Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Tuesday, January 16, 2007day link 

 Free Will
picture The discussion of whether we have free will or not seems to be in the news again recently. Like: New York Times: Free Will: Now you have it, now you don't.

It is a pretty dumb discussion.

It is a bit like the discussion of evolution versus intelligent design. Except for that the two sides of that discussion both tend towards being against free will, but contradicting themselves in different ways.

If there's an entity called God who decides everything, then how can humans have free will about anything? Just doesn't make sense. But at the same time, a good believer is supposed to make moral choices that please that God, which requires free will.

Same thing with science. If a scientist is trying to establish that everything is based on natural laws, as a logical evolution of the physical elements involved, who is going to decide? See, the contemplation of any question, scientific or otherwise, pre-supposes the existence of somebody who'll decide what is right and what isn't. You can't imagine anything, comtemplate anything, decide anything, without some kind of free will, or rather free choice in choosing the best answer. So, if you end up deciding that you have no free will, you've just shot yourself in the foot in a major way, as there's no way you could arrive at such a decision if you don't.

The big invisible pink elephant in the room is consciousness or awareness or whatever we call it. Any kind of reflection on a problem requires that you are aware of the problem and of possible choices about it. That would all be impossible unless there was some kind of freedom of choice about it. Awareness implies some level of choice.

At the same time, on a physical level, or even a psychological level, as to why things are the way they are, and why we make the choices we do, it is clear that if we look closely enough, we can find influences that pre-determine most of it. Which speaks against free will to a large extent.

On the side of free will would be, for example, a new age view that we're creating our own reality. That you're free to attract whatever you desire in your life, and create whatever you want out of your life. And, despite that I'm leaning towards that view, it is usually greatly over-simplified.

If I sat down one day and visualized that I wanted a red Ferrari, and I did it extremely well, affirming it, believing it, manifesting it, and the next morning there indeed was a red Ferrari in my driveway, and it was mine - how would that have happened? The new agey view is that I created it. Or, the religious view, that God answered my prayers. But if we examined the facts, we'd find that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything. The atoms of the car certainly wouldn't have manifested out of thin air. There'd be a story behind it. The car would have been manufactured the normal way, at the Ferrari factory in Italy. Somebody would have bought it. There'd be a perfectly logical story for how it got here, and why it now is mine. I might have signed up for some lottery last year that I forgot about, but the records would show that I really did. Somebody actually drove it to my house and parked it there. At the physical level, nothing would be magical about it at all. The lottery had been in process for years, and somebody had to win that car.

Was that free will? Did I create that car? Or did I maybe just suddenly express an awareness of something that already was happening, or by some strange, but not impossible coincidence I got a random idea which happened to correspond to reality?

I'd say that we both have 100% free will and 0%, and the paradox of that is what keeps life interesting.

If we had a way of adding it up, we'd probably find that 100% of what happens in the physical world can be explained logically with physical laws. I'm sure we don't know all of them, but if we did, everything would probably turn out to be perfectly sensible. And we might find that we have 0% chance of casually changing those basic laws of physics just because we have another idea one day.

But at the same time we have an awareness, a reflective intelligence, we have consciousness. In principle, theoretically, I'd say that the potential is for 100% freedom there, although we'd have a very hard time getting there. See, no matter what actually happens, you're free to have another idea about it. Even if your life is falling to pieces and the planet will be demolished tomorrow, you could very well decide to be optimistic and that life is pretty good. You're free to disagree.

But, in practice, your ability to perceive and to think is dependent on your past experiences, the neural paths in your brain formed by past habits, the words and concepts you've learned to accept, etc. Humans are all too easy to condition and mislead. The majority of the time we're merely regurgitating what has been fed into us, making our best guesses based on what we're presented with, and generally trying to act normal like everybody else. So, if there were a way of adding it up, maybe 99% or even 99.9% of what you think or do could be accounted for and explained as the result of what was fed into you. Sad, but probably true.

But what remains is the important part. Because that's YOU. Ok, there's your identity, which maybe to a large degree is made of what was fed to you, the genetic make-up of your body, the impressions fed in through your perceptions and experiences. But no matter which way we turn it or how much we argue, there's still you who with your awareness can perceive and think and make choices. Please don't let anybody persuade you that you don't exist. They might not know whether you exist or not, but you yourself should know by now.

And it isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds. See, there are possible ways of understanding reality that might make it all come together in a way that would satisfy everybody. Like, there's hope in quantum physics or something similar, if we manage to understand it and integrate it. We might get down to understanding that what really is there is merely a blank canvas. Just like something might be a particle or a wave depending on how you look at it, we might end up accepting that the whole universe works like that. That it is all a virtual reality, and that our awareness and perceptions is a key component in playing it. You know, there's nothing there but quantum soup until somebody comes along and sees it. Whether he sees one thing or another is all the same to the universe, but what he sees will be entirely consistent with itself.

Another possibility is the multiple-world thing. That all possible scenarios for everything is already there, already laid out. And multiple different scenarios are always close by. So, there's a universe where the Ferrari is in my driveway tomorrow, and a whole bunch of universes where it isn't. Whether it is or isn't, it will be entirely logical and consistent, apparently inevitable, based on a series of irrefutable events. But maybe there was a choice of which track of the world I persued.

And maybe that had something to do with the 0.01% of my consciousness that wasn't tied up in trying to conform. The part that actualy pays attention.
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