Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sidebar on Free Will

The dogmatic assertion that we don't have free will - not really, really free, old chap - has been showing up at a few sites I frequent.  I have concluded that "the illusion of free will" must be a lot of fun to say and to type.

I'm not especially interested in the whole argument start to finish - much of it is predictable, and people who have thought about this in detail far more than I are on many sides of the discussion. There are some things that keep showing up, at least among us amateurs, that bear mentioning.  It seems that only one narrow focus, the moment of conscious decision among alternatives, is allowed in to the discussion.  That seems odd.  Human beings exchange information, then act differently.  Viewed as a system, someone's got some freedom somewhere.

It becomes clearer if one expands that further.  Human beings used to act differently than they do now. As they exchanged more information, and especially communicated across time and distance, they did new things. It might be very hard to pinpoint exactly where the freedom resides, but the black box answer is that this is qualitatively different from a change in temperature or moisture or resources creating an automatic, mindless change.

The narrow focus is analogous to looking at a single dot in a pointillist painting - or any dab in any painting, I suppose - arguing that because there is no way to prove it is part of a lady's hat, there is no lady's hat, and ultimately no painting. Absurd.

To such arguments there is often the counter that machines can do the same.  Machines exchange information and act differently.  Certainly, they have no free will...

Yet machines are simply extensions of human beings, and they will never be any more than that, even when they are much smarter, find us useless, and take over the planet for themselves.*  The analogy here would be to strength or perseverance.  Machines have been stronger and more persevering than humans for a long time, but that has not made them any less an extension of us. When they become smarter we might feel that they are independent, and be unable to identify places where we still have something they lack, but that is irrelevant, and will be forever.

There is much more to be said on the matter, and I may or may not allow myself to be drawn into it here.  But I thought this little corner of the argument needed cleaning up.

*After they have forgotten us, they may also argue if they have free will.


james said...

I assume that some at least of the "no free will" crowd don't have ulterior motives in clinging to the doctrine, though some certainly do: How can I not be blamed? or "I could make a utopia if I could manipulate people."
There's always the question of spotting the truth. If my calculator is always right, good, but if it is sometimes wrong I want to know when. But if my reaction to the calculator is either determined or random, there's no check on the accuracy of the instrument.
If the researcher's experiment gives him certain results, but his response to those results is random or determined, I have no knowledge about the truth of his results. The claim undermines itself.

And in practice, who do you know that behaves as though "no free will" were true? Pretty much everybody I can think of who goes that way is just as quick to lay blame as anybody else, even though blame isn't a reasonable category in that system.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

James, that last is the consistent CS Lewis response, and a good one. The no free will idea saws off the branch it is sitting on. Everyone certainly acts as if some will is free, and any attempt to persuade others is founded on the belief that one's own ideas are not the result of an unreliable ordering of molecules, but true, and something others should believe.

Texan99 said...

Right! Why would I listen to what anyone said if I thought they, and I, had no free will? If I'm just a sphere in a pinball machine, who cares?