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.