here are a few things to keep in mind when discussion free will. The first is th

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Jul 27, 2022


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here are a few things to keep in mind when discussion free will. The first is that we are not talking about political freedom. Whether I am free to run stop lights or whether I am free to marry whomever I want is a political question. Perhaps I’m freer in the U.S. than I would be were I a citizen of North Korea. While that discussion can be interesting, it is not our discussion. Think about it this way. Our universe seems to obey laws of nature. Think about gravity. Let’s assume that acceleration due to gravity is always 9.8m/s/s (read 9.8 meters per second squared). If that’s gravity, and if that’s a law of nature, then that is always true. Period. No object on Earth behaves any differently. If there is an object with mass, it just will accelerate toward the surface of the earth at 9.8m/s/s. No exception. That’s how laws of nature work. There are no exceptions.
But what if we have a law and find an exception? Well, there are only two options. Either what we thought was a law wasn’t in fact a law (because there are no exceptions to laws of nature) OR what we thought was an exception was not really an exception (maybe our instruments malfunctioned). A few years ago, a team of Italian scientists thought they discovered a particle that traveled faster than the speed of light. We know, though, that it is a law of science that nothing can travel faster than light. Yet, these scientists allegedly discovered an exception. Okay, either it is false that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (we were wrong about the laws of nature) or these scientists were mistaken in their discovery (maybe an instrument malfunctioned so they didn’t see what they thought they saw). It turned out to be the latter, but that’s it. Only two options.
Okay, so here we are. We are living in the natural world subject to the same laws of physics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, etc., as anything else that exists in the universe. Question: do those laws of nature determine the future? If they determine the future, do they determine my actions? Was it determined, billions of years ago, that I would be sitting in a coffee shop typing the words you’re reading right now? We like to think not. I’m free, we say. I determine my own actions, at least in some cases, and I freely chose to be in this coffee shop. Fine, but how am I different than everything else in nature? What makes me free and rocks not free? If you say consciousness, then how does that work? If you say a soul, then how does that work? If you say, then… And so on. We’re now doing philosophy. If I’m not free, what’s the big deal? Free will is linked to responsibility. If I’m not free, then it seems I cannot be responsible for my actions. We don’t blame rocks for falling off cliffs. How could you blame me for stealing your car if I was determined by the laws of nature to steal your car? You cannot, it seems.
Two things: (1) Science is good. It works pretty darn well. (2) I appear to make choices that determine my future independent of the past. Yet, how can we have both? How can I be responsible for my actions in a world that obeys laws of nature? That is the question. I look forward to your reading of the Nagel article, the Stace article and the Cahn article. They’re dense, but worth a careful read. Lots there to explore. Let’s go!
Some questions you might consider (one at a time):
(1) From the Nagel: what does it mean to say that I could have chosen the peach? This is an important question about the meaning of language.
(2) From the Nagel: could we summarize the position he ultimately rejects, namely, compatibilism (often called soft determinism)?
(3) Why does Nagel reject compatibilism?
(4) What is Stace’s view? (5) What are some reasons Stace offers in favor of his view?
(6) What is Cahn’s view? He’s a libertarian about free will (this has nothing to do with the political libertarians).
(7) What are some reasons Cahn offers in favor of his view?
(8) Are there specific passages you found interesting in our reading this week? Which ones and why?
Answers to any questions should include page numbers to help us with the context of quoted or paraphrased material.


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