Free Will

musingsI’m going to weigh in now on a subject with a lot of philosophical controversy: the question of whether free will is real or illusory.

We all have the sense that we have free will. That is, in our subjective experience, it seems very much as if we approach choices and make them consciously, and that for any situation where we make choice A, we could have made choice B instead. This common-sense perception leads to a philosophical debate involving free will and determinism with essentially three positions:

  • Compatibilism is the belief that determinism and free will are compatible (that is, both can be true). Compatibilists assert that in a free choice, it isn’t true that one could have chosen B instead of A, but say that the completely determined results of our own mental processes, which inevitably choose one or the other, constitute free will. In this view, free will means only that one’s choice is not completely determined by any outside influence. It is completely determined, but since one’s own mental processes are a factor in making that determination, that constitutes free will.
  • Incompatibilism is the belief that free will requires indeterminacy, and this takes two forms. One of these is hard determinism, the belief that free will requires indeterminacy, that the universe is deterministic, and that consequently free will does not exist. Our subjective perceptions of it are illusory.
  • The third position is metaphysical libertarianism, which is the other side of incompatibilism. Metaphysical libertarians argue that the universe is indeterminate, and free will exists as a manifestation of that indeterminacy.

My own position is the third one, with a couple of twists. I accept that free will and determinism are incompatible, although what might be called “unfree will” and determinism are not. If the mental processes leading to a choice are significant but determined, then we have will (or something that might be called that), but not free will. I observe, and will discuss below, that the universe is in fact indeterminate, and believe that free will arises as a function of that indeterminacy.

One of the critiques of metaphysical libertarianism is that what we are calling “free will” is actually randomness, and not what we usually mean by free will at all. When confronted with a choice, we don’t think of this as if we were rolling dice to choose among the options, but as if we were weighing the options and making a conscious choice on the basis of either reason or feelings (or both).

This is on the surface a valid criticism, but I believe it can be resolved by introducing the concept of perspective. Free will and randomness are both manifestations of indeterminacy, but one is experienced in the first person and the other observed in the third person. This difference in perspective is the only difference between the two; essentially, they’re the same phenomenon observed or experienced from two different points of view. I’ll come back to this in a bit, as it’s the main point of this argument, but before that I want to detour into philosophicl physics and discuss whether the universe is or is not determined.

I’m not going to go much into theological determinism, which depends on a belief in an omniscient God (a belief I do not hold), but will observe that the concept of perspective resolves this as well. We can simultaneously have free will from our own perspective, and be determined from that of God.

Determinism: An Operational Definition

When we say that the universe is determined or not determined, what do we mean? Traditionally determinism is defined in terms of cause and effect, so that we say set of conditions X causes outcome Y with no possibility of variation Y2. This is somewhat problematical in that the idea of causation itself is impossible to prove; all we can verify is consistent correlation. I may observe that every time I hold a rubber ball aloft and release it, it falls to the ground, and refer to the theory of gravity as expounded by Newton or by Einstein to explain how the nearby mass of the Earth “causes” the ball to fall. All I can really say, though, is that the ball falls to the ground every time it’s released while I’m standing on the Earth and does not fall if I release it aboard a spacecraft in orbit. From the standpoint of science, what matters is the mathematical equation describing this behavior of the ball. The idea of causation as such isn’t necessary or implied.

Setting causation aside, then, we can define determinism in terms of consistent and inflexible correlation: set of conditions X is followed by set of conditions Y, with no possibility of variation Y2. This means that, with perfect knowledge of conditions X, we can predict conditions Y without possibility of error. If we can (in principle) do this, then the transition from conditions X to conditions Y is determined. If all events in nature follow this pattern, then the universe as a whole is determined.

The qualifier “in principle” above acknowledges that our ability to measure conditions X is not perfect, and we may also be in error about the process by which conditions X become conditions Y. Either of these would result in a failure to accurately predict the event without violating determinism. In that case, conditions X do lead invariably to conditions Y, but we failed to predict the outcome accurately either because we were in error about the starting conditions, or because there was a flaw in our theory about how things work. We may call this technical unpredictability. The events are unpredictable not because they’re genuinely indeterminate, but because of failure on our part.

Determinism fails for any given event under one or both of two conditions. Either perfect knowledge of starting conditions is impossible to achieve under any circumstances, regardless of how good our measurement tools become (uncertainty of initial conditions) or the event’s unfolding is described by indeterminate equations (indeterminacy of process). Either of these means that the world is genuinely indeterminate, at least in part.

What appears to be the case is that indeterminacy of process is not true, but uncertainty of initial conditions is.

The Uncertainty Principle and Chaos

Most people have heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: the hypothesis (well confirmed by now) that the product of the uncertainty of any two so-called “Heisenberg pairs” of attributes — most famously the position and momentum of a moving object, although there are others — must always be at least equal to Planck’s constant. We can, in theory, achieve perfect knowledge of the position of a moving object, but only by increasing uncertainty about where it’s going (momentum) to infinity, and vice versa. If we know exactly where it is, it could be going anywhere; if we know exactly what direction it’s going and how fast, then it could be anywhere in the universe right now. Or, more normally, we can have some kind of idea of both, but not perfect knowledge of either one.

Planck’s constant is a very, very tiny number indeed, and is significant only at the level of subatomic particles. Still, the same rule applies to macroscopic motion as well. Our uncertainty about the current position of the moon times our uncertainty about its trajectory and velocity must also be at least equal to Planck’s constant. That’s a ridiculously trivial uncertainty (the uncertainty caused by technical errors in measurement is much greater), and doesn’t stop us from accurately predicting the moon’s orbit and phases for practical purposes. But philosophically, we have to acknowledge that the moon’s motion is indeterminate, even if the parameters of the indeterminacy are of no practical significance.

There’s more than this happening, though. Chaos mathematics describes processes in nature that are unpredictable on a macroscopic scale. These are deterministic equations, but are infinitely sensitive to the starting conditions, so that extremely tiny errors in measurement result in vast errors in prediction. Chaotic functions describe things in nature that certainly seem to be indeterminate: turbulence, for example. If one explores the literature, one finds the assertion that these are actually deterministic processes, based on the fact that the equations describing them are deterministic. That is, indeterminacy of process is false.

But if these processes are infinitely sensitive to initial conditions, which they are, and if we add the uncertainty principle into our understanding of them, which we should, then we can see that uncertainty of initial conditions is true, and therefore the processes are indeterminate, their deterministic mathematical description notwithstanding. They are infinitely sensitive to indeterminate initial conditions — and that means the processes meet the operational definition of indeterminacy presented above. Indeterminacy of process is false, but uncertainty of initial conditions is true.

We have, therefore, an indeterminate universe. In many of its processes, the indeterminacy is of practical importance, but even where it’s not (e.g. the orbits of the planets), it still exists in nonzero value, and is therefore philosophically real.

The processes of the human brain that lead to decision-making and action are almost certainly chaotic in nature. They bear greater resemblance to the weather than to the swing of a pendulum. While this hasn’t been formally verified as far as I know, it’s what we should expect, and therefore, pending confirmation by further study, we may tentatively affirm that human behavior is indeterminate.

This leads back to the idea of perspective, and the relationship between indeterminacy and free will.

First versus Third Person Perspective

I’ve explored this concept before in the context of discussing consciousness. This is a different vector of the same concept, which may imply something about the relationship between consciousness and free will.

Free will is a concept that has meaning only in the first person. I intuitively believe that I have free will, just as I intuitively believe that I am conscious. Because you are like me in certain other respects, I tend to also believe that you are conscious and that you have free will, although strictly speaking I can’t confirm either of these. But I can imagine being you, and when I do, I imagine being conscious and having free will, just as I experience the same myself. But when we don’t think of something in terms of having a first person perspective (e.g., the weather), we don’t think of it as having free will, even if it is indeterminate. We say instead that the process is random.

When a person confronts a set of possible actions and makes a choice among them, what happens is that his brain employs knowledge of these circumstances together with memory and motivations/feelings to conclude which action is probably going to have the best outcome (or which one feels the most satisfying to take). These memories and feelings, together with perception of the circumstances themselves, constitute the initial conditions of the process, and the laws, whatever they may be (this is an area where knowledge is very crude at present), governing cognition and motivation constitute the process of decision-making itself. If, as I think likely, this brain activity is a chaotic function of some kind, or several of them, then we may suppose the processes themselves to be determined — but the initial conditions are indeterminate; it’s uncertain how we’ll perceive the set of options we face or our feelings about them. As such, the outcome is also indeterminate. We can think of this as a random function, like rolling dice. But it doesn’t feel that way, and that’s the objection that’s typically made to this idea.

But here’s the question: what would the dice feel like in “deciding” what way to fall?

It seems like a nonsensical question because we don’t conceive of dice as “feeling” like anything: they don’t have a first-person perspective. (Or if they do, it’s opaque to us.) But if they did, the indeterminacy in how they fall might seem radically different from the dice’s own point of view, than to us, observing the event in the third person.

And the same can be said of a person’s choices, with the difference that we assume the person does have a first-person perspective and we do conceive him as “feeling” like something. But consider this.

I observe someone approaching a crossroads. He takes the turn to the left rather than going straight ahead, going back, or turning to the right. I have no way to predict beforehand which turn he will take, so from my perspective, observing his behavior in the third person, it seems to be random. He, on the other hand, knows why he chose to go left, and so even if he didn’t know ahead of time which way he would go, his choice doesn’t seem random at all to his own first-person perspective.

To make this clearer, let’s assume he had a valid reason to make any of the four possible choices. Straight ahead, the path leads to his home. The right turn leads to his bank, the left to a bar, and the way back to his place of employment. He might approach the intersection, find he is short on cash, and turn right to make a withdrawal at the bank. He might decide to go have a few drinks. He might decide instead to have a quiet evening, and go home. Or he might discover that he left his keys at the office, and turn around and go back. These initial conditions are not predictable, and so his choice is also unpredictable with perfect certainty, even to him. His action is indeterminate. But it still doesn’t seem, from his own first-person perspective, to be random. But it does seem random to me, looking at the whole thing from the outside.

Indeterminacy can apply to any process regardless of point of view. Randomness, however, exists only in the third person, while choice exists only in the first. His choice is indeterminate, but doesn’t seem random because, from his own first-person perspective, it isn’t. But it’s still the same process that I, viewing it from without, can describe in the third person as random.

It’s random from one perspective. It’s free will from the other. And that, I believe, is the resolution of the problem.


Filed under Philosophy

5 responses to “Free Will

  1. Another superb essay. I sent this one via e-mail to my brother. Decided not to subscribe him myself but am hoping when he sees the depth of the reasoning to which you are capable, he will subscribe.
    Now I have a complaint. You use the term metaphysical libertarianism to describe your take on the question of free will.
    Libertarianism is a word that probably once meant free thinking and openness to new ideas. Libertarianism has become so tainted by certain political dirt bags as Rand Paul, his father, Paul Ryan and other (Ayn Randian) opportunists that it is nearly as horrifying to me as the swastika which used to be a sacred Buddhist symbol for eternity. Or the noble elephant which has been soiled by becoming the symbol of the GOP.
    Can I not prevail upon you to choose another name for your hypothesis?
    You once, innocently I believe, referred to me as a libertarian. I think you meant to say I am a free thinker. Anyhow that is what I hope you meant. This idea you have is perfectly wonderful so please don’t scare off people like me who block libertarians on principle.

    • Well, you can think of “libertarian” as another word that needs reclaiming, much like “socialist.” 😉

      “Metaphysical libertarianism” isn’t my term or my hypothesis. It’s part of technical philosophical language in the context of free will and determinism. That’s to distinguish it from political libertarianism, which should itself be distinguished from the Libertarian Party.

      If we avoid the word, haven’t the verbal terrorists won?

  2. I liked the summary of compatibilism. And you’re right about determinism being unproven (we haven’t yet dropped every apple, so we cannot prove that gravity works every time, thus the -ism indicating a belief).

    But I think you need to distinguish better between uncertainty and indeterminacy. You seem to be using indeterminacy as a synonym for uncertainty, but I think they are sometimes different, and the difference is critical here.

    For example, if someone says “prior to Newton, we had difficulty trying to determine how gravity works”. That’s read to imply that we lacked the certain knowledge of how gravity works. But if someone said, “Flash Gordon has invented a machine that determines whether gravity attracts or repels a spacecraft and his reverse-gravity machine will push us to the next star system.” Then the implied meaning would be that the machine actually causes gravity to work differently.

    So, “indeterminacy” could either imply uncertainty or lack of causality. I think you are using the “uncertainty” definition.

    To me, if we had a volume control for causality, so that we could adjust the level determinacy, then as we adjusted toward more indeterminacy, things would begin happening for no reason at all.

    For example, with a deterministic universe, I pick an apple from a tree and then have an apple in my hand. If we were in an indeterminate universe then when I pick the apple, I would sometimes have a cat in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or the apple may just go “poof!” and disappear.

    Nice place to visit, but who could live in the middle of that magic show? Perhaps the force of gravity would randomly alternate between attraction and repulsion.

    Things must first be causally determined before they can be predicted. And you’ve spelled out some issues with predicting things even when they are totally causally determined. Even when presumed to be causally determined (like the driver you described in the car ahead) we may not be able to determine (have the knowledge to predict) what he will do next. Thank goodness for turn signals.

    • The distinction between uncertainty and indeterminacy rests on the idea that something has a “real” state separate from our ability to perceive it. But that distinction is scientifically meaningless. The world as it exists is unknowable, and when we talk about the world we mean the one we perceive.

      Thus, an inherent inability to predict (as opposed to one imposed only by our technical limitations at the moment) IS indeterminacy. It all comes down to operational statements, and so determinism means either, “We can predict this event perfectly,” or else, “We can’t right now, but someday, given improved methods and tools, we may be able to.” When we can’t make either statement, we have indeterminacy.

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