Sunday, December 05, 2004

Does Free Will Matter? Or, does Matter Free Will?

I've been engaged in a marathon session of free-will-jitsu at the BrothersJudd Blog with the ever-unpindownable Orrin Judd and a cast of many, including DailyDuck regular Jeff Guinn. Check it out. I'm not sure what the final count of comments was, but I believe that it exceeded the BroJudd's previous record for a single posting of 250 or so.

I had posted my own view on free will on the October 17th edition of the DailyDuck, and this go-round allowed me a chance to hone my view to a more concise statement. Here is the short version of my earlier argument, from the BrothersJudd blog:

If we are entirely materialistic beings, then we can be modeled. If we can be modeled, then we don't have free will.

We are modeled, insurance companies and marketers do it all the time. They aren't perfect models, they can't predict what you or I will do at every instance, but at an aggregate, statistical level they are pretty good.

Before you respond, I would note that the two most common responses don't work. "Complexity" is just a way of saying that our models aren't there yet, but will be soon.

That's what they said 30 years ago about artificial intelligence and weather forecasting. You're misinterpreting what the theory of Complexity says. Models are appriximations, they apply rules to a subset of the data variables that make up a system, and they give a rough approximation of the behavior of the system, but it is based on linear thinking. If you take into account 50% of the variables, you should be able to model the system within 50% accuracy, or so. But Compexity throws those sort of assumptions out the window, tiny changes in a few variables can lead to massive changes in the behavior of the system. Don't count on human behavoir being exactly modeled anytime soon.

But you are right, in theory, that you should be able to model a physical system with a physical system. You just need a physical system that is of equal complexity and state to the system you are modeling. You'd need an exact duplicate of you to model you. You are your own model.

Other people try to say that our brains incorporate a quantum computer capable of true randomness. This might be the only argument on which Occams' Razor cuts in favor of G-d.

Is randomness really the attribute that you want to equate with freedom? So the more random a person's behavior is, the more free will he possesses? People who act that way in our society tend to get locked up in an asylum. We don't judge personal and mental advancement by randomness, but by predictability. To have an identity, to be human is to be predictable.

I understand how you are defining free will, and based on that definition, I agree with you that material beings don't have free will. But my point is that that definition of freedom, based on randomness and perfect unpredictability, is a ridiculous and non-sensical definition. It is a case of wanting to have your metaphysical cake and eating it too.

To have a will, or even a personality, implies that there is a somewhat permanent, fixed component to your being, a non-random component. A will is a fixed set of goals and desires that a being uses to direct its behavior. In order to have a discernible will, a being has to be limited, its freedom constricted. It can't act to circumstances in a purely random fashion. But based on that will, if it has the freedom to pursue actions to realize the goals of that will regardless of other physical factors and obstacles, then it is a free will.

Think of it this way. You are free to do what you want. But are you free to want what you want?


It is fascinating how worked up people will get over this question, which has haunted philosophers for ages, without solution. It stirs so much passion because it gets at the very root of our identity. Are we "just" matter, or are we more than that? I put "just" in quotes because it continues to baffle me why believers so denigrate this stuff we call matter, if it can perform all the wonderful feats of magic that we see unfold before us in the vast expanse of space, on the land and in the oceans, and in our bodies and our minds. Materialism doesn't mean we have to devalue man to the status of matter, we have to elevate matter to the status it deserves as the stuff of life. Of course, it spells the limits of man. A material man does not live in eternity. But again, this question gets at the root of how we think of ourselves. Again, from the BrothersJudd blog discussion (italicized text is by other participants) :

What is faith? "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That's how the New Testament answers it. There's universal truth and applicability to these words. Whether its faith that "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" or that somehow natural processes just came together and evolved (or even believe that that extra-terrestrials foundedlife here), it's all about faith.

This definition of faith doesn't totally suffice. Does it allow room for everything hoped for? I think not, otherwise we would all have faith that God will grant us eternal paradise irregardless of our conduct on earth or on what we believe. Faith is subject to a reality check on the part of the believer, based on his view of reality, or "meta-reality" in the case of metaphysics.

And our take on meta-reality is an extension of our take on reality, our experience of things seen. We expect there to be some continuity between the two, at least at the level of basic principles. We don't expect bad to be good and good to be bad when we arrive there, noone imagines that the world beyond is a bizarro world.

This is where I parted company with the traditional Christian view of the next world. A world where the population of souls is split between a group that will experience eternal unremitting bliss, and a group that will experience eternal unremitting misery is just such a bizarro world. Even if you eliminate Hell, and just try to imagine human souls existing in a state of infinite bliss, it doesn't survive a serious examination.

Such a world is stasis. The infinite experience of a single emotion is timeless, there would be no sense of time, no sense of change. I would argue that there would be no sense of anything. Conscousness is an experience of change, of alternating states of pleasure, pain, boredom, wonder, excitement, calm. Our personality, our identity, our sense of existence relies on time and change. Our sense of pleasure is dependent on the existence of pain, our sense of hope requires an experience of despair. There is no consciousness without it.

Also, our sense of identity, our "me-ness" is tied up in our bodies, and the particular nature that the unique configuration that our mental neurons gives each of us. Without the body, without the limitations and quirks that our individual make-up gives us, in what sense do we have an identity? Given there is some spirit of me that survives the destruction of my body, and given that it ascends to some state of eternal, timeless bliss, in what sense is it "me"?


I don't think I won any converts, but a good time was had by all.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting and well thought out post, Robert.

I share your bemusement at the dualist's denigration of the material. If matter can do all the stuff that a ghost in the machine can do, what's wrong with that? Why insist on the non-material to acheive the same result?

There seems to be a curious urge for dualists to feel that if something like an emotion is real (in the sense that it can described in terms of neurons etc), then it somehow isn't 'real'.

...

I think the problem of free will is unsolvable if you insist on defining 'free will' as complete autonomy of thought and action, independent of any material or other influences.

It is unreasonable to demand of any thought or action that it be completely 'free' - that it spring unbidden from nothing.

Instead, you have to have a weaker definition of free will - one that operates within the limits of biology, psychology, environment etc.

(ps. I like your approach on the blog - a bit more quality over quantity than OJ!)

Regards
Brit

December 06, 2004 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Robert,

the debate's still going on - must be around 350 comments by now.

Come have a look - http://www.brothersjudd.com/blog/archives/018354.html

creeper

December 06, 2004 10:46 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Robert:

You pointed out several problems with OJ's approach, chief among them noting that any model is an abstraction--and therefore a subset--of reality.

More fundamentally, though, there simply is nothing contradictory about materialistic processes and free will. First, no matter how detailed the model, it is completely impossible to know the brain's state, as it happens at a scale well within Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Second, as anyone even glancingly familiar with chaos theory knows, even tiny deviations lead to wildly different results.

So one couldn't even rerun the tape to see if the same thing would happen.

Beyond that, since no two of us exist with the same initial conditions, we have different notions of both the present and the future. Even if all brains were exactly the same, they would still make different decisions.

Finally, it surely doesn't pay to ignore all the manifest, and material, limitations on free will. Stroke, dementia, schizophrenia, hunger, sleeplessness, menstrual cycle, suffering the misfortune of being born XYY, are all purely material phenomena, and they all limit, or eliminate free will.

We are not automatons, but as creeper perceptively asked, and OJ completely avoided, we almost never do anything truly surprising.

Free will exists, but I can't, offhand, think of any concept more overrated.

December 06, 2004 6:17 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Robert:

You pointed out several problems with OJ's approach, chief among them noting that any model is an abstraction--and therefore a subset--of reality.

More fundamentally, though, there simply is nothing contradictory about materialistic processes and free will. First, no matter how detailed the model, it is completely impossible to know the brain's state, as it happens at a scale well within Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Second, as anyone even glancingly familiar with chaos theory knows, even tiny deviations lead to wildly different results.

So one couldn't even rerun the tape to see if the same thing would happen.

Beyond that, since no two of us exist with the same initial conditions, we have different notions of both the present and the future. Even if all brains were exactly the same, they would still make different decisions.

Finally, it surely doesn't pay to ignore all the manifest, and material, limitations on free will. Stroke, dementia, schizophrenia, hunger, sleeplessness, menstrual cycle, suffering the misfortune of being born XYY, are all purely material phenomena, and they all limit, or eliminate free will.

We are not automatons, but as creeper perceptively asked, and OJ completely avoided, we almost never do anything truly surprising.

Free will exists, but I can't, offhand, think of any concept more overrated.

December 06, 2004 6:19 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Brit, welcome to my blog, thanks for your kind comments! Yes, I am striving for quality over quantity, chiefly because this is my creative outlet for writing and philosophizing, and I tend to want to examine a subject in more depth, and hopefully I will spark comments of the same level of quality and depth in return. So far I have succeeded.

OJ's aversion to the implications of materialism are very common, given the success of the dualist philosophy throughout the ages. A book that speaks to this sense of being an outsider looking in is aptly titled The User Illusion, by Tor Norretrandrs. Someday if I get time, I'll write a review of it. I recommend it to everyone here.

December 06, 2004 7:57 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Hello Creeper, thanks for stopping by. I thought that the commenting had stopped once an article went to archives on his blog. I'll check it out right away. You've done yeoman duty against the wily OJ, although I've learned that after awhile he just runs out of ammunition and just tosses out one or two word answers. It loses its fun after awhile, unless someone else jumps into the fray like Peter or Carl.

I hope to see you more at the Daily Duck, I'll have to start posting more!

December 06, 2004 8:02 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Jeff,
I think OJ knows he can't win the argument, and deliberately won't follow it along to where logic would lead it. Certain examinations are "no fly zones" for dualists, almost as if they know that it is an illusion, but do not want to be disabused of it, like the character on the Matrix who wanted to go back into the artificial world of the computer.

Speaking of surprise, I had an experience once that demonstrated the User Illusion. I was driving to work, getting ready to turn right onto the main road from my neighborhood, which was a two lane, undivided road. I normally looked to the left to make sure that no car was coming before I turned onto it. On the morning in question, as I was turning right, the car jerked to a stop suddenly. The first thing that I remember seeing was a car zoom by me going from right to left, at a high rate of speed in the wrong lane. He missed me by inches. It took a second or two, but then I realized that I had slammed on the brake without conscious knowledge. My subconscious mind had saved my life. It happened too fast for the conscious mind to create the illusion that it was directing my actions.

December 06, 2004 8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OJ just posted a slightly more interesting argument (at http://www.brothersjudd.com/blog/archives/018354.html):

David Hume, the Big Bang, Fermi's Paradox, the Anthropic Principle, Darwinism, SETI, etc.--everything we know tells us we were Created, we're unique, and there's a purpose to the Universe.I have to run some errands right now, but will return to this. Feel free (yeah, exercise your free will...) to have a bash if you'd like.

creeper

December 07, 2004 8:24 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Robert:

I'm glad you got out of that unscathed. I would attribute that, though, to your peripheral vision, which provides far more information than we see.

If you measured your acuity at the periphery, it would likely be something like 20-1000, scarcely enough to tell a beer keg from a cat.

However, I'll bet you notice the instant a woman crosses into you peripheral vision from behind.

As well as certain speeding, idiotic, threats to your wellbeing.

December 10, 2004 1:47 PM  

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