A Philosophy of Choice

A Philosophy of Choice

By John Valley
Standish, Michigan
Copyright © 2008 by John Valley


In this essay, I plan to address a wide range of topics, problems, and issues all bearing on the central theme of freedom, including: Free will, especially as it relates to theories of mind and consciousness; and Political freedom, especially in a democratic society, as it relates to and depends on the possibilities of human choice and self-determination.

But freedom should not be approached simply as a problem in behavior, or, as some might propose, in semantics and language. Freedom also appears in mathematics in the theories of probability and statistics, particularly in the concept of a stochastic (“random”) variable. And in physics, particularly quantum mechanics, degrees of freedom arise in the behavior of particles within certain precisely defined limits. We cannot suppose that a concept that appears in such wide-ranging settings as mathematics, physics, language,  psychology, and politics, should be easily addressed and resolved.

What is the basic question of freedom? It is, fundamentally, whether any freedom exists at all. Whether it’s a phenomenon of nature, or of human behavior, or of semantics (“freedom is a metaphor”), or if it’s just a conceit of imagination (a “folk psychology” concept, to borrow a term from some writers’ parlance). But obviously this approach is not so convenient for mathematics. The idea of unrestricted choice is crucial to probability and statistics, and requires some sort of interpretation rather than casual dismissal. In the area of physics and quantum mechanics, there are those voices that question the validity of random variables in the science (Einstein’s famous dictum, “God does not play at dice!”) but so far, the use of random variables is indispensable.

Why does the idea of freedom encounter some objections in philosophy? Partly because it has its roots in religious doctrine. Catholic theology has long maintained that personal choice and free will are essential to the concept of moral responsibility; we are moral agents because we have the ability to choose our actions. While this may be comforting to some, the intrusion of religious doctrine into serious thinking will cause other people a measure of irritation, and we certainly don’t want to accept a doctrine of free will, or freedom of any kind, merely on faith. Freedom, especially of the mathematical and scientific kinds, also competes with notions of causal determination, so, where it exists, the ability to predict and control is threatened, and, possibly, even the basic efficacy of science itself. And all of this is beside the psychological fact that possibilities of freedom imply risks of error and failure. There is, it would seem, nothing secure or comforting about the idea of freedom at all.

So the question will not be easily disposed of.

I believe, as this study progresses, that a single unifying principle will be found to underlie all these divergent concepts of freedom, and that, for any single concept to be viable and useful, all other concepts of freedom will have to be granted similar respect and recognition. In other words, we can’t have random variables in our mathematics, or random behavior in our physics, unless we can also admit of a fundamental unpredictability in the behavior of a human mind. Or, similarly, that you can’t have political freedom without also accepting the existence of ontological freedom. The concept of freedom, in Daniel Dennett’s terms, is a “dangerous idea:” it spreads to everything it touches, and subsumes everything within its embrace. We cannot have a metaphysics, an ontology, an epistemology, a philosophy that excludes freedom today, any more than we can have a mathematics or a physics that excludes it.

So let us proceed. But do forgive me if the approach is not always apparently straightforward. We will have to construct some basic tools to support the entire journey we intend to traverse. The first of these is the basic idea of randomness.

Chapter 1. Randomness
Chapter 2. Causality
Chapter 3. Intentionality
Chapter 4. Representation

2 Responses to A Philosophy of Choice

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