Our discussion about freewill inspired by the Sam Harris’s recent book has resulted in some debate in our listener community. One issue raised was a technical definition of the terms. One point raised was “no choice” vs. “could not have chosen otherwise”.
I think the confusion lies in the term “choice”…if the world were different, the agent would have acted differently. In philosophy this is called the compatibilist position on freewill; however to me it’s more changing what freewill means to make it ‘compatible’ with “objective” reality and our “subjective” experience. I could redefine a square so it fits a round hole, but I have not really “squared the circle”.
The word “choice” also exposes a problem with language. It is an undisputable fact that we ‘experience’ freewill; that choice has meaning. However, it is also an undisputable fact we ‘experience’ the sun moves around the earth. The language we use, presupposed a ‘choice’…a captain at the helm if you will. I have the same trouble when I talk about ethics. As an anti-theist atheist, I am still forced to use terms like ‘evil’…there are other ways of saying something like “Hitler was a person who caused great suffering to the world and had no moral remorse” or I could say “Hitler was evil”.
So, in a discussion of freewill the word “choice”, as we commonly understand it, is meaningless. There is no choice…ever! If we use choice (and as mentioned language often forces this term on our discussion) what is really meant is ‘The possible outcomes of a probabilistic event’ or ‘the actualized outcome of said event’ <more on probabilistic later>
Now, I should point out that Ethan and I have a different view of freewill. It is possible to confuse determinism with fatalism if you are not careful; however neither Ethan nor I are fatalist but again language forces (or tricks) us into sounding like there is agency when that’s not our intent.
Fatalism does implicitly need an active agent to “keep you on track”. This has three parts; first that our life has a destiny…a predetermined path that we are destined to follow.
It also entails the need for some omniscient entity who knows the ‘fate of the universe’. It sees that we have a destiny that we must achieve and it is the job of this entity to ensure we ‘have our date with destiny’.
However, it also implies classical free choice; that we have the ability, if only fleetingly, to deny our destiny and act ‘freely’ and with choice. If we did not have freewill, then we could not go ‘off track’; there would be no job for this ‘omniscient destiny maintenance entity’ to do.
Now, one listener stated that “In determinism, the number of paths available is as big as the universe”. Here I think they are confusing probabilistic determinism with classical determinism.
Classical determinism has one and only one singular path. In its classic form, if one could know the exact state of the universe down to the infinitesimal detail, one could calculate the state of the universe at any point in the future (and I think implicitly the past). If there were more paths, then strictly speaking it cannot be deterministic.
Probabilistic determinism or quantum determinism (if I can create jargon) combines the deterministic laws of nature with the randomness of quantum instability.
It may be best to think of this as two parts. First, there are a set of possible actions or outcomes of event “X”. This set is determined by the initial state and the laws of science…this set is really anything that is not impossible. In this way, the idea previously mentioned, “the number of paths available”, could be infinite.
The other part is anti-deterministic…or random chance…or quantum flux. So, at the smaller granulations of the universe determinism breaks down to the randomness of the quantum mechanics. This randomness is not complete chance; each path has a greater or lesser probability of being ‘actualized’. We now have a set of possible paths and a probability of the likelihood each one will ultimately be the outcome of event “X”. At some point, this ‘superposition’ is collapsed and the event happens.
Now, unlike what some pseudo-sciency types may profess; there is no freewill in the quantum world either; there are only two ‘choices’ – either its determined by conditions and laws or its random – neither have ‘you’ making a choice.
In fact, I hold metaphysically freewill is impossible because there is no third choice; it’s either the outcome of rules (determined) or chance (probability). Even if we granted a ‘soul’ of some form, your ‘soul-self’ would have to make a choice…how do we make a choice? First we assess the current conditions, then we apply a set of rules and then we make a choice. But what is that choice? It’s either determined by our set of rules or it random…there is no third option. The idea of freewill, is to me, metaphysically incoherent. I could rant on this for pages, but hopefully you get the idea.
Now, it was mentioned that Ethan used a “meteor” hit as a way of explain why even if I choose to get candy I cannot. To be generous to Ethan, I think language fails here again. I think we are all on side with Harris, in that even if one accepted ‘freewill’ in some form, the constraints of the universe greatly restricts how it can be exercised.
So, although extreme, the point I think, is that much of what we perceive of our freedom really is quite constrained…I think to the point of not providing any space for freewill; I am less sure Ethan would agree there is NO room for freewill.
And this leads to a justifiable comment that although we may not have a complete understanding of how the brain works, we cannot rule out freewill. That said, all the evidence so far has not turned up even a mechanism for freewill…to me, freewill has even less possibility than psychic abilities like pre-cognition.
This argument about neuroscience does point out to a degree of what I would call ‘brain fetishism’; that freewill as we use it is exclusively the purview of the human mind…why? Largely it is a hangover of our religious background that postulated the immaterial ‘soul’ as the source of freewill and that souls were exclusively for humans (although some argue/hope their pets may have souls as well and animist give souls to everything).
If we accept that the immaterial cannot, by definition, interact with the material world; then why do we assume freewill exists only in the brain? Maybe the animists have it right, if I can have freewill, why not a cat, a tree or even a rock?
Now, we end on the great quandary of humanity experience; we may know we have no freewill but we have no choice but to act as though we do. One listener mentions that we can ‘affect’ determinism through education and advertising…that “if we see someone going down the path towards crime we should be compassionate and help them”. As already discussed, no, you can’t.
The quandary though is we cannot curl up and be ‘fatalistic’…in the same way we are condemned to experience the world in 3 dimension regardless of the fact(?) there are many more, likewise we must ‘exercise’ our freewill for the betterment of society.
This is why I call for a reform in the moralistic attitude we have to criminal justice. Crimes are committed and society must protect itself from these actions but we do not need to add to this a moral judgment when such a judgment is based on an illusionary foundation. The role of prisons should be a) protect society, b) provide social restitution and c) provide rehabilitation.
I think, whether I have a choice or not, I will advocate for a better educated, more communal society. One of the gifts of intelligence is to be able to take the raw material of experience and manipulated it so as to have a more accurate and better view of reality.
One must ask, if I could somehow ‘train’ myself NOT to experience the world with ‘free will’ what would that be like? Would it be as alien as being able to see 4 dimensions or a simple looking beyond the ‘apparent’ difference of race or gender and perceiving all as just people?
I hope that clarifies things…not that we have any choice in that <LOL>.