5 votes

"Free will" is an illusion: Your life runs on a pre-destined trajectory

15 comments

  1. [4]
    psi
    Link
    This argument is essentially just an appeal to intuition, but it doesn't make a very strong case for its assumptions. I suppose the author's argument can be summarized thus human beings are...

    This argument is essentially just an appeal to intuition, but it doesn't make a very strong case for its assumptions. I suppose the author's argument can be summarized thus

    • human beings are described by the laws of nature
    • the laws of nature are deterministic
    • therefore the future is preordained
    • therefore human beings cannot make choices
    • ergo free will cannot exist

    There does seem to be a critical flaw in this reasoning, however: the laws of nature are not deterministic; we've known this ever since the discovery of quantum mechanics a hundred years ago. More precisely, quantum mechanics is not deterministic according to most interpretations; you would need to assume something such as superdeterminism if you want a deterministic universe, which would require the universe to conspire against us in a seemingly anthropomorphic way.

    Of course, just because the universe is inherently random does not mean that we have free will -- randomness might be equally anathema to freedom of choice. However, that does mean that understanding free will is inextricably entangled with the philosophy of probability and perhaps also quantum foundations (see, for example, Penrose's argument regarding the quantum mind).

    10 votes
    1. [2]
      babypuncher
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I think all of these arguments are way too ambiguous about what "free will" is. I would argue that the configuration of neurons in my brain produce deterministic behavior based on genetics and...

      I think all of these arguments are way too ambiguous about what "free will" is. I would argue that the configuration of neurons in my brain produce deterministic behavior based on genetics and past experiences. But those things combined are what make me me. I am still determining that behavior, because I am that unique combination of genes, neurons, and past experiences. "Free will" is a product of any system complex enough to produce intelligence. It is still bound by the laws of physics. If we try to extricate free will from the confines of this system then I feel we are no longer having a scientific discussion.

      To me, this is akin to simulation hypothesis discussions. It has little or no bearing on our true understanding of our universe, it is an unprovable thought experiment that gets interesting when we start playing with the definition of "simulation". At the end of the day, I still like eating cheeseburgers a little too much, the Earth still orbits the sun, and our entire existence is just a blip in the timescale of the universe.

      4 votes
      1. psi
        Link Parent
        I would tend to agree. Rather than define free will from the outset, I think it's more useful to consider what free will is good for. Off the top of my head, there are two reasons we ought to have...
        • Exemplary

        I think all of these arguments are way too ambiguous about what "free will" is.

        I would tend to agree. Rather than define free will from the outset, I think it's more useful to consider what free will is good for.

        Off the top of my head, there are two reasons we ought to have free will:

        • In ethics, free will imbues a person with culpability. Virtually all systems of ethics consider circumstances when considering punishment -- for example, manslaughter is sentenced differently from premeditated murder, even if the consequences are the same. If someone "knows" they are acting immorally, certainly that should be treated differently from someone who accidentally harms someone else.
        • In religion, free will is necessary to solve the problem of evil (at least, for those religions in which this is a problem). If human beings did not have free will, and if God created humans knowing that they would commit evil (omniscient), then God would ultimately be responsible for evil, and therefore God would not be omnibenevolent. More pointedly, it would be cruel for (the Christian) God to create human beings knowing that they would be damned despite their lack of agency.

        In the latter case, it's clear why free will in the traditional sense is desirable -- it means that nobody is preordained to damnation or salvation. Of course, this might require some supernatural origin for free will (think some sort of mind/body dualism; perhaps the brain would just be an "antennae" for conscious thought). Regardless, it should be clear that we are empirically limited in studying this sort of free will.

        So what about ethics? Ultimately, we would still like to hold people culpable for their actions. If free will does not exist, then we might be tempted to say that nobody can truly be held responsible for their crimes, as the circumstances of their upbringing/their genes/that one Big Mac they ate inevitably culminated in their criminal behavior.

        But operationally, I think we can still hold people accountable for their actions, so long as we're willing to treat "illusionary" free will as good enough. In this view, human beings are essentially just deterministic machines, but some machines are misconfigured to produce undesirable behavior. Sometimes this behavior is accidental or only presents itself extremely rarely, in which case we can apply a quick fix to the machine before returning the machine to polite machine-society. Other times the machine is deeply flawed, in which case the fix might take longer; or perhaps the machine is inherently broken, in which case the best we can do is move the machine somewhere it can't harm others.

        I realize this all sounds rather dehumanizing, but my point is that we can still recover ethics, at least, even if we're willing to abandon free will.

        5 votes
    2. Apos
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I also didn't find the arguments by the author very compelling. Humans aren't programmed in the same way as a laptop. My own definition of free will is: My thought experiment can be summed up like...

      I also didn't find the arguments by the author very compelling. Humans aren't programmed in the same way as a laptop.

      My own definition of free will is:

      The illusion of going blindly toward the future.

      My thought experiment can be summed up like this: We don't have all the data so we can't see the full picture of our actions. We tend to do decisions based on our past, emotions, environment, etc. It all looks pretty fluid to us so it might as well be free will.

      Let's say someone could time travel and not interact with the world, the same events and decisions would repeat the same way. From that traveler's point of view no one has free will except themselves perhaps (also an illusion since their decision to time travel happens in the same way as everything else). It's like free will disappears when it's observed a second time.

      Edit: To add a bit more, it's possible to analyze free will without time traveling. You can observe external people's lives or society and see a trajectory and use that to make predictions. Sometimes that's useful to help people and try to break the trends.

      1 vote
  2. balooga
    Link
    This a debate people have been having for literally thousands of years, maybe longer. It's pure philosophy, not likely something that will be "settled" any time soon (assuming that's even...

    This a debate people have been having for literally thousands of years, maybe longer. It's pure philosophy, not likely something that will be "settled" any time soon (assuming that's even possible). Ultimately I don't think it really matters as much as it appears to. If the outcome is the same, it's immaterial whether an action was prompted by an individual agent of free choice or by a deterministic universe.

    Personally I like the feeling that I have agency. I feel like that narrative is a healthier one to internalize. So, I have; even though there's no way to know if it's "true," belief in free will helps me avoid existential dread and depression. That's a choice the universe would want me to make, lol.

    3 votes
  3. [5]
    Comment deleted by author
    Link
    1. [4]
      Staross
      Link Parent
      I think that's a bit of a misconception, there's some documented negatives in believing in free will. By and large it fits and sustains a right wing world view, where people (poor and rich) have...

      So it is simply useful to believe in free will, even if it's a mirage.

      I think that's a bit of a misconception, there's some documented negatives in believing in free will. By and large it fits and sustains a right wing world view, where people (poor and rich) have what they deserve, justice is retributive, and cause and consequence are swept under the rug. E.g.

      Perhaps no one has done more to develop this second line of reply than Derk Pereboom (see 1995, 2001, 2002a,b, 2009, 2012, 2013a, 2014a). He argues, for instance, that while certain kinds of moral anger, such as resentment and indignation, would be undercut if moral responsibility skepticism is true, these attitudes are suboptimal relative to alternative attitudes available to us, such as moral concern, disappointment, sorrow, and resolve. The expression of these replacement attitudes can convey the same relevant information as moral anger but in a way that is less harmful and consistent with the denial of basic desert moral responsibility. Expression of resentment and indignation “often fails to contribute to the well being of those whom it is directed” and is “apt to have harmful effects” (Pereboom 2014a: 180). Moral anger frequently is intended to cause physical or emotional pain, and can give rise to “destructive resistance instead of reconciliation” (Pereboom 2014a: 180). As a result it has the potential to damage or destroy relationships. It also often leads to excessively punitive and counterproductive social practices and policies (see Waller 2011, 2014; Carey & Paulhus 2013; Nadelhoffer & Tocchetto 2013; Shariff et al. 2014).

      https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-moral-responsibility/#IlluVsDisi

      Or:

      Recent findings in moral and political psychology, for example, suggest that there may be a potential
      downside to believing in free will and moral responsibility since there are
      potentially troubling correlations between people’s free will beliefs and
      their other moral, religious, and political beliefs.
      Recent empirical work by Jasmine Carey and Del Paulhus, for
      example, has found that free will beliefs correlate with increased religiosity,
      punitiveness, and political conservative beliefs and attitudes such as just
      world belief (JWB) and right wing authoritarianism (RWA). They found
      these correlations by administering their Free Will and Determinism Scale
      known as FAD-Plus (Paulhus and Carey) – a scale used to
      measure people’s beliefs and attitudes about free will and related concepts –
      along with measures of religiosity, political conservativism, JWBs, and
      RWA. It’s important here to highlight just how worrisome some of these
      correlations are.

      Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism, Gregg D. Caruso

      4 votes
      1. [3]
        Comment deleted by author
        Link Parent
        1. [2]
          Staross
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          Simply because its a real thing and people should be aware of it. Political stances often comes from those deeply held believes. Of course there's always exceptions and idiosyncratic individuals....

          I'm not sure why you involved a political angle.

          Simply because its a real thing and people should be aware of it. Political stances often comes from those deeply held believes. Of course there's always exceptions and idiosyncratic individuals. Also the notion that philosophy is somehow detached from politics is also quite... political.

          3 votes
          1. [2]
            Comment deleted by author
            Link Parent
            1. Staross
              Link Parent
              Point is, you were taking believe in free will as "simply useful", but as you now see it is not so simple.

              Point is, you were taking believe in free will as "simply useful", but as you now see it is not so simple.

      2. vord
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I feel the right-wing narrative is formed when they presume that we also start on equal footing. Upward and downward mobility is possible, as a consequence of free will (ask any former addict). We...

        By and large it fits and sustains a right wing world view, where people (poor and rich) have what they deserve, justice is retributive, and cause and consequence are swept under the rug. E.g.

        I feel the right-wing narrative is formed when they presume that we also start on equal footing. Upward and downward mobility is possible, as a consequence of free will (ask any former addict).

        We are all unique, and our choices influence how our lives play out in that regard. I'm a lot better off financially these days, and quitting smoking helped tremendously. It's amazing how much not spending $50 a week on a vice has positive effects in the medium-long term. But I still, years later, have to actively choose not to smoke. And I understand the short-term thinking that comes with poverty.

        But the right-winger ignores the other factors that influence standing in life. Like being born in a poor slum instead of to parents who can gift you $100k to start a business. Or being shunned from opportunity because of bigotry.

        Or even how hard it is to overcome being poor. Poor people pay more for stuff because they are poor, which makes it harder to not be poor.

        There's a thing as self made, but some people get a huge head start and others are hamstrung by circumstance.

        4 votes
  4. BiscuitMuncher64
    Link
    I used to think that since physical laws seemed practically deterministic and out of my control, this meant I have no free will. A few months ago I read about attention schema theory and since...

    I used to think that since physical laws seemed practically deterministic and out of my control, this meant I have no free will. A few months ago I read about attention schema theory and since then it has changed my views. With the idea that my consciousness is my brain modelling itself, I now have an increased appreciation for my own decision-making processes. It might all be an illusion, but by viewing myself as a complex mechanism and diverting my attention to how it works rather than entering an existential crisis about whether it is truly me making a decision, I feel more in control than before. I think it boils down to increased self-reflection as a result of my curiosity in how I think.
    More here: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/33/e2102421118

    2 votes
  5. skybrian
    Link
    This is using a weird definition of freedom to argue that nobody can possibly be free, despite appearances. The idea is that in some cosmic sense that we have no access to, both our preferences...

    This is using a weird definition of freedom to argue that nobody can possibly be free, despite appearances. The idea is that in some cosmic sense that we have no access to, both our preferences and our actions are predetermined.

    The author links to a follow-up post that describes a more everyday notion of free will, which seems like the one we should care about.

    1 vote
  6. PapaNachos
    (edited )
    Link
    Computers are deterministic therefore people are deterministic isn't really as clear cut as the author is claiming. We've put in a great deal of effort trying to make computers as deterministic as...

    Computers are deterministic therefore people are deterministic isn't really as clear cut as the author is claiming. We've put in a great deal of effort trying to make computers as deterministic as possible. "We" understand how they work and you can incorporate non-deterministic processes into computers via quantum noise. It's useful for certain methods where pseudo-random number generators aren't good enough. Based on "our" understanding of the universe, that's truly random, as far as I'm aware anyway.

    As far as how we work and where our consciousness comes from? Unless I'm missing something, we have no real, measurable answer, to that question. So it doesn't really make sense to say "what if this thing we do understand was conscious, it can be understood, therefore we can draw conclusions about consciousness too". It's a massive leap that doesn't hold up. The author is essentially claiming the entire universe is deterministic, therefore we, as part of it, must be.

    But we aren't actually certain that the universe is deterministic. It certainly appears to behave that way at a macro scale, but at a micro scale, not so much.

    Edit: All of that is to say: It's not just that we don't know. We don't even know if it's possible to ever know the answer to that question.

    1 vote
  7. moocow1452
    Link
    This line of thought plays in this weird definition space where people are adaptable and clever, but there are some hard limits that people come up against, ergo everything is decided for you and...

    This line of thought plays in this weird definition space where people are adaptable and clever, but there are some hard limits that people come up against, ergo everything is decided for you and nothing can or should be done to subvert it. But that's sort of a lazy philosophy to say that people have these default patterns of behavior, any adjustment to it is also part of the default, any adjustment to the adjusting is also default behavior, ergo we are no better than preprogrammed automatons.

    1 vote
  8. [2]
    Happy_Shredder
    Link
    For the mathematically inclined, Conway & Kochen have a very compelling proof that free will exists, based on (as noted above) the non determinism of quantum mechanics.

    For the mathematically inclined, Conway & Kochen have a very compelling proof that free will exists, based on (as noted above) the non determinism of quantum mechanics.

    1 vote
    1. Apos
      Link Parent
      That doesn't work. In quantum mechanics some events are truly random and can't be predicted. The outcomes aren't influenced by you no matter what you mean by "you". They aren't influenced by...

      That doesn't work. In quantum mechanics some events are truly random and can't be predicted. The outcomes aren't influenced by you no matter what you mean by "you". They aren't influenced by anything, that's the whole point. There's no will in this.

      5 votes