Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Free Will

7 Mesi Ti Amo
7 Mesi Ti Amo, Milan, 2008

Metaphysicians love to yammer on about the question of free will. I run into it sometimes too. It gives me a stomach ache, and is just the kind of thing that makes me hate the whole exercise.

My first problem is that the whole concept falls apart when you look at it more closely. What do we even mean by "free will?" I'll offer a refinement that I'll try to stick to in this little piece of pontification:
The statement "I have free will" is synonymous with "Volition can affect action."
The problem is that volition is not easily separable from its causes nor its effects. Volitions affect actions, actions create habits and memories, habits and memories condition volitions, and all are features of the mind – cittas and cetasikas in Buddhist terms; clusters of axons firing in materialist terms. Saying that a volition affects an action is functionally the same thing as saying that one brain activity affects another brain activity. This much, I think, is fairly uncontroversial.

Second, we run into the question, free to do what? It's obvious that I'm not free to do anything I like, such as cure cancer, reverse global warming, or travel to Mars. Lev Tolstoy had a pretty smart discussion about this in War and Peace, where he argued that the more powerful you are, the less free you are, with someone like Napoleon being just about entirely at the mercy of forces outside his control. His starting point was to demonstrate that he is free to ball his hand into a fist and move it rapidly through the air, like so – and then point out that had a child's head occupied that space, he would have been as incapable of performing that movement as if there had been a steel plate barring his way. He argued that the more people your actions affect, the more they constrain your choices. So-called "great men of history" have the least freedom of all, precisely because their actions condition and are conditioned by such multitudes.

Tolstoy's conclusion was pretty much the common-sense one: that there is a limited kind of free will, that is, the freedom to choose from a variety of options available at a given time, with the variety and attractiveness of the options varying from person to person and time to time.

However, that position is far from unassailable. I am conditioned by my environment, my genes, the actions of other people, and so on and so forth. If I "choose" to go to have lunch at Mount Everest rather than Halikarnas today, am I really choosing anything at all, or did I arrive at that choice by mechanical computation from a variety of inputs, such as my culinary and dietary preferences, my sense of pressure at work, the interval of time since I last ate at Mount Everest and Halikarnas, the expressed or imagined preferences of my coworkers, and so on?

This train of thought usually leads to the question of determinism. Obviously, if we can demonstrate that the mind is a deterministic system, then there is no room left for free will: we're just meat robots doing our thing, and someone with sufficient knowledge about the structure and inputs could compute us to the last decimal place.1

Unfortunately, the converse is not true. If we could prove that the mind is not deterministic, it would not necessarily mean that we have free will. At best, this would leave room for free will.

I think there is some cause to believe this much, at least. The brain is an incredibly complex system. Chaos theory has been developed to describe such incredibly complex systems. Chaos theory shows how tiny disturbances can balloon into huge effects. The movement on a perfect pool table with perfect pool balls and no friction can only be computed for some tens of seconds before you would have to start factoring in infinitesimal effects like the gravitational pull of Neptune.

While brain structures are macroscopic and brain activity involves groups of ions being zapped between synapses, those cascades themselves start at the quantum level. I see nothing to stop such quantum effects from cascading through to the macroscopic level, just like that butterfly batting its wings in Brazil causing typhoons in Japan. (They should catch that bastard and save everybody a lot of worry.)

At the quantum level, the universe is demonstrably nondeterministic. Therefore, there must be an element of nondeterminism in biological activity as well, including brain activity.2 This doesn't mean that the brain actually makes use of quantum nondeterminism or other quantum effects at all; we certainly don't have any good reason to think so, and the Quantum Consciousness hooey that Deepak Chopra and others go on about are certainly taking it far, far into the Twilight Zone.

Point being: the main take-home philosophical implication of quantum mechanics is that the Universe is nondeterministic, and therefore we cannot conclusively reject the notion of free will.

The question of free will is also entangled with the question about the self. Implicit in the philosophical notion of free will is the notion of "one who wills" – the subject, or self. I like the Buddhist solution to this dilemma. The notion of the self is so slippery that wherever you look for it, it isn't there. Yet there is a sense of self, which arises from consciousness, with discrimination of object-apprehended and subject-apprehender.

The discrimination of object-apprehended and subject-apprehender is exactly the same thing as the discrimination between object-of-volition and subject-who-wills; the discrimination implicit in the concept of free will.

If we accept that this sense-of-self is nothing more than an emergent perception that arises with consciousness, the question of free will resolves itself as well. It's the same perception. The metaphysical question "Is there free will?" is ultimately as meaningless, or meaningful, as the question "Is there a self?" As phenomenological questions, they're much more tractable: yes, I [as a phenomenon] exist, and yes, I [as a phenomenon] have free will [as a phenomenon]. Yet from another point of view, both 'self' and 'free will' are part of what Vasubandhu calls 'construction of that which was not:' without independent existence, essential qualities, or permanence.

Yes, I have a sense-of-self, and yes, I have a sense-of-free-will. That's enough. To take it any further is just to invite a migraine.

1This is, in fact, an often unmentioned consequence of the so-called transhumanist position. They like to think that some day pretty soon we'll be able to upload our minds into computers and continue to live indefinitely there. Despite Bill Gates's best efforts to prove the contrary, computers are deterministic systems, unless we deliberately introduce a source of randomness, which is harder than you might think. So we could be certain that an uploaded trans-human mind would not have free will, unless we intentionally diluted that certainty by plugging it into a lava lamp.

2In fact, there are some intriguing results coming in about quantum effects actually being exploited in biological systems.


  1. I have a sense that the Earth is the unmoving center of the universe.
    That's enough. To take it any further is just to invite a migraine.