Philosophy | Theory of Action
P366 | 3213 | O'Connor


What makes us more than complicated (and sometimes goofy) robots? "We can
CHOOSE how to act - we act of our own free will," you say. Ah. And what
exactly does that amount to, this thing called "free will"? We'll think
long and hard about this one. Another answer you might have given to my
robot question is "We're AWARE of what we're doing, whereas it's 'all dark
inside,' as best we can tell, for robots." While this opens another
subject (that of conscious experience) which is treated extensively in a
philosophy of mind course, we'll have to spend some of our time thinking
about it, too, as it turns out that most philosophical accounts of free
will connect it to a broader account of mind.

Our questions are of obvious moral significance, since they concern how we
should think about ourselves and our fellow human beings. Even our dogs.
(Might dogs have free will? How would you decide?) We hold most adult
humans responsible for their behavior on the assumption that their choices
somehow have their ultimate origin in them. Yet we know that how we make
choices is heavily 'shaped' by our environment and our genes. The Human
Genome Project has laid the groundwork for the much greater understanding
of genetic influences on behavior that surely will come in the future.
Here's a disquieting thought: what if the verdict of future science is
that our view of ourselves as morally responsible agents is all a crock?
COULD that happen? What kind of evidence would it take?

Philosophers have not come to any settled agreement on all this.
(Surprise!) We'll read two books setting out accounts that clash at just
about every point, which is an efficient, if jarring, way of getting a
good handle on the options. One is by a very smart person who defends all
the wrong views, and the other is by...well, I'm not able to fairly judge
the other one's merits, but he does seem to me to have the right views.
(Check out the readings, dummy. And no, you'll not earn points by agreeing
with what I say: the goal, as always, is to learn to think systematically
about the matter at hand and to give a reasoned defense of the view you
find yourself drawn to.) We'll end the course by reading a really slick
novel by William Golding (of LORD OF THE FLIES fame) that has free will as
a major theme. There'll be lots of short quizzes, a couple papers, and an
exam.

Daniel Dennett, ELBOW ROOM; Timothy O'Connor, PERSONS AND CAUSES; William
Golding, FREE FALL.