Freedom Of Will - DBH1 The Web Site 2021

Go to content

Freedom Of Will

On Freedom of Will

I want to start with these thoughts because if it turns out that we should not believe in freedom of will then I guess there is very little point in me writing much else because it won’t be me writing it. So if we are to get anywhere then let us assume for a second or two that it exists.

Without being pedantic let us assume that freedom of will means roughly the freedom to make choices. I instinctively know I have that freedom. When I crash my car I know that I chose to drive too close to the wall that I hit. However knowing this could just be one great illusion. I like the hypothesis that any organism/system may have freedom of will. And further – the more complex the organism/system the more freedom of will.

Hang on you say- “more freedom of will” - that’s a crazy notion. Most people think that freedom of will is an absolute. That is you either have it or you don’t. Well, I disagree. If I was a hyper intelligent being rather than a mortal the choices I could make would be far more extensive. In my previous example of the car crash when my choices seemed limited the hyper intelligent being might have predicted the crash way before I was able to do and thus taken evasive action before I even recognised the danger. That must mean that the being has a greater freedom of will.

I like this idea because it allows us to think of freedom of will as a continuum. It removes the difficulties associated with the point at which you gain freedom of will and lose it. We no longer need be concerned with questions of “does a baby have freedom of will?” or “when I am asleep do I have freedom of will”. In both instances the degree of freedom of will varies and that’s fine. So I find the idea attractive. It answers some tricky questions. However that doesn’t make it true.

A main usual objection to freedom of will is determinism. Loosely determinism says that each effect has a cause - or a cause determines an effect. From this follows that we could predict the future state of a system if we know what it’s starting point is and any effects that bear upon it. The deterministic argument against freedom of will goes - we are machines and therefore each thought is determined by the electrons spinning in our brains. Since the electrons must obey physical laws then each thought is merely a function of those physical laws. And everything else we do is governed by physical (scientific) laws.

In the same way that the planets move on predetermined orbits – so do we. It is a powerful argument. All of this assumes that the universe is deterministic. Our every day observation is that it is not. That is - we feel on the human scale that it is not deterministic.  We do not know in advance which horse will win a race, for example. If we built a very powerful computer could it predict it with accuracy? If we can predict it - we have a deterministic universe. But we cannot because:

1) Within the brain that there may be quantum effects. All that is required for quantum effects to exist is for distances in some processes to be very small. I believe from my readings that this is so. However it is the subject of some debate. If it is so this means that a signal may pass in direction a or direction b but it is not certain in which direction. This is the equivalent of saying that within a portion of the brain 1 plus 1 is 2 most of the time but sometimes it is 2.1. That is to say quantum effects affect the decisions of brains. Quantum effects also act on other physical processes. Irrespective of anything else you cannot predict the reply a brain will give and hence our very powerful computer will fail in it’s calculations. In the horse race example the computer cannot know how the quantum effects will affect the thought processes in the jockeys or the horses. I’ll call this the quantum problem.

2)We can never define the starting parameters or the logic of the predicting program within our computer with enough accuracy. Each event, thought and sensation that impacts on the horse and jockey throughout their lives and all of the other horses and jockeys and all their grandparents would need to be factored in. This is not simply a matter of building a bigger and bigger computer - the starting parameters are not computable. We do not know and cannot know how many variables and what code is required. The more variables and code we feed in the better we get but we cannot know when enough is enough, always. (Or to put it another way the universe is not a Turing machine). To put it another way, everything affects everything else both now and historically and this makes it impossible to know enough to define a system fully. I’ll call this the scope problem.

3)We and our machines are part of the systems we are trying to predict things about. The harder we try to predict things the more we interact with them and alter the result of the prediction. The fact that we try to measure things alters the outcome. In the horse racing example the fact that we use more and more computing power to give us the answer affects the results of the race. That is there is a recurrence problem.

I have identified these three problems (quantum, scope and recurrence) each of which destroys the deterministic idea. There may well be a lot more.

So I think that I live in a non deterministic universe. It is true that at some scales it appears deterministic. I think it is a triumph of the scientific method that we even begin to think of it in such a way. However, staying with the horse racing example it is common sense that we cannot know the result with certainty in advance. I like ideas that work with common sense. So I think that the brain is non deterministic because of the three problems.

I think therefore that it is possible that I have freedom of will. I am free to think that I have such freedom. The usual arguments against don’t seem to touch me and I will proceed on this assumption. However, the definition of freedom of will is that I am free to choose. You could argue that there is no choice here. When asked to choose, the choice my brain makes is based on all of the memories and sensations stored in it, mixed with some quantum variability. My brain is me - there is nothing else. So my brain chooses what it chooses based on this physics. I think this is a valid choice. I can review the choices about to be made before I finalise them. However I cannot predict the choices my brain will make and neither can our super computer. I think this is freedom of will.

However some people feel that for freedom of will to exist that they should control the choice. I think they do - but they would argue that this logic requires one portion of the brain, the we (or the intelligence or soul or ghost or what you will) to do the controlling. I don’t think that this is helpful. It seems to me that it is sufficient that the brain makes the choice without having to enquire into the physics of the choice. I am happy that the universe is non deterministic and hence gives the possibility of freedom of will but I cannot argue that it confers it upon all systems.

As I have previously pointed out it seems to me that freedom of will is not an absolute state but a continuum and the more complex the system the more freedom it can enjoy. So I believe that it is a necessary condition for freedom of will that the system be non deterministic but that it is not sufficient. Just how one goes about seeking a sufficient condition I leave, for the moment to others.

Of course, since I have proved to my satisfaction that the universe on the human scale is far from deterministic. The scientific method called for exactly reproducible experiments. Certainly given the degree of complexity of the human you cannot carry out any experiment involving human decision making, that is exactly reproducible. The very fact that you have carried out the human decision making experiment once will influence the later outcome. The scientific method fails If you ask - does this allow computers have freedom of will? I ask in my turn “Are they deterministic?” and reply to my own question “ Yes, I think they are” and hence cannot have freedom of will.

On A Non Deterministic Universe

A non deterministic universe is one in which there is no guarantee of a cause for an effect. This is self evident if I restate it as there may be lots of causes for a given effect.

Back to content