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HOW PHILOSOPHY COULD SAVE THE WORLD Cultural and Economic Diaspora, Self-sufficiency, Person-hood

Why Persons Cannot be as Advertised

Born in 1942, I am now in my 268th  trimester. This may explain why I find myself 'looking back' with a view to figuring out what happened.

My early life included Henry David Thoreau's Walden, taking a run at Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and a stint  as an altar boy at St. James Church in Stirling, Ontario.

These experiences spawned questions and notions I have been attempting to share with anyone willing to listen.

To my astonishment, such conversations are rarely welcomed. I once imagined that adults eagerly sought out such conversations: After all,  life rarely gets better than vigorous ideas being vigorously exchanged. I knew that I profited from such interchanges. I knew that ideas rose into my consciousness unbidden. For all  I knew, they reflected chance remarks or morsels of undigested beef.

Their need for improvement has always been clear. As soon as I write or say something, a better way to express myself comes to mind!

This is important. Repairing one's understanding can happen the hard way, making mistakes and suffering consequences, or by seeking out knowledgeable individuals who have distilled their  experiences into cautions, essays and books. Yet, remarkably, few people seemed interested in anything beyond here and now issues.

What if this indifference does not reflect decisions?  What if it is a consequence of not only pedestrian conversational gambits but confusion about the nature and purpose of consciousness? What if consciousness does not choose or intend but is an enabling  feature of non-conscious events wherein choosing and intending is occurring?

The more I thought about this modest possibility,  the more important it seemed. The harder I tried to bring it up with people I came across, the more resistance I encountered! Fortunately, this same understanding makes it clear that there are no 'persons within' to blame for conversational failures!

This is why I remain hopeful that a 'magic bullet' will one day challenge the myth of inner persons making moral and rational decisions about the conduct of the bodies they see themselves inhabiting and controlling.


According to the standard view, persons possess free will and author the choices governing their lives.

This claim underwrites cultural resources and every aspect of our lives:

  • The claim that persons transcend deterministic accounts is the heart of every justice system.
  • Economies apportion wealth according to the merit of economic choices.  The wealthy  deserve their fortunes because they have been making excellent choices. The poor have been choosing less fruitful paths.
  • Religions' rewards and punishments depend upon the notion of incarnated souls making choices.

These claims all depend upon the notion of persons choosing.  They are all vulnerable to a 'transcendental challenge':  One need only can ask what a 'free will' choice at any point in time by any individual means for the future life of the person choosing:

  • Free will choices bind and constrain that person's future activities.
  • If this is not true, the idea of 'making a choice' becomes vacuous.
  • Free will choices today cannot coexist with the idea of free will choices tomorrow.

A version of this difficulty confronted St. Augustine when he recognized that Christianity's two principal axioms  -  the notion of God's omnipotence and the idea of persons with free will - were incompatible.

  • There must be free will if persons are to be praised and blamed for what they get up to.
  • The existence of free will contradicts the notion of Divine Omnipotence.

St. Augustine settled upon an embarrassing compromise.  Human beings possess free will, but it is 'defective. We have enough that we can be consigned to Heaven or Hell,  but not enough to constitute a significant constraint upon God's omnipotence and omniscience.

For our purposes, the notion of God can be replaced with the notion of our future selves. St. Augustine's  problem becomes the claim that future persons can enjoy the same free-will as present persons.

Since this is impossible, persons cannot exist as presently understood.

Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Does Divine Omnipotence necessarily disallow all possibility of free will? Undoubtedly God exerts great influence and control to His desired degree. But what was His intention then when He purportedly equipped the first man He created with the ability to ponder whether or not to consume a particular forbidden apple (should one subscribe to that theory)? Is this where it all began? Would not the concept of divine intervention assume that a person has chosen a path or an action that is deemed unacceptable, dangerous, foolish, or some such thing by the very One who you argue has never actually offered a person that choice to begin with?

  2. The notion of being allowed to have an ‘externally controlled’ measure of free will is counter intuitive. Nothing would prevent this measure from being enlarged or contracted arbitrarily; indeed, nothing prevents the present circumstance so-called persons inhabit from having being the outcome of just such orchestrations.

    Like being pregnant, one either has free will or one does not.

    I propose that there is something fundamentally confused about talk of persons with free will, but I also consider that it is possible for person events to become richly constituted to the extent that they catch fire internally and begin to be the source of novel, creative events that could not have been predicted ‘from outside’ just because some of their history is unavailable to outside scrutiny. This would amount to a thoroughly acceptable substitute for notions of free will, one that would recommend becoming as self-sufficient as possible and one that would underscore the importance of cultural experiences, education and so on. These elements in a healthy internal life tend to get overlooked if one believes that free will is a divine endowment or an evolutionary achievement.

  3. Hello! I was directed here by a good friend.

    Some very interesting points, yet I must respectfully disagree with the argument about free will.

    The points in case are:

    * Every free will choice determines the choosing person’s future activity.

    * If this is not true, the idea of ‘making a choice’ becomes vacuous.

    While I do agree with the former, it must be qualified. The choosing person’s future activity is “determined” to a degree. Free will is not the same as omnipotence (or omniscience). So while I could “decide” to become the emperor of Galicia, it might run into the fact that I have an undetected heart condition and will die in two days.

    That doesn’t make the choice vacuous, but it is imperative to state that the choices we make our bound by limitations, internal or external. Poor people might never have had the resources to change that fact, and rich people might merely be born into wealth, without any decision being taken about it.

    I strongly believe we are indeed of possession of free will. However, this free will doesn’t mean being able to do whatever you want. Sometimes, these desires are physical impossibilities, others mere impracticalities.

    Sometimes it’s easier to believe in certain deterministic notions, since the idea of free will also results in the notion of responsibility, which can be daunting. However note that both notions are bound by our limited powers to exercise our decisions. The most powerful person in the world can’t decide to stop a volcanic eruption.

    For clarity’s sake, I do not subscribe to the belief of an omniscient, omnipotent deity that regulates our existence and requires worship in return from us. Yet we are free to decide to believe so 🙂

  4. Mr. Diaz, you point to the following statements, then suggest that they do not effectively engage the notion of free will.

    “* Every free will choice determines the choosing person’s future activity.

    * If this is not true, the idea of ‘making a choice’ becomes vacuous.” Then you conclude:

    “While I do agree with the former, it must be qualified. The choosing person’s future activity is “determined” to a degree. Free will is not the same as omnipotence (or omniscience)”


    I was not much interested in debating whether there are constraints upon omnipotence, even Divine omnipotence.

    A question often posed to pesky philosophy students is to ask whether God could create an object that he could not lift. Obviously, no matter what the answer, the notion of omnipotence is in trouble.

    The better way to proceed, I think, is to ask direct questions of human proceedings and not attempt to wriggle away from issues by asking questions in bad faith.

    Having free will is like being pregnant. One either has free will or one does not. If one claims to have free will, then this must amount to something – and if that something interferes with a so-called person’s capacity to behave freely in the future, then there is a problem with the notion.

    Surely it is a fair rendition of the human condition that we all find ourselves in circumstances that are increasingly constrained by our own and one another’s historical ‘choices’.

    This is the locus of the connection with human free will and divine omnipotence. They are incompatible for the same reason – my choices today condition my choices tomorrow; in the same way that talk about human freedom constitutes at least a trivial impediment to Divine omniscience and omnipotence.

    Fortunately, there is a simpler (more parsimonious) story. We become aware that resolutions have occurred in more or less that same way that we are aware of hunger, or tiredness, or fright.

    The difference is that we have fallen into the trap of promoting awareness that such resolutions have occurred into talk of choices made; and then we promoted the possessor of awareness (i.e., Mr. Diaz, Mr. Smith, Mr. Molloy … ) into God-like agents whose free will is responsible for these ‘choices’.

    We make no such claim with respect to any other awareness, and we ought not do so here either.

    The function of human awareness is nothing like we have been imagining, although it is a very important function indeed.

    Awareness is what human beings do that is analogous to birds flying and fish swimming. It is our shtick, our adaptation, our niche.

    However, this does not and cannot mean that we are little Gods wandering about deploying free will, even if we condition this claim by elucidating the constraints you acknowledge.

    Be of good cheer however. If you give up the free will fantasy, everything you hoped for becomes more possible.

    A perennially receptive, perennially childlike being stands a good chance of becoming self-determining. By this, I mean that human beings can acquire such rich inner lives that they begin to get up to things that cannot be ‘predicted from outside’. This is as good at it gets. We can take pride on internally-predicated moral and rational autonomy; the beings around us have reason to believe that they know what sort of a person they are likely to next encounter – and yet we have the luminous possibility of growing further insights that can be legitimately associated with such named events as Smith, Diaz, Molloy ….

  5. No bad faith was implied in my reply, Mr. Molloy. And I do appreciate you responding!

    I think we have a different notion of free will. I fully agree that you can’t have “partial” free will, and that the analogy to pregnancy is perfect. But being able to choose means I’ll always will be able to choose what I want in a particular moment.

    In your reply:

    “If one claims to have free will, then this must amount to something – and if that something interferes with a so-called person’s capacity to behave freely in the future, then there is a problem with the notion”

    Amounting to something – yes, I do agree that it should. But we humans don’t operate in a vacuum, so there is always something interfering with someones capacity to behave freely in the future. I think we can agree that we are not immortal, and even if our spirit outlived our bodies (I don’t believe the notion of a disembodied spirit, soul, or similar entities) it is constrained by the duration of the universe. Hence, its freedom its limited by the existence of the universe.

    As absurd as this sounds, it is not trivial since fear of death/injury and trying to stay alive indeed can shape many of our decisions – like getting out of the way of a speeding car, or getting our hand off a fire. Based on the notion that free-will is the ability to choose freely, in the broader sense of choosing without any outside influence. This, I agree, is impossible to humans. For we feel hunger, light, cold, and we in general are wired to try to stay alive. And these all condition/limit the responses and choices we make.

    Becoming spontaneously aware of choice (“like birds fly or fish swim”), cause and effect, and moral responsibilities in a childlike, perennially surprised being DOES have a chance of self determination under these assumptions. After all, if we completely disregard what we did previously, and what we have learned, and the notions of cause and effect we would wander eternally surprised at everything, and in such a way that all our choices become a final choice – to be forgotten immediately after it has been made. And so this oblivious being would have the ULTIMATE self-determination, for none of his choices would be conditioned by any factor. But it is extremely scary, in the notion that such a being would have absolutely no responsibility. Like azathoth, in Lovecraftian lore :).

    However, we can’t have it both ways. For saying if I “give up the free will fantasy, everything I hoped for becomes more possible” can yield the absurd. What if my hope is to attain free will? Under these precepts, I could not even choose giving up the free will fantasy, if that was the case. It would have been predetermined that I would go into this path, wouldn’t it?

    This is more than just word-play, since dealing in absolutes (like writing “everything you hoped for”, ) only requires me to find one exception. The counter argument is considerably more difficult to disprove, since I sustain that we do have free will but that doesn’t mean all my wishes may become true. If something interferes with my desires it does not mean my will is no longer free, simply means I am not capable of attaining my every whim. It is imperative these items are disaggregated.

    The basic premise, I think, is that in each one of us there’s more that can be ascertained at first glance. That does seem reasonable to me. In fact, I think a big portion of the human problem arises from the opposite situation – we believe we “know” things, since our previous experiences have made us a bit cynical and unable to perceive things appropriately and make proper decisions. But it is us that have to make the decision to be more receptive and open. But it IS ultimately a decision. So we would need to exercise our will to try to shape ourselves into more perceptive beings and attaining richer lives. But I fail to see how we can attain that without exercising our will beforehand. If there was no freedom of choice here, we would either be self-determining or not, and would have no alternative in the matter.

  6. Mr. Diaz, I apologize for the bad faith remark, it was not ad hominem, just an expression borrowed from Sartre referring to refusing to abandon the world of facticity and engage in projects intending to remake the world as it is so that it resembles an imagined, different world, different in ways defined by some act of courage and imagination.

    The free will issue is a slippery slope, culturally embedded and premised by our language and grammar. People have been debating these matters from the time of the Greeks without making much headway. Everytime a criticism of free will is proffered the act of making the criticism seems to refute the argument. We need to proceed ‘transcendentally’ – trying to get what value we can from the reality of making arguments about free will. (A similar move has been made with respect to skepticism about the existence of other persons. This argument proceeds by noting that we have a language capable of expressing such a possibility, and that such a language could not exist without the existence a community of language users.

    Therefore, at least this skeptical question is answered as soon as it is asked.)

    Many of these questions are taken up in papers on the backlander site.

    Briefly, we need to position the free will issue in the context of what we know of the ‘kingdom of life’, and it seems intuitive that what human beings get up should be seen as an elaboration of the characteristics of other creatures.

    I propose that consciousness is best understood as an elaboration of the hyphen space between stimulus-response capabilities; and that consciousness amounts to a virtual realm providing for enhanced S-R capabilities.

    The point is that this elongated hyphen-space is the sine qua non of claims about agency and free will.

    These claims are superimposed upon a model of being that is a natural extension of the capabilities of all forms of life. Occam’s razor and the Law of Parsimony require that such claims be vigorously motivated. This is where notions of personhood, free will and agency come up short.

    Molloy’s Axiom#1: Awareness of does not equal responsibility for.
    Molloy’s Axiom#2: To be aware of something requires that it has already occurred. (The sun could disappear and no being on Earth would be aware of this dreadful event for more than eight minutes.
    Molloy’s Axiom#3: Awareness cannot enjoy a real time relationship with what is going on.
    Molloy’s Axiom#4: ‘Acts of will’ always lag what is going on. They cannot be efficacious in the ‘real time’ ways moral and rational claims require.
    Molloy’s Axiom#5: We are left with consciousness as a facilitator of predictions that hope to intersect usefully with relevant, proximate proceedings. This is what every creature does. Human ‘beings’ have not transcended this model just because what we get up to requires an imaginative construct called a person enjoying an equally imaginative conceit called free will.

  7. Fascinating stuff and thank you.

    I agree with all five of your axioms (I think), however, I have two small problems. While re-reading the above material I find you saying that “Free will is necessary if persons are to be praised and blamed for what they get up to.” Surely, even in a well understood deterministic model, there is room to appreciate the exceptional and, for societies sack, to censure bad behavior.

    Next you say “…but I also consider that it is possible for person events to become richly constituted to the extent that they catch fire internally and begin to be the source of novel, creative events that could not have been predicted ‘from outside'”. This seems untrue to me. No amount of internalization of understanding can be acquired such that the ‘ person event’ can step ‘outside’ determinism and be free of
    past causes.

    Finally, while I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the two statements might be in conflict with each other. Can you clarify?

  8. Well the novelty and creativity I have in mind is, from the point of view of a nexus of consciousness generating events (i.e., the events comprising a human being), unpredictable – although predictable from the point of view of a hypothetical omniscient being, a possibility which should not detain us.

    This seems to me to mean that creatures like human beings who have the capacity to internalize a small replica of the universe they have experienced and become the place where this toy version is running along somewhat independently of the spawning universe, and therefore differently from the universe that would be occurring in the absence of this confluence and ‘catching fire’.

    As regards the business about praising and blaming – a neat sleight of hand intended to mould desirable behaviour, just as the justice system punishes and deters – and opens itself up therefore to anyone on the dock who says: “I conducted myself badly because I had not enjoyed enough by way of deterrent examples! My behaviour is therefore the fault of the justice system!”

    The only recourse then would be to admit the fault and resolve to do better – and then observe that there is no better place to start than with the prisoner in hand!

    Of course, we regularly excise cancers without worrying about blaming for their conduct, and we hardly ever think about the moral credentials of animals we harvest for food. I suspect that we acquired this trope along the evolutionary trail because it had utility in accumulating and assimilating cultural resources. Sort of like toilet training for recalcitrant adults.

    I spent more time describing the antecedents of consciousness in

    So what this gains is the possibility of creative regions that are themselves satisfactorily deterministic (insofar as quantum theory permits) existing within a similarly deterministic overarching universe and yet having events occurring that would not have occurred without these ‘self-sustaining eddies’.

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