Geocentrism and Free Will

The first topic I wrote about in this blog was artificial consciousness. The last post, with its pictures of watches, has me thinking once more about the mechanisms of thought.

Everyone agrees that we think with our brains, but most people believe that there is more to thought than the mechanistic interactions of atoms in our skulls. After all, they argue, we have free will (what could be more obvious?). Nothing that operates solely by the laws of physics could result in free will, so there must be something more — a non-material spirit that superintends our thoughts.

As an aside, I note that some have argued that the randomness of quantum physics gives enough wiggle room in neurochemistry to allow for free will. I don’t buy it. What could be less free than randomness? Randomness might leave room for insanity, but not for the rational free will that most people feel they have.

What most people mean by free will is that they have a free choice in a given situation, and they could truly take one action or the other.

I suggest that there is no evidence for this beyond our strong feeling that it’s true. How could there be any evidence? Once we’ve made one choice, the other is forever unavailable, because that moment in time, with all its conditions, will never exist again. It is beyond the reach of any experiment.

In fact, there is evidence that we do not have a non-material spirit that is able to affect the physical world. I’m thinking of prayer studies, which have failed to demonstrated that prayer has any effect.

We feel that we have free will, but feelings do not constitute reliable evidence. After all, the feeling of knowing is merely a brain state. As I related here, that brain state can be induced by means ranging from drugs to self-delusion. We all know people with strong feelings who are dead wrong.

What makes our feeling of free will so hard to shake is that we are in the middle of it. I am reminded of the geocentrists of old (and today!) who, living on a giant ball hurtling through space at almost 67,000 miles an hour and spinning at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, were absolutely convinced that the ball was not only stationary, but immovable. (I do not mean to insult anyone who believes in free will. I only mean to say that I see a similarity with belief in geocentrism, which I am about to explain.)

How could geocentrists be so certain? It was because they were on that giant ball, moving with it. Plus, their bodies had evolved to be acclimated to the movement. If survival had depended on evolving sense organs that could detect movement through space, either they would have evolved or we would not be here to know that they hadn’t.

Because they lived on Earth, geocentrists had no clue that it was at the mercy of gravitational forces that were slinging it around faster than anything they had ever conceived of.

I think it’s the same with our perception of will. Because we are glued to our thoughts, we don’t realize that they are at the mercy of the laws of physics. We think we are the center of our will, when in reality we are just part of a much larger, possibly centerless, whole.

5 responses to “Geocentrism and Free Will

  1. Something else that strikes me about free will is how dependent it is on knowledge and framing. It’s common for someone to say, “If I knew then what I know now, I never would have done that.” So it sounds like they’re routinely admitting that their former choices were restricted by their former lack of knowledge. It’s as if nobody sees any inconsistency in noting that past versions of themselves weren’t as free as they thought because they were ruled by ignorance, but they’re “more” free now.

    And then there’s the case in which an advisor suggests an option that the decision-maker “otherwise never would have considered”. If the decision-maker follows the suggestion, then the advisor is largely responsible for altering the decision-maker’s actions. It’s like one billiard ball deflecting a second billiard ball onto a new path.

    In effect, for free will to be “most” free, the decision-maker needs to have all knowledge. But if a decision-maker has all knowledge, then the decision-maker also has no uncertainty, and therefore an optimal decision-maker can always choose the one option superior to all others. But if this ultimate decision-maker always chooses one specific option, then they don’t ever choose any others. So is even the ultimate decision-maker “free”?

    In related news, I’ve been reading some of Asimov’s Foundation books recently…

  2. Upon reading about your take on free-will, my mind rushed to the uncertainty principle. Take for example, a frog in a pond. So this frog has 2 water flies in his vicinity; one to his left and one to his right. He has the free will to choose one for his lunch. The reason he cannot choose both is because after the first fly has been eaten, the other fly is bound to escape. It will do so by taking a path that the frog cannot predict since there are infinite possibilities. This is where the uncertainty principle comes in since you cannot tell where the ‘particle’ is going to be at a particular point. So, the frog has the free will to make his next move but his will is not completely free since he cannot choose to think 2 steps down the line.

    This would require knowledge of the future and only through such knowledge can free will turn ‘free-er’.

    I believe that free will is quite a fluid concept since it can mean anything. Freedom is forever infinite, unquantifiable rather and your perspective can always broaden to enhance your insight in terms of making a decision. Given the fact that we can never truly gauge the number of potential outcomes of a scenario, our will can never truly be free. In this respect, I quite agree with your views. 🙂

  3. Here’s the Buddhist take on the subject:

    We don’t have full control over our minds because we are also subject to instincts, emotions, desires, etc; that’s the reason why you can’t simply say: “I’ll prove that I have free will by jumping out of the window!”. When reason fails, self-preservation instinct enters in scene.

    But, while our free will is not absolute, that doesn’t mean that our behavior is somehow predetermined.

    What we have is a *conditioned* free will, and, with proper training, our mind can become less conditioned and more free.

    That’s Buddhism in a nutshell. 🙂

    • That’s quite a nice way to put it! The concept of self-preservation was on the tip of my tongue and the picture’s complete and clear now 🙂

      • Thank the Buddha!

        “Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear.”

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