Sunday, 9 September 2012

On Free Will


Free will debates seem to come up every five minutes somewhere on the Internet, and seemingly always with no resolution or agreement.  If the issue had been resolved unambiguously then we wouldn’t still be debating it quite so rigorously centuries later.  Ask yourself why a subject never reaches agreement and you'll usually find one of two reasons; either the question is unanswerable, due to some kind of limited human capacity or an inability to frame the question in the right sense; or else category mistakes are being made in the terms and definitions being applied in discourse.  Free will may be one of those philosophical issues about which both reasons apply.  Even if we accept a limitation on how far we can get with the question, it seems to me that the ambiguity of definition kills the debate every time - particularly as virtually nobody seems to insist on rectifying this before the debate ensues properly.  Clearly free will means different things for different people, so the extent to which we can be said to have free will may be similar to the extent to which we say animals have self-awareness – it’s a spectrum, not a definitive ‘Yes we do have it’ or ‘No we don’t’. 

Regarding debates about free will, my first piece of advice is, don’t believe anyone who says we have ‘free will’ until they have first told you what they mean by free will, and what being ‘free’ means in a universe that drives organisms thermodynamically without the slightest reliance on any human thought to do so.  I find the people who declare confidently that we do have free will are usually the ones who’ve given the least consideration to what they mean by free will.  In order to understand why the free will issue is so contentious, we need to see why so many people misunderstand free will, and why their definitions are so fuzzy.  When those who believe we have free will make claims about free will, they usually mean that what we have is something like ‘The capacity to direct one's actions’.  The trouble is, that leads to a further meta question about what it means to direct one’s actions – and then one could take that explanation and ask a further meta question about the explanation behind the explanation, and so on.  This is one of the theoretical problems with this kind of debate; it always engenders layer upon layer of accretive questioning – it’s like peeling the skins of an onion, where each layer of skin represents a fresh way of interfacing with reality.  That’s why free will is a spectrum, not a binary ‘black or white’ problem, and why one can’t logically just say ‘We do have free will’.  . 

Ironically, the grounds on which people claim we don’t have free will are often based on the same kind of faulty reasoning.  Like most issues under debate, free will, irreducible complexity, the existence of a soul, Intelligent Design, or topics of a similar nature, people arbitrarily pick a lens through which to describe a conceptual object, without subjecting their description to proper examination.  Let’s take free will and give it a less ambiguous definition than ‘The capacity to direct one's actions’.  Let’s just call it free choice, by which we mean simply the ability for the human mind to make choices.  Some philosophers say we don’t really have free choice, and the reason they give is that the brain isn’t really making choices, it is only biochemistry at work behind the scenes (i.e. neurons and trillions of connections). 

That’s the big mistake I referred to above; one cannot just choose a particular conceptual layer like the level of biochemistry at which to deny the integrity of a process like free choice.  When told "it's all just biochemistry", why not just deny the integrity of biochemistry by asserting there is no such thing as biochemistry because it's all just quantum physics?  Similarly, why not just deny the integrity of quantum physics by asserting there is no such thing as quantum physics because it's all just mathematics and probability?  No, it just won’t do us any good to think this way; despite the many layers of reality, there clearly is such a thing as choice; I mean, I assume no one forced you to read this blog.  Your choosing to click on the link is a perfect indication that choice exists in nature.  My mind conceives it as a choice in the same way that your mind conceives it as a choice, just as it conceives a riot as ‘violence’ or a cruel remark as ‘upsetting’ or an innocent man going to jail as ‘unjust’ or the weather as ‘inclement’.  At some level these things clearly do exist.

So, we humans do seem to make choices - just as we do seem to observe the weather.  If you want to say we don’t make choices because the brain is reducible to constituent parts, you could equally say that there is no such thing as violence or upset or the weather because everything is reducible to quantum physics.  Clearly, then, through this lens, choice, violence, upset and the weather are all ‘existent’ within nature.  To show this, let’s just consider further two of those things – the weather and choice.  If the weather and our choices are both happening in nature then on what grounds can we say the weather exists and free choice doesn't?  Take a hurricane as an example. The causal factors in a hurricane are connected to everything else in the universe's seamless whole.  A hurricane lies in cycle of evaporation, which lies in complex interactions amongst trillions of molecules, which lies in complex interactions in the quantum world, which lies in complex interactions that extend right the way back to the governing laws in nature's blueprint (however that came about).  So we have no trouble agreeing that a hurricane is part of nature, just like all other physical events and laws are part of nature. 

It must be observed that we feel the same about choices as we do hurricanes – you won’t find many people who think that hurricanes don’t exist, and you won’t find many people who think that choices don’t exist.  Here’s why.  A choice is made by a brain, which is made up of neurons and trillions of connections, which, just like the hurricane, is reducible to complex interactions in the quantum world, which lies in complex interactions that extend right the way back to the governing laws in nature's blueprint.  So, similar to the hurricane, we have no trouble agreeing that choice is part of nature, just like all other physical events and laws are part of nature.  There is no logical reason to accept that a hurricane exists yet deny choices exist.

Under those conditions, I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that the mind has the faculty to make choices.  What muddies the water is that the free will proponents seem to be arguing for more – they seem to be saying not just that we have the ability to make choices, but that we are free in a deeper sense, by which they mean we have some kind of overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature.  Because of this, the perception I have of people’s interpretations of free will is of two kinds – a soft version (as per my definition of choices) and a hard version (as per our overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature).

The soft version of free will; We have a mind that has the ability to make choices

The hard version of free will: We have a mind with overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature, irrespective of nature’s overall trajectory.  


I think the soft version of free will does exist, and I think the hard version doesn’t.  Later I’ll explain how I think the ability to make choices is relevant to our psychology, but first I’ll just say this; you might be wondering how we can make choices yet not create our own destiny within nature.  I think the answer is the same as the hurricane; both our choices and the hurricane exist in nature, but both do not alter the overall destiny of nature, because they are part of that very same destiny. 

The hard version of free will doesn’t exist, and it is for the same reason that the soft version does exist; an overall freedom that permits us to create our own destiny within nature is directly contradictory to nature having its own destiny.  In other words, nature can have a destiny that includes hurricanes and human choices, but it cannot have a destiny that includes an alternative human destiny, because then it would be a nature that doesn’t exist.  We cannot depart from nature’s cosmic plan in the way that a boy can disobey his mother – our destiny is the same as nature’s destiny – we cannot opt out of it or change it or cease from being a part of it anymore than the wetness of the ocean can cease from being part of that ocean.

It is because a hurricane is part of nature that I think the hard version of free will is an illusion.  The universe is a complex nexus of physical interactions that will run an inevitable course irrespective of human will – and this includes the physical agitations that make up the human mind, including our choices.  With the soft version of free will we can observe that choices do seem to be a genuinely true aspect of human cognition in that we make them, and our making those choices turns out to be part of nature’s overall destiny.  Perhaps for clarity's sake we could say that choices appear to exist in conjunction with perception and experience, and that they are an evolutionary utility that places nature's cosmological inevitability in the background of experience. To use an analogy, it is rather like actors on a stage playing out improvisations while all the time being aware that the overall performance and plot pertains to a script that they are not free to change ultimately.

The hard version of free will is a different animal altogether – but to see this I am going to have to explain what it means for the universe to create its own destiny and how it does it.  The thing that undermines the idea of humans creating their own destiny is that the universe has a destiny that engulfs any sense of individual or collective human destiny.  It wasn’t too hard to accept that both soft free will and a hurricane exist in as useful a sense as anything at all in the physical universe can be said to exist.  But the cul-de-sac remains in front of us, because the grounds on which I would say hard free will is not a fact and soft free will or a hurricane is a fact is that the latter is not inconsistent with nature's inevitable trajectory and the former is.  In other words, a cycle of evaporation, choices, a hurricane, violence, upset, justice, and inclemency can be part of the inevitable destiny nature is playing out, whereas hard free will cannot, because one is never 'free' from that cosmic trajectory to create a destiny other than the one nature has already been deterministically blueprinted to create.

Here’s the contradiction with hard free will; it either is part of the trajectory of nature’s destiny - in which case, it is not really acting in any kind of freedom separate from the trajectory, making it not hard free will but soft free will.  Or it is not part of the cosmic trajectory - in which case it is claimed to be no longer part of nature, where, at that point it falls down by not being definable (as per my initial request for a definition).  Either way, the idea of hard free will gets us in philosophical trouble. If nature has an inevitable destiny then choices and a hurricane can logically be part of that universal story without any contradiction. However, if hard free will is part of the universal story then we have a contradiction because it is not really acting in any kind of freedom separate from the trajectory of nature – so it is wrong to call it ‘free’, because by ‘free’ the free will proponent means that nature permits us an implicit ability to act outside any inevitable destiny that nature may hold over us.  

Just to be clear, by “nature has an inevitable story”, I mean that if hypothetically we could step outside of her and watch the story unfold we would see her take an absolutely deterministic path.  Everything within the universe, every thought, every dream, every stone rolling down the hill, every burst of wind, every formation of a planet, every nucleosynthesis, every galaxy, and moreover, the entire cosmic expansion is all nature running its course, and that course is entirely deterministic (deterministic in the absolute sense). If you knew every fact about the universe it would be a story from start to finish that couldn't have been any other way because its laws facilitate this particular path and destiny it has taken.  I don't mean this with regard to any fundamental laws of logic, I mean only that it is nonsense to state the universe we happen to be in could (given all its laws) take another path other than the one it is on. Hence we have the ability to make choices, but not create our own destiny, because nature’s destiny subsumes our own. 

As an overall summary, nature is deterministic, and that determinism brings about human brains that make choices. The universe has an overall cosmic destiny that pays no regard to the human feelings that are part of that destiny. We simply are required to assent to a definition of free will that does define the mind's mental precipitations - something like "Alignment between the self, the desires, and the actions through the ability of the human mind to make choices” would do, I think. That's how the universe can be ultimately deterministic yet bring about creatures that make choices and have emotional will.

In my next Blog I will cover the topic of Determinism

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