Saturday, 20 February 2010

Free-will and Subcultures

I received this question on Facebook:

Larissa: SO I read up abit on your Libet essay...and here is my question: was founding Dark Noise an act of free will or simply a non-conscious neurological reaction prompted by RP (did I get that right???)

This is my reply:

The RP non-conscious stuff applies only to immediate short-term actions, like deciding whether to get off a chair and go get a sandwich. Prior pre-planning phases where you ruminate on something for several days may leave room for what we call "free will", and it is that sort of prior pre-planning that would have led me to decide to start a club. 
However, I remain skeptical. I think that that prior pre-planning phase has anterior explanations which do not extend to what I may call "me" or "my decisions". 
So, it becomes a question as to whether it is up to you as to what "occurs" to you in your mind when you "spontaneously" come up with an idea. That spontaneous occurrence of an idea, such as what business ventures to enter into, is also not open to free-will, and is thus also non-conscious. It does not, admittedly, come from an RP, because the RP is the brain state just before a physical motion (or "willed action"). Rather, a spontaneous occurrence of an idea would be explained by prior non-conscious causes, much like the sort Freud and others have suggested. 
The question of why, for example, I would even like a certain kind of music, is not a question of free-will, but rather one of its inherent aesthetic appeal. Some people "like" some kinds of things, and others "like" other kinds of things. The question of what appeals to one as aesthetically pleasing in some way is a question of non-conscious identity formation. We don't just neutrally choose to be goth/emo/a rapper/a metalhead/a punk/whatever - there's something that seems to inherently appeal about the particular subculture that we adopt. That inherent appeal does not lie in the object itself, the subculture itself, it lies within us. 
Where the appeal of some aesthetic or other comes from, is the big question. If we had free-will, it would be because we neutrally woke up one day and said, you know, I am going to randomly select, because I just can, to be a goth. No reason. But that's not how it happens. In reality, there is some obscure appeal about the subculture we select. And that "appeal" has something to do with our identity, our personality, who we are, what life experiences we've had, etc., and none of that is really up to us. Furthermore, it is non-conscious - in that we don't know why we did it, or why it occurred to us. On self-examination, it may be possible to discover our reasons. But our reasons would not be the causes of our choices if our reasons did not necessitate our choices. And as long as our reasons necessitate our choices, it was not up to us to choose which reasons we had. They just were our reasons, they were a given

We can't decide whether or not to believe that we like a certain type of music; it's just given, we just do like it. And given that those reasons, likes, dislikes, etc., motivate us, then it is not up to us as to what we do, but rather the antecedent causes that led us to have those likes, dislikes, reasons, etc. One of those antecedent causes is the physical world. It's not up to us as to whether there is, say,  goth subculture or whatever in the world. It is just there. It either does appeal or it doesn't.
We don't know why we feel soothed or comfortable in the presence, say, of a certain type of music, or irritated and uncomfortable, say, in the presence of another type of music. But we do. It's not up to us to just-choose-to-not-be-uncomfortable. It's non-conscious. Somehow we just hate or like certain subcultures. This doesn't, however, mean that we can't outgrow it, or change our minds as our aesthetics and identities change. But even if we outgrow something, again, it's not a "choice" but rather because the subculture no longer appeals. That "appeal", like the "occurrence of an idea" that I mentioned earlier, is a product of our unconscious brain states, identity, memories, etc., all things over which we have little to no say.

If you're familiar with the debates around free-will and think that I'm neglecting the compatibilist opinion, viz., that reasons determining our actions do not strip us of free-will, then you're mistaken. I'm aware of this position, but I hold to incompatibilism; that is, that determinism of any kind reduces or strips us of free-will. Because the question is: can you not want that which you do in fact want? The answer is no. Your "reasons" for wanting something are irrelevant. The fact of you "wanting" something is enough to compel you. But even if your reasons do determine your actions, those reasons must be true reasons, that is, they must reflect accurately how the world is. If they're false reasons, then you'd be acting on false information. That would not be your fault; it would be merely "making a mistake". So if your reasons are true, and correspond to how the world is, then your actions are determined, necessitated, by how the world is. On the other hand, if your reasons are false, then you've just made a mistake. Either way, it wasn't free choice.

I hope this is an adequate answer.