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Praxeology and Free Will

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Physiocrat Posted: Tue, Mar 25 2008 6:56 PM

 Praxeology rightly asserts that men act- they use means to achieve ends to to attempt determine events in the future for their percieved  betterment.  It follows from this that  all action is self interested and Brainpolice's article on why Altruism doesn't exist is on the money. This does however pose a problem: If action includes the thought processes of the mind all our thoughts must be self interested and thus we cannot think contrary to our self interest. This then leads to the notion that there is a sort of self interest out there in the ether guiding our thoughts and actions. 

Free will is firstly obvious and secondly must hold for epistemological purposes- if one is not free in thinking then how does one know what they are are thinking to be true since it is only the atoms within ones brain telling them it is so but because you know this your mind must be free and not determined.

This then arrives at a paradox. Is there any non-arbitrary way of distinguishing thoughts (and the will) from action?

 

The atoms tell the atoms so, for I never was or will but atoms forevermore be.

Yours sincerely,

Physiocrat

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Ego replied on Wed, Mar 26 2008 4:24 AM

Yes, I've thought about this, too (assuming I know where you are coming from).

If humans always act in their perceived best interest, how can free will exist? To make a very long answer short: we as individuals choose what defines "best interest".

Don't allow leftists to play games with definitions! Some of the libertarian-leaning leftists at this forum will try to redefine "left-wing" back to its original defition (Third Estate, limited government, free-markets, laissez-faire reforms, etc.). Fine! We non-leftists can't stop them from using their own personal definitions; they can use whatever labels they want to describe any concept they want.

However, they have the audacity to then use their personal definition of "left-wing" (remember, the original definition, which is no longer valid) to prove that modern leftists are more libertarian than modern rightists! They will say that libertarianism is "inherently leftist" (again, using the original, no longer valid definition), and use that to insist that we should prefer and side with modern leftists over modern rightists.

Question their motives.

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thecapitalist:

Yes, I've thought about this, too (assuming I know where you are coming from).

If humans always act in their perceived best interest, how can free will exist? To make a very long answer short: we as individuals choose what defines "best interest".

 

 But is this applies to our thoughts then we can not but even think other than our self interest. This would require all thoughts to be self interested and if one takes the idea that free will necessitates the possibility of contrary choice then this is in contradiction to free will.

The atoms tell the atoms so, for I never was or will but atoms forevermore be.

Yours sincerely,

Physiocrat

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thecapitalist:

Yes, I've thought about this, too (assuming I know where you are coming from).

If humans always act in their perceived best interest, how can free will exist? To make a very long answer short: we as individuals choose what defines "best interest".

 

 

Because of the construction of the sentence?

How do humans act? They choose to.


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Ego replied on Wed, Mar 26 2008 1:33 PM

You have a very good point. I'm going to change my position!

I had always looked at decisions like this: the way an individual will act is fully dependent on desire: if the "collective desire" to immediately do something becomes greater than the "collective desire" not to do it, the individual will immediately act. That "collective desire" is based entirely on what he/she believes in his/her best self-interest.

I also fully believed in free will (for various reasons), so I figured that in order for both of those views to be compatible, individuals must be able chose the "criteria" upon which "best self-interest" is determined. As you correctly pointed out, that view is inconsistent. Wouldn't the individual, in choosing that criteria, also be acting in his/her self interest? Probably so. It comes back to your original point: humans automatically act in their perceived best self-interest. I think that view is incompatible with free will.

So I'm going to change my view: an individual act in a manner he/she chooses, influenced by but not reliant upon knowledge they have. Yes, individuals will tend to act in similar ways, but that's not incompatible with free will.

 To the outside observer, free will appears random. Random number generators can be influenced to skew results in certain ways, but those results are still random (just not evenly distributed).

Don't allow leftists to play games with definitions! Some of the libertarian-leaning leftists at this forum will try to redefine "left-wing" back to its original defition (Third Estate, limited government, free-markets, laissez-faire reforms, etc.). Fine! We non-leftists can't stop them from using their own personal definitions; they can use whatever labels they want to describe any concept they want.

However, they have the audacity to then use their personal definition of "left-wing" (remember, the original definition, which is no longer valid) to prove that modern leftists are more libertarian than modern rightists! They will say that libertarianism is "inherently leftist" (again, using the original, no longer valid definition), and use that to insist that we should prefer and side with modern leftists over modern rightists.

Question their motives.

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thecapitalist:

You have a very good point. I'm going to change my position!

I had always looked at decisions like this: the way an individual will act is fully dependent on desire: if the "collective desire" to immediately do something becomes greater than the "collective desire" not to do it, the individual will immediately act. That "collective desire" is based entirely on what he/she believes in his/her best self-interest.

I also fully believed in free will (for various reasons), so I figured that in order for both of those views to be compatible, individuals must be able chose the "criteria" upon which "best self-interest" is determined. As you correctly pointed out, that view is inconsistent. Wouldn't the individual, in choosing that criteria, also be acting in his/her self interest? Probably so. It comes back to your original point: humans automatically act in their perceived best self-interest. I think that view is incompatible with free will.

So I'm going to change my view: an individual act in a manner he/she chooses, influenced by but not reliant upon knowledge they have. Yes, individuals will tend to act in similar ways, but that's not incompatible with free will.

 To the outside observer, free will appears random. Random number generators can be influenced to skew results in certain ways, but those results are still random (just not evenly distributed).

 

That's an interesting observation but does this steal the thunder of Mises' action axiom? Since AE is based on self interest removing the apodictic certainty it loses some of its epistemological rigour. Btw did you read Brainpolice's article? In regards physical action I can't fault it. Do you think one can meaningfully distinguish between thought acts and physical acts?

 One uses their mind to think but thinking is the end which can only be attained by the use of the mind- thinking again- if one retains the purposefullness of thought and action. So is thought really an action? It seems it maybe the means and end concurrently and thus not be an action.

The atoms tell the atoms so, for I never was or will but atoms forevermore be.

Yours sincerely,

Physiocrat

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Physiocrat:

 

Free will is firstly obvious and secondly must hold for epistemological purposes- if one is not free in thinking then how does one know what they are are thinking to be true since it is only the atoms within ones brain telling them it is so but because you know this your mind must be free and not determined.

 

 

Hello, Physiocrat.

The question of free will is very old indeed, and certainly relevant to matters of Austrian Social Theory. Hopefully we can find a way to understand the idea of free will that resolves the contradiction you have voiced your concerns about.

I once read a very small and astoundingly approachable book by a mathematician named Ivar Ekeland called “Mathematics and the Unexpected.” In this book is a section called “Deterministic But Random.” In this section, Ekeland illustrates in the simplest terms what is one of the most profound understandings of matters relevant to the question of free will I have ever encountered, though it's entirely possible that Ekeland himself did not fully appreciate how his own work might help us solve problems in unrelated fields, such as Austrian Social Theory.

Ekeland mentions how a scientific calculator can generate a random number at the press of a button. He explains that, as we well know, in the grand scheme of calculator operations, the number cannot really be random, and when taking the nature of such operations into consideration, it is indeed clear that the number is not random at all. He explains that there are various ways to generate random numbers. But what all such procedures have in common is that they are purely deterministic, meaning that their workings are fully known and can be completely explained, resulting in outcomes which can be precisely predicted. But how can it be that purely deterministic processes can produce sequences of numbers which an outside observer could only see as random?

The answer is that randomness appears as a result of incomplete information. If an observer looks at a calculator's output, and has no knowledge of the underlying mathematical procedure which produces a number upon pressing the 'Rand' button, then what he will see under these circumstances, is a number he could not have predicted, or in the case of doing this repeatedly, he will find a sequence of numbers in which there is no discernible pattern. But this experience of randomness is a consequence of the observer's current perspective. The information the observer has is incomplete because it excludes the knowledge of the underlying mathematical procedure that produces the number, and this gap in his knowledge is precisely what allows the number's occurance to be experienced as random.

Any time the entirety of any system is known, such that we are fully aware of every variable which can have any effect on any outcome, then within the context of this system, only deterministic relations can be present. This is because, if we know all the variables within such a system, this is the same as saying that we know there cannot be any outside influences exerting any unforeseen effects on how the variables in this system interact. As a matter of theory, we can say that any time we have a complete system in this way, as we always do in the case of formal mathematics, no result can take place which is not completely expected, since all parts of any equation simply relate to one another as statements of equivalence, meaning that the value of every variable in the equation is precisely counterbalanced by the value of every other variable in the equation, as a strictly logical matter. No randomness can appear when this kind of formal reality is our current focus.

So in order for randomness to appear, a perspective must be taken which entails incomplete information. As already indicated, formal mathematics wouldn't be that kind of perspective, as the information in such a system is indeed complete, even if tautological, such that only purely deterministic outcomes are possible from that perspective. On the other hand, in the case of an individual human being's experience of reality, which is a personal perspective, one which can only take account of what is personally understood (such as the output on the calculator), and which cannot take account of what is not personally understood (such as the hidden mathematical procedure which produced the random number), then in this case, we would have an example of a perspective which is permanently denied complete information about the system in which such an experience takes place. And it is from this sort of perspective that randomness can be experienced, and in which free will can be understood to be present.

I say that such a perspective is permanently denied complete information because something about the nature of individual observation would seem to entail some kind of meaningful separation between the observer and that which is observed. The very nature of observation is such that, to meaningfully observe any given thing requires an exclusionary focus, since to take account of one thing is to necessarily to avoid taking account of everything else, at least at the moment.  If such an exclusionary focus is not conceivable, then nothing conceivable as an observation can be understood to be taking place.  So then, any time an observation is made, alternative observations are not being made at the same time. Some kind of content is always excluded (filtered out) whenever any observation is made.  Since the excluded content cannot ultimately be ruled out as having absolutely no influence on the outcome of whatever is currently experienced, then there is some sense in which the experience of randomness is an inescapable consequence of having an isolated inidividual perspective.

What prevents this kind of interpretation from being taken seriously is a very common philosophical assumption that all things everywhere must either be purely deterministic or all things everywhere must be entirely the result of randomness. One or the other. Those who proceed according to this philosophical assumption are right about one thing: as randomness and determinism are mutually exclusive concepts, they cannot both ultimately be at work on the same system at the same time.  However, in an attempt to avoid the contradiction inherent in trying to employ both of these concepts at once, many have encountered another contradiction instead, one which results from trying to exclusively choose between the two concepts.  Such a choice will only serve us until we either encounter some phenomenon which our currently preferred theoretical approach cannot explain, or until we feel the need to alternate between these two mutually exclusive theoretical approaches.  In either case, we would find that any prior dedication to either "pure deterministism" or "pure randomness" no longer meaningfully describes the nature of what we experience.  It is precisely the confusion that results from this conflict that leads us to ask questions about determinism vs. free will over and over again, without resolution.  We intuitively sense that nature must somehow be explained by using one of these concepts to the exclusion of the other, but we are never able to demonstrate how one of these two ideas ultimately wins out over the other, not knowing that this ongoing failure is due to the fact that neither concept allows us to get the whole picture by itself.

What Ekeland's insight tells us is that there is a way out of this paradox.  Contrary to the popular philosophical assumptions, there is another theoretical possibility to consider, one that solves the problem completely, even if the result is somewhat counterintuitive. The conclusion is that whether a system is random or deterministic is a matter of perspective, a matter of whether the information about the system is understood to be complete or is understood to be incomplete. If the information about a system is understood to be complete, then it is understood that perfect predictions are possible. If the information is understood to be incomplete, then it is understood that outside forces can exert an influence on the outcome of the system, rendering precise predictions impossible, meaning that randomness appears. This is the bizarre, but inescapable conclusion of Ekeland's explanation.

If you are truly interested in seeing how this idea could be demonstrated more satisfactorily, and in seeing what implications it may have for the concept of free will and for Austrian Social Theory, I would strongly recommend getting this book, which is probably only about 90 pages, the last half of which primarily pertains to Catastrophe Theory, which can probably be skipped, though some may find it interesting.

 

Richard

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Richard, would you mind expanding a bit on the contradiction involved in trying to employ either concept exclusively? What exactly does it consist in?

 

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Richard D.:

The conclusion is that whether a system is random or deterministic is a matter of perspective, a matter of whether the information about the system is understood to be complete or is understood to be incomplete. If the information about a system is understood to be complete, then it is understood that perfect predictions are possible. If the information is understood to be incomplete, then it is understood that outside forces can exert an influence on the outcome of the system, rendering precise predictions impossible, meaning that randomness appears.  This is the bizarre, but inescapable conclusion of Ekeland's explanation

 

So you're saying that free will is an illusion made possible by the fact that we don't have complete knowledge of how desires are generated in the brain?  That doesn't sound bizarre but rather what determinists have been saying all along.  I don't see how this statement advances our understanding of free will, or allows us to go beyond the Misesean approach of "methodological dualism FTW".

 

 

"He that struggles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper." Edmund Burke

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Richard D. replied on Fri, Apr 25 2008 12:51 PM

Inquisitor:

Richard, would you mind expanding a bit on the contradiction involved in trying to employ either concept exclusively? What exactly does it consist in?

 

Hello, Inquisitor,

Perhaps we could begin by simply asking ourselves what it would mean to suggest that free will exists as a real feature of the external world. It would mean that the nature of objective reality is at least partially defined by the potential for entirely indeterminable causes. This is because we are presupposing that the whole of reality allows the possibility that an unguided agency can exists separate and apart from the ordinary operation of material cause-and-effect, one which has the power to alter the normal course of events. But in order to consistently believe this, one's understanding of reality would have to be considerably limited, in at least one important sense. Such an idea presupposes that objective reality, as “the whole of all that is,” is ultimately closed to us, since from the free will point of view, external causal factors which could theoretically exert a very real influence on the ordinary operation of material cause-and-effect must always be presumed possible. Otherwise, there is no room for free will.

So long as this is acknowledged by free will advocates, there is no issue with logical consistency. These advocates must simply seek to understand what is meaningful, rather than what is “actually out there.” So long as they pursue “meaningful reality” rather than “objective reality” there is no problem. However, if an understanding of the external world as a whole, one that is purely objective (meaning observer independent) is ever sought by such advocates, then the pursuit of such an understanding would mean that the idea of free will is no longer being presupposed, and that they have replaced a teleological pursuit with an ontological one.

On the other hand, the purely deterministic way of understanding the whole of reality also presents certain problems, and in fact they are the reverse of the one mentioned above. If we ask what it would mean to suggest that the whole of the external world is completely deterministic, we would essentially mean that everything conceivable, including the knowing self, must be a part of a complete whole, the entire operation of which cannot be influenced by external causal factors, for there could be no external causal factors. If any inexplicable outcomes emerge, then the whole of reality is not being considered presently, but rather, an incomplete part is considered instead.

So long as this is what advocates of determinism expect from the idea of “the external world” they investigate, there is still no problem, provided they do not seek to discretely quantify abstract concepts such as consciousness, self, awareness, etc. For once they begin trying to quantify such things, they have essentially taken on an impossible task. They could hardly quantify the very process of quantification itself, since a process is not an object, as conceived, but rather, is a way of seeing or arranging objects. The observer of any phenomenon has to understand himself as some kind of unquantifiable process in order to meaningfully proceed with any goal-directed behavior. The observer has to understand himself as an external causal factor in anything he endeavors to do. So an effort to understand all things deterministically is, knowingly or not, an effort which renders the philosophical pursuit of personal meaning superfluous.

A determinist has two possible ways of seeing this situation, from his own personal perspective: He can attempt to incorporate his personal conception of “self” into his purely deterministic theory of the external world, in which case, he ceases to experience himself as having a meaningful existence. Or alternatively, he can persist in the belief that he is somehow exempt from what the idea of pure determinism actually requires of him, and continue attempting to act meaningfully within a world he is trying to completely reduce to order. But in the case of the latter, he will not truly conceive himself as being part of any such world, and so, he must fail to take account of every aspect of “the whole.”

The contradiction brought about by either of these two perspectives being taken as an absolute and independent description of objective reality lies in the fact that there are some fundamental logical understandings from which any given observer must proceed before it will be possible to approach the idea of “the external world.” If one takes the free-will route, and by this we mean to say that he believes that the external world, in its entirety, is one that allows for free will, then he will be saying that the external world, in its entirety, is one for which there can be influences external to such a world. And then he will not be talking about the entire world at all, but some partial world on which the external influences from a greater external world could act.

On the other hand, if one takes the purely deterministic view of things, then he is conceiving of a kind of external world for which all things are knowable, at least in principle. However, he has to take a very particular kind of view of himself before he can do this consistently, a view that is at odds with the very nature of any meaningful pursuit. He must take a view of himself as a non-actor, as a constant in some cosmic equation. But he will not be able to do this consistently. He has to understand himself as a knowing, choosing entity before any action can be taken whatsoever, yet in so doing, he will have conceptually excluded himself from any purely deterministic analysis.

The reason this paradox persists through time is because most people want to be able to say that whatever the “real” situation is, it has to be the same situation for everyone, independent of personal experience. But the solution to the paradox lies in a willingness to take note of how one's personal experience is the real situation, at least in a personally meaningful sense. And taking either the free will or the determinism perspective would have a meaningful impact on one's personal experience.

The free-will perspective allows us to act meaningfully, but cannot take account of all that is, since all that is, would have to include the acting self. But an acting self cannot take a fully deterministic account of its own nature while continuing to engage in meaningful pursuits. The purely deterministic perspective allows us to at least theoretically approach the whole of all that is, but at the expense of no longer being allowed to conceive of ourselves as exceptions to the deterministic rule, meaning that we would not be permitted to understand ourselves as personally unguided influences on other things. The contradiction simply lies in our tendency to flip-flop between these two extremes, since it is unlikely that many of us like the idea of proceeding from either position consistently. If we consistently hold to free-will, then there are certain insurmountable mysteries. If we consistently hold to pure determinism, meaningful action cannot exist.

What is most likely is that many people want to be completely free and meaningful actors personally, yet at the same time, want to quantify the entirety of what they conceive to be the external world, in an effort to amass a reliable collection of knowledge about various cause-and-effect connections, so as to maximize the potential for general success in personal pursuits. Ironically, the goal-directed effort to quantify “all that is” ultimately jeopardizes one's personal ability to understand himself as a purposeful actor, since in order to be faithful to any such quantifying effort, he would eventually have to get around to quantifying his own acting nature.  Yet in conceiving of himself as a meaningful actor, he will not be able to do this.

No purely deterministic system can be consistently conceived as being inherently meaningful, and so an entity conceiving itself as a meaningful actor cannot logically incorporate himself into a deterministic theoretical framework. The idea of meaning emerges as a relationship between an observer and the object of observation.  So the perceived meaning of a deterministically conceived system must always come from outside such a system. The meaning is always independent of the system.

If we want to act meaningfully, we must proceed from a view that allows us to have free will. On the other hand, if we want all things to be ultimately reducible to purely mechanistic processes, then we will not be able to proceed from a view that allows us to have free will. The contradiction lies in a deep-rooted desire to personally have both, free will, and a fully quantified external world. The problem lies in one's conception of “external world.” Such a concept cannot include the idea of the acting self, and exclude the idea of the acting self, at the same time.

Richard

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Richard, thanks, that makes it immensely more clear. Regarding the free will view, do you mean that this it is an epistemological absurdity to speak of an objective reality we are fully cognizant of whilst assuming free will? I trust this will not shake the ontological foundations of the notion of an objective reality, independent of our consciousness, and thus that it's an epistemological issue. Correct me if I'm wrong.

 

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