On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write This Post?

Many moons ago, I had a conversation with a marginal friend about the existence of free will–that ever important concept that reassures us that our decisions do indeed matter and that we are NOT just robots set on a track that has unalterably been laid out before us. My friend argued that free will is a mere illusion because every action has already been determined by the action before it (if I look at my keyboard, I will necessarily see the “g” key, and seeing it, I will press it, and so on). I do not choose any of these actions; they simple proceed from one cause to one effect to one cause to one effect, ad infinitum. This is problematic. If I can’t choose any of my actions, why bother doing anything? Why behave? Why seek to do good if there is no real seeking, since we’re all synchronized to a narrow system of cause and effect? I’ve brooded over this free will debacle a whole season long. The following are my findings, arranged by academic subject. Browse at your discretion (if it actually exists!).

DISCLAIMER: Okay, readers. This is about to get intensely theo-LOGIC-al. Comment now, OR forever hold your opinions.

***

PHILOSOPHY

The war over free will or no free will has ravaged the realm of philosophy from Plato to Popper. It boils down to anti-free will determinism facing off against pro-free will thought. As required of philosophical conversations, let’s define our terms.

Determinism: “The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.” as per the Stanford Philosophy Department website. [1]

In laymen’s terms: There is no free will, as all human actions and natural events are precipitated by a cause, continuing along an unbroken, singular cause and effect chain according to natural universal laws, e.g., if I drink coffee this morning, I will urinate at exactly noon, after which I will wash my hands, scratch my chin, look at my face in the mirror, contemplate the existence of free will, and, as a direct unavoidable consequence, I will blink three times, and nod twice, in an attempt to spite my predetermined path and claim that I really did have a choice to nod and blink, exactly that number of times, when in reality, drinking coffee in the morning naturally led me to do this, and I had no choice in the matter. Moreover, my decision to drink coffee was just a result of another cause, which could have no other manifested effect than my drinking of coffee. That cause is my sleep deprivation from staying up to write this post, which had its own singular cause, stemming from its own cause, ad infinitum leading back to the alleged Big Bang.

Free Will: “a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” (again, as per the Stanford Philosophy Department website [2]).

In laymen’s terms: Individuals who can think and weigh outcomes have the ability to choose one option or another when confronted with a decision-making situation, e.g., I want to buy a car, and I can choose between a blue or red car. My past experience does not lock me into an answer; I can choose one way or the other. It’s up to me.

DESCARTES AND CARTESIAN DETERMINISM

The great 17th century French philosopher René Descartes struggles with this free will conundrum in his 4th meditation from Meditations on First Philosophy [3]. Like many of us do, he exalts free will as all important: “It is only the will or free choice that I experience to be so great in me that I cannot grasp the idea of any greater faculty.” In the next paragraphs, he explains that the source of free will is God, and that in a perfect world, we would have all the knowledge that we need to make informed decisions. Whenever we have all the sufficient information, Descartes claims, we will always choose the right option. Conversely, poor decisions are only ever made when we possess inadequate information. Here Descartes seems to border on a kind of determinism: given the right circumstances (INPUT) by God, an individual will necessarily choose the right option, which is to say that they don’t really choose at all. One divine input = one human output, a 1-to-1 cause and effect chain. Still, Descartes contends that human freedom is maintained in his system of free will: “Nor indeed does natural knowledge ever diminish one’s freedom; rather, they increase and strengthen it.” Essentially, more information just helps us to freely choose the right choice. This, HOPEFULLY, moves us closer to a nuanced view of free will. Now let’s think about different kinds of choices.

CHOICES OF VARIOUS DEGREES: PIVOTAL vs. SIMPLE

Obviously, some decisions are more important than others (whom you marry vs. what you eat for breakfast). We can classify these decisions or choices into two (2) categories: (1) pivotal choices and (2) simple choices.

(1) pivotal choices are those that largely affect an individual and the surrounding, usually in an easily perceivable way. These are the choices where we really stop and think, delineating pros and cons, measuring risks, and projecting possible ramifications. When you encounter a pivotal choice, you know you’ve hit a wall. The effects can be massive, determining one’s career path, one’s health, one’s mental stability, even one’s final destination (heaven or hell) from a theological perspective. An example of just such a moral quagmire that qualifies as a pivotal choice is whether to kill or spare the life of a captured enemy soldier.

(2) simple choices are those which have little perceivable, lasting effect on the well-being, temperament, and life path of an individual–that being that they require little critical thought. Examples include whether to brush one’s teeth at 8:00 am or 8:15 am, what to eat for lunch, whether to step with one’s left or right foot initially, or how many times to blink while looking in the mirror. Of course, one can argue that when taken together, these small choices add up to manifold, critical effects: developing cancer from too many microwaved chicken nuggets; failing an admission’s test due to less-than-punctual brushing habits. However, these effects seem unlikely and are compounded over long stretched of time; individually, the decisions remain negligible in the scheme of one’s life. One could also subscribe to the untold ripples of the Butterfly Effect, but that is highly speculative.

Unlike pivotal choices, simple choices are not necessarily confined to humans. An animal can choose what it eats each day, where it nests, and so forth. These simple choices rule an animal’s survival, though: a poor nesting ground could spell the end of a toucan’s colorfully-beaked existence. However, these animals do NOT seem to weigh any of their choices, a necessary condition for pivotal choices, and, quite possibly for free will. Free will is still very much a HUMAN issue.

COSMOLOGICAL PHYSICS

I have to admit,the study of physics is NOT my forte, but it is intensely interesting. Physics has actually paved the road of determinism (no free will), as Albert Einstein was a staunch opponent of philosophical free will:

In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. [4]

This all ties into the notion of causation: one cause leads to one effect, and so on. Everything is a predetermined INPUT and OUTPUT, as in a well-functioning computer system. However, the understanding of cosmological phenomena, chiefly the groovy, interstellar oddities that are black holes, complicated the clean-cut system of cause and effect.

Black Holes: Total Insanity

The physical understanding of causation rests on the tenet that information cannot be destroyed, that it is preserved, though transferred from one form to another. This is because information must be accessible to verify causal relationships. If A + B = C, and all of a sudden B disappears, how can we prove that the relationship holds true? In the mega-gravity of a black hole, information very much seems to be swept into the abyss, creating problems for determinists.

Back when black holes were in vogue, wheelchair-bound genius Stephen Hawking and his retinue of science buddies encountered the problem of light and hence information, among other things, vanishing into the void of black holes. The question arose: Does the existence of black holes jeopardize the preservation of information and cause-and-effect relationships, if black holes truly do destroy information?

The question sparked a debate between Hawking and physicist Leonard Susskind, described in Susskind’s book Black Hole Wars (soon to be featured on the History channel’s Monday lineup #HistoryChannel’sFormulaicallyNamedShows). [5]

Hawking said, NO. Information is NOT lost in black holes. He reasoned that anti-particle-particle pairs fray at the event horizon of the black hole, such that information would escape, resulting in Hawking’s radiation of black holes. Consequently, black holes are really white, spitting back the information rather than annihilating it. [6] Perhaps black holes are worm holes to other universes, in which only white holes and no black holes exist.

Susskind said, YES. Information IS lost in black holes. He explains the dilemma via his holographic principle, which envisions the universe as truly 2-dimensional, with 3-dimensionality being an illusion of the immense size of the universe. Somehow, matter that a black hole cosmically slurps becomes lost on its 2-dimensional event horizon. However, this hypothesis is rooted in the untested grounds of string theory, a conceptual web of esoteric physics which I do not even begin to pretend to understand.

MANY WORLDS THEORY

A quantum physicist by the name of Hugh Everett III postulated a different understanding of cosmological possibility and choice with his multi-versed many worlds theory. This theory essentially posits that many possible “tomorrows” could take place, and that they actually do take place in a branching system of multiple parallel universes, one for each possible action. This applies especially to non-determinist quantum mechanical processes, such as radioactive decay, in which substances can break down in an random number of ways. [7]

Assuming that the our universe began in a Big Bang-type event, and that from this event all else followed in a neat 1-to-1 cause and effect chain (universal forces were born, hydrogen atoms form, helium arose as an element, yada-yada), the many worlds theory would postulate that many different universes branched off in other directions, as forces and elements formed differently. Even if the 1-to-1 causation holds up, one could ask whether the universe necessarily HAD to start the way that it did. Perhaps out of the initial random nothingness, any number of things could have emerged from a single CAUSE. Who’s to say that one particular cause HAD to start it all (theologians who say that the cause was God, that’s who!)? In this way, maybe a very limited free will DOES exist in the undetermined randomness of preexistence that spawned what became a predetermined universe following along a chain of 1-to-1 cause and effects that the first cause enacted.

The IMPORT of all of this into understanding free will is that black holes challenge the presumption of single 1-to-1 cause and effect relationships. Perhaps, as Everett contests, there are many possibilities that emerge from a single INPUT.

MATHEMATICS

To reiterate the cosmological physics approach to free will:

If all actions can be explained in a single, linear chain of causation, then was the original cause precipitated? Was ONLY that one original cause possible, or WAS there a realm of possible initial causes, hence indicating an extremely limited, though still present degree of freedom in the events of the universe: from an unstable state, did the Big Bang necessarily occur as it did, or were there multiple options, choices, as it were, from which the universe could choose to enact itself?

With the 1-to-1 causation relationship called into question, we can examine some mathematical models of how cause (INPUT or X) related to effect (OUTPUT or Y).

Causation 1 to 1Causation Multiple Outputs

Here we have two mathematical functions, a parabola y=x^2 and a sideways parabola, y= + or – root*(x). The first functions as a simple 1-to-1 cause and effect function. For every INPUT, e.g. -1, there is exactly one OUTPUT, e.g. 1. This is what the determinists contend as true for free will. However, even here we have an interesting feature: in a parabola, OUTPUTs are repeated: 1 is the OUTPUT of both -1 and 1. The tight-knit relationship between 1-to-1 causation is challenged by this first graph.

The second graph, also representing an INPUT-OUTPUT relationship, describes how one INPUT, i.e. one cause, can result in multiple OUTPUTs, i.e. effects. The INPUT of 1 (which we can think of as an sensory INPUT in an individual, say seeing a red car) results in two OUTPUTs, 1 and -1 (which we can think of as resultant actions by a rational individual, say buying a red car OR buying a blue car). Although the sideways parabola, a radical relation, is not technically a function, it still shows that cause and effect need not be 1-to-1, as determinists claim.

THE FREE WILL GRAPH OF MULTIPLE OUTPUT CAUSATION

Applying the principles of multiple outputs for multiple inputs, we can discuss how one cause can give rise to multiple, diverging effects, some of them good, some of them bad. Here free will has an opportunity to make its case.

The Free Will Graph of Multiple Output Causation

FreewillGraphL

where f(x) is the free will function measured in goodness outcome, and where X represents life experience, the points representing critical decision junctures, e.g. to take a particular job, to forgive someone or lash out at the person.

This graph epitomizes the lengthy discussion which I have attempted to conduct concerning free will so far. The graph tracks the life experience of a rational individual who encounters pivotal decisions at critical junctures marked by points above. Much as espoused in Everett’s many worlds theory, the individual’s life branches off into multiple possibilities, some tending toward goodness (positive Y axis), others toward evil (negative Y axis). The branching off portions of this graph take the form of what is known as a piece-wise function, in which multiple functions are strung together into a single relation. [8] Though it may seem problematic that some functions occupy the same domain (X values), this is ameliorated by the linear trajectory: an individual can’t be on two paths at once, but he or she can choose which path to take. All of these choices are affected by the same initial conditions, or causes, yet their ending effects are so different, hence emphasizing the decision making process via free will.

From the onset, the first choice doesn’t seem to generate much difference in goodness outcome: perhaps the pivotal choice was as simple as deciding to become an accountant or a salesman (not to undermine the importance of variances in business careers). However, after pivotal choice two, at around 1 life experience, the situation changes: the green C 1.2 and the dark blue C 1.1 seem to be mirror images of each other (as if to show the real parallels of parallel universes). By pivotal choice 3, at about 1.5 life experience, a new choice emerges: the red MLK path, titled thusly for its lofty goodness outcome, as per the 1960s civil rights’ leader.

By pivotal choice 5, at about 2.6 life experience things get dicey: C 1.2 forks into 3 branches: purple C 5 converge, green C 1.2, and light blue Delinquent Path, so called because of its depths of moral depravity. This choice 5 might be whether or not sell cocaine to pay the bills for that YACHT you thought that you could afford. In this case, D is yes, C 1.2 is no, and C 5 conv. is unveiling the minor cocaine smuggling ring to the police. Importantly, C 5 conv, is a converging path: it forms back up with C 1.2, such that the goodness outcomes are the same either way. This, I think, is a very reassuring message, since it states that sometimes, our decision will turn out well even between two different, albeit similar, choices. Notice again how the purple C 5 conv. path emerges at decision 11, after what I term the “sequence of rapid pivotal choices,” (points 7-10) only to converge again. Perhaps some alternate dimensions are inexplicably linked.

The sequence of rapid pivotal choices is about as close as this model comes to the causation of determinism: each pivotal action gives rise to the next; however, the individual can still choose different options, as the decisions aren’t locked in among this liberating wonderland of realized possibilities, each existing within its own spawned parallel universe, yet capable of converging back in on another path, as in C 5 conv.

This mathematically modeling aims to illustrate how multiple OUTPUTs can arise out of one set of initial conditions, resulting in moral decline or magnanimous ascent to ethical righteousness, all through the vehicle of the all important free will.

THEOLOGY

While the explanation of free will through mathematics and science delves deep into the process of choice, none of this has much currency if we don’t know why we should care. Theology offers that why in abundance.

As stated before, I am frustrated by the determinist notion of unbridled 1-to-1 causation because it removes the relevance of morality, the very premise of which is the human ability to choose actions and behaviors, either for good or for evil. Christian theology maintains that free will is paramount in human interaction, and that it allows us to live happy and fulfilling lives in line with God’s love as revealed through Scripture. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states regarding freedom:

1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.” [9]

Who doesn’t want to feel free to choose their own actions? Isn’t that a large part of why teenagers rebel against their parents, of why the Thirteen Colonies fought against the British? Free will is clearly important to how we live our lives, and it does seem practical to act under the assumption that we CAN and DO elect our own actions, through our own volition NOT through a pre-designed set of causes. However, even within the realm of theology, there are ideas that seem to conflict with free will.

PREDESTINATION

Predestination is the belief that the final destination of each human soul is preordained and known by God, as are all other events. It is primarily attributed to the 16th century Swiss-French reformer John Calvin. [10] This view does not hold up entirely to the Catholic understanding of salvation history and God’s plan for us. While God certainly knows all things, God does NOT necessarily will all things to happen: God does not pull every last puppets’ strings, as it were, from a Catholic stand point. People have a free will, and can therefore make decisions unfettered as they will. St. Paul, however, warns against the unbridled license of doing whatever one wants with this God-endowed free will:

[ The Believer’s Freedom ] “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. (1 Corinthians 10:23, NIV, 2011)
Having freedom, like having a pet dog, means big responsibility, with many potential accidents waiting to happen. This only seeks to further solidify the significance of choosing from a number of possible options or paths, such that goodness is obtained.
Although Catholic teaching grants people free will, such that they can determine their own fate, God still knows what their fate will be. Some argue that God’s omnipotence clashes with human free will. However, apologist Fr. Vincent Serpa O. P. thinks otherwise:
There is nothing to reconcile. Because you know that the sun will be in the sky tomorrow doesn’t mean that you will have caused it to be there! Even though God already knows what our free choices will be in the future, our choices are still ours and are still free. If our free choices change how the future will be, God already knows that and has known it for all eternity.[11]
Though God knows what we will do, it does not infringe on our ability to choose. Everyone knows that given the opportunity to play soccer or baseball, I always choose soccer; I still get to make that decision, of course. We are the agents of our actions, no matter that God knows what those actions will be.
Theologically speaking, free will is an incredibly vital topic which I could discuss in far greater detail. This seems to suffice for an understanding of ‘why’ free will is important and non-contradictory within the scope of Catholic thought.

EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY

In the scientific realm, free will also musters a surprising amount of vigor among scientists. While scientists as a whole do not place much credence in theological approaches to questions of human nature (42% of scientists do not believe [note that 25% identify as agnostic] in the existence of a personal God according to a 2009 Pew Research Poll), matters beyond the experimental purview of scientific empiricism still way heavily upon them. Evolutionary biologists are especially opposed to religious interference with science, as Graffin and Provine report that 78% of biologists surveyed in 2003 Cornell Study thought that religion and science should remain distinctly separate spheres. In the study, the majority of biologists rejected religious belief in question after question. YET when it came down to the existence of free will among humans, the researches may as well have been standing on their heads. Graffin and Provine explain:

Darwin concludes in the last sentence of the book[The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication], “we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination.” Darwin, however, had solved the problem of free will more than 30 years earlier; he believed it was nonexistent.

To our surprise, 79 percent of the respondents chose option A for this question, indicating their belief that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment.

The professional debate about free will has moved far from this position, because what counts is whether the choice is free or determined, not whether human beings make choices. People and animals both certainly choose constantly. [12]

A new bastion for free will coalesces through this surprising agreement between theologians and evolutionary biologists, for whom “what counts” is “whether the choice is free or determined.” There is a particular wing of this evolutionary biology that applies both to me and to this argument of free will: twin studies.

TWIN STUDIES

Twin studies are near and dear to hearts of many an evolutionary biologist for one main reason: they set as a given the same genetic make

INPUTS are EQUAL

up of two identical twins, thus eliminating the variable of genes. This is especially useful in studying the debate of nature v. nurture, as nature becomes a given for two identical twins. I think that this same elusive genetic likeness can be applied to the free will controversy by setting given INPUTS as the same for two individuals.

To start: I am a twin. My brother and I have been roommates for nearly 19 years straight, from womb to dorm. Consequently, we have eerily similar personal experiences, and nearly identical pivotal choices. What school to attend, what clubs to join, what classes to take–all the important decisions have been shared. If we negate the simple choices (choice of lunch, hair style, minor friendships), my brother and I are a scientific experimental ideal: two individuals with effectively the same givens, the same circumstances, the same INPUTS. Now, observe the OUTPUT.

Imagine the graph of the free will function again (or just scroll up). A single line slides along the graph, mostly stable, until it reaches a critical juncture. This is where my twin brother and I must decide what we are to study in college. My brother and I, like most ordinary twins, have very similar interests: we both play soccer, we both read, we both excel in school. If determinism is right, all of our similar causes should lead up to one shared effect at this juncture. There are many options for both of us–(engineering, humanities, science, art)–that, the determinists will admit. But can we really choose, or have our past experience (one shared experience) locked us in to the same choice? With all other things equal, I chose to study English, and my twin brother (with effectively the same INPUT) chose engineering. It could have just as easily been the other way around (I still like math, as per the above graphs, and my brother is an avid reader of David Foster Wallace). Yet in this instance, our collective path diverged into two.

Some would say that there were enough differences between my brother and I to set out single-stream, 1-to-1, predetermined cause and effect chain along different routes. However, I think that this study into this pivotal choice of identical twins is convincing experimental evidence that supports the case for human free will. Unless time travel becomes feasible and we can literally replay the option selection of an individual, I don’t think that the determinist-free will debate can be resolved definitively. It was worth a shot.

PRACTICALITY

Even if determinism is correct, and we all are pre-programmed to make decisions along a rickety chain of one cause to one effect, I think that the whole notion of “no free will” is a MOOT POINT. No matter what, we all have to make tough decisions, and knowing that the outcome is predetermined since the Big Bang doesn’t help us to weasel out of our predicaments. Free will, if only a falsehood, governs our lives. Perhaps scientists AND Descartes are right: given enough information, anyone’s actions can be predicted to a tee. So long as all previous causes are known a guy in a lab coat should be able to tell me when I’m gonna hiccup and in what exact order I trace my footsteps across a college quad. I don’t think that’s likely. I’m prone to thinking that things could turn out one way or entirely a different way, once we reach a crossroads. To end on a point of literature, the French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus once wrote a book called L’Estrange (The Stranger), in which a character encounters many pivotal choices and acts like a grade-D lunatic with his free will, half-heartedly attending his mother’s funeral and shooting to death an intimidating but unprovoked Arab. While in prison recounting his choices, Meursault, the aforementioned lunatic says this:

“Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something has changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.” (Part II, Chapter 3)

Thank you so much for bearing through all of this. It was a joy to write. I finished at 6:32 AM, writing all through the night. And that was a choice.

Cum Caritate,

-CDUCEY2013

Print Sources:

[3] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, “Meditation Four: Concerning the True and the False,” (1641).

[12] Graffin, Gregory W., and William B. Provine. “Evolution, religion and free will: the most eminent evolutionary scientists have surprising views on how religion relates to evolution.” American Scientist 95.4 (2007): 294+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.

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4 thoughts on “On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write This Post?

  1. Pingback: Contagious Caritas | Choose Your Own Adventure v. 1.0

  2. Brilliant and bookmarked. Will read when I get a chance. Cheers.

    Lux

  3. To add another viewpoint to this discussion of free will, the late author David Foster Wallace wrote his senior thesis at Amherst College in response to Richard Taylor’s essay against free will. His thesis was this: “Taylor has assumed a single-lined, inevitable flow from past to future — whereas, even considered logically, each point in this progression in fact splits, along the lines of possibility, into divergent strands.”
    It’s kind like the free will graph of multiple output causation.

  4. Pingback: Contagious Caritas | Contagious Caritas Reboot

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