This entry in the Philosophy of Nom was again inspired by a blog entry over at the Atlantic Magazine’s list of blogs. This one came from a couple of posts on Andrew Sullivan’s blog by one of his under-bloggers named Patrick Appel. Patrick apparently has an ongoing interest in the question of Free Will vs. Determinism and he got a number of people to write in about it and posted some of their letters.
One of these, by a determinist really irked me–less because of its position in the debate–but more because of how it seemed to really miss the point and lack understanding about some of the main elements within the debate.
In any case, it inspired me to get some of my thoughts down on this. Yes, yes, I know half of all the philosophers since the beginning of time have dealt with this question and one could go and read all of them first and try to grok whatever the fuck it is that they are saying….
but I must admit, I’ve read a good number of these philosophers and seen summaries of their thoughts and two things dissuade me from embarking upon a long reading of various dead white guys…
1. They often have just piss poor writing skills when it comes to things like clarity–and I don’t have the time to reorganize my brain 20 different times to figure out exactly what they were saying in the original (Kant, for example, is a real bastard on this score..) My only caveat here is that I wish I had read a bit more from Leibniz–because from what I’ve gleaned–he had some really cool views on this.. and views that foreshadowed point #2…
2. Almost all of these dudes were writing before the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, which, I believe, really has important things to say about this issue..
First things first–if you have no idea what determinism is or the debate between free will and determinism is–you can easily google them (try googling “determinism” and you will get the wikipedia article on it which is a good start..) and get a basic idea.
To restate the basics–the question of determinism and free will really seems to have become a problematic topic during the past couple of hundred years. Specifically, when the mechanistic view of the universe started to grow in Western Europe during the 1600-1700’s (scientific revolution times)–this view posited two important points:
a) That if you knew the exact momentum and position of particles–you could predict/calculate==know their future. As an example, if you could measure the forces, angles, times, etc that went into a person playing pool–you could predict how the balls would move about the table.
b) The entire Universe was made up of particles interacting through physical collisions.
Thus, by the late 1700’s it was realized that if you theoretically knew the initial conditions of the universe–the momentum and positions of all the particles in it–that you could then predict how these particles could interact for the entire future history..
This implied that there was only one real path that these particles could take–and thus everything in the universe–including us humans–were merely following a path that had been set in motion from the very start of time.
This belief–which was articulated by a French Dude named Laplace–(google Laplace’s demon)–was problematic when it came to the idea of free will as it was commonly understood. For example, if we are all merely automatons who are following a path that is already determined by particle interactions that cannot be avoided–since they were following a pre-determined path since the beginning of the universe–then all sorts of moral issues take on a whole new character. The Axe-murderer who killed those nice people could not have done otherwise in this scheme–so does it make sense to view him as evil?
This got especially hairy with regard to religious ideas of heaven and hell–if you did all of these “bad things” supposedly you went to hell–but if you had no choice in the matter–that would imply that the Christian God had pre-destined certain people for hell and there was nothing we could do about it–which seems kinda mean and also seems to negate the whole idea of Jesus’s resurrection taking away sin.. (obviously, the concept of “sin” itself started to lack meaning, because how could you be “choosing” to ignore God’s laws, when you were predestined to carry out only one set of actions and could not avoid this set of actions..)
Thus–religious folks–especially Christians who weren’t Calvinists (who did believe in predestination)–have often championed the notion of Free-Will against determinism because they need it for their entire belief system to work. They often made arguments about mind/souls/etc being immaterial and thus having an influence on the materials of the world==all of these particles–to the extent that they made a hash of this pre-determined path constantly. Of course, how an immaterial force exerted its influence over material particles then became a really tricky question that basically implied a lot of “and then magic happens” types of solutions…
No really good explanations for this “magical hand waving” appeared until the 20th century when the field of Quantum Mechanics came about. Long Story short–after a number of experiments were run with electrons being shot through some slits (see Double-Slit Experiment), it became really unclear whether matter was made up of particles or was rather just a kind of wave. In short, the results of this said that light and matter were actually kind of “both” at the same time–and in addition–that the act of trying to observe a particle actually interfered with it in a way that you could never actually know what the particle’s original momentum and/or position was before you observed it with absolute accuracy–because by observing it, you changed the momentum enough that you were introducing error into your measurements..
Basically–what it said was that there was kind of a “fuzzy limit” (See Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) to our ability to know the Universe. But even beyond this, many quantum mechanics folks have taken it further to say that this principle is not just talking about limits to our knowledge of the Universe–but have said that “it is a statement about the nature of the system itself as described by the equations of quantum mechanics.” (taken from the wiki page of the Uncertainty principle link..)
Thus, it was saying that at a very distinct level of really small things in the Universe–basically at the level of electron interactions–the universe itself was indeterminate. This is important–because almost all chemical interactions in the world are through electron interactions–thus the very foundation of most physical interactions in the universe are reliant upon a particle that acts in a very whacky and indeterminate fashion. It is true that we can write probability equations about this indeterminacy that would give us probabilities of where electrons would be in any particular interaction–but we would be eternally unable to find a mechanism that would explain in advance which of these possible outcomes will actually take place beforehand. This finding is at the core of the big debates between Albert Einstein (God not playing dice with the Universe.) and Niels Bohr–and Niels Bohr won these debates.
Thus–indeterminacy was brought back into the universe… which might seem to be a big support for Free Will–but I still think that there are some points in all of this that need to be separated… and so I will now try to outline them after this big introduction..
At its core there seems to be a big problem of distinguishing the situation of the universe itself and our knowledge about this universe. Connected to this distinction is the issue of whether we have “Free Will” or just the “Illusion of Free Will.” This “illusion” is something that is often connected to a determinist version of the Universe. In it, it says that while our future paths have been already determined by particle interactions–because we are limited beings and cannot know all of these interactions or predict them–it gives the appearance that we have choices to make, while in reality, our “decisions” with regard to this choice were also already predetermined by prior events.
Interestingly enough, this idea of an “illusion of free will” is still compatible to a universe that is ruled by quantum mechanics–albeit in a different form. Specifically, although quantum mechanics seems to demolish that there is one and only one path for the universe to follow as time progresses–since electron interactions are random events with a spectrum of options–it does not necessarily follow that our free will really exists as some form of control over the universe. Rather, all it says is that when it comes to a situation where our brain chemistry has to act to materially construct the chemical equivalent of a “mental decision” that these interactions are not “pre” determined by particle interactions that have been following one path since the beginning of time–but there is nothing to say that they aren’t determined by the random decisions of electrons to pick one of the many possible quantum possibilities that exist in the “chemical interaction on our brains that equal a mental decision.”
Thus–in this version–the “illusion of free will” is basically the idea that our consciousness has some control or input into the decisions that we make.. when in fact, it is entirely possible that this decision is just a “random” occurrence based on exactly how electron wave-functions happen to collapse at that particular moment–and that our consciousness has no control over these aspects at all.
After all of this–it seems clear to me that the key element of the question of free will and determinism hovers over the issue of control and consciousness. In old school determinism, we had no control at all over decisions at all–they were chemical interactions following a path that had already been set.. in essence, our lives and the life of the universe was a movie that had been made and we were like characters in the film….If we were to watch such a film–and then to rewatch it–the storyline would always be sthe same and it would make no sense to expect that the storyline would be different the second time around.
However–with quantum mechanics–this first scenario is demolished. Each time you would rewatch the film, the storyline would be different because of random chemical interactions at the sub-atomic level changing things over time. But, in an important sense, this example still does not give the characters in the movie any real control over the outcome–the script they are getting may be written only instantaneously as they act it out–but they are not the ones writing it.
In a universe where we would have something called “free will”… it would imply that our lives–instead of being something like a movie–would be more like our conception of an interactive video game–say World of Warcraft–where our consciousness actually had some control–even if only in a limited extent–over what the characters in the game were doing. Thus–not only would the script for “future” activities remain unwritten–but that we could actually contribute to its writing.
The question is–do we have any of this control at all–given what we know about the universe?
Personally, I think that there is some good evidence that we do. This evidence is composed of the following aspects:
1. Consciousness is a key aspect in this entire question–and although scientists have been quite good at explaining the bio-mechanics and physics of material bodies quite well–they really are still quite stumped as to just what the fuck consciousness is. Nothing in what they’ve discovered can explain the existence of this phenomenon. They cannot explain a material body’s ability to reflect upon its own existence and to create a subjective understanding about its observations of the material world. Perhaps, one day, they will accomplish this goal–but the whole fact that the human mind==consciousness==seems to involve a level of complexity that has “emergent” qualities (See Emergence) where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (the whole including a subjective appreciation of all of the sensory data that is coming into the system that is a human mind)–means that it is still a very big question. The question of whether this biological system of our minds can create an emergent consciousness that contains a component in a dimension that is not part of four-dimensional space-time (and thus is not controlled by simple rules of material causation) is something that I consider highly possible considering factors elaborated in point #2. Of course the question then still remains of how this extra-dimensional immaterial aspect of consciousness exerts influence over material entities–but that, to me must be tied up in the exact details of how consciousness “emerges” into this dimension in the first place.. What qualities does emerging employ/use/create..
2. The consistent patterns in our existence–This point is a complement to point #1–but also a kind of empirical observation. Specifically, it is an observation that if we look at the “second” movie metaphor I used above–namely that due to Quantum Mechanics–the scripts of our lives are being written instantaneously as we move along–but that we are still just following a script written by something entirely external to ourselves–that there seems to be an incredible amount of coherence, regularity, and order to our lives (and the lives of any other kind of sentient creature–say like a cat) that would not seem to follow from the inherently random nature of quantum mechanical interactions..
Now, before anyone points this out as a rebuttal, this is not some generalist argument about order in the universe. Obviously, the rules of evolutionary biology show that there are means of creating stable and relatively orderly systems (such as life itself!) over time and the means of natural selection are quite convincing on this score. However, the creation of this kind of order is qualitatively different with regard to the speed with which it works. Evolution works over the span of thousands of years–whereas consciousness works with regard to days, minutes and seconds.. In addition, evolutionary systems work in an incredibly inefficient manner–i.e. change in the form of mutations involves the deaths of millions of various individuals and only by default or luck do various “improvements” gradually accrue to form a coherent, persistent, and orderly system known as a life-form. Such a kind of order creation is quite different from the coherence that makes up an “individual” with apparent free will. The individual coherence that we notice in humans (but in animals also) develops rapidly (in the space of a few small years) and maintains itself not through destruction of all other alternatives–but in a process of continual growth and additions that do show signs of something resembling “forethought” or “prediction”–something that evolutionary systems do not have any capacity for at all.
These two things: Consciousness and the coherence of identity are two of the main reasons that I believe that we do possess the quality of free will that allows our conscious minds to exert control over our actions and thus our destinies. This also means that all those fun things–like responsibility for our actions–also exist, and thus it makes sense to hold people accountable for their actions without resorting to a deterministic (and rather fatalistic) explanation like “well, we’re holding them accountable because this reaction has also been pre-determined into our existence..”)
And now.. I need to get back to work… Enough Philosophy for one morning–I await any and all contributions from other free-willed individuals..