u Notes from the Underground: Do you have free-will? Or are you a zombie?

Do you have free-will? Or are you a zombie?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

I am currently reading "The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul", and its worth every penny I spent on it. As its name says, its a collection of some wonderful (even if somewhat dated) fantasies and ideas on minds and souls.

I will blog on the book in greater detail later, for now I just want to talk about a brilliant dialogue included in the book:"Is God a Taoist?", written by Raymond Smullyan.

One of the classic questions of Western philosophy (but not eastern) is the one concerning free-will and determinism. The apparent paradox is this: in a scientific view of the world, by understanding the laws of nature, one must be able to predict the future (atleast in principle. We are very far away from being able to do this in practice). But then, if I have no say in what I do next, to what extent am I to be held responsible for my actions?

Part of the answer lies in this insight, taken from "The Mind's I": "Free will is in the eye of the willer, not in the eye of the God above. As long as the creature feels free, he, she, or it is free." Thus, we humans are what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls "choice machines" in this interview where he explains this resolution of the problem. We are programmed to make choices, but the determinism does not in any way reduce our free-will.

The other part of the answer is that there's a wrong assumption underlying the formulation of the problem; the assumption that we can cleanly separate this world into subject and object, an assumption so basic to western philosophy. Consider this extract from the dialogue:

[..] the confusion is largely caused by your bifurcation of reality into the “you” and the “not you.” Really now, just where do you leave off and the rest of the universe begin? Or where does the rest of the universe leave off and you begin? Once you can see the so-called “you” and the so-called “nature” as a continuous whole, then you can never again be bothered by such questions as whether it is you who are controlling nature or nature who is controlling you. Thus the muddle of free will versus determinism will vanish.

The subject/object distinction is one which is very useful in our daily lives and for that reason it is very tough to get rid of. I, at any rate, prefer to understand eastern monism only in the abstract, for it somehow seems to me that I will lose all sense of self and soul if I really, truly understand it. Thank god for my ignorance.

You are welcome to give your own ideas on this or give more links..


At 1:37 AM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Jayakrishnan said...

Dengu, please put a hyperlink to the original "Notes from the underground" by Dostoyevsky. I think it is a must read for atleast mortals like us.

At 11:05 AM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Venu said...

Here's the gutenberg edition.


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