Friday, March 27, 2020

Free Will – What it Means and Why it Matters

Free will: do we have the ability to make our own choices, or are we merely acting out the course that was set for us in advance? This question may seem straightforward, but it has a whole bunch of unspoken assumptions and associations packed into it. When we ask about free will, we are not simply curious about a bit of scientific knowledge, like how birds fly or why planets are round. We feel deeply that the difference between having and not having free will has a huge impact on how we perceive ourselves and live our lives. In order to explore the question thoroughly and satisfactorily, we have to chip away at all of its layers until we find what we really care about.

Surreal Rings of Mystery, by PhoenixArisen on Deviantart
To start, let’s talk about determinism. Suppose there were a being who knew all the physical details of all the particles in the universe with infinite precision. If the universe is deterministic, that being could accurately deduce the past back to the big bang, and predict the future all the way until the end of time. This being is called Laplace’s Demon, because credit always goes to famous people.

Most people would say, if our actions are governed by determinism, then we do not have free will. If we take free will in its literal sense, it would mean the ability to defy the motions of the particles in our brains, and make new threads of causation spring into existence. This version of free will is called libertarian free will (not to be confused with the political orientation).

For most of the history of science, we thought the universe was deterministic. It was all particles and fields bouncing around, exchanging energy and momentum and stuff like that. However, a hundred years ago, the discovery of quantum physics opened the door to probabilism, the idea that the actions of subatomic particles are governed by probabilities, not pre-determined outcomes. We can set up an experiment where there is a 10% chance of one possibility, and a 90% chance of another, and there is no possible way to know for certain what the outcome will be ahead of time, even for Laplace’s Demon.

We might think probabilism would open the door for free will, by letting us influence the probabilities of the neurons firing in our brains. However, that is not the case, because of the law of large numbers. Although it is impossible to know whether individual probabilistic events will turn out to be this or that, the more events that happen, the closer the total results will match the probabilities. This is how the probabilistic world of quantum physics gives rise to the essentially deterministic world of classical physics.

The double-slit experiment, done with thousands of individual photons. As you can see, each photon seems to hit the screen randomly, but once enough of them do, the pattern emerges.
If libertarian free will were true, if we could influence the probabilities of quantum physics, it would create systematic deviations, meaning the results of the experiments would not fit the probabilities as well as they should. This may sound familiar, as it is the experiment we proposed in order to test dualism, the idea that the mind/soul/spirit is a substance different from everything else in physical reality. If neither determinism nor probabilism allows for libertarian free will, does dualism?

At first, it may seem so. After all, if the soul causes new interactions with the brain through choices, then that’s free will, right? Not so fast. By what process does the soul make its choices? What laws of physics—or laws of psychics, if you will—describe the mechanics of soul stuff? If soul stuff behaves deterministically or probabilistically, then dualism does not change anything.

So what would allow for libertarian free will? The only way I can think of is if the mind is an inherent mystery. Not simply that we do not understand it with our knowledge today, but that it cannot be understood, because it does not have an answer. If the mind is a black box, then when we peek into the box, we don’t see anything, because it is mysteries all the way down. This is a view I call quasi-realism, the idea that there are some parts of reality where the answers are inherently fuzzy, and cannot be understood because there is no explanation. I have previously argued against quasi-realism in the nature of reality series, particularly The Nature of Natures, claiming a thing cannot exist without a well-defined way-that-it-is, a nature, and thus, it can be understood. Therefore, the mind, whether dual or physical, has a well-defined, comprehensible nature, and does not supply a loophole for libertarian free will.

But is libertarian free will really what we are interested in? I don’t think so. To see why, let’s take a deeper look at these things we call “choices.” There are two types, at least that I can think of:

1. The exertion of effort. There are times throughout every day when we want to do something, and exert effort to do it; or we know we are on track to do something, and exert effort to avoid doing it.

2. Envisioning possible futures. We don’t know what we are going to do, so we imagine the benefits and downsides of each possibility, and the results play a part in determining what we do.

These definitions do not contain the words “choose,” “option,” “decision,” or anything like that. In fact, these definitions are compatible with determinism and probabilism. Some would say these aren’t really choices, because they are completely determined by the physical processes in our brains, which are determined by a large number of things, like our senses, our knowledge, our skill at accurately predicting outcomes, our self-control, our moment-to-moment body chemistry, the values we learned as children, our habits, our genes, and our cultural influences, which were in turn determined by other things, and so on back to the big bang. Others say, who cares? These definitions accurately describe choices, and that’s good enough to say we have free will. This view, that free will is compatible with deterministic definitions of choices, is called compatibilism.

In situations like this, we are forced to do one thing or another. However, it still feels like a choice is being made.
Is that it? Does the question of free will ultimately come down to semantics? Surely something that feels so profound and significant for our lives must have more to it.

To go further, we need to realize that we are not interested in metaphysics, not really. Determinism, probabilism, dualism, none of that is relevant. What we really care about when talking about free will is the following moral questions:

  • Does considering our actions and their consequences matter, or should we just give up and stop caring?
  • Is it reasonable to treat people as responsible for their actions or give them credit for their creations and good deeds?
  • What is the responsibility of governments and institutions to people who are poor?
  • Do we have control over our own actions, or are we being controlled by the manipulations of others or by some kind of Fate?
  • Should the criminal justice system focus on punishing people for their actions, or on rehabilitating them?
  • Do manipulative agents, such as governments and advertisers, have the right to treat people as means to further their own goals, rather than with respect?

The deep reason people argue for or against free will is because they have a stance on one or more of these questions, or are afraid people who argue against them on free will hold the opposite view on the questions. For instance, some people (like myself) argue free will exists, because they desperately need to believe their efforts make a difference. Others argue that free will does not exist, because they are sick of politicians using free will as an excuse not to help the poor. After all, the rationalization goes, if poor people are poor because of their own bad choices, then the government shouldn’t be responsible to help them.

Rather than arguing at the abstract level of free will, it would be more productive to discuss these issues directly. They are all much more complicated than a simple yes or no, and they are not connected to one another nearly well enough to be put under the umbrella term of “free will.” It is perfectly reasonable, for instance, to believe both that our efforts are tremendously significant, and also that the government should provide a strong safety net; two beliefs traditionally placed on opposite sides of free will.

Based on what we have said today, libertarian free will, the idea that we exist outside the processes of the universe and create new threads of causation, does not exist. Compatibilist free will, the idea that our thoughts and efforts play a role from within the deterministic or probabilistic processes of the universe, does. But at the end of the day, what matters is not the metaphysics, but the moral questions of responsibility and how we should live.

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