A recent topic drift on a thread on hootoo, on the question of whether we can “choose” what we believe, (which I was unable to contribute to at the time due to my dead laptop), has prompted me to a few thoughts on the subject, and on the subject of free will in general.
Perhaps the most common mistake that people make is to disregard the way we actually use words, leading either to a denial of the possibility of choice and freewill, or to the postulating of abstruse metaphysical principles to justify a usage which is not, in fact, the normal one for the terms in question.
Consider a simple example. I am walking down a road, and I come to its end. I can turn either left or right. Plainly I have a choice. That is there are two recognisable options presented to me by the world. I can only do one of them, but both are logically possible.
Now, in fact, I choose to turn left. The question then appears to be, “if all the conditions leading to the original choice were exactly reproduced, could I in fact end up turning right? But this is a non-question. No empirical demonstration is possible. Nor can we look that closely at the internal working of the mind/brain.
The real question here is whether we can make sense of the non-deterministic viewpoint. If in this situation I could in fact turn right, what is it that makes the difference? If there is nothing that makes the difference, the “choice” is purely random – it is not what we think of as a choice that has some sort of reason or purpose behind it, however right or wrong that purpose may be. If there *is* something that makes a difference, then the conditions are not identical.
Many people worry that this undermines morality and ethics, and takes away our freedom to choose. Others say we still have real choices, and that those choices are mine in a way that is not possible if my actions are not causally connected to my ongoing plans, projects, experiences etc.
What about choice of belief? The situation is essentially the same. There are certainly a myriad of ways that we could organise our experiences and expectations into a belief system. We certainly can and do make judgements (choices) about which of these gives us the best fit, the best “handle on the world”. We believe what we believe because we think this is what has the greatest probability of being true. It would make no sense to choose to believe something that we thought was false.
It is also not logically possible to choose “right the way down”, for the criteria by which we make choices would themselves be matters of unrestricted choice, and so on ad infinitum, so that our choices would “float free” of all reasons. Every free choice, to have meaning, has ultimately to be grounded in something that is not a choice, in some aspect of the way the world is, or at least how we think it is.
Our choices are our responsibility because they are ours. This responsibility does not rest on some incomprehensible principle of metaphysics, but on the ordinary everyday meanings of the language with which we describe the way we live.