Monday, November 24, 2008

Read This, If You Choose To

Having recently finished Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (see “What I’m Reading” in column to the right), this post will relate to one’s free will, or lack thereof.

Consider two machines whose actions are determined and known. It may still remain to me a mystery what the outcome will be if I connect them together. Or what if I create a cross occurrence between A and C, rather than A and B? The outcome created by the intersection is as if by magic.

Depending upon the finite (though seemingly infinite) variations of what A could be and likewise of what C could be, there is a greater number of potential outcomes.

Now imagine the number of encounters possible: A with D or E or F, etc. There appears to be endless combinations. The astonishingly huge array of possible outcomes is staggering. So much so, that we experience arriving at any one experience as whim or will, rather than the result of the laws of nature.

But, when we examine any one occurrence we see that, though they are vast, there is a finite network of determinants that have caused A to be A and to be where it is at the exact time that it is. Likewise, C has an exact network of determinants that have caused it to be C and to be where it is at the exact time that it is. So such an encounter between an exact A and an exact C at precisely that moment has a determined outcome.
It, of course, surpasses human capabilities to map out the exponentially complex web of every determinant and its antecedents (with their preceding determinants, and so on). But because it surpasses that which we can achieve does not make it an impossibility. At no point along this highly advanced map of results connected to their causes is there a point at which to stop and say, “Ah, there is an act of pure free well, an action devoid of any influence other than its own thought existence.” For if the thought (or whatever you decide is ‘free will’) is in any way at all influenced by something else, it is no longer free. It is now rather at the mercy of the outcome it experiences by being in relation to something outside of its self, something out of its control, and, if out of control, then no longer purely free.

This does not mean that we are trapped in a “dreadfully boring existence” (Notes From Underground, chapter seven, Dostoevsky). The apparently infinite (though, again, actually finite) combination of situations, individuals, thoughts, their synergy and resulting realities will always be experienced as free. And we must acct as if we are free. That’s right. Thought determined, we must act as if we have, and think ourselves to have, free will.

Determinism is mere intellectual exercise, no matter how much truth lie in its favor.

Dostoevsky argues that explaining free will (in his example, “wishes”…as if wishing itself is not bound by natural law) by reason only satisfies reasoning. He proposes that wishes/desires do not necessarily conform to reason. I conceded that. However, because they do not does not mean that they are devoid of influences outside of their control.

Our desires (wishes) come from the work of the mind. Tell me, how do I fire my synapses in just the right sequence, in just such an intensity, how do I, of my own volition, secrete just the precise chemicals in my brain, so as to create my own desires or wishes?

It is precisely these thoughts that, in turn, produce a physiological response [hotlink] and set into motion my whole amusement park of reality. At what point did free will slip in? Where is that will/wish/desire I created without influence external of itself? I must answer that there is none.

In the end, you perhaps will be happy to know that I still act as if I have free will. I’m still amused by the magic of life, even if there are props behind the illusion. I still enjoy the surprise of my own actions, which feel wonderfully free.

I have no choice but to do so.


John said...

I love the determinism graphic :-)

To be reductionist - why would there need to be infinite possibilities (not that I'm so sure there aren't)? Wouldn't it be enough to have, at one point in time, 2 possibilities for which you had no influences other than your will?

In the past I thought out such mind games to prove the possibilities of such a scenario - to be left with the question - how is having the ability to freely make a decision without any influence comforting? Wouldn't the decision then be completely random? The only thing I could come up with is that you could use "pure reason" ala Kant, meaning it is objective. Through the mix of this objective factor and your subjective influences you then concoct a sort of will.

For instance - you could decide to travel a lot, exposing yourself to different opinions and experiences and thus you influence the influences you have for making willful decisions.

Donnie Darko was pretty neat in that free will was only possible when people acted as God. Or, Donnie specifically, but if you mix that with sort of the Hindu god-head thing and that everyone reaches enlightenment then maybe we could all take turns.

Why do we want free will anyway?

One final thought - I think we see a very limited piece of how things fit together. If you consider time a dimension, and if there are 11 dimensions in string theory, then a creature that observes more than 4 as their conception of reality might not experience time as we do. If you take out time and sequences of actions then how does will manifest itself?

More to the point - my most lucid moments are when I realize how futile it is to fit the universe into my limited understanding of it. I love trying to anyway because its fun, but I think more than likely, the answers to the big questions like free will aren't constrained to the logic I can grasp. Meaning - it might just be.

Anyway, sorry for all the rambling - that's basically where I'm stuck, or liberated, or whatever...I'm good with it :-)

Eric said...

I like what John said:
" most lucid moments are when I realize how futile it is to fit the universe into my limited understanding of it. I love trying to anyway because its fun, but I think more than likely, the answers to the big questions like free will aren't constrained to the logic I can grasp."

This ties in with my all-time favorite quote, which is from Gregory of Nyssa, and which I may have posted on here before in response to something else, and which I have painted on a mural at the end of my hallway.

"Concepts become idols; only wonder understands."

Eric said...

By the way, I added the NoScript Add-on to my Firefox browser and your page comes up full of tracking scripts.

Better hope Bush and Cheny don't enact marshal law before Obama gets in or else we're all getting sent to Gitmo!

(ha ha ha ha ha ha ha)

Dennis R. Plummer said...

I forgot to tell you that I track for the government as a side hobby!

(Must be all of the books, music, flags at the bottom of the blog, etc.)

Eager to read both of your responses. I've been playing host to an out-of-town guest for a bit and away from computer.

Dennis R. Plummer said...

John, I like your "why do we care so much about having free will anyway" approach. I tend to agree thinking that we hold on to it out of fear. And I think it likely that there is indeed another perspective from which we would see/understand the issue entirely differently.