In The Armchair

Free Will

Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on May 16, 2010

The November 2006 issue of New Scientist carried a series of articles entitled “The Big Questions”. One of the articles was titled “Do We Have Free Will?“. The same question was asked in a New York Times science section article on 2 Jan, 2007 entitled “Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t“. So, why are people asking the question? Isn’t it obvious that free will exists?

The question arises because all humans are, after all, collections of molecules obeying physical laws. In that sense, anything and everything we do is simply pre-determined by the laws of physics. We cannot have free will because we are bound by the physical laws governing our molecules. There is nothing “free” about our will. There is no such thing as choice, and consequently, no such thing as free will.

The New Scientist article cites the example of a person who was turned into a deviant by a brain tumour. When the tumour was removed, he became normal again. When the tumour later re-grew because a portion of it was missed out, the man exhibited the same deviant behaviour again. The man did not choose to bad things; he was simply a slave to the physical processes leading to his deviant behaviour.

Why should we care? How does the question of whether we have free will affect our everyday life? To borrow one clear example from the New Scientist article, in a situation where a disease results in deviant behaviour, should the person be punished? Most legal systems are based on an assumption of free will. A perpetrator is punished because he or she is responsible for the crime in the sense that that he or she willfully committed the crime. This entails an exercise of free will. Thus, those who can demonstrate an inability to exercise free will at the time of perpetration of a crime are those who are sentenced leniently or even let off unpunished. Now consider what would happen if everyone has an inability to exercise free will. Would no one be culpable for any crime in that case?

I think free will exists only as an illusion. We don’t really have free will, and we are in fact slaves to physical laws. When we think we are making a decision, we are in fact only obeying the dictates of the laws of physics.

However, the illusion of free will is both useful and consistent. It is consistent because we cannot predict in advance what will happen. It is useful because we can use it to make sense of the way human societies organize themselves. This needs some elaboration. Maybe in a later post.

Free Will is Really a Question of Epistemology

Free will may have more to do with epistemology than physics.  Suppose the universe is indeed deterministic in the collection of rules sense.  That is, there is a set of transition functions that tell us how to calculate the next state of the universe given the current state of the universe.  However, we still lack complete knowledge of the future because we don’t have access to these transition functions.  Besides, we may not be able to apply the transition function.

First, we don’t know the entire current state of the universe, which is required as an input to the transition functions.

Second, suppose we grant that the first point is not an obstacle.  To answer a particular question maybe we only need a partial state of the universe which we actually know.  However, applying the transition function to calculate the next state may not be in the causal sequence for us.  That is, the transition functions themselves may not predict that we will apply them and find out the future.

So that’s why we don’t know the future.  Now the crux of my argument is this: that what we term “Free Will” is simply a statement about our state of knowledge.  When we are faced with two choices A and B, and we say “I made choice A out of my own Free Will at time 2”, what we are really saying is “At time 1 I didn’t have the knowledge/computational resources/ability to know for sure that I was restricted to choice A at time 2”. Since we don’t have knowledge of the future’s certainty, we don’t feel it is certain.  We feel that we have made a choice.

In this sense, Free Will is an illusion.  It is not that we could have made choice B; it is just that we feel we could have made choice B.  The feeling is Free Will, and it arises from the fact that, as part of the universe, we cannot calculate at time 1 what the choice at time 2 will be, or even see that the choice is fixed (since we are not intuitively aware of the transition functions).  Applying intuition, since we cannot calculate the choice or even perceive the transition functions, we assume that “we could have made” another choice.

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2 Responses

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  1. bekaarbokbok said, on June 21, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Reminds me of this story:

    The philosopher Democritus, proponent of determinism, was beating his slave for stealing.
    The slave says, “Master, why are you beating me ? It was predetermined that I would steal.”
    Democritus says, “It was also predetermined that I should beat you.”

    • Armchair Guy said, on June 21, 2010 at 12:04 pm


      Hilarious story!

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