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?

Indulge Yourself – Believe in Free Will

Philosophers have been masticating the question of free will for many centuries.  The net result of their efforts has been a dizzying array of different “flavors” of free will or the lack thereof.  I invite anyone with the patience to attempt disentangling the various permutations and combinations thereof to start with the Wiki page, and take it from there.   For the purpose of this post I will simply define free will as the ability to make choices that are not predetermined before we make the choice.  This implies that our conscious minds are not entirely subject to deterministic physical laws, and have the power to alter physical reality.  Lack of free will means the absence of this power, and implies that we lack the power to alter physical reality in any way.  I personally have no idea whether we have free will or not.  In my opinion, we currently lack the knowledge to answer the question.  However, I believe that debating the matter is useless.  Instead, we should assume that there is free will as the “default” position, and get on with our lives.

Of course, if there is no free will, my advice is useless.  I am simply an automaton among automatons, adding to the chorus of sound and fury that signifies nothing.  In that case the debate over free will is merely another amusing case of pre-programmed robots arguing over what they “should” believe, and what they “ought” to do as a consequence, in a world in which the words “should” and “ought” are completely meaningless.  These words imply an ability to choose between two alternatives, but no such choice can exist if there is no free will.  “Ought” we to alter the criminal justice system because we have decided there is no such thing as free will?  If we have no free will, the question is meaningless.  We cannot possibly alter the predetermined outcome of the debate, or the predetermined evolution of the criminal justice system, or even our opinion on whether it “ought” to be changed or not.  Under the circumstances it can hardly hurt to assume that we do have free will.  If so, the assumption must have been foreordained, and no conscious agency exists that could have altered the fact.  If we don’t have free will, it is also absurd, if inevitable, to blame me or even take issue with me for advocating that we act as if we have free will.  After all, in that case I couldn’t have acted or thought any differently, assuming my mind is an artifact of the physical world, and not a “ghost in the machine.”  If we believe in free will but there is no free will, debate about the matter may or may not be inevitable, but it is certainly futile, because the outcome of the debate has been predetermined.

On the other hand, if we decide that there is no free will, but there actually is, it can potentially “hurt” a great deal.  In that case, we will be basing our actions and our conclusions about what “ought” or “ought not” to be done on a false assumption.  Whatever our idiosyncratic goals happen to be, it is more probable that we will attain them if we base our strategy for achieving them on truth rather than falsehood.  If we have free will, the outcome of the debate matters.  Suppose, for example, that the anti-free will side has much better debaters and convinces those watching the debate that they have no free will even if they do.  Plausible results include despair, a sense of purposelessness, fatalism, a lethargic and indifferent attitude towards life, a feeling that nothing matters, etc.  No doubt there are legions of philosophers out there who can prove that, because a = b and b = c, none of these reactions are reasonable.  They will, however, occur whether they are reasonable or not.

I doubt that my proposed default position will be difficult to implement.  Even the most diehard free will denialists seldom succeed in completely accepting the implications of their own theories.  Look through their writings, and before long you’ll find a “should.”  Read a bit further and you’re likely to stumble over an “ought” as well.  However, as noted above, speaking of “should” and “ought” in the absence of free will is absurd.  They imply the possibility of a choice between two alternatives that will lead to different outcomes.  If there is no free will, there can be no choice.  Individuals will do what they “ought” to do or “ought not” to do just as the arrangement of matter and energy in the universe happens to dictate.  It is absurd to blame them for doing something they could not avoid.  However, the question of whether they actually will be blamed or not is also predetermined.  It is just as absurd to blame the blamers.

In short, I propose we all stop arguing and accept the default.  If there is no free will, then obviously I am proposing it because of my programming.  I can’t do otherwise even if I “ought” to.  It’s possible my proposal may change things, but, if so, the change was inevitable.  However, if there is free will, then believing in it is simply believing in the truth, and a truth that, at least from my point of view, happens to be a great deal more palatable than the alternative.

The “Worry” that we don’t have Free Will

In the last couple of posts I’ve been looking at some of the more interesting responses to the “annual question” at Edge.org.  This year’s question was, “What *Should” we be Worried About,” and answers were submitted by a select group of 155 public intellectuals, scientists, philosophers, etc.  An answer that is interesting if only because it is counterintuitive was submitted by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological science and neurology at Stanford.  In his response, entitled, “The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches,” we find that Sapolsky is worried that we will make wrong choices because we don’t have free will.  In his words,

I don’t think that there is Free will. The conclusion first hit me in some sort of primordial ooze of insight when I was about 13-years old, and that conclusion has only become stronger since then. What worries me is that despite the fact that I think this without hesitation, there are times that it is simply too hard to feel as if there is no free will, to believe that, to act accordingly. What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will. And that this can have some pretty bad consequences.


But it is so difficult to really believe that there is no free will, when so many of the threads of causality are not yet known, or are as intellectually inaccessible as having to automatically think about the behavioral consequences of everything from the selective pressures of hominid evolution to what someone had for breakfast. This difficulty is something that we should all worry about.

To this, I can only answer, “Why?”  Why be worried about things you can do absolutely nothing about?  Why be worried that people won’t “truly act as if there is no free will” when it is perfectly obvious that, lacking free will, they can have no choice in the matter?  Why be worried about how difficult it is to “really believe that there is no free will” if we have not the faintest control over what we believe?  This is supposed to be a difficulty we all “should” worry about?  Surely it must be obvious that “should” is a completely meaningless term in a world without free will.  “Should” implies the freedom to choose between alternatives.  Remove free will, and that freedom is removed with it.  Remove free will and worry becomes absurd.  Why worry about something you can do nothing about?  It makes no more sense than poisoning your whole life by constantly worrying about the inevitability of death.

I by no means mean to imply that I am taking sides one way or the other on the question of whether we have free will.  I am simply pointing out that the very suggestion that we worry about it implies that we do.  If we have no free will then the question of whether we will worry about it or not is completely out of our control.  In that case it turns out I am in that happy category of people who are not worried about it.  If we do have free will, then the rationale for worrying about the lack of it is removed.  In either case, I am happy to report, I have no worries.

Neither do I imply any disrespect of Prof. Sapolsky, a brilliant man whose work I admire regardless of whether I have any choice in the matter or not.  See, for example, his work on the Toxo parasite, which strongly suggests that we must throw manipulation by other species into the mix along with genes and culture if we are ever to gain a complete understanding of human behavior.  Work of this kind, by the way, is so critical to the human condition that it cries out for replication.  There are only a few groups in the world doing similar work, and one must hope that they are not so intent on charging ahead with their own research that they neglect the scientific imperative of checking the work of their peers.

On the lighter side, readers of Prof. Sapolsky’s response will note that he throws in the disclaimer, “… lack of free will doesn’t remotely equal anything about genetic determinism.”  The Blank Slaters must have gotten to him!  In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is not nor has there ever been such a beast as a “genetic determinist.”  They are as rare as unicorns.  The term was invented by cultural determinists to use in ad hominem attacks on anyone who dared to suggest that our behavior might actually be influenced by something other than environment and learning.  Their ideology requires them to blindly insist that “there is no evidence whatsoever” that anything but culture influences our behavior, just as the fundamentalist Christian must blindly insist that “there is not one iota of evidence for Darwinian evolution,” and the right wing ideologue must blindly insist that “there is not the faintest scrap of evidence for global warming.”  Of course, Prof. Sapolsky has just supplied even more compelling evidence that they are wrong.

In closing, I will include a poetic statement of Prof. Sapolsky’s philosophy by Edward Fitzgerald, who cloaked his own world view in his whimsical “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:

With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,

And there of the last harvest sow’s the seed,

And the first morning of creation wrote,

what the last dawn of reckoning shall read.