Free Will

Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism | VPRO Documentary – YouTube

We should think some about free will here. Lots of people suppose that they are exercising free will if they get to make a choice, without worrying about the potential for choices to be engineered, at least statistically at the level of populations, perhaps by being nudged at the level of individuals. 

The traditional view about free will takes free will to be absolutely uncaused, such that any time you make one choice, you could have as easily made another. Philosophers have largely abandoned this view of free will, but it remains widespread. Empirically we know full well that people choices and behaviors can be manipulated to varying degrees. Indeed, knowledge of how to predict and manipulate human behavior is the foundation of the attention economy.

Most philosophers that work on free will are now more interested in analyses of free will that don’t conflict with causal influences. One example would be to think of free will in terms of the mind operating freely in response to information it recieves. A freely operating mind might be sensitive to reasons that bear on some issue, or a mind might be stuck in some way that prevents it from responding to things in effective or illuminating ways. I once heard this described as the weathervane theory of free will. A freely operating weathervane will swivel to point north when that’s the direction the wind is coming from.¬†Likewise, a freely operating mind will be responsive to good reasons for thinking or doing something. A mind that is stuck might double down on the belief that Q, even when we have compelling evidence and reason to think that Q is false. I’ll let you think of other examples.

Now, we can offer a further diagnosis of the problem with surveillance capitalism. Undermining the free and unfettered operation of the mind in deciding what to think and do is a foundational operating principle for the information environment we’ve built.¬†

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