on 18 February 2013
I love this book and full credit is due to TJ Mawson for writing, in such an engaging and clear way, about a topic with which philosophers of all stripes have wrestled for centuries. I like the way he clearly defines the various positions (compatibilism, incompatibilism, libertarianism, etc) and there is a very full bibliography as a pointer to further reading. Having spent some time thinking through these issues I conclude that humans do have volition, that we are, to some degree, authors of our own stories, and that determinism is false. That said, I probably might change my mind again in the future!
This subject is not an arcane one; it is not about "counting the number of angels that can dance on the heads of a pin". Some contemporary writers, such as Sam Harris (one of the "new atheists"), have asserted flat-out that free will is an illusion. Realising the potentially disturbing ethical consequences of this view, such thinkers have sought to create a "scientific" morality. Mawson, in his gently playful way, hints at the dangers of this point of view.
My philosophy, one that has been influenced by the neo-Aristotleian views of Ayn Rand and others, is that man is, by nature, a volitional being. To think is to choose; also, determinists commit the fallacy of reductionism. One cannot reduce the phenomenon of consciousness to to just the molecules and other bits of the brain. The mind is an emergent, complex entity that is greater than the sum total of its parts. And in the process of learning and through introspection, we develop a sense of self. Determinists may assert that introspection is an illusion, but if so, then other forms of perception are equally illusory. In which case, and given the truth of evolution, how would creatures have evolved and survived had their sensory organs played tricks on them and not been able to give the users any objective handle on the external world? If free will is illusory, so are our minds, and so is our ability to apprehend the external world.
The denial of free will seems, to me, to impose all manner of contradictions. But enough of my ramblings. I urge people to read this splendid short book, read some of the books it recommends, and judge for themselves. In other words, use your free will!
on 2 June 2014
Some readers might like this book. The author appears to have aimed at approachability, and it is possible that this will prove attractive - even, in some cases perhaps, helpful. Unfortunately, it is not an experiment that worked for me. After the first 20 pages or so I exercised my free will by putting the book aside and looking for something better. The problem was that, for me, reading Mawson was rather as I imagine the experience would be of wading through candy floss. Did he, I wonder, dictate the text straight on to a machine for subsequent transcription? Has he a garrulous aunt whose telephone calls have fatally affected his style? Frankly, I needed, as a beginner, something more pellucid and succinct. I would recommend instead Robert Kane, 'A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (OUP, 2005). It's part of a series called 'Fundamentals of Philosophy'. (I should add that I have no connection with either author or publisher - I just like trying out a variety of books and am very happy to pass on my thoughts to those who have better things to do with their money.)