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Published in Issue 113, Philosophy Now
I much appreciated the seasonal reference in Professor Kamber’s article on Ebenezer Scrooge and his dire destiny in the absence of changing it in Philosophy Now 111. I was however left uncertain as to how Scrooge may avoid his doom. On the one hand, Professor Kamber says – as did Gilbert Ryle many years ago – that choices made in a truly random way are not an attractive proposition: we would think that they were the product of madness. He also rightly says that determinism implies we have no meaningful way of saying that we could have decided otherwise. In an attempt to get around this, Kamber points to the fact that we cannot actually prove that our actions are completely determined. But we are still missing the necessary third way, of describing how our decisions can meaningfully be described as free. Kamber himself suggests that our ‘will’ is engaged when, as one of the links in a deterministic chain, we cause the next event to happen. He then says that the ‘free’ part is because there may have been an undetermined event at some time before we played our part in the drama. Left at that, I don’t find this idea of free will convincing.
However, I think that we can in fact combine determinism and randomness to give us the third way we need. Professor Kamber asserts that random decisions would be “more like an uncontrolled spasm than a voluntary choice”, and in his essay ‘Of Clouds and Clocks’, Karl Popper refers to random brain events as producing what he disparagingly calls ‘snap decisions’. But those are wholly unwarranted evaluations. Random events at the atomic level in the brain need not emerge as fully-formed decisions: they could present themselves in a variety of ways – as ideas, doubts, desires, connections, or insights – in other words, as precursors to decisions. And because our thoughts, however they arise, are ultimately the subject of our (relatively) rational checking processes, then even randomly generated thoughts need be no more dangerous to our sanity than a suggestion randomly read in a book or arising from a discussion with a friend; and they could be just as productive of rational change. This may be a significant way of making us look at things differently. And we can go one step further: what if some random event deep in Scrooge’s cortex ultimately set off a series of hallucinations which, in turn, made him reflect on whether he wanted to continue on his miserly path? His decision to ‘mend his ways’ would be both rational and unpredictable.
Do we need to ask for anything more as a description of how free will may work? Is that not the missing third way?