Monday, March 01, 2010

The contextual embeddedness of the free will

The question whether man has a free will is one of the main themes in analytical philosophy. The will is seen here as something within man that steers his or her actions and makes that he or she does the action chosen. The view that the will takes its decision independently and that the will is “free” is called indeterminism. The opposite view that the decisions of the will are caused by other factors is called determinism. However, whether the will is determined or free, it can happen that someone wills an action and is about to do the action but does not do it without having a reason for not doing it. Then one speaks of akrasia. Whether man has a free will or not and whether man can really act in an akratic way are important in the light of the question whether man is responsible for what s/he does.
I think that one of the problems in both views of the will in analytic philosophy is that they are based on the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. Actually it sees man as having a little mental man, a homunculus, inside that steers the body. However, who steers then the homunculus? Another problem is that this approach has no eye for the contextual embeddedness of man: the fact that man is a being with an environment that has as much influence on how s/he acts as man’s inner reasons, believes and intentions.
A good illustration of the contextual embeddedness of the will is a sports drama that I saw during the just finished Olympic Winter Games. It happened during the 10,000 m race in speed skating. Let me first explain a bit for the readers of my blog who do not know much about speed skating races. During a competition, the skaters compete in pairs on a 400 m rink and the one with the best time after all pairs have competed wins. For a 10,000 m race they have to skate 25 laps. The rink is divided in two tracks: an inner track and an outer track. On the side of the rink opposite of the finish line, the skater that comes from the inner track goes to the outer track and the skater that comes from the outer track goes to the inner track. If the skater fails to do that s/he is disqualified. During his race, the last one of the eight races for the Olympic 10,000 m competition, the Dutch skater Sven Kramer was clearly about to win the gold medal. After, if I remember well, 15 laps, Kramer was in the inner track and on the changeover point he skated unmistakingly in the direction of the outer track. However, a few moments before he was there his coach made a fatal mistake and shouted: “go to the inner track”. So did Kramer, and he lost his second gold medal of these Games, because he was disqualified.
What can we say about this case from the perspective of the problem of the free will? His behaviour when he left the inner track (what he said afterwards) made it clear that Kramer had the will to go from the inner track to the outer track. I think that it is also clear that the fact that he decided otherwise at the last moment was not a case of akrasia. Hadn’t Kramer’s coach shouted to him, he wouldn’t have changed his mind and from the context and from his explanations later it is clear that Kramer did not change his mind because of an inner stimulus or inexplicable change of mind. It was his coach that made him do it. However, the time left to Kramer to decide whether he had to follow his own original intention (going to the outer track) or had to do what his coach said (going to the inner track) was so short that he followed his intuition (or must we say his automatism?) that the coach is right and he made a quick jump to the inner track, with the fatal consequence.

Must we say now that Kramer did not follow his will when he chose to go to the inner track? But Kramer was not forced to go to the inner track. In a certain sense it was his own choice to follow the advice of his coach. Therefore I think that this case is an illustration that our will is not simply something that is only within us but that it is also contextually embedded in what is around us.

2 comments:

Simon said...

Henk I'll accept within the below framework.

The way I've thought about this problem in general is to think about it in terms of an adaptive information processing system/network with at least 4 types of influence: the properties of the constituent matter, the properties/capacity organisation of the system, the information held within and the information from outside inputs.

Each particular level/type of interaction can vary in strength and influence individually or when combined. So the system is fundamentally dymanic, neither totally deterministic nor 'free'.

Also given the nature of this complex system individual can differ as to whether any particular level influences any particular circumstance or situation. That explains why some people are addicts or succumb to peer pressure while others don't.

HbdW said...

Simon, thank you again for your reaction. Yes, see for instance Alicia Juarrero, "Dynamics in action", or Nancey Murphy/Warren S. Brown, "Did my neirons do it?"