Personal freedom of the will is unequally distributed
Posted by robertpriddy on April 5, 2013
Whether or not humans have free will is an issue of whether free will is possible or not. It is not simple question, so a blunt dichotomy between freedom-determinism is not helpful, even if the issue could be empirically decided (which it apparently can never be). The term ‘free will’ has dozens of different meanings or interpretations. The more important of these are crucially meaningful in the entire human inquiry into how humans causally affect the world and society. There are senses in which we are free to choose, even though one cannot make the assumption that all individuals are equally free to choose. Firstly, people in different cultures and different socio-economic classes are subject to different degrees of restraint or freedom to act. Likewise, individuals are not all equally able to exercise free will, as their abilities depend on such factors as maturity, health condition, physical limitations, social restraints, intelligence and the level of their knowledge.
This aspect of freedom of the will – seemingly such an evident fact – is mostly overlooked in the concentration on the more technical philosophical or theological issue whether human can have any free will at all. There may be reasons why such a debate is not raised or is unpopular, since it conflicts with the widely cherished generalised belief about the supposed freedom and equality of all persons. On the one hand it is patently evident that everyone does not have the same degree of personal freedom – that is, the ability and means to do whatever they choose – because all freedom or choice is limited by the alternatives on hand. For example, an infant is less free than an adult, a person serving a prison sentence is less free than a normal citizen, a person with broad knowledge and long experience is usually aware of more realistic possibilities and alternatives than a person deprived of education and opportunities for wide experience. The limitations on freedom can also be congenital, as in those born with symptoms of genetic mental retardation.
The significance of the above consideration is that it opens for the possibility of degrees of human freedom of will in a way which even tends to challenge the basic assumption of free will as a universal human capacity, or at least some of the implications drawn from it (not least in religion, morals and the law). It has been proposed in some religions and by esoteric schools that the degree of free will anyone has depends upon unusual achievements such a yoga, tantra and other practices. The pseudo-philosopher Gurdjieff was a proponent of such a theory. This idea also forms the basis of most Hindu and Buddhist religion. The difficulty with this is that, as a hypothesis, it is far beyond any normal means of investigation or testing. Nonetheless, science in general still regards the existence of higher forms of consciousness or ‘transcendental wisdom’ than the human mind normally achieves as a ‘unvalidated hypothesis’, and some even regard it as an unnecessary theory to explain anything. Moreover, there is no evidence that any such supposed ‘spiritual masters’ have ever contributed anything significant to genuine knowledge, but only to speculation and subjective self-interpretations.
Sam Harris has many excellent views on religion. However, he has a narrow mindset as regards the issue of ‘free will’, especially as regards even the meaning of ‘free will’. See my analysis of his problem here https://robertcpriddy.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/sam-harris-no-free-will-and-hence-all-freedom-is-a-miasma/
His book ‘Free Will’ is under considerable criticism as a product of an amateur in philosophy: see Scientific American – Will this Post Will Make Sam Harris Change His Mind About Free Will?