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Free Will Again

Entry 1911, on 2018-04-26 at 10:35:54 (Rating 2, Philosophy)

OK, it's time for an update on the old question of free will, again. Why? Well, I just felt like I had no choice. So now that I've got the standard lame free will joke out of the way, let's continue with the main discussion...

This has been one of my favourite subjects for many years now, but this particular iteration of the subject came about as a result of a podcast in Sam Harris' excellent "Waking Up" series, featuring well known cosmologist and physics professor Sean Carroll. It is an unfortunate phenomenon that scientists often make bad philosophical arguments, but Carroll has a more informed and nuanced view than most, and I think many of his points are worth considering.

In the past I have concluded that the main issue with the "free will" argument, which is one of the most significant in philosophy, is the definition of terms. Carroll made some points which I think might help in this regard, so I will go through these here, and touch on some related issues at the same time.

First, let's consider Laplace's Demon. This was an argument for causal determinism made by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1814. He said...

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

In other words, if an entity (person, god, demon, computer) knew every piece of information about an independent system (possibly the whole universe) then by applying the laws of physics that entity could predict the future perfectly, including what every person would do (because people are made from the particles it has perfect knowledge of).

So when I go to a restaurant and order dinner the entity would already know what it is I am about to order. In that case do I really have free will, since my choice is pre-determined?

In a much simpler case the entity might know all of the masses, positions and locations of the molecules in a container and could use these to predict the exact pressure of the gas. But we can already do that using gas laws and get an answer to an almost arbitrary level of precision. Additionally the laws of the universe say we cannot know all of those measurements simultaneously, or at least we cannot measure them.

So there are two points here: first the fact that we cannot know the exact configuration of every particle (because of the uncertainty principle) doesn't mean that the universe isn't determined, it just means that we cannot know what the outcome of that determinism might be. This doesn't seem to allow us to escape from the inevitable conclusion that we lack free will. The second is that we can work at a "higher level" of abstraction than simply knowing the characteristics of every particle in a system, and get an answer which is good enough to any reasonable level of accuracy we need.

Plato thought there were perfect or archetypal forms of every object. So every chair in this world would be a physical manifestation of the perfect form of "chair-ness". The fact that chairs are made from molecules which behave according to the laws of physics is not a useful distinction when discussing the attributes of a chair. Even though it is really just a collection of molecules, the fundamental form still applies.

Of course, there are many holes in this idea, especially since it seems to require categorisation of objects into distinct types and not every object can be classified that way. I don't know enough philosophy to know what the usual answer to this objection is, but I'm just going to bypass it as a non-essential detail and move on.

So a human is a collection of atoms, but describing one this way is both impossible and unnecessary. We can use higher order laws to describe one and these essentially give humans free will, even though the individual atomic description seems to deny it. Is this just a semantic trick? Maybe, but I think it is a useful one.

But what are the consequences of free will in this form? Harris claims we should neither have pride in our achievements nor blame for our faults because what we are as individuals is entirely determined by our genetics and our environment, neither of which we have control over.

So the person winning the Nobel Peace Prize (forget that its credibility is a bit questionable) shouldn't be proud of that because it just happened because of the laws of physics which were completely beyond his control. And the mass murderer has nothing to be ashamed of for the same reason.

Even if this is fundamentally true it does seem a dangerous philosophy to hold to. And, if you follow my higher order description of human functionality it is also unnecessary, because we choose to see a human as a more holistic system where he can be responsible for both the good and bad aspects of his character and behaviour.

Of course, there is one other major philosophical idea which needs to be included here, and that is dualism. Neither Harris nor Carroll even deemed this worthy of mentioning, and I would often agree with them, but for completeness I need to discuss it briefly, however belated it might be in this post.

Dualism posits the idea that certain phenomena, specifically consciousness in this case, arise from something beyond the physical universe: some sort of pure mind or spirituality. The problem is, there is no good reason to think anything of this sort exists. Although many people accept dualism, it seems to be mainly for religious reasons rather than as a result of scientific evidence, or any well-supported philosophical logic.

If there was an extra element in the universe associated with consciousness then it would not need to follow the rules of physics so it would not need to be deterministic. It's a tempting way to explain the apparent existence of free will, but we must follow what is true, not what is convenient.

There is one final complication I need to throw into the mix here, just in case it isn't complicated and confusing enough already. That is that some experiments appear to indicate that humans conscious awareness of their actions seems to run slightly behind the actions themselves. In addition the mind seems to be inventing a narrative to explain what has just happened in terms of its own conscious control, rather than having truly initiating that control.

There are some objections to these findings so they shouldn't be viewed as being definitive, but they certainly indicate free will is an illusion, maybe even at the higher level where I claim it exists.

So, at the end of this are we any better off? I think the best conclusion is that at the deepest levels of reality free will doesn't exist, but at the higher levels it does. It's sort of like classical physics works really well for day to day problems, but quantum mechanics operates "behind the scenes" at the deepest levels or reality.

But damn it! It's happened again. I'm still no closer to finding a final answer on this subject than I was when I started. And I thought that solving a philosophical problem which has confounded the best minds on the planet for thousands of years should be easy!


Comment 1 (4904) by Richard on 2018-04-28 at 09:02:24:

Yeah - full determinism and the nasty consequences it produces is indeed the logical, even the inevitable (determined?!) conclusion from an a-priori starting philosophical position of physical naturalism, but here's the problem... it is is completely ignoring the continuous and all encompassing 'evidence' we all experience every single second of our conscious lives. Every single word of your post 'appears' very much like it's freely chosen to communicate your free thinking to us. All meaningful communication and even the logic and rationality required to underpin it, all falls away under determinism as does all morality (as you observed above), another 'reality' we all observe and live with every day too.

Your work-around using 'higher laws' is vague, and yes you are right - just a semantic trick employed only to avoid the obvious conclusions that just aren't convenient for you, and is an attempt to marry your preferred option of determinism with all this evidence against it.

Your statements about dualism and that there is no good reason to suppose it are simply incorrect. There is every good reason to suggest it. It is by far the option that 'makes the most sense' out of the real world we all observe first hand. Hey, it 'may' turn out to be wrong, but only in the same way the guy with the 'almost' best hand in the poker world might be wrong - he still made the most rational bet with the odds being completely in his favour. Your statement that we must follow what is true, not what is convenient, is key indeed.

The inevitable problem with the scientific experiments that 'suggest' our consciousness lags behind our actions, is that the reporting of such consciousness to the experimenter takes time. It is by definition impossible for experiments to detect the non physical component so how are they deciding it lags? They are actually detecting some physical evidence of the conscious work - which may well take some time to appear - so what? No sound conclusion comes from that regarding dismissing dualism whatsoever. Simply put - if determinism is true (in spite of all the massive contradictory evidence against it) - we can never truly know it! Cheers.


Comment 2 (4905) by OJB on 2018-04-28 at 15:14:35:

I agree that our everyday experience seems to show we have free will, but there are now many situations where we know out intuitions are wrong. Do most of the consequences of relativity and quantum physics make sense? Did heliocentric astronomy make sense? No, and I think that the illusion of free will in no way should force us to think that it is real.

I don't accept your idea that meaningful communication, logic, rationality, and morality "fall away" under determinism. Maybe you need to clarify why that would be the case, given that I have said I think effective free will operates at the higher level just like classical physics works macroscopically, but isn't actually "true".

I agree that my "higher level" idea is somewhat vague. However after listening to philosophers debate this point it seems that might be unavoidable! The best I can offer is to think of it using the classical physics vs quantum physics analogy.

There is no reason to believe dualism has any merit, and the more we investigate the real world the less need there seems to be for that particular philosophical concept. Remember that we should use Occam's Razor. Invoking an entire new realm of reality for no good reason goes completely against it.

You are wrong about the reporting problem with the experiment I mentioned above because the design overcomes that. However, there are other issues with it, which I freely conceded. But, I think the experiment does indicate a possible starting point for investigating this phenomenon.


Comment 3 (4918) by pauladkin on 2018-06-18 at 21:20:46:

It seems to me that the physical nature of the Universe determines things up to a point and a future could perhaps be predicted if all the variables are taken into consideration: e.g. if A happens to B and C happens to D the result will be a.1; but if A happens to B and D happens to F the result will be a.2 etc., but the variables are close to infinity, or perhaps even infinite, and therefore it is impossible for the Universe to be truly deterministic (you may want to believe the definition of God is an intelligence capable of calculating an infinite, or near infinite, amount of calculations - but surely that is impossible). From this, I would conclude that we have free will up to a point, but our lives are determined by too many factors, so much so that our free will is severely mitigated by everything (both the material and the intellectual or spiritual things) that shapes all the events around us.


Comment 4 (4919) by OJB on 2018-06-18 at 21:21:06:

Yes, thatís pretty much the way I see it too. Theoretically determinism means that free will doesnít exist, but in reality the complexity of the real world means it practically does.


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