Saturday, April 14, 2012

Free will

The existence or non-existence of free will is one of the longest-running debates human thinkers have had. Thousands of volumes over millennia of human existence have attempted to provide answers, or at least frameworks for discussion. Do we make choices, or do we only think that we do? Do our decisions make fundamental changes to reality, or are the decisions we feel we are making merely the inevitable outcomes of reactions within our brains?

The answers to such questions have far-reaching consequences. Is it ethical to punish someone for a crime if they had no real choice but to commit it? Are there infinite timelines existing for each choice made, or do we follow a linear path from beginning to end, the script already written, whether by some superior being or by the irregularities of the early universe?

However,I have never been completely comfortable with the debate over free will, and the reason is that I think it is a false one. The very concept of free will seems to rest upon assumptions that are themselves questionable to me. In this post, I will try to articulate what I mean.

Free will, as I am using the term, refers to the ability of a thinking, rational entity to consider options and choose one. It comes into play only when there are multiple options available and the choosing entity is conscious of at least two available options. It does not include reflexive or instinctual action. Awareness of choice is central to free will, which is why it is often said to exist only for humans (and possibly a few other kinds of creatures capable of higher brain function).

Free will is a central concept for most religions. Without the assumption of free will, there can be no karma, no reward or punishment for good behavior, since no behavior would have come about through personal choice. It is also central to our legal system. If no one has a choice, then no one can be responsible for anything that happens. All actions and outcomes might be unknown, but they are predetermined. I might perceive that I have the option of stealing money or not stealing money, but the option I select will be the result of powers that reside outside of me.

So let's start with the idea of making a choice. What is it to choose? Do we choose with our minds or with our actions? If I think to myself that I will commit an act but I do not do it, have I chosen to commit it? As an example, imagine that you are hungry and you see delicious food for sale in a store. You have no money. The store attendant is not paying attention, and you determine that you could take the food easily without being caught. The decision of whether to do so or not is yours. Now imagine that you move to take the food, but you trip, cause a commotion, and you attract too much attention to take the food without being noticed. Your plan ruined, you walk away. Did you choose to take the food?

Now imagine the exact same situation, but without the clumsiness. Instead of tripping, you get to the food, but at the last second, you have a change of heart and decide not to take the food. In this instance, did you choose to take the food? Did the fact that you changed your mind negate the fact that you had previously decided otherwise?

In the first scenario (the tripping scenario), your unexpected fall changed the situation before you could complete your action. But this does not mean that you would have completed the action even if you hadn't tripped. As the second scenario shows, you have up until the moment of taking an action to decide whether or not to do it. So is the intent to do something the choice, or is the action the choice? Does changing your mind before you complete an action qualify as a second choice, or is it part of the same choice?

The boundary between deciding to do something and actually doing it is not as clear-cut as it might seem. It all gets fuzzy when you look at it closely.

Let's look at another scenario. Imagine a man - we'll call him Bub - finds himself very strongly attracted to a woman named Anya, whom he has just met, and Anya has dropped many signs that she feels the same about him. However, Bub is married to Bertha, and he believes in commitment. Anya invites Bub back to her place for drinks (and more). He is faced with a decision: does he follow his instinct to go home with Anya, or does he keep his head about him and decline the offer? Which decision is the rational one?

Well, the rational decision depends upon the outcome Bub wants. He has to weigh his desire for a quick fling with the very attractive Anya against his desire to remain committed to Bertha, including all that each option entails. Perhaps he even tells Anya to wait a moment while he sits down and draws out a chart of probabilities of outcomes, being extremely rational about the whole thing. In the end, he decides do decline Anya's very tempting offer because he feels that the long-term consequences of cheating on his wife are a bigger negative than a romp with Anya is a positive.

How does he decide this? How does he assign values to each consequence? What unit of measurement does he use, and how does he make the measurement?

Here is the problem: A choice made by pure reason is not a choice. It is, by definition, predetermined. Adding one and one together will give you two. You don't get to decide. However, the decision to follow the conclusions of pure reason is a choice, with the alternative being to follow one's heart or instinct. However, isn't the choice to follow the reasonable conclusion also an instinct? If not, what is it?

Reason, for all its uses, provides no impetus. It is a means without an end, a way of reaching a conclusion. Why do I do anything that I do? Why do I not simply sit down, stop eating, and wait to die? Not because of reason. Because of instinct. I don't want to die. Why do I care if I die? Why do I care if I live? I care because I am driven to care by instinct, by internal drive. It is animalistic. There is no rational need for me to live. To what end? However far you go, however much you reason, you will never arrive at anything other than instinct and irrationality.

Therefore, at their roots, all choices, no matter how well reasoned, are irrational and instinctive. Reason and instinct are not dichotomous. Instinct provides a drive. Reason provides a means of fulfilling that drive. I work so that I can afford food and shelter. I eat because I want to live. I want to live because I am driven to do so by instinct. The decision to get a job is rational given my desired end, but the end is not rationally determined The fulfillment of desire is not a rational choice. It is instinctive.

Given all that, what are we doing when we make a decision? What is the difference between our decisions and those of worms? The same force that drives a worm to bore through the dirt is what drives every decision that everyone makes. Our rational capacity might make the process more complex for us or allow us to make an estimate of what might happen a few more steps down the road, but it does not provide any reason for moving forward on the road.

So if we are driven by irrational desire and all decisions are ultimately attempts (however convoluded) to fulfill that desire, and we do not choose our desires, what are we doing when we choose?

Imagine that Bub, feeling too irresistibly drawn to Anya, decides that the only way to stay committed to Bertha is to kill Anya. He brings her to a dark alley and shoots her dead. Why did he do it? Should he have done something else instead? How did he reach the conclusion that he did? And, the million-dollar question: Is it his fault?

Bub killed Anya because he figured that he would feel worse about cheating on Bertha than he would about killing Anya, and he determined that he would cheat on Bertha if Anya lived. Couldn't he stop himself in some other way? He reached the conclusion, possibly through faulty reasoning, that no, there was no other way to avoid cheating on Bertha. Why did he care so much about cheating on Bertha? Because he wants to minimize his guilt, and he knows that he will feel a good deal of guilt if he cheats. Couldn't he have come up with something else? Perhaps, but he did not take the time to reason it out. Why not? Because his urge to cheat was too much for him to take. Could he have sought professional psychiatric help? Maybe, but he didn't think of it. Why not? Because he was preoccupied with thoughts of cheating. Why was he so preoccupied? Because he was driven by instinct to be that way. Is that his fault?

See, there's a problem with the concept of "his fault". It assumes causality. If something is someone's fault, it means they caused it. But what is causality? The concept of cause and effect is a simplification. It is an abstraction. In truth, everything causes everything else to some degree or other. We call something a cause when it reaches a certain threshold of likelihood that an effect will follow it. The threshold is rather arbitrary. It is tied to our tendency to categorize as a means of understanding things better, except that we mistake the abstraction for the reality it represents. The concepts of cause and effect are human impositions. They are categories we created to help us make sense of our surroundings in a hostile world, not real things.

So should Bub go to jail for murder if he is caught, even though it's not his fault that he was driven to do what he did?

I would say yes. Why? Because I think it will deter others from doing the same thing by increasing the weight of negative consequences for the act. Why do I want to do that? Because I want there to be fewer murders. Why do I want there to be fewer murders? Among other reasons, because it reduces the likelihood that someone I care about will be murdered. Why do I care if someone I care about is murdered? Because it would make me very sad. So what? Well, I don't want to be sad. Why not? Because it is unpleasant. I am driven to make myself happier by instinct.

See, even if the assumptions I make (such as the assumption that locking up Bub will deter other murders, or that deterring other murders will reduce the chances that someone I care about will be murdered) are logically flawed (indeed, if you followed the questions along the path of why I think it will deter murders, you will eventually come to a point of irrationality), it all leads back to an irrational drive anyway.

So what does this say about free will? Does it exist?


  1. Of course free will exists! You are over-analyzing! When I am faced with multiple options, regardless of how I make a choice, I am the one making it. I am considering options and choosing one of my own volition.

  2. Are you really? It certainly feels that way, I know. But again, what are you doing when you choose? What is driving you to choose one thing over another? Deep down, we are all driven by an irrational force, whether we are aware of potential alternative choices or not.