The Often Ignored Necessary Element for Free Will

Most people don’t like to think of themselves as automatons — just inevitably doing what they do. But that is the logical inference if reality is constituted by necessity (laws) and chance (quantum indeterminacy). So what do those who subscribe to the non-intentional model of reality do? There are numerous attempts to somehow salvage free will. Some are just nonsense like compatibilism and others try to find some way to use indeterminism. None of that works if necessity and chance determine every event in the universe.

Another thing most people want to believe is that we make conscious decisions. Here the key word is “conscious”. But how would that work? After all, we know that most of the decision-making process is done unconsciously. There are billions of neural processes going on that we have no awareness or experience of. It’s only very late in the process that we experience a decision. So, there is all this processing going on unconsciously and then after all that is done there is suppose to be some other different conscious processing that makes a decision or vetoes the decision make unconsciously. In that case there seems to be a phenomenal (experience based) homunculus (some extra something that has its own decision making processes). Seems like a weird contrivance to me.

Now, even if any of that were truth the missing necessary element in those schemes would be why a certain decision is made. The unconscious neural processes have all sorts of biases in their circuits that determine the processing at every step. Here you can think about a single neural synapse that has a chemical/electrical bias to react a certain way because of an input. Now, obviously there is an incredible complexity at work with all parts of the brain interacting but in the non-intentional model the brain just does what it does, much like a computer. In a computer each bit sets its state based on the input to it. It has a bias that responds to an input.

So in the non-intentional model, our unconscious processes do their biased thing and eventually end up with a decision (sometimes through a very tortuous process). Then the homunculus steps in and accepts or rejects that? Based on what? This is the missing necessary element in this scheme. There should be some other criterion for making a different conscious (homunculus) decision than what the neural process came up with. But what would that be? The non-intentional constitutionalists would need to come up with something here. In years of following this topic I haven’t seen anything like that.

So, instead of the non-intentional approach, here’s what I think may be going on. In a divine idealism every event in the universe is intentional. There are no laws and no chance. Everything happens because of intentionality — both the regularities and novelties. This includes everything in our brains. Every event happens for a reason. Those reasons are twofold. They are twofold because they include those of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. I’ve talked about this elsewhere — and will in more detail on how this might work in an upcoming essay on divine action. So, the issue at hand is what is involved in why we make a certain decision?

Now, here I’m going to speculate from physics but based on some mainstream models. I think that every event in the universe is connected and integrated with everything else. Thus decisions are not just something “magical” happening. They occur within the life giving constraints of this reality.

In the divine idealism model, there is a teleological impetus involved in every event, even at the microscopic level. I’m using the term “impetus” because it denotes an active, forceful factor. As an analogy, think of how a magnet applies a force to attract a metal object. This is not some passive “lure” like in process theology. It is an active (but not coercive) influence toward a certain direction. The force of the magnet can be resisted but it is still an important factor in a decision. God-as-transcendent provides an impetus according to the divine purposes for this reality. However, God-as-living (that’s us and everything else) also has internal impetuses at work. These ensue from being finite creatures with certain motivations, needs, and desires. Sometimes there may be a competing impetus. I think that competition can occur at every step in the decision making neural processes, not just at the end. Every step is part of an integrated whole within the Divine Life Communion. What this means is that at every point in the process a decision must fit within the statistical model of how reality is constituted and take into account what is possible within those bounds. However, novelties can also occur within those bounds. So, live options are available. At various points in the process the competing teleological impetuses can become pronounced and a decision must be made. There is a constrained free will at work here. Each decision narrows what is possible. Eventually a final decision is made. It’s a decision on what impetus we freely choose to win out.

So, where does consciousness come in? I’m not sure about this, but to avoid the homunculus scenario, I think what consciousness does is experience the decision we made unconsciously. Now some might say, well “that’s not me making the decision”. Of course it is. That would be like having a back pain and saying, “that’s not me I’m experiencing”. A person is a whole, including their unconsciousness. If that wasn’t the case then the “me” would be different from everything else going on in our bodies.

So, the necessary element in free will is the reason for making a decision. That reason comes down to making a free choice between the sometimes competing impetuses of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. God-as-transcendent has a purpose in mind for this reality. I think a big part of that purpose is the creation of love, beauty, and meaning. God-as-living, as finite constrained beings also have impetuses. The question is which impetus to embrace and act on.

On Focus

I just watched some videos on panpsychism.  Since I affirm a divine idealism, I think panpsychism is a step in the right direction.  However, I think the focus of this approach is too narrow.  By focus, I mean, to use a photographic metaphor, what is in the frame of interest and concern?  There is a tendency towards reductionism in current scientific and philosophical investigations.  So, the “frame” is narrowed down to what might be considered a manageable level.  This can make things easier to deal with but it can also end up being problematic.

I’ve mentioned this before with regard to religious sentiment on the matter of emphasis. If a particular issue is focused on without paying due regard to other issues, then the resulting “solutions” run the risk of being discarded or in need of major modification when confronted with other big-picture problems.  The thing about a systematic approach is that everything needs to be taken into account and fit together coherently and reasonably.  If certain issues are ignored, they will, more than likely, come back to bite.

So, what’s wrong with the panpsychist approach?  First of all, it has such a laser focus on consciousness.  The thinking might go something like this.  Consciousness is such a real problem for the current materialist paradigm so let’s make that fundamental — it’s all consciousness. How this would work in the grand scheme of things isn’t talked about, as far as I’ve seen.  If the issue is subjective experience (phenomenal consciousness) then how does experience fit into the complex causal network that we see?  How do experiences interact? Are there some additional properties at work?  If so then experiences aren’t fundamental.  I think what we’re seeing here is an attempt to solve a problem without including the broader explanatory picture.  The focus is too narrow.

The other problem with this near-sightedness is that is doesn’t take into consideration existential issues.  Now, many of today’s philosophers may shy away from these issues because it’s not fashionable to talk about deep metaphysics.  So they ignore this and just “talk among themselves” in their cloister or avoid these issues in public discussions.  The problem with this is that it eventually comes out.  I saw a Zoom discussion on panpsychism with prominent philosophers where a viewer asked about the practical implications of the view. That question was totally ignored.  Broadening the focus presents major issues to deal with.

So, what existential issues am I talking about? Here are some:

  • Meaning and purpose
  • The problem of evil
  • Teleology
  • Free will
  • Morality

If a philosophy doesn’t address these, then who personally cares?  It would be just some intellectual tempest in a teapot, signifying nothing.

Most people probably can’t assess very well the technical details of a philosophical discussion. They are not educated or trained for that.  They want to know if a particular system seems right (more in an intuitive sense) and how it affects their worldview and way of thinking and living.  If philosophy is just some intellectual exercise without real-world implications, then why bother? I think these explorations can be but they must broaden their focus just as it did in past centuries.

So, what is the alternative to this near-sightedness?  Obviously, from this site, I think a divine idealism is a viable option that addresses both the problem of consciousness and the existential issues I mentioned.  In a divine idealism, where everything is in the divine mind, consciousness seems to fit in seamlessly.  So, what do we know about mind?  We know that minds are complex with both conscious and unconscious processes going on. There is a lot happening with many interactions.  There is intent, choices, morality, meaning and purpose. The full gamut of existential issues are in play within the mind.  If there is a divine mind as the source of all this then our minds are part of that mind and have a share, within limits, of the Divine Mind.  Of course, even with that model, much must be explored but I think, at least it has a broad enough focus to be meaningful.

Analogies for Idealism

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This is a response to an article in Scientific American by Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, and Edward F. Kelly, idealism proponents, where they claim that an analogy with dissociation (as Kastrup discusses) like that found in the dissociative identity disorder (DID) can offer a solution to “a critical problem in our current understanding of the nature of reality”.  That problem being the combination problem in panpsychism where the question is, as David Chalmers briefly puts it — “how do the experiences of fundamental physical entities such as quarks and photons combine to yield the familiar sort of human conscious experience that we know and love.”  The authors of the article respond to the problem with an alternative view:

The obvious way around the combination problem is to posit that, although consciousness is indeed fundamental in nature, it isn’t fragmented like matter. The idea is to extend consciousness to the entire fabric of spacetime, as opposed to limiting it to the boundaries of individual subatomic particles. This view—called “cosmopsychism” in modern philosophy, although our preferred formulation of it boils down to what has classically been called “idealism”—is that there is only one, universal, consciousness. The physical universe as a whole is the extrinsic appearance of universal inner life, just as a living brain and body are the extrinsic appearance of a person’s inner life.

However, the authors also recognize a potential problem:

You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize the obvious problem with this idea: people have private, separate fields of experience. We can’t normally read your thoughts and, presumably, neither can you read ours. Moreover, we are not normally aware of what’s going on across the universe and, presumably, neither are you. So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain—at least in principle—how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.

They think the solution can be found in an analogy with dissociative identity disorder:

And here is where dissociation comes in. We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

This would seem to satisfy the conceivability requirement in philosophy of mind proposals and suggest some details about what is happening, but at what cost?  There is a negative connotation associated with DID.  It is considered a disorder, perhaps stemming from pathological inabilities to cope with life as a unified personality.  F. C. S. Schiller in his 1906 paper, “Idealism and the Dissociation of Personality” affirms that this analogy does solve some problems for idealism but also recognizes that it carries a negative connotation for the absolute:

Moreover, (2) if the absolute is to include the whole of
a world which contains madness, it is clear that, anyhow, it must, in
a sense, be mad. The appearance, that is, which is judged by us to
be madness must be essential to the absolute’s perfection. All that
the analogy suggested does is to ascribe a somewhat higher degree
of reality to the madness in the absolute

While I appreciate the intent of the dissociative analogy to address a problem, if analogies can offer some credence to idealism, then perhaps there are other real-world analogies that are reasonable but do not carry the negative connotations. So, I’ll offer a couple of analogies here that might also be viable but are positive and affirming for why the diversity in the cosmos came about and do not imply a dysfunction within the Divine Mind. Instead, they imagine a God who embraces taking on constrained being even with all its difficulties and challenges. Given all the problems and evils within life, this must mean there is something so very important and valuable about life itself.

Actor/Role Analogy
It is well known that many actors relish taking on challenging roles. It helps them grow as actors and, perhaps on a personal level, presents unique opportunities to plunge deeper into the human psyche, both theirs and others. So, they research the role, often talk to those whom they will portray, and try to create that role in their mind.  Then in the scenes, they shift gears from their normal selves to that role even if that role is diametrically opposite to their normal self.  They compartmentalize the role within themselves and act within that compartment, but they still have a unitary self, unlike dissociated personalities. Then when the scene is over, they shift back to their normal selves but they may also experience some change because of the experience of “the other self” in the role. This could represent God-as-transcendent, being changed by God-as-living in each aspect of the Divine Life. What this analogy suggests is that God seeks out the challenge of living perhaps because it evokes the most admirable qualities — courage, resolve, grace in the face of adversity, altruistic love, concern for both self and others, progressive action, growth, etc. In other words, God taking on somewhat distinct lives is not out of dysfunction but rather because God saw something so wonderful and valuable about living within constraints.

MMORPGs Analogy
MMORPGs is an acronym for — Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.  These are online games where multiple players take on certain character types and play those roles as the game dynamically emerges.  Those roles can vary dramatically just as personalities can. There can be noble, evil, good, childlike, magical, non-human, conflicted, etc. roles, each with its own personality, characteristics, powers, frailties, and histories.  There is also the environment within which the RPG is played. It could be realistic or fanciful. In essence, it is an imagined world with imagined characters that navigate the dynamics of a certain broad narrative.  Each player adopts a role and suspends their own self as much a possible to play that role, often within a team of other role-players. It is a simulation of life with all the intricacies of psychology, sociology, culture, and challenge.  Why do people seek out and participate in these games? Similar to the Actor/Role analogy, because it offers opportunities to embrace the multidimensions of life in an alternate reality that is both fun, interesting, and satisfies our need to be challenged, grow, be social, and reach out beyond the limitations of our ordinary life.

So, what’s the analogy? The analogy is that whereas in online role-playing games there are many separate people playing the roles, in the Divine Life, God is playing all the roles including the role of the environment. Each of us and everything else is an aspect of the Divine Life, created (imagined) in the Mind of God.  We are in God’s unitary mind but also distinct and somewhat independent, living our lives within the grand divine narrative where we also must make choices whether or not to embrace the transcendent divine transcendent depth within and actualize the divine vision for how life can be.

Now, the limitations of using analogies toward metaphysics should be recognized.  They come from within our limited, constrained being and, as such, shouldn’t be taken too literally.  Perhaps they can be accepted as metaphors — while of limited literal value perhaps they also point to some deep truths.

Here are some other posts on analogies/metaphors:
Author/Story
Actor/Role
Role Play Games
Venn Diagrams
Divine Action and a Juggler