09 March, 2012

Does Liberty require free will?

Is there "free will" in heaven? What...
Is there "free will" in heaven? What about "free will" in life?
 (Photo credit: Zombie Inc. Wholesale Zombies for Over 25 years)
Ah, the eternal question.  Expressing an opinion affirming existence of free will, as a recent article in the Economist's sister magazine, Intelligent Life does, is to open the floodgates of dogmatism.  That can be fun, and a bit mind-stretching, but often seems to deteriorate into a "conversation" where people are actually talking past one another.  Yet political philosophers--especially libertarians--seem to need some kind of assumption of moral agency for their speculations to have meaning.  How can it make sense to talk about "liberty" if humans have no capacity for independent choice?

Does it even matter?  If to feel that one is free is to be free, isn't that enough?  That leads us down some dark paths.  Brains can be manipulated, and so can perceptions.  As the technologies of social control grow more effective, it's conceivable to live as a community of happy robots, each convinvced it is free, each acting according to plan.

The more we look, the more the philosophy--and the language--get in the way.  For one thing, what is "free will"?  Does it mean an "uncaused cause," or "a nonlocal thought," or is it simply the sense that we feel we weigh and struggle with alternatives before committing to a course of action?  Perhaps the best definition I've seen comes from the comments to the aformentioned article:
A biological or AI system has free will if its future behavior cannot be predicted solely by observing its past behaviour or external communications. A stronger definition would require inability to make such prections regardless of the methods used (eg deep scans of arbitratry complexity of the brain/system). I suspect humans have free will only in the first form of this definition, though for now there probably exists no technology to refute free will of the stronger kind either. (Thomas Anantharaman).
Or how about this one?  Also from the same comments section:
While recognizing the logic of determinism, I choose (?) to invoke "freedom for all practical purposes," meaning behavior that cannot be predicted and anticipated by another agent is effectively free. The brain and its behavior are sufficiently complex that it takes as much or more effort to predict and thereby control it as to "live" it. And that means we are all practically free and that no one has the ability to control others without incurring a high cost. A sufficiently complex machine would become as free as we are, if it took more effort to control it than that effort was worth in economic terms. (Thomas Earle Moore)
The no free-will bus campaign
The no free-will bus campaign (Photo credit: morgantj)
Perhaps the best we can hope for is to be too complex to predict, too complex to plan, too complex for outsiders to control.  If that is happening, and I have the occasional power to self-modify my own habits of action and mind, that's good enough for me.  And it's more than valuable enough to preserve.  While a free will does not require a free society, a free society implies the possibility of free will.

NEURONS V FREE WILL | More Intelligent Life


Anonymous said...

Before asking “Do I have a free will?”, a question “What am I?” needs to be answered first.

Anonymous said...

A free society implies the possibility of a free will only if freedom means the same in both, and it doesn't. Political freedom and the metaphysical capacity to begin a series of uncaused causes are two different things.

Daniel McIntosh said...


You may be right, but if we have to settle that definitively before we say anything else, we probably can't get anywhere.


Who said anything about uncaused causes? That's one description of free will, but not the only one.

Victor Frankl demonstrated that it is possible to be free in the most unfree environment, if only to the extent that one has a choice in how to react to it. But if that choice, the internal capacity for choice, isn't there it doesn't much matter if the environment is constraining or not.