The Absurdity of Free Will

06/17/2020

You have free will. You definitely are responsible for your actions. Right?

After all, you could choose to do any number of things, right this very moment! You could (if only you wanted to) bring your hands together and clap; you could open your mouth and shout something obscene; you could even stand up and dance in circles.

You definitely have free will.

Or do you?

I’m going to argue the opposite. I do not think free will exists, certainly not in the way most people envision it.

First, let us review the arguments. On the one hand we have our own, subjective, experience. It feels like we have a free choice. Even I, writing this, intuitively think that it must be true. How could it not be? I definitely feel free!

This view is also supported by most religions. Christian dogma states that man must be free; else how can he be judged by his actions? It would be absurd to send someone to hell if they weren’t responsible for their own sins. A similar sequence of reasoning is given in the Islamic Quran and the Jewish Torah. Both state the importance of man’s choice and how he will, eventually, be judged by God. Islam and to a lesser extent Christianity do believe in some form of predestined God’s Plan, but Free Will is an essential part of it.

One big camp on the contrarian side would be the Determinists. Determinists believe that reality is more or less like a (super large and complex) billiard board. Atoms and little particles whizz around, interact with other particles, and continue on. All under the watchful eyes of the laws of physics. These interactions are deterministic, i.e. if we knew everything about two particles before they interacted (their speed, position, mass, etc…) we could know exactly what they would do and where they would end up afterwards. Kind of like how a billiard pro can know where the ball will end up in. Just with, you know, billions of trillions of little billiard balls all flying around at the same time.

Determinists, then, believe that the current state (of everything) is just a logical consequence of previous states. Action, reaction. Everything moves forward in time in an orderly manner, everyone dances to the tune of the laws of Physics. And that “everyone” would include us: you reading this and me writing it.

There is some evidence that supports this notion. A pretty (in)famous study in the 80’s by one Benjamin Libet seems to indicate that we do things before we are consciously aware that we have chosen to do them. In Libet’s experiment, the electrical signal to move an arm appeared before participants said they chose to move it. Action preceded choice, and thus Libet thought that Free Will is nothing but a retrospective interpretation. We are all puppets that think they are free.

People take offense at this. It’s hard not to. Nobody likes to think of themselves as “just” a puppet dancing on some strings. We are not machines, we are humans!

The Determinists use other arguments too. For example, most everyone agrees that plants, bacteria and insects lack free will. Most would also say that all the other animals (mice, dogs, cows) lack that quality too; they “act out of instinct”. Yet, if Darwin is to be believed, we humans (or at least our forefathers) were once dumb, instinctual animals too. How come we now have the magical quality of free will? At what point in the evolutionary timeline did a human receive the ability to make free choices? If Free Will is something that you either have or don’t have, a qualitative aspect of humanity, then it follows that, at some point in the past, there must have been a family where the (unfree) parents suddenly had a child with Free Will. The notion seems absurd.

But perhaps Free Will is not qualitative, perhaps it is something that is gained bit by bit. A quantitative thing. Perhaps, during the course of our evolutionary history, homo sapiens gained more and more of it. This seems like a reasonable argument, and we can use it to protect our ego (“I am not a puppet!”).

Unfortunately, making Free Will compatible with Evolution doesn’t really solve anything. Neither does hand-waving away Libet’s experiment. We will see why in a second. First, let us look at what the mortal enemies of the Determinists say, the Indeterminists.

The aptly named Indeterminists believe that nothing in the future is really set. They believe that, even knowing every possible thing in the present (what all the billion trillion atoms and little particles in our universe are doing), one could not precisely calculate what would happen in the next moment. At most we’d get some kind of probability distribution. But the important part is: the future is not determined! We determine it by our own actions! We have Free Will!

It does seem, on a first glance, like the Indeterminists are winning. The modern physics of the small stuff (people call it “quantum” physics) heavily supports their view. Newton is outdated, long live Heisenberg.

But in a war nobody wins, and this is most definitely a war. In this vast philosophical conflict, the nerdy Determinists are heavily outnumbered. On the other hand, the chaotic Indeterminists are long dead.

To understand why the Indeterminists never stood a winning chance, let us make the problem easy to visualize. We shall do so with the help of Jim.

Jim is a normal dude, and is faced with a super simple choice: A or B.

A and B could be anything, the point is that Jim has to choose between them. This example is useful because we can make the following question: how does Jim choose?

If it were a machine deciding, then the answer would be easy. The machine would choose solely based upon a set of hard rules: the software running it. The machine code that runs in its machine brain. Depending upon a set of inputs and its code instructions, the machine produces an output, choosing either A or B. This is the deterministic view. Applied to humans, it would go a bit like this: based upon his genetics, his upbringing, his current hormonal balance and because B smells a bit like his ex-girlfriend Jessica, Jim will choose B. Jim’s behavior is deterministic, ergo Jim is a puppet.

The opposite would be the indeterministic view: Jim has Free Will, therefore he can choose whatever he wants. With his magical Free Will he can choose A or B, independent of earthly reasons. Religion is happy, everyone goes home, the end.

But it really isn’t the end. Because if Jim’s decision is not defined by the sum of his inputs (genetics, upbringing, environment, etc..), then there are two options: either some kind of metaphysical entity makes the choice, or the choice is random. Most people throughout history have taken a preference to the first: there must be some inner core, some magical soul inside of us that makes these choices and through which we are granted Free Will. We are not just defined by our fleshy prisons, no, in reality we are some grander metaphysical existence. Because the alternative, being nothing more than a smart pair of dice, is horrifying.

Saying a soul exists is all fine and dandy, but by doing this we are just shoving the decision into an additional layer of abstraction. This is the turtles all the way down problem. Why doesn’t the world fall down? Because a giant turtle supports it. And what about that turtle, why doesn’t it fall down? Well, there’s another, even bigger turtle beneath it. And so it goes, on and on.

We have delegated the responsibility of choosing from Jim to the more exotic “soul-Jim”. However, the dilemma still exists: either soul-Jim makes the choice by evaluating all his inputs (how dense the metaphysical clouds were that day, how strict his soul-parents when he was little, how pretty soul-Jessica looked that day, etc…), or soul-Jim makes the choice between A or B randomly. We could of course believe in an even more abstract soul-soul-Jim that grants this soul-Jim and by extension our original human Jim Free Choice. But then we run into the same issue again. As I said, turtles all the way down.

Thus we arrive at the main problem with Free Will. There really are only two options. Either everything is deterministic, and thus Free Will does not exist, and we are all puppets. Or, Free Will does “exist”, but is literally just randomness. A roll of the dice. Whether Jim chooses A or B, whether he chooses to go through with a murder or regrets it at the last second, is not determined by a grandiose notion of liberty and Free Will. No, it is determined by complete chance. Either there are reasons that fully determine Jim’s decision-making, and thus his decision is not free, or there aren’t reasons that fully determine Jim’s decision-making, in which case his decision must be a product of the accidental.

Pushing the act of decision-making onto a higher layer of abstraction (soul-Jim) does not solve anything: we are still faced with the fundamental choice between determinisim and random choice. There are no other options.

It is thus absurd to imagine Free Will as some grandiose human quality that differentiates us from more primitive species. If Free Will exists, then we are nothing more than glorified pieces of weighted dice. If it doesn’t, then we are just complex biological automata.

Our choices are either predetermined, or they are arbitrary. Either Free Will does not exist, or it is a truly trivial and absurd thing.

Some people think that this is depressing. If its not us calling the shots, then what does anything matter?

What do you think? Will you lay on your couch and do nothing, because nothing matters?

I don’t think so. I think you will continue on with your daily life.

After all, you have no choice :)