Will free with purchase

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.”

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7 Comments

  1. Posted 6/26/2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    No, Virginia, there is no free will, nor is there a will. There is the capacity of choose, but we no longer need to use the ‘will’ as causal agent to escape the problem of god’s omnipotence. That does not mean that people make choices, but then… so do most sentient beings as best as i can tell. No soul either…. I’ll accept ‘mind’ as that which our mental sense perceives, and as we can sense/feel/use something, labeling it mind is fine. Soul, psyche, mind, and/or nous as separate being though… no i don’t see that as a real thing. There is the phantasm of soul that is constructed through a wide variety of uses, mainly ideological, and justifcatory of existent things. Now don’t get me wrong, i generally accept that concepts exist so these things can exist as those, but concepts exist within our mind and culture, but not really as part of the human or what it means to be human.

  2. jason
    Posted 6/26/2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Fictions interacting with fictions in a world of language. How can it not be true withIN that maelstrom? Jeremy just likes to pretend.

  3. alex
    Posted 6/26/2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve used “soul” synonymously with “mind” up there, which is probably… wrong. It means, for example, that I am perfectly willing for soul to exist beyond the body (OK so far) but embedded in–or among–machines (probably a problem for some of the soulful). I think when “we” die, our soul-minds probably do stick around in our larger socio-technical environment. When I die, my soul isn’t going to heaven, it’s going to the internets.

    And I have no problem with “mind” existing, just as I have no problem with “tornadoes” existing. They both describe a configuration of objects. More to the point: what isn’t? Zebras are little more. So, in terms of “real things” I’m as OK with minds and souls (and gods) as I am with tornadoes and zebras.

  4. Posted 6/26/2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    well there is a question of existence. Free will… to me has conceptual existence and cultural existence as social facts, and exist as much as those things exist, but what it is supposed to describe or refer to… does not exist… it is a bit of a floating signifier… Mind i think actually may describe a perceivable phenomena that actually seems to exist at least… i can sense my mind and I imagine that it does not necessarily just mean my brain, but it might, but i cannot tell from the sense.

    I’m ok with many things as social facts, cultural facts or conceptual constructs, that may not have a real referent.

  5. Åsa Rosenberg
    Posted 6/26/2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I believe we have a “limited free will”, that is a possibility to act freely within a set of limitations posed by such things as physics, biology, economy, education et.c. Then you could argue that the choices we make are still always caused by something, but as long as causes are in reality only probabilities and not determinants, we somehow have to account for the unexplained factor. So I guess that makes “free will” the unexplained difference in human behavior. I think “free will” as an idea also functions as a (crucial) prerequisite to debates about social equality. If there is no free will I don’t really see the use of research or politics because things simply are as they have to be. Where do we find a source of social change if there is no free will?

  6. Posted 6/29/2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I prefer to think of it in terms of the Norse mythic conception of “wyrd”, which is more of a dharmic tendency, but in most cases not an absolute predestination. It’s the way things are prone to behave, given the situation as it presents itself. Individuals are free to resist their wyrd, but depending on the strength of the causes leading up to any given event and the ability of the individual to impact them directly or indirectly, the wyrd of any given individual may be too strong to circumvent at any given point and time.

    Will then enters the equation in the motivation or desire of the individual to effect a change, but does not assume ability to carry it out, nor even the opportunity to attempt it. It merely reflects the preference which might or might not be backed up by actions, successful or not (when measured against the willed end results).

    This always seemed to me the more pragmatic way of approaching the question of free will vs. predetermination. Just call me the ‘wyrd’ one. Won’t be too far off.

  7. alex
    Posted 6/29/2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    But Adam, who is this “individual” you speak of. The word suggests that there is some homunculus that is able to make decisions and guide our actions. The ultimate question of free will is where that “unmoved mover” resides. Is it your brain that is “individual.” Because brains can be divided! I’ve seen it!

    So, the question is not so much fate within the social structure. That, I’m perfectly comfortable with existing within “Structuring structures and structured structures,” to rip Bourdieu. The issue is whether individuals are somehow indivisible, or whether the cohesion of meat sacks is just a convenient fiction. If that’s the case, then where does this “I” beyond the ebb and flow of the universe reside.

    The “I” that decides is therefore very much like this “soul” that people talk about. It’s not in the heart, because then those with heart transplants would lose themselves. It’s not in any particular part of the brain, although there do seem to be bits that when destroyed also result in less volition. But even these regions can be subdivided into pieces that alone provide no volition. So if all we are is meat, then where is that individual that makes a choice.

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