Saturday, June 22, 2013

Choice and Determination

If we choose, and our choosing is not pure, unanalyzable magic, then there must be some mechanism, however complicated, by which we make the choice.  Logically, it seems that, either this mechanism must be “deterministic” in the sense that if the mechanism is in exactly the same state, and receives exactly the same inputs*, then it will decide in exactly the same way; or there is some purely random component (e.g. quantum uncertainty) that affects the choice.

Neither of these options “sounds like” free will.  But if this is not free will, and free will is not simply a meaningless concept, or at least irrelevant to the choices we actual can and do make, then there must exist some entity whose choices are being constrained by this process.  That is, there must be some entity that is not “free”.   But if some entity is unfree, what entity is it?  If “you” are not exercising “free will” in these conditions, who are “you”?

We, the material, biologically constructed entities that we are, do make choices, and our choices are made in an effort to further the ends that we have conceived for ourselves.  This much is manifest.  It seems meaningless to me to say that we do not have free will in these choices based on some highly abstract argument that somehow we will never make the choices we don’t end up making.  What does it even mean for us to somehow be “able” to make the choice we do not, in fact, end up making?  I don’t see how that idea can be rendered coherent, except by reference to physical/mechanical potentialities, and epistemic possibilities that are fully compatible with the “deterministic” mechanisms of choice referred to above.    

In any case, other than these organic mechanisms, which make choices in the manner that we, in fact, make them, there is no entity here that can be “unfree”.

Of course, our choices are constrained, by the materials and opportunities available in our environment, by our abilities, physical and cognitive, by our histories, including things that have happened to us and previous choices we have made.  And of course the ends and goals that we conceive are formed by similar internal and external factors.  But for this to mean that our choices, from among the options that seem epistemically possible to us at the given moment, are “unfree”, there would have to be some self, other than the selves so constructed by history, biology, and prior choice, whose freedom was constrained, whose will was being denied, by the choices the biological “we” are making.  I cannot, for the life of me, conceive of what that other self might be.

I conclude that to say that people do NOT have free will makes no sense.  All that is left is to either accept that the way we actually choose represents free will, or to take the question of free will as an ultimately meaningless “pseudo-question”.  But at this point the choice is purely “semantic” in the colloquial sense of “just a matter of words”, and it makes no real, philosophical difference which wording you pick.

*The conditions of the mechanism being in “exactly the same” state and receiving “exactly the same” inputs  are considered only to focus on the logical argument.  They are both, in practical reasoning, impossible.  The universe is far too complex for it ever to be put back in the same state twice, and as for our “mechanism”, it is altered by every experience, and therefore can never be in the same state twice.  Even settling for “highly similar” is dubious.  Most significant human choices are, neurologically, a chain (actually a highly “parallel” web) of micro decisions, each of which potentially alters decisions further down the line, possibly in a binary manner (on/off – no shades of gray).  The end result, it seems to me, must show sensitive dependence on initial conditions, whether the component steps do, or not.  (They may.)  Thus even “similar” inputs to a brain in a “similar” state can lead to widely different outcomes.

Note:  I wrote most of the above text while I was reading Ch. 2 in Daniel C. Dennett’s book “Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting”, a book which I have subsequently completed.  I think my views on this, as on many other topics, are broadly compatible with Prof. Dennett’s.

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