Friday, March 18, 2011

Placeholder Post: "Free Will" is undefined

Hello all -- haven't been here for a dog's age, for a number of reasons. But my semi-regular mid-morning splurge of reading a backlog of news, blogs, emails, etc. brought me to some folks cynical on the future of human survival and one dude cynical on conservation or sustainability, period (conservation being the propping up of things found unfit to survive, seeming to be his point). For one thing, it occurred to me that both of these dudes (one immensely annoying, one that I simply disagree with--and who is one of the few folks linking to this blog) seem rather certain of their conclusions. They both, to be sure, use critical thinking processes and scientific evidence to reach their conclusions. But they seem to evince a certainty in things I neither a) share, b) find productive, or c) find utility-maximizing. That is to say, if we know anything from patterns from history (which both thinkers rely on extensively, with good reason), we know that certainty that you have reasoned correctly has very little, if any, correlation with the odds that you have reasoned correctly. Many people who are certain are wrong, and many who are tentative have been proven right. So their certainty in their pronouncements I find annoying (says the guy with enough certainty to declare things on blogs).

But this spiraled into a series of other thoughts in the shower (few enough of which had to do with the papers that I need to grade, others I need write, or the breakfast I need to eat, sigh), and led me back to an idea I had the other day:

Free Will is undefinable.

I've had this thought before (though I'm not going to be arsed with finding a link for yeh), but my thought before was more that you could not put into precise words what you mean by free will. This is true for a certain number of people, but Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) among others have simply summed it up as this: the ability to make choices that don't originate purely from material causes (i.e. it can't be traced through physical causes and changes in the brain and environment, i.e. it has a supra-natural--supernatural, if you will--origination). In other words, if there is no soul or manifest self beyond biology, there cannot be free will, because biology, like everything else, is subject to deterministic laws. (For our purposes here, I define even chaotic results are deterministic, in that their outcomes are still determined by physical laws, there is just room for multiple outcomes under the determined constraints. Philosophy Bro briefly broaches some of this under indeterminism.) But it occurred to me a bit ago: a soul is undefined.

Ok, so this is turning into a post, not a placeholder. But: the soul. Let's stick with Christian conceits--if Hell were unending torment, or Heaven unending pleasure, what would that mean? It occurred to me--the human brain is configured in such a way that it would eventually just stop registering pain if it went on forever; you'd become inured to it. If you didn't, or if it kept escalating, you'd go some form of crazy--you would no longer be yourself. And once you've lost your mind, can you keep losing it, some more? Same with unending heavenly bliss--novelty is important to human satisfaction. If you just get the same pleasure again and again, you again become inured to it (see: hard drugs) and need "higher highs". And again, if they keep going higher ad infinitum, well, we're back to insanity in the membranity.

But it's all heavenly and shit, right? It defies the laws of physical reality. Ok -- so -- imagine you, but it's a you with no maximum capacity for pleasure or pain. You can keep getting "higher" or "lower" forever. And ever. Like, not years, decades. Centuries. Millennia. Eons. Umm... no. "You" would no longer be "you", at least, not in any way you recognize--are you the same person you were as a newborn? No? Well imagine that level of change... times infinity. But, if it's your soul, it's something that's *more* you than *you*, right? It's your *essence*. Well, if our essence is something so essential that it's the same from when we're a newborn (imagine here, for example, newborn Jesus, Hitler, Buddha, Stalin, Gandhi, Mandela, and MLK--and imagine that at birth, somehow, their essences are as different or distinct from each other as they were at any other point in their life), then our essence is something that is essentially unknowable, un-understandable to us, ourselves.

Ok -- all of this is to say that all that we know of ourselves is grounded in material reality. If free will is defined as the ability to make decisions outside of physical causes, well--imagine what that means. What does it mean to make a choice unconstrained by anything? If we had a "soul" unconstrained by our biology, how would our choices differ? "Well," one could say, "They would be rational." Ok--rational according to what metric or goal? That is to say, would they be rational at maximizing our own "well-being", at maximizing the world's, at pure logic, at what? And what reason would "they", this soul, have to maximize any of those things if it wasn't constrained by biology and physics et al.? Without human subjectivity, as I've been telling my students, there is no reason to prefer existence to non-existence, good to bad, life to death, justice to injustice, fairness to unfairness.

This all changes, of course, if one presumes the universe is set up in some way to achieve some transcendental good of which we are only dimly aware (or any other transcendental goal, I guess). I would argue that "good" is undefinable outside of our experience, but it cannot be proven that there is not some ultimate "good" or "bad" we're stretching to in the very fabric of being (in the same way that it cannot be proven that my carpet is not made of infinitely many ingeniously disguised Timorese Leprachauns).