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September 23, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

Do humans have free will?

Is the universe and humanity within it deterministic?

Why choose a philosophy which makes your choice irrelevant in the first place?
Our mere ability to have this discussion suggests the importance of consciousness, choice, and the value of humans. The alternative is a deterministic worldview which treats us like billiard balls rather than the complex choice bearing individuals we appear to be based on the evidence available to us as human, philosophers, and scientists.

The World is a Stage:
We both act in the world and are acted upon. Ultimately, to my knowledge, we can’t verify via science either way. However, irrespective whether free will exists or not–we should act as if free will exists. (Which incidentally seems to be the larger question….at least to me….). If only because it makes life more enjoyable and fulfilling, but also because it makes ideas like responsibility a core. It give meaning to our desires to protect women and minorities from the dehumanization that others might. This resonates with the power and possibility that lies in the universe and in humanity.

The Value of Hope
Further, the argument for hope is compelling. That a world with hope and acting as if hope is a possibility makes more sense than acting as if there is an all controlling force in our chemistry. If we act like that, we would resemble some of the scenes from Lord of the Flies.

Argument Fail: Science Whether Chemistry or Biology Can’t Exclude Freewill and Choice
The core of this question has a far, far larger burden of proof. To say that genes, biology, or chemistry shape who we are doesn’t mean they determine who we are or to what extent that is the case (its a continuum if you will). This means that 99% of the answers here simply don’t answer the question.

For instance, chemistry wouldn’t be able to say if choice existed or not–it simply is not geared to make a determination of this philosophical query. If there is a study from chemistry or elsewhere that says otherwise, I would like to read it. The hidden or embedded premise that “chemistry can explain everything about humans and life” is a bit dubious. As such, chemistry in one sense begs the question of choice–almost in the same way that math begs the same question with respect to this answer. Chemistry isn’t a science capable of detecting human choice–which suggest using it as evidence is a bit of a fool’s errand.

However, the unpredictability of scientific results (aka the margin of error in experiments which involve human subjects and perhaps even animal subjects) suggests some force other than chemistry is at work, which further suggest chemistry alone is a poor tool to determine the answer–and further suggests a detectable degree of indeterminacy–which might just be choice.

Also, I imagine despite the correlations, that many chemists still believe in the notions of human choice. If you read the literature on soft determinism its far, far more convincing than the literature on hard determinism which relies on radical conspiracy theories which are extremely hyperbolic and lack connection to how we experience reality in our daily lives.

The Paradox of Determinism
James, oddly, an agnostic or atheist makes the following argument about the apparent pluralism in the world, ethics, and regret:

The only consistent way of representing a pluralism and a world whose parts may affect one another through their conduct being either good or bad is the indeterministic way. What interest, zest, or excitement can there be in achieving the right way, unless we are en- abled to feel that the wrong way is also a pos- sible and a natural way,—nay, more, a menacing and an imminent way? And what sense can there be in condemning ourselves for taking the wrong way, unless we need have done nothing of the sort, unless the right way was open to us as well? I cannot under- stand the willingness to act, no matter how we feel, without the belief that acts are really good and bad. I cannot understand the belief that an act is bad, without regret at its hap- pening. I cannot understand regret without the admission of real, genuine possibilities in the world. Only then is it other than a mockery to feel, after we have failed to do our best, that an irreparable opportunity is gone from the universe, the loss of which it must forever after mourn.

When picking your worldview on this question–it just makes sense to err on the side of choice. Determinism requires humans to act like robots,
but the experience of life isn’t robotic, despite patterns of behavior (realize I’m carving out distinctive middle ground here). Infinite regresses on other possibilities don’t seem particularly constructive–except to say that we have amazing imaginations which tremendously powerful and flexible engines.

So do humans have free will? Are we responsible for our actions? Do we live in an indeterministic universe? Which worldview is more coherent or makes more sense?

End Notes:
I believe this later concept is in Isaiah Berlins Four Essays on Liberty–but I’m not honestly sure. ( Link to Isaiah Berlin on Summary on Wikipedia)
I’m curious if Rene Descartes would have also proclaimed–I experience life as a choosing being–therefore I am. (Link to Rene Descartes summary on Wikipedia)


Leave a Comment
  1. Nathan Ketsdever / Dec 13 2011 11:28 am

    In addition to the arguments on experience. We have a contrast, we know what organic organisms feel like and look like. Moreover, organic organisms tend to last longer than mechanistic ones.

    There is also a paradox–without a determiner–there doesn’t seem like there could be a determinism. For instance, we know it takes a lot to set someone up for a crime–whether successfully or not–to set up a 100% deterministic universe (and go to the trouble of keeping it from the inhabitants) seems not only absurd. At a minimum our notions of “determinism” are shallow–and room for choice OR chance means that (the number of functions that includes is mathematically beyond comprehension) its not deterministic. The burden of proof for proving this argument could not be bigger–its an impossibility. Its on the order of proving gravity to be false (or infinity to equal something other than infinity).

  2. Nathan Ketsdever / Dec 13 2011 11:52 am

    At one place in “The Paradox of Determinism” James also leaves open the possibility of reality being more like a “common stock corporation” where individuals have partial, but not complete control.

    I found his defense of absolutely no determinism not defensible (based on science or perhaps other realms of human inquiry that he doesn’t address.) I believe he only speaks to 3 areas (nature, cosmos, & science at coherent) and the ethical as coherent. Although, I’m a little hazy how this fits.

  3. Nathan Ketsdever / Dec 18 2011 1:09 pm

    Michael Gazzaniga is a Professor of Psychology and the Director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara.

    He’s a neuroscience who I believe is a soft-determinist–but certainly advocates free will. If you search on YouTube you can find his Gillford Lecture which is an hour long on this topic (his analysis starts at about 22 minutes to roughly 44 minutes).

    Early he references Eccless & McKay.

    “Determinism has supplanted dualism in the brain sciences, yet falls short of explaining our behavior and our sense of personal responsibility and freedom.” Michael Gazzaniga

    “Determinism in the physical sciences has been challenged by the principle of emergence.” Michael Gazzaniga

    “The renunciation of the ideal of causality in atomic physics…has been forced upon us…”
    Niels Bohr, Gifford Lectures 1948-50

    “I believe that indeterminism that is necessary, and not just consistently possible. ”
    Wener Heisenberg, Gifford Lectures 1955-56

    “Yes! Physics has given up….(he continues)” Richard Feynmann

    “The ability to reduce everything to fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of fundamental laws, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society.”
    Philip W. Anderson, 1972
    on the issue of emergence

    “What we are seeing is a transformation of worldview in which the objective understanding of nature by breaking down into even smaller parts is supplanted by the objective of understanding how nature organizes itself.” (how nature organizes itself being the issue of self-organization)
    Robert Laughlin,
    Nobel Prize, 1972

    He talks about how emergence is accepted elsewhere, but not in neuroscience. We don’t live in a clock-like universe.

    Understanding of cars vs. understanding of traffic.

    “Brains are not free, [but] people are free.” Michael Gazzaniga

    “Analysis of brains cannot illuminate the capacity for responsibility, a dimension of life that comes from social exchange establishing rules.”
    Michael Gazzaniga

    He provides a comparison to an Amish barn raising (ie emergence).

    David Krakauer at Santa Fe Institute (how to get from micro-A to macro-B)

    Krakauer also makes the argument that the actions we perceive are absolutely critical for communication. (ie they could suggest a false positive in terms of determinism).

    At around 46 he starts talking about the science (genotype & phenotype….in seedlings & trees)–opens up the possibility of downward causation (he speaks of an epigenetic mileu).

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