Choosing to Deny Free Will

Every sentence is first-person in its origin. That is to say, every statement, hypothesis, question, or exclamation is linked to a person or a group of people who have produced it.

This rule does not mean that truth is somehow dependent on the individual mind or even a convergence of brilliant minds. Nor does it mean that we should stop interrogating nature in its physical and psychological presentations to gain scientific knowledge.  I agree with Charles Peirce (as quoted earlier) who wrote

…To make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious.  The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; – only they can agree upon nothing else.  In the sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached, it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached.  After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it.  We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.[1]

He emphasizes the community (italicized by Peirce) of philosophers (scientists) as the context in which we seek scientific truth.  This community is a highly developed “we” that aims to approach universality, conceived as the community of past, present, and especially future rational, trained observers who seek to reproduce and refine knowledge by framing questions to be answered by nature.

I disagree with Peirce’s choice of words, however, when he describes the goal as “the ultimate philosophy which we pursue.” Such a singular term does not describe GSOT, the many-splendored, dynamic world in which you and I live. “The ultimate philosophy” is too monolithic, static, totalitarian.

Language exists to make thoughts portable. The objectivity of science, defined by the reproducibility of results and interchangeability of observers, is foundational, enabling progress in technology and understanding.

Yet even the magnificent scientific community falls short of complete objectivity. It comprises a group, as indicated in a quote from Thomas Kuhn in the previous blog, that is less than ideal, less than all. If nothing else, it is a group committed to reproducibility of results and interchangeability of observers, and its vision within the context of science is thereby restricted to what recurs and is potentially discernible to any capable observer.

Even considering the we-group of science, then, one can always add a prefix

                                             (“I/we…” + transitive verb) to any sentence

and Rule #1 – Every sentence is first-person – applies in science as it does in every other form of discourse.

Thus far the illustrations of Rule #1 have been generic and inclusive. The rule will not be useful, however, unless it gets tough and excludes some kind of wording for sentences – that is, unless it makes certain kinds of sentences false.

Looking carefully at the way Rule #1 is defined, it becomes clear that sentences are false if they purport to make the first-person pronouns “I/we” meaningless.

In our discussion of positivism, we saw that this was precisely the goal, at least at one point in their careers, of some daring objective thinkers, Rudolph Carnap and Daniel Dennett. Both of them seemed to pull back on later reflection. To my knowledge, no full booklength treatment on the demise of the first- (and second-) person pronouns has yet appeared.

Instead the tendency of positivist philosophers has been to nibble away at some essential features of what it means to use the pronouns I and we. For example, Dennett’s book titled Consciousness Explained demonstrates effectively that many instances of events or phenomena that we consider directly observable in consciousness are in fact erroneous.

I don’t want to make a stand on consciousness. It’s a slippery concept and largely inconsequential. Even those like Dennett who verbally deny the customary ideas about consciousness go right on speaking, writing, and acting as if nothing has changed.

Far more serious is the attack by positivist objective thinkers on the concept of free will (as exemplified here). When you or I begin a sentence with the word “I,” the sentence often will express a judgment or choice believed to arise more or less freely. To the positivist, however, the choice is not free at all.

The positivist denial of free will might go something like this: Volitional expressions fail to qualify as objective hypotheses capable of support or falsification by publicly demonstrable criteria.

In response, I shall turn to Rule #1 and reply that completely objective hypotheses do not exist. Even the best scientific hypotheses are not completely objective.

Let’s formally add the first-person prefix and active verb, and then see what a denial of free will looks like. Here it is in simplest form:

“I deny that free will makes any sense.”

A simple denial like this has no more force than a statement of opinion. What would a much stronger individual statement look like?

“I have studied the concept of free will at great length and sought to find whatever solid evidence might support it. I have read previous authors’ opinions and considered them carefully. In all of my judgments, I do my best to be fair. At the end of arduous deliberation, I conclude that objective evidence to support free will is insufficient. Therefore, I deny that the concept of free will makes any sense.”

What do you think? It seems to me that the concept of objective evaluation of free will makes no sense, and thus the denial of free will fails. For the methods of objective evaluation incorporate more than a few values of fairness, reasonableness, clarity, completeness, and so forth – and these values are chosen.

One of these is an illusion – free will or its denial. Which? Tell me … if you will.


Next post: Free Will Expressed in First-Person 

Previous post: Rule #1. Every Sentence is First Person

Searching for GSOT outline: Home


[1] Peirce, C.S, in Journal of Speculative Philosophy 5:264-8, 280-317, 18xx. (reprinted in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Buchler J, p. 229).


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