Friday, August 07, 2009

Doggerel #190: "Free Will"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Free will is one of those things I find incredibly difficult to define precisely, even though I have a sense of what it means. On a casual level, it can be used to describe a trait possessed by sapient beings: They can make a wide variety of decisions about how they live their lives. That variety diminishes as you go down to simpler minded creatures, like ants, who are pretty much hardwired or close to it.

The trouble comes when you get down to the nitty gritty.

First, there's causality. Everything I do is affected by my genes, my experiences, my knowledge about my current situation, the stimuli I'm receiving by now, and even my medication. All of that affects the cognition behind my decision process. Someone who knows a lot about me could do a decent job of predicting my actions. In principle, there's no reason not to believe keeping track of all the particles in my corner of the universe could yield a near perfect prediction of my behavior.

That doesn't sit well with a lot of people. They don't like the idea of being a "slave" to external forces, instincts, drugs, or whatever. Some of us who have come to believe in determinism still get a twinge of discomfort every once in a while. The problem is what else is there? Adding in a "supernatural" component like a "soul" doesn't solve the problem. If it's not bound to the various influences in your life, why is your behavior still fairly predictable based on those influences? If it's just something that occasionally makes you act contrary to your nature, how's it any different than any seemingly random natural event?

People are complex things. It's far more likely unexpected or counter-intuitive behavior is a result of that complexity than an ethereal set of dice attached to everyone's brain.

11 comments:

James K said...

The big problem with discussions about free will is that its underspecified as a concept. I'm a sort of compatabilist, in that I think free will and determinism aren't mutually exclusive. I do this by defining free will in a way I think most people would consider reasonable, but still allows for proper causality.

I define free will as "a person's behaviour is determined by their preference set (subject to significant but not all-encompassing constraints), or in plain English: "what people do depends on what they want to do". Naturally what people want to do is determined by outside forces, but I think this rescues enough of free will to retain a useful concept.

Jacqueline said...

"intuitive behavior is a result of that complexity than an ethereal set of dice attached to everyone's brain."

I like my dice material. You know d10s d20s and percentile dice. The ethereal ones keep falling through the table and into the floor, then I have to scrabble about to see which plane of existence they've ended up in!

Dark Jaguar said...

I think the best way to consider free will is to consider the process, however deterministic it may be, your "choice system". That is, my brain may end up making a choice of some kind, but in my own awareness, whatever my brain's processes are running through, that IS me, and I'm fine considering that free will, even if it isn't that absolute free will people find comforting. I mean, ever been in a mall second story overlooking the main floor and have this bizarre compulsion to jump? Nothing suicidal, that's incidental, you just suddenly get this freakish and scary compulsion that makes you back away? Well, you ran through a list of choices, and ended with the one you considered best, backing off. If I did that 100 times, I'm sure every single time I'd back off. I'm predictable in the sense I have self preservation being more valued than a random destructive urge like that. However, technically the brain could have made another choice, it just wouldn't have after doing all the processing of the situation. Since I essentially AM those processes, that's good enough for me to call it free will. For some it isn't, but again it begs the question of what free will even means if not that.

Dunc said...

Man, I wish I hadn't lent out my copy of The Algebraist... There's a great scene in it where one of the supposedly non-sentient sort-of-not-really-AIs is explaining why it's not really sentient: it doesn't "really" have free will, it just has a bunch of inferences based on its prior experience (and so forth). As the scene progresses, it does a really good job of demolishing the whole concept of free will (without realising it) whilst still determinedly maintaining that it's not actually sentient.

I guess you had to be there...

Bronze Dog said...

Sounds kind of like all those times Data insisted that he didn't have emotion.

Dark Jaguar said...

Well in Data's defense, it depends on how you define emotion. I can easily see him lacking anger and joy and such but still having interests and being able to be fascinated by things. I mean heck how often do actual people really experience anger and joy and fear?

Akusai said...

The whole free will thing is so...I dunno, trivial, I guess, in my view. I think it's pointless to discuss the metaphysical question of free will, and I don't think it makes any difference anyway. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing regardless, and it's not a question we can settle definitively in any way, so I tend to just ignore the question.

Dark Jaguar said...

I suppose the "metaphysics" are rather useless, but I am very much interested in the neuroscience of how we make decisions.

Jim R. said...

As a practical, day-to-day matter, free will is very much non-metaphysical.

When my six year old bops a playmate on the head with a chunk of firewood, whether he did it to find out what would happen, because he didn't think it would hurt, or because he was just pissed off can and should affect my reaction to it.

Or am I missing something here?

Tom Foss said...

One thing I notice occasionally in discussions of free will--it's happened on Non-Prophets and the Atheist Experience, for instance--is the confusion of "free will" with "the ability to do anything I want." Physical laws and human biology impose limits on what we are capable of doing, but that's not necessarily a restriction on free will. The fact that I can't fly or catch bullets doesn't really impede on my ability to decide things for myself--it doesn't even impinge my ability to decide that I'd like to do those things, if they were possible.

Free will is not the same as omnipotence, or ability without constraint. I think it boils down to James K's point, that free will is underdefined. And a lot of that, I think, stems from difficulty defining the self.

Ergo Ratio said...

Bronze Dog, you might be interested in my latest assessments on free will:

http://generalnotions.talkislam.info/tag/free-will/

They are in reverse order, naturally.