2013-08-29

A Long Post On Free Will

After hammering out some details of my position on free will with the excellent contributors to the Google+ Philosophy community, I now want to revisit my thoughts and some of the (friendly) criticism I received there.

First, let's review the three propositions from which I built my belief in free will:
  1. The future is uncertain.
  2. At any point in time, and under any set of circumstances, we have choices about the specific action we will take.
  3. The specific choices we make alter the future in material ways.
Most everyone agreed with points 1 and 3. Those who disagreed did so on point 2 only.

The Cogito Model
After doing some reading and thinking, I discovered that the idea I was trying to work out in my head seems to correspond to something called the Cogito Model, developed by Bob Doyle. On Doyle's website, part of which appears to be an electronic form of his book, Free Will: The Scandal In Philosophy, Doyle describes - but does not conclusively prove - a model of the mind with specific emphasis on how free will might exist in universe that is fully consistent with everything we presently know about quantum mechanics and cognitive science. I find Doyle's reasoning highly persuasive and compelling, but this may simply be due to the fact that it formally confirms a theory I was already attempting to build on my own.

Doyle's Cogito Model maintains some important concepts. The first big one involves accepting scientific knowledge. This means that the universe operates according to the laws of physics, including quantum mechanics. That, in turn, implies that the future is stochastic, i.e. there is some random variation in the way it plays out at the quantum level; but that this random variation nonetheless adheres to the laws of physics, and are hence predictable within reasonable probabilistic parameters.

The second important concept, the one that enables Doyle to accept free will, is somewhat complex, but might be condensed as follows: The ideas that occur to us are an example of random variation, but our ability to choose among an array of ideas when confronted with a decision is a level of "adequate determinism."  Whenever we have an idea, it may have come to us as a result of some prior event or experience (and is in that sense deterministic), but the fact that it occurs to us as a possibility for the future, which we may or may not choose means that our ultimate decision impacts the future stochastically (and is in that sense a matter of chance).

Adding this all up results in a description of free will that is difficult to argue against. The universe is random and stochastic on one level and "adequately deterministic" on another level. As Doyle puts it:
Adequate Determinism is the kind of determinism we have in the world. It is a statistical determinism, where the statistics are near to certainty for large objects. Adequate Determinism also includes indeterminism, an irreducible property of the microscopic quantum world. 
There is actually no strict determinism at any "level" of the physical world. Determinism is an abstract theoretical ideal that simplifies physical systems to allow the use of logical and mathematical methods. The macroscopic "determinism" we see is the consequence of averaging over extremely large numbers of microscopic particles. 
Adequate determinism is the determinism of Newtonian physics, capable of sending men to the moon and back with astonishing accuracy. It is the determinism of those physiologists who think that quantum uncertainty is insignificant in the macromolecular structures of cell biology.
As I Was Saying...
With the Cogito Model in mind, we can return to my three propositions. Point 1 corresponds to Doyle's description of choice, which fully accepts modern quantum mechanics. Point 3 corresponds to Doyle's concept of "adequate determinism." Thus, point 2 corresponds to Doyle's Cogito Model for free will.

Here, it is worth noting that even if the Cogito Model is "technically" incorrect - even if the determinists are correct and free will is nothing more than an illusion of human consciousness - it still provides an accurate description of practical human consciousness. That is, the logic is valid even if it isn't true.

For that reason, I find my brief exposure to Doyle's model incredibly useful, and a compelling argument in favor of free will.

Conclusion
The debate is hardly over, of course. There are compelling arguments against free will and moral responsibility. One important consideration of such arguments, however, is whether they present an attractive view of the world. A world in which consciousness and choice are illusions produced by deterministic events that may have initiated years before even our own birth, in which we are responsible for exactly none of our own actions, is a world with very little purpose.

And when I say "purpose," I don't mean that in a spiritual way. I mean simply that the any belief that leads us to conclude that all our thoughts and feelings are illusory is inherently an example of what I call practical nihilism. The natural end point to nihilism is self-annihilation. So I am not yet ready to surrender on free will just yet.