More on Life Without Free Will

Wednesday September 6, 2006

A Robot Investigating a Chocolate...

I’ve just arrived back from four days away – I seem to be pretty itinerant at the moment – to find that my last post on free will (or its absence) has generated a fair amount of interest, so I think that perhaps I should attempt to clarify some of my thoughts here.

The first useful thing to do might be to distinguish free will from choice as the terms do not seem to have the same shades of meaning. And I want to suggest that there is such a thing as choice, phenomenally speaking. I am faced by two options – carrot cake or chocolate cake – and I only have enough money to buy one. I must choose. So I choose.

Free will, on the other hand, is a theory about how choice happens, about what is involved in making the choice. And this is a very different kind of thing. I think we can straightforwardly acknowledge the phenomenon of choice whilst calling into question the coherence or the usefulness of the theory of free will that lies behind that phenomenon.

The major conundrums that the idea of free will, as a theory of choice, presents is this: what on earth does “free will” mean? When we get beyond asserting the presence of this magical property, and start to ask what this property is, we don’t seem to get very far.

What is a free act? We might say that it is undetermined. Perhaps. But what does that mean? Because it may be that our ideas of both free will and of determinism are rooted in a particular view of the self as agent which may itself be problematic. This on one side, does undetermined mean random? I think not. I don’t think that this precious free will over which philosophy has agonsied can be reduced to a throw of the dice. But if this so-called freedom it is not determined and it is not random, what is it? How can it be described? Is it planted in our mind by some god? But which, god, how is it planted, and how does this solve the problem?

I have for a long time had the growing sense that the story of the will as somehow free and sovereign simply does not account for experience when you pay close enough attention, for example in meditation. But I am shying away from taking this as a solely philosophical problem. My interest at the moment is not so much in deriving a theory of choice or consciousness – something I’m hardly competent to do, I should add – but it is, so to speak, negative. My interest is in unpicking the tangle of stories around the subject of free will, both by asking of these stories but is it really like that? and by paying closer attention to what is actually happening. This kind of negative thinking has a dinstinguished history from the Buddha through Nagarjuna and, to some extent, with the Sceptics in the West. Its enemies have always seen it as a kind of cop-out. But the Buddhists and the Sceptics have long realised that the fruits of this approach lie not so much in the possibility of reaching the solid ground of an absolute view, but rather in a form of life that is characterised by ataraxia – freedom from disturbance, amid the hubbub of the world.

Here’s another question, then: regardless of whether we have free will or not, what are the effects in the world of the stories we tell about free will? Do they lead to this ataraxia, or do they lead to still greater hubbub?

But this is still work in progress, work that – although fascinating – is both unsettling and even uncanny. I’ll post more reflections on the topic as they arise.

# · indifferent children

> what are the effects in the world of the stories we tell about free will?

We get to demonize people. The big effect is to say that our goodness was a choice that we made, and other peoples’ badness was a choice that they made. We can deny that if we had been born with Bin Laden’s brain, and exposed to the same experiences, that we would have made the same decisions. Ditto for Hitler, Jeffrey Dalmer, etc.

Instead of saying that a serial killer got the short end of many sticks, we get to call them monsters. Without free will, we might warehouse these criminals to protect society. We might ‘punish’ them so that negative consequences could act as an experiential input to the brains of those who will come to a crime commit/don’t-commit decision point. But without the notion of free will, we would feel compassion for the criminals instead of disgust and hatred.

To some extent, this acknowledgement of causation is already practiced. We know that children who are abused are likely to grow up to be abusers. But at punishment time, most people still say, “Sure they were abused, but they are an adult now, and they chose to abuse.” Their free will makes them ‘evil’ instead of ‘defective’.

# · Steve

Will, you hit the proverbial nail on the head when you distinguish between “choice” and “free will” and go on to suggest that most people have not really given due consideration to what they mean when they say that we have free will. I also agree with you and IC that contemplating free will may not lead to a completely new and absolutely true theory of consciousness, but it may well lead us to stop blaming people unreasonably and unproductively for their misdeeds and to start seeing ourselves and everyone else, along with our and their acts, as one with the Kosmos, and that this, in turn, could lead us to profound “ataraxia” or benevolent equaminity.

# · David Harmon

Also, you don’t need quantum effects to squelch determinism. Chaotic processes and computation both are unpredictable, and our brain is well supplied with both.

# · David Harmon

Whoops, my prior comment was meant as a postscript to my lengthier comment at the prior article.

# · indifferent children

> Chaotic processes and computation both are unpredictable

You make the same mistake that many others make when discussing determinism. Chaos prevents us from predicting the future, but it does not mean that that future is not set in stone.

The classic demonstration for chaos is the butterfly flapping its wings in China, contributing to a hurricane forming in the Gulf of Mexico. We will never be able to capture or analyze those butterfly wing-flaps, so the system is ‘unpredictable’ and ‘chaotic’. But the premise underlying this thought experiment is that the butterfly is contributing to the hurricane. The few millions of molecules of air that the butterfly displaced had a deterministic cascade effect, felt ‘round the globe.

Just because we humans can’t predict the outcome does not mean that the outcome is not pre-determined. Solar eclipses were not ‘random’ before we learned how to predict them. They were determined by the motions of Terra and Luna in relation to Sol.

# · Tom

indif chil,

The Butterfly Effect is hardly a proof of determinism.

You are quite mistaken to think that particles act wholly and predictably in reaction to events around them. They simply don’t; this is where Einstein was famously proved wrong with his ‘God doesn’t play dice’ pronouncement.

So, not only might a butterfly flapping [Do butterflies flap?] its wings affect the weather in Altoona, wholly random particle events and particles emerging and disappearing at random will cause differences in the kazillions of possibilities of what the weather in Altoona might be a month from now.

It is not only that humans cannot foresee the future, it is that the future cannot be foreseen.

# · indifferent children

> The Butterfly Effect is hardly a proof of determinism.

I wasn’t saying that the Butterfly Effect proves determinism, only that saying that Chaos Theory is an argument against determinism is a red herring.

> It is not only that humans cannot foresee the future, it is that the future cannot be foreseen.

Whether or not the future can be forseen (Heisenberg and Maxwell could be interpreted to indicate that it cannot), is not the question. Determinism has nothing to do with predeictability. If “causation” is correct, then the state of the Universe at n+1 attoseconds is caused by the state of the Universe at n attoseconds. Unless you want to posit a supernatural force intervening, the state of the Universe is pre-determined, but not knowable. Being determined is determinism; non-predictability in no way implies non-determinism.

# · Tom A.

indif chil,

I posit that the Universe is not pre-determined AND that there is not an intervening supernatural force. [suPRAnatural, maybe]

I post that we already know this much: Einstein’s maxim that “God doesn’t play dice” having been disproved.

Life itself is impossible, by any standard hypothesis, so we should not be surprised that a simplistic view of how the universe operates is overruled.

I also question your conclusions based on the physicalist worldview you espouse. Centered in consciousness, events unfold seemingly affected by beings’ will. This, alone is powerful. If it quakes like a duck and walks like a duck …

What of the color green? Where in the physicalist explanation of things is a rendering of the EXPERIENCE of that color? Is it delusional? Am I not seeing GREEN when I look at a tree filled with leaves?

# · indifferent children

> I posit that the Universe is not pre-determined

I’m willing to concede that quantum uncertainty (and only quantum uncertainty) may mean that determinism is bounded. It may be that over long time periods, the amount of uncertainty means that “set in stone” is a poor phrase. However, the effects of that uncertainty are very ‘weak’, and most of the random interactions cancel each other out. So a baseball that is half-way to home plate cannot just zoom straight up into the air, or spontaneously turn into the aforementioned duck. The effect of the uncertainty is also negligible upon a single neuron, and cannot force a neuron to fire in the absence of neurotransmitters, nor prevent it prevent it from firing in the presence of neurotransmitters.

So while a long-term determinism may be weak, quantum effects on Free Will are negligible-to-non-exsitent. If you read my first comment on this matter, you will see that my discounting of quantum effects really was, and is, an argument based on scale. So we are back to either not having Free Will, or having to explain how it is that neurons behave non-deterministically.

> Life itself is impossible, by any standard hypothesis

That’s an interesting position, that most biologists seem to disagree with. The formation of primitive life from inert chemicals is not considered that tricky. Experiments in labs have yielded amino acids from elemental ‘soup’ and ‘lightning’. If we try millions of tons of ‘soup’ and millions of lightning strikes, the odds of getting primitive life don’t seem bad. We can’t say that it happened, but it is still the prevailing theory (despite the efforts of Fred Hoyle).

> Centered in consciousness, events unfold seemingly affected by beings’ will.

Yes, the problem is the word seemingly. If at least the illusion of Free Will did not exist, then we would not be having this conversation. It seems that there is an “I” which actually exists, and that this “I” has Free Will. However, the Earth seemed flat, and for millenia we assumed that it was basically flat. The objects in the heavens seemed to move, so we assumed that the Earth was the center of the Universe.

As the mind, or conciousness, is an emergent phenomenon, created by the workings of the brain, it is a result rather than a cause. This consciousness exists the same way that a movie projected on a wall exists. Nothing in the world actually physically exists that resembles the movie. The closest you can come is the roll of film itself, but that film is not 40 feet wide, does not glow, does not change in an animated fashion. When you are watching a movie, does the movie that you are watching really ‘exist’? Can the plot unfolding change the actions of the projector?

> What of the color green? ... Is it delusional?

The cells in your retina called ‘cones’ are stimulated by light whose wavelength is between approximately 500 nanometers and 565 nanometers. The cones send this information into your brain, and the neurons fire which are associated with memories of leaves and the word “Green”.

When you smell banana-nut bread, is that delusional? Does the smell cause neurons to fire that are associated with memories of your mother making banana-nut bread, or does the smell make you choose to dredge-up memories of your mother making banana-nut bread. I would say that the memories are triggered by the smell, without the intervention of your conciousness. This is also how the word “Green” comes to mind when you look at the color, without you having to choose to see that it is green.

BTW, when you are looking at a ‘rainbow’, you really are seeing something that does not exist. It is a delusion. Millions of individual raindrops are bending light all on there own. The drops are not formed into an arc. There is no more interaction between the drops that ‘form’ the ‘rainbow’, than there is between the adjacent drops that do not. And if you point-out a rainbow to me, no matter how close we snuggle our heads, the drops of water that are bending the light that enters my eyes are not the same drops that are bending the light that enters your eyes. It is pure delusion. And yet it quacks like a duck.

# · B.J. Giles

Thanks for your blog, especially the discussion of free will. What a relief to know of kindred spirits (whatever that is.)”I” have been feeling increasingly isolated since attending a seminar with Isaac Shapiro (his book: It Happens by Itself) in 2002 and subsequently reading books by Tony Parsons, Satyam Nadeen,& Jan Kersschot. Within a relatively short period of time props for how I defined myself and my place in this world in the form of beliefs and interests vanished. The feeling was much like what I felt some 50 years ago when, within a relatively short period of time, the fundalmentalist Christian religious concepts I had wrapped my world around so passionately seemed like a fairy tale. Buddhism continues to hold some meaning for me but certainly not as it once did. The idea of the pathless path makes more sense but not the idea of seeking enlightenment. Periodically I can relax into the idea/concept of no free will and that “I” am not thinking but thinking is happening. I’m far from feeling secure enough in these concepts to be able to blissfully float in “what is” for any lenth of time, especially with no one to interact with. I’ve tried bringing up the subject with friends and family I thought would be receptive to at least considering the ideas but to no avail. So glad I found your site. B.J.

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles