20 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis VIII

Kane’s chapter 10 is called “Objections and Replies.” The objections that he surveys here are from “astute and persistent critics of my view” as expressed in earlier publications, “to whom I am indebted for waking me from many a dogmatic slumber.”

I won’t go through the objections and his replies for you. They expand but marginally on the argument I’ve already presented. I will note, though, that one of the objections forces Kane to expand upon the quantum-theoretical gist of his own argument on the way "down the mountain." Could there be two people with exactly the same history, biochemistry, etc., whose deliberations on exactly the same point come to contrary conclusions? In a footnote, he explains:

“A natural objection here would be that the quantum-wave functions of the brains of the two persons would be exactly the same … combinations of the wave functions of their component particles. But these wave functions are abstract descriptions of the real brains that do not tell us what the exact positions and momenta of the component particles are. Rather they yield various probabilities that the particles will have such-and-such positions and momenta.” So, yes, so far as we know, this is possible. Just as it’s possible that in one context Schrodinger’s cat is dead and in another exactly identical context the cat is still alive when the lid is opened.

In his conclusion, chapter 11, Kane seeks to “situate the debates about free will … within broader intellectual currents of the late twentieth century and of the modern era in philosophy generally.”

Kane returns here to Walden Two, the B.F. Skinner utopia that many readers (Kane amongst them) see as an unintended dystopia. In the story, a philosopher named Castle asks some skeptical questions of the utopia’s leader, Frazier. Frazer says that scientists now know what the good life is, so it would be wrong to refuse to condition people into leading it. Castle asks, then: what is the good life?

Skinner/Frazier answers: It is a lengthy answer, beginning at p. 146 of the book and continuing into page 149. There are five points to the good life: physical and psychological health, a minimum of unpleasant labor, opportunities to exercise talents, satisfying personal contacts, and necessary opportunities for relaxation. There need be no philosophical explanation behind this list, in fact (Frazier says) efforts to get behind it philosophically are misguided, like “a centipede trying to decide how to walk,” when the thing to do is just walk.

“This response by Frazier temporarily silences poor Castle,” as Kane observers. But Kane comes to Castle’s aid. Castle's question is unanswered, and is unanswered for a reason that even the most practical of caterpillars should not ignore. The good life, including each of those five attractive things, might for all we know be satisfied in any of several or an “indefinite number” of different ways. Further, those different ways might well conflict with one another as Isaiah Berlin suggested in his writing about “value pluralism.” We might lose one way of satisfying these requirements for the good life as we grasp for another.

The idea of free will as Kane has expounded it, though, is inherently a “value experimental” idea. It suggests that we can and do remake ourselves, in ways that determine which values, in a world of competing value/projects, we will pursue. It is a justified rebuke to Skinner’s value monism.   
With that rebuke we may fittingly and freely end.

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