of Freedom and Free Will

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Funny thing, the freedom that is. Here I’m talking about the freedom to (be and do stuff) not the freedom from (oppression, slavery, etc). We have been raised to value it, but once we have it, we are desperate to trade it for safety, power, money, or whatever else is on the table. Maybe because we know what to do with all these things, but the freedom to be yourself sounds abstract and unsettled, and not that many people like themselves anyway.

On top of that, apparently, there’s no free will (Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris), so what was that freedom we were talking about…

The argument about free will goes like that. Without going too deep into the philosophy of the term, one simple definition is: free will is your control over your decision-making. There is nothing to confirm the objective existence of a free will. Every decision we make has two components: random and deterministic. The random component is not under our control, the environment/nature is partly stochastic (which includes us) and that is a fact. The randomness within our decision-making is simply part of the randomness of the world we are living in.

The deterministic part is a bit more complicated. We are a product of our genes and our environment. Our genes are not our choice. Our environment even when it seems to be partly under our control, actually is not. At a very early age, we do not choose our environment so our mind is shaped by our genes and the environment we were provided with. Later, we are able to choose our friends, interests, environment, etc but all this is based on the mind which has been formed at an earlier age (hence, out of our control). And this goes on and on… as a result none in the deterministic part of the decision-making process is really under our control, even if it seems that it is.

As usual, it is more complicated than that: even though we know that any decision we make is a result of many long chains of events and none of them is really under our control (that’s ontology level). We don’t know all these events and how exactly they form our decision, which is epistemology level. Even if we can guess some correlations, the sheer amount of connections and how much each of them is involved (butterfly effect) make the whole picture much bigger than anybody could comprehend. So the principal knowledge that many long chains of events predetermine our decision-making serves no practical purpose. The contra-argument is: there are simple lives and simple situations in which case inferring decision-making is not impossible in terms of probabilities. The prediction of our behaviour (and decisions) is a matter of knowledge and good models. An intellect will forecast successfully the behaviour of others with the power of its abilities and the complexity of the situation. The conclusion here is that the “free” part is a matter of intellectual power. Even when you feel free in your decision-making if I can predict your actions your feeling is delusional. For now, the ability of a single mind (even professional) to make good enough predictions are rare and probabilistic. Wait ‘till AI enters the game (remember Cambridge Analytica) and then you will see where the real fun is…

A familiar example may help: imagine a small child you know very well. You can tell with good enough precision what the child will do and why (s)he is doing it. So the child is convinced that (s)he is free to make their own decisions, but from your perspective, all their actions are a consequence of a number of previous events and conditions, none of which child’s fault. Even so, you must punish the child if it has done something bad, not because it has free will and responsibility, but because we need to condition the child via example not to do bad things. The relationship between a person and society follows the same pattern. It doesn’t matter if a person has free will or not as long as the person takes into account the social environment, and the environment has a convention that you are free by definition (with some age and medical exceptions) and hence responsible for your actions. The person may or may not believe in free will, but if they include the factor of responsibility in their decision-making process, that is the whole free will idea we accept is about.

The idea of free will is so persistent in the history of human society, even if it is something that cannot be actually proven. Free will is a social construct (a convention, a story) which as any social construct has two sides: purpose and tangibility. The purpose is to create a state of mind for people (to feel responsible for their actions) by including the conviction of free will in the decision-making process. People have been using free will in their decision-making since there has been a society, and change would be catastrophic on a personal and social level. So, we have to convince people around us that they have free will so we can hold them responsible (judge them) for what they do (or not). One may say, that society conditions its members to behave in a responsible way. The tangibility is defined by the conviction of the people that something is socially accepted. So as popular and deep into people’s minds is one idea as real it is. Think money, the only thing that makes it real is the trust (in the institution which prints them) that the paper bill represents a real worth. The same goes for free will, as long as we believe in the good story of free will (even delusional) that makes it real (tangible).

The question of whether there is a better way to make ourselves feel responsible is open for debate. There is a personal bias: I would like to think that I have free will despite all the discussions above. I don’t know about everybody but I don’t consider myself evolved enough to function without some well-controlled minimum of delusions (denial of death, free will, etc). Or as Woody Allen puts it “One must have one’s delusions to live. If you look at life too honestly and clearly, life becomes unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise, you will admit.”

Categories human condition, society


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