Free Will: Reports of Its Death Are Premature

Free will remains an enigma.

On the one had, we have little doubt that we exercise free will. Making free choices seems as immediate and real to us as our anything we experience or think.

But on the other, when we go to explain free will, we fall into a morass. How does free will break through the inexorable flow of causality? Why do experiments show our mind has decided before we are conscious of the decision? Where exactly is the locus in our mind of independent free decisions?

Theses quandaries have generated a logical and metaphysical conundrum that is real, complex and not nearly resolved. This conundrum has rightly led and continues to lead many serious thinkers to a conclusion that free will doesn’t exist.

I am not ready to join that contingent. Free will seems too central to our humanity and too fundamental to our social order to not perform a thorough due diligence examination of a conclusion of its non-existence.

My approach here for this article will not be to argue directly for its existence, or directly against its non-existence (though I have done so in other articles.)

Rather, I will discuss why drawing firm conclusions might be premature. Specifically, I will offer that we don’t have a sufficient understanding of the human body, or of the reality around us, or of the metaphysics of our existence, to draw a firm conclusion on the non-existence of free will.

My approach admittedly takes a rather rear guard defense, i.e. not attacking the issue head on, but rather skirting around it to forestall the demise of free will. But nonetheless I ask you to take this journey through items that in my view confound us on the question of free will.

The Complexity of the Brain

The brain contains billions of cells, trillions of interconnections, and millions upon millions of feedback loops. It can learn, it can sustain consciousness, recall memories, project future scenarios, adapt to injury, create symbolism, reflect in abstract terms, and conflate all these abilities, i.e. learn through conscious reflection upon its own abstract symbolic reflections.

The brain might be the single most complex animate or inanimate object on earth.

And, important for our discussion here, we don’t fully understand it. We understand parts of parts, e.g. we understand part of the chemistry, or some of memory. But we are far away from modeling the brain in a manner similar to say modeling air flow over a jet wing. It is if we could model the air flow over a rivet – that is our level of comprehension.

That gives me pause. The complexity of the brain, including its consciousness, it symbolic representation, it self-referential looping, might give rise to a sufficiently self-generating cause, to an ability to generate an independent action not caused by something other than itself.

All our scientific theories and assumptions on causality stem from lower level entities, i.e. atoms, cells, stars, electrical circuits. We can not with assurance conclude that the brain, with its unique collection of capabilities, with its consciousness plus memory plus self-reference plus feedback loops plus symbolic representations, capabilities not present in lower level entities – we can not decisively conclude that the brain is limited to the causality we have discovered so far.

When it comes to the brain, we are like Isaac Newton trying to understand black holes not knowing whether the great theory of General Relativity is over the horizon.

God

God is not a scientific argument, or even scientific concept. Why would it enter a discussion of free will?

The reason is evidential and social. Basically, billions of individuals believe at some level in God. And by and large the Gods in those beliefs are posited to exercise, and further to confer to mankind, free will.

Now the beliefs of people, even billions, do not a case make. Beliefs are almost inherently unscientific, so quantity of believe doesn’t overcome the basic quality that belief is not part of sound scientific methodology.

But the existence of a God, a God that can intervene in the physical world, would be scientifically relevant. Why? Such a God would be a cause of observable events, and science seeks to understand the causes of observable events.

And if throughout history, and on a widespread basis today, billion of individuals have and do believe in a God, that gives me pause. Why do so many believe? They could all be delusional. But here the weight of numbers becomes relevant. To categorically dismiss God is to label billions delusional. Now many, even including myself, question the likelihood of the existence of God. But for me, a sequence of events where billions of people come to hold a deep but delusional belief in God likewise seems questionable.

I am thus stuck with two questionable but highly contradictory events (God exists vs. billions delusional), and to date, at least in my view, no conclusive evidence or argumentation exists to resolve that contradiction.

So God, or a god of some type or genre, some entity with above human abilities, including free will, might exist, and might be a source for human free will.

The Incompleteness of Science

In the last five centuries, a mere dot on the human timeline, science has undergone an explosion of new concepts, concepts outstripping and superseding old concepts in both breadth and depth. Take astronomy. The earth moved from the center of the universe to a planet in an obscure solar system. Our sun moved from being the center of existence to being a star out in a nondescript portion of a spiral arm of a galaxy. Our galaxy moved from being the whole of the cosmos to being a typical galaxy among billions. And now we posit our visible cosmos might be one of many, and many might be as large as infinite.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have identified atoms, and then peered deeper to identify atomic particles, and then peered deeper to find quarks within them. In doing so, matter lost its “hardness” and became a smeared reality distributed into probability waves. Then our local view of causality was disrupted when we uncovered the illusive non-local causality of quantum entanglement.

Running through this entropy became a cornerstone to understanding the arrow of time, and with it, our understanding of the distinct forward causality inherent in our experience, in our existence, and in the laws of nature.

What will come next? We don’t really know.

Dark energy was a surprise. The unifying principle of quantum mechanics and general relativity remains unknown. The existence of extra spatial dimensions remains a possibility. Time travel remains an enigma – it seems impossible but we can’t dismiss it.

As with the complexity of the brain, and the possibility of God, the rapid, extraordinary expansion of science gives me pause. Will some future principle define a plausible backward or circular causality? Will some future discovery allow non-random, and independently caused, quantum events? Will science trip on a phenomenon that would allow free will? Those developments would seem unlikely, even impossible.

But we have been at science for just five centuries, and a person from the first of the five centuries would not even recognize the vocabulary of the most recent of the five. What will we find in the next five centuries?

Interlude

The last three sections offered that our lack of complete understanding of three items: the brain, God, and science as a whole, constrain the mental tools at our disposal to decide on the issue of free will.

The next three sections offer that even though free will might be an illusion much if not most of the time, humans exhibit at other times unique behaviors that prevent our concluding that free will is an illusion all the time.

The Presence of Objective Intelligence

As noted, let’s us accept that much of human action, that might be called free will, actually consists of responses dictated by or stemming deterministically from past experiences and conditions. Even in a pursuit to maintain free will, I can concede to, and actually would support, such a conclusion.

Top athletes train for that very purpose, to allow their bodies to respond and perform intricate actions without intervening conscious causality or decision making. At a more mundane level, in our daily choice of a meal, or a song track, or a piece of clothing, or a movie, our choices very likely result from conditioned, unconscious, highly determined responses, even if we judge we freely choose. Similarly, our daily casual conversations, and our meandering thoughts, likely proceed from subconscious processes more than conscious choice, again even if we judge we freely choose.

So while we might believe we are operating through free will, I can readily conceded that significant portions of our decisions are driven by subconscious, determined, past causes.

But the human mind can operate at multiple levels. One of those levels is rational, conscious decision making, based on logic, information, planning and evaluation. So even if we proceed for the most part via determined habit and routine, we, aka humans, appear able to shift to a different mode. We can take actions to compensate, and override, and even oppose, “auto-pilot” decisions.

Consider the choice of a college. Such a choice is fraught with emotion, confusion and even impulse. Knowing that, however, students can, and often do, take steps to bring objective, conscious logic to the choice, by

  • Extracting information from the internet
  • Consulting advisors
  • Building quantitative decision matrixes
  • Visiting campuses
  • Reviewing their life goals
  • Building forward looking scenarios given a choice one way or another

Now, the decision to bring rational decision-making to bear, that decision itself may be triggered deterministically, and the student’s reaction to the input, advice and decision algorithms may be deterministic. However, the chain of cause and effect has become immensely more complex and multi-faceted. As the student considers the multiple inputs, and weighs different approaches, and works through decision matrixes, we have a decision process that has feedback loops, conditional branches, simulations, cross-checks, validations, i.e. intricacies that may not qualify as independent free will, but seem to certainly be more than would result from the absence of free will.

And this again gives me pause. The capability for focused, intellectual, rational decision making, whether it is free will or not, provides mankind something more powerful than I would expect from a deterministic model of human choice. As they look to acquire food, a wolf pack might decide deterministically how and whether to pursue this prey or that. As mankind looked to acquire food, we stopped random hunting for prey. Rather we use our ability for rational decision making to optimize food production and thus developed integrated processes for growing grains agriculture and raising livestock.

The Ability to Override

The batter in baseball checks his swing. The customer at an online site halts before clicking the “Enter Order” button. The driver takes a deep breath right before honking the horn.

We appear to have an ability to push a stop button. While one set of mental decision processes pushes us towards a course of action, an alternate process appears able, either consciously or sub-consciously, to halt or override the decisions.

We seem to have an option for a veto.

So let’s again start with, agree to, or otherwise accede that many human decisions progress deterministically. Humans did descend from animals of lower intellectual power, and our brain likely maintained the habitual, instinctual, and/or deterministic decision making algorithms characteristic of those animals. However, just as we appear to have an added capability, above most animals, for deliberate, considered decision making, mankind also appears to have a trigger capability, above most animals, to stop decisions.

Is this stopping process deterministic? Possibly. But possibly not. Our stopping process in many cases keys off past regrets, i.e. don’t lose my temper again, don’t have that second drink again, don’t try that tennis drop shot again, and so on.

Creating “stop buttons” thus involves evaluating past choices and their outcomes, comparing them to a desired state, and building triggers and alternate courses of action. As with deliberate rational decision making above, this process of creating stop buttons appears to involve more algorithmic depth than generally attributed to a deterministic model of human choice.

Somewhat speculatively, I will go so far as to say this feature, this stop button override of behaviors, provides a basis for moral responsibility. Regardless of the deterministic, past factors driving a given person towards an unethical action, we judge most reasonably sane individuals can trigger a stop button to halt that action, given at least some period for reflection.

Long-Range Goal Planning

After many seasons of training and improvement, Novak Djokovic surpassed the top tennis players above him. Andre Agassi overcame his fall in the rankings to become again a premier tennis player and ascend to a statesman of the sport. Roger Federer has a decade long mastery of the game, and with that executed what it took to again obtain the number one ranking.

Einstein spent years finding the key to General Relativity. Darwin synthesized evolution after serious field work. Engineers work for a good portion of their careers to achieve success with an extra planetary space probe.

What we have are individuals with incomparable visions and extraordinary goals, who work persistently across extensive spans of time to realize difficult objectives.

Certainly within their journeys there is much that is repetitious and rote, not involving free will or conscious decision making. Certainly many of the steps towards their objectives are set by the nature of the goal, and conditions that are present, and the past of the person.

But the ability of humans to divine a purpose to their existence, and direct entire lives towards actualization of that purpose, seems beyond the scope of determinism. Determinism generally implies inevitability, an inexorable flow, and in the context of our brain an inability to control developments.

Now, many might argue that whether a human achieves their long-range goals is problematic. Whether one fails, or succeeds, in losing weight, or overcoming an addiction, or controlling a temper, appears random, not in our direct control. So establishing and achieving life objectives might actually deterministic, and our conscious efforts otherwise are just a parallel, but otherwise unconnected, process.

But that is not certain. We haven’t identified that any other species, even higher primates, sets far future goals. Computers, even as connected to the internet, or as realized in the jeopardy champion Watson, do not (yet) self-direct themselves based on self-generated goals to be reached decades into the future. So if human capacity for establishment of life objectives does fit deterministic concepts, it is a unique type of determinism. Determinism involves the past causing the present, and generally not the past projecting forward a future vision which then guides the present.

Summary

The inexorable flow of causality surrounds us. Atoms, stars, cellular organisms, even packs of hunting wolves, proceed from cause to effect, with past experiences and current conditions determining events and actions.

And our human bodies, even our brains, are made of the same star stuff as these entities. A conclusion then that free will is not really possible in face of this inexorable flow is thus not illogical. In fact a conclusion for free will requires some heavy thinking about how the mind escapes the ever present causality to become an independent source of action.

Despite all that, I have argued above to not yet ring the bells for the death of free will. I have posited that we lack sufficient understanding of the brain, of theology, and of science in general, to discount a future discovery that explains and validates free will. I have also offered that key aspects of human mental abilities – rational decision making, conscious over ride of actions, and establishment of far future goals – appear to involve processes more intricate than might be supportable by a deterministic model of thought and mental activity.

So I haven’t necessarily proved free will exists. Rather, I have motivated that good reasons exist to judge that the negative, that free will doesn’t exist, has not been proven.

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