Monthly Archives: September 2013

Free Will and the Water Park

TL;DR summary: Perfectly rational thinking is deterministic and therefore not free. Random thinking is certainly not free. A muddle of both can’t be free. There is nowhere else to look, so free will is an illusion. BTW, an immaterial soul does not solve the problem. But don’t worry; we can still have fun.

Water Slide

Island Water Park

At a recent Meetup of the philosophically inclined, we discussed destiny and free will. Someone asked, “How much control do we have over our destiny?” I cheerfully answered, “Zero.” In this post, I’d like to outline why zero, and why I was still cheerful about it.

The points I will make in support of “zero,” it turns out, are explicated at length in Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, which I was destined to read during a vacation in California, shortly after the Meetup. Harris throws in a heaping measure of neuroscience to boot, but I think an argument against free stands without that.

First let’s define what we mean by free will. What most people mean, I think, is that given the choice between a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a ham sandwich, they could in theory choose either but in the end, through a conscious act of will, they choose peanut butter and jelly. The important points are

  • both choices are genuinely on offer;
  • their choice could go either way;
  • through a conscious thought process, they choose one.

With that out of the way, let’s think about thinking. We make our decisions based on two types of thinking: the rational and the irrational. 

Rationality, as it pertains to free will, involves the conscious consideration of factors to arrive at a decision. (We can also train our unconscious to be rational, through force of habit, but when most people say they have free will, they are referring to anything but habits.)

The more rational our decisions, the less free they are. A great example is a top-notch computer chess program. It plays as rationally as can be conceived, but it has no free will because at each turn it could only play one move: the one it calculated to be optimal. Perfect rationality means perfect non-freedom.

Most of us, when we play chess, do not have the patience of a computer. We sometimes move impulsively. When we follow the causal chain far enough, we’ll inevitably find some randomness mixed with rationality.

“Why did you make that move so hastily?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I had no ideas and I had to move something.”

“If you had thought for 20 more seconds, maybe an idea would have occurred to you.”

“Maybe, but I just had to move.”

“Why now? Why not 20 seconds from now? Or a minute?”

“I don’t know.”

The player may have made his impulsive move at that time because of factors that are buried in his unconscious. Maybe when he was a child his mother only gave him a count of 10 to take his first bite of peas. Maybe the Knight subconsciously reminded him of the pony he always wanted but never got. Alternatively, there could be something truly random going on. Maybe a quantum fluctuation at one of his synapses gave just the boost he needed to complete his so-called decision. In any case, the non-rational aspect of his decision was not what we call free will.

So where is free will? It is not in the rational, for rationality constrains, not liberates, our decisions. Nor is in the irrational, for unconscious or random processes, while they may be free from the constraints of rationality, are not what we mean by free will. Nor is it in a mixture of both, for a muddle of non-free mixed with non-free must still be non-free.

Some thinkers, such as biologist Ken Miller (here and in Finding Darwin’s God), argue that the randomness of quantum mechanics leaves the door open for free will to emerge. But again, randomness itself cannot be freedom and Miller does not explain why the appearance of free will that I concede does emerge is actual free will, in the face of the common-sense objections I’ve outlined above.

Stephen Barr, in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, contends that our perceptions are internal to our brain and do not require proof. “There is a certain degree to which we must trust our experiences if we are to do any rational thinking at all, including scientific thinking,” he says on page 189. In light of the extremely counter-intuitive but proven reality of quantum mechanics, I am astonished that a physicist would say such a thing.

And by the way, introducing the notion of an immaterial soul does not help. We face the same conundrum: Does the soul make its decisions rationally or randomly? Either way, it is not free and, again, a mixture of a not-free brain and a not-free soul is even more muddled not-free.

Free will cannot be found in rationality, nor randomness, nor a muddle of both. And there is nowhere else to look. It is an illusion.

In fact, says Sam Harris, the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. If you stop to think deeply about any of your supposedly free decisions, you will realize this. Keep following the causal trail of “Why?” and you will end at “I don’t know.” Even what you thought was a free choice originates in darkness.

Does this mean that we might as well roll over and wait for death? That would be a shame, because life can be fun even if it only appears to be free.

Island Water Park

Island Water Park

I was reminded of this as my wife and I drove from San Francisco to Sequoia National Park. We passed Island Water Park, with several huge slides. Take a look at the people in the swimming pool. They are wandering around freely, but they look bored, don’t they? Other people are on the slides, careening on a fixed path toward a watery end. The fact that they have no choices does not take away from their fun in the least.