Free Will

I’m tempted to write up a Doggerel entry on it sometime, but for now, I thought I’d have a post for discussion on the topic. The big problem I have with the phrase is that a lot of people are way too attached to outdated, incoherent, unfalsifiable, or self-contradictory definitions of it. I haven’t talked about it in any “academic” context, so I don’t want to get caught confusing one type for another. Those of you better read on the history of the concept have my permission to write long comments about the hair-splitting differences.

My general idea of free will would be something along the lines of “able to consciously evaluate possible actions and determine which is most optimal.” In a way, it’s like a computer’s ‘decision’ that results from a deeply nested set of If/Then statements. Humans are “free willed” because we’re capable of a large set of possible decisions and we’re capable, in part, of thinking about how we make those decisions. At the other end, insects generally react to stimuli with little or no thought about the context of their actions. Of course, like consciousness, this would be on a spectrum instead of a strict binary thing, and circumstantially variable within a particular organism: If I see something threatening suddenly rush towards me, I don’t consciously evaluate possible defense strategies so much as blindly react.

One thing I don’t get is the deal with substance dualists, anti-determinists, and “fuzzy” free will ideas. If souls exist, how do they make decisions, and how is it inherently “freer” than a brain making decisions? How does bringing in the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics make decisions “freer” than a deterministic universe? All it does for me is tack on new variables, middle men, and such for no real gain.


5 responses to “Free Will

  1. I think most ideas on this subject are best addressed by error theory of some sort, except for the libertarian ideas – those are just plain bizarre, and uninteresting beyond their superficial oddness.

  2. If I see something threatening suddenly rush towards me, I don’t consciously evaluate possible defense strategies so much as blindly react.

    We were playing chip-n-putt golf around my buddie’s family cottage when a bear came down the driveway. I was going for my camera when the old man ran at it flailing his arms and yelling. Yogi ran back up the driveway.

    I think your assessment of free will makes sense. If I had to describe it I would say something similar.

    How do souls make decisions? Well they obviously do, silly. The brain as a radio receiver of our ethereal thoughts is a far sillier idea. Where were all these thoughts for the billions of years where there weren’t any talking monkeys to come up with these grand ideas? Volcanoes on Mars?

    When quantum get invoked I get the sense they think they have some influence over subatomic events.

  3. Interesting. I was about to post about how I disagree and can’t for the life of me see how free will can arise in a deterministic physical universe. But it was nagging at me that I’ve got Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett on my reading list, and know that he professes to explain exactly how we do have free will despite it being a deterministic universe. I read a couple of reviews, and look forward to getting it out the library. So any hair-splitting from me would have to wait. Are you acquainted with his views?

    I’m still trying to work out whether I agree with what you seem to imply above, that computers have free will, as we do, due to a nested set of if-then statements. Did you mean that? Maybe they have less free will because they have a simpler program, but have it for the same reason. The reason, as far as I can gather from those reviews, was something to do with simple rules leading to emergent complex behaviour (observable even in 2D arrays of elements setting their on/off state according to the state of the elements around them) – particularly behaviours that predict possible future events and then alter behaviour to avoid them. I have also heard this predictive capacity cited as the explanation of consciousness, although I don’t get that either (who does!?) – the apparent subject-object divide (the hard problem of consciousness).

    • The computer thing is more an analogy, and I wrote it in part because I’ve seen If/Then statements and similar bits of code referred to as “decisions” even though they’re deterministic, based on the input.

      In principle, a sufficiently advanced computer program should be able to have “free will” in much the sense that humans do, though I realize it’s not going to happen by top-down coding a bunch of conditional statements, but something like bottom-up fuzzy logic that adds up to various complex decision-making processes like those we have.

      The kind of thing I was going for was demystifying the idea of a “decision” being some weird magical process, determined by random chance, or whatever. There’s some kind of logic underneath it all.

  4. Yay! Been a while and it seems you’ve got yourself a new site there!

    Regarding free will, I agree, on further thought I think of most concepts of “free will” as nonsensical at rock bottom.

    I’ve got two concepts of free will. The first is legal. Someone is “free” to make a decision if they aren’t being coerced by another intelligent agent into one in advance. For legal purposes, freedom has nothing to do with the standard definition of free will. So, I’d say that legally, I have “free will” if my own brain is left to it’s own devices to choose something.

    But the philosophical definition? That one’s trickier. I don’t think a soul answers the question on IF we have free will, I think the soul was offered as the device that ALLOWS free will with “free will” just accepted as a given back then. Of course, it explains about as much as saying a locomotive runs on a “locomotive force” and leaving it at that.

    Your definition is very close to what I’ve come to. Saying we have “absolute free will outside of any influence” doesn’t really mean anything to me. Does that mean that our choices are utterly random? That’s hardly comforting. One might say “well, at least you know it’s YOU making the choice”, but I’d say that even in a deterministic universe, “I” am making the choice.

    Here’s how I see it. Quantum mechanics is no real “out” for free will, as our brains operate on too large a scale for that to matter. Instead, I accept that I’m a product of my environment. However, I am still conscious. As a result, even if my brain is deterministic, “I” am still the one making the choice. Sometimes the choices are made quickly enough that they are technically made before the result of the choice is sent to my conscious mind for further evaluation, but that’s okay too. Our conscious minds can alter themselves. This too is deterministic, but it is still amazing. As humans we have the ability to take in our past, analyze our mistakes, learn from them, and actively change our behavior. Psych tests consistently amaze me not because of the weaknesses they show in how we make decisions, but in the other side of that, which is that people AWARE of these weaknesses are actually capable of overcoming them, completely changing who they are sometimes.

    In other words, who cares if my decisions are deterministic? I’m still the one making them, living through their consequences, and in the fullness of time can alter myself so that future decisions will hopefully be wiser.

    In fact, that’s the only sensible definition of what “free will” would mean for a robot as well. A robot with a personality can be said to lack free will if that personality can’t be altered by the robot itself. If it will continue to be Cutman, lumberjack, no matter what happens, even if all the trees in the world are cut down, all it will do is attempt to jack some lumber. On the other hand, it CAN have free will if it is capable of taking on new trades, of altering how it lives its life based on observing how its current choices have affected it and changing how it lives accordingly. (This is also how I rationalize what free will means in the Megaman universe.)

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