Monday, September 03, 2012

Commonsense and the concept of philosophy


When Giere asserted that human science should not stray too far from ordinary ways of speaking he was referring to the difference between the idea of memory in the debate on extended cognition and the commonsense idea. But how about free will, a concept that has been discussed regularly in these blogs?
When we would ask an average person to circumscribe “free will”, I think s/he would give a simple version of Dick Swaab’s definition in his Wij zijn ons brein (We are our brain), which he borrowed from the American researcher Joseph Price: “Free will [is] … the possibility to decide to do or not to do something without internal or external limits that determine this choice” (p. 379). I think that hardly any philosopher will endorse it, for how na├»ve it is. Why? The fox got the cheese from the raven by a trick. Although the fox is smarter than the raven, he isn’t free, for he cannot fly and take the cheese by force. Who would accept this reasoning? Freedom is only possible within limits that determine the choice. I wonder whether my average person realizes it. And if s/he would realize it, what would s/he think then of this:
One of my favourite routes when making a bike ride goes somewhere uphill and then halfway downhill I take the asphalt bike path to the left, for according to my map the road straight on changes into a sandy path after a kilometre or so. But does it really do? I never checked it, although I have planned to do it sooner or later. So once riding uphill, I thought “Let me check it now”, but then a few minutes later: “Let me do it another time, for if the road is really sandy after a kilometre, I have to go back and it is already nearly dark”. However, at the point where I had to turn into the bike path, I saw that the road straight on had been blocked for a reason I didn’t know. So I had to turn into the bike path anyway. But no problem, I had already decided to do that.
Cases of this type have been discussed first by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Therefore they are often called “Frankfurt cases”. In the instance just described I hadn’t the feeling that my options were limited, since I had skipped the plan to go straight on. Does it mean that my choice to turn left into the bike path was my free will? For before I knew that the road straight on had been blocked, I had taken already the decision to choose for the alternative: to take the bike path to the left. I guess that my average person would judge that I wasn’t free, for in the end I had no choice. However, most philosophers think otherwise: Before I had reached the top of the hill I had two possibilities to choose from, and before I could know that one wasn’t real, I had already chosen the road that hadn’t been blocked. In philosophical terms: I could choose from alternatives and I had control of my decision (at the moment of my decision), and it was this that made that I was free to choose. But in my instance, the idea that I was free is quite counterintuitive, and I doubt whether it is in keeping with commonsense. But if it isn’t, does it mean that we have to dispense with this philosophical idea of free will? Maybe in this case, but if it would imply that we have to drop philosophical ideas in general, in case they don’t agree with commonsense, the concept of philosophy as such would be at stake.

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