Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Some Stupid Questions About Free Will

Robert Vickrey, The Labyrinth

I was a terrible student and probably not exceptionally bright to begin with. I'm dense. Sometimes I need things explained to me.

I have several friends who talk to me about "free will" and was hoping for some help toward understanding the concept.

A good place to start would have been asking these friends for a definition of "free will," and I wish I thought to do it. I can only make inferences. When people refer to "free will," what they seem to be referring to is an obscure capacity by which the individual (or perhaps his or her mind) acts as an autonomous creative agent with regard to his or her behavior. I'm told that people freely choose their actions and are accountable for these choices.

Stupid Question #1: What if we act without thinking? Are we still exercising free will?

When it comes down to it, how many of our actions throughout the day are predicated by a conscious choice? When my phone vibrates, I usually don't pause to consider whether to answer it or let it keep buzzing -- I just answer it. When I eat mashed potatoes I don't pause and deliberate before taking the next spoonful; I just keep stuffing potatoes into my mouth until no potatoes remain. I don't get up in the morning and choose to go to work -- not in the sense of assessing the situation and gauging the potential costs and benefits of going to work or playing hookie. I get up and go to work.

If all of our actions are volitional, why are we not constantly aware of arriving at a crossroads with every new moment?

Stupid Question #2: How does habit square with free will?

When something you regularly do becomes so routine, so natural that you cease to be aware of it, are you still choosing to do it? Can you choose not to do something you're oblivious to doing?

I am in the habit of answering my phone right away when my boss is calling. I am also in the habit of skipping phone calls that arrive at the dinner table -- after checking the caller's number.

Sometimes my phone rings at the dinner table and I discover my boss is calling me. Now I'm aware I have a choice to make.

How frequently is it the case that we become aware of choice when two or or more of our opposing habits or exclusionary desires come into conflict? What other circumstances make us aware of choice? Are there any?

Do we only possess and exert free will when we're conscious of having to select a course of action from multiple alternatives? Are we just running on rails the rest of the time?

Does that imply that our actions between junctures of conscious decision-making (possibly the majority of our actions) are not volitional?

If we possess and exert free will at all times, who or what's making the calls when we choose without thinking, when we act unconsciously, habitually, or indeliberately? If a person's "will" dictates his actions even when he's not conscious of it, are we still talking about freedom of action?

Stupid Question #3: Is there such a thing as "partial free will?"

If so, what are the determinants of those instances when we are able to act freely?

What does it mean to "act freely" anyway?

Can most people say that they choose how they live? If you followed somebody around for a day and asked her to explain every action, to describe to you the processes by which she decided to do such and such things, adopt such and such routines, or carry such and such preferences, would she be able to tell you? If not, could she still claim that the course of her life, as a whole, was voluntary and self-determined?

I'm confused. Please help.


  1. I think the easiest way to define free will is that as long as the individual has the capacity to consider their actions and can make decisions of their own agency, they have free will.

    Yes, our options in a given situation can be limited by other circumstances (laws of nature, laws of man, the needs of your own body and mental self), but just because you are very unlikely to stay in bed and not go to work does not mean you lack the agency to do so. People skip work or quit outright every day, and the option is open to you even if you consider it not to be because the cost exceeds the benefit to such a degree as to make the decision not worth considering.

    As for habit, it's a shortcut our brains pretty much need, otherwise we would lose so much time every day making the simplest decisions. In the Believing Brain Michael Shermer uses an example of trying to select a type of toothpaste to buy; if we were trying to make a perfectly rational decision you'd end up standing in the grocery store for hours considering type, price, the size of the tube and other factors.

  2. I recently spent a class discussing issues of this sort, especially in an artificial intelligence context. It was kind of arcane and difficult to handle. If anyone asks now, I'm a pragmatist who is more interested in the "real world" ramifications of these philosophical questions than debates about what their answers might be.

    This may be why some of the ideas in Jean-Paul Sartre's work appeal to me. If I remember correctly, one of his major ideas was that situations where one's free will is constrained are significantly rarer than expected, because the average person stops thinking of choices they perceive as having particularly negative outcomes as actual choices. Regardless of whether Sartre meant to say that or something else, it does provide rhetorical options.

  3. I think the explanation is simply that exerting free will is an action that involves mental effort; if we paused to contemplate the outcomes of every single action we do, we'd surely exhaust ourselves before the first couple hours (not to mention that we'd have achieved precious little in the interim).

    Habit and learned automatic motions and responses are the ways the brain keeps itself efficient. It also allows us to multi-task: Instead of pondering which side of your toast you must bite next, you can dedicate that time and mental energy to work out other more important issues. However, I believe that free will can assert itself at anytime, if you so wish. At any time you can stop walking automatically and choose to not step on the cracks, or make the steps of your left foot only half as long as those of your right, or whatever. But since that's a terrible inefficient use of your time and your attention, you use your free will (you choose) to relinquish your free will and let your body go through the well-practised motions.

    Unfortunately, I believe that people abuse that capacity to allow themselves to be carried by inertia and knee-jerk reaction when needed. They choose not to only relinquish their free will during trivial tasks, but also through important issues that should be tended with careful thinking. It is easier and you can always shift the blame if things go South on other people, luck, God, or simply refuse to think about that too.

  4. Can I propose this? Instead of arguing definitions, let the usage of 'Free Will', 'Choice', 'Action', 'Think', and any of their synonyms be banned. This allows a more precise argument to be constructed. If reasoning doesn't work, it's flaws will be more apparent, since it can't hide behind vague wording, and if an argument does work it's more likely to be agreed upon.

    Everything that is has come about by a previous thing. A thing doesn't become what it is by its own power, but by the power of whatever came before it. If you look at a mathematical function, the result is dependent upon whatever value is entered in the function as well as the rule of the function. The physical world is no different (for the most part). The laws of physics always work the same way, and (besides levels of uncertainty at a subatomic level,) there is no variation.

    The human brain is just another physical object, and everything it does is dependent upon what has come before it. If put in the exact same situation with the exact same circumstances it will do the exact same thing. Though each person is developed differently because different actions are experienced by him or her, and therefore will act differently, the way one is shaped is completely out of one's control. The processes which shaped this person were out of the processes' control, and those processes had no
    control over how they were shaped, and so on all the way back to the beginning of time.

    Now compare this with your concept of 'Free Will'. If they don't match up, and if this reasoning is valid, from a completely clinical and objective perspective, free will does not exist.

    Now practically, this isn't the necessarily case. There are still 'decisions', points where there are multiple hypothetical outcomes, and when I 'choose', that is, make one of these outcomes reality, I actually am choosing. However, with the same starting condition the same outcome will always turn out.

    Though this isn't immediately useful to everyday life, it is still important to realize all of this, since many of the principles described above apply to everyday life in a less exact form. People with similar upbringings will often act similar. People in the same situations will often do similar things. If they don't, it's usually because an outside force affected them, contaminating the experiment, so to speak.

    (When I put it in such terms, I feel like this is really obvious. But this took me years to realize, and no one else has mentioned such things yet.)

    1. "People with similar upbringings will often act similar. People in the same situations will often do similar things."

      I believe this is a result of the "inertia" I mentioned above. It is easier to let yourself act and react in ways informed into you by your culture/upbringing/chemical make-up. It is in fact, socially endorsed, as those who deviate from the norm (for good or bad) are frowned upon by the collective -mostly because they make them look like lazy, complacent sheep.

      However there /is/ a choice at each turn if you /choose/ not to relinquish it. You may just get dressed in the morning like you do every day. But if you choose, in an impulse, you may leave the house naked (and be arrested). Or you can put on a clown costume and be laughed at, but it will always be your choice if you take the time to not let well-established neural pathways carry you through the day in the haze of routine.

      What you propose is a certain version of scientific "determinism" but it is not as objectively clinical as you wish. For instance, you state like a fact that "If put in the exact same situation with the exact same circumstances it will do the exact same thing", which is a thing impossible to prove empirically as every single exact circumstance of a given moment cannot possibly be replicated. And then your theory necessitates to acknowledge the reality of "decision" at least at certain points, again speculating that the outcome was a given from the beginning.

      If you choose to believe (or according to you, inevitably and eventually arrive to the conclusion) that there's no true agency, you'd be reducing the human experience to a series of forecast, inescapable events and behaviour, informed into us by other people (our parents and surrounding culture) who, in turn, are a result of the same process. It also propagates the belief that people are born pre-destined to be "good" or "bad", a way of thought that often is realised in things like Eugenics and similar.

    2. The problem with discussing these sorts of things is that there are two realities that we must deal with. To provide an example, it's similar to using a computer. All a computer can do manipulate memory. Every program is a series of instructions (which are memory themselves) that when executed modify, move, and erase memory in a specific way. When you just look at the machine code every program seems to be very linear and it's difficult to see what all of these commands are doing.

      On the other hand, look at any program you use on a regular basis. It does not appear to be a whole load of machine code. There is text, color, pictures, tool bars, etc. There might be a complex user interface with many different options, or you may be playing a game like Skyrim where you can do almost anything.

      Now which interpretation is real? Which one is the correct view of a computer program? Both! There's nothing about the machine code that makes it less real than the program that is seen, and vice versa. In fact, for either to be, the other must exist.

      The Universe is a collection of laws that affect various 'things'. The relationship between these laws and that which they affect is what ultimately gives us the reality that you and I interpret. The Standard Model of Physics, which doesn't seem to allow multiple diverging paths (unless you want to get into string theory and the multiverse, which is an idea still in its infancy, and it's hard to say whether or not it may be valid), is no less real than the reality you and I perceive, which does seem to allow different outcomes to arise depending which path an entity takes. In fact, they both are dependent upon the other.

      So when there are multiple ways a situation may unfold, and the situation occurs a specific way as a result of my involvement in it, when from my perspective it could unfold a completely different way, there was a choice on my part. I had free will. However, when you look at the individual fermions and which compose me and everything else, there appears to be no choice at all.

      A problem occurs when one takes these two realities in at the same time. Do they seem a bit contradictory? Don't worry, Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity don't work together either. They have specific domains which they apply to, but they shouldn't be used outside of that. This is the exact same situation. Knowing that the Universe is rather deterministic (Not really, since elementary particles are somewhat unpredictable, but that doesn't change the argument), changes nothing about how one should view life. However, it's still useful to understand this other reality (if it can be understood), since the reality we are most familiar with often takes a similar form. (Not always.)

      (Note: I am no Physicist, nor a Philosopher. I do have quite a bit of experience with the whole being human thing, but who doesn't? There probably are some inaccuracies with what I said, feel free to correct me on any of that. I do believe that when you look at anything at as simple a level as possible, the truth (or something similar to it) will inevitably be found. Problems arise when one either can't reach the simplest level, or has broken things down to a simpler, but still complex level, then proceeds to label it as the simplest level. I don't believe what we know is the simplest level of things, but I do believe that it is simple enough that valid conclusions can be made. Correct me if I'm wrong.)