One Finite Planet

Free Will: An Essential, But Dangerous, Illusion.

Table of Contents

Is there such a thing as freewill? Aren't we just complex chemical reactions where the results of the reaction are entirely determined by the ingredients?

An Essential Illusion.

Putting aside for the moment the question of whether we do have free will or not, how would live your life believing you have no free will? This would mean no real ability to make any choice, and that any time you you felt made a choice between options, in reality, the option you chose was determined from the outset.

Believing in free will helps people exert control over their actions. This is particularly important in helping people make better decisions and behave more virtuously.

For instance, research has found that promoting the idea that a person doesn’t have free will makes people become more dishonestbehave aggressively and even conform to others’ thoughts and opinions. And how can we hold people morally responsible for their actions if we don’t believe they have the free will to act any differently? Belief in free will allows us to punish people for their immoral behaviors.

Believing in free will makes you feel more like your true self: Existential Psychology Lab, Texas A&M

The point of the above study is that, regardless of whether there is freewill or not, belief in freewill is positive and desirable.

However, in the end, if we have a choice as to whether to believe in freewill or not, then free will must exist, so choosing to believe is essential!

But Is Freewill An Illusion?

Fate and Determinism.

The concept of fate is that no matter what path you choose, you will reach the same destination. Thus the concept of fate requires that freewill does exits, and even though some eventual outcomes are predetermined, the steps to those outcomes are subject to choice.

Determinism however, allows for not choice at any stage. Think of a chemistry experiment at school. For a given set of ingredients and conditions, the outcome is completely predictable. But isn’t the universe just one huge and complex chemical reaction?

Determinism is the philosophical view that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes

Wikipedia.

Knowledge of every causal factor for every action in the universe, is not possible while within the universe due to the problem of recursion, as storing that knowledge would require its own universe. This means, that since we exist within the universe, we cannot possible predict the future of the entire universe, even if the view of determinism is correct, and there is only one possible future.

As in the philosophy of determinism, every event is determined entirely by previous events, then time is lineal with a single timeline for the universe. While time travel in such a universe should be possible, whether time travel does ever happen has already be determined.

Enter Quantum Physics And Random Events.

Determinism is based on the premise that given the exact some conditions, there will always be the same result. In current quantum theory, there is the same probability of result, but no certainty.

A physicist walks into a bar and he orders a beer for himself, and one for the empty stool next to him. He finishes his drink and then leaves. The next day he returns to the bar, and again offers a beer to the stool next to him before finishing his drink and leaving. After a week the bartender finally asks, “Why in the world do you keep offering that stool a beer?” The physicist replies “The laws of physics dictate that there is a finite possibility that at some point, the matter above this stool could reform into a beautiful woman, who would then accept the drink.” The bartender is puzzled for a second before replying, “The bar is full of beautiful women. Why not see if one of them will accept your drink?” The physicist quickly laughs before saying “What are the odds of that happening?”

Physics Joke, and yes it was retold on the Big Bang Theory.

Quantum physics concludes that at the “macro” scale, the probabilities become overwhelming of the outcomes Newtonian physics dictates, but they are still probabilities, not certainties. This probability in place of determinism is even quoted as supporting the possibility of free will as quoted on Wikipedia.

However, just as the physicist at the bar is not likely to see his beautiful woman materialise, we are still unlikely to see significant variations in outcomes, suggesting possibly on a very small amount of free will on this basis. For example, radioactive decay is random at the quantum level of the individual atom, but this does not stop us being able to accurately predict the half life of an element, and it may mean that statistically, the change of an individual demonstrating ‘free will’ are negligible.

Further, all events appear random when the variables determining the outcome cannot be known. If you could roll a dice in still air with precise velocity, then the outcome could be predicted. Computer programs just always look to external events outside program control to access values controlled by events unknowable to the program for true random numbers. Just as a coin toss or roll of a dice appears random because all the data needed to calculate the outcome is not available, what if factors we have not jet discovered are controlling the probabilities we see at the quantum level, and it is again he lack of knowledge making something appear random? In summary, we are not certain there is randomness, although, to the best of our knowledge, there is randomness.

Quantum Physics May Provide Randomness, But Not Our Choice.

Just because an outcome is uncertain, that does not mean we it will obey our will. When I was about 9 years of age, having read novels with telepathy such as “Time for the Stars” and seen illusionists claiming telekinetic paranormal abilities such as mind reading and spoon bending (prior to Uri Geller being discredited), I tried to move a pencil on desk using just my will. I never succeeded. If I can’t move atoms, what are the chances I can trigger electrical signals from neurones in my brain to activate due to my will? Or is that a gain the result of external stimulus?

In reality, even allowing for randomness, we know of no mechanism beyond response previous and current stimuli playing any role in our responses. Human responses include responses that are, just like the roll of the dice, almost impossible for us to predict with the data available, but that does not prove there is free on the part of the dice, or us humans.

This does not prove there is no basis for free will, just that we know of no basis for true free will.

Illusion: It Is Clear We Overestimate The Power Of Our Free Will.

Consider advertising. Almost all of us feel that advertisements such as those for carbonated drinks which just show people having a good time will not influence our decisions, but if no ones alters their choices after viewing these, then why are they still following the same formulae after so many years?

Other principles of magic involve card tricks. Magicians can often influence people to choose a particular card from a deck, or even know which card people will choose when asked to think of one. Studying these phenomena could help us learn about the mind, as did the study of illusions and misdirection.

Revealing the Psychology of Playing Card Magic: Scientific American.

If we have free will to, for example, chose a card, then how come our will can be manipulated to produce a predictable result selected by another person.

Are We Free to Choose What We Want: But Not Unable To Control Our Wants.

We can chose not to smoke that additional cigarette, or eat the extra piece of chocolate, but do we have any control over what it is we want to chose? Can we chose who we fall in love with, or even whether we will love our children? How much is it even the desire to have children really something under our own control?

What we want can clearly be triggered by our environment. We still get to our to select what it is we want, but may have very little control over which option it is that we will want. Quite like the card trick where you can choose any card.

Even if there is some free choice, just like those card tricks, what we will choose is very often manipulated, if not intentionally by others, than by our previous experiences. If it clear we have less free choice than our illusion of free choice. Does it stretch to the point where all free choice is an illusion?

The Amebae Question: Where In the Tree Of Life Does Free Will Arise?

If we study an amebae, it is quite clear all the actions are just responses to the environment. Again, most people tend not to believe trees have free will. Free will requires a brain. But then, not all animals with a brain are believed to exhibit free will. Most people are sure ants don’ts have free will, and they have a brain. If we have acquired free will, it is not clear at what point in the evolutionary tree it evolved. A degree of randomness in decisions could help an entire population, but is random variation of decisions, free will? It seems we allocated free will at the point where we wish to be judgemental about actions. If we are not going to judge the actions of a species, we determine the animal has no free will. Dogs could represent a borderline case, where some judge the actions of dogs, others blame any undesired actions on the training an environment of the dog.

Free to do what we want, but not free to control what want?

In terms of human behaviour, we believe we can choose the course of action we want, but rarely think about our inability to control what is is that we want.

Perhaps we should consider our lack of ability to control our wants.

We know that certain things are addictive, and once people become addicted, they cannot stop wanting those things. A smoker cannot stop wanting to have a cigarette, no matter how much logic tells them they should not. There are eating disorders where the balance of what a person wants in terms of food, and cults can manipulate and alter, at least temporarily, the wants of their members. Aristotle apparently was so confident that environment could shape a person’s wants that he once said “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man”. There is the thought experiment that is the work “Clockwork Orange”.

It is not just cults, the concept of rehabilitating prisoners through to psychological exposure therapy are designed around the concept of altering what a person wants in response to specific stimuli.

Most people ‘want’ to have children, but over time as reduction of infant/child mortality

Then there is advertising, or “the influence industry” for a broader definition. Many people are so invested in the belief that all decisions are their own choice that they will assert “advertising does not work on me”. It is certainly easy think that way. How can be believe that images of people having fun will make us choose to drink sugary carbonated drinks? Yet, not only do they keep running advertisements, sponsor keep paying. The even seem to believe advertising and targeted messages can change how we vote. But of course, buying carbonated drinks, and who we vote for, it is all our own free will.

Justice: When The Illusion Becomes Dangerous.

The Question: If many Choices Are Not Our Own, Then Are We Responsible?

The US neuroscientist Sam Harris claims in a new book that free will is such a misleading illusion that we need to rethink our criminal justice system on the basis of discoveries coming from the neurological wards and MRI scans of the human brain in action.

Guilty, but not responsible?

At the extreme, it may be that no choice we make is really by our own free will, which results in many questioning the the legal system. Perhaps every choice is simply choosing what we have been conditioned by our environment to want.

The Legal System Should Primary Prevent Crime, Not Just Punish Crime.

Everyone wants to hold criminals responsible for their actions. This “responsibility” has its foundation in the belief that we all have the free will to choose right from wrong. What if free will is just an illusion, how would that impact the criminal justice system? Free will creates the moral structure that provides the foundation for our criminal justice system. Without it, most punishments in place today must be eliminated completely.

Free Will, Determinism, and the Criminal Justice System

The problem with the above quotation, is it views the world entirely from the perspective of what happens after the crime is committed.

The major goal of any legal system should be to prevent crime, not punish crime. Ok, preventing crime would not be good business for criminal lawyers. In reality, any time a crime has already happened, beyond revenue for the legal system, there is little to be gained from punishment.

We prosecute misdemeanors because, among other things, we want there to be fewer of them, and we believe prosecution deters reoffending. But a recent blockbuster paper makes a startling claim to the contrary: Prosecuting misdemeanants actually increases the likelihood that they will offend again.

(article fearing reduction in penalties)Progressives Are Overreacting to a Startling Crime Study

The right wing article fails to examine the biggest unanswered questions for the study: what effect would reducing prosecutions have the rate of first time offenders? Overall, the evidence that, beyond the time people are removed from society, punishing criminals does little to reduce people reoffending.

This is a discussion on free will. Whether the choice a person makes is their free will, or not, their choice is certainly affected by the options available. People who would not normally choose to hand over their money to a stranger, will more often make that choice when the stranger has a gun. The consequences of an action clearly affect what choice is made, and this is just as relevant whether people can control their choices or not.

Have you ever watched a film and heard it said: “I had no choice, it was either give it to him or he would shoot me!”. Technically, there is a clear choice being offered:

  1. Give it to him.
  2. Get shot.

This is the very definition of choice. But perhaps it is also the very definition of a person not free make make their own decision on which option they should choose.

So while it could be argued that, if people are not in control of their choices then it is unfair to punish them, it can also be argued that it then becomes the responsibility of society to ensure the options will result in people not choosing crime. Removing punishment, tips the balance towards that choice even if involuntary, being to choose the crime.

So while the punishment may achieve little once the crime has taken place, the punishment needs to be in place from the outset to discourage the crime from occurring.

Negative Influences On Choice Are Very Real, And Very Unjust.

Several years ago, I looked at the impact of exposure to lead on crime rates. Take two identical twins, separated when young children, with one raised in a high lead environment and the other in a low lead environment, the twin in a high lead environment will be more likely to commit violent crime.

Given the increased predilection for violent crime arises from the environment, does the twin from high lead environment more deserve punishment?

In an even more significant injustice, both aboriginal people in Australia and African Americans in the USA, are far more likely to spend time in jail than Caucasians. Why? Mostly because they commit more crime. Which leads to the core question: why do they more often chose crime? Just in case it is necessary to point this out, although these two groups share dark skin, they are not closely genetically related, with Australian aborigines more closely related to Caucasians that to African Americans. While economic circumstance is a factor, data from the US shows even when economic circumstances are equal, crime rates are still higher among African Americans. Could it be that crime rates are higher against those who suffer discrimination, and a higher percentage of African Americans encounter discrimination, even when economic circumstances are equal?

The higher incarceration rates reinforce stereotypes and lead to more discrimination. However, lesser penalties would not only lead to more racism, but if penalties do discourage crime, then lesser penalties could increase the problem.

The only solution would be is tackle the source of the problem, the factors in society that produce the circumstances which increase the rate at which crime is the selection of ‘free will’.

Conclusion.

I would like to believe there is free will, but I can find no basis beyond hope for any belief free will is any more than an illusion.

However the choices we make, whether of our own choice or just the illusion of choice, are certainly altered by all we have experienced in life together with what we are experiencing at the time. A belief in free will is associated with better choices, and if we can make thechocie4sas to whether we believe, then there is free will.

However too much faith in free will is also dangerous, leaving us vulnerable to being manipulated while being confident we are making our own choices, and resulting in people suffering from negative influences simply punished by in the law in the blind faith that all their problems are of their own choices, instead of trying to address that which is affecting their choices.

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