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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Isabelle Stengers
Isabelle Stengers is a Belgian philosopher of science noted for her collaboration with the Nobel-prize winning physical chenist Ilya Prigogine. Together they produced two landmark books on chaos and complexity theory, Order Out Of Chaos in 1984, and The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature in 1997..

Stengers is a pre-eminent interpreter of Alfred North Whitehead. For many years, she taught a course on Whitehead at the Free University of Brussels, and in 2002 published Penser avec Whitehead: "Une libre et sauvage création de concepts", a book of over 500 pages explicating Whitehead, whose Process and Reality was only 400 pages.

At the end of Part One, Stengers grapples with the idea of "decision" in Whitehead's thought. She first notes that an "actual occasion" contains multiple incoming prehensions from past occasions which Whitehead calls "alternative suggestions." These she identifies with William James's alternative possibilities, which is the basis of two-stage models of free will.

Stengers quotes this fragment from Science and the Modern World.

every actual occasion is set within a realm of alternative interconnected entities. This realm is disclosed by all the untrue propositions which can be predicated significantly of that occasion. It is the realm of alternative suggestions, whose foothold in actuality transcends each actual occasion. The real relevance of untrue propositions for each actual occasion is disclosed by art, romance, and by criticism in reference to ideals. It is the foundation of the metaphysical position which I am maintaining that the understanding of actuality requires a reference to ideality. The two realms are intrinsically inherent in the total metaphysical situation. The truth that some proposition respecting an actual occasion is untrue may express the vital truth as to the aesthetic achievement. It expresses the ‘great refusal’ which is its primary characteristic. An event is decisive in proportion to the importance (for it) of its untrue propositions:

Stengers' analysis contains echoes of the great existentialists' notions that any "decision" involves the "destruction" of some alternative possibilities condemning them to "non-being." For example, Jean-Paul Sartre's L'être et le néant.

Then Stengers homes in on James' notion of "doing otherwise as the essence of a free decision."

Sometimes, in the course of this text, I have been unable not to anticipate, and to use the word "decision," which Whitehead was to use in Process and Reality to name the "breaking off" that turns the occasion into the affirmation of a "thus and not otherwise." When he named the "great refusal," Whitehead himself could doubtless not help but be inhabited by a syntax that makes the occasion the producer of its limitation. No doubt he was aware, when writing Science and the Modern World, that his concept of an occasion was merely a first approximation. And perhaps the use of the word "decision," in Process and Reality, indicates that he has henceforth provided himself with the means to fully affirm the meaning William James conferred upon this term: that of a living moment that produces its own reasons.

Decisions, for him who makes them, are altogether peculiar psychic facts. Self-luminous and self-justifying at the living moment at which they occur, they appeal to no outside moment to put its stamp upon them or make them continuous with the rest of nature. Themselves it is rather who seem to make nature continuous; and in their strange and intense function of granting consent to one possibility and withholding it from another, to transform an equivocal and double future into an inalterable and simple past (DD, 158).

With James, Whitehead refused to make continuity primary; that is, he also refused to allow the occasion to be deduced from the whole. Every continuity is a result, a succession of resumptions that are so many "purposes," deciding the way the present will prolong the past, give a future to this past and make it "its" past. Yet the way James characterizes decision, "granting consent to one possibility and withholding it from another," could not be adopted as such, for it contains too many unknowns. It had to be constructed, in a way that enables every production of existence to be characterized as a decision. It is the actual occasions themselves that will affirm, no longer merely "just this, and no more," but "thus and not otherwise."

Continuity is the essential nature of field theories, with their infinite number of points on a line. Whitehead's atomicity of experience suggests he favors a particulate view of nature, with a finite number of actual entities?

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