Monday, February 13, 2012

Determinism vs. Free Will

      The discussion of determinism vs. free will has been going on since the days of the Greek philosophers, and will probably never be settled. Is it possible that both views are correct? How could that be true?
Before I get into the various arguments, I want to set up the following assumptions:

(a) There is a one-to-one correspondence between the state of the brain and the subjective experience occurring at any given time
(b) Since the brain is not an isolated system, it must be part of a larger system – the body, sense organs, the body’s immediate surroundings, etc. - which obeys certain deterministic laws.

According to determinists, every move we make is dictated by our previous experiences, situations, conditions, etc. – everything which has gone before. The feeling that we select courses of action in response to immediate circumstances is an illusion. The subject can no more change the decision than a planet can change its orbit. If all our decisions are no more than the transmission of the push of the past, what becomes of responsibility? The criminal does not deserve punishment, nor does the hero deserve commendation. We are left in a world of moral chaos.
On the other hand, champions of free will also have a problem. Suppose a decision was made which was a complete break with the past. Somewhere in the brain a connection was made that led to the new decision. Some errant neuron, some straying chemical or electrical connection, some chance quantum deviation, or perhaps some creative tendency in the brain flipped the connections into a new path. But if so, is that better? the decision was determined by chance! This is even further from what we mean by free will. It is as if every decision were made by the flip of a coin.
How does the feeling of free will arise? Throughout our lives there are situations where we can exert some control over our environment, and thus achieve a desired result. We decide upon a course of action, and meeting no obstacles, we attain our goal. In other situations, some intervening event causes us to fail. We soon learn to classify all situations as one of these two types. Therefore we are free to the extent that whenever we are confronted with a situation that enables us to realize our goal, we succeed.
Free will proponents feel that this is not truly the genuine article. They are sure that true free will has no room for the assumptions as stated above. I believe this is because they perform a thought experiment and misinterpret the results. For example:

Suppose you select steak from the menu in a restaurant. After you eat your steak, you recall the experience and say to yourself, “I could have selected chicken. But instead I chose steak. Therefore, since I could have chosen chicken and decided to have steak instead, my will is free.”
 
Of course, it is immediately obvious that the final sentence begs the question; there is an a priori presumption of free will built into your reasoning.
Free will believers will point out that my original assumptions have not been proven. This is correct, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that they are true. The dependence of thinking and behavior upon brain physiology is shown by the effects of drugs, alcohol, sleep deprivation experiments or Alzheimer’s disease, among others.
Free will advocates also disbelieve the contribution of quantum deviations. After all, the experienced world is based upon an average of billions of such deviations; one deviation could not possibly lead to a macro effect. Consider another thought experiment:

A plane carrying a hydrogen bomb is flying across a highly developed continent. The bomb will be deployed at the first click of a Geiger counter. The click is completely dependent upon a chance quantum deviation, so it is obvious that such a deviation can have macro effects under the right conditions.

It does not help the free will argument to posit a supernatural cause for the altered brain state which leads to a free decision. If the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is omniscient, does He not know every detail of the future? And if God has such knowledge, are not our decisions determined? And if our wills are not free, how can God hold us morally responsible? On the other hand, if our actions are unpredictable, then God cannot be all-knowing. In addition, if our decisions are caused by random events, how can God hold us morally responsible?
In the first thought experiment, when you chose steak instead of chicken, the decision was indeed yours, in the sense that it came from inside your head. But was the state of your brain determined, was it the result of an internal event, or was it influenced by some outside event? Another thought experiment:

A toy turtle crawls over the floor because of the action of an internal spring; another is pulled by a child on a string. Does the one with the spring have free will because its actions are controlled from the inside, while the one pulled by the child is deterministic because its actions are controlled by an outside source?

      I contend that both arguments are correct as defined above. The vast majority of decisions are determined, but occasionally a creative tendency causes a change in the brain path. Whenever that happens, something new – an idea, feeling or insight – has been born.
      I have just a few words to say about moral responsibility. Along with many others, Clarence Darrow was a great believer in determinism. He contended that criminals should not be held responsible for their acts because they had no control over them. But he failed to consider that neither did those who punish them – policemen, attorneys, judges and the rest of the criminal justice system.
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      My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

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