Predictability and Meaninglessness Pt2: Schopenhauer’s Weathervane & Counter-Factuals

In my previous post I suggested that freedom is the density of the cloud of possibilities surrounding an object. This is a typical compatibalist formulation of Free Will, but ultimately “you can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing,” as Schopenhauer rightly informs us. This leads many to attack the sort of freedom I propose in the following way:

  1. Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.
  2. Actions are events.
  3. Every event has a cause.
  4. If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.
  5. If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did.

This cloud of possibilities will ultimately simmer down to one possibility that we actualize in our choice. Thus, the other possibilities are counter-factual ones and my position remains open to the objection that I couldn’t actually have done anything but what I did do, unless I assume some counter-factual; unless something about the situation were different, in which case I would be determined to actualize a different possibility, but only one! Incompatibilists claim that we may be mere “automata responding in predictable ways to stimuli in our environment, and therefore, all of our actions are controlled by forces outside ourselves, or by random chance.” We have shown in the last post that predictability does not exclude freedom, but merely demarcates its boundaries, and also that it is impossible for our actions to be determined solely by forces outside ourselves. However, let’s not get seduced by the density of the cloud of possibilities surrounding us, as we have yet to fully consult Schopenhauer on this matter.

Schopenhauer’s weather vane:

Schopenhauer explains the illusion of free will quite nicely with the metaphor of a weather vane with a well-greased pivot, allowing the vane to seamlessly point in many directions in a rapid fashion, but ultimately yielding to the strongest wind. When someone challenges us to prove our metaphysical freedom, a host of possible actions spring into your mind, such as flail about wildly, run 10 feet, utter some senseless babble, and so forth. However, simply add “bite into my own flesh” to that list, and one will soon realize the limitations of one’s desire to prove his point. The rapid fluttering of the weather vane from winds approaching from myriad directions can be an illusion because many of those directions appear viable in our imagination, as counter-factuals, but really don’t have enough force to compete with other options. We feel as though we could bite into our own flesh to prove our point, but when the rubber meets the road we can’t do it. It is only when we are presented with an authentic test of our metaphysical freedom that we might be able to produce an action as dramatically opposed to our most powerful drives as this. This picture of the passive weather vane receiving the external winds of fate and yielding to the prevailing wind is a limited metaphor, however. It is a totally passive picture where the weather vane takes the place of the now debunked Cartesian Theater, which passively receives the projections of the brain. In fact, we have the ability to lock the weather vane into position and wait for the right winds to kick up before being swayed.

Though we can only choose one action at a time, this is only a problem when desires conflict, as they often do. However, most of the time desires work in remarkable concert with each other. Most of our actions, in fact, spring from many different motives, and often enough conflicts with other motives are a moot point as the unrealized motives can usually be realized shortly after the first action is taken. In fact, sometimes two opposing motives can be expressed in the same action. Take, for example, the “unconscious cry for help.” The act of attempting suicide half-halfheartedly is both an expression of a desire to end one’s life and a desire to preserve one’s life by communicating a crisis to others. Two diametrically opposed motives working through the same action, though on two different levels of awareness or consciousness!

There is entirely too much emphasis in the philosophical literature on this picture of the mind as a battleground of opposing desires. This leads many to become terrified of the idea of “memes,” which might compete in a “survival of the fittest” scenario. However, biological evolution is not just competition, but also symbiosis and cooperation! Perhaps the mind only appears to be a war zone because one motive gets actualized in favor of another, but this could simply be an efficient way of getting every motive actualized in due time, like a four-way, stop-sign-mediated intersection that would be paralyzed if every driver said “no, no, I really do insist, you first my friend,” and works most efficiently when one driver takes the initiative and appears “assertive.” Even Dan Dennett expresses this view in an interview with Robert Wright: “my favorite metaphor these days is the fame and the brain or cerebral celebrity theory, that is that what consciousness is is the relative political influence or fame of structures in the brain that win out in competition against rival structures for domination of the brain activities in various ways. That’s putting it very programmatically but basically it’s saying that in your head there’s a sort of turmoil going on, the pandemonium and there’s many different contentful events vying for king of the mountain. Vying for control.” Though Dennett is talking about how consciousness is produced, with the most pertinent needs “winning” the competition and thus springing into consciousness, it nonetheless places Reason, which operates upon the collection of things that “win” their way into consciousness, in the position of a mediator of conflicts between passions that competed to get into consciousness and presumably continue competing until one “wins” and is actualized in a choice. Though David Hume got it right when he placed Reason in this position of “mediator” of conflicts between the passions, he should have added that it most often acts more like a symphony conductor who orchestrates the different “voices” in a piece of music, some of which playing at the same time, others waiting their turn, but ultimately producing a long-term goal that lets all of the instruments be heard eventually, at the appropriate time. This metaphor of the mind as a symphony has many lessons that it can teach us, not least of all the lesson that the voices in our heads are not all mutually exclusive, but can often play beautifully over top of each other, sometimes even producing higher harmonies as a result of the discord between them! The voices in our heads (i.e. the voice of compassion, of caution, of hunger, etc) are much like the voices in a symphony in that they are still actively tracking reality even when they are not actively producing sound (or action in this analogy). If you were able to listen to the thoughts of a concert performer waiting to chime in, you would hear counting, an active tracking of reality that would allow him to instantly adapt or jump in if he were needed. If every member of the symphony that was actively playing accidentally skipped a couple measures, requiring the now silent musicians to come in early they would be able to as a result of this active tracking. Thus, their ability to play even when its not officially their turn, as per the musical score, is not simply a counter-factual ability, an ability that could be used if and only if the situation were different (ie the active performers skip a couple measures), but is already actively in use though not yet producing action.

Though Schopenhauer is right that we can choose only one action in a given choice, this does not resign the other possible actions to a state of total inaction. Even in the battlefield picture of the mind, these other possible actions had to compete to secure their place in consciousness, and had to actively compete in consciousness while vying for actualization. Moreover, they are not relegated to the bench even when they are supplanted by another option that was actualized in its stead, but remain active, potent, tracking reality, and waiting their turn. This is all a compatibalist is saying when he says “I could have done otherwise:” he is saying I have a number of possible actions here, each of which is cocked and ready to go, able to jump in and “improvise” if the situation calls for it. Thus it can be true both in a counter-factual way that someone could have done otherwise, but also in an actually-factual way! Another metaphor will prove useful here. Imagine a missile-defense system that is actively tracking the skies for a certain kind of threat. Just like the silent musician waiting for his time to play, the defense-system is tracking reality but performing no actions that are discernible as such. Even if the system is never used to knock an incoming ICBM out of the sky, it is nonetheless true to say that “it could have.” This is not a lifeless counter-factual truth either, but a truth about the active powers of the system. Just like the billiard balls in the previous post, we assume that the only thing doing any work is that which is in motion. However, two forces can be exactly balanced, keeping any motion from happening, while at the same time actively pushing on each other, much like the way electrostatic repulsion and gravity are balanced in solid celestial spheres like the Earth. The earth isn’t coming apart at the seams, but this doesn’t mean that the electrostatic force or the gravitational force are somehow inactive or inert and the same goes for motives. If two motives conflict and bring about a stalemate, necessitating a third option being taken instead, then those two, which didn’t translate into action, nonetheless actively produced a different outcome. These deadlocked motives are not mere counter-factual possibilities with no “absolute,” “genuine,” or “ultimate” possibility.

As Rollo Mae tells us, “personal freedom…entails being able to harbor different possibilities in ones mind even though it is not clear at the moment which way one must act.” This “dense cloud of possibilities” as I have called it above, is a cloud of active powers that we possess, active abilities to create some possible future or another. The fact that we can only enact one at a time, that we have to say No! to every possibility but the one we choose to enact, does not mean that we are totally lacking freedom, or that those possibilities which were not chosen or transformed into action were somehow inert, dead, or inconsequential. They were very consequential. Just as a third-party candidate can draw votes from one of the main two parties and is actively affecting the outcome of the election without himself being elected, so the many possibilities that we end up not voting for affect the possibility that we choose to actualize. The fact that the Ego or Reason or whatever is determined to select what it deems to be the best possible alternative, excluding all the others from that immediate action, is not some knock-down argument against Free Will. This is precisely what free choice involves! Our minds are incredibly good at selecting the best courses of action and the fact that they are “determined to do so” by whatever causes does not mean that we are not free, as we are our minds; they are not something outside of us that can control us. If our minds can “select” between choices, and “select the best ones,” then we can select between choices and select the best ones. The argument that “you didn’t do it, your brain processes did,” is a totally meaningless cop-out that doesn’t just confuse parts and wholes, but invents an unnecessary Cartesian Theater, Homunculus, or other add-hoc, metaphysical “mystery shine,” to use Dennett’s phrase.

In the movie Titanic the male lead finds himself in frigid waters clinging to a piece of wood which his lover is perched on. Even in this perilous situation there is much freedom; much possibility. All of the freedom that we want is to be able to jump on a lifeboat if it comes by, to jump on a bigger piece of wood if it floats along, to release our grasp on the piece of wood and sink to our deaths if the pain is too great to bear, and to let the love of our life sit atop the piece of wood instead of us even though our will-to-life screams selfish admonishments to the contrary. The fact that the male lead could only perform one physically possible action does not mean that the other options were inert, as they were actively tracking the reality of the situation looking for opportunities to become actualized. They haven’t been “defeated” in some battle of the voices, but rather stay at the ready, like musicians in a symphony letting the other parts do their thing. We worry that the symphony has been pre-ordained and that we are stuck with counting when we may wish not to, but this is abusing the analogy…if we really wanted to, if it was good for the overall sound of the symphony, then it would be written in there! We do not want the power to do what is least in our long-term interest, as this would be total insanity. We do not want the power to be driven by nothing at all, as we would go nowhere! It will seem obvious from the following example that there is nothing really to worry about here: imagine that you are jogging along and come to a fork in the path where you can see a giant pile of gold down one path and an angry mother bear with her cubs down the other. Anybody could predict which path you would go down, but does this mean that you were not free in some way? All we want is to be determined to select that which is good for us. If the path with the mother bear also had a small human child precariously walking towards the bear, suddenly it becomes less obvious how to predict the outcome. We want the freedom to be able to capitalize on good opportunities, avoid dangers if at all possible, but also to be able to face danger and act against our own self-interest if necessary. We have this freedom. The mind is like a beautiful, complex symphony of hundreds of voices, all active simultaneously though most are not yet heard. The trick, much like properly appreciating music, is to concentrate hard enough to hear all of the voices that are in play, even those that are just tracking. Add all of these voices together, even the silent ones, and you get the voice of the whole symphony, something we might call a psyche or soul.

The whirlwind of voices and possibilities that surrounds us can sometimes overwhelm us and make us feel a lack of freedom, but really this anxiety is a measure of our freedom and serves as a warning that “alternatives exclude.” If these alternatives were inert counter-factual possibilities, why would anxiety spring up? Would this not be counter-productive from an evolutionary standpoint? Anxiety is a symptom of freedom; of greater possibility! Writing about his generation, Kierkegaard once wrote that “the incongruity in it and the reason for its anxiety and restlessness is this, that in one direction truth increases in extent, in mass, partly also in abstract clarity, whereas certitude steadily decreases.” The more were learn about the truth, the greater the possibilities open to us and thus the greater the freedom, the uncertainty, and the anxiety that we experience. The more possibilities open to us, the more we will have to give up or “exclude,” the more we have to lose in any given choice, and thus we are faced with more responsibility and less certainty. Perhaps this is the underlying cause of the discomfort that Weinberg seems to experience with scientific discoveries. He secretly hopes to discover the fingerprints of god that might absolve mankind of the responsibility entailed by his acquisition of more truth, but instead finds that mankind has increased his own responsibility along with his own uncertainty, anxiety and freedom. It is true that the more the world seems comprehensible the more it seems pointless or meaningless, but this is only because each discovery opens up new possibilities that mankind then needs to take responsibility for by asserting meaning where none currently exists. Our discovery of nuclear physics and the physics of fusion added the possibility of thermonuclear war; an increase in responsibility and freedom as well as uncertainty and anxiety!

The mind is free to pause before action in the face of anxiety, to stop indulging certain voices over others and see them for what they are, to neglect the influence of unproductive or disruptive winds while still feeling their intensity and vector which provide valuable information. The trick is to remain unmoved, and moved only at the right times. Most people are like dogs as their weather vane flits about with every immediate perception, with every immediate thought, without giving any of these thoughts time to blossom into something beautiful as they are immediately replaced by the next one or hastily enacted before reaching their full potential. Intelligence is not found in having more thoughts, but having fewer thoughts, concentrating only on the “right” thoughts. Thus “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook,” as William James reminds us. Overlooking something, pausing, failing to indulge, these are all creative actions just as much as picturing, acting, and indulging are; they are two ways of confronting our destiny.

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