Friday, April 06, 2007

Why Determinism and Free Will are Disconnected (mostly)

The following was part of an argument I presented over at Thinking Christian.

Intuition tells us that, from our perspective, we affect future events by examining the choices of action before us, simulating the outcome of each action, choosing the preferred outcome, and executing the chosen action. That's decision-making.

Furthermore, it is intuitive that making a decision often leads to different results than making no decision.

That is, from our perspective, our decisions (or lack thereof) affect the future. That's what intuition tells us. Intution cannot tell us that the universe is non-mechanistic because our intuition is not sensitive to that factor.

If the universe is mechanistic, our decisions still affect the future as seen from our perspective. Our experiences are totally insensitive to the question of, say, whether or not our actions could have been predicted a million years ago.

Suppose that I have weighed my dinner options against my preferences, and decided to eat a hamburger at Wendy's. Suppose that I then learn (never mind how) that the universe is totally mechanistic. Does this mean that I no longer have to act to obtain my Wendy's hamburger? If I do nothing, will the burger come to me as if by magic? Of course not. My decisions still affect the future from my perspective, even if they are not affected from an omniscient point of view. I still have to decide which dinner option I prefer, and execute my tasks in order to get my dinner. If I choose to do nothing, then, presumably, I was predestined to do nothing. If I choose to cross the street and go to Burger King, then I was destined to go to Burger King. The fact always remains that I choose my destiny.

The same would be true if I had magically found out that the universe was not mechanistic. I would act in exactly the same way.

So, from a human perspective, the mechanistic nature of the universe makes not a jot of difference to will, choice and action.

This is why the mythical association between free will and a lack of determinism is just a confusion. If anything, will and rationality rely on determinism.

If one defines free will to be equivalent to a lack of determinism, then one is begging the question. One would be defining free will to be supernatural or perhaps even illogical. Determinism and randomness are logical complements, and there's no third choice which logically delivers the kind of options that supernaturalists seek.

4 comments:

Peg said...

Is free will in determinism being confused with the Christian view of free will versus predestination?

How's life Doc? :-0}

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Peg,

Life is pretty good. :) You? Are you enjoying teaching physics?

I don't think there's just one Christian view of predestination, and I'm not convinced any of them make any sense. Here's the Wikipedia article on the subject.

Tom G said...

Interesting argument, doctor(logic), and in the terms you've framed it here, some of it makes good sense. What you're saying, in a way, is that we're locked inside the machine, and we can't get outside of it to see how the machine works, or even to show that it isn't a machine after all.

It would appear by your account that the decision to eat the hamburger at Wendy's was determined but seemed (to you, on the intuitive level) to be free. There is no freedom, only seeming freedom. This is a big price to pay for believing in a mechanistic universe, but if it's true, then we ought to pay it.

If you "magically found out the universe was not mechanistic," you would act the same way. That's probably true in the case of eating a burger. There are others who would say that they would act in entirely different ways if they found out the universe was not mechanistic--have you thought that through?

And finally, your last paragraph has a significant error. You say that if one defines free will to be equivalent to a lack of determinism, that's begging the question. No. That's setting the terms for a discussion. I can define free will that way and argue to that conclusion from other premises, and not beg any questions at all.

Generally speaking, the arguments I use for free will argue to that conclusion based on the following:

1. Even though we can't get outside the "machine," we can reason from within the machine to a reduction to absurdity: if we're all just part of the machine, then we can't conclude by reasoning that we're part of the machine.

2. We have revelation from outside the "machine," in the Bible.

Doctor Logic said...

Tom,

There is no freedom, only seeming freedom.

I disagree with this. I think that the idea that freedom is in opposition to determinism is an illusion.

I don't mean that the universe is deterministic, I mean that freedom only truly exists to the extent that there is determinism. Our choices have to determine outcomes, and be sensitive to predictable aspects of the world. Our choices also need to be sensitive to the current situation which is determined by the past. Finally, we decide based on our past experiences. I don't see how we make our decisions more free by eliminating determinism from this picture.

Put another way, there has to be a cause and effect relationship that makes a (subjectively) right answer derivable from the current situation. If you eliminate determinism, you eliminate that relationship.

There are others who would say that they would act in entirely different ways if they found out the universe was not mechanistic--have you thought that through?

Do you have an example of a decision-making process that changes purely because one discovers the universe is not deterministic?

1. Even though we can't get outside the "machine," we can reason from within the machine to a reduction to absurdity: if we're all just part of the machine, then we can't conclude by reasoning that we're part of the machine.

Can you state this more precisely?

Just to clarify... I'm not arguing that the world is 100% deterministic. So, I'm not concluding that we're part of the machine. I am concluding that being part of the machine would not destroy free will or rationality.