Thursday, October 24, 2013

Does Your i-phone Have Free Will?

An article at the blog physics arxiv explores the problem of free will and comes to the weird conclusion that not only do humans possess it but so might your i-phone. Here's how the article begins:
The problem of free will is one of the great unsolved puzzles in science, not to mention philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and so on. The basic question is whether we are able to make decisions for ourselves or whether the outcomes are predetermined and the notion of choice is merely an illusion.

There are two relatively new ideas that are particularly relevant [to the problem]. The first is quantum mechanics, the theory that describes the universe on the smallest scale. The second is the theory of computation which underpins much of modern technology and most of what passes for research in artificial intelligence. What bearing do these theories have on our understanding of free will?

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Seth Lloyd, one of the world’s leading quantum mechanics and theorists, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Lloyd argues that quantum mechanics does not provide any mechanism that helps us understand free will. By contrast, he shows that the theory of computation is far more useful.

He argues that there are clear mechanisms in computation that make the outcome of a given calculation unpredictable, especially to the person or object making it. The key contribution of this latest work is a mathematical proof of this idea.

It is this inability to know the outcome of our own deliberations that gives rise to our impression that we possess free will, he says.
You'll have to read the rest of the article to see what this has to do with the i-phone, but what's not clear about the section excerpted above is whether there is a distinction to be made between the "impression" of having free will and the reality of free will. It's one thing to feel that our choices are free. We all experience that. The problem is whether the feeling of freedom is an illusion, and it doesn't seem to me that Lloyd's contribution makes it clear that he's talking about the ontological reality of libertarian free will and not just a deep but illusory sense that we're exercising a free choice when we make a decision.

In other words, if all he's doing is explaining why we feel free, that's not especially helpful. What's needed is a compelling argument that demonstrates that we are, in fact, genuinely free to choose between alternatives. It's that argument that has eluded scientists and philosophers since the time of the ancient Greeks.

Choosing Free Will

Jonathan Schooler wrote an interesting column on free will at Big Questions Online this past August. Schooler has researched the difference that belief in free will makes in people's lives, and he reports on his results in the article.

In the course of his essay Schooler outlines three basic positions philosophers and scientists hold on the issue. One view, popular among many who hold to metaphysical naturalism (the belief that the natural world is all there is; there's no supernatural), is called Hard Determinism. Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and a metaphysical naturalist, adumbrates the determinist's position with these words:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons…So, although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us, and we cannot change that.
Another view, called Compatibilism, seeks to find a media via between determinism and libertarianism. Schooler writes:
Compatibilism ’s assumption ... that genuine free will can exist in an entirely deterministic universe is by far the most popular view among modern philosophers. However, it is very difficult for me to gain an intuitive understanding of how our decisions can be in any real sense free if they are the unavoidable consequence of deterministic and potentially random processes.
It may be popular, but it's something of a squishy cop-out. Schooler's objection to it is well-taken. It's difficult to see how, in a universe in which the laws of physics determine everything, those laws can be circumvented in the mental processes that create our choices.

The third view, Libertarianism, is Schooler's preferred position. He says:
The Libertarian view that conscious intent somehow transcends the causal chain of physical events most closely resonates with my personal experience, but it is difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to imagine how this might happen.
Indeed, it is. The idea of a free choice is devilishly difficult to flesh out. Even the Libertarian believes that our choices are caused by something - our character, our desires, our hopes, etc. - and if these things are the cause of our choices why do they not determine our choices? Here's Schooler again:
The lack of a fully satisfying conceptualization of free will leads me to conclude that all three major views are contenders, but I yearn for the formulation of other accounts that could be more readily reconciled with both logic and experience.

Given this quandary, each of us is faced with deciding the matter for ourselves. The conclusion we draw will depend on our personal predispositions and for many be informed by logic and scientific evidence.
He might have also said that the conclusion we draw will likely be a function of our worldview. If we're naturalists we'll tend to be determinists because we believe that physics fixes all the facts of our cognitive experience. If we're theists we'll tend to be libertarians because we'll believe that we're accountable to God for our behavior, and such accountability can only exist if we're in some sense free.

If there's no way to show which view is correct perhaps we're justified in believing the one having the best consequences for how we live our everyday lives and which seems most compatible with our everyday experience. This is, in fact, Schooler's advice:
Yet as William James observed ... when an idea cannot be evaluated on reason alone, it may be appropriate to:

"Grant an idea or belief to be true," and ask "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"

For myself, the functionality of a belief in free will, both as revealed by research and through personal experience, contributes to its appeal. Free will from my perspective is like sailing a ship; we are buffeted by innumerable forces out of our control and will inevitably get somewhere regardless of what we do. However, if we take the helm we are more likely to end up where we want to go.
It's very difficult to live consistently as a determinist. In our daily experience we simply assume at almost every moment that we are free. Moreover, if we are not free the consequences for our moral lives, for our judgments of what others deserve, and for our own human dignity, are severe. Determinism, if true, undermines them all.

Paradoxically, if determinism is true, the determinist cannot fault the libertarian for clinging to his belief in free will since his decision to do so was determined by his environment and/or his genes. The libertarian isn't responsible for having made the choice to be a libertarian and can't be blamed for it. Of course, it's also the case that determinists are determinists not because of the truth of that position but because they were somehow determined by those same forces to believe in determinism.

It's a rather odd position the determinist finds himself in.