Had a strange dream last night. I was at a job interview, and rather than asking normal sorts of interview questions (even for an academic job) they were going right for the “deep” questions. I know why I had this dream–I took the “what philosopher are you?” quiz on Facebook before bed AND had pizza. Bad combo.
“Do you believe in free will?”
I believe that people believe that they have free will. I believe that both the fact that people can believe, and that part of that belief is that they can decide to believe something, is in itself a much more interesting question than whether free will exists from an objective perspective. I’m not entirely sure it makes sense as a question in the latter sense.
But if I were to rephrase it a bit, and ask whether I believed the world was entirely deterministic, I would say, yes. I think things have causes. I think certain interactions have certain results. I think the idea of a “Clockwork Universe” suggests that these interactions are linear, discrete, and uncomplicated, which is clearly not the case. However, I do believe that we arrive at our decisions through a relatively mechanistic process of mind, at least in the micro-interactions.
Your next question, of course, is where the mind may be found. The backwards answer to this is that the mind is found where the decisions are made. And I think a lot of that happens in the mush that is inside the skull, and some of it also happens outside of the skull.
When your department says that “we” have made a decision, it is exercising its free will, the belief that it is capable of making decisions that govern its actions. Now, you may say that such a decision is just a euphemism for the opinion of an overbearing chair, and it may reflect her position more strongly than some collective opinion. (Actually, this is more likely to be the argument when the “we” is a corporation, or government bureaucracy.) But I think the “we” here can actually reflect the will of multiple brains. Or more exactly, multiple brains in interaction.
Because a collection of brains is not “mind” or “soul.” Even dead people have brains. Soul is the silence between the notes. The structure and dynamics of interaction. This is true in interactions among neurons as it is in interactions among people. Naturally, that is why I study communication. From the interaction among the pieces, the connections and lack of connections, the connecting and lack of connecting, emerges the soul and the social soul.
The big question is why deterministic interactions at a particular level–say, the ability to predict whether a particular neuron will fire when stimulated–become less predictable at other scales. The simplistic answer is that more is different. What may be predictable at certain scales may not at others. It is not necessarily the case that more stuff equals less predictability. In fact, in some cases more stuff means more predictability (I may be able to say more about the predicted behavior of 1,000 people on a test than I can on an individual’s performance), and in others, particularly in the smallest spaces of physics, less is also less predictable. On different time scales, I can also predict with more effectiveness; in the long run, we’re all dead.
I think prediction is not the only indicator of understanding, but that it is a pretty big one. Since communication can be understood at least in part as the reduction of uncertainty, it seems that communication is at the heart of what it is to understand the soul, free will, and consciousness.
So, is there free will? Is there a soul? “Is there” is a stupid question–by having a word for it, it exists. There are “thoughts” and “problems” and “songs” and “families” because we say they are. There are more useful questions, like “what good is free will?” or “how do we come to believe that we have free will?” I think answering these questions requires an intensive focus on the relationships that exist between concrete elements, and the ways in which those connections are made and change over time. I think that is the central question of the field of communication, and the most important question that needs to be answered to reach an understanding of how the world works more generally. So I guess you could say that my research agenda is “soul searching.”