Monday, September 07, 2009

Thomas Pink: Free Will

Dr. Thomas Pink
Department of Philosophy

On Tuesday last week, I visited Kyobo Bookstore at Ewha University to pick up a copy of the textbook for my Research Writing class and happened to notice a book section devoted to Oxford's Very Short Introduction series, so I browsed and selected three booklets -- one on the crusades, one on terrorism, and one on free will.

The one on freedom of the will is by Dr. Thomas Pink, who seems to be an expert. His academic site at King's College London states that "[t]he two past moral philosophers from whom Pink has learnt most are probably David Hume and Francisco Suarez" -- two very different thinkers, I might note. If I recall, Hume denies free will, whereas the earlier thinker, Suárez, follows Luis de Molina in defending it. However, I'm no expert on either Hume, Suarez, or Molina.

But Dr. Pink, who defends free will, occasionally expresses himself in ambiguous ways:
Our freedom, we must remember, is a freedom of action -- a freedom to do things or to refrain from doing them. (Pink, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, 5)
I wouldn't put the point quite like that, for action can be quite limited by circumstances beyond our control. Earlier on the same page, Pink states the point more to my liking:
Freedom of action may even depend on freedom specifically of decision-making -- on a freedom of will. (Pink, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, 5)
To my way of thinking, we may freely decide on a course of action that is then forcibly prevented in some manner. Our inability to follow through would not mean that our will was unfree but merely that our actions were constrained.

Possibly, Dr. Pink is simply using the term "action" in a loose way that mirrors our everyday use, in which something that we decide and something that we do are both 'actions', for we speak both of acts of the will and acts that we carry out, but there is surely a distinction between a mental act and a physical act, as Dr. Pink himself implies in his reference to "freedom . . . of decision-making" and "[f]reedom of action," and I suspect that he will have some things to say about this difference.

Perhaps, then, I'll be reporting on my reading of this very short text, which goes only up to 132 pages . . . though I may also be reporting from Holbrook Jackson or Herman Melville in ways that might restrict my freedom.

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At 4:28 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Jeffery,

An interesting case is when what prevents us from doing something we have decided to do is not an external obstacle, but something also within ourselves (we decide, e.g., to do a hundred pushups tomorrow, but then we have a "failure of the will").

If we distinguish between will and action, what is happening in this case? Is the engine of the will still impelling us forward, but the "clutch" slips? Or are we "lugging the engine", with the will itself failing?

At 4:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Malcolm, I wondered if this issue would attract you.

I don't know Pink's answer, but in my view, the fact that one might not follow through on a willed decision implies that one has later decided against that earlier decision. In my case, I may say, "Well, I won't do those push-ups today after all.

Occasionally, I may even forget my resolution.

I think that a decision of the will serves as part of the explanation for an action, but I don't think that it is a cause in some determined sense. Precisely how that works remains a mystery to me, but I do know from experience that I change my mind, i.e., decide differently.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

The latter option, then. So what we might call a failure of "will power" is not that at all, but is, rather, simply that something new is willed.

In that sense, then, doesn't "what is willed" simply become, in a de facto sense, whatever we end up actually doing? Is there then a useful distinction (leaving aside cases where we are constrained by external circumstances) between will and action?

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that a difference nevertheless exists. Rarely do a decision and an action take place simultaneously, but even if they were to do so, my mental decision to do something requires an extra exertion to be carried out physically. Sometimes, I find my decision frustrated by an inability to carry it out -- some physical lapse, for example, or I am constrained in some way.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Right, but a physical lapse is "outside us"; a broken arm is, as far as the will is concerned, as external as a prison cell. If I act, and my action is physically thwarted, there is no important distinction between being thwarted by my body or an iron cage.

But willing something now and failing to act on it later is the issue I was focusing on. Isn't what is "willed" just whatever we actually end up acting on?

At 12:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe there's some ambiguity here in the term "will."

If I intentionally raise my arm -- say, to take up and drink a icy cold mug of beer on a hot day after 30 minutes exercise -- then I might say that my arm performed the action because I willed it.

But other cases involve intentional decisions that are meant to be acted on later. For instance, I intend to exercise later today after a tough day of teaching. I also intend to drink a cold beer as reward for the work and exercise. We can use the term "will" to describe this sort of decision, too. As I was making this decision, I said to myself, "Okay, I will definitely do some exercise and have a cold beer when I get home today." The use of "will" as the verb is no accident, I think, for it expresses not just a future event but my willful intention.

Jeffery Hodges

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