None of us are free?

Something long and boring and half-thought out follows…

The modern picture of a human being, post scientific-revolution, has to be this complex dyarchy; both biological and personal. An atomic horde of selfish genes and a singular person with cares and worries and hopes. A perishable temporary bulwark of order, within a great entropic history, which remembers each moment of its fleeting existence. A chemical process experiencing nostalgia. A mindless, selective, adaptive coagulation of matter that has somehow produced mindfulness. Consciousness in a universe of brute atomic incidence.

There is some suggestion that this new viewpoint should, or even must, change our view of free will. We must realise that, since it is chemistry and biology determining our actions, we are not free. None of us are free. We feel free only because we are unaware of the actual way that our choices are determined. A great ocean of causation lies within us, a sea of atoms, signals and conveyers, shifting about and in so doing deciding our lives. You married that woman because of various ectothermic and exothermic processes in your central nervous system, or something of that sort. This view does not deny the reality of our consciousness, our feelings of agency, our emotions, our rationality and so on. Instead it provides an account for them, an explanation, an unseen causal chain operating beneath (and/or through) our cognition. Does this new model render obsolete former notions of free will?

Now the problem with this line of thought, as it currently stands, is that we haven’t defined free will. Until we have done that, we cannot very well say* either that:

A) The new view of humanity can coexist with free will or,
B) The new view of humanity cannot coexist with free will.

* (Not that this stops people from trying).

To really understand free will, let’s start by talking about limits. A choice, any choice, is inevitably hemmed in, constrained, by a variety of contextual factors (limits of logic, personal limits, geographic limits, we could go on). Consider a touch football game. I am limited by various logical factors, I cannot both be and not be on the field. I cannot both run and walk and not run and not walk and do all of the above without doing anything. But, sadly, my limitations go beyond this (team mates disagree with me about how far beyond). I have a certain top speed, a certain agility, a certain throwing range. I couldn’t choose to run down the right wing at Mach 5 before throwing a nine hundred metre pass. It’s not logically impossible, but it’s personally impossible, for me. And if the weather is minus eighty, or we are playing in a vacuum, these limitations might be altered. We cannot contest the fact that yes, I am limited in my range of choices on the football pitch.

And yet, it seems to me that I have a variety of options. I can pass right or left, run with the ball, sit down, dig, throw grass petulantly, taunt, flee, and so on. There are many actions open. I feel very free.

Free will seems to be the ability to make a choice, from a set of possibilities. The fact that a choice exists implies here that the decision is in some crucial way undetermined. It has not been determined. It is a free choice. My laptop does not make such choices, code directs it in such a way that it has no choice, it is locked in, it is determined.

But, one might argue, our internal code, biological not mechanical, locks us in too. I think that I could have passed left or right but, really, my biology had already determined that I would go right. The decision which seemed undetermined – free – was in fact determined – unfree.

And there’s a much bigger problem here. Undetermined, the word we have been using, means not determined (wow!) Something which is not determined at all, is entirely arbitrary. Think about it. Undetermination is total chaos (not chaos in the mathematical sense of the world). Anything, anything at all, could come as a result. So we must speak of underdetermination, the event being partially determined but somewhat undetermined. A dice roll, to the naive eye, looks underdetermined in this way. The outcome must follow the structure of the dice and so on, but a variety of outcomes within that structure are possible. Is that the sort of free will we want? Our choices are an arbitrary, undetermined bit of chaos within an underdetermined structure? Our view of free will now has it looking like arbitrariness. And the issue here, is that when people talk about being free, they definitely don’t mean that they are arbitrary.

So, I suppose, a person claiming to have free will is really claiming that they self-determine their actions. The decision is not undetermined, it is not arbitrary, it was just determined by the self.

The modernist would want to clarify this a bit. For they argue that our self and our body are the same thing. We are our bodies. And our decisions are not mystical decisions exogenous to our physical system. Our decisions are the result of chemical processes in our bodies. And that self, that chemical machine, is entirely determined by the universe it which it exists, by the laws of physics governing the myriad interactions of matter within us.

Someone who believes that the body and self are overlapping but differentiable might say that our decisions are not *just* biological. There is some other self, some soul or soul-like operator, some conductor on the bus making decisions. It is him, or her, that makes the great undetermined decisions. But, then, if these decisions are undetermined, they must be arbitrary. So we modify and say that our conductor is determined, determined by inner values of some sort, and that hence these values, these central properties of self, drive the bus. The bus is self-determined, by the conductor, according to the properties of who you are.

Issue – where do the values/properties come from? Nowhere? Oh that’s arbitrary. Somewhere? Oh, then they are determined extrinsically. That doesn’t sound very self-determined. Maybe you aren’t free after all?

You see there’s no way out of this quandary. We either have external determination at some level of the regress, or arbitrariness. You don’t get to be this undetermined choosing machine, not because of modern science and the modern view, but because the concept doesn’t make sense. At some point down the rabbit hole (and we can drag this game out way more) you end with chaos or determinism.

Ahh, but Heisenberg, someone says, referring not to the drug dealer, but to the quantum uncertainty principle. One common interpretation of the quantum observer effect is that uncertainty is fundamental, that there is undetermination on the atomic level. And this type of undetermination is not arbitrary, they might argue. It’s a probabilistic function, and perhaps our free will is likewise?

Well sure, if you think that their is a material difference here, that something probabilistic is functionally any different from something arbitrary. That argue would need to be made. But a deeper problem is that probabilistic undetermination is pretty dang close to determination. Add both together and we could say this – your actions are determined by the result of an arbitrary selection from a stochastic distribution, and in this sense only, are undetermined. That does not sound like free will.

Perhaps this undetermination stuff was a red herring. Perhaps we need a better definition, a more consistent understanding of what it is to be free. I would suggest that a being is free if it is able to make decisions which are consistent expressions of its nature. A being is able to be itself, without being constrained into being anything else.



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