Monday, November 10, 2014

You are, of course, free to ignore this....

I'm not sure what free will has to do with the urge to urinate, except that bladder control is an exertion of free will.*

Sure, you may not be able to choose when you need to pee; but you can control how you pee.  It's training, going back to your childhood, reinforced on a daily basis all those days and years after.  The fact that you don't pee wherever you are sitting or standing, that you feel a discomfort you need to relieve but don't without an act of will to do so, is the very definition, it seems to me, of "free will."  Absent medical conditions, you choose when and where you urinate.

More interesting is this idea of "embodied cognition," which is supposedly new.  I first learned about it in Walter Kauffman's Irrational Man, his study of existentialism.  Kauffman drew a distinction between the dualism of Hellenism and the embodiment of self of Hebraism.  Per Kauffman, the Greeks saw the self as a soul incarnate (even Plato understood the importance of the physical world to the soul as it moved toward rejoining the Good); but the Hebrews drew no distinction between soul and body, because they didn't really believe in the soul the Greeks did.  It's a little hard to grasp in this post-Augustinian era without thinking the body somehow corrupts the soul, but for the Hebrews there was no mind/body split because there was no mind v. body:  it was all a unity, we were ourselves down to our fingertips.  They couldn't conceive of a disembodied pilot embodied only by accident, somewhere behind the eyes peering out through those "windows" upon a world accessible only through the flesh.  We were our flesh as we were ourselves.

And now we call that "embodied cognition," and declare it a new thing.

Of course, we used to say it was soul that animated body ("An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, /unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress") until soul was replaced by mind, and now it is a computer wrapped in meat.

Thus is progress made......

*Besides I'm not sure what people think they experience as "free will" is quite the same issue as what philosophers debate is the concept of "free will."  What, after all, do they think they are experiencing?  How do they define the concept?  Aye, there's the rub.....


  1. I remember reading Irrational Man. If that's the beginning of my skepticism about the legacy of the classical Greeks or not, I can't tease out.

    I'm always impressed by how they always seem to choose the most banal exigencies of human life and, most typically, the most artificial and banal of choices to present to people as a test of what they, also artificially, define to be "free will". I doubt anyone cares much about the question of free will when they are in extreme pain that they can't end by an act of the will or when they are choosing to use a toilet so they don't wet themselves. Whether or not they go on to ask if these people are not freely suspending their range of theoretically possible choices to be in pain or soil themselves doesn't seem to enter into it, since their desire is to debunk free will and, so, any possibility of human thought escaping the nets of causality, implying a non-physical mind are served bycutting it off at that point.

    I haven't read the entire thing but John Locke made a point in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, pointing out that the question of whether or not the will is free can be distinguished from the more humanly relevant question about whether or not people can be free. Our minds are far more than our wills and our capacity to model and analyze our minds is largely wishful thinking.

  2. And, I think, he identified the problem of trying to address the question because it, like so many of the pet ideas of materialism, gets trapped in an infinite regression.

    "21 But to the agent, or man. To return, then, to the inquiry about liberty, I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free. Thus, I think,
    First, That so far as any one can, by the direction or choice of his mind, preferring the existence of any action to the non-existence of that action, and vice versa, make it to exist or not exist, so far he is free. For if I can, by a thought directing the motion of my finger, make it move when it was at rest, or vice versa, it is evident, that in respect of that I am free: and if I can, by a like thought of my mind, preferring one to the other, produce either words or silence, I am at liberty to speak or hold my peace: and as far as this power reaches, of acting or not acting, by the determination of his own thought preferring either, so far is a man free. For how can we think any one freer, than to have the power to do what he will? And so far as any one can, by preferring any action to its not being, or rest to any action, produce that action or rest, so far can he do what he will. For such a preferring of action to its absence, is the willing of it: and we can scarce tell how to imagine any being freer, than to be able to do what he wills. So that in respect of actions within the reach of such a power in him, a man seems as free as it is possible for freedom to make him.


  3. 22. In respect of willing, a man is not free. But the inquisitive mind of man, willing to shift off from himself, as far as he can, all thoughts of guilt, though it be by putting himself into a worse state than that of fatal necessity, is not content with this: freedom, unless it reaches further than this, will not serve the turn: and it passes for a good plea, that a man is not free at all, if he be not as free to will as he is to act what he wills. Concerning a man's liberty, there yet, therefore, is raised this further question, Whether a man be free to will? Which I think is what is meant, when it is disputed whether the will be free. And as to that I imagine.

    23. How a man cannot be free to will. Secondly, That willing, or volition, being an action, and freedom consisting in a power of acting or not acting, a man in respect of willing or the act of volition, when any action in his power is once proposed to his thoughts, as presently to be done, cannot be free. The reason whereof is very manifest. For, it being unavoidable that the action depending on his will should exist or not exist, and its existence or not existence following perfectly the determination and preference of his will, he cannot avoid willing the existence or non-existence of that action; it is absolutely necessary that he will the one or the other; i.e. prefer the one to the other: since one of them must necessarily follow; and that which does follow follows by the choice and determination of his mind; that is, by his willing it: for if he did not will it, it would not be. So that, in respect of the act of willing, a man in such a case is not free: liberty consisting in a power to act or not to act; which, in regard of volition, a man, upon such a proposal has not. For it is unavoidably necessary to prefer the doing or forbearance of an action in a man's power, which is once so proposed to his thoughts; a man must necessarily will the one or the other of them; upon which preference or volition, the action or its forbearance certainly follows, and is truly voluntary. But the act of volition, or preferring one of the two, being that which he cannot avoid, a man, in respect of that act of willing, is under a necessity, and so cannot be free; unless necessity and freedom can consist together, and a man can be free and bound at once. Besides to make a man free after this manner, by making the action of willing to depend on his will, there must be another antecedent will, to determine the acts of this will, and another to determine that, and so in infinitum: for wherever one stops, the actions of the last will cannot be free. Nor is any being, as far I can comprehend beings above me, capable of such a freedom of will, that it can forbear to will, i.e. to prefer the being or not being of anything in its power, which it has once considered as such."

    The question gets stuck, whereas the person, existing in real life, doesn't.

  4. I have to consider the question, but it seems at first blush Locke is considering freedom to will, as opposed to freedom of will. The latter is a consideration of how one chooses, not whether one is free or not to even consider the choice. I suppose choosing to choose is a choice, and his point is valid; but it also seems entirely beside the point.

    But I'm responding to the quote, not the context; and in the context you provide, it is that our minds are much more than our will; and to that I agree. It introduces the other problem, though: which of this is "I"? Mind? Will? Both and a little bit of neither? That, to me, is the intriguing question in cases of assisted suicide: if I lose my mind, have I lost "me"? But if I lose control of my mind, am I still "me"? Is my mind me, or only me in section? Is another part of me "will"? And are any of those parts me such that, to lose control of one is to lose "me" entirely?

    And where in neurology is this "me" housed, anyway?