The Problem of Induction and the Problem of Free Will


This essay presents a point of view for looking at `free will', with the purpose of interpreting where exactly the freedom lies. For, freedom is what we mean by it. It compares the exercise of free will with the making of inferences, which usually is predominantly inductive in nature. The making of inference and the exercise of free will, both draw upon psychological resources that define our ‘selves’. I examine the constitution of the self of an individual, especially the involvement of personal beliefs, personal memories, affects, emotions, and the hugely important psychological value-system, all of which distinguish the self of one individual from that of another. The foundational position that adopted in this essay is that all psychological processes are correlated with corresponding ones involving large scale neural aggregates in the brain, communicating with one another through wavelike modes of excitation and de-excitation. Of central relevance is the value-network around which the affect system is organized, the latter, in turn, being the axis around which is assembled the self, with all its emotional correlates. The self is a complex system. I include a brief outline of what complexity consists of. In reality all systems are complex, for complexity is ubiquitous, and certain parts of nature appear to us to be ‘simple’ only in certain specific contexts. It is in this background that the issue of determinism is viewed in this essay. Instead of looking at determinism as a grand principle entrenched in nature independent of our interpretation of it, I look at our ability to explain and to predict events and phenomena around us, which is made possible by the existence of causal links running in a complex course that set up correlations between diverse parts of nature, in this way putting the stamp of necessity on these events. However, the complexity of systems limits our ability to explain and to predict to within certain horizons defined by contexts. Our ability to explain and predict in matters relating to acts of free will is similarly limited by the operations of the self that remain hidden from our own awareness. The aspects of necessity and determinism appear to us in the form of reason and rationality that explain and predict only within a limited horizon, while the rest depends on the complex operation of self-linked psychological resources, where the latter appear as contingent in the context of the exercise of free will. The hallmark of complex systems is the existence of amplifying factors that operate as destabilizing ones, along with inhibiting or stabilizing factors as well that generally limit the destabilizing influences to local occurrences, while preserving the global integrity of a system. This complex interplay of destabilizing and stabilizing influences lead to the possibility of an enormous number of distinct modes of behavior that appear as emergent phenomena in complex systems. Looking at the particular case of the self of an individual that guide her actions and thoughts, it is the operation of our emotions, built around the psychological value-system, that provide for the amplifying and inhibiting factors mentioned above. The operation of these self-linked factors stamps our actions and thoughts as contingent ones that do not fit with our concepts of reason and rationality. And this is what provides the basis of our idea of free will. Free will is not ‘free’ in virtue of exemption from causal links running through all our self-based processes - ones that remain hidden from our awareness, but is free of what is perceived to be ‘reason and rationality’ based on knowledge and the common pool of beliefs and principles associated with a shared world-view. When we speak of the choice involved in an act of exercise of free will what we actually refer to is the commonly observed fact that various different individuals of a similar disposition respond differently when placed under similar circumstances. In other words, free will is ‘free’ precisely because it is not subject to constraints of a commonly accepted and shared set of principles, beliefs, and values. While it is possible that, in an exercise of free will, the self-linked psychological resources are brought into action when a number of alternatives are presented to the self by the operation of the ingredients of a commonly shared world-view, it seems likely that, that set of alternatives is not of primary relevance in the final response that the mind produces, since the latter is primarily a product of the operation of the self-based psychological resources. What is of greater relevance here is the operation of emotion-driven processes, guided by the psychological value-system based on the activity of the so-called reward-punishment network in the brain. These processes lead the individual to a response that appears to be free from the shackles of determinism precisely because their mechanisms, which are hidden from us, do not conform to commonly accepted and shared rules and principles. In contrast, inductive inference is a process that is based on the ‘cognitive face’ of self, where the self-based psychological resources play a supportive role to the commonly shared world-view of an individual. There is never any freedom from the all-pervading causal links representing correlations among all objects, entities, and events in nature. In the midst of all this, the closest thing to freedom that we can have in our life comes with self-examination and self-improvement. The possibility of self-examination appears in the form of specific conjunctions between our complex self-processes and the ceaseless changes of scenario in our external world. This actually makes the emergent phenomenon of self-examination a matter of chance, but one that keeps on appearing again and again in our life. Once realized, self examination creates possibilities that would not be there in the absence of it, and these possibilities include the enhancement of further self-enrichment and further diversity in the exercise of our free will.

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Avijit Lahiri
Calcutta University (Alumnus)


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