Sunday, August 27, 2006

Freer Will

Upon rereading, this didn’t turn out as coherent and polished as I’d hoped. I think it’s still understandable.

The debate about free-will versus predetermination usually focuses on an either/or structure. Either I am free to take a left turn or my choice was determined; either I was destined to be born or I am something random. Predetermination does not necessarily imply a creator. The sum total of my makeup and experiences might cause me to take a left turn, however free it seems to me. If presented with the identical situation a million times, I might, for reasons I am unaware of, make a left turn each time. Or might I turn left, turn right, turn back, or change decisions many times each?

This is a false dichotomy. We know after only a moment’s thought that some of our choices are constrained: by gravity, laws of motion, and unidirectional time if nothing else. We know also from randomness, sensitive dependence, and chaos theory that the possible outcomes of a life or even a single day are enormous beyond our imagining. If this is not freedom, it is at least life at a level of unpredictability and complexity which exceeds our understanding so thoroughly that freedom would not look any different to us.

Trying to perceive through logic whether we might be absolutely constrained or absolutely free does not seem like a noble abstract intellectual exercise to me. It is not likely to produce deep insights into the nature of God, Man, and the Universe, but rather those angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin manipulations of words and concepts which leads nowhere. We live in an actual world, after all.

A dog has fewer constraints on his actions than does a human being, but those few are powerful. Canine nature demands certain actions and precludes others. The environment – usually maintained by humans – likewise circumscribes the times and places of decisions to eat, eliminate, dig, or run. Yet once these large factors are measured, the remaining space seems to be quite free. Dogs don’t have enough memory to feel social obligations or make comparisons. Sleep, explore, or gnaw, Rover – as you like. There seems to be some limited freedom there.

A snail has even stronger demands from its nature and environment, and is even less free; an amoeba still less. As we go down the chain of biological complexity we find less freedom of will. Would we not then expect that we would find more as we went back up the chain of complexity? If we would not find free will – perhaps only God’s will is thoroughly free – would we not at least find freer will?

OK then, let’s move back down the chain again.

We cannot predict the behavior of even an amoeba with absolute certainty. We can come very close, knowing what its limited repertoire of behaviors are and how it will react to certain stimuli, but we could not leave it unobserved for even a minute and predict its location, shape, and actions with accuracy. We can dimly see how the thing might be done, given enormous initial information and control over the environment. But the freedom of even an amoeba eludes us.

From the amoeba’s perspective, or even the snail’s and the dog’s, our ability to predict behavior would seem miraculous. I have some understanding of canine nature, and know that my dog was abused when younger. Hence, some of his actions would seem free to him that I find easily predictable. It may be the same with us. As we learn more about human nature and response to environment, actions which seem free to us now might be revealed as strongly determined. But if even we uncover a dozen new ways in which our “free” will turns out to be determined in ways we did not imagine, that dozen would still be only drops in the bucket.

Wills are neither free not determined. Expecting decisions to nestle down into one category or the other goes against our daily experience. We know that some decisions are highly constrained, even saying we have “no choice.” At other times we change our decision seven times before sticking with one.


Josh Foreman said...

I think the problem with your observer analogy is that God does not merely observe us as we would observe a slug. He created us knowing every minute influence that we would encounter, and He must have known exactly the effect it would have on us. It would be more akin to a perfect programmer making a perfect simulation where he knows every possible dilemma his sim would encounter and thus, worked those issues out beforehand so that the sim would do exactly what he intends it to do in all of those situations.

I just finished a post about this if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

My best friend from high school is now an evangelist/pastor in the Assemblies of God. He and I go around and around about this, but I am coming to see his point, which makes this post's timing very appropriate in my life.

The fundamental question that your post, AVI, and your comment, Joshua, addresses is: If God, who is omniscient, knows exactly what I am going to do before I do it, do I truly have free will? AVI, your analysis of freeness of wills based on complexity is spot on, I think, and fits in with how my friend argues: God knows what I am going to do before I do it, therefore, I do not have free will. I could never buy that, but now I see that there is no absolute free will. We are freer in our choices than any other organism on this planet. But we do not have an abolute free will - only the Creator does.

Joshua, the question applies to your ideas, too (very well thought - you must be a programmer!!) If God, who is omniscient, knows what I am going to do before I do it, do I have free will? If God, who knows everything that is going to happen to me, and can program me to respond in certain ways, do I have free will?

Again, I think the programming is part of the "limits" of which AVI speaks. We can only go as far as we are programmed - without supernatural help, anyway.

(I always thought it odd that Christ so brazenly smacked sense into Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus, until I recognized that He knew that Paul would eventually hear the gospel and respond to it, so He was just accelerating the timeline. God's free will over-rode Paul's because He knew the ultimate results.)

Anyway, excellent post, AVI.