My World View – Free Will
There are a lot of people who talk about free will. Theists say that we have free will and use this to explain why there is evil in the world, why their Satan is left loose on the world, why Jesus was murdered, why we must choose their faith. There are a few people who will argue that we do not have free will, or more subtly that we only appear to have free will.
My view is this, we do have free will. If you wish, you can choose to stop reading right now. That is a choice, an exercise of free will. If by saying that I have triggered in your brain the mechanisms which will cause you to read the rest anyway we might say that you don’t really have free will. So lets imagine we can look at the things that might have just happened in your brain, shall we?
1 – you already read so far
2 – you had made preliminary decisions about whether the writing was interesting or not
At this point we might say that you have already made the decision to read the whole post – or not read it all. Was that really a decision then to finish reading once questioned if you would? Yes, but you had made the decision to read the entire post before being asked if you would or not. Were you conscious of that decision? No? Well, you made it, why were you not conscious of making that decision? Did someone else make it for you? Did quantum mechanics kick in and make you decide to not do things you don’t like doing in the first place? Hey, all that sounds complicate, right? Well lets see what we can find out about that.
There is no good single spot to get the low-down on thinking about free will but Wikipedia gives you a great spot to start reading from as it always does. Everyone has a common sense understanding of it, but those that write about it go quite a bit deeper to get beyond the common sense version of it. From the Wikipedia article you can see that there are many views on free will. Certainly more views than you might want to try on if you found yourself bored one weekend.
I can still remember asking why, why, why to my parents and anyone that would listen to me ask the same question over and over again. Once my mother sent me along with a man (uncle?) as he went to repair someone’s stereo/turntable. He was a patient man and answered my why’s until I had no more, or at least did not know how to ask any more of them. I was 5 years old, maybe 6. I understood little of the answers but did understand that they were ‘real’ answers. So I tried to remember them. I still do. I still ask why. On the question of free will, you might well ask why…
Ian Pollock gives a nice run down of some recent arguments about free will. There is a lot of talk about J.Coyne and here and of course there is Sam Harris’ take on free will that we don’t have.
Though Sam Harris has come closer than the others I disagree with just about everybody. Welcome to the machine, the meat machine.
Come on, tell us what you really think!
We human apes are machines, meat machines. The business of our brain is to make decisions. Decisions about everything. What is safe to eat, what is not, what is dangerous (we’re weak on that one) and what is not. When to duck out of the way, when to stand our ground. An immense ocean of decisions every day, every minute. We make them so fast that we don’t have time to think about them. If we had to make conscious decisions about everything we see or hear as we drive a car it would be crippling. Try it, watch someone else while they drive and try to figure out how many decisions they are making per second. You won’t be able to keep up.
So, if you can’t keep up with their decisions, how do they? That is the ‘why’ question of free will. Lets go ahead and consider the machine between our ears. Do you imagine that it has only a single core processor? If you said yes, you’re wrong. Even though you think of your mind/brain as a single thing it is made up of many processes. When have you ever had to think about making your hear beat, or concentrate on what is in the edges of your peripheral vision? The reason that you won’t remember is that these things happen without explicit consent or command from your consciousness process, that part you normally think of as your mind. Jill Bolte-Taylor has an incredible story.
She is a brain scientist who suffered a huge stroke and tells what happened. Half her brain shut down and with half gone she did not lose conscious thought, but did lose time sequencing to all the sensory inputs. She explains all this in her book and we can only conclude that more than one processor is running in our brains.
Yep, our brains are a group of processors, a machine. Some parts analyze various parts of our visual sensory input some parts keep your heart beating and so on.
What does all that gibberish mean?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Harris argues that if our conscious process does not make the choice then we do not have free will. This is flat out wrong. He is not paying attention to how our actual brain works.
As Jill Bolte-Taylor explains, if you shut down some of the parts of the brain catastrophically, we do not stop making decisions. We simply have more trouble doing so. This means decisions are not made outside the brain as if we are puppets or have no choices. We make decisions based on all the processes happening in our brains at any given instant. We also cannot claim that this world is a simulation and thus we have no free will because the loss of brain function does not stop decision making, only our ability to make good decisions. Follow along now. If this universe were a simulation, the simulation did not stop her from making decisions when her stroke happened, just her ability to make them. Decision making is done inside the brain. Okay, you might argue that this does not refute a simulation. There are also other reasons to refute a simulation, but they are long. The world is not likely to be as it is if this were a simulation that was programmed to give us such a keen sense of self identity and agency, and we would not understand why we have made the decisions that we have.
What’s the point already.
We do have free will, but it is based on the multiple processes in our brains. Something which has not been discussed by modern philosophers or ancient ones. It has not been considered how multiple process systems make decisions, and what exactly this does to free will.
We do have free will and in the investigation of it we will find what exactly it means to think of ourselves as meat machines. This machine between our ears makes us human apes a little bit different than other animals… just the same, we are as we perceive. That is to say that we perceive ourselves as a single agent with free will. That agency is based on the interactions of several processes and we can measure the communications between them. Such times and delays are the cost of making decisions. They are the cost of free will. Decisions are not made instantly but by careful analysis of all the sensory input we have along side analysis of the previous information that we’ve stored up. These things take time… but the delay does not indicate that we do not have free will.
The deeper philosophical arguments were made before any thought that we are not alone in our heads. There are many processes here, not just one. This makes a huge difference in how to interpret thought and feeling and action. I do not believe that any argument against free will has merit.
Of course you are welcome to prove me wrong… leave a comment, thanks.