere idea of having no real free will that the need for such a defence mechanism becomes blatant from an evolutionary perspective, just as many individuals seem to need to cling to their beliefs in order to keep themselves alive.

Since I'm at it I think I might as well address a point I deem much more important than the need of single individuals to embrace the illusive perception of free will. It's a point whose discussion, I think, has been made necessary by the emergence of the gene-centred theory of evolution. Let's assume for a moment that Dawkins' thorough explanation of why and how altruism still has a place in the Selfish Gene theory were not enough for some people and that the deletion of free will on a naturalistic basis could pose, according to the same people, an equal threat to the ethical existence of our civilisation. To be honest I've always had a hard time understanding what all the fuss about this stems from, as the solution has always appeared fairly blatant to me. If I were to make an educated guess I'd say that the problem some people have with the theory is caused by a deeply rooted adherence to dualism. People will always have issues with a gene-centred theory of evolution and its obvious implications for as long as they will stick to seeing themselves as something separated from their genes. If you think about it, the most common argument against the acceptance of the theory is not unlike one of the most common points raised against atheism.

Once you eliminate free will and free agency, if we are nothing but machines whose actions are determined by genetics and causality, then everything is allowed and there is no longer accountability.

Once again, wrong. That would only be the case if our genes were the decision-making components of machines of which we represent the conscious self. The problem ceases to be as soon as you accept the idea that we are not controlled by our genes, we are our genes. We are genetic machines that evolution has provided with self-awareness and the illusion of free will as defence mechanisms and as means to a posteriori rationalise all those decisions we take as a result of all those underground processes that placing under our direct control would jeopardise the survival of the genetic machine we are. As a result we, our own genes, can be held entirely accountable and judged by a jury of peer genetic machines.

Ultimately, if the idea of giving our free will up is really so terrifying, one could very well phrase the whole thing slightly differently and say that the free agency of our genetic machines is perfectly intact and that it is our self-awareness that is actually more deficient than we'd like to think.


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Comment by Fabio on October 27, 2008 at 7:32am
@ felch: I think I'll pass on that one, thank you :D
@ Ajita and Michael: I'll be sure to check the website out, thank you :)
Comment by Ajita Kamal on October 26, 2008 at 10:03pm
Hey Fabio!
I got tired of the scene you speak of when I was in grad school, for precisely the same reasons you mentioned. I think our efforts will be better served in motivating cooperation and community between free-thinkers.
given you position on free-will, which I share, you should check out the Center for Naturalism, if you havent already: centerfornaturalism.org , naturalism.org and on yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/naturalismphilosophyforum/ and there are others.



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