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

Stathis Papaioannou stathisp at gmail.com
Wed Apr 4 06:03:55 UTC 2007

On 4/4/07, Lee Corbin <lcorbin at rawbw.com> wrote:

> 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.

You could say that, or you could say that the silly answer "yes" should be
banished once you have understood the impossibility of something being
neither determined nor random, which is (I believe) the common notion of
free will.

(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".)

But I know that I don't have a choice; I was destined to answer it, but I
just didn't know it until after the fact. If there are multiple branching
universes at each decision point, from my point of view which universe I end
up in is indeterminate, but from an external observer's point of view events
still unfold in a perfectly deterministic manner, and nothing I do can
change the measure of different outcomes.

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?)

It *can't* mean anything else. But then, the concept of a "decision" becomes
trivialised. If I push my pen off the desk, the pen takes into account all
the forces acting on it and "decides" to fall; had the forces on it been
different, it would have "decided" differently. Is the pen exercising free
will? Is an intelligent agent subject to deterministic laws any more free
than the pen is?

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.")

What if the chess player is told that his brain has been manipulated so that
he will either deliberately throw the game or try his hardest in round 6,
but he is not informed which way the manipulation has gone? He will no doubt
still feel perfectly free, and whatever way he plays will feel that he could
just as easily have decided to play differently: but that is the subtle and
insidious nature of the manipulation. Ordinary life is exactly analogous to
the situation of the hapless chess player.

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).

The only difference I can see between external compulsion and internal
compulsion is that in the former case you are aware that you are being
compelled, and resent it. A really powerful and skilful dictator would make
his subjects do exactly what he wants them to do while letting them think
all the while that they are making free choices; this is the ultimate aim of

> 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)

You seem to be implying that an illusion must have at least potential
reality, but I don't see why that has to be so.

> 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

It becomes a matter of semantics, in that case. If you still believe that
"free will" applies in the example of the chess player I have given above,
then we agree, although we are calling it different things.

Stathis Papaioannou
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