Free Will and Fatalism

In my last two posts, I have argued that we don’t have the contra-causal free will that most people vaguely think we have. A good friend read the posts and told me, “Beagle, beagle, beagle: your logic is impeccable, but you’re not going to convince anyone. We feel we have free will and we must act as if we have it.”

Before I respond, let me digress to the amazing world of emergent phenomena. Emergence happens when a system composed of relatively simple things gives rise to something more complex and usually unexpected. For example, thought arises out of the interaction of billions of neurons in our brains. Each neuron has only the most rudimentary awareness of its immediate environment, and no idea what we’re thinking about. Yet, coherent thoughts emerge. Who could predict this would happen?

It’s so mysterious that it’s tempting to call thought an illusion, but it’s not. Not quite. (If an illusion has the power to act on itself, can it really be an illusion? Read I Am a Strange Loop for more fun with this.) In fact, unless you are a biologist or chemist, it is more useful to consider people’s thoughts than to focus on their neurons.

So it is with free will. It’s useful to think of compatibilist free will (the sort of free will I argue we do have) as an emergent property very similar to thought, of which it is a close cousin.

It would be a shame to give up on thinking because thoughts are “nothing more than” the firing of neurons. In one sense that is all they are, but in an important sense thoughts are much more than that. They are specific patterns of firing, which can be analyzed and cultivated much more effectively if we forget about the neurons.

Same for compatibilist free will. Even though it is “nothing more than” an emergent property of cause and effect in our brains, it would be a shame to be as utterly fatalistic as that seems to warrant.

The fact that our free will subject to cause and effect is no reason to give up on life. Cause and effect is good. Who wants to be random?

8 responses to “Free Will and Fatalism

  1. Good stuff. Just don’t get in the habit of throwing “emergence” at unexplainable things, the way theists do with “mystery,” and telling yourself you’ve dealt with the problem.

    • The purpose of using the term emergence is to counter the “Fallacy of Division”. Just because aircraft parts can’t fly doesn’t meant that planes can’t fly. Likewise bird parts and birds. It’s obvious they do fly, and precisely because of emergent properties. The whole is greater than the parts.

      In fact, I could invoke this point in both cases, whether I know how planes and birds work or not. It is not making an attempt at explanation. It’s just showing that reasoning the flows like, “Neurons are not conscious” therefore “Human brains are not conscious” is invalid.

      So it is not committing a fallacy but removing one.

  2. I wish I had said “unexplained” rather than “unexplainable.” Who knows what we might one day be able to explain?

  3. Hmmm, I think “emergence” is a bit of a mystery Also, as a Christian I don’t use the term “mystery” to imply that a problem is dealt with; rather I use it to say that I don’t have or know of an explanation for something that I believe is real. There are many mysteries in life, not just religious ones. But I speak the obvious.

    • “I think ’emergence”’ is a bit of a mystery”. – Charlie

      I don’t find it mysterious.

      Think of a simple example. Do you think it is a mystery that a square, which is composed of one dimensional straight lines is 2 dimensional? Obviously no single line has two dimensions yet the square has the emergent property of having another dimension.

      Also if you have a square block of wood, then shave it’s corners round then it has the emergent property of being able to roll. A property that wasn’t true of the square block. You also get some shavings that work well as kindling, which was not true of the block of wood. “Rolling” is not a property of the separate wood fibers either if you’ve ever dealt with wood pulp.

      You can go further using several pieces of wood to make all sorts of fancy contraptions including wood ball bearings, levers, etc. You can make a wooden clock, for instance. The emergent behavior of keeping time is not in the individual components.

      Here is a video of a wooden clock:

  4. Good examples of “emergence”, Brian. Thank you for clarifying it. When it comes to firing of neurons leading to conscious thought and self-awareness, saying that this is emergence only seems put a name to it that we can associate with other concrete phenomena (which is helpful); but I don’t think it explains how it happens. It actually seems more like transcendence. It’s still largely a mystery for me.

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