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January 26, 2008



"When we feel the exhilarating sense of freedom, I think we are mistaken if we identify that feeling with freedom to choose."

That's an interesting statement, consonant with my view that the important meaning of "freewill" is "ability to act accordance with one's will" rather than "choice being underdetermined by the past." I don't think the consonance is accidental.

Nathan Smith

Not exactly. If one's choices are not underdetermined by the past, that is, in a determinist world, one's choice set has only one element, namely the predetermined action. There is no freedom. If one's choice set includes several alternatives among which one can choose by free will-- that is, if one's actions are undetermined by the past-- one has *some* freedom. Like walking: one can choose which direction, and how fast, and how far, within the limits of one's muscle power and the two-dimensional nature of the ground. But there can be a state of the soul-- flying, in my metaphor-- in which one leaves behind the calculus of choice precisely because of the bounty of the options, which are not only too rich and diverse, but also too fast-moving, to be catalogued and weighed. And there may be a relinquishing of the will, too, as the laying aside of a burden... I'm a little out of my depth here, though...


Personality, character, disposition, and will might as well be addictions, since people compulsively act like themselves. Even when acting, it's difficult for actors to break out of their self-defined stereotypes. There are a few actors, like Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, who surprise and astound with particular performances, and it is these mold-breaking accomplishments (in all walks of life) that seem to me to be most free.

Nathan Smith

The reason I don't think personality/character can be regarded as an addiction is that it is fundamentally, or at least typically, *creative.* For example, I had a roommate who used to crack puns all the time. Some people don't like puns, but he had a way of doing it so unexpectedly-- and a few of them were so extremely clever-- that it was pleasantly amusing. Now, you could call this a compulsion. But each pun was different. It required a novel response to whatever opportunities for verbal mutation happened to spring from the conversation around him. That's different from a drug addiction, where what people do compulsively is always the same.

Some personality traits may be dully and repetitively compulsive like a drug addiction. I think those would generally be regarded as negative traits, because I think every positive trait has an element of creativity. Thus if I always tell the truth, I am still telling *different* truths, and there is creativity, at least a little, in every true narrative, and the most profoundly true narratives are the most creative.

I think someone who loves a person will usually regard a drug addiction, not as an aspect or an evolution of the beloved's personality, but as a destruction of it. To coin endless puns is a real personality trait, even if some might find it irritating. To obsess about the next hit of cocaine is to be more like a machine than a person, to deteriorate into a mechanical grumble.


"[Character] is fundamentally, or at least typically, *creative.*"


"To obsess about the next hit of cocaine is to be more like a machine than a person, to deteriorate into a mechanical grumble."

Just so. The problem of free will is, in my contrual, more one of "will" than "free." How is it that a will creates itself* so as to be a *will*? How is it that we construct and evolve our future selves, such that our will becomes our own? And what can happen (like drug addiction or mental illness) so as to collapse that?

*Note that this does not assume physicalism. Even if there's some eternal, immaterial part of a will, it cannot take on any particulars of its own without self-elaboration.

Nathan Smith

If I understand him, I think Nato is, among other things, looking for a convergence between some of the stuff I write about will and his own commitment to his compatibilism. I'm afraid this makes his writing a bit opaque to me. It seems to me that both "free" and "will" are necessary to the problem of free will. How the personality creates itself, or forms under whatever influences it forms, is certainly an interesting question. But the will, the personality, cannot create itself, cannot, really, do anything, unless it is, first of all, free. If it just a billiard ball, all its actions originated in the impulse that set it rolling, not in itself. Since I know by introspection that this is not the case, that there is choice, that choice is underdetermined, originating in my will which could have chosen to do something different, my interest is to go beyond that and develop a phenomenology of the will based on the evidence of experience. At that point, the creative horizons of the will and the personality may ultimately be more interesting than the mechanism of choice, but the only way I can understand this is as presupposing that human wills can and do choose, that they are free.


When talking about sin, self-control and personal horizons, Nathan's discussions deal with the "will" side of free will while "presupposing that human wills can and do choose, that they are free." Very well, presuppose all you like - past a certain point differences between Nathan's and my treatments of "free" are unimportant. The "will" side is the one that's interesting in moral analysis, or at least, that's my position.

This is critical, because most of my argument revolves around saying that the will-focused definitions of free will are important ones. Put another way, we rightfully want free *will", not *free* will. We want to be responsible for our actions and to own them. We want our lives to be products of our will. Sure, we don't want our lives to be the product of billiard balls, but neither do we want them to be random, such that at any moment we might do anything at all, including murder our loved ones. The interesting, effective part of free will is the will part, which is exactly the part Nathan addresses in his original post.

Nathan Smith

re: "we rightfully want free *will", not *free* will..."

I'm not sure I can make sense of this distinction. Will makes choices and to do so it must be free. To the extent that I can make sense of it, what is really desirable seems to me to be freedom. Perhaps freedom can even transcend will.


And to Tom - it is, indeed, a wonder when someone expands one's self. Not only does it increase the scope of a person, it demonstrates and exercises the capacity to continue to grow.

Of course, such abilities do come with their risks.


"Perhaps freedom can even transcend will."

Now *I* am confused. Does Nathan intent to suggest the possibility that sometimes we can do something so free it doesn't even come from our will? If so, in what sense are *we* doing it, versus it just happening stochastically?

That doesn't hold much value for me, though I suspect Nathan's point was something else.

Nathan Smith

Yes, I haven't made it clear. Two ways to think about it:

1. To choose involves envisioning, to some extent, two or more possible courses of action, weighing them, and then selecting one. It implies a certain divorce between thought and action, a recognition of unrealized possibilities, and often of trade-offs. It requires effort, and rejection of all but one alternative, perhaps regretfully. Now, imagine a more spontaneous movement of the spirit, in which the spirit does not-- does not need to, perhaps-- stop and think, does not extrapolated as-yet-unrealized possibilities and choose between them, but desires and creates as a single motion. Think about a great jazz improviser. Does he think "I could play riff A, riff B, or riff C; which would be best?" Sometimes maybe, but at his best moments thinking the riff and playing it probably happen together, so that he never exactly *chooses* to play it. That doesn't mean the riff was predetermined by anything. No amount of knowledge at time t will permit one to predict what riff the jazz musician will play at time t+1. But the mechanism of will/choice also seems cast aside, or at any rate changed, transfigured perhaps.

2. A walker controls his movements, but he can only go 3mph. A runner has a bit less control-- he is more likely to trip, and he can't turn or stop as easily-- but he can go 15mph, though he'll soon get tired. An eagle can soar at (say) 25mph, and dive at 50mph, but his motions depend much on the currents of the air. Does one feel freer walking, running, or flying? A maximum speed of 3mph is, after all, a constraint. To run or fly is to be freed from that constraint. I think this is a metaphor for the mind. A creative artist, soaring in the ecstasy of imagination, may feel that he is borne aloft on the winds of the spirit. He can do what others would love to do and cannot, yet it would be misleading to say that his choice set has been expanded, because he may not be choosing, in the ordinary sense, at all, that is, weighing alternatives and selecting among them, and if he were doing that, he could not be simultaneously borne aloft on the wings of inspiration, because those two states of mind are incompatible with each other. And yet it is within his power to get up and go to the refrigerator and grab the nachoes and forget the whole thing, just like anyone else.

I use the creative artist as an example, but what really makes a great creative artist probably has as much to do with discipline as inspiration. You have to sit down and write it out; you have to give due respect to the constraints of genre; you have to think about your audience; you have to have either independent means or a paying publisher; and so on. Probably a lot of people, maybe everyone, has moments of inspiration. The concept of inspiration may be more proper to religion than to the arts, but in our day the arts are a more ecumenical illustration.


1)seems to be will without (experienced) choice. Ex hypothesi, not without other possibilities, since the t+1 case is unpredictable, but no awareness of the fulcrum (choice) upon which possible futures balance. Will would seem to transcend choice, rather than the other way around.

2)seems to be a similar case, extended.

Perhaps this is a semantic quibble, but considering that Nathan seems to treat "choice" and "freedom" as identities for the purpose of the discussion, the relationship between choice and will is the subject itself.

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