Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How Should We Understand 'Feeling Free'?

(This post is meant to continue clarifying some problems with the contemporary discussion of determinism and free will which were mentioned here.)

   In the dispute over free will, I find an acknowledgement from all factions that we possesses a feeling of freedom. It is crucial to cultivate our discourse on this feeling, since it determines when the term 'free' is suitable.  And, while there is no doubt that we all have some feeling of freedom that allows us to speak of freedom (even to deny freedom), I am not sure that the same thing is always being spoken of.  Further, the standard that governs the discourse on free will has changed over time in a way that is less suited to topics, such as morality, that bring us to the discussion to begin with.
   I hope to get clearer on the standard for discussing human freedom, and help get this discourse back on track.
   Freedom is often understood relative to a feeling accompanying decisions. It is not clear that these resolutions of indecisiveness are helpful as the standard of freedom, and there is another potential standard of freedom that will seem more helpful as this discussion develops.
   We often find ourselves acting easily, and, without reflecting, knowing how to proceed. There is always some level of our activity that is arranged by an understanding of how to proceed; even when we are indecisive we have a mode of proceeding in getting ourselves back on track. When we consider this way of operating, it is not a mere connection of appearances, but a connection of possibilities and objectives along with a known technique and skill for operating. This knowledge of how to proceed, is a form of our experiencing the world and cannot be constructed from any mere aggregate of things. This 'knowing how to proceed' (or at least a portion of it) serves as another possible standard for human freedom.
   Choice results from a breakdown in our knowing how to proceed, and so stands in an important relationship to it. Understanding the context where freedom emerges as this break down constrains us to think of freedom in contexts where we are lacking in direction and thrown into the realm of trying to find our way again. In this context, the free act presents itself as the choice that resolves our indecisiveness and restores our feeling of knowing how to proceed. However, the choices we make are the result of either some discursive reasoning, or what seems to be impulse, and so if choice is taken as the paradigm of freedom we also tend to include this deliberation or spontaniety.  This is where choice as the standard of freedom introduces some problems.
   (Understand how rationalizing — an activity where we know how to proceed — returns us to knowing how to proceed in the some other domain is crucial, but I will leave this as a topic for the future.)
   Because we cannot admit real spontaneity (randomness) as freedom (since this would not place us in 'control'), we must look to the rationalization we put into making the choice. When we consider such rationalizations, we seem prone to only concern ourselves with gathering up facts and values. If we agree that our choice was by an aggregate of facts, then it was decided by something external to us; if it is our values, then we must either argue for the essential validity of our values, or give external reasons for their correctness, and in either case we will end up deferring to something else which has determined us, or something spontaneous again.
   From the above, it may seem like I am arguing against free will, but really I am trying to show how we cannot get back to our concerns with morality when we take the standard of freedom to be choice. When rationalizing is fetishized so that being a rational man means giving arguments, then the vast majority of our activities, which simply operate in the mode of knowing how to proceed, are removed from consideration, since these become unconscious, and even irrational.
   Sometimes knowing how to proceed is involuntary, such as times when we flinch, and these do not seem good candidates for our standard of freedom. However, there are times when knowing how to proceed comes explicitly with our agency being involved - when we experience a duty to act in a certain way.  
   The experience of duty is an experience of knowing how (we ought) to proceed, where the action is demanded of us. This sort of knowing how to proceed requires that we postulate ourselves as able to carry out the action under our own power. This phrase, 'under our own power', must be made clearer. If the action I take is considered merely as the result of some mechanism that continues outside of me, the agency must be attributed to all parties in the series of causes equally, or we must agree that by moral responsibility we think something akin to the results of hot potato (and perhaps some do, but I do not think those who say so are entirely clear about their experience of moral feelings such as responsibility, guilt and indignation towards others). In contrast, acting under our own power means considering a result as stemming from something that has no prior moment determining it, and also considered as resulting as an effect of us.
   Duty, or knowing how we ought to proceed, does not need to emerge due to deliberation — and usually does not. It also does not settle what will happen any more than our knowing how to proceed settles our success in the matter. However, knowing how we ought to proceed serves as our best standard for the suitability of applying the term 'free' to ourselves, since while we are experiencing it, we are implicated as agents (as able to produce effects by our own power). Now, this does not settle the 'reality' of free will, but it is the only standard we have for not only our acceptance and denial of this important concept, but also of its intelligibility.
   Even though when we know how we ought to proceed we are determined, it is not in a manner that thinks our connection to the mechanism of nature, and so we must cease trying to understand our freedom in terms of an indeterminacy which misses our concerns through randomness, or on the basis of rationalizing which must once again defer to something else or spontaneity. To be free is to be determined, however, to be more precise, self-determined, and the feeling most suited to grounding this is that of knowing how we ought to proceed.
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