Saturday 3 July 2010

Free will and narratives

Today I went to an excellent British Academy symposium on freedom of the will. As ever, a lot of the focus was on individual actions. But there was a mention of the idea that we should look at lives, or reasonable chunks of lives, rather than individual actions, and a related comment that the neurophysiological experiments to date do not take account of the role of memory (not on principle: it is just that some types of experiment are easier to do than other types).

If the main motive for worrying about free will is a desire to reconcile our inner experience of our lives with our scientific understanding of ourselves, then there might well be mileage in the idea that we should not start with individual actions. Instead, we should look at a period, say a month or a year, that incorporates a large number of actions. We could then ask whether anything in the scientific image would prevent us from viewing that period as a portion of a life that was led, by the subject, in a human way with which we could feel comfortable. Was it coherent, was it goal-directed, did it include the achievement of a reasonable proportion of goals, was creativity displayed, and so on? The individual actions would become secondary. It is tempting to say that they would be epiphenomena in relation to the narrative of the period. Then the relationship between manifest and scientific images of individual actions would become unimportant to us.

Such an approach would neatly accommodate the fact that which actions are identified as such can depend very much on the narrative context. And the form that the narrative took would also depend on the social context.

If this approach were to be pursued, there would however be a stumbling block. One of the features of our lives is that we do not know what is coming next. We live at the forward edge of a growing chunk of past time. That moving edge, and our ignorance of what will come next, are important for our way of life. We often ask “What shall I do now, in order to influence what comes after now?”. The presence of the moving edge, and our awareness of it, place great importance on the momentary action. That importance, and the fact that the movement of the edge constantly adds to the past, strongly incline us to see the narrative as supervenient on momentary actions, not the other way round.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting approach, but I see a problem in remembering your goals and creative solutions.
    A journal could help.
    Such a disciplined and recorded life would resemble that of I. Kant. :))))
    And he did achieve quite a lot.