The Problem of Free Will

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In our day to day lives there is a ‘common sense’ view of free will.  I decide to lift my left hand, and my left hand goes up.  The natural assumption is that there was a conscious decision to do something, which resulted in an action. The problem with this view is that classical science maintains that everything that happens is caused by fixed laws of chemistry and physics.  From this perspective, when I lifted my hand it was simply an inevitable result of chemical and electrical reactions taking place in my brain.  This is called determinism, and is one of the foundations of science.

You may not know it yet, but you are either a compatiblist or an incompatiblist, depending on whether you view free will as being compatible with determinism or not.  Before taking a position, you will need to decide whether free will is real, and whether determinism is real, and depending on your answers there will be several more ‘ist’s you can be labelled with.

The reason there are so many labels that come into this discussion is that there is a fundamental conflict between the common sense view of the world that affects every aspect of our lives – right from our legal system to the sentances we speak day to day – and the scientific view of the world which has so powerfully changed our lives and the world we live in.

Over the centuries that this has been discussed and debated, many explanations have been proposed that will allow free will to survive in any significant way.  In the last century the advent of Quantum Mechanics (QM) seemed to offer a more robust way out of the paradox.  In QM a local cause of events is apparently replaced by randomness and probability.  However the various branches of ‘ism’ associated with this viewpoint (eg physicalism and naturalism), do something that plagues discussions in these areas – they try to answer one strange anomaly by creating another one thats just as unhelpful.  In this view, free will is based purely on chance, and so its quantum randomness that makes our decisions for us.  This may be a little closer to common sense (it was not completely inevitable that I would choose to lift my hand), but you still can’t lock someone up for committing murder.  After all, it was the formulas of quantum mechanics that made ’em do it, guv….

Most modern scientists have come to the conclusion that free will is not real in any meaningful sense, and they can be broadly divided into two groups.  The first type are straightforward in many ways as they claim that free will is entirely an illusion (these are called hard determinists).  The second type say that determinism and free will are perfectly compatible, but to do so they reduce free will to the ability to do what you are motivated to do (with your motive itself being determined). So this latter group are very much like those who believe quantum mechanics can save free will, but instead of the driver of free will being randomness, they change free will into something completely determined by external factors still.  In other words, not free will at all.  Both of these groups point to an experiment which shows that you make decisions before you are consciously aware of it, from work by Libet and recently demonstrated more convincingly here.  However its clear that these studies only give a clue to the decision making process (i.e. its partly unconscious), and do not rule out free will.  In fact, the interpretation that they do would mean that we have evolved an ability to constantly trick ourselves into believing at a fundamental level that we have some level of control of decisions (and that others do too).  To me this is neither logically nor intuitively rational, quite apart from the fact it would be a skill even more complex and sophisticated than the ones we need to survive!  We have such complex minds and use them to develop such detailed explanations for why we choose one thing over another.   The idea that all this time and energy spent on rationalisation of the decisions we and others make, is purely some mental sub process of the brain designed to convince us that we are involved our decisions seems crazy.  Its also not like nature to be so inefficient without a good reason – something even the extravagance of flowers and coloured feathers have.

The concept of free will was not one I pondered much when I was an atheist, and so this big conflict between the very foundations of, say, the legal system and science, passed me by.   When I first became interested in the subject, I decided I had a lot of sympathy with the views of Immanuel Kant.  He argued that the mind had the ability to distinguish between how the world is, and how it should be.  He believed that this allowed us to overcome the chains of determinism – to see what would be and intervene to change the result to what could be.

However this rational sounding view from Kant still avoids the fundamental problem – what is the mechanism for this ?   We know that you get emergent properties – a collection of things which form something more than the sum of their parts when joined together.  For example, you cannot describe a tornado or a whirlpool simply as a group of individual particles of air or water – there are various dynamics you needs to take into account, which make the particles move in particular ways (irrelevant – but I sometimes wonder if this could provide a solution for Dark Matter).  However there is nothing in any of our ideas or concepts that would allow us to control how our neurons fire.  If our mind is an emergent property of our physical brain (as materialists argue), how can that emergent property directly cause a physical effect on the brain that generates it ?  If such a feedback loop were possible between an emergent property and the matter which produced it, it would be some new kind of stuff which doesn’t follow the laws of science.  You could say that it would be so outside of the normal laws of science that it would be an assumption to say that this property emerged from the physical body in the first place.

We are so used to computers that are programmed to calculate ‘decisions’ that its easy to miss the fundamental problem here – computers do not have free will.  A computer is fully deterministic – it takes inputs, and based on what they are instructed to do with these inputs, it does a calculation which has a fixed result.  You could of course program a computer to respond as if it had consciously made a decision, but the lack of a ‘conscious decider’ makes these emulations easy to spot even when they are incredibly sophisticated.  There is often an assumption that we will eventually be able to create computers so sophisticated that they will become sentient – able to make conscious decisions, and be self aware in doing so.  However that is very much an assumption.  We have no reason to believe that will ever happen (other than by using another assumption about how the brain produces consciousness).

I am more than willing to accept that much of what we experience is an illusion in many ways.   The proven reality of non locality in quantum mechanics is just one of many ways in which we know reality is not at all as we observe it to be.  But I cannot accept that our ability to chose to do something is an illusion.  This sense of self that chooses to lift my hand in the air has substance.  Of course the “I” that makes this decision is admitedly a complex mixture of things which include my past (memories and learnt skills) meshed together in conscious and subconscious ways, affected by emotions, by hormones and other chemicals, by nerve impulses from other parts of my body etc etc.  These all no doubt filter and affect the decisions I make, but underneath them all is a conscious being that can make a decision – even sometimes a decision contrary to all these factors.

There is another answer – a more simple one in many many ways – called dualism.  Here we are both matter and spirit, deeply entwined together to form a person, and both of a different nature altogether.   I don’t exactly know what this spirit is, but from what I can tell its not bound by time and space, other than through some kind of coupling with the physical body at birth.  As such its not bound by determinism, but is instead a rare thing – a genuine input into the otherwise closed system of the universe.  Taken to its full and logical extension, its the part of us that is in some way a reflection of god.  The god who is outside of space and time, uncaused and yet the cause of all things temporal, setting the primal example of the day to day action of our will acting into the universe

It is of course against the materialist version of science – scientism – to resort to an explanation that cannot be tested.  However its clear that forcing an explanation from materialism results in a paradox so completely against common sense that we have left our legal system and most social interaction in complete ignorance of it.  Deliberately.

Karl Popper defined a commonly accepted basis for the scientific process.  However whilst this represents a very effective way of investigating the physical universe, the totality of truth will surely contain elements that cannot be proven via falsification.  How much further down the path in theoretical physics do we need to travel before we will realise that the existence of physical objects cannot be the foundation stone of the wall of truth we are trying to uncover ?  It seems to make sense to me that any honest epistemology will leave room for placeholder terms until we understand things better – and “spirit” seems appropriate when we talk of free will or consciousness .  After all, creating placeholder labels is exactly what we do in cosmology to describe the makeup of most of the universe.

[Note: Dualism I have since identified as a hangover from when I was an atheist / materialist, and then changed 180 degrees and tried to make sense of things rationally.  I would now say that idealism is a far better description of reality.  Nonetheless, from the perspective of materialism, there must be dualism unless you accept the absurd notion that consciousness (and the illusion of free will) is generated by matter]

Categories: Religion, Science

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