Sunday, April 27, 2008

How it's supposed to happen

So, yeah. Free will.

I really doubt I'm in the right frame of mind to do this proper, which is how it seems to go each time I go about trying to type up a 'deep thought' type of post.
I'll attempt it regardless. If I jump around and don't make my points clearly enough, well, that's pretty much P@ for the course, isn't it?

After giving the matter of free will some thought, i've decided that it most likely doesn't truly exist. However, bottom line is, we have the illusion of it, which might ultimately result in the same thing. (Heh. I think I just covered both bases there. [doh]) And in the end, it really can't be proven or disproven, so arguing about it is just so much mental masturbation. Which, granted, can be fun, but in the end doesn't really accomplish much.

That being said....

Here's something: For those of you who believe that free will exists... prove it? And, yeah, I know that just three sentences back I said that was an impossible task, but, you know, humor me. Either prove it, or tell me why you think that it does exist.

I'm going to explain why I think it doesn't.

The Universe is, as far as I can tell, a deterministic place. When certain actions happen, you will always get the same reaction. Light always travels at 186,000 miles per second (yeah, yeah, except when it doesn't). The earth always orbits around the sun. Gravity always works (again, yeah, yeah, except where it doesn't... and actually, I think that still stands that gravity remains working, it's just that there isn't any in zero-g. I'm not an expert on the matter [heh. pun.], and I don't need to be, my point stands that these things have no choice in how they work. They just do. If you drop a bowling ball, it will always fall to the ground. So, bowling balls don't have free will. At least in regard to whether they want to obey the law of gravity.)

But, the above examples are all of nonliving things. Life is a different matter, some may say.
Well. Let's take a look at life.
Your lungs will always do the job they were made to do (assuming you don't smoke or develop cancer or whatever).
Your stomach will always do the job it was made to do.
Skin cells always react the same way to cold.
So, by breaking your body down, you can see that individual body parts don't have free will. Your blood always flows. It doesn't make a decision between clotting or not, for example.

So, what about consciousness? The ultimate test. Well, it would help if we knew exactly what consciousness is. I mean, if we're going to say that only conscious things have free will, does this mean that people with underdeveloped levels of consciousness (say, babies) don't have free will?
...I'm not sure where I'm going with that. [shrug]

Here's what I propose, though. That since everything else is deterministic, and is only reacting to events that have come before - that all of the present is effect from the past's causes - then why would consciousness be any different? How could it be?

When you are given a choice, whatever you wind up picking is what you had to pick. Because of everything that has happened from the creation of the Universe up to that point in time. There was no other option, really. You are simply reacting to the weight of history.
In order for the choice to have been different, there would have to have been something different done at the Big Bang (or however the Universe began). Seriously.

So, that's basically it. I don't feel I've explained it very well, but I'm open to dialog in the commenting section. And I'm not set in stone on this theory, either. If evidence of free will comes along, and it's convincing enough, I'll happily change my mind. (Of course, at this point I see it more as I would have to change my mind, because there's no other way that it could've happened.) ;)

Some interesting 'side effects' of this belief of Fate:
It goes a long way toward explaining psychic abilities that some people seem to display. The human brain has evolved to be superbly adept at picking out patterns. If all of life is basically a set of dominoes falling, if you can get a good enough picture of what way the dominoes will fall, you could conceivably predict when the next one would. (Does that make any sense?)
Theoretically, one could know everything that is going to happen (and, by extrapolating, everything that ever did) if you could look at the patterns enough. Perhaps that's what our ultimate destiny is.

Another thing, and it's more a neat idea than anything, is that if there is no free will, and if there is a god, then obviously god doesn't have free will either. Which would explain "why god lets bad things happen", which is one question that millions of people (theists and atheists and agnostics together) have asked themselves. God lets bad things happen (and good things) because God had no choice in the matter. This is how it is supposed to happen.

And lastly, I've found that accepting the idea of fate and predeterminism, bad things are easier to accept. It's kinda a Zen thing, really. There was no way of avoiding it, none of the choices I, or anyone else, would've made any difference, so, there ya go. Paradoxically, I have a feeling that many people don't want to give up the idea of free will. (Because they're enamored with control, is my suspicion.) At first the idea of lack of free will bothered me, too, but I've come to terms with it. Because there's no other way that it could've been. :)

All right. Have at it.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I've attempted to zero in on something I can respond to more or less directly. Big Concepts don't always lend themselves to that. So--

"why would consciousness be any different? How could it be?

When you are given a choice, whatever you wind up picking is what you had to pick. Because of everything that has happened from the creation of the Universe up to that point in time. There was no other option, really. You are simply reacting to the weight of history."

Because it is. :P

Because our brain/ consciousness allows us to make choices. I don't see how the creation of the universe/ weight of history has to enter into it. Take a situation I witnessed continuously in my years working retail. A guy comes into my video store to pick a movie on a Saturday night. Now maybe he wants to rent Terminator 2. (Note: all movies in this example will be pre-1998, so I can visualize what we actually carried back then. There may also be egregious stereotyping involved, b/c that will make this easier. Oh, and no DVD, just VHS. Sorry.) But he knows his dad wants to see Zulu for like the 14th time. His mom wants to see The Lion In Winter. His girlfriend might be coming over, and she really wants to see Steel Magnolias. He also might want a second movie for after his parents are asleep, something like 9 1/2 Weeks or Two Moon Junction, if you get the drift. Now, what is going to affect or determine his choice? Did one or the other of this parents recently bail him out of a jam? Or conversely, maybe he's been fighting with them nonstop. Does he think it's only a matter of weeks before he and his girlfriend break up? Or maybe things have never been better between them. Maybe he lost his job a week ago, and he just wants to watch Clerks or Young Frankenstein to cheer himself up. Or maybe he wants to wallow in misery, check out the Bergman movies and get Cries and Whispers.

You get the idea. Now, his choice might be affected by any of these factors, or others I haven't thought of. The weight of history? Um, what? It might be nothing more than his mood when he's in the store. You could say that his mood itself is predetermined, but I reject that. We can, sometimes at least, willfully change our mood from one thing to another. Not always, say, not if someone you love just died. But say he's pissed off because someone cut him off in traffic while he was driving to the video store. He might wallow in that, minor though it may be. Or he might willfully push it out of his mind. Who knows? We make a thousand choices a day, influenced by mood, circumstance, upbringing, intellect, interpersonal relationships. Free will is everywhere. To me, the burden is on you (or whomever wants to make the argument) to prove otherwise. You can't just say "it was what you had to pick" or "there was no other option." What evidence do you cite that people aren't choosing whatever they deign to choose, through whim or solid principle or prejudice or whatever?

That's the best I can do. I can't prove it, but to me free will is self-evident. Otherwise it's a game where someone is always saying, "I knew you were going to do that", when they didn't know at all.


Amy said...

Disclaimer: I'm really not bothered by free will and determinism. It's not one of the big questions that's bothered me. For example, I like astrology, but I don't believe in astrology.

Anyway, when I was reading this, I was thinking to myself that your not trying to disprove free will as much you're trying to prove physics. Hee!

All of your examples are too big to tackle, so I'll just pick the one that I could immediately dispute: "Skin cells always react the same way to cold." They totally don't, dude. As someone who has had many thyroid problems, I can attest to this. How my skin reacts to cold is basically determined by which pill I decide to take tonight. It could be changed by my drinking alcohol or taking pain killers.

Also: allergies. I have allergies because my skin cells react "wrongly" to various proteins that they encounter. But there's no reason why they react to certain things and not others, at least, not any reason that I or anyone else knows. Also, my allergies can go away at any time, or they could get worse. With no determinable cause. Who's to say that my cells don't have free will?

I'm not saying that you're wrong. I mean, with all of those choices that you make, you can't really say one way or the other that you had complete control over it. Even in the examples Kirk gives, about whether the guy chooses to calm himself or not - why does he make that choice? And could he really have gone the other way? See, this is why I'm an agnostic, dude.

However, that said, while I am not saying that I disagree, I don't know that I can get behind this strain of thinking.

Amanda said...

So basically you're saying that it comes down to the inherent nature of cause and effect. Like if we examine the example of flipping a coin, the result of which we usually call random. You're saying that given a set circumstances that go into flipping that coin (force, starting position, air currents, etc.) there would only be one possible result. That if it were possible to recreate the circumstances of the coin flip exactly, the results would be the same every time, and only the minute changes in circumstances that result in the illusion of randomness.


Translating the "illusion of randomness" into the "illusion of free will" makes me want to examine the what-if game a little differently. I've often wondered how circumstances might have changed if I'd made a different decision - maybe what I should be wondering is how circumstances should have changed to enable me to make a different decision. What would be interesting to know is what is the tipping point of the critical factor in order to produce a different result.

This is why the theory of infinite alternative universes (a part of string theory) is so interesting. My favorite theory so far is the theory that time doesn't exist. The basics of how this works is that there is an infinite number of strings, each one representing a static version of the universe in all possible permutations. What we conceive as time is our consciousness bouncing from string to string, or universe to universe, or moment to moment. All the same thing.

To integrate this with your theory of the lack of free will: maybe our path from string to string is a one way path. There is only one possible string to get to from the string that we're on, so that is the path we have to follow. Because the permutations are infinite, we have the illusion of free will, but because we are on the path we are on, there is only one way to go and so our choices are predetermined.

Good discussion!

Amy said...

... What Amanda said.

You already know my feelings about time.

Soupytwist said...

Me likey big talky.

I also think how people react to the idea of causality (or the perception of causality?) is interesting - the idea that that you can successfully predict outcomes (or that outcomes will changes) based on the choices you make and the actions that you take.

It often boils down to the idea that if you're smart enough, bad things won't happen to you.

But that's oversimplification and really the application of physics to people lives, which are unmatchy things.

People can't make decisions that account for every possible outcome. We can only make decisions that impact our immediate circumstances, and extrapolate very few long term consequences of our immediate actions.

I don't lean toward predestination, but I think Free Will (as people have tended to define it) is a bunch of hooey, too. Somewhere in our DNA, we have instructions that make a lot of our choices for us. And then the rest is up to us.

P@ said...

Disclaimer - Still semi-recovering from the Mystery Disease From Hell.

These comments aren't really directed toward anyone in particular, just kinda ...thrown out there, I guess? I do appreciate everyone's contributions so far, though. Like Amy, Free Will (Or Lack Thereof) isn't big on my list of philosophical quandaries, but it is fun to get different ideas sometimes.

So, thoughts that I've had recently and/or as a result of comments made here:
If all a person is is a sum total of biochemical reactions (ie, there is no 'soul' or no true 'consciousness') then it would stand to reason that each chemical reaction was due to something else causing it. So each mood that a person is in would be caused by some other stimuli. Which means that if the stimuli could be duplicated exactly, than the biochemical reaction would also be duplicated. (Um. I am not sure I'm being real clear here. Yay, Dayquil!)

If the laws of physics apply to everything in the universe, and we can predict with accuracy how things will behave... then surely people fall into that category as well? "You kin nyet change the laws of physics, Captain." Hee.

I'm not sure what role quantum physics plays in the whole matter, though. (Not an expert!) So, you know, maybe there's something there that could give Free Will some validity.

And lastly, I think that whatever the case is, that it would make a pretty entertaining short story where it turns out that
there is no free will, it's all pre-determined,
as i said in the post, knowing that means that you could know the future (and past) and pretty much everything, thus making you...well, God.
BUT! Just because you know the outcome(s) doesn't mean you'd be able to change anything. Ha ha, ironic twist.
So, in the story, human(ity) would evolve into God, but be unable to do anything different than how it all happened to begin with.
(I kinda suspect that Asimov or Clarke or Bradbury or Philip K. Dick may've already done this)

Anonymous said...

Clarke has a brilliantly awesome short story called "The 9 Billion Names of God". It's not specifically about the topic at hand (er, I think) but it's also a sublime mind-fuck.