Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why can Free Will be neither true nor false?

Free Will is one of those things we all like to argue about but no one really knows exactly what it's actually supposed to be. I keep hearing these arguments of people defending free will as true for no apparent reason, after rejecting dualism (the idea of an immaterial self). This is starting to be a very popular stance but I don't get it, is there any possible logical meaning in that position?

People always seem to miss the first step when making up their minds. In order to question if my will is free I must first identify what it is that it's supposed to be free from. Free from my irrationality? Free from the laws of physics? Free from God?

The question usually comes up related with the laws of physics but in such a perspective, this is only the problem of dualism in disguise.

However, what I've been seeing is that free will ends up being used solely to describe unpredictability, which seems like an odd and insignificant description for a concept that involves freedom and a will. This seems to be in response to "causal determinism" that claims that all of our actions should be predictable by using the laws of physics. Why? Because of:
  1. The success of brain science in explaining processes of the mind with chemical processes in the physical brain.
  2. The success of classical mechanics in predicting with amazing precision the future behavior of any macroscopic body.
Of course, this just begs the question: if all physical reality can potentially be described in mathematical formulas and if our mind is part of that physical reality, then everything, even our own thoughts and decisions, are bound to one inescapable mathematical solution. In this view we're just part of an equation and what we call free will is simply an illusion of control.

This view seems to cause a great deal of discomfort in people so they attempt to defend free will with one of two arguments:
  1. There is an intrinsic randomness in the physical reality as the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle describes.
  2. The mind (or parts of it) is separate from the physical brain. This is called dualism.
The second alternative bypasses physical laws completely and it leaves plenty of room for the unknown as justification of the freedom of our will. My problem is with the meaning of free will after rejecting this one so let's skip it.

What about the first attempt? What it means is that, the study of the smallest things (protons, electrons, neutrons) introduced this notion that some things can't be known with certainty, that part of the information gathered can only be known as a set of probabilities. To understand this argument, it's important to understand that the uncertainty isn't attributed to our ignorance or incompetence in gathering that information but rather to an actual randomness in the way the physical world works. So if what underlies reality is a set of probabilities, we could safely say that our future isn't pre-determined but does it even matter?

If determinism is rejected does it follow that free will is true? It does if all Free Will means is unpredictability but much more is clearly implied with those two words. I believe that people got so caught up using this expression to fight determinism that the expression ended up losing all of it's meaning except the very negation of determinism. In such view, we could claim that a piece of machinery built to only do random actions is actually imbued with free will. If that's what we're describing as free will, what's the point of using those words to describe it instead of random-will or unpredictable-will, which would be much more accurate.

But the whole absurdity of the subject is much more evident much earlier if we put some thought into the kind of statements people usually make about this. What does it even mean for a non-dualist to say that “I” am in control of my destiny? What am “I” exactly? If we're just biological machinery that operate according to physical laws, what are we supposed to be free from? If free will is the idea that our will is not determined by the physical forces that describe how particles interact, then it doesn't even matter if there's randomness in those laws, our thoughts will be determined by those laws either way and not by "me" in that implied immaterial sense.

To illustrate this, take for example a book called “Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?” (notice again the immaterial usage of the word "me") again attacking dualism while claiming free will to be true at the same time. Now ignore it's content and notice the title, it seems to be a caricature of a materialist/deterministic claim but what does it even mean to ask if your neurons make YOU do it? What's YOU if not the result of YOUR neurons activity in such view? If "you" are your neurons then how can "them" make "you" do it? In such extreme, the discussion of free will after rejecting dualism starts to sound as if you're really asking if you're free from yourself, exposing the complete absurdity of the subject in this context.

So why do people insist in defending free will? I have no idea but in the end, I believe that this is one of those very popular expressions that just kept hanging around in a naturalist vocabulary without any good reason to.


  1. You are making assumptions when you say "randomness in the way the physical world works."
    Nothing is random in this universe. It only appears to be. You have to be vety broadminded and think very deeply. The universe is governed by laws: physical laws and metaphysical laws.

    What is the real identity of a living being (man, animal, plants etc.)? in other words
    "Who am I?" I am an individual spiritual conscious particle (a soul) distinct from MY body but entrapped within the body (in our case a human body).

    So I am not the body (gross matter) but I am a soul (not matter but 'conscious life force' which makes the body 'alive') and I have a body. The body is strictly speaking always dead. Life processes take place within the body (The body appears 'alive') because of the presence of the soul. When a person dies, the soul leaves the body and all processes stop.

    This is MY body. MY hands, MY legs, MY heart, MY brain, MY neurons... (continuing further to MY mind (fine or subtle matter), MY intelligence (finer matter), and MY 'false ego' (finest matter)). [False ego is very very subtle: it's the 'thing' that makes ME identify MYSELF with MY body (or MY mind) which I am not].

    So YOU are a soul (pure conscious spiritual living entity, absolutely distinct from matter) and not the body (gross matter made of skin, flesh, fat, marrow, tissues, bones, faeces, urine, mucus, bile the mind, intelligence and false ego)

    In short YOU are a soul, not YOUR body.


  2. And YOU ( a soul) have free will, given to you by God (Super-soul).