Free Will Is No Excuse

Free Will

by Dave E. Matson

The concept of free will is often invoked to explain why an omnipotent, omniscient and omni benevolent deity has allowed evil in this world. The pretense that there is no evil, offered by a few theologians, is not very convincing. It would mean, among other things, that we havenʼt a clue in distinguishing between “good” and “evil.” Why, then, call God “good?” What would be the point of following God if his idea of “good” in this world is mistaken for evil? Could we really hope for better conditions in heaven? Another idea is that the evil around us is a stepping stone to a greater good. On paper it sounds great, but what moral person is willing to break the legs of a child so that she can “benefit” from all that evil? What would be the point of eliminating Godʼs germs and developing new medicines? Indeed, what would be the point of any improvement in our living conditions? If the original level of evil was necessary for a perfect world, then all the improvements since have been to the injury of successive generations! Who can really believe that? Moreover, an omnipotent god is not like a doctor who, being limited, must give a child a painful shot for her greater benefit. Hence, the ball often comes around to the free-will defense: God doesnʼt like robots, so he created people who could freely worship him. Evil, then, enters the picture when they choose to reject Godʼs lead. God so values free will that he is willing to tolerate this evil. This doesnʼt explain natural evil, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which suggest faulty construction on Godʼs part, but the typical Christian user never penetrates that far. Yet, for all its popularity, I contend that the free-will defense fails.

Free will is a concept that has at least three different meanings. Let us call them the casually-independent view, the deterministic view, and the true-to-self view. Understanding their differences is crucial to any discussion of free will.

The casually-independent view envisions humans as having a mind whose decisions ultimately cannot be explained in terms of natural principles. An individual may be influenced by the environment, but his or her thoughts are ultimately a metaphysical phenomenon. Mind and body are fundamentally different entities. If a scientist could calculate all the physical inputs, including the construction of oneʼs brain, oneʼs history, and the prevailing environment, that scientist would still be missing the central, metaphysical key that determines how that person will act. Call it “soul,” if you wish. If you accept this casually-independent view, you are doing philosophy or theology, not science.

I immediately reject this view, because any attempt to exclude a very physical brain from the laws of nature—without extraordinary evidence—is tantamount to denying the truth of those principles. Natural principles have been established on the basis of thousands of carefully controlled, systematic observations and experiments. They are the foundation of the whole scientific enterprise, which has given us a deep and productive understanding of nature. We ought not abandon all of that on the basis of rank, theological speculation. Furthermore, on the basis of evolution it seems absurd to think that scientific principles somehow donʼt apply to us. If they apply to a colony of ants, a worm, a plant, they should also apply to us despite our egocentric views. Where could we draw a meaningful dividing line in an evolutionary continuum?

The deterministic view holds that the future is a done deal, that it is fixed from the start, down to the twitch of an atom. Usually, this view assumes a rigid chain of cause and effect, meaning that if enough facts are known and enough computing power is available, the future is predictable in every detail. It is as unchangeable as the past.

Determinism gets its traditional, scientific justification from Newtonian physics, the old idea that the universe ran like a perfect clock, that with enough facts we could calculate the future with perfect accuracy.
A given cause always led to the same effect, and knowing all the causes at any point in time meant knowing the future. However, quantum mechanics and a better understanding of complexity has seriously undermined this older view of science.

Quantum mechanics, the strongest pillar in all of science, introduces an uncertainty that can never be resolved, even in principle. In the opinion of the great majority of physicists, quantum uncertainty is fundamental and not something that can, in principle, be calculated by appealing to “wheels within wheels.” Quantum mechanics tells us that perfect knowledge (and infinite computing power) cannot predict the future with certainty. Quantum mechanics is especially manifest at the atomic level. For example, we cannot calculate how long it takes for a radioactive atom to decay, and there is no getting around that. The best we can do is to get a probability distribution that is statistically accurate for a large number of those particular atoms.

The argument that quantum fluctuations statistically average out with respect to large-scale phenomena, thus making them insignificant at our level, is easily ruled out. Imagine someone who has to make a choice, who makes that choice according to how soon the next atom decays in a small amount of radioactive material. Obviously, such a choice is as random as the quantum event on which it is based.

Complexity theory completes this “disaster” by showing that, no matter how alike two physical scenarios may be, the slightest differences can often diverge radically as the computer goes through its cycles of calculations, so that we soon have two completely different predictions of the future. Early weather forecasters discovered that the same data (with “insignificant” differences in decimal-place accuracy) often led to completely different, long-range forecasts! Refined data does not necessarily lead to a correspondingly refined long-range forecast! Chaos enters into the picture. It can be demonstrated mathematically that if data with the slightest possible differences are used—differences as small as you like—an accurate application of scientific principles can quickly (in some cases) lead to radically different outcomes in the not-so-distant future. In that way, quantum mechanics and complexity theory have all but destroyed any concept of a fixed or determined future.

More difficulties for determinism are exposed by philosophical paradoxes. Such paradoxes arise because something is not quite right—or muddled—concerning the deterministic point of view. (One could put determinism on a statistical basis, allowing a statistical prediction of the future consistent with quantum mechanics, but that would not give us a fixed future in any absolute sense. Knowing the statistics of a batter in baseball canʼt tell us if his next hit will be a home run.)

Suppose the future is determined and that you are living on an island by yourself. If you believe that the future is absolutely determined, that it cannot be changed, why do any work? If you starve, so what? You must have been destined to starve anyway, so why work and starve?
On the other hand, there is nothing clearer in this world than the fact that industrious effort will make a difference for the great majority of people. If you donʼt do anything, you will almost certainly starve. Thatʼs true whether there is free will or not. Thus, your choice should be to work industriously. That we get two different answers by impeccable reasoning implies that one or more of our assumptions must be wrong. Perhaps, it is wrong for us to imagine a person living in a deterministic universe as making such a choice, some being destined to choose one way and some the other. But, the paradox doesnʼt go away by having the choice made for us. Impeccable reason points one way and impeccable observation points the other way. It is far easier to conclude that there is something wrong with the deterministic viewpoint than it is to fault either impeccable reason or impeccable observation.

Obviously, if you are on an island by yourself, you had better do something if you wish to survive. Thus, you find yourself acting to safeguard your future even though it is supposedly fixed! The choices made, whether by free-will or not, are tied to specific outcomes and, therefore, to a specific future. Consequently, we must at least act as though our choice made a difference. We should continue to teach morality to our kids and continue to punish criminals. That is to say, we must take the kinds of actions that are calculated to yield a future we find desirable. We punish criminals, because it will reduce criminal activity. We need not enter into the concept of moral choice. Again, we act and make choices that matter. Might not that fact, along with the scientific evidence that the future is written in terms of probabilities, yield a meaningful concept of free will?

The true-to-self view: By taking actions calculated to yield a desirable future, whether by free will or determinism, we have done everything that we would have wished to do had we operated under free will. Free will, then, would seem to be compatible with a future as understood in a scientific sense, one neither totally fixed nor in contradiction with scientific principles. The idea that free will is a metaphysical process that entails a rejection of scientific principle, as applying to our minds, may be dispensed with. If we are, in fact, more or less making “choices” that we value, then how would free will (assuming we donʼt have it) improve our situation? Free will would lead to the same choices and face the same obstacles.

Martin Gardner (Martin Gardner: The Night Is Large, “Newcombʼs Paradox,” published by St. Martinʼs Griffin, New York) brings up another deterministic paradox, one no doubt discovered by countless individuals over the years. Hereʼs my version: In Godʼs deterministic universe, God predicts that next Tuesday you will be seated at a table and that you will choose one of several cards before you, the queen of diamonds. Instead of God, we could use a super-supercomputer that calculates all possible causes to predict the future. The great day arrives and the predicted results are made known to you. Perhaps you calculate them yourself, at the console of the super-supercomputer, or maybe God tells you. What, in the final analysis, prevents you from being obstinate and, say, reaching over to pick the king of spades? Does some magical force block your hand? Our supposedly fixed future seems oddly fragile.

As Martin Gardner noted, as soon as predictions interact with the event being predicted, we can have big problems. This problem seems to go away if God keeps the information to himself, but wait a minute! A totally determined future is fixed, a done deal. If there is a rigid chain of cause and effect, the chief justification for a fixed future, then how can it be broken? In principle, our super-supercomputer should be able to calculate the future given finite data. Knowing the results of your choice a priori (taken into consideration by the computer at the start as one of its calculations) should not invalidate the final prediction. We may be dealing with an infinite loop that even a supercomputer (or God) cannot process. If the future cannot be known, even in principle, what does that mean? Might that be another way of saying that the future is not determined? Doesnʼt that, at the very least, undermine the whole idea of a causal chain as a justification for determinism? We have some murky waters here.

The true-to-self view hangs on an interesting observation: I will not hurt my friends. It seems that I have all the physical means to do so, but, all things being equal, I will never choose to do so. I certainly view myself as having free will. Let us assume as much. Now, suppose some advanced being creates a robot, a conscious, intelligent one, so that it cannot hurt its friends. What, then, is the difference between me and that robot in this respect? I think it fair to say that both of us would be equally incapable of harming our friends, except under unusual circumstances. (The robot could be programmed to make exceptions in unusual circumstances, so any appeal to physical inability is futile.)

The only difference of note is that my mind came to its present state via a long, historical process, one that includes my own introspection, whereas the robotʼs mind was directly created to accomplish the same thing. That is to say, our minds could be identical with respect to not harming our friends. What, then, is the difference between us? How can we say that the robot has no free will in that respect but that I do In arguing for free will, we ought to argue that, with obstacles removed free will means acting according to our respective natures. If you are converted into a perfect copy of myself, you will want to act as I do. That doesnʼt, I trust, make you a freshly manufactured robot! Free will, I believe, cannot be understood in any other sense without serious difficulties.

The traditional dilemma has it that, if we go with determinism, we are mere puppets; if we go with chance, we act insanely, according to the throw of dice, and still donʼt have free will! The solution, I think, is some version of the true-to-self viewpoint. We act within a mental framework, one influenced by our genetic background, our experiences in life, and by our own introspection. This mental framework, call it personal values if you wish, is continually evolving via complex feedback loops. Since it has an important input from our own introspection, it is distinctly “us.” Our concept of self is tangled up in it. In the end, we take our marching orders from ourselves, more or less, and isnʼt that the essence of free will if the future is not fixed?

This mental framework skews the probabilities of us taking various actions, a skewing that is also powerfully affected by our environment at the time. My own framework includes a liking for cats, so I will never choose to harm one without a good reason. Many choices are neither skewed this way or that, to any significant degree, and can be called neutral choices. When several neutral choices are before us, we can imagine a kind of neural instability that soon resolves itself. A thin stick on end soon falls one way or another, and we can imagine that our internal circuitry soon increases the likelihood of one of these neutral choices, which upon reaching our consciousness manifests itself as a free will choice. Quantum mechanics, or even chaos, might well supply a randomizer at the base of such an instability. Hence, we would find ourselves making some choice, one not predetermined, in full accordance with our own wishes. Isnʼt that the essence of what we really mean by free will?

Of course, it is not necessary to postulate equally likely choices.
We can have random instabilities percolate up the nervous system according to various probability distributions. If the table is tilted ever so slightly, that stick might fall in the various directions with different probabilities. Thus, we see the outline of an escape from the horns of the traditional dilemma. We combine both chance and determinism! Chance sits at the base, and determinism, in the more moderate form of a probability distribution, takes us out of the insane, dice-tossing mode.

Why do we get upset at being called a robot? Consider a true robot, at least those around today. It does not have consciousness and, therefore, cannot integrate its own perspective into its mental framework. It cannot have personal values without a concept of “I,” though it may be programmed to respond in different ways to different situations. It may even be cleverly designed to learn, but it can never reflect on whether it ought to follow instructions or as to what its personal philosophy should be. It does not worry about its future, except in a mechanical, preprogrammed way. It serves blindly, without awareness. A randomizer could be built in so that its actions are not totally predictable, but without a conscience it could hardly identify with any particular choice. Hence, there would be no point in talking about robot free will. Moreover, robots are designed from scratch to serve human needs, not themselves. Does a dishwasher ever plan for its retirement? By contrast, the human brain has evolved over millions of years, and its “programming” is there mainly to benefit that human, to ensure reproductive success. Conceivably, a day may come when robots could be manufactured that have consciousness and intelligence. Would the term “robot” still remain a stigma? With their own consciousness as an input, is it not possible that they might escape their original programming altogether and become unique individuals with free will?

If we are “robots,” then we are largely robots of our own creation!
The point is that our mental frameworks are modified one way or another in accordance with our desires. Thus, our universal belief in ethics makes sense despite the fact that we are governed by scientific principles. We perceive free will when we act according to our mental framework, a framework partly of our own making, a framework that is not pre-determined.
Free will can only have meaning in that context, as anyone not influenced by some kind of framework would be a total lunatic, one whose actions cannot be predicted at all. It makes sense, then, to teach kids morality, thus helping to install a mental framework useful for family and society. It makes sense to punish criminals, so as to change harmful frameworks or eliminate hopeless sources of harm. Such moral instruction is based on the existing frameworks of our teachers and is reinterpreted by our own reasoning process. We can see that certain actions are harmful, such as a careless running of a red light, so, based on a framework that favors an orderly, safe society, something that evolution certainly favors, we punish careless drivers.

In short, our choices do affect our futures, and successful societies have evolved and teach mental frameworks that favor success. A mental framework skews the probabilities of choosing various actions. Choice, itself, would be random at its source but constrained by a probability distribution, whose input would be the environment and our own mental framework. By being true to ourselves, in a universe whose future is not fixed, we are indeed exercising free will in a meaningful sense.

Once we jettison the notion that free will is tied to some metaphysical “soul” acting in mysterious, supernatural ways, a view than can only appeal to rank, theological speculation, we have taken a great leap forward. We can now tie free will to what we do know about this universe, using the best evidence and reason, by adopting the true-to-self view. The free-will defense explaining the existence of evil then collapses. God would be perfectly capable of creating beings with a mental framework to serve him faithfully, beings that would also possess free will. It would be as easy as creating people who like cats, who nevertheless possess free will. Of all the cat lovers I know, including myself, I do not suspect that there is even one robot among them! Godʼs supposed need for free will does not justify the human evil found in this world—let alone the natural evil.

The free-will defense suffers from other problems as well. Even under the casually-independent view, discredited above, one may ask why God has not created a more saintly lot. Such people would still choose to do wrong on occasion, thereby demonstrating their free will in the casually-independent sense, only they would sin to a much lesser degree. Has their free will been reduced? If so, then we had better not give our children moral training least it reduce their free will!

Another problem emerges in the form of heavenly recruits. Once you arrive in heaven, does God take away your free will so as to eliminate sin in that rarified abode? If so, then isnʼt God collecting robots up there according to the free-will defense? On the other hand, if it is possible for God to put saintliness and free will together in one package, in heaven, then certainly he could do it on earth as well. How, then, are those two qualities fundamentally incompatible? Either we have sin in heaven or the free-will defense is busted on this point alone!


Biblical Perfection in a Nutshell

For those who claim that the Bible is perfect, that it does no violence to reason, science, or any of the intellectual endeavors of man, I have a brief reply. — Dave E. Matson

The literal Bible, as serious Bible scholars routinely point out, is an account anchored to a flat-earth, Babylonian, 3-story cosmology, a crazy quilt of ancient, surviving material, edited and re-edited, having contrary viewpoints, a work that flatly contradicts large parts of geology, astronomy, paleontology and biology (especially evolution and genetics), not to mention major elements of archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, cosmology, physics and various other disciplines, including history to a lesser degree. We have the spectacle of God having to destroy his own creation—humans, animals, and all—with a clumsy flood, only to see that topped by the utter absurdity of Noahʼs ark, a story that traces back to ancient Sumer, the earliest version having been written as propaganda to justify the authority of kings. The idea that thousands of animals could be cared for over a whole year in a rocking, dank, poorly lit, disease-ridden, roach-infested, vermin-laden, methane-gassed, excrement-flooded, undermanned ark—given that several modern zoos (with infinitely more space, personnel and fresh air, not to mention good lighting, stable ground, fresh food, clean water, adequate power, modern technology, and expertise in animal care) canʼt accomplish as much—is plainly ludicrous! Great Caesarʼs ghost! Then those poor animals, half-dead (if they were lucky), are dumped on top of a muddy, barren, volcanic peak, from which they must somehow make their way to all parts of the world without dying of hunger or being eaten by their starved, meat-eating companions. Sir/Madam, I call that violence to reason and science in the highest degree!

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