Philosophical Conundrums – Part 2

Here is Littlejohn’s response to the email I sent him.

Saturday, October 4, 2008
Dear Jason:
It is nice to hear from you. My time is, in fact, limited and it is
difficult for me to fit you in, much as I would like. I will make some small
effort tonight, however.
That a concept is not realized(*) does not render it useless. Physics would
be difficult to teach to beginning students if one could not speak of a
“frictionless surface,” for instance. The brilliance of Galileo – and it is
truly brilliant – lies in his recognition that one could reason more cleanly
if some things were completely ignored. It is true that a feather takes
longer to fall than a cannon ball, owing to atmospheric drag or friction.
The ramps he made in which he concluded that a ball rolling down and then up
again would regain its intial height were not perfect realizations either. I
have no doubt the balls eventually stopped, even if they rolled back and
forth a couple of times. They made noise – and sound takes energy to
produce, hence is drained from the system. The boards vibrated, and such
stresses produce heat, which is another drain on the energy of the system of
primary interest. Galileo was able to get past these irrelevancies,
realizing perhaps that there are circumstances, time scales, and the
possibility of reducing these incidental effects which would enable him to
draw powerful conclusions from the idealization. The concept of freedom is
like that.
Actually, I have similar concerns to yours, but my brain comes at it from
the other end. What I say is, “Slavery is not a yes-or-no thing; it is a
matter of degree.”
If God has attributes of any kind, can It be free? Or must It conform to
those attributes? What would it mean for a thing to have no attributes
whatsoever? Would it even be something? Or is God the void? Nothingness?
Such questions, and yours, are intellectually amusing, but ultimately don’t
get one very far.
The thing about an idealiztion, like motion without friction, is that it
can capture the dominant or essential features of things. It then becomes an
additional exercise to account for the friction, the deviations from
ideality – the nuances, degree and extent – to which the concept is not
Newton’s brilliance lay in being able to demonstrate that the idealizations
of Galileo can actually be extended to friction, to gravity, to a very broad
spectrum of observable phenomena.
Perhaps you could spend a little time not worrying about whether (perfect)
freedom exists, but rather what phenomena it is capable of being applied to,
and what (minimal number of) other concepts are required to account for the
degree to which one (or God) is unfree.
(*) That is, there is no “real” instance of it.

Philosophical Conundrums Part 1

Here’s a philosophical problem I cannot figure out for the life of me.   It’s times like these when you just have to find some help.  I decided to send an email to the smartest man I know, Littlejohn.


Thoughts On Free-Will


How are you?  I hope all is well.  I have not contacted you in some time because I know you have been busy helping with science projects at the school.  I am doing well, but I have a philosophical problem which has been troubling me for a while, and I was wondering if you might have some insights.  It is regarding free-will, decisions, control over our lives, etc.  I have a “gut instinct” that some sort of freedom exists within man, but when I rationally think it all out, I come to the conclusion that we are not free in any sense.  Let me explain the problem.

Oftentimes we find the state of affairs in this world unsatisfactory.  Imagine if we were to come to God and tell him, “You are not doing things well.”  To this, God replies, “What would you like changed?”  To which we respond, “Our bodies are not well made for the harsh environment we live in.”  God replies, “Fine, I will let you all choose your body.”

Immediately God strips that “divine spark” (“spirit”) from your body, and disconnects you from it.  Then you argue to God, “I do not like this spirit.  I do not want it.”  To this, God says, “Fine, I will remove your spirit as well.”

So now we’re in a situation where we are nothing but a free-will.  We are an undefinable “force” which can “choose”.  Completely undetermined, and free.

God brings out every form and type of body and every possible environment to place it in in front of us.  One body is a lizard, another an alien being with a big head, another a cat, another a cow, another a human female, another a human male, etc.

Upon thinking this over, I first consider that if I was in this bare-bones state of existence, being nothing but a free-will, I would have no preference whatsoever for any of the bodies, nor which environment it’s placed in.  You may think, “I’d want a beautiful body”, but what is beauty?  What we find beautiful as humans is based on our physiology, and various chemicals firing off in our bodies.  You may think, “I’d want a body which is strong”, but what is strength?  That’s relative, and presupposes a desire to do something with the strength.  You may think, “I’d want a body with a quick mind”, but that presupposes that you want to know something, and for some purpose.

It seems to me that the choice of a body by any bare-bones free will put in this situation, for lack of a better way of putting it, would be random.  So I end up “choosing” one of the bodies.

Now that I have a body, “I” could choose an environment which is preferable I suppose, but now the argument steps in whether “I” really chose anything.  The body, by its physiological nature, chose the environment it prefered to be in.  “I” had no preference for an environment without first existing in a body.  Then my “preference”, whatever a preference may be, was the body impelling me to do this action, as opposed to another.

If we were to examine the free-will, which somehow still exists “within” this body, its actions are still supposedly undetermined – not impelled by something telling it what to do.  If that’s so, then it still would have no preference, and for the most part, we can still consider its “decisions” random.

I’ve been pondering this and other thought experiments like it, and I keep coming to the conclusion that freedom does not exist, or at least, I cannot find any sort of satisfactory way of identifying what it is, or how it operates.  I can’t even explain PAST manifestations of decisions, or what they are.

Hope to hear from you soon.  Take care Littlejohn.

– Jason