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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Free will and desire

Are we free only when we act independently of desire? Or can one speak of free will also in the case of acts determined by desire? In other words, is eating while hungry an instance of free will? Or is only the whimsical movement of one's arm with no exact reason a free act?

The second example is the one discussed by Lev Tolstoj in War and Peace and it is the standard example of free will. Maybe so standard, that it is almost purely speculative. At least according to several schools of Indian philosophy, desire is a fundamental part of the decision process. We do not go on moving our arms randomly, without any purpose. Our usual behaviour is much more finalized (, and hence belongs to the first category). In fact, the arm-case might be re-interpreted as just an instance of the "desire to prove that one has free will", with this desire having itself previous causes (one's education, etc.). Then, the question amounts to the problem of the link between desire and resolution. Are one's resolutions free, if they have desire at their basis? Or does free will only exist independently of/against desire? Indian schools such as Mīmāṃsā have naturally acknowledged the role of desire (and also Aristotle explains the human tendency to speculate as caused by a natural desire). The second option, by contrast, seems to be too much determined by the Western manichean approach to flesh vs. spirit.

What do you think? What is the view of the schools you are more familiar with?

On the necessity of desire for an action to be undertaken in Mīmāṃsā, see here. For the Nyāya stance, see here. On free will, se here. On free will in Indian philosophy, see here. For a Western point of view on the topic discussed above, you might want to read this question raised on academia.edu (and its "answer" by Richard Price).

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ciao Elisa. I do not have a developed comment to make, but thought that I might mention a strange and quite disturbing thing I read a couple of days ago (completely randomly, in the course of my editing job): it seems that one or more experiments have proved that the body prepares itself for an imminent action BEFORE the intention to perform that action becomes conscious in the mind. This definitely seems to offer an occasion for the kind of interdisciplinary philosophical discussion you talk about more recently in this blog.

Cordialmente,

Filippo
Pune

(a lavoro, e percio', per il momento, "anonimo")

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Filippo, I agree that it is an interesting topic. Although I must admit that I find it interesting especially insofar as I tend to be vaguely suspicious about the possibility of detecting the exact moment one becomes aware of something. At most, one can detect the moment in which a certain neuronal activity occurs, one which has been seen before to occur together with consciousness. But concomitance is not necessarily identity.

(Filippo… the one that I know?)

Anonymous said...

Lo stesso. I see that you have already thought about this dimension of the issue. The neurological perspective on the mystery of consciousness must be absolutely fascinating. Alas, too little time, at this point: as an undergraduate, I came to a crossroads where I had to choose between continuing my study of sanskrit philosophy, or moving more towards sanskrit literature. I don’t regret choosing the latter, but it does mean that I have not had, and never again will have, the time to deepen my knowledge of the former. Still, I know enough to be able to enjoy your blog -- per il quale, grazie.

Anonymous said...

Lo stesso. I see that you have already thought about this dimension of the issue. The neurological perspective on the mystery of consciousness must be absolutely fascinating. Alas, too little time, at this point: as an undergraduate, I came to a crossroads where I had to choose between continuing my study of sanskrit philosophy, or moving more towards sanskrit literature. I don’t regret choosing the latter, but it does mean that I have not had, and never again will have, the time to deepen my knowledge of the former. Still, I know enough to be able to enjoy your blog -- per il quale, grazie.

elisa freschi said...

I see your point. I took the opposite direction and I keep on enjoying Indian poetry and dramas (although I must admit that I rarely find something interesting to read about it on-line…any recommendation?).

Anonymous said...

Well, off the top of my head, there's this (a biased recommendation, since Venetia is my friend, but not too biased):

http://venetiaansell.wordpress.com/

Anonymous said...

Obviously I should rather have said, "But the bias is well founded".

elisa freschi said...

Ciao Filippo,
I do not think I ever met Venetia, but she seems passionate about what she does, which is really nice and appealing. I would add some questions to the descriptions one finds in her blog, though (but this is my personal bias).

Anonymous said...

One thing worth mentioning is that she and her husband are motorcyclists (a picture of the use they made at their marriage of one of their Royal Enfields can be found on the internet, in fact), and have personally traced the route of the rare dutakavya she is translating on her blog. I was amazed and glad to see that the great David Shulman had found his way to the blog and commented on it.

Anonymous said...

Eccola. Hihi!

http://www.gl1800.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Venetia-Gautams-Wedding-417.jpg

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