Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Free Will and the Cognitive Revoltuion

One of the more hotly debated topics among philosophers, especially in modern times, is whether or not we possess the much coveted thing commonly labelled 'free will'. This concept is usually described as the ability to make choices which are to some extent (this factor being decided by what side of the philosophical fence you stand on) unconstrained, and can in this way be said to be freely chosen. The existence of this somewhat elusive quality is pertinent not only to meta-physicians and abstracted philosophers, but bleeds into many areas of life, both in an academic sense and at a very personal level for each of us. As regards the former, the question of whether people make choices in a free or determined manner has huge consequences for scientific areas such as biology, sociology and especially psychology (behaviorism representing the deterministic side of things in this case), and for the entire area of law and ethics in general. Regarding the latter, as a living breathing human being, it is of huge concern to me and I would hope most of you whether or not our actions are at least in some sense our own. Religious concerns are obviously heavily invested in this topic also, with many of our friendly Western monotheistic religions taking a more deterministic view of things.

Within the area of cognitive psychology, both new and old, I have rarely seen mention of this issue, but it has always seemed to me to be one of the more important aspects which the study of us as cognitive agents touches upon and must eventually deal with in order to fully describe and explore the experience of a living organism.


Taking the traditional cognitivist view into examination, it seems clear that the little homonculus in our head would be considered the epitome of a free thinking free willed cognitive agent, and that schools of psychology which affiliate with these traditional views would be of the opinion that we very much possess the ability to make unconstrained choices. Of course thes eopinions would not be all black and white, and with the influence of psychoanalysis, behaviorism (which has since been exiled) and more recently information processing theory many in the field would admit that our choices are somewhat influence by factors such as our environment. It is just that this traditional ideology at its core would lean heavily towards a human as a free agent, which decides for itself how to navigate the world.

In roaming among more modern cognitive psychology perspectives such as embodiment, enaction and biogenics there is a definite trend back towards semi-behavioristic tendencies, in that the environment begins to play a much bigger role in how we function and act. The heart of these new ideas is to rid the body from notions of mind and erase the myriad of internal representations that some believe happen there. Empahsis is also put on cognitive experience being created not due to the interaction between body and world, but being the interaction itself, and this opens up the idea that the environment we try to make sense of is just as important as the body making sense of it.

I feel that these new ways of thinking about living itself raise the age old battle of free will once again, as stripping the body of the mind seems to posit a situation where the interactions between body and world occur almost without internal direction, and where the environment plays such a major role thats its infulence can be said to be almost all-encompassing. While to a certain extent this could just be a terribly misguided interpretation of these views, I cannot escape when I read more of these theories I feel like they are unknowingly or maybe very consciously creating a picture of life and cognition that is not only fresh and radical, but also very traditional in the sense that a very deterministic undercurrent runs strongly through a lot of these ideas.

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