North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Free will

with 4 comments

I found this NYT article about free will via The Dilbert Blog. Scott Adams’ blog is always interesting and funny – not a combination that you always get. Adams has argued in many posts that free will is an illusion and this is a view that I am quite opposed to, but my opposition is not the most common one, that I “feel it”. No, my argument is summed up at the end of this quote and I am very comfortable with it.

“The more you scrutinize [free will], the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.

That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

Einstein, among others, found that a comforting idea. “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals,” he said.

How comforted or depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.

At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.

“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”

People who believe already that humans are magic will have no problem with that.

But whatever that power is — call it soul or the spirit — those people have to explain how it could stand independent of the physical universe and yet reach from the immaterial world and meddle in our own, jiggling brain cells that lead us to say the words “molten chocolate.”

A vote in favor of free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for inventing theories and planning experiments.

The world is a very strange place and theories are placeholders to help us get things done: useful, but don’t mistake them for the real thing, which is ever elusive. It’s not that hard to imagine a future state of science in which a lot of what we take for granted as fact is considered out of date or even feebly wrong. In other words, some knowledge will be modified and built upon, but some will be thrown out.

Finally, there’s this:

In 1930, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel proved that in any formal system of logic, which includes mathematics and a kind of idealized computer called a Turing machine, there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false. Among them are self-referential statements like the famous paradox stated by the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who said that all Cretans are liars: if he is telling the truth, then, as a Cretan, he is lying.

Adams and the determinists take the human calculus too seriously, and write themselves out of existence. Perception is never a neutral act.

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Written by Curt

January 5, 2007 at 11:57 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Just stopping by to say hello.


    January 6, 2007 at 12:55 am

  2. Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is almost always misstated or mis-exemplified, just as it is here. I’ll spare you the complete technical restatement of the theorem, but here’s the layman’s version:

    In any sufficiently powerful formal system – i.e., one that permits self-reference — there exist demonstrably true statements for which no proof can be composed in that system.

    Godel proved this contention by demonstrating that:
    1. Proof itself is a formal concept whose definition can be expressed in such a formal system;
    2. Any formal system that supports self-reference permits the construction of the statement: “This statement cannot be proved.”
    3. That statement is demonstrably true. The demonstration is by contradiction: if it were false, then it could be proved and therefore, by the definition of proof, would necessarily be true!
    4. Therefore, since the statement is true, it cannot be proved. Q.E.D.

    Trust a constipated former mathematician to obsess over such things.

    Francis W. Porretto

    January 9, 2007 at 5:41 pm

  3. Thanks Francis, for filling in the details. It surprises me how little this theory gets mentioned in the arts (literature, philosophy). It seems to put a stick into the wilder regions of postmodernism and scientism.


    January 9, 2007 at 5:51 pm

  4. It is truly amazing that so many would find this sort of talk easy to swallow. Some of my atheist friends just accept it with a “Well science said so” sort of attitude. They don’t seem to see that it requires a complete revolution of how we view reality. They seem to make that leap so easily. Another atheist friend I know talks about how this revolution of perspective would be required to believe in the resurrection, however, he seems to find that obstacle insurmountable.

    I have a tread going on this topic also here

    As a side note none of the atheists on my blog seem willing to accept the idea that we have no free will, but a Christian currently commenting seems comfortable with it… interesting…

    Alex Blondeau

    January 10, 2007 at 3:52 pm

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