Random Thoughts

Free Will vs. Determinism

Without bothering to synopsise a few thousand years of arguments and concerns about this issue, which still rage fiercely since no one knows the answers, I'd like to chase around some of my concerns about it for a minute or two.

Determinism is a concept that is certainly difficult to accept - as humans one of the things we tend to take for granted about the state of the universe, about the world we observe and find ourselves in, is that we make decisions that are up to us alone. These decisions then, in our view, create the world we live in. We imagine that two (or more) futures are "possible" and we choose one. Of course we never observe the existence of the "future" that did not happen, so we never actually have evidence that our choice made a difference, but in our self conscious states at least some of our choices seem to be free and have material results.

In that light, that is, the incorrect "feel" and even unpleasant deductions that go along with determinism, it makes sense to at least take a look at what free will might entail and whether there is a reasonable basis of some sort for its "existence." I will treat this issue from a strictly human point of view, which is not to imply that it is limited to us - there is probably no good reason why any of this analysis could not apply to other animals, plants, insects, bacteria, rocks, mountains... or any aggregate of matter or energy.

At its root, the key to free will is that at some point in space and time (in fact, at many places and many times), there can be some sort of "first cause" mechanism. That is, some way that an action can occur which causes other actions in the physical world without itself having been caused by the physical world. This is the key. If the action were caused by the world, it would not be free (many of our actions fit this description, even some very complex ones). It must cause other action in order to be meaningful - in my private consciousness I might "will" all manner of actions, but if there is no result in the world, it is not an "act" of free will, merely an internal delusional state of consciousness. I actually think many of our so-called choices fall into this realm!

But we do seem to think that some of the things we "will" or choose are up to us and effect or change the world due to our willing or choosing them. So, how can we establish some way to reasonably accept, at least, that there is some sort of "first cause" mechanism possible under certain material conditions (i.e. in the human brain at the moment of deciding to act)? Science is of very little help here since it has generated a magnificent structure of knowledge all based on a seemingly infinitely regressive chain of causes - every mechanism (technology) we develop through science operates in a purely clockwork fashion, with the "unknown input" depending on what science does not bother with - the action of the human operating the machine.

I think there are some small opportunities to explore in spite of this limitation, since it seems that at some levels science has identified a few classes of events that are not quite generated in a simple cause and effect mode. These events fall tend to be in categories that science has decided are spontaneous, random, or probabilistic. None of these will give us the comfort of justifying our belief in free will, however. Not without, at the very least, some originating mechanism that alters the outcome of these (typically quantum or particle) events. So the problem remains the same.

While mind/body dualism gets a lot of people out of this problem at a superficial level (my soul is a first mover...) it still begs the question of "how does the mind (or soul) affect the body?" - and unless pursued rigorously, simply depends on faith, which is not what trying to figure this all out is really about.

A vaguely plausible theory I would at least like someone to refute, is that it is possible, without disrupting the matter and energy of the physical universe, for information and energy (which are the same thing) to be exchanged with some part of the universe that is outside space and time, and hence causeless in our scientific terms. In this manner it might be possible to alter the physical state of the universe, however slightly, by altering its information content in exchange for an equal amount of information or energy transferred to the "outside." One basic feature of this "outside" would be that it is not constrained by something like our space time universe cause and effect mechanisms. It is tough to talk about, for the words we might employ are all (by the nature of language) space time words - "outside," or "thing," or "place," cannot be used without the understanding that they are metaphors for an extreme, metaphysical version of what they normally mean.

Now this new, altered state of information or energy, at this point essentially just an atomic or molecular formation in a human brain, is an "uncaused" state (relative to the space and time around it) which will have effects that were not predictable from the prior state of the universe. It would imply that in a true "decision making" process we do something akin to praying - our thoughts about the decision and its necessity are simply caused by the real world, but in the process of deciding these cases, we escape the strictures of the space time universe and in doing so, however minutely - and without violating any natural laws - alter the outcome. Once a tiny change has been made, say at the quantum level in some delicate chemical process, our brain and body structure will magnify it via simple causality into a macroscopic event.

This depends utterly on there being some sort of choice which cannot at some level be shown to be materially caused (or better yet, can be shown to not be materially caused), whether by our previous experiences (behavioristic), beliefs (cultural), or unconscious drives (psychological). It matters not how vastly many of our choices fit these categories and are resolved within them, or if even most humans never leave this realm. What matters is if sometimes, somehow, a person (or thing in general) actually performs such a feat.

Perhaps it behooves us, then, to examine decision making to look for evidence (or to formulate some "special case" of decision) that this could be the case. I do not mean so much to analyse the 99.9% (or 100%?) of "decisions" that are simply effects of other causes, so much as to say, let us try to identify a decision that might require, or at least permit, this sort of first action, a truly freely willed decision.

I am carrying around in my mind a quote from Camus, I believe, that "the fundamental decision is whether or not to end one's own life." Does this qualify? It certainly is a strange act - not one that evolution has prepared us for, by any reasonable stretch of the imagination. I think he meant not as an act considered in pain or despair of a momentary nature either - in other words the contemplation of suicide due to depression or stress would not qualify, since it has causes in the world which have hugely affected the brain chemistry and mental states of the contemplator. I think we are talking here about the stark decision, considered simply as an option, in good health and, as much as someone thinking this way could be, with some sort of sanity. In other words, there would be no external, causal reason why the question is even being considered, and yet its answer can directly affect and alter the physical world.

Thus, today I can consider it. The choice is whether to simply allow the currents and forces of the world to continue with my body and consciousness flowing along with them, or terminate this little part of the big picture intentionally. The decision is to be made without recourse to the help of platitudes or threats, beliefs about afterlives or hopes for the future, in a vacuum as it were. To remove as many possible obvious external causes for its outcome as I can. Having been there... the decision ends up seeming fairly trivial, for it does not matter very much! In the absence of external considerations, it is pretty much a private matter for me alone to decide, well, to be or not to be. Perhaps even the withdrawal from the world of busy "decision making" and living, to contemplate this question, is the one true act of free will - to not act?

I know that I am out of my depth here, and I do not expect to come up with the perfect solution to the questions I am asking - I just like the idea of writing them out so the questions are clearer to me, the problem is better defined. It seems to me there are two questions that would be worthy of study - whether it is possible for some condition of matter and energy to produce a "first cause," and if there is a type of decision whose outcome can be clearly seen to be "uncaused" under some circumstances.

(I just want to add a word about "rationalisation" here. Let us say that matter and energy can at least generate "uncaused" action within the human brain. It is not yet an act of will - it might be, say, random. If we are to then try to explain it in terms of why we did it, that would be a posteriori rationalisation and not an a priori act of free will. Sometimes I think that this is all there really is...)

I just hope, that if this mechanism is ever understood in some way, no one ever figures out how to build a "mind bomb" with it...!


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