Monday, February 01, 2016

Some Notes on Free Will

The problem whether human beings have "free will" is not very precisely defined in most philosophical texts. That is obviously because the very concept of "free will" is not very precise to begin with.

Wikipedia states: "Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action."

This is unsatisfactory because "ability to choose" is not a very formal phrase.

The Information Philosopher states: "The classic problem of free will is to reconcile an element of freedom with the apparent determinism in a world of causes and effects, a world of events in a great causal chain."

This is better, but unsatisfactory because it is undefined what an "element of freedom" means. Also, "causal chain" is a very ambiguous concept in a complex, inter-related world.

Let us attempt to clarify this issue with some common-sense statements.

1. The universe has interacting phenomena (matter, energy, waves).

2. These phenomena exhibit theoretical (predicted from theory) and statistical (predicted on observation) cause-effect relationships. "Cause-Effect" can be generally understood as: for all else remaining equal, say in a closed system, event A always leads to event B.

3. If we understand quantum mechanics from an instrumentalist standpoint, we can state that at microscopic levels, causation is not precise and theoretically predictable, but nevertheless statistical and probabilistic. We can construct post-hoc theories (or rather, models) based on those statistics, inventing imaginary particles etc.

Let us now define "free will" as: the possibility of humans to act in ways that cannot be predicted in principle. That is, no matter how much information we have, and how much statistical history we have, human behavior (including thought) may still deviate from our predictions.

It is a false dichotomy to argue (as quacks like Deepak Chopra do) whether human behavior is quantum-mechanical in origin and therefore only subject to a probability analysis, or whether it is a macro event amenable to theoretical calculations and precise prediction. That is because in both cases, prediction is possible and the concept of "free will" does not really enter the picture. Quantum mechanics is not a "free-for-all" physics where particles have a "mind of their own" and physicists are helpless. Quantum mechanical predictions are actually extremely precise.

So, if prediction is possible in either case, what happens to free will? Free will therefore has to be "non-physical" (whatever that means). That is obviously a crushing blow to free will, but let's continue anyway.

As an illustration of why this is a crushing blow, consider the question as to how a "non-physical thing" interact with the "physical": how does it affect physical bodies (nerves, muscles, etc.). That is the famous "mind-body" problem - which is a problem only because of confusion. (To elucidate this cryptic statement, I highly recommend this excellent lecture by Noam Chomsky)

Another (consistent with the above) formulation of the free will is to define a phenomenon that is un-caused. That is, something that is independent of all other phenomena.

But for something to be un-caused, it must be therefore completely chaotic and random. If it is following a pattern or principle or "God's will", it is not un-caused.

Hence, for "free will" to exist, two conditions (both highly dubious) must be true:

1. There is an element in human beings that is "non-physical". (pretty much a nonsensical statement, since "non-physical" is equivalent to "non-existent").

This condition is needed because anything physical is known to be subject to interaction and hence causality.

2. That "non-physical" element is completely random in its behavior.

This condition is needed because anything non-random is subject to statistical/probabilistic or theoretical analysis.

The second condition has a curious corollary. Since randomness is defined as data with nil information content, that means that instead of free will bestowing dignity on a human being, free will actually takes it away since we are then merely noise.


My understanding of free-will is that human mind is a complex organ and quite difficult to understand in minutiae (due to the huge complexity), but amenable to pattern-analysis and broad understanding. The whole fields of Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioral Economics, for example, are predicated upon an understanding of how human brain reacts to information and environment. "I" am a narrative center of gravity in a complex machine with billions of moving parts.: Unpredictable due to complexity.

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