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Free Will - Zer Netmouse
October 25th, 2007
11:34 am

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Free Will
In the comments on yellowmouser's journal here and here I engage the question of whether or not free will is an illusion (I think not). Updated to add: J argues against me here.

What are your thoughts on the question? Is it an interesting question or purely a polemic debate?

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From:dd_b
Date:October 25th, 2007 03:43 pm (UTC)
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If we don't have free will, we don't; no choice, no control. We may be incapable of knowing it. But if we're on that side of the decision table, what we think, say, do, doesn't matter and isn't under our control. So all philosophy is completely irrelevant there.

So just ignore it.

Whereas, if we do have free will, and we end up deciding we don't, that's an *avoidable* error, which would have actual consequences.

I choose to avoid that error.
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From:knightlygoddess
Date:October 25th, 2007 05:14 pm (UTC)
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Wow. That was about as simple as you could make it while still being brilliant! My hat's off to you! (And I agree, so double kudos there!)

:)
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From:dd_b
Date:October 25th, 2007 05:49 pm (UTC)
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My explanation of the "Sipfle's Wager" concept (from a philosophy professor at Carleton), which is in turn adapted from "Pascal's Wager" about the existence of god (but Pascal starts from the assumption that either the Christian god exists or there is no god, and hence is invalid; there are many other equally possible outcomes, and the multiplicity of outcomes spoils the logic). Brilliant, yes, but I stole all the good parts from other people.
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From:knightlygoddess
Date:October 25th, 2007 06:01 pm (UTC)
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I wish I could take you to school with me. Our sociology professor tried to spark an intellectual debate with the class about the existance of "god" but the overwhelming argument and position is that "there is only the Christian god". It's quite frustrating to live in an area full of closed-minded idiots, but it's quite another to have to attend a college filled with them as well. ;)
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From:dd_b
Date:October 25th, 2007 06:12 pm (UTC)
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That must be very frustrating. Try not to get trapped in the area when you're done with school!

Not that anywhere in the US is free of such idiots. But sometimes they don't dominate local culture quite so thoroughly.
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From:knightlygoddess
Date:October 25th, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC)
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Oh I don't plan to be trapped here. And luckily, I have lived in other areas, so I know there is intelligent life outside of this rural hellhole. ;)

It's more frustrating, I think, to see young people at the college level, 18-24, who don't have an open mind. Isn't that the whole point of higher learning? To expand the regions of your own brain?

I have a brilliant instructor who is teaching his first dual enrollment course and he's never dealt with tenth graders before. He was telling me the other night how he doesn't think he'll be able to do it again, because the closed-mindedness in this area seems to be fostered in the local primary/secondary schools (which is an easily supportable position out here). He said, "I started the program with a sense of excitement and promise, and now I find myself fighting a sense of dread and dispair for our future when I see how these kids not only fail to flourish intellectually, but FIGHT it, at every turn!"

His assignments are joyfully open-ended, and he really wants to see you think. Apparently the students were so up in arms about "not being told what to write" that he had parents calling and telling him that he "wasn't teaching anything." It's so creepy and bizarre to me.
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From:dd_b
Date:October 25th, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC)
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I suppose he can't go quite so blatantly as to make really specific assignments...like "compare and contrast the Catholic mass to what's known about Mithraist ceremonies", say. Or "Summarize what's known about the goddess Est". Ah well.

It's not just rural hell-holes that have parents wanting more specific goals, though; suburban parents worried about their little darlings getting into the right college act just like that.
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From:dionysus1999
Date:October 25th, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
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This is quite similar to Pascal's Wager, and suffers the same problem.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_wager
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From:dd_b
Date:October 25th, 2007 09:27 pm (UTC)
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I'm quite aware of the similarity, and in fact referred to it here before you mentioned it. But I disagree that it suffers from the same problem. The two big problems with Pascal's are that there are multiple hypothetical gods to decide between, not just one, and that the value of believing or cost of non-believing depends on the gods, and are (by his hypotheses) unknowable to us. Neither of these affect Sipfle's application of the idea to free will.
From:sethb
Date:October 25th, 2007 04:13 pm (UTC)
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I believe in free will. I have to.
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From:matt_arnold
Date:October 25th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)
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Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay about philosophy, in which he pointed out that the reason these discussions so often end up fruitless is that words break if you push them too far. This is asking for way too much mileage from the words "free will is/is not an illusion".

yellowmouser starts out saying "free will" in the first post. Then, without seeming to notice he's changed the subject, he slides into talking about the environment constraining the output of the internal freedom to want this or want that. As if you must have infinite freedom or you have zero freedom.

As debating points go, I find "What are we responsible for?" to be vague but less vague than talking about free will. That seems to be what yellowmouser is really getting at anyway. I am a set of deterministic dominos, except to the degree that the dominos are influenced by randomness at the quantum level; but I am that system. The dominos and dice are me. Blaming that system is blaming me.
From:chowbok
Date:October 25th, 2007 05:15 pm (UTC)
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The argument that free will doesn't exist always reminded me of Steven Wright's joke that somebody broke into his house and replaced everything with an exact duplicate. If we don't have free will but whatever we do have is indistinguishable from it from our perspective, what's the difference?
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From:atdt1991
Date:October 25th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
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That is essentially my opinion. If, in order to test the limits of deterministic fate, I decide to drive over the nearest bridge, and someone says that that decision was bound to happen, intended in some way, I would have to say that when Fate is indistinguishable from free will in all ways, the answer doesn't matter.

If choose to believe we all live in an insanely large zippo lighter that contains the world and everything we know - it's just too large for us to perceive it.
From:chowbok
Date:October 25th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
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Exactly. As I understand it, Einstein essentially made that argument about luminous ether. He didn't say it didn't exist, only that if it did exist, there was no way we could ever perceive it.
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From:omnifarious
Date:October 25th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
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I think the question can be thought of from several different perspectives.

From one perspective, we can look at the laws of physics and what they tell us. They tell us that we don't exactly have free will unless you count quantum randomness and inscrutability as free will. And many people go that route and attribute a number of interesting mystical properties to quantum mechanics.

But a perspective I like is one I call the simulation perspective. Can we simulate you in entirety and predict exactly what you will do? In theory, yes, in actuality, no. And it will likely never be practical to do so. And even if it were, somehow managing to get an exact map of all your perceptions to make the prediction fully accurate is likely impossible.

So, in essence you have free will.

Now there are many gross predictions we can make about behavior based on detailed knowledge of brain chemistry and organization. But even those will often be wrong in detail.

Does that make sense?

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From:sarahmichigan
Date:October 25th, 2007 07:07 pm (UTC)
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Re-posting from the other thread:
I also believe in something like behavioral determinism. All that came before determined our "choices" today. The randomness of the universe makes it hard to predict what we'll do, and it's important to act as if we have a choice, but if we knew all the factors, we'd know what each person would do next.

And, as I also said to J., the above, and J.'s summary on the other thread, are pretty close to the same conclusion that Michael Shermer comes to in "The Science of Good and Evil" after examining 7 or 8 arguments in favor of free will. I recommend giving it a read if you haven't before. You still may not agree, but it's an interesting analysis.
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From:netmouse
Date:October 25th, 2007 07:20 pm (UTC)
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Do you guys have a copy I could borrow?

In complexity theory, it isn't just the randomness of the world that makes it hard to predict, its also emergent behaviors of complex systems - basically, the interconnectedness of things and how structure evolves out of chaos in certain circumstances.
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From:sarahmichigan
Date:October 25th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC)
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No, sorry, I got mine from the library.
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From:_earthshine_
Date:October 25th, 2007 07:23 pm (UTC)
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Ooops... reading fpage from top down, so already responded here.

The short form: the answer depends on assumptions within the question, and the assumptions required to call the question relevant to everyday life are way too restrictive to be useful in any definitive macroscopic way.
From:yaleartificer
Date:October 27th, 2007 05:59 am (UTC)
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I think that to say free will is an illusion because of biochemistry is to misunderstand what it is to be free. Free will is the ability to decide things. I choose to type "potato," and voila, it appears. Now, this choice was actually determined by several factors: I wanted to demonstrate that I could make an arbitrary decision. Historically, I have tended to choose words for root vegetables when I choose arbitrary words, and now I do so out of habit. At the same time, I usually choose "rutabaga," and so I decided to do something different this time. All of these factors were encoded in my brain, and my decision process was implemented by the firing of neurons in a physical way. But does it make sense to say that because I had reasons for what I did, that I was not free? No, because to require people to do things for absolutely no reason is too strict a criterion, and is not free will at all. How could we be free if we were never allowed to have reasons for what we did? We must be able to decide things based on reasons if free will is to be meaningful. And those reasons are encoded in a physical substrate: the structure of the neurons that make up my brain. So to say "I did this because the physics dictated it" is the same as saying "I had reasons for doing this," only to look at it at the wrong level of abstraction.

Another interesting point is that there could never be a human or machine that could be certain of another person's actions, because said human or machine's own workings would be a part of the physical system that is affecting the human it is trying to predict. Said human or machine would then have to be able to predict its own behavior, which is classic Halting Problem material. Even if we are more or less deterministic, I'm guessing predicting our actions is not computable.
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