Free Will

Reading NOVA’s short series on the The Science of Free Will was interesting, but the general perspective on free will is problematic. The experiments mentioned placed too much trust in their methods, making assumptions such as people can accurately note the moment of a decision with precision under a second. They also laid too much weight on trivial actions that wouldn’t require engaging the will to decide, looking at questions of “when” not “whether,” and matters more of reflex than deliberation. But the key problem is that the core of the argument is that if we can observe it, then free will doesn’t exist.

The first problem with this is that we may not know whether what we are observing is the cause or the effect. If we see a group of neurons firing are they the cause of the decision, or the effect? Recent discoveries allow us to see how the brain is engaged, but are we just viewing an earlier stage in the decision-action process? It’s really no different from asking someone to make a decision between two items. Then to claim, after seeing their hand move right and predicting they will choose the rightmost item, that the decision was in the hand. It was not free will. But now we are making such attributions to neurons rather than hands.

A sanctuary is given for free will in randomness. If at some point in the decision-making process we could observe something completely random man could escape from being a purely predictable automaton. This, however, only makes us non-deterministic. Free will would still be destroyed as we exercise no will over that which is random. Further, though we call the will “free,” this does not imply it is unpredictable. If a man is able to control his choices then it stands to reason he would be largely consistent in his exercise of that control. So observing something random would not reveal free will.

Another key issue lies in that science is essentially constrained to that which is observable. And scientists often assert they will observe what has not yet been proven. Famously, billions of dollars have been spent on the Large Hadron Collider in expectation of finding the hypothetical Higgs boson particle. Many other predictions are made, and many without any mathematical models to base their faith on like with the LHC. More close to our subject, Kurzweil predicts we will see technological intelligence surpass human intelligence within 40 years.

The assumption that if we observe free will it will evaporate to reveal only mechanical actors, combined with this belief that we can eventually observe all things necessarily condemns free will to eventually be discredited. But this belief is highly naive as there remains plenty of mystery in science. Most famously is the double slit experiment where the mere act of trying to observe what happens changes what happens. This mystery may some day be revealed, but it stands to reason that the potential tools this physical world provides may come with inherit limits as to what they can observe.

Ultimately, I believe, free will must be in this realm of mystery for the naturalist. For them everything is governed by the physical laws. Yet if man, composed of natural elements, is to somehow influence the natural elements of himself; to guide the chemical reactions in his brain rather than being subject to them and exercise a free choice, then that is something in the realm of miracles. An interesting question, then, is can these scientist perform an experiment to test for the free will that is not in vain? If free will does exist, will we be able to see it is necessary for observed effects even though we cannot see the will itself? Or will the natural world appear to fully explain outcomes, as the ripples of the will in the natural world appear to be causes unto themselves? More important, I think, is whether we choose to live as though we can exercise free will, or think ourselves helpless prisoners of a body.


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