N°75 - 2021/2

Liberty and cognition

Monier Cyril & Khamassi Mehdi
Call for communications for a special issue (n° 75) of the journal (Intellectica.org) coordinated by Cyril Monier & Mehdi Khamassi.

Free will is classically defined as the fact that our will is the conscious and ultimate source of each of our actions, ultimate in the sense that our will has neither determinants nor previous sources. The links between free will, determinism and responsibility are one of the most debated topics in philosophy. Moreover, discussions have been strongly revived by cognitive science since Libet's experiments in the 1980s with a very abundant literature. In these active exchanges between disciplines, the personal experience of free will and / or determinism of many contributors often comes to interfere with the scientific or philosophical argumentation which is in fact a fascinating subject in itself. Two main positions are opposed: - On the one hand, a defense of free will as the ultimate source of our actions, by simply rejecting determinism (incompatibilism) or by reducing it (compatibilism). Any questioning of free will is seen as a threat to morality considered essential to the maintenance of society - on the other hand, a rejection of free will because it is seen as incompatible with determinism. The latter is the dominant position in psychology and cognitive neuroscience nowadays. Our decision making and actions would result from unconscious processes followed by a sense of illusory freedom. We would then not be responsible for our actions, and therefore not worthy of either blame or praise.

This issue is an opportunity to examine a third position which considers free will, seen as a free decree, as an erroneous concept but which defends a human freedom within causal determinism as emanating from a ‘free necessity’, as defined by Spinoza. This position is part of a naturalistic, coherent, deterministic but non-reductionist approach, with ascending and descending causalities, a clear rejection of dualism and placing man back within nature in the continuity of living things. Who we are and the world we live in determine our choices, and our choices determine the world. This approach to freedom can therefore be considered both as an incompatibilist position in its defense of determinism and its rejection of the prejudice constituted by free will, and at the same time a compatibilist position since it defends another form of human freedom reconcilable with causal determinism which should not be considered either as a fatalism or as a predetermination. It should be noted that many compatibilist authors defend a concept of similar freedom without referring to Spinoza. This issue is particularly an opportunity to promote the idea here that clearly dissociating the concepts of free will and free necessity would help to clarify these debates in a salutary way. Furthermore, the concept of causal determinism in the sense of necessity must be dissociated from the scientific understanding of this necessity, as well as from materialist reductionism. For example, the complexity of the brain, its critical behavior, as well as the variability or the neuronal plasticity in perceptual and decision-making processes cannot in any case account for free will. Free necessity is at the level of the individual in interaction with his environment.

These questions also have ethical and societal consequences that we wish to examine in this issue. Beyond freedom, we need to understand how to orient our lives in an ethical manner and what are our room for maneuver. Freedom seen as a free necessity is a program of emancipation that requires a reversal of perspective: spontaneous desire considered to be the quintessence of free will loses its sovereignty and must be questioned. According to Spinoza, gaining one's freedom consists in fighting the passive form of desire and becoming active thanks to the knowledge of the causes of our desires, allowing the coherent fulfillment of oneself by oneself. Thus freedom is the autonomy of a desire which, for the greater part of these acts, is its own foundation and its own reference. This freedom is not given to us at the start and is never absolute. It is acquired through a better knowledge of ourselves, of the sources of our desires, such as mimetic desire, and of everything that influences our decisions in general. It is a conscious adherence to our own inner necessity. It is acquired through effort by developing and exercising better attentional and emotional control, a better understanding of the consequences of our actions and their innumerable repercussions in an interdependent world. The notion of caring for both our bodies and our mind then becomes essential to develop our inner freedom and overlaps with the notion of equanimity. It is therefore with continuous work and learning leading to a greater decisional autonomy, conscious and unconscious, while taking into account a greater number of internal and external parameters, that we can manage to make wiser decisions and therefore more "free" in the sense that they more faithfully reflect who we are. In this process of emancipation, knowledge and the fight against prejudices are essential elements, in particular the prejudice of free will which prevents us from questioning the source of our desires by considering them as prime, and the finalist prejudice which reverses the causes and effects, and dualistic prejudice. This freedom is part of evolution and development. We can consider human phylogeny and ontogeny, as well as its culture, as a continuous movement towards more or less autonomy, more being more desirable to allow the emergence of a responsible subject.

This conception of freedom seems to agree better with the feelings of agency and responsibility recently studied by cognitive sciences. It should make it possible to better understand the role of consciousness in the learning of decisional autonomy. Cognitive science is interested in our many judgment biases with the idea that the knowledge and understanding by each of us of these cognitive biases can help us make better decisions. We will focus, for example, on the study of cognitive dissonance, on the role of emotions, on highlighting the different decision-making systems producing a whole series of cognitive biases: availability, recency, emotional, anchoring, confirmation, prediction, self-justification. To understand what determines our desires and behaviors, it is also essential to study in detail the social influences and in particular the neural bases of mimicry. Free necessity also seems close to the conception of freedom that ordinary people have as evidenced by experimental psychology. According to these studies, most people do not perceive determinism as a threat to freedom of choice but are more afraid of the idea that our brains make decisions independently of our consciousness, demonstrating once again problems generated by a dualistic view of body and mind.

The objective of this issue of Intellectica on the theme "Free necessity & cognition" is to explore and confront in more detail this notion of freedom in the light of recent knowledge resulting from work in the sciences of cognition. The term cognition will also be taken here in the broad sense of knowledge. Thus the central theme is to examine and explain how knowledge and what types of knowledge can enable men to walk towards freedom. As many philosophers and scientists have clarified in recent years, Spinoza's philosophy offers a naturalistic, coherent and non-reductionist framework to be able to discuss, interpret and integrate the results of neuroscience and the sciences of cognition on decision-making, volition, the phenomena of consciousness, the role of attention, emotions, the feeling of agency and responsibility. We would like to continue this approach and develop exchanges between philosophy and neurosciences in this theme.

The articles can be written in French or English. They should not be technical, nor to specialized, so that they can be read by a relatively wide audience having some acquaintance with the domain. The articles are thus somewhat epistemological in nature, and attempt to give an account of the major lines of a theme. You can consult the on-line archives of Intellectica to see the sort of article that the journal has published over the years (http://intellectica.org/fr/numeros).

Please send you manuscript (or your questions) to : soumission@intellectica.org
Instructions for authors : https://intellectica.org/en/authors
Deadline : 1st March 2021