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Galen Strawson


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The subject of this book is one of the most fascinating topics in philosophy, the problem of free will. And, for me, Strawson is right on target. I find it impossible to disagree with his analysis.

The free will problem consists essentially in a paradox: we feel we are free to choose, but it is difficult to understand how this could really be the case. If our actions are determined, they are not free; but the only alternative seems to be to say that they are random, and that would not be much of a freedom either. In an attempt to escape from the dilemma, people who believe in freedom often try to show that determinism is not true and that this makes us free.

Strawson's case is that the determinism issue is not fundamental. Whether determinism is true or not, ultimate freedom is logically impossible. The core of his argument, as I understand it, is this.

If our actions are not random, they arise from our mental state and our character. How we are determines what we do. But we cannot choose the sort of people we are. True, we can decide to become better people, as we are constantly urged to do by preachers and moralists, but this only shifts the problem back in time. We can only try to change ourselves according to principles which we have already accepted. So the quest for self-determination lands us in an eternal regression. We can never get beyond our given nature and disposition. As Schopenhauer said, we can choose what we do, but we cannot choose what we choose.

Note that this does not imply fatalism. We can act, Strawson says, and our actions do have important effects. "We can indeed be self-determining in the … sense of being able, by our own action, and in the light of our necessarily non-self-determined characters and desires, to determine to a very considerable extent what happens to us." What we cannot do is to choose our own character.

I find this to be a very important book, though it has to be said that it is not always easy reading for the non-professional. Strawson clearly has his fellow philosophers in mind and he is anxious to forestall objections, so there is plenty of detailed argument. Still, he writes clearly and sometimes humorously. Also, he provides at the outset some suggestions for skipping various sections, and this helps to make the discussion easier to follow.

Given that he is right, what follows? Clearly there is a problem. It is psychologically almost impossible to accept the truth of what Strawson calls non-self-determination.

People do not make themselves to be the way they are. And this gives rise to a vital sense in which they are not ultimately responsible for what they do. But they go on thinking of themselves as if they were thus responsible.
To try to remedy this illusion, Strawson suggests that we undertake what he calls a thought-experiment.
The thought-experiment consists simply in the rigorous application of the belief in determinism to the present course of one's life: one does one's best to think rapidly of every smallest action one performs or movement one makes—or indeed everything whatsoever that happens, so far as one is oneself concerned—as determined; as not, ultimately, determined by oneself; this for a minute or two, say.
This sounds very reminiscent of the Buddhist practice of "mindfulness" and indeed a little later on we find Strawson explicitly discussing Buddhism. Buddhist monks, he suggests, may have succeeded in altering profoundly how they experience themselves and others and this may provide them with a more correct view of the world. In an appendix, he describes a slightly different thought-experiment which is more specifically related to the Buddhist "no-Self" idea.

The concluding chapter returns again to the implications of this way of thinking for our view of ourselves and for our concept of the nature of truth.

We are sometimes told that modern philosophers spend their time debating about matters that have no real importance for non-philosophers. There may be some truth in this charge, but, if so, Strawson's book is an example to the contrary. He touches on deep questions, not least that concerning the relationship between intellectual knowledge and insight.

1 February 2006

%T Freedom and Belief
%A Strawson, Galen
%I Clarendon Press
%C Oxford
%D 1986
%G ISBN 0-19-8249838-1
%P xii + 338 pp
%K philosophy

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