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Materialism and Free Will March 23, 2004 by RedStar2000


Once more I wade into the murky waters of philosophy. I expect if any real philosophers ever read this, my efforts will seem feeble indeed.

Fortunately, my self-esteem is pretty safe; late capitalism does not produce an abundance of philosophers, real or otherwise.


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quote:

What I want to know is that without dialectics, how does one explain free will as a materialist.


I think free will is an illusion that results from the fact that our brains are limited in their ability to know "all causes" and their relative "strengths".

Consider a person deliberating over their next meal, for example. They might bring to mind a number of things: what they ate in their last meal, what's in the refrigerator, could they afford to go out and eat and, if so, where, etc., etc.

Whatever they choose, it looks "like" a "free choice"...an exercise of "free will".

What I suspect is that if it were possible to get right "down" to the electro-chemical processes going on in the brain, the flow of currents and chemicals, etc....we'd be able to predict that "free choice" in advance of it being made -- or, slightly more realistically, we'd be able to predict a small number of possible outcomes and assign a probability to each.

On a matter of more interest to us, how is it that someone "decides" to be a communist? We know there are materialist explanations, but what exactly are they and how do they function to produce that result?

What's actually at work, I think, are a few (obvious) "strong causes" and a huge number of largely unknown "weak causes".

Most of the "weak causes" are unknown to the person deciding to become a communist...so it appears that s/he has made a "free choice".

But if we were able to grasp all those "weak causes" and measure their relative strength, I think we would be able to tell in advance who would decide to become a communist and even when they were most likely to do that.

Thus, though it does not seem to us that way, I think all of our decisions are "inevitable" with a very high degree of probability.

We are "part of history" (especially our own) and there is no escape from that except death.

Does that mean large-scale events are also "inevitable"? I'm pretty sure it does...but predicting them in useful detail would be even more difficult than predicting an individual's decisions. We have this multitude of causes (a few are strong, the vast majority are weak) and then we would also need to know how millions of these collections of causes will all interact with each other.

Perhaps a quantum computer as large as the known universe could both gather and process this information...we humans will never be able to do it.

Thus what bourgeois historians label "contingency" (because it sounds more erudite than chance) is actually the sum of millions of material causal factors too small to measure or even perceive.

If I nonetheless argue that you "should" become a communist, it's because I can't do otherwise. If you find my arguments compelling and decide to become a communist, it's because you didn't really have any choice in the matter.

We act "as if" we had free will because a crude sense of purposeful activity seems to be "hard-wired" into living organisms...but I think it's an illusion, a product of the subjectivity of our own brains.

quote:

Also, how rigid is causality? Does the motion and transformation of matter happen according to "iron" laws? I know consciousness is a dynamic factor that can certainly transform matter when applied, but prior to that is everything happening exactly as it must, is there any chaos or randomness in the universe? Like, did the Earth have to be created exactly as it was, did the universe have to unfold exactly as it did prior to that moment that primitive consciousnesses developed on this planet?


Again, I suspect if we knew all the causes, right down to the quantum level, there would be pretty rigid constraints on how the universe began and evolved.

Quantum physics is the joker in the deck, of course. "Down there", things seem pretty random and indeterminate. Idealists have great sport at the expense of materialists, gleefully pointing out that materialism ultimately rests on tiny particles that randomly appear and disappear in nanoseconds...the "quantum foam" at the base of the universe.

Modern "chaos theory" is also of interest here; there is apparently a kind of "order" in chaos...perhaps "weak causes" come in clusters.

Does this introduce an element of "real chance" into macro-events? Could a large country jump from feudalism to socialism or even communism without passing through capitalism...provided the "right people" were in "the right places" at "the right time"?

Are There "Laws" of History?
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First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 12, 2004
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quote:

To start with RS 2000 has already told us that he's thrown out materialist dialectics, yet it is precisely in the dialectical materialist understating that the answer to 'free will' is. It is no wonder that it is a puzzle to him.


I don't think it is a "puzzle" -- as I explained, I think it's a subjective illusion.

In addition, asserting that "dialectics" provides a "different" and "even better" solution to the "puzzle" is, frankly, puzzling in itself.

If "all things" have material causes, then human ideas have material causes and human decisions based on those ideas must have material causes.

I don't think you can even be a materialist and also postulate a human consciousness that "floats above" material reality...that is somehow objectively autonomous from the material world.

I don't deny that we can "feel autonomous" -- I just don't think there's any objective reality to that feeling.

quote:

The bourgeoisie defines freedom as 'the absence of any and all compulsion', however there is always compulsion (and I suspect that this definition of freedom is actually the one that RS2000 holds to, otherwise he might be more willing to consider the necessity of the vanguard in struggle rather a one sided focus on 'freedom' of individuals)


What is a materialist conception of "freedom"?

It would seem to me to be the absence of perceived compulsion...as material causes compel us whether we like it or not.

We do not "freely choose" to be wage-slaves; we are compelled to make that "choice" or die. The removal of that perceived compulsion -- the abolition of wage-slavery -- we perceive as liberation.

But it's not liberation from material reality and its "strong" and "weak" causes -- it's just the removal of a particular "strong cause".

What we think and do still has material causes; but wage-slavery as an institution is no longer one of them.

One might well define the course of human civilization as a process of eliminating "strong causes" that we subjectively find constraining...progressively dispensing with "oriental" despots, slave-masters, feudal lords, and, someday, capitalist exploiters.

It's not at all implausible that communist society will discover other "strong" or "semi-strong" causes that people then will perceive as limiting their autonomy and will proceed to dispose of them.

But material reality continues to prevail. There are myriads of "weak causes" that we will likely never perceive and they will go on to act as determinants of our thoughts and deeds.

quote:

...the political idea of bourgeoisie freedom which basically means "being left alone to do whatever you want"...


That's somewhat misleading; what you are supposed to "want" to do is accumulate. The only people who are "left alone to do whatever they want" are those who have already accumulated a substantial amount of wealth.

That's not a very large number.

And, believe me, even they are constantly pestered with "investment opportunities"...it is "presumed" that "everyone" wishes to accumulate without limit.

Other "components" of bourgeois "freedom" are largely "window-dressing". They may undergo nominal expansion or contraction according to the ruling class's estimate of what is "safe" and what could be "dangerous"...or what could be profitable and what can serve no purpose in maximizing wealth at the present time.

But except where the accumulation of wealth is concerned, bourgeois concepts of "freedom" are idealist...they exist "up in the air" with complete disregard of real people living in real history.

Thus, bourgeois concepts of "freedom" have no relevance to my opposition to the concept of a "vanguard party".

quote:

So freedom consists in understanding necessity and how to transform necessity.


This doesn't help very much. "Necessity" as an abstraction doesn't have any meaning to speak of...unless you're using that word in place of my "strong" and "weak" material causes.

I would suggest caution in the area of "transforming necessity" -- some "strong causes" can be eliminated...that doesn't mean we are "free" of material reality as a whole.

Or that we will ever be.
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First posted at AnotherWorldIsPossible on March 13, 2004
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quote:

If however, all that you've written is 'true', is it perhaps the case that the future is entirely predetermined and thus predictable theoretically?


Yes, provided...

1. The uncertainties at the quantum level "cancel out" one another...so that they have no causative weight at the macro-level;

2. If we could discover and weigh all of the "weak causes" of human behavior and how they interact with each other and with the "strong" causes.

I'm uncertain about the first and the second does seem to be a practical impossibility.

You see, by the time you "scale up" from the "quantum foam" to the level of protons and neutrons (matter "as we know it"), the quantum effects are quite small. Large atoms have been photographed...and they are "fuzzy balls"; the "fuzziness" is the remnant of quantum uncertainty.

There is one school of thought that locates human consciousness at the "intersection" of quantum and "normal" reality. But I don't find the argument very convincing...and, at this time, neither do most of the people working in that field. As far as is known, human consciousness is a product of electro-chemical activity in the brain...where quantum uncertainty does not appear to have any role.

But that could be wrong. If there is such a thing as objective free will, then it seems to me that the only material source of that would be quantum uncertainty.

In which case, you could never -- even in principle -- predict human behavior with perfect accuracy...you could only predict probabilities.
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First posted at Che-Lives on March 18, 2004
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