Ludicrously-large sense-of-self as a way to have free will

Galen Strawson (1994) succinctly explains why we can’t be truly morally responsible for any action. The argument also speaks to why we don’t have free will. It goes:

(1) Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself.

(2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects.

(3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.

This impossibility thesis holds regardless of whether determinism holds, i.e., whether everything we do “has a cause, and hence an explanation; even if the explanation is inaccessible to us” (Strawson, 1989/2008, p.338).

Under determinism we and all the actions we take are caused by something outside of us and consequently causa sui fails. Under indeterminism, some randomness – inside or outside our bodies – contributes to an event happening, which doesn’t feel like we are in control either.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and taking it seriously leads to interesting ways of thinking about – coming to terms with! – the reality in which we find ourselves. If we need to find meaning in this existence then we need to do so without relying on us being the originator of our actions. We aren’t the #MainCharacter of our existence. Concepts like meritocracy and punishment need a rethink too.

Deep curiosity about what happens next seems to be one attribute that runs deep – hence why we watch films even though we know the ending has been predetermined. I’ve recently discovered a Yiddish proverb which goes along these lines: “You should go on living – if only to satisfy your curiosity.” Not that you could do otherwise if everything is determined; however, the proverb itself offers a causal nudge.

Also if you experience or do something pleasant or important or desirable, accepting that you did not cause it to happen but rather that a universe-old causal chain led inevitably to it happening makes the event more meaningful, if anything.

But recently I have been wondering what exactly this something that supposedly cannot be a cause of itself actually is. Intuitively, when I think about whether or not I have free will I think of my Self as encased in a body. The aspects of me of which I am consciously aware feel like me, as do unconscious aspects which I cannot experience but which I know are there: all the gory bodily processes which keep me running like my bladder’s internal sphincter. Outside the bounds of me is not me; it seems so obvious it’s tautology. However, everything that comprises my Self comes from outside me. My genes came from my parents. My experiences come from the world around me. Each of the cause-effect chains stretching back to the beginning of time is clearly outside my body.

There is a tradition of pondering where Self begins and ends, for instance as popularised in The Extended Mind by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Consider how much we rely on things in our environment to get things done. Clark and Chalmers discuss Otto, a fictional someone who, like factual us, has dispositional beliefs that lurk somewhere in memory until called upon in context. Otto supplements his skull-encased memory with external notes, which lurk on a page until re-read when needed. And like his dispositional beliefs, they have a deep impact on who he is:

“Most of us already accept that the self outstrips the boundaries of consciousness; my dispositional beliefs, for example, constitute in some deep sense part of who I am. If so, then these boundaries may also fall beyond the skin. The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Ottoย himselfย is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources.”

Kusch (1999/2005, p. 262) also illustrates how stuff going on outside us can get under our skin and become part of our Self:

“It is because culture shapes our bodies that it shapes our brains; and it is because culture shapes our brains – literally causing some areas to grow more, others less […] – that at least some states of the brain might well be called social states. They are social because they are real artefacts of our culture […]”

Here is where the Ludicrously-Large Self (LLS) Thesis comes in. Under LLS, whether or not determinism holds, everything causally implicated in who we are and what we do becomes part of the Self. We certainly cannot be consciously aware of the vast majority of this since it extends spatially and temporally back to the beginning of time (hence Ludicrously Large). The consciously aware bit does not bother me – I feel quite attached to my bladder’s internal sphincter, even though I have no awareness of it.

Now Strawson’s first proposition, “Nothing can be causa sui“, melts away. With the neatly encased model of Self, external cause-effect chains lead to who we are and what we do, whereas now under LLS we take each of those events as part of us – hence we are causes of ourselves.

LLS is a radical challenge to our sense of identity; e.g., “even the phrase โ€˜each otherโ€™ doesnโ€™t make any sense” (Rumi). However, our conscious experiences of the world do seem to be distinct, even if they are wholly determined. My experience of the world seems to be over here, now, and not dispersed across spacetime.