Free will

On the subject of choice, there are two options: Either you really have a choice, or the appearance that you may choose is simply an illusion.

By choice is meant the possibility of will being exercised. Thus, the subject of choice is strongly related to the subject of free will. Do you really possess free will?

Since there are many situations where people seemingly cannot choose what they want, we will refer to free will as meaning potential free will. You either have potential free will or no free will. In the latter case, it should not even be called will as everything is then simply a series of events with no will involved.

Let us explore the possibility of no free will: You have no choices; it is all out of your control. Everything is simply a series of events. There is no will involved and everything is determined by the laws of the physical universe. This assertion we label a Physical Theory or an Objective Theory.

Determinism is a common view among natural scientists and is gaining ground in the general population. In the book A Brief History of Time, the astrophysicist Steven Hawking explains it very well: If you know the state of the universe at any given time and all the laws that govern it, you can calculate all consecutive events. You can determine every single motion in the universe at any time. The brilliant French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace formulated this idea in a paper published in 1814. Although it has been proven that such a thought experiment is impossible, that proof still does not disprove the universe as causally deterministic.

Many physicists disagree with Laplace in that they assert the possibility of randomness in the universe. Random events would break the prospect of calculating the future. However, randomness does not itself leave room for any will or real choices.

A spectator is looking at a random event

A spectator is looking at a random event

We see that there are two Objective Theories: the Deterministic Model and the model that allows for random events, the Random Model.

The Objective Theories are attractive in that they present complete systems within the boundaries of the physical universe without any external influence. The beauty of such a system lies in what it can prove – anything physical can be proven in and by the physical universe.

The Objective Theories also make the science of physics the ultimate profound science able to explain it all.

However, Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, as a corollary to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, that all the facts of science are not enough to understand the world’s meaning, because “The meaning of the world does not reside in the world”.

In the Objective Theories, there is no will that can cause anything. Everything is an effect of an earlier effect or is simply a random event.

With no will there is never any purpose behind why something happens.

If the world view of no free will is the truth, it has ramifications into most fields of human endeavor. It most obviously disrupts the field of religion as religions in the main build on the notion of free will and the possibility of choices. But it also disturbs the fields of philosophy, ethics and law. With the removal of the concept of will comes the subtraction of responsibility.

Aristotle outlined the essence of responsibility – a definition that remains the basis for accountability in our judicial systems:

“Aristotle’s discussion is devoted to spelling out the conditions under which it is appropriate to hold a moral agent blameworthy or praiseworthy for some particular action or trait. His general proposal is that one is an apt candidate for praise or blame if and only if the action and/or disposition is voluntary. According to Aristotle, a voluntary action or trait has two distinctive features. First, there is a control condition: the action or trait must have its origin in the agent. That is, it must be up to the agent whether to perform that action or possess the trait – it cannot be compelled externally. Second, Aristotle proposes an epistemic condition: the agent must be aware of what it is she is doing or bringing about.”

There is no accountability for actions if there is no will behind them. There is no one to be held responsible if the person had no choice. Thus, the human systems of law and order are merely illusions – as is the apparent drive for happiness or attaining one’s goals. All such pursuits are appearances that are bound to happen or happen by chance. The appearance of choice is an illusion. There is no reason for living.

The nullification of responsibility may seem glum to some and a relief to others. But it hardly matters as it either seems that way due to chance, or it was bound to happen.

There is no wrongness or rightness in the Objective Theories. There is only isness.

In the Objective Theories, there is no real difference between a human, an animal and a well-crafted robot. Artificial intelligence is within reach. The physical universe is composed of space, energy, matter and time. Everything within it is governed by its laws, whether the laws allow for random events or not. Therefore, in order for free will to exist, it cannot be governed by the laws of the physical universe, just like Wittgenstein noted.

The power of choice must at least in part be separate from the physical universe in some way. And only if it can potentially be completely separate can it potentially be fully free. Free implies free from space, energy, matter and time. It does not suggest that free will is somehow physically located outside the universe as that would still subject the will to physical laws and hence it would not be free.

Let’s explore a theory of free will: You can choose. It is up to you. You can change the course of events. You are accountable for your actions and are ultimately responsible. This assertion can be labeled a Metaphysical Theory or a Subjective Theory.

Again, this may seem glum to some and a relief to others.

Free will imposes changes on the physical universe if only on a very small level, perhaps much like the butterfly effect.

Free will introduces the observer into the universe, an element that seems to fit well with quantum mechanics. Lee Smolin, in the book The Trouble with Physics, lists the five great problems facing the science of physics today. The second problem reads: “Resolve the problems in the foundation of quantum mechanics, either by making sense of the theory as it stands or by inventing a new theory that does make sense”. The external observer possessed with free will could resolve the problems in the foundation of quantum mechanics, as will be explored later in the article.

As free will lies outside the realm and laws of the physical universe and acts as an external influence, it cannot be directly proven or disproved in and by the physical universe. Any proof can only be circumstantial. For that reason, the weakness of this theory is that it cannot be proven to those who will accept only direct physical proof of a phenomena.

As free will is exterior to the laws of the physical universe, it supersedes time. Hence, it was never created and will never be destroyed. It may or may not be the cause of the physical universe but it was not caused by it. In fact, free will cannot be caused by the physical universe as nothing can beget something outside its realm of influence. Or in a simpler form: Nothing can beget something with greater potential than its own. This would rule out the possibility of creating real artificial intelligence. AI may certainly mimic free will and thus create the illusion of a computer possessing free will; however, it cannot transcend the laws of the universe in which it exists.

A definition of pure potential free will could be “cause without prior cause” or the equivalent, “cause without reason”.

Even though free will is exterior to the physical universe, it is influenced by it to a varying degree. It loses its potential in ratio to its identification with the physical universe. This may explain the varying degree of apparent free will.

If a Subjective Theory is true, it poses the question of whether a belief in an Objective Theory would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if an Objective Theory is true, a belief in a Subjective Theory would merely be a belief in an illusion for which the person bears no responsibility. Another question that can be posed is, who would be relieved by which theory? I will leave this for the reader to ponder. According to Wikipedia: “In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”

To avoid cognitive dissonance, one would be well advised to act according to one’s beliefs. Thus, if one believe in free will, then one should act accordingly, accepting responsibility for one’s actions. If one does not believe in free will, then there is no responsibility or accountability or purpose in life and one should act accordingly. If one would want to avoid the cognitive dissonance.

It is worth noting that in this discussion of free will, one could simply reduce it to a discussion of whether will exists at all. If the answer is yes, reality cannot be purely deterministic and/or random. Will is that other factor beyond determinism and quantum randomness.

Whether you choose to believe in an Objective or Subjective Theory may not really be a question at all. If an Objective Theory is true, your belief is not your choice to make. If a Subjective Theory is true, it is either you choosing to see the truth or your choice to disregard the truth and thereby possibly make yourself even more subject to physical laws.

The choice may or may not be yours.

Read the rest of the article – including references and proper formatting.

You can read all my philosophical posts here.