I'm really enjoying my decision to buy a used copy of Thomas Nagel's The View from Nowhere via Amazon. But after reading the "Freedom" chapter this morning, I'm convinced that I didn't freely choose to buy the book.
It felt that way to me, though. Which doesn't mean a whole lot, truth-wise, because reality is what it is, not how we consider it to be.
I've written a lot about free will on this blog. (You can find those posts by using the Google search box in the right sidebar.)
I don't believe it exists. Neither do many neuroscientists and philosophers, including Nagel. Pleasingly, he approaches this subject in a different way than other people whose writings on free will I've read and enjoyed. Yet he comes to the same basic conclusion.
Free will as commonly conceived is highly unlikely, if not impossible. Here's a passage that encapsulates Nagel's basic approach to this question.
I wish to act not only in light of the external circumstances facing me and the possibilities that they leave open, but in light of the internal circumstances as well: my desires, beliefs, feelings, and impulses. I wish to be able to subject my motives, principles, and habits to critical examination, so that nothing moves me to action without my agreeing to it.
In this way, the setting against which I act is gradually enlarged and extended inward, till it includes more and more of myself, considered as one of the contents of the world.
In its earliest stages the process does genuinely seem to increase freedom, by making self-knowledge and objectivity part of the basis of action. But the danger is obvious.
The more completely the self is swallowed up in the circumstances of action, the less I have to act with. I cannot get completely outside myself. The process that starts as a means to the enlargement of freedom seems to lead to its destruction.
When I contemplate the world as a whole I see my actions, even at their empirically most "free," as part of the course of nature, and this is not my doing or anyone else's. The objective self is not in a position to pull the strings of my life from outside any more than TN [Thomas Nagel] is.
At the end of the path that seems to lead to freedom and knowledge lie skepticism and helplessness. We can act only from inside the world, but when we see ourselves from outside, the autonomy we experience from inside appears as an illusion, and we who are looking from outside cannot act at all.
Part of what Nagel is getting at here is that human actions are determined by a host of influences outside of our control. Genetics. Culture. Education. Experiences of many varieties. Society. Other people. Unconscious influences. Emotions. Instincts. Nature. And more besides.
From the inside, most of us feel that we're freely choosing to act. However, when we look at other people, it is easy to think "They're acting that way because of _______," with that blank being filled by many possibilities of determining factors.
That's easy to do, because we view other people much more objectively than we view ourselves. Yet as Nagel says, when we subject our own actions to the same sort of analysis we apply to others, it becomes obvious that we are equally influenced by factors beyond our control.
I don't have a problem with that.
Being strongly inclined to philosophical Taoism and Buddhism (leaving out their religious aspects), I like the idea of being a humble part of the whole, a tiny bubble of being whose movements are directed not by me (whoever that is), but by my interactions with the big wide world that surrounds me.
Sure, like almost everyone I have a feeling that I'm free to choose what to do, think, and such. However, I also have a feeling that the sun sets, which also is an illusion, since actually it is our planet which is moving.
Nagel has some ideas about how to deal with the fact that it is very difficult to avoid feeling that we possess free will, in much the same way that it is very difficult to avoid feeling "the sun is setting" -- even if someone is an astronomer.
Here's part of what Nagel has to say on this subject.
We might try, first, to develop as complete an objective view of ourselves as we can, and include it in the basis of our actions, wherever it is relevant. This would mean consistently looking over our own shoulders at what we are doing and why (though often it will be a mere formality).
But this objective self-surveilance will inevitably be incomplete, since some knower must remain behind the lens if anything is to be known.
Moreover, each of us knows this -- knows that some of the sources of his actions are not objects of his attention and choice. The objective view of ourselves includes both what we can know and can use, and what we know that we do not know, and therefore know that we cannot use.
Let me call this the essentially incomplete objective view, or incomplete view, for short. The incomplete view of ourselves in the world includes a large blind spot, behind our eyes, so to speak, that hides something we cannot take into account in acting, because it is what acts.
Yet this blind spot is part of our objective picture of the world, and to act from as far out as possible we must to some extent include a recognition of it in the basis of our actions.
(My first post about Nagel's book is here.)