Wednesday, November 22, 2006

On the Nonexistence of Free Will

    If you look up free will in the dictionary, you will get this definition
freedom of self determination and action independent of external causes

Can the definition be any more condemning? Action independent of external causes?! This means that free will is incompatible with the principle of causality. In the physics community, we quickly toss away theories that are non-causal. If events do not have a cause, then you cannot predict them. They are, in effect, supernatural events. In fact, it hard to think of a scenario where one could argue for having free will without believing in some sort of supernatural "spirit" or "soul" that isn't affected by natural events.

    Now someone might say "quantum mechanics has shown us that we cannot always predict what will happen with absolute certainty, perhaps this leaves room for free will?". This is a good try, but it still doesn't cut it. It's true that in modern physics things cannot be predicted with absolute accuracy, but we can predict probabilities of events occuring. So in principle, I could compile all events that happened in your lifetime into a huge computer, complete with all genetic information that may be relevant, and if I knew what events you would later observe I could predict the probabilities of you doing certain actions and of your brain generating certain thoughts. Sure, it would take a huge amount of computing power and a great deal of initial data to compute these probabilities, but they could be computed in principle, and that is all that is necessary to invalidate the idea of free will.

     The ambitious atheist might try to conclude that that absence of free will completely destroys the idea of ChristianTM morality because if humans don't have free will, then they cannot choose their life and it makes no sense to punish nor reward them for their actions as Christian dogma describes. But I have to say, for the sake of intellectual honesty, that I don't believe my argument applies to Christianity in this way, or any other religion for that matter. The reason for this is that Christians, for example, presuppose the existence of a supernatural realm, and who is to say that the principle of causality applies in that realm? Christians actually believe in souls, spirits, angels, and demons. So it's quite easy to see how a Christian might be able to argue that the supernatural realm is non-causal. However, if they do so, some of their ideas of God, particularly those which are related to his anthropomorphic character, are bound to fall apart. For example, if God lives in the supernatural realm, and is a non-causal being, then why should one pray to him? Your prayers don't necessarily cause him to think about your situation, because his processes are not caused by external events! Any story from the Bible where God reacts to earthly events also becomes suspect, since the supernatural world is not causal. The Christian may then argue that some aspects of the supernatural are causal, while others are not. And it's obvious that the things which are causal and those which are non-causal will depend on what it needs to be to be consistent with his worldview. I guess that's the convenience with believing in a magical world where anything goes and one can simply wish it to be true and it is....

     Outside of religious debates, what significance does the absence of free will mean to the normal person? For one, it's something that must be kept in mind when one considers the concept of justice. If people do not actually make choices in a free manner, it makes no sense to punish them for their "wickedness". Instead, one must look for the causes of bad behavior and think about logical ways to prevent it from happening in the future.

     I personally am not concerned with my lack of free will. My choices and thoughts are determined by the experiences I've had in my life, and that's all that I need, not to mention the only thing that makes sense to me.


Anonymous said...

Concerning the reason we pray, we (Christians) believe that God ordains the means as well as the end. Prayer is the means He has chosen though the outcome will never vary from His eternal decree.

John K. Fitzpatrick said...

re: no free will & justice
Center For Naturalism


re: beyond free will/determinism

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism.

In the culture of the modern West, we see ourselves as thinking subjects, defined by our conscious thought, autonomous and separate from each other and the world we survey. Current research in neurology and cognitive science shows that this picture is false. We think with our bodies, and in interaction with others, and our thought is never completed. The Fiction of a Thinkable World is a wide-ranging exploration of the meaning of this insight for our understanding of history, ethics, and politics.

Renewing the Anarchist Tradition 2005: Agency and Action
Thinking about human agency may seem like a waste of time when so much is collapsing around us. Capitalism, though, is unique; it's grounded in the structure of our own experience and sense of self. So long as we see ourselves entering the social world from outside, we can do nothing but remake the very world we set ourselves against. If we start instead from neurology and theoretical biology, we can see that human agency is an aspect of a single process that throws up the self and the world simultaneously. This is the terrain on which Marx's vision of the emergence of an unalienated world and the anarchist insistence that ends and means can't be separated can meet. This presentation will explore the implications of such an approach.


- John

Anonymous said...

Free marketers like to say that people do things that are in their own rational self interest. They assume that people are thoughtful and informed; that the market is natural because every person is a free agent, able to make logical choices without outside bias or influence. The efficacy of advertising suggests otherwise. They also like to say that it's natural for us to compete each against every other, that this is the law of the jungle, or social darwinism. They assume that everyone is aware of this, and operates according to these principles. From what we know of our evolution and how we interact and form groups, it is clear that these beliefs are not the norm, nor an inherent trait, but a deviation. It may be a very nasty deviation, a sickness. The idea of free will, as taken as a matter of faith, is up there with other Dangerous Things Humans Think, like original sin or ethnic cleansing.

In existentialism, the concept of free will is very compelling, and meshes nicely with the understanding that we are ultimately the source of our actions. Based on what we know to be true about how we operate, it is necessary to be aware of outside influences affecting us, and to what extent. We all must do things and for certain reasons. By filtering out faulty reasons and unwanted external influences, we can hone our actions to be more meaningful, purposeful, fulfilling, and effective. Most of all, they will be more our actions - or the actions we deem worthy of executing - rather than someone else's.

I read a study recently comparing learning styles of young chimps and young humans. Both groups were given tasks that would test how well they refine techniques to acquire a treat. Superfluous steps were mixed with relevant steps, such that the observer (the subject) would either emulate (that is, copy the method, but make adjustments) or imitate (perform an exact copy of the method) the demonstrated behaviour of the researcher to gain access to the treat. Disturbingly, and quite contrary to what we might expect, the chimps were much better at ignoring the irrelevant steps and refining the technique displayed by the researcher than the humans were. The chimps were able to omit unnecessary steps and come up with novel ways to solve the task. Humans less so. This suggests that humans don't bother to think about altering or improving upon a previous method - we just do what those who have done before do. This is not to say that we are incapable of innovation, it may just mean that we are wired at that age to imitate instead of emulate. But knowing how people operate in general, the thought occurs that perhaps there are a great many people doing what they do only because they have seen others do it, or were compelled to do it, and are not in the habit of refining or honing their behaviours. This may have been an advantage in the wild, but in the modern world, it seems to be a serious drawback.


vjack said...

Of course, freedom vs. determinism is one of the classic debates that every introductory psychology text includes. I think it is a good one for students to consider. As a scientist, I've never had any problem accepting determinism. However, you are correct that it does raise some troubling questions if we move into a legal arena.

Anonymous said...

I misread this as "On The Nonexistence Of A Free Wii" and was prepared to read an expose of those scams. :-\

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Tomas Pales said...

This is a simple proof of nonexistence of free will:

We can act because of a reason or without a reason. There is no other
possibility. In the first case our action is determined by a reason,
in the second case our action is determined by chance. Hence in both
cases we have no control of our action and hence no free will.

In order to choose our action we would need to choose the reason that
will then determine our action. But why would we choose that reason?
Again, because of a reason or without a reason, but this means that
even the choice of a reason is determined by a reason or by chance.

Whatever you do is determined by that which is beyond your control.

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