Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Free Will

Free will is a topic that often generates a lot of confusion, both in those who claim it doesn't exist and in those who claim to have it. I'm going to attempt to clear the air a little, and come at the end from several lines.

The short version: free will does not exist, but that doesn't mean "you" don't "choose" or that "you" shouldn't be held responsible for your "choices". Stay tuned if you're not convinced.

First of all, what is free will? No, free will is not merely the ability to choose, it's the ability to choose irregardless of other forces. When people ask Christians why God allows people to do bad things, they say "Because He gave us free will. This means that a person can see two options, realize one is good and another is bad, and still choose the bad."

Nothing so bad so far, right? Most people can think of examples where they chose the less optimal of two choices, even though they knew it was less optimal. But that's not all there is to free will. There's also the belief that, could I go back in time, wipe my memories since just before the event, and repeat the exact same situation, I could have chosen differently.

This is how it feels. If I have three options in front of me, and they each seem pretty nice, I'll choose one. But I'll also think "Ah, but I could have chosen a different options, because I have free will. Nobody and nothing made me choose this option."

What this is saying, in effect, is that a function defined like so:

def f(a, b):
return a + b

called with arguments 1 and 2 could possibly return something other than 3, because the function has free will.

Let's stop looking at the algorithm from the inside, where it feels free will exists. Let's look at it instead from the outside. What is the brain doing, when it makes the choice? Given no evidence for the soul, we must assume everything happens in the brain, and so if free will exists it should be found there.

AI programmers answered this long ago as they started writing programs that could "choose" between options. How did the algorithm go? The AI would take each option, simulate itself picking that option and going down some consequences before finally quitting and weighing that option with a score, and after it had "tried" all the options, it picked the best-looking one according to some rule table for scores. If you fed the AI the same options over and over, it would simulate itself running each option over and over, and each time it would settle on one option and go with that. No calls were ever made to a random() function.

I claim the human brain doesn't work much differently. When "you" "choose" something, what is your brain doing? It's running through the various "choices" you could make, pretending like you made them, and seeing what consequences follow. After going through several options, you settle on one that looks nice (which may not always be optimal), and go with it. If you were put in the same situation with the same brain state, you would pick the exact same outcome every time.

Sure, the brain's algorithm is certainly more complicated than the simple AI's, but fundamentally it's the same thing. You have a list of possible choices, you predict the outcomes of each choice, and then go with the best choice. Your brain's criteria for "best choice" is certainly complicated, as sometimes there is no clear best choice but you choose anyway, or sometimes the "best choice" morally isn't what you end up doing. I suspect there's a lot of unconscious behavior to how "you" "choose", precisely because we're not always sure which is the best choice when we make one.

If your brain works as above, it's hard to invoke any such thing as "free will" and claim it exists. You indeed "choose", but that choice-algorithm is very particular and will not do things differently when run with the same options.

Here's a line for would-be atheists who believe in free will: stop believing in the soul. Free will is just another term for it. Let's look again at what free will implies. How it "feels", when you think the thought "I have free will."

"The Future" is what will happen next. From basic science, we know that "Physics" "determines" "the future". But wait, we also have free will, which means that "I" also "determine" "the future". Physics -> Future <- Me. Physics and I both affect Future, independent of each other.

At least, that's what it feels like. But that's not at all the case. Unless you believe in the soul, in which case I can't help you in this post, then you must agree you are made of atoms, of physically detectable things. That means that you are physics! Which means that (Physics (Me->) ) -> Future. In other words, you are part of the physics that determines the future. Even better, (Physics (Me->) -> Future ) I am inside physics, and the future is inside physics. The physics that determines the way my atoms move determines the future, and way up here on this macroscopic level it feels like there's an "I" that also determines the future. This is true from my perspective, but not reality's. Reality doesn't care above the level of quarks. (In fact above the level of its giant, single configuration space.)

"Physics is a mere description of things that happen!" I think that's insulting to physics in general, and especially to fundamental physics. I see how it is played as a subtle insult to physics or to its power, but it's like saying "humans came up with math, therefore math is flawed." In the case of fundamental physics, it's pretty safe to say "This is how reality actually is. It's not just a 'description', it's what it is."

Given that physics is deterministic, which it certainly appears to be, and given you are part of this deterministic physics, how can you claim to have free will that is outside of physics? How can you claim to have free will that is what gives you the power to choose in the first place?

Of course, assume physics is non-deterministic and random. How then can you claim to have any sort of control? Even if your "free will" is outside physics, the random physics you do interact with is surely capable of a "man in the middle" attack from what your free will dictates, what you do, and how you perceive and feel about what you did.

"Free will" is a soul. Detect it for me using the scientific method, then we'll talk.

What the hell does "free will" even explain? You indeed choose. I don't dispute that you make choices. So what's this extra "free will" bit that mentions you can make any choice you want, really, and nothing controls you... What is it explaining? Where is the actual theory to this idea? What new facts have I learned after I have accepted free will? What do I do differently? What experiences do I now anticipate?

I don't think I have fundamentally different anticipated experiences than most people, even if they claim to believe in free will. I expect to consider some options, and then "choose what I feel like". Where we differ is in the nature of the quoted phrase. I understand that my brain has a purely deterministic choice function it uses whenever I choose something. The way that feels from the inside is that I'm doing "whatever I feel like", but in reality it's whatever the algorithm does, and it could only have done it one way. "Free will" implies a ghost in the machine that lets some "fundamental" "you" choose things. So that even if your choice algorithm outputs something, you could still do something else. That's just garbage.

Is free will trying to explain irrational and sinful behavior? Why do you need that garbage? Irrational behavior is explained by the person having irrational thoughts which are caused by a horrible brain architecture (cognitive biases) as well as sloppy thinking in general from not being exposed to enough math. We don't need to postulate additionally that these people have a fuzzy concept of "free will" that says "Normally they would do the right thing but having free will lets them do the wrong thing." There's nothing that "lets" them do the wrong thing, they just do the wrong thing. Their choice algorithm, and therefore they, are responsible for the wrong thing.

Are humans the only species with free will? Dolphins and ravens are pretty smart, do they have free will? They certainly make choices. Where do you draw the line between what makes free will, and what doesn't make free will? Show me what free will actually is, give me an experiment! Don't just say "Look inside yourself, it's obvious", that is garbage mysticism.

I don't even have to talk about free will, because it's old sauce. Intelligent people realize that they can choose, and that they are responsible for their choices, but they don't have this mysterious "free will". All free will was ever made to try and be is an explanation for the existence of the choice algorithm, and that the choice algorithm can be overridden. No, it can't, and the existence of the choice algorithm in the human brain shows it has an evolutionary explanation for how it got there, and indeed we can see choice algorithms in all sorts of life. "Free will" was invented to try and separate us from the animals. It's just an extra component humans have tacked on, like the soul.

This of course does not explain why every human on the planet feels like they have free will. That requires asking the question "Why do I think I have free will?" which I partly explained earlier. It stems from a false intuition that we are somehow outside of physics. It stems from a false intuition that there's a fundamental "I". No, you're just a pattern. Everything that is "you", is informational, like bits in a computer. Indeed, it is also atoms, but it doesn't matter at all which atoms. Reduce yourself to your simplest parts; that's all you are. There is no macroscopic "you" overseeing things, even though that's what it feels like.

You still have a choice algorithm. It is complex enough that we currently don't have the computational resources to model it precisely, though don't expect that to be said in even 20 years from now, if not less. How your choice algorithm works is simple in principle, but the weightings of your choices are complicated and far from "rational" and "ideal". Just look at people consciously choosing to do stupid stuff, even though all rationality tells them otherwise.

You are still responsible for your choices. Just because a man shoots another man is, fundamentally, just a bunch of states of the gigantic configuration space, does not mean the man who shot the other man should get off scott-free because his actions were determined by physics. He IS physics.

The people who profess free will or try to make it compatible with determinism are theists in disguise. Religion carries with it a lot of nice, comforting, intuitive ideas that even proclaimed atheists haven't let go of. When an atheist has such things, I call them "not atheist enough." That is not a compliment.

Any arguments made in the comments in favor of free will shall probably be ignored, because frankly I'm sick of dealing with this garbage. It's just like the idea of a soul, and equally revolting.

Posted on 2009-12-02 by Jach

Tags: atheism, free will, philosophy


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