free will

Jerry Coyne on Free Will

The Imagine No Religion conference recently posted the video of Jerry Coyne's presentation at their fifth annual conference in Vancouver earlier this year. This talk was actually given before his talk about Faith Vs. Fact in Toronto, but the video has just appeared. It's a great talk. 

When it comes to free will, for me the writing has been on the wall since I was a teenager. From what I was reading at the time, it was clear that the concept was indefensible. It came up in the writings of Richard Feynman and Scott Adams' God's Debris offered up a concise reductio ad absurdum.

But even then, it wasn't a very straightforward argument. In order to make sense of the claim that our sense of free will is an illusion, it would have been necessary to go into a lengthy digression about physics and just what exactly we know about the universe (or at that age what I had read that other people knew, since I didn't know calculus yet.) Through the study of magic and illusion I found a much more straightforward illustration of why free will is an illusion (I'm not sure if that's irony or poetic justice.)

A member of a magic audience may be called upon to make choices. Do I choose the red scarf or the blue one? Do I take the $5 or the $20 out of my wallet? Do I touch this playing card or the one three quarters of an inch to the left? Now the choice may not matter. The trick can proceed exactly the same way regardless of which card you select. Or it's possible that the magician influences your choice in a way you are unaware of so that the choice you feel you are making is actually a choice being made by the magician.

David Ben, in his book Advantage Play, Coyned the term "virtual participation" to refer to this situation where the spectator feels like an active participant but in reality their actions are not influencing the outcome. This opens the door to a possibility which is (to some) frightening. There can be influences affecting the outcomes of your decisions of which you are completely unaware. 

If those influences can come from outside your body (a magician priming you to make a certain choice such that the cues go unnoticed), then they can come from inside your body. Your brain already does quite a bit of "thinking" that you are completely unaware of. You're not making any conscious effort to keep your heart beating. You breathe without thinking about it most of the time you're awake (and all of the time when you're asleep.) Once you acknowledge the possibility that your brain is doing thinking you're not aware of (and really at this point, it's a certainty, not a possibility) then the question becomes how much of this thinking is taking place? Free will isn't all or nothing; it's a sliding scale.

Even before you have to concede the kind of strict materialism Jerry suggests, you already have to admit that free will is at least severely limited.

Most people who attempt to rescue free will do so by redefining it back into existence. Daniel Dennett makes a convincing case for embracing a definition of free will which is compatible with physical determinism. Since the chemical mechanisms which underly our decision making are so intractably complex they are unpredictable to the point where, for all practical purposes, we can label them as free without any measurable loss in accuracy.

At first glance, this seems like a slightly sneaky thing to do. It's not without precedent though. Frequently in science as our understanding changes, we give updated definitions to old terms. So the definition of what constitutes an electron has changed since it was discovered, the thing we called the electron is still the same thing, but our understanding of it has changed such that the previous definition was problematic and incoherent.

So the idea of free will has been replaced by the feeling we experience of having free will. Nothing in the world practically changes. We don't all of a sudden become lifeless automatons. The question still remains for beings with finite access to information and finite computational power: What is the most responsible way to behave given the information we have available to us. So if our actions are so unpredictable that they might as well be free, then we are, for all intents and purposes free.

So just get on with the card trick.

Daniel Dennett: Free Will and Rock Paper Scissors

Recently I posted about winning strategies for Rock-Paper Scissors. Here philosopher Daniel Dennett relates your ability to win at Rock Paper Scissors to the concept of Free Will. 

In the discussions I've had, I notice that an individuals acceptance of "free will" depends almost entirely the definition of free will. So for example Dennett's book and Sam Harris' book essentially come to the opposite conclusion about free will. However more careful scrutiny shows that they are not talking about the same "free will".

But this analogy to playing RPS with god is an interesting method of probing at those definitions.

Ask a stupid question countdown... five posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Because there's obviously no way of phrasing this question which is less loaded and provocative (!) or more grammatically correct, let's push on.

The short answer is yes... with a very long follow up.

Of course it's equally true if god does exit that we can do what we want, and are free to murder and rape.

Returning to the theme of learning to be a grownup, most people realize that actions have consequences, both intended and unintended. Most of these hypothetical moral discussions take place in a kind of fantasy causal vacuum where we can ignore the consequences we don't like and leave with our desired position appearing much more rosy than it actually is.

It is a central tenant of most forms of monotheism that god has given humans free will. So we are accountable for the consequences of our actions. I'm free to kill anyone I want (within the limits of the laws of physics - there are probably some serious obstacles to surmount if I wanted to assassinate the President of the United States so to say I'm "free" to do something I could never reasonably succeed at doing can wind up confusing people). What I'm not allowed to do is construct a fantasy world where I can kill people but not have them hold it against me, or worse try to kill me back. I will pay the price, which means I risk retribution, imprisonment, being treated as an outcast because most people have realized that living in a society that allows murder is not conducive to human happiness. I suppose I could be "free" to go to an island somewhere and start my own society where murder is ok but we'll see how long that lasts.

If I'm a reasonable person with some knowledge of how the world works, I should work these potential consequences into my decision making and stop to wonder if this hypothetical wanting to murder and rape people is really in my best interests.

The only thing the existence of a god changes is the nature of the consequences. If I would grant the rather long chain of what ifs that gets the existence of god, the existence of heaven and hell, the existence of some postmortem judgement and the rather absurd conditions this god has placed on getting into either heaven or hell, it only extends the list of consequences I should already be considering to include the post-death ones. I just add divine reprisal to real-life reprisal and the logic remains unchanged.

I'm not sure what the original inspiration for free will was but currently it's used as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for God. The presence of suffering or theodicy is at odds with a god who is both good and powerful. If we have freedom of will to go against god's wishes and we're outside of his control, then he can no longer be blamed for bad stuff that happens, even though he must have known it was going to happen that way. This may seem to make sense at first. After all, if we're going to go around killing and raping each other we deserve the bad things that happen to us. However it's unclear at one point god also decides he needs to leap into the mix and throw tsunamis at us and give children bone cancer.

It's worth noting there are varying kinds of free will which are defined differently and we know that the kind of free will necessary for the above argument to hold water doesn't exist. But a thorough discussion of this will have to wait for another time. You may want to investigate two of the authors mentioned in part nine, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Harris picks apart the kind that doesn't exist and Dennett defends the version that does.

I'll end on that sentence fragment turned question: While good deeds go unrewarded?

Here I'll simply state my opinion that the questioner is out to lunch and blissfully unaware of the world around him. Good deeds are plenty rewarded. My good deeds get rewarded very often. Certainly not all the time and not with a hundred percent accuracy, and I'm not expecting the sort of eternal reward offered by Christianity (you should go looking for what the reward is, it's actually pretty dreadful.)

Stay tuned for question four...