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We Have No Free Will

created 2004-02-16 11:31:56

(Up to: Experience And Knowledge Hacking Reality )

I have decided that we have no free will. What we like to believe is free will is just our ignorance of the future.

_ "The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause."
-- Henri Bergson _

At any given moment, for any particular decision or action, ask yourself why it is so. There is always a reason for a choice, just as there is always a law to physics. The reason may well be so convoluted by experience, memory, beliefs and biology that it is an incredibly complex task to fathom it out, but reason exists. At the core of this reason is the fact that we are a biological creature, with biological needs and fears. And biology runs according to the laws of physics. (Some might say this is pertaining towards the Tao, at a deeper level).

So we have no free will. And thus our future has been decided already.

I had a discussion recently about this, prior to which I was kind of sure-ish that free will would imply randomness in the universe, as it is an escape from predeterminism, and if it isn't predetermined, then there must be an element of randomness to it (or is there?). And indeed, post-discussion, I'm still not convinced of randomness - the main argument seemed to be that "there is randomness because there must be", which is analogous to saying "there is a god because there must be", which either implies that God is Random, or that faith is a personal thing ;) Either way, it's pretty ironic that people want to believe in science, yet dismiss the idea of "God" for the same reasons they believe in something else.

To put it another (better) way, Free Will generally means that if you were to run the history of the human race again, "from the very beginning", that things would go differently, and that the choices "we make" would lead to a different outcome each time it was re-run. However, the difference in choices would mean that the decision making is arbitrary, and thus irrational, and so, without causal reasoning, our decisions would be random - difference without rationale is randomness.

I would therefore claim that what we see as "free will" is just a natural boundary of knowledge clashing with reality - both in terms of what we can "know" that we shall do, and what we know about how the world works. I also say that everything must pertain to laws, purely in order to exist. Without these laws, stability could not reach a point at which more complex concepts could emerge. Note that I don't see any reason why a chaotic "universe" couldn't "be born", but it really wouldn't last any time at all, as time is one of those things that depends on laws as well. Perhaps the vast majority of "stuff" is just randomness that never gets itself sorted enough. I guess this is a bit like physical matter in the universe - it has a tendency to coagulate and form larger, more complex structures, but the majority of space is moving too entropically to form these structures more. (This does not mean that entropy is random - it is more just a measure of how easily we can predict things, which again is down to our knowledge.)

I factor chaos and complexity into my reasoning, although I know very little about it (hurrah for amateur "scientifics"!), which up til now certainly doesn't hinder my explanation of predeterminism, but (I have also decided) may also not deter randomness either.

Free Will theorists seem to like citing Chaos Theory - they think that Free Will somehow magically appears because of CT, which doesn't make any sense. 1. Chaos Theory only (AFAIK) states that a small change in "input parameters" can have a larger effect elsewhere - but this is only chaotic on one axis, effectively. The whole thing about Chaos is that it is repeatable - i.e. a result may not be as expected according to a smooth extrapolation, but given the same inputs, the same output will be produced each time. Thus even chaos is predetermined. This is a bit like entropy.

Complexity theory is more interesting, as it fudges the difference between randomness and predictiveness in an order-through-chaos way. If we have laws, do those laws arise through complexity (in a relatively miniscule way), and is this level of "primary order" what I could get confused with predeterminism? i.e. is there a layer of randomness beneath laws that could influence (through chaos theory) the outcome of those laws?

Personally I think that that's a bit of a wrong tree, for this reason. If biological species are just high level organisms built on top of these ordered laws, then they, just as the rest of the Universe, could not exist if there was complete stability in their make-up. As thought and will, which must be distinct from animalistic behaviour (which is apparently pretty causal), are a higher level in the complexity hierarchy of the universe, any random effects at large would have to manifest themselves in more basic ways than simply thought-processes, such as basic physical laws etc.

Isn't, then, to believe in Free Will, or in the idea that randomness can only emerge through our own consciousness, as arrogant as constructing a God in our own image, and then placing our own race at the heart of existence?

2004-02-25 - Phil's blog comment:

At the moment, it seems to me that if you want to escape from determinism, you have to turn this question on it's head.

The question is why we believe that the universe is nothing but deterministic laws? Because we find things very like laws when we look for them.

Alternatively you can go the way of my (and Margaret Thatcher's!) favourite philosopher : Popper, summed up by his slogan "All Clocks are Clouds".

He points out that we certainly know of some apparently law-like things which really are stochastic abstractions on top of a lower level, more disordered reality ... for example, gas laws.

Why should we assume the universe is Newtonian, made of things like F=ma, rather than made of things like PV/T = constant?

This isn't chaos theory as usually understood (it's much older.) But you can see how understanding the way a massively disorderd substrate can support emergent order, fits right in with it.

Popper got very excited by quantum indeterminacy too, but you don't need the indeterminacy to be at the quantum level to make this kind of argument. It just has to be somewhere down at the bottom.

I actually quite like the idea of having a "human understanding" formed around order, floating in a huge and ultimately completely chaotic sea of random existence. Perhaps it makes sense to separate out what we call "science" and why we do what we do. However, I don't think this clashes with the idea of "free will" being a misnomer, and I'm still pondering the "free will == irrationality" argument. Here are some possible hypotheses:

  1. . We are rational, the universe is non-random, and science maps our understanding of this.
  2. . We have free will, and randomness inherent in the universe means that our rationality is subject to "flux", i.e. we are not necessarily completely irrational, but there is a possibility that we will react differently to a given situation, within reason.
  3. . The universe is random at heart, but our own existence, through some kind of complex emergence, is inherently ordered and predictable (and therefore rational).
  4. . more...?

Update 2005-02-03. A thread on has twisted into this very discussion. See Free Will Tribe Discussion for more.

Reading over Phil's comment again, I'm now left wondering what it actually means. To "escape determinism"? But isn't to avoid Newtonianism and to embrace the idea of chaos converging on constants still a form of determinism? Perhaps it's slightly inversed, indeed, but there's still a great amount of inherent cause and effect there, due to the way in which things are related. In other words, our idea of freedom is based on a "effect" which, by its nature, is deterministic in some sense. Thus, any indeterminancy lower down the system is possibly irrelevant.

I repeat here my question from the Tribe thread above. If the laws of physics are based on quantum variability, why don't they have free will too? Or rather, what makes us think that we are subject to indeterminancy outside the laws of physics?


(See also: Justice Of Misfits )

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