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

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Fri Apr 6 04:49:01 UTC 2007

Stathis writes

> Sent: Tuesday, April 03, 2007 11:03 PM

>> 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.

True.  Your post has made me see the symmetrical nature of
whether or not to accept 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.

You probably meant to write "But I know that I *didn't* have a 
choice". It is precisely use of the present tense in denying choice
that so aggravates us compatibists.

>> 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.

Good point. Yet for the sake of coherent descriptions of the world
around us, we do want to reserve some qualities for people and
other complex machinery;  "to be conscious", for example, as well
as "to make decisions". 

> Is the pen exercising free will? Is an intelligent agent subject to
> deterministic laws any more free than the pen is?

I agree that an intelligent agent is no freer from deterministic laws
than is the [falling] pen. On that score, you make a very good point.

But my point is that it's very descriptive and exceedingly useful to
describe our ontology as containing creatures like ourselves who
"decide" things, who make "choices" and "decisions", and whose
will is free unless it's constrained by situations or agents that
interfere with its usual processing.

> 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 propaganda.

That's a very good point, and a good example. It results from 
a change in viewpoint, and also a change in ease of prediction,
two very, very important points.

I mentioned also tonight that from a certain point of view, one
can control what happens in the past. Depending on the situation,
this is not an entirely absurd view.

But here is another nice qualification:  recall that your behavior
is probably unpredictable in principle.  As a chaotic system,
there is no shortcut to obtaining your future states other than
by running the calculation, in which case you are conscious
anyway.   When---as in your example---there *are* shortcuts,
e.g., what a person feels after being exposed to the dictator's
propaganda, is entirely predictable, then even we compatibilists
would refrain from heartily endorsing that one's will was free.

>> 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

Here I will do the unusual step of mocking my own stance.
I very well could have contrived an argument proving God's
existence in the same way.  I could have said "clearly
there there can be no supernatural forces, the only admissable
concept of God doesn't have supernatural attributes, and
didn't make these obviously false historical gestures. Therefore
if we smartly interpret "God" to mean, say, "the sense of 
Spirituality", then clearly God exists.

So I back down from my position (do other people on this list
every do this?) and admit that the notion of "free will" has as
many disadvantages as advantages.

I will end by suggesting that either statement:

     (A) free will does not exist
     (B) free will does exists

are no more meaningful than saying that "Julius Caesar is prime".
(Neither than nor its negation is true.)

>> 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.

That is so.


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