A Case for Free Will

A Case for Free Will


I have a friend whom I respect and admire as a rational man of intelligence and insight. He disdains belief in the supernatural. He rejects the idea of a God who intervenes in natural process. He subscribes to the notion that whatever happens is the result of natural cause. That there is nothing outside of nature. That superstition is the refuge of the ignorant. I agree with him on all these issues.

But on the issue of free will vs. determinism he is unswayable. He believes that free will exists; that it is not an illusion.

He insists that the decisions he makes come from something beyond what is accessible to science. From beyond natural cause! That choice arises from unexplainable sources – not computable by science. He insists that there is a fundamental residue in nature that is beyond the reach of science. Not everything of coercion by nature is ‘computable’. “There are elements of nature inaccessible to knowability and these elements produce free will”, says my friend.

As to his decisions being coerced by nature and thus determined by it he rejects this. “There are coercions you can’t predict,” says he. Some behavior is not figure-outable. From that comes ‘free will’.

Among his words there are no specific references to the supernatural. But their import is surely an appeal to the supernatural. If nature governs without exception, can there be a hidden residue where it does not govern? Since we are part of nature must we not be governed also by its imperatives? So the argument for a resevoir of free will – barricaded from nature – is no more than a recasting of the supernatural. But by the use of language like ‘non-computable’ the notion is made to appear scientific.

I believe free will is an expression of our ignorance of the cause of our actions. But this ignorance, although steadily decreasing, covers what is, in fact, completely determined by nature. That is the content of the behavior circle. Whereas my friend believes that there is a kernel of nature inherently inaccessible to inquiry – the seat of free will.

To me his argument lacks logic. Evidently the idea of free will is very precious to my friend – something that must be preserved. As must also a disdain for supernatural belief be preserved in his cache of values. But, in fact, the two are not compatible.

Is this a case of ‘commitment bias?’ Sometimes the need to preserve a prejudice overcomes rationality. Or a case of ‘wishful thinking’ in wanting inconsistent outcomes? That a supernatural free will be natural. Our minds are such tricky things.





3 responses to “A Case for Free Will”

  1. A friend

    A case for free will

    The question of free will isn’t one that has particularly interested or bothered me – I haven’t much thought about it. But when asked by Marvin if I believed in free will, the answer was quickly “yes” and on a sort of computational intuition.

    To me, the question starts with the notion of what it might mean to NOT have free will. For Marvin, (I think) it means that there are causal links behind everything that happens in the universe — and certainly not some vague personally-intervening supernatural being. Thus, everything has a cause. I don’t disagree with that, while fully admitting we humans don’t and likely never will understand all the causes.

    However, I view the not-having question a bit differently. To me not having free will means that there is some entity (being, organization, computer, etc. etc.) that can predict and thus perfectly control every thought, decision, etc. I might have.

    I doubt this is possible.

    So, we both don’t believe in supernatural beings – but interpret that differently with respect to free will. My friend believes all outcomes are caused – and thus there is no free will. I believe nothing can track all these causes and outcomes in advance – and thus deprive me of free will.

    Indeed, it isn’t clear that the universe must be self aware any more than we are self aware (we’re clearly not).

    To the extent that I am part of the “computational power” of the universe, I add some element of variety that is at least somewhat inaccessible to myself (subconscious) and likely even less accessible to some super duper entity trying to simultaneously track every particle, thought, and neural state of the universe.

    There is enormous complexity within just the connections in a single mind. Some have claimed to have run the numbers and consider it the single most complicated thing in the universe. In any case there are seven billion of us and not unlikely more elsewhere in the universe. Who or what is going to predict (and thus control) the next nano-second’s state of all that?

    In addition countless decisions and events rest on a knife edge. That is, they can go one way or another in ways that appear (if not are) random. The notion of chaos theory is relevant as perhaps “decisions” right down to the quantum level (particle? wave?). Just the personal decision we sometimes make to flip a coin and the outcome of that coin flip are largely unpredictable in advance.

    The metaphor of “computing” the future illustrates this way of looking at free will. There is likely no computer with enough computing power (other than the entirety of the universe itself) to determine what’s next in perfect detail. And, indeed, I and you are some small part of that universal computer. I don’t see how any entity within the universe could possibly either predict or control me in all detail (thus depriving me of some element of free will), especially since some small subroutines of that “computer” are better known (and developed over time by me) than (at least presently) to any “one” outside me or you.

    It always helps me to try to ground abstract questions in reality.

    Suppose there is a powerful deity pointing a gun at me and asking for my wallet. There is a very good chance they’ll get it, just as a mortal robber might assume. I’m largely determined by external circumstances, my upbringing, my personal risk assessments, how much alcohol I’ve recently had to drink, etc. However, there is an effectively infinite variety of cases. Perhaps the gun wielder looks ghostly pale, the gun looks a toy, I’m trained in martial arts, it appears I’ll be shot anyway, and so on. At some point there will be a case where the shooter misjudges my compliance, regardless of how much information that divine shooter appears to have. Given the universe’s largest computer and deep knowledge of all the causes and effects – this deity will sometimes get this prediction wrong. Therein lies what (to me) must be called free will.

    There is a variant of the free will question that DOES interest me and that is, “to what extent can we predict the future?” To me, perfect prediction would be the end of free will. At the same time, better prediction (of financial crashes, climate, political intentions, etc.) would be highly useful and worth pursuing. We achieve useful levels of prediction in some limited fields (such as seismic engineering).

    I doubt though, that prediction can ever be perfect. Even in such relatively simple cases as predicting the recent NCAA men’s basketball brackets – combined with Warren Buffet’s $1 billion dollar wager — there was no one to predict this relatively simple future. In a way, some 500 or so basketball players (those from 64 teams) exerted their “free will.”

    To me, the existence of a perfect predictor would be a deity. Neither I nor my friend believes such a deity exists; though likely concluding so for different reasons.

    1. Thank you, friend, for taking the time to articulate your viewpoint on this so esoteric and impractical subject. Your words are eloquent and meaningful. You write:

      To me not having free will means that there is some entity (being, organization, computer, etc. etc.) that can predict and thus perfectly control every thought, decision, etc. I might have.

      Succinctly put, our friend is saying

      Free will = You can have a thought that no entity can predict.

      Introducing an entity seems to me a distraction. What is such an entity if not “some vague personally-intervening supernatural being,” in which our friend professes not to believe? A metaphor for God.

      Nature can predict an event. It does so simply because nature causes it to happen. No being, organization or computer is needed.

      The pendulum in a clock swings back and forth periodically. The motion is predictable. But no entity is doing the predicting. No entity need drive the clock by computation. The pendulum carries out nature’s prerogatives because that is the physical nature of pendula. An entity that computes and thus determines the future, as a person might program a computer, is some supernatural notion that is artificial to the discussion. That nature functions without such an entity is precisely the essence of atheism. Atheism is an axiom on which this discussion is predicated and to which our friend claims to adhere.

      Our friend writes:

      There is likely no computer with enough computing power … to determine what’s next in perfect detail. .. I don’t see how any entity within the universe could possibly either predict or control me in all detail (thus depriving me of some element of free will).

      No entity, with or without computing power, is controlling you in any detail – much less in “perfect detail”. What you do is simply carry out the imperatives of nature while calling it free will. The pendulum, if asked, would say, “I’m happily doing what I choose to do. Swinging rythmically back and forth. I don’t choose to swing erratically.”

      Our friend’s quoted words imply that he views himself as under the control of some entity albeit not under its total control. This is the Christian view of the world. That a fully omnipotent God gave us free will. That He gave us choice, even though He can control everything. This is precisely the self-contradictory religious narrative that generates atheism among the thoughtful. See God Determines post.

      In summary, to me the argument offered seems to lack logical consistency. It presents a view of nature that professes to reject the supernatural while, in fact, embracing the supernatural. The supernatural is simply masked under technical terminology – entities doing computing and thus controlling events.

  2. A friend

    Replace “entity” with nature.

    I doubt that nature itself (or any subset of nature, such as my metaphor of the universe’s most powerful computer or most religions’ notion of of an all-powerful god) can predict its own future — even though it may well cause it.

    Personally, I count myself among nature’s causal bits, do think it’s often possible to do better than chance at predicting some things — but doubt there is an all-powerful predictor, including my friend Marvin’s “nature.”

    So what it comes down to is I suspect there is nothing (including as much of nature that might possibly be grasped) that can predict the future in perfect detail. Marvin, my friend, only puts nature in this god-like role.

    I’ll try another metaphor — the old one of the universe as a clock works. One might see the universe and everything in it as an infinite set of gears, each deterministically driving the outcome of the others. In this case, the future would be pre-ordained, predictable — and free will an impossibility. In the real world, my experience is that some bit of every gear works inevitably wears, slips, jumps a tooth, etc. Even what we know of nature (quantum effects, chaos, knife-edge decisions) suggests no such clockworks keeps eternally perfect time.

    I’m happy to agree, though, that I won’t be around to keep time for an eternity; much less grasp it.

    I’d add that I suspect few people would want to live in a world in which the future were entirely predictable. Of what use would a life be, then?