Even More Fun with Free Will

That inimitable and irascible physicist Lubos Motl, who blogs at The Reference Frame, sought to vindicate the existence of free will in a recent post entitled Free Will of Particles and People.  To begin, he insisted that he must have free will because he feels like he has it:

The actual reason why I am sure about the existence of free will (and I mean my free will) is that I feel it.

Well, I feel it, too, but human beings have been known to feel any number of things that aren’t true, so I don’t find that argument convincing.  Lubos’ second argument is based on the fact that the universe is not deterministic in the classical sense.  We live in a quantum universe, and quantum phenomena appear to be random.  Since free will, at least as defined by Lubos, exists at the level of atomic and sub-atomic particles, and single particles can change the state of cells, and single cells can change the state of the human brain, then we, too, must have free will.  I’m not so sure about that one either.  True, the outcome of a measurement at the quantum scale is unpredictable, and therefore appears to be random, but we don’t really know that it is.  We can never measure exactly the same thing twice.  We can repeat experiments, but we can never measure exactly the same particle at exactly the same time in exactly the same place twice.

Then there’s the problem of what all this stuff we’re measuring really is.  We know how matter behaves at the atomic scale in great detail.  The fact that the atomic bomb worked demonstrated that convincingly enough.  We can use Maxwell’s equations and the Schrödinger Equation to make particles of matter and energy jump through hoops, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t really know what they are at the most fundamental level, or even why they exist at all.  In short, I have a problem with making positive claims about things we don’t understand.  Positive claims about free will assume a level of knowledge that we just don’t have.

On the other hand, I have no problem at all with assuming that we do have free will.  As Lubos says, it certainly feels like we do, and if we actually do, then we are merely assuming something that is true.  On the other hand, if we don’t have free will, then assuming that we do couldn’t change things for the worse, for the very good reason that, lacking free will, we would be incapable of changing anything.

Arguments against the existence of free will are absurd, because they imply the assumption of free choice.  If there is no free will, then there is no point in arguing about it, because it can’t possibly change anything in a way that wasn’t pre-programmed before the argument started.  True, if there is no free will, than the one making the argument couldn’t decide not to make it, but the fundamental absurdity remains.  What could possibly be the point of arguing with me about my assumptions regarding free will if I have no choice in the matter?  The future will be different depending on whether a robot tightens or loosens a screw.  However, if the robot is pre-programmed, and has no choice in the matter, it won’t alter a thing.  Nothing will shake the future out of its predestined rut.  In spite of that, I suspect that the most insistent deniers of free will don’t really believe their arguments are pointless.  And yet their arguments would be completely pointless unless they believed in their heart of hearts, either that they could make a free choice to argue one way or the other, or that the person listening could may such a choice.

If there is no free will, then my assumption that there is won’t change a thing.  If, on the other hand, we do have free will, and my assumption that we do despite my lack of any proof to that effect actually represents a free choice, then it seems to me that it’s a choice that is likely to make life a great deal more pleasant.  Where’s the fun in being a robot?  As far as I’m concerned, the assumption is justified if I can relieve even a single person of the despair and sense of futility that are predictable responses to the opposite assumption.

We can certainly debate the question of free will as stubbornly as we please.  However, I would contend that we lack the knowledge necessary to decide the matter one way or the other.  Perhaps one day that knowledge will be ours.  If it turns out we actually don’t have free will, then it will be illogical to blame me for my assumption that we do.  If, on the other hand, we discover that we actually do have free will, then it seems that those who argued furiously that we don’t will look rather foolish.  Why take the risk?

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

8 thoughts on “Even More Fun with Free Will”

  1. Interesting.
    A subset of this discussion crossed my mind. Is there an assumption within this discussion that the ‘I’ who ‘possesses’ this ‘free will’ is a constant?
    There are many stages we go through and one of the points I continually fail to make comprehendable is a pet theory of mine that western man is stuck in the teenage/child slightly rebellious/dependant stage.
    Imagine any deep philisophical question to do with ethics and morality, (lets use allowing large numbers of foriegn males to enter our territory for the exercise), now the young idealistic child who exhibits ‘displays’ of caring and sharing may react differently to the old alpha of the group/society who may see deeper problems in such a course of action.
    The Old weary warrior sees the realities, the young really doesn’t want to share his apple, his bike, or his bedroom with these young men, but feels forced to a ‘external display’ of fairness, peace and love. (Why this peace and love exhibition occurs would require a complete tangent so lets stick to the innitial discussion of free will.)
    The old world weary realist sighs and cautions against the relinquishing of resources and territories that he has faught hard to secure and worked hard to develop.
    His ‘free will’ has changed, or the decisions made, the very basis of these decisions have shifted. How he ‘feels, how his instincts tell him to behave, has changed. (This assumes that he has somehow developed or transitioned to the Alpha/leader role, this is tricky as I will briefly explain).
    These changes are at a unconscoius level, they are developmental. Western society, compared to traditional and more tribal societies have less scope for people to make this last developmental transition.
    The institutions which mask or have usurped the alpha/autoritarian role are polydimensional, or as we say pluralist. Thus blocking any ‘real’ development to the leadership role, rewarding instead only the false leaders of religion and dare I say it our governments!
    My point in short, the ‘feeling’ capacity of the ‘constant “I”‘ changes as we ‘possibly’ go through the developmental stages of our life, does therefore our ‘free will’ change, or at least the expression of it? If the expression of our free will changes, does our “I” change?
    Oh Dear!

  2. Our “I” certainly changes, as I know from personal experience, but, as noted in the post, I don’t know whether free will has anything to do with it or not.

  3. The implications of the awareness of our changing ‘I’ is profound. As we add a subset of logical reasoning we stand back and say ‘of course’.
    For our ‘I’ to remain constant we would have to be made up of matter and energy in a configuration which defies all which physics tells us of the laws of nature and the universe.

  4. I feel like I have a free will and I act like I do because I want to believe that I can choose my destiny. But when I am honest I think that it is very unlikely. For free will to exist we would have to be able to consciously choose what we desire. Because desire and a perceived ability result in motivation and without motivation you cannot really achieve anything. But we cannot consciously choose what we desire, just like we cannot consciously choose who we love or fall in love with. These things are decided in the unconscious parts of our brains for reasons we can only speculate about since the unconscious parts of our brains are a black box to us.

    On a different note: I think a decision is either made for a reason, which makes it predetermined or it is made randomly. But does random mean that there is no reason or that the reason simply is not determinable or is that actually the same?

  5. I can’t answer your question, nor do I think it can be answered with any confidence. We don’t know enough about consciousness, the nature of matter, the randomness of the universe, etc. As I noted in my post, the same goes for free will. I simply assume free will as the most reasonable default. If I do have free will, I’m right. If I don’t have free will, my opinion that I do would be predetermined regardless, and therefore could do no avoidable harm. On the other hand, if you decide to make the opinion that there is no free will your default, and you are wrong, it could do a great deal of harm.

  6. Right now, there is a lot of evidence against free will, and nothing in favor. The evidence against free will is not conclusive but it is there. Whereas the only evidence of free will we have is our own subjective feelings.
    As far as we know, everything goes through our subconscious parts of our brains. This means that those parts have complete control over us (think about a CEO who only gets his information from his employees and nowhere else). They may offer us a choice from time to time, but the choices they present are of their own decision (and often limited). On top of that they can take complete control of us at any time (think about deer in the headlights / fight or flight situations). There are a lot of observations against free will and not a lot in favor. Think about courts of law. You have to be proven guilty. Right now, the assumption that free will exists allows people to feel superior to others, others who act less “moral”. We can feel that people who commit crimes/do wrong/do things we do not like ought to be punished (maybe even with a death sentence) and that we are justified and doing so because we make better choices. If we do not have a free will (which at this point is likely) than we actually have no reason to feel superior. It would just be luck that we are “better”. In a court of law you have to prove that someone is guilty. But if you cannot prove that free will exists, this can never be done. That doesn’t mean that we can’t jail people, or even kill them. But I think we should never feel good, or right, or justified about that. It it simply a neccessary crime that we have to commit to protect society.

  7. Hi Christian, your mention of ‘courts’ is interesting as ‘free will’ translates as acting appropriately within a social construct.
    Free will is what? matter or energy, or the transfer of energy between matter?
    If we consider that our thoughts are energy, then they have weight?
    Therefore knowledge and understanding have weight, they exist, they are matter/energy/waveecles etc.
    Our actions and responses are surely only relative, when startled I can fight or flee, I can’t jump on the moon.
    Its the conscious sense that we have this separateness, this individual self that is fascinating, its feeling of continuity, its “divine” essence.
    The Buddha’s enlightenment moment was the ‘Anatta’ moment. If you talk to Buddhists about this they will find it impossible to accept that the Buddha was saying that he had no soul!
    If we do have a soul, if we do have free will, how does this tally with the understanding of our physical universe which allows for only one reality, not two with another where our ‘soul’ resides.
    These are thought games, but they expose the failings of much of our understandings.

  8. Hi David.

    I cannot answer most of your questions. One thing though: When startled or scared, I sometimes cannot make a conscious decision. At least that’s how I experienced it in the past. For instance, when I was in my youth, the girl I had a crush on approached me and tried to talk to me and I couldn’t find anything so say. I really couldn’t say anything, I did not even give a response to what she said. I felt bad but I simply had no options present in my brain. I just waited until she went away. How can I make a decision when my brain seems to be empty?
    In anhother situation I fled from a perceived danger and the though to fight never even occured to me. So did I have a free will in those instances? If the subconscious parts can dictate the possible options I can choose from, how can I have a free will?
    So what is my point? I mentioned courts because we often feel justified in doing bad things to other people because we feel justified in doing so, because they are bad/evil. But when in court you need to show evidence that the accused is guilty. When in doubt, the accused has to be acquitted. So what evidence do we have that support the existence of free will? Not much. I think there is a lot more evidence against it. So I think that we should take this into account.
    Does this restrict our actions in any way? Not at all. We can (and need to) still jail people or sometimes even kill them. We can still do anything. But we shouldn’t feel good about harming other people. That’s my conclusion at least from what I think to understand.

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