Wednesday, March 30, 2016

I Beside the World

In ordinary life, we are in the world. However, we are capable of abstracting from the world presented to us, and imagine various what-ifs. These alterations may be more or less extreme, from the existence of unicorns to the non-existence of the world. What remains in any case, however, is the imaginer's awareness of what is imagined, that is, in all my imaginings, I remain. In imagination, then, I am completely separable from reality. I do not appear to be in reality, then, or at least I appear to be quite different from most reality. Because of this, I seem to come on the world as a quite different sort of thing, the world stands, as it were, opposite me.

I appear, from this angle, to be fixed, whereas the world about me appears malleable. I am therefore able to ask questions about comparisons between this way things are and other ways it could have been. This gives me access to modal terms such as possibility and necessity, as well as notions of ought, as I compare ways of acting in this world with one another.

On the other hand, my life may be determined in terms of the world's effects on me (granted that these effects are in interaction with my own effects on it). I am the person who has encountered this particular world in this particular way. My life, my consciousness, is essentially a consciousness in this world. I would, then, be a quite different individual had I been born into a different world. From this point of view, then, I seem to be, fundamentally, a product of the world, not co-equal with and opposite the world as in the above view.

The above seem quite contrary. One points out how much I can distance myself from the actual world, and how contingent it thus appears to be with respect to my own being.

One solution is to treat the first view about imagination as revealing nothing more than the extent of our imaginative powers. Thus, we would take my ability to imagine myself without the world but not the world without myself to be simply about my powers of imagination, and to have no relevance for metaphysics. Another solution is to take the second view as getting us wrong, and merely being about the connection between our experiences and the world our experiences take place in. Thus, in the latter solution, we would disconnect who I am from the life I have lived.

I do not particularly like either of these solutions. The first seems more acceptable than the second, however. The first threatens our modal concepts, suggesting that they are merely products of imagination. The second threatens our understanding of individuals as distinct, threatening to portray us each as fundamentally identical, empty selves over the world which possesses content. This is related to problems of free will. For any form of free will to work, various modal notions must be preserved, primarily the notion of ought. Most forms of determinism, likewise, treat our entanglement with the world as giving essential reasons to believe we are determined. Thus, any compatibilistic view of free will must preserve both points of view together in some way.

One way of doing this would be to argue that both views are equally right, and that neither is subsumable into the other. The most likely way of making this work would be to subsume both views under a third view. Perhaps we come upon the world already having our own, pre-experiential, content which then impinges upon our relation to the world and permits us to step back from it (that is, we may innately be a particular sort of person, independent of any physical existence). Perhaps, too, we are fundamentally linked to our experiences, but our experiences are less entangled with the reality out there than it seems, and more subject to our own creativity (to avoid LFW at all, this must be combined with pre-experiential content).

The problem with the idea that we have pre-existential non-physically generated content (e.g., character, dispositions, etc., which cannot be traced back to anything apparently contingent about our lives) is that it basically returns us to LFW because it is essentially inaccessible. It would be as helpful to maintaining some variety of personal determinism as certain hidden variable interpretations of quantum mechanics are to maintaining that the universe is determined rather than chancy. On the other hand, should such an account work best, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are, at one level at least, basically souls of some sort, though it at the same time risks reducing the self to a soul, and downplaying our nature as fundamentally embodied beings, and thus risks downplaying the necessity of the resurrection of the dead for beings like us. This issue with embodiment tends to arise with any view that requires souls, however, so it might not be much of a real problem, but rather a danger inherent in our being (assuming we are) body-soul amalgams. Note that, from a God's eye view, this would still be compatibilistic freedom, but with no hope of our ever being able to predict human actions even in principle, since certain variables (the pre-experiential content) would be available only to God.

An alternative might be to subsume our imaginative lives under our lives in the world, so that the experiences which constitute me include imaginative experiences which arise from my encounter with the world. This requires an account of why the notions which arise from purely imaginative thought should be regarded as having any weight. This might arise simply because we are capable of acting from the point of view which imagination provides, and thus are not constrained by actuality. The fact that only actuality is ever actual need not bother us so long as the awareness of alternatives plays a necessary role in explaining why this actuality was actualized rather than some other.

Subsumption, however, does not play very well with portraying a compatibilistic perspective from which one can act as an agent. It tends, instead, to present freedom as a permissible because unavoidable delusion.

One problem with taking the imaginative point of view too seriously is that we are incapable of imagining apart from a point of view, and thus the point of view which cannot be eradicated from imagining may simply be a feature of imagining. It need not be true that we really could not but exist, despite our inability to imagine such a state of affairs without our awareness, and so, apparently, ourselves, remaining. Nevertheless, such a viewpoint makes us feel as if we are somehow more stable than the fluctuating world around us. I do not essentially change along with the world, and it seems like I might have. Experiencing might have felt deeper, less malleable, than it does in imagination. If this had been the case, then we would have felt ourselves to change along with our representations of the world, and thus have felt ourselves as unstable as the world.

Perhaps this is the best solution: we actually can imagine the world without us, in spite of the fact that we remain looking at such a picture. The one who views the picture is not in the picture, and thus the picture can be a picture which does not include that one. The one we cannot remove is one who is not essential to the content of imagination, but to the act of imagining, just as one needs a thinker to think. In this case, imagining is a function of persons, who are conditioned. Imagination gives us access to alternative options for how the world may be, and thus spread options before us to choose from. In choosing from these options, we may be determined, yet this does not remove the fact that it is an agent choosing which takes place, and that the optionality of the options is relevant to what is going on. I suspect that the only way in which a determinism may contradict free will is if it removes any sense in which the options must be perceived as available options by the chooser at the time of choosing in order to explain what the chooser did on account of the choice.

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