[extropy-chat] Best To Regard Free Will as Existing

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Tue Apr 3 19:59:58 UTC 2007

It was inevitable that this discussion come sooner or later to hinge right
on the point of free will.

"Inevitable?", well, not really. We really should suppose that in some
nearby alternative universes it did not do so, and that versions of us---
with whom we must totally identify---came to other decisions. They
did this on the basis of very small differences in those other universes,
such as whether or not the Exi mail server had not been misbehaving,
for example.

> Then in the same sense in Platonia, future hazards are not inevitable,
> since after all the Life game in which the hazard is or isn't avoided is
> a Platonic object and its outcome is not changed by implementing it
> physically. 

Yes, I would say that it is best not to regard our future decisions as
inevitable whether in Platonia or in a deterministic simulation  And
that's not just because it feels good, or it provides us with optimism,
or whatever, even though those things are true. It's because on any
sensible meaning of what "inevitability" *could* mean, it just isn't true
that that future events are inevitable (see next).

> More generally, I see Dennett's compatibilism as a sort of apology
> for determinism, reframing "free will" so that we can tell ourselves
> we have it even though the obvious conclusion is that it is just an
> illusion.

I claim that if one *totally* banishes from his or her consciousness
the idea of non-determinism (to the point that it is unthinkable), and
only then asks "do I have a choice?", the answer must be "Yes".
But so long as there remains even the slightest vestige of the notion
of an uncaused event, or the slightest vestige of the soul, then the
silly answer "No" may still be entertained.

(When for example, you ask yourself, do I have a choice about
regarding answering this email, the answer "No" is less informative
and less true than the answer "Yes".)

So let us assume that we have completely internalized the belief that
there are no uncaused events and there are no souls. Then what
the devil does the question "Do I have a choice" possibly mean now?

It can only mean the same as it would for a concious chess computer
in trying to decide between move A and move B. First, we know that
the calculations it makes regarding those CHOICES, and I do not
apologize for the term, will be ongoing. A huge number of factors,
e.g., whether the opponent's open rook file makes a queen side
attack too problematical, have effects. The machine must decide!
So---recalling that we have utterly and without reservation totally
gone beyond even a hint of uncaused events---this can *only* mean
that the machine is taking these factors into account, i.e., a decision
is simply "taking factors into account". (What else could it be?)

That is all that a "choice" can *possibly* mean.  It is absolutely wrong
to conceive of choice as anything but taking a huge number of factors
into account, and doing extensive calculations of the various alternatives.
But then, the only possibility is that the machine is free to choose....
unless indeed an external agent is forcing it to make one move as
against the other,  e.g., that external agent is not permitting all the
factors to affect the decision that normally would be affecting the
decision.  ("You will lose to Botvinnik in round 6, or else go to
Siberian labor camp.")

Does the program have free will?  Well, what can that possibly mean?
I claim that the denial of the statement "the machine has free will" has
taken us right back to an unconscious assumption that there could be
uncaused events. But we are supposed, now, to be beyond that.
Therefore, we must interpret the question accordingly, and so it
must mean, "are the factors contributing to the decision all coming
into play?".  If the answer is yes---i.e., the computer is free to make
up its mind without external compulsion---then it has to be said that
the computer's will is free (remember, we have absolutely internalized
that there are no uncaused decisions).

> In other words, if in fact free will were just an illusion due to the
> fact that we don't know what we're going to do until we do it,

(and I say that it ought not be regarded as an illusion, for so doing
sneaks back in the idea that there could be souls and uncaused events)

> how would the universe, or our experience of it, be any different?
> If the answer is "it wouldn't",

I'd maintain that it is not conceivable that free will is an illusion, when
what HAS to be meant by the phrase is as explained above

> then what purpose is served by the concept of free will other than
> to make us feel better?

It serves the purpose of identifying who or what made a decision.
Either I can go visit the prison by my own free will, say as a reporter
and thus exercise my free will, or I can be arrested and forced to go
to prison, in which case my free will has been abrogated

> I am quite happy to drop not only free will but also ideas such as
> absolute morality,

I'm with you there. Though people should understand that since there
*can* be no absolute morality, what morality that we do have is still
extremely important, must be defended vociferously, and cultivated,
and perhaps even violently imposed on others with great passion.

> At the same time, I am quite happy to continue living my life as if all
> these things are in fact real, and I think it is better to live an illusion
> rather than a delusion. 

I still think that it's possible, by a careful consideration of what is true,
to frame our notions (in the only ways possible) as reflections of that
reality. Once that is done, and the terms obtain their (only) sensible
meanings, then "having choices", "making decisions", "exercising free
will", etc.,  ought not to be regarded as illusions, for they are not.
They're just descriptions, after all, which is all that they properly
*ever* have been.


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