Chairs: Sitting, Standing, and Free Will

“A philosophy professor walks into his classroom to give his students their final exam. He places his chair on his desk and instructs the class to use every applicable thing they’ve learned over the duration of the course to prove that the chair does not exist. The students launched into their epic essays to prove that this chair didn’t exist, with the exception of one student. This student spends thirty seconds writing her answer, then promptly turns in the paper to the astonishment of both her peers and the professor. Weeks later, when grades were released, it was this very student that received the highest grade in the class. When the rest of the class asked the student what she had written to get such a grade, she responded with two words: what chair?

 

The above story serves as a proper introduction and segue into looking at the problem of prediction through the perspective of a philosopher. Whereas the frameworks for discussing prediction within the fields of physics and biology are based on definitive fact and evidence, historical conjecture on prediction within philosophy is just that: conjecture. This is not to say however that the conjecture is meaningless, in fact quite the opposite is true. By attempting to come up with a framework for discussion in the absence of empirical fact, the philosopher works in a space where biologists and physicists are unable.

 

While examining historical philosophical perspectives on prediction, it becomes increasingly apparent that the nature of prediction is explicitly tied to free-will, and that for the most part the two are irreconcilable. This is summed in essence by one of the great dogmas of determinism. According to the material philosopher Leucippus, “Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity”. Leucippus, and his contemporary Democritus, claimed that all things, being composed of atoms in a void were strictly controlled by causal laws. As a result, everything could be predicted, and humans, being composed of the same predictable atoms, were destined to follow a pre-determined path. The opposing view, that of indeterminism, was first argued by Aristotle. While Aristotle acknowledged a causal chain of events, he also acknowledged the presence of “accidents” caused by chance, which threw out of balance the causal chain of events. It is from this break in the causal chain of events that human free-will arises. Moreover, it is the presence of both free-will and these “accidents” that the future cannot be predicted.

 

You were probably not expecting to hear a joke about chairs and philosophy as the preface to the essay on prediction. Perhaps this is why this is the most appropriate opening for the essay. I am keen to believe in the presence of free-will. The benefits of believing in free-will (regardless of its existence) are salient. In clinical studies, people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally. In an attempt to exhibit some sort of free-will, even on a minute scale, it was necessary for me to start this essay on something completely unrelated.

 

Ironically, one philosophical framework for discussing free will proposed in the 19th century theological text Grace, Actual and Habitual; A Dogmatic Treatise, involves an aforementioned chair. The thought experiment goes as follows:

1. If a person is sitting in a chair and chooses to stand up, they have exhibited free will.

2. If a person is sitting in a chair and chooses to stay seated, they have exhibited free will.

3. If a person is tied to a chair, and attempts to stand up, they have exhibited a lack of free will.

4. If a person is tied to a chair, and chooses to stay seated, it is unsure whether or not they have free will.

 

The first 3 cases of the thought experiment are quite self explanatory; either the person has exhibited free will or not. The fourth case is the most interesting however, as it suggests that one can do what is predicted and simultaneously demonstrate free will. A prediction for a person tied to a chair may be that the person remains in the chair. This does not mean however that the person can’t exhibit free-will by choosing to remain in the chair. Another philosophical theory known as compatibilism suggests that there must be a deterministic connection between our will and our actions, but that this allows us to take responsibility for our actions, including credit for the good and blame for the bad.

 

I began this essay with an attempt to demonstrate free-will by writing about something seemingly off-topic. While my essay topic was pre-destined to be about prediction, the path I chose to explore it was one born of my own free-will. Historical philosophical perspectives on this essay might suggest that it exhibits both free-will, and the potential for prediction.

 

Sources:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/

http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/history/

https://archive.org/details/graceactualhabit07pohl

http://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill/#SH6a