Free Will

Free Will

Thomas Nagel

    Nagel suggests free will may be a philosophical illusion – we think we know, but do we know or do we simply think we know? Do we have choices in our life or has every detail down to the most subatomic been preordained (determinism) by an unknown intelligence. My initial thoughts on reading this are, if an unknown intelligence took the time and care to program us in such minute detail why did it make so many mistakes? Can they make more mistakes or could they improve on their work?

    Using food in an analogy is always a tough read for me. Regardless of what theory posed, we are still creatures in need of nourishment. I feel Nagel’s analogy would have been better presented if the choices has been chocolate or carrot cake or apple versus orange. Using cake versus a peach immediately screams “diet” to a fat man like me. However, I do believe there is some level of determination at work in our lives.

    When I worked as a paramedic/EMS driver, our calls were triaged by type emergency – Codes 1, 2, 3 and 4 with 4 being the most critical requiring lights and siren. Obviously, we had to have a good knowledge of streets and roads in our service area to minimize our response time to the scene. Over the years there has been instances when I knew exactly where I was going, how long it would take to get there Code 4 and what, if any road work was being done along the way.

On more than one occasion without realizing I was doing it, I would overshoot a turn and have to take another street. In retrospect, each time this happened there had been some form of obstacle blocking my original route or in more than one case, the caller gave the wrong street name yet I drove directly to the right one. Would Nagel consider this to be determinism or free will? Personally I would consider it to be determinism with an altered outcome. Something or someone decided I was wrong so to better serve the patient, altered my plan.

    There’s a reality TV show I watch on a rare occasion called “Bait Car”. The police have specially equipped vehicles which are used as bait to lure car thieves. When one is stolen, they can shut down the motor and lock it up effectively detaining the car thief. This is referred to as a “crime of opportunity.” The police park the vehicle in a known high crime area with keys in ignition and a door left slight ajar while then they observe until something happens. Some might call this entrapment but I believe it is the same premise Nagel poses. Will a thief take the car of his own free will or was it determined at the time of his conception that he would eventually steal this particular car? I can hear his attorney now, “My client was pre-determined to steal the car. He had no choice, therefore he is innocent, honor.” But if he says, “The devil made my client steal the car.” Either way, the lawyer is basically using determinism as an alibi for his client. He is saying that forces outside his clients control governed his actions.

    Personally, I think using a defense of pre-determination, or determinism if you prefer is morally and legally off the wall. Furthermore, should a judge accept such plea he would be opening a Pandora’s Box of moral, as well as legal issues. Imagine:

    “The toaster failed to pop up and this told me it was ok to steal a new one from Sam’s.”

    “I heard the call of a Grey Wolf telling me to stab my mother.”

    “Being a murderer is in my DNA. I had no choice but to kill.”    

    If we were to accept determinism, we would have to accept that a power greater than ourselves had nothing better to do than plot out each and every action we take. From waking in the morning, to going to sleep at night, we merely acted as puppets, a premise I find totally unacceptable. I would be much more comfortable calling it a Guilt Free Philosophy – I am guilt free because my actions were pre-determined by “them.”    

    There is a good argument for the influences of upbringing, genetics and environment having an effect on our decision making but ultimately we do decide because we have the free will to ignore those effects. I was starving and the cake offered me the bulk and sugar I needed. I was depressed; sweets always make me feel better. Chocolate cake goes best with ganja. If mom only knew, I would get that same old “I raised you better lecture.” Yes, I believe we have free will and I think so does Nagel.

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