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Free Will Be

March 8, 2010


Two fundamental philosophical concepts come to mind that are so beyond the possibility of definitive answers that most people turn to religion instead of reason to find meaning behind these questions: free will and (im)mortality.  Both are usually answered with a metaphysical set of assumptions that encapsulates the wistful longing for a beneficent god to drive away the blackness of the abyss, but the philosophical problems actually intersect in interesting ways around the concept of infinity, which is itself another serious noodle-scratcher, but one that people are usually content to leave conceptual and only vaguely defined.

For one thing, free will tends to undermine the concept of the infinite and vice versa.  If our choices are actually freely made, but still exist as certain choices that are actually made in the universe we live in, is there an actual possibility that anything could have ever been different?  If not, was the will free at all to begin with?  To clarify, consider this picture:

Choose Your Own Adventure

Sure, the context of the prompt seems to indicate that there is a choice, but the fact of the matter is that the actual sequence of the way things happen (i.e., history) is a single fixed point in the realm of possibility composed of the sum total of every choice ever made.  If so, doesn’t our free will look more like a random point in the grand scheme of all probabilistic possibilities?  Or, alternatively, isn’t there a Heisenbergian observer phenomenon where only the observer exists in that single universe of possibilities because it is the product of their own free will, while everyone else is making choices that are sending them off into their parallel universes?

Put yet another way,

If time is infinite on both ends, then we have infinite rolls of the dice of probability. That means, however infinitesimally small the probabilities that brought “you” into existence, with enough rolls of dice, “you” will come into existence again, and again and again forever. And if time is infinite in reverse, “now” isn’t the only time “you” existed.

Accordingly, “you” have always existed and always will.

In sum, infinity and free will seem to collapse into “necessity,” or “history” if you prefer to acknowledge the context of some narrative structure that is inherently imposed by virtue of the act of observation.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Benhaim permalink
    March 8, 2010 11:56 pm

    What makes you think that time is infinite in either directon?

  2. Craig permalink
    March 9, 2010 4:35 am

    I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that limitless dice rolls means that this alternate universe we inhabit is finite looking any direction but backwards. I get the premise, but I still see 8 bazillion potential universes in front of me, stemming out from this one, rather than one definite one. Even if this holds, we can’t calculate infinity (computers can’t handle the limitless variables of the human brain, neuroscience or not) and the dice rolls are unbeknownst to us anyways. I guess the “Creator” (I know you’re going to love that one) could tell us what’s going to happen, but none of us can. Accepting this argument has no effect on how I live my life in the absence of such clairvoyance.

    Furthermore, the idea that history is prefixed is not one I subscribe to. My standard argument is that Napoleon, Alexander the Great, etc. have changed the course of history as Hegel’s world historical men with their will, power, and accomplishments. Probabilistically or not, these are the real engines of change as individuals. I still believe this to be true, but what about the role of chance versus choice?

    Some of the greatest events in human history (and every movie plot ever) are the events that are extremely improbable but change the course of events. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the “What If” series, but it serves an important purpose in illustrating the massive role that chance has to play. An epidemic here, a coin-flip there, throw in a natural disaster and the world has changed unexpectedly. The superior army has lost many times to such luck, defying probabilities. You’d have to argue intelligent design or something like it to institute pure chance as the “mechanism” of history, which I’m quite certain you’re not prepared to do.

  3. slickricks permalink*
    March 9, 2010 6:19 am

    Jason, good point. Craig, excellent points as usual, and well-argued. I think both comments merit a similar response, which is to say that I disagree with neither of you, but that doesn’t really change the content of my post.

    To put it succinctly, the “determinism” I am arguing in favor of does not encompass the quality “determinable.” The Heisenbergian conundra of calculation effectively preclude the possibility that any observer could determine the infinitude of possibility and contingency that exists in the universe, let alone change one’s macro-level behavior or views on the basis of such minute calculations. When I say that we live in some fixed point in the universe, I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have agency, responsibility, or contingency. All of those things still exist precisely because or knowledge and ability to know is finite. These are epistemological issues that essentially guarantee that ethics remain untouched by quantum mechanics. Choices are made on the macroscopic level that no prediction model could possibly provide a guess at.

    However, I would still posit that the quantum mechanics makes for an interesting metaphysical point which is that our past does exist on some fixed point called “necessity” or “history” in the dimension we call “probability” (and the unfolding of our future is a further definition of what that point is). That point is arguably randomly determined, even though indeterminable by the likes of us humans. Any pretension or even notion of prediction at such a scale implies omniscience, which is why it is all the more poignant that people often refer to religion to unpack the complexity this issue entails. Indeed, I find the idea of conflating god and necessity quite palatable, which is saying a lot for an avouched atheist.

    I suppose that some idea of “determinism” is one of the least Pragmatic beliefs I hold because it really doesn’t come to affect anything in terms of human behavior at the end of the day (as Craig so eloquently points out). Free will is only technically an illusion, as it remains apparently functional precisely because of the limits of human knowledge and perception.

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