06 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis II

In his first chapter, Kane writes that he wants to keep the notion of the will as a human function, indeed as a faculty. This is itself a curious point.

Personally, I believe we can get rid of the idea of will, and that applying Ockham's razor to psychology rather demands that we do so. We call the actions on behalf of which we want to make this claim our willed or voluntary actions (as distinct from the beats of our heart, or the reflex jerk of a knee when it's tapped with the doctor's hammer). Still, the freedom of the actions of humans is the main thing, surely, and the "will" in the phrase "free will" is a convenient shortcut to denominating them, not the name of a subjective faculty.

James' admirers will remember that for James as a psychologist the will is, essentially, the act of paying attention. I get out of bed when I pay attention to my need to be out of bed, rather than to any tempting contrary thoughts about how nicely warm the blankets are.

It appears that Kane is contending otherwise, and here I suspect he errs. Furthermore, my initial guess -- without having read the whole of his book -- is that the material in which he advances his views on the nature of the "will" could come right out of the book without loss.

In his second chapter, "Responsibility," we get to the heart of the matter.  Kane discusses the "Alternative Possibilities" (AP) idea, once expressed (by Immanuel Kant) as the idea that "the act as well as its opposite must be within the power of the subject at the moment of its taking place."

Then, though, he quotes Daniel Dennett, a prominent compatibilist, making a point about Martin Luther. In connection with his break with Rome, Luther said: "Here I stand. I can do no other."
Dennett tells us that Luther wasn't denying that he was morally responsible for that break. He was saying, being Martin Luther, this is what he had to do. He was accepting and concentrating moral responsibility, not avoiding it.

Kane acknowledges the force of this point, and revises AP a bit, dropping one element of Kant's statement of it.  Kant, as you see from the quote above, said that "at the moment" of an act's taking place, the subject must have had the power to do other. Kane, agreeing with Dennett, agreeing then with Luther's self-knowledge, says that this may not be the case. We do think Luther was free when he was defying a papal commission or nailing protesting theses to a church door. But ... he was free there because at earlier moments in his life he had chosen among paths that genuinely diverged. He had voluntarily made himself the man who, at those moments, could no longer do anything else.

AP retains its plausibility in the face of such counter-examples, then, if it is applied to the whole of a life rather than separate moments, and: "Those who know something about Luther's biography know about the long period of inner turmoil and struggle he endured in the years leading up to that fateful 'Here I stand.'"

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.