More on Free Will

John K Clark (
Fri, 31 Jan 1997 20:43:17 -0800 (PST)


Some things never change, when I first joined the Extropian List over 3
years ago it was in the middle of a discussion on free will, just like now.
This is the very first post I ever sent to the list, I'm a little disappointed
to note that I wouldn't change much in it, except I'd say something about
Turing if I wrote it today.

There has been some discussion on this list about free will and it
touched a raw nerve in me for I have had similar conversations when I get
in a philosophical mood . The conversation usually centers on the question
of whether Homo Sapiens has Free Will or not. Few ask what is meant by
the term. I suppose they think it's so obvious so self explanatory that
it's not worth talking or even thinking about.

The discussion invariably ends with a demonstration. Someone
picks up an object and drops it from one hand to the other and
says "This proves I have Free Will, I can hold it in my hand or
I can drop it. If I drop it it's not because anything made me,
in fact I could have held on to it but I just didn't feel like it".
When asked why he didn't feel like it the only answer your
likely to get is "I just didn't!" as if that explained everything.
If I point out that I was the cause of the demonstration by bringing
up the subject in the first place, anger sometimes results.
To say "I can do anything I want to" is not an expression of absolute
freedom but a severe restriction on it for the clear implication is
"I can do nothing I don't want to".

We feel certain that we are totally in control of our actions
yet when someone acts in a way we don't understand we still ask
"Why did you do that?" by which we mean what CAUSED you to do it.
At the same time we pretend that our will is completely
independent of external factors as if our behavior has no cause
although if this was true our conduct would be totally random.
No concept in Philosophy has been analyzed as poorly or has
greater practical implications.

This confusion largely stems from the enormously powerful
intuitive feeling that we are not robots and that our minds are
not deterministic. Indeed modern Physics has shown, by way of
Heisenburg's Uncertainty Principle and Bell's Inequality, that
some things happen for no reason, in other words they are truly
accidental. No one has shown that this element of chance extends
to the workings of the mind but it seems likely that at least to
some degree that it does. I maintain that randomness, whether it
exists in the human brain or not, has much to do with the
question of determinism but nothing to do with volition.
Intuition should not be dismissed lightly especially when it's
almost universally held. But what is this intuition trying to tell us?
People differ greatly over this but I think we can find a minimal
definition of free will that almost everyone can agree on ;
and that is a feeling of choice. This sensation of autonomy
is a crucial aspect of our internal life so any successful
theory of the Will must explain the source of this emotion.

Let's simplify things to their essentials. Imagine a world in
which the environment was so simple it could be predicted with
complete accuracy. Doubtless we would find such a place boring
and unpleasant but I don't think we would feel like robots.
Thus the origin of the sensation of autonomy can not be external.
What does it mean to "feel like a robot"? I think that if you
could always forecast your own behavior and thoughts with
complete accuracy then you would feel like a robot. Uncertainty
is at the root of freedom and choice. I hope to show that even
in a predictable habitat and even ignoring whatever effects
quantum uncertainty has on the macro-world, it is impossible,
even in theory, to entirely foresee ones own conduct.

For the mind to totally understand itself it must form a perfect
internal model of itself. The model must not only describe the
rest of the mind in every detail but it must also depict the
model itself with a micro model. This micro model must represent
the rest of the brain and the micro model itself with a micro
micro model. This path leads to an impossible infinite regress.
Both the brain and the model must be made up of a finite number
of elements. If we are not to lose accuracy the components of
the brain must have a one to one correspondence with the elements
of the model. But this is impossible because the brain as a whole
must have more members than the part that is just the model.

This argument does not hold if the mind is infinite, that is if
it has an infinite number of segments. It would be possible to
find a one to one correspondence with a proper subset of itself;
for example you CAN find a one to one correspondence between the
set of odd integers with the set of all integers. Thus an
infinite intellect could predict all its actions without error.
So we are lead to the interesting conclusion that man has free will
but GOD if SHE exists does not.

Let me suggest a thought experiment; a man is walking down a
road and spots a fork in the road far ahead. He knows of
advantages and disadvantages to both paths so he isn't sure if
he will go right or left, he hadn't decided. Now imagine a
powerful demon able to look into the man's head and quickly
deduce that he would eventually choose to go to the left.
Meanwhile the man, whose mind works much more slowly than the
demon's, hasn't completed the thought process yet. He might be
saying to himself I haven't decided I'll have to think about it,
I'm free to go either way. From his point of view he is in a
sense correct, even a robot does not feel like a robot but from
the demon's viewpoint it's a different matter, he simply deduced
a purely mechanical operation that can have only one outcome.
But is it really a purely mechanical operation, what about the
uncertainty principal? I don't see how it effects matters one
way or another. It says that some things can happen for no cause
and thus are truly random, but happenstance is the very opposite
of intelligence and even emotion.

Things either happen because of cause and effect or they don't
and if they don't then they are by definition random and have nothing
to due with volition. Those who claim that this is the source of the
will must also believe that a nickel has free will when you flip it.
This topic muddies the question but does not change it.

In my example the demon did not tell the man of his prediction,
but now lets pretend he did. Suppose also that the man, being of
an argumentative nature, was determined to do the exact opposite
of what the demon predicted. Now our poor demon would be in a
familiar predicament. Because the demon's decision influences
the man's actions the demon must forecast his own behavior, but
he will have no better luck in this regard than the man did and
for the same reasons. What we would need in a situation like
this is a mega-demon able to look into the demon's head. Now the
mega-demon would have the problem.

As a final variation let's make our demon have an infinite mind.
Now our demon would be able to have full self knowledge yet
because of the man's decision to be contrary he still can not
say what he will do, even if he knows what it is. So under
certain circumstances there are some things that even a limitless
mind can not do, it can not communicate with us freely.

Perhaps we should return to earth now because unlike some
esoteric controversies in philosophy this topic has some
practical applications. Don't worry that a duplicate of you will
not REALLY be you because the copy will feel like a robot, he won't.
If the copy thinks you have survived, then you have. Also,
in the matter of criminal law the general public and lawyers in
particular have some strange ideas about the purpose of
punishment. They seem to feel that if someone has derived
pleasure in a evil way, it is the law's duty to somehow balance
the books by making the lawbreaker suffer. The cliche about
man being responsible for his own actions is merely a
rationalization for sadism. This leads to endless convoluted
irrelevant arguments reminiscent of the medieval one about pins
and dancing angles. What was the mental state of the lawbreaker?
Did he grow up in a good home as a child? Did he undergo a lot
of strain as a adult? Is there anything physically wrong with
his brain? Was he in full control of his faculties? And even a
question that philosophers fight about to this day "does he know
the difference between right and wrong?". Little wonder that the
legal system is hopelessly backlogged.

The only logical or moral reason for punishing a wrongdoer is to
prevent a similar crime from happening; it's the difference between
justice and vengeance. Making an evil person suffer just for the
fun of seeing him in pain is pointless and cruel, after all a
bad man suffers just as intensely as a good man.

John K Clark

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