Tue 21

I Don’t Believe in Free Will

Max Look I’m no philosopher, but in the last blog, I mentioned I don’t believe in free will any more, and Jeffrey was like, uh, what, so here is my take.

This isn’t going to be one of those dumb theoretical arguments where I make you accept that X is true and then aha then logically you must believe Y. Oh no no. This is pure feels. Here we go.

  1. Chickens. I have owned chickens. Well, not owned. Rented. They are robots. I could write a 100-line program that generates behavior indistinguishable from a real chicken. If chickens have free will, boy, is it hard to tell.

  2. Code. I program sometimes. The code has no free will. It does what I tell it. But it can be at least as unpredictable as chickens.

  3. Brains. People are easily persuaded. I mean, frighteningly so. The older I get, the more the brain seems like a machine with a bunch of controls painted on.

  4. Stories. People crave a narrative. You know that optical illusion where you see things out of the corner of your eye that aren’t there, because your brain sketches in something that would make sense? That’s all of us, all the time.

  5. Probability. We don’t get it. We assign cause and effect to anything that moves. Like, real talk, the universe is an ocean of roiling chaos, where everything is determined by uncaring forces beyond our control. But we thirst for narrative order, so a thing can’t just happen, it has to have a moral purpose. And we are prepared to invent one.

  6. Sports. I like running numbers on things. It turns out that all team sport is basically rolling a bunch of dice and shouting, “The blue dice have started to believe in themselves, they’ve got all the momentum.” This is really just an example of #5 but I didn’t want the paragraph to be that long.

  7. Everything is the same. You’re not so different from a chicken. It’s just a matter of degree. The world isn’t merely non-binary but non-categorical.

  8. Extrapolation. From time to time, I realize people are a bit more predictable than I’d thought. This happens much more often than the other way around. I can follow this trend to its logical conclusion.

  9. Motive. Absence of control is scary. We like to believe we’re in charge of things. That’s suspicious.

  10. And: Whenever I tell someone, they say, “Well, if I don’t have free will, how would I be able to do THIS?” and wave their hands about. They all do this.

    That’s basically it. I could be wrong. It’s just the way I’m leaning these days.

    It doesn’t change anything, by the way. I don’t like people any less just because they’re wet determinism machines. If anything, it’s endearing. I mean, look at the humans, waving their hands, thinking they’re making choices. That’s adorable. And I’m not going to murder anyone. Even if I can’t avoid it, I feel like I can, and want to avoid that situation. Just like if we’re all living in a computer simulation, being mean to people remains bad, and has exactly the same consequences. Not that we’re living in a computer simulation. That idea is just crazy. It would be a simulation on some kind of device we’ve never heard of.

    P.S. I have also read a lot of Philip K. Dick. That could also be a factor.


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Machine Man subscriber Jan Van Eemeren (#286)

Location: Belgium
Quote: "nonsense upon stilts"
Posted: 706 days ago

If the world is non-categorical, how can there be laws of nature? Eg. Forces of type X work on things of kind Y in such and such ways. 'Type' and 'kind' are categories. And no physical laws, no determinism... Have a good day ;)

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 705 days ago

Aren't categories just labels we make up because it's easier to deal with groups than a continuum? At least, a lot of the time. Gravity for example works on everything in proportion to mass and distance, not just on certain categories of things. You are maybe thinking of other examples.

Afforess (#8270)

Location: USA
Quote: "a witty saying proves nothing"
Posted: 705 days ago

Benjamin Libet might be of some interest to you. I find I agree with his interpretation of the data. "Free won't".

Radiatia (#6360)

Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Posted: 705 days ago

I am obligated to welcome you to the club, Max and do so through no will of my own.

I've spent years arguing against the existence of free will, and indeed if I had free will I'd probably choose not to involve myself in such tedious arguments but alas I just can't help it.

On a semi-related note, I'm starting to freak out about synchronicity too. I'm also reading Philip K Dick right now (as in literally was reading one of his books when I saw the email pop-up notification) and I just can't shrug off a thing like that.

(Due to me not having enough free will to choose to shrug such a thing off.)

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 705 days ago

I think "free will" is generally a very poorly defined concept.

It can't mean that your behaviour is random and unpredictable, because that would imply a distinct lack of any "will" to speak of. Someone that behaved randomly would be better described as a lunatic than a strong-willed person.

The only sense I've ever been able to make of it is that an actor with "free will" is driven "significantly" by its internal state (mind), and that it's hard to dominate that internal state from the outside.
Your behaviour is not just a function of your sensory input, but also of what's in your mind, all the memories and instincts it pulls up in response to mediate behaviour. It's all those things in the mind that give your behaviour that "you" flavour. The coherent pattern of behaving and choosing and purpose is "will". And the difficulty of changing it merely by controlling sensory input is what makes it free.
Basically, I can't change all your memories and instincts by whispering some magic words in your ears and booping your nose. And even embedding you in the matrix and exerting full control over what you see and hear and feel, etc, it wouldn't be easy to replace that "you" by something entirely different.

So I would say determinism doesn't affect free will at all.
And the randomness that quantum-mechanics injects into the universe may "save" us from being completely deterministic machines, but contributes nothing to giving us "will". To the contrary, it's our predictability that evidences "will".

And if this bit of input hasn't overridden the intended parts of your internal state, then clearly you must have free will.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 705 days ago

@Afforess: That Benjamin Libet experiment is great stuff, thanks.

@towr: I agree with your definitions but I do think I can change all your memories and instincts by whispering magic words in your ear and booping your nose. Or if not that, then I can at least change your actions, i.e. the output of your system, which is what matters. That is, even if you do have an internal state that's an unalterable and irreplaceable "you," it can still be made to produce predictable outcomes given crafted inputs. And if that's the case, then there's no free will in any practical sense. Although I also agree with you that unpredictable random output doesn't prove free will either!

Obvs all this is theoretical garbage that doesn't buy anyone a coffee.

Brenda (#7217)

Location: Berowra Bushland
Quote: "entering your world via the book portal is awesome"
Posted: 705 days ago

In my working life I studied NLP (neuro linguistic programming) and EFT (emotional Freedom Technique) and found that I could effectively make changes in a client with what may look like whispering magic words in your ear and tapping your face. Very handy when their programming was stuck in a loop e.g. PTSD and needed a pattern break.

Recently my heart has decided to dance to a different rhythm and I was reminded again of how electrical our bodies are. Too little and we cease to function, too much and ditto.So this coppertop is about to be given a small recharge to reset my electrical programming.

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 704 days ago

I fully agree you can get predictable outcomes from particular inputs. Because that's what I think "will" means. But that doesn't necessarily mean you can get the outcomes you want.

You can probably control whether I choose chocolate cake or apple pie. The difference doesn't matter to me that much. But it's different for choices where my preference is much more pronounced, like whether I kiss or kill my girlfriend. Because killing is not a likely outcome in the probability distribution of my soul*.

Murder is something I'm physically able to do, so if I had no will and you had full control over my actions, it shouldn't be a problem. But your control is limited by both your possible inputs and the existing mapping of input to output. (And changing the latter significantly would take a long time of conditioning, and is either way unlikely to open up all physically possible outcomes.)

So.. Can you make a chicken order chicken McNuggets over the internet? It has the motor skills to type (hunt and peck) on a keyboard, so if you controlled the chicken and it had no free will, this should be possible.

An entirely different line of argument would of course be to say that even if you could control a person utterly, that doesn't mean they're not usually free. Analogous to how there are people running around free even though you could lock up any of them.

And now I'm late for work. But I didn't have a choice :P

* I worked very hard to shoehorn "probability distribution of the soul" into this comment. If there isn't a book with that title, there should be.

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 704 days ago

I do wonder at what point I'd say a computer has free will, though. I'll probably be terribly inconsistent and unfair, and rate a computer as having less free will than a human even when it is in every way superior, more complicated and harder to control.

NB if you can control people's behaviour, please have Elon Musk give me one of his many ;)
Although I suppose if there's no free will, you can't choose to do that :(

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 704 days ago

Huh, words preceded with a dollar sign disappear (or at least I hope it doesn't get interpreted as a variable and replaced by the value; ).
In any case, it it was supposed to say "many (dollar-sign) billions".

Shoe (#4776)

Location: D.C. Suburb
Quote: "“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” —Muriel Rukeyser"
Posted: 697 days ago

3. Brains. People are easily persuaded. I mean, frighteningly so. The older I get, the more the brain seems like a machine with a bunch of controls painted on.

If #3 were true, then it would be true about persuading people to believe anything, any time. If that were the case, then it would be easy to persuade people to believe in any conflicting ideas, back and forth, ad infinitum. Nobody would ever make up their mind for the long term because different factions would perpetually be persuading them to change their mind.

If that isn't convincing, the idea that people are easily persuaded requires the existence of a persuader.

How would you imagine people who initially, intentionally engage in persuading others as not using free will to do so? Yes, I recognize that plenty of persuasion happens without choice, like social media shares contributing to persuasion without the sharer showing signs of free will. But the initiator? Like Putin deciding to get Russians to support his war by convincing his people he is helping Ukraine by eradicating their Nazi problem? That he decided to use persuasion, arguably baked in. To choose denzification as what he would persuade them to believe--that seems like free will.

If you haven't seen it yet, do check out the movie "Everything Everywhere All At Once." Arguably, the multiverse theory proves our behaviors are not predictable, but still doesn't prove we have free will. The movie does a lovely job of considering that issue, however.

I believe you created this post just to see what the response would be, not because you actually believe it. Persuade me otherwise? ;)

Bathild June Covington (#8309)

Location: California, USA
Quote: ""When justice is not word because it is air and we breathe it." Barbara Kingsolver"
Posted: 580 days ago

Max! I follow you and talk about you often with my students at California State University, Chico! Thanks again for talking with me a few semesters ago about Providence and providing more information for the optional book club I keep trying to grow. Yes, I still have my pet emu, P2 and he is doing great. My two dogs and two cats are doing great, too! Just wanted to touch base and let you know I appreciate what you do!

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