Do we have free will?


Daniel Dennett has recently published a detailed response to Sam Harris’s book “Free Will”.  As one can see from the reviews, the book was received with enthusiasm by many scientists.  E.g. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, also chooses the point of view that free will does not exist.  I like how engineer Jacque Fresco explains this idea in the first part of this video (the second part where he mentions how a person may decide to borrow a weapon to protect himself from a wild animal despite being preconditioned by society that stealing is unacceptable seems somewhat inconsistent which is OK considering that, according to himself, he did not choose what to think or what to say).

The popularity of incompatibilism (the notion that deterministic laws of nature are incompatible with free will) among scientists and engineers is not surprising.  It is not a new idea and has been known for many centuries as shown in  this review on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy web site.  All good and well… But…

We still make choices, don’t we?  What do you say, yes or no?  How come?

I tend to agree with Dennett on this issue who espouses compatibilism, the notion that we can consider that free will exists for our practical purposes despite the determinism of laws of nature.  Although Dennett has a few good explanations of his view, I’d like to offer my own.

If we accept that every event is strictly determined by the laws of physics and all circumstances of that event, we must reject also the concept of probability.  There is no likelihood of occurrence of any event because, according to determinism, there is certainty whether and how this event will happen.  Nevertheless, probability is one of the most important concepts in science and everyday decision making.  Why?  I think, it has to do with predictability.  Determinism implies that all events are predictable in principle, if we know all circumstances leading to this event.  However, in practice, we never know all circumstances.  Therefore, we estimate probabilities.  This distinction between in practice and in principle also seems to be the source of confusion about falsifiability of scientific theories.

Let me ask you to name a random integer number between 1 and 10.  Can you do that?  I bet you can.  Now, that you picked a number, it’s not random for you any more — you know what it is.  But for me, the number is still random because I don’t know what number you have picked.  I can still talk about probability of what the number is, whereas for you there is no probability, there is certainty.

Once a lottery has been drawn, there is no longer any uncertainty regarding what the winning numbers are.  The probability of the numbers being what they are is 1.  Probability of the outcome of the lottery only makes sense before the lottery is drawn or if we do not know the results of the drawing.

Imagine a deck of cards face down on the table.  When I take a card from the top of the deck, what is the probability of the card being queen of hearts?  1/52, right?  Now imagine a deck of cards face up on the table with the top card being jack of spades.  What’s the probability of the card being queen of hearts now?  Now it’s zero.  Why?  Because we know it’s not queen of hearts.  But why does it matter whether the deck is face up or face down?  Isn’t the top card what it is regardless of what we think about it?  Why is it reasonable to talk about probability in the first case and unreasonable in the second case?

Perhaps, that’s enough of examples.  In summary, I think, probability, free will, and determinism are  ways to describe the world in a similar way as color is a way to describe the length of electromagnetic waves hitting our eyes (Dennett’s analogy).  In a similar way, imagining that electron is a wave or a particle or forms a cloud is a way to describe certain properties of electron.  But in reality, electron is neither like a wave in the ocean, nor like a cloud in the sky at all.  Thinking that an electron is a particle is incompatible with thinking that an electron is a wave.  Yet, scientists manage to use both models successfully, without contradiction.

It’s important to consider contexts in which concepts are meaningful.  Concepts lose meaning if they are used in a wrong context.  E.g., abbreviation “CD” can mean “compact disc” if we talk about audio records, “certificate of deposit” if we talk about banking, “critical dimension” if we talk about semiconductor processing.  In a similar way, the concept of “free will” is meaningful in most contexts of every day life, but not so in some specific contexts.  “Free will” and “probability” are all mere concepts.  If we argue that they do not exist, we might as well dismiss all other concepts and ideas we may have.

So, although, what I do is determined, I don’t know it, and it gives me the freedom of choice…  Or an illusion of freedom of choice which is as good as freedom of choice for all practical purposes.  There is no difference between free will and the illusion of free will just like there is no difference between real intelligence and fake intelligence.

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7 thoughts on “Do we have free will?

    • Thanks for your comment. It often amazes me how people can use the same words and understand something very different. I think, Sam Harris’s disagreement with Dennett is of this nature.

      As I think of it, the word “determinism” is quite strange. What does it mean? It seems to mean that if we knew the current state of a system with coordinates and impulses of all atoms and molecules, we should be able to know also the state of the system in n seconds from now. There are too many ifs here. First of all, the system must be closed, i.e. confined to itself and isolated from external influences. This implies not only that the system cannot exchange particles with the outside world, but also energy (heat, electromagnetic radiation, or whatever other forms of energy there might be). That’s quite impossible. We might not even be aware of all forms of energy out there considering the “dark matter/dark energy” problem. We also must know the state of each and every atom in this closed system. One atom in the system or coming from outside with unknown state can throw all determinism out of the window.

      So, for all practical purposes, thinking of the world as deterministic is as useful as thinking of bacteria or humans having free will. They are just ways of thinking about the world.

      It’s funny how Jacque Fresco in his example with the falling tree says “the tree does not fall” and then explains the details of what may be really happening with the tree. And still, with our limited language, we just say “the tree falls” as if the tree performs an action. It’s just a figure of speech.

      • In quantum physics, determinism is impossible even in principle. But randomness surely cannot lead to free will.

        The “non-compatibilists” imagine that free will can only exist in a world free of causal events, i.e. a world where there are no physical laws.

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