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.