Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A Quick Take on Free Will

While I'm bringing up old philosophical problems, I want to also address the free-will/determinism debate. On the one hand, we experience ourselves as having free will in all facets of our lives. Scientific analysis, on the other hand, seeks to explain everything in a deterministic way. So yet again we have a seemingly irreconcilable divide based on the duality of perspectives between the subjective and objective views.

Now, my first problem with determinism is that human beings (and many other natural processes) are too complex for anyone to really be able to compute what happens next. There are just too many parts to the puzzle (and I think the problem goes beyond just developing faster computers). A key point to remember is that systems do not exist in isolation; a human being is incessantly acting on and reacting to an incredibly diverse environment, both physical and societal. So you would really need to model the environmental factors as well. In fact it may be that you need to have a model of the whole universe to get it right. Finally on this point, the idea of modeling the universe down it its most minute level of organization takes us back into the realm of quantum physics, where strict determinism appears to break down.

But, let me leave this sort of argument aside for now. Let’s assume that I could predict a human being’s behavior – perhaps a model of the brain at the level of the neuron is used and let’s say there is no need to look further down the scale or out into the environment. Would the success of this predictive model mean that free will is an illusion? I would say no. That conclusion would unduly elevate the third person explanation at the expense of the first person experience. Following from my earlier arguments, the first-person perspective is a fundamental, irreducible feature of the universe. It is as valid a source of knowledge as any. This argument leads one to say that both determinism and free will are correct (in philosophy, this position is called “compatibilism”). This is a difficult conclusion to hold in your head, of course. However, I think it helps in explaining again why the perceived dichotomies we keep running into aren’t necessarily real divisions in the universe, but rather they simply stem from the fact that we are a part of the universe trying to understand the universe from the inside. We simultaneously live the universe while also looking at it from the simulated objective perspective.

At the end of the day, I am sympathetic to this compatibilist “solution” to the free will/determinism debate, but I don’t think it is the whole story. The shortcoming in how this problem is posed is the implied determinist assumption that the “billiard-ball” view of physics I've mentioned before essentially holds. One assumes human behavior stems from biology which in turn is based on chemistry which is then based on physics; then we assume we understand what’s happening in physics. I don’t think we do yet. For a more complete understanding of how first person experience really reconciles with scientific explanations we need to have a theory of how this works at the most fundamental level of the universe. For now, I assert that while the particulars of the history leading up to a given moment certainly constrain our choices, how the next moment unfolds will reflect an element of genuine free will.

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