Free Will and the Bounds of the Self

In Robert Kane (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford University Press (2011)


If you start taking courses in contemporary cognitive science, you will soon encounter a particular picture of the human mind. This picture says that the mind is a lot like a computer. Specifically, the mind is made up of certain states and certain processes. These states and processes interact, in accordance with certain general rules, to generate specific behaviors. If you want to know how those states and processes got there in the first place, the only answer is that they arose through the interaction of other states and processes, which arose from others... until, ultimately, the chain goes back to factors in our genes and our environment. Hence, one can explain human behavior just by positing a collection of mental states and psychological processes and discussing the ways in which these states and processes interact. This picture of the mind sometimes leaves people feeling deeply uncomfortable. They find themselves thinking something like: 'If the mind actually does work like that, it seems like we could never truly be morally responsible for anything we did. After all, we would never be free to choose any behavior other than the one we actually performed. Our behaviors would just follow inevitably from certain facts about the configuration of the states and processes within us.' Many philosophers think that this sort of discomfort is fundamentally confused or wrongheaded. They think that the confusion here can be cleared up just by saying something like: 'Wait! It doesn't make any sense to say that the interaction of these states and processes is preventing you from controlling your own life. The thing you are forgetting is that the interaction of these states and processes – this whole complex system described by cognitive science – is simply you. So when you learn that these states and processes control your behavior, all you are learning is that you are controlling your behavior. There is no reason at all to see these discoveries as a threat to your freedom or responsibility.'2 Philosophers may regard this argument as a powerful one, perhaps even irrefutable..

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References found in this work

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford University Press.
Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.Harry Frankfurt - 1971 - Journal of Philosophy 68 (1):5-20.
An Essay on Free Will.Peter Van Inwagen - 1983 - Oxford University Press.
The Significance of Free Will.Robert Kane - 1996 - Oxford University Press USA.
Reasons and Persons.Joseph Margolis - 1986 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 47 (2):311-327.

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