Free will : to surprise and desire, a letter.

Over drinks last night, one of the beautiful young ladies in attendance brought up the question of ‘free will’ with me. I guess she’d read a book on the subject for her book club, one that seemed to denounce its existence, and had found the arguments against agency quite compelling. At the time, we scratched the surface of complex systems and epistemic opacity, enough for me to convey that I disagreed with the book/her, but without her conceding the win. As I’d enjoyed the mere fact that such a philosophical subject matter was raised at such an informal gathering, and with such a charming conversational partner no less, I was content to leave it at that.

Then, just a couple of hours ago, she sent me a follow-up e-mail with the name and title of the book, which she’d forgotten in our earlier conversation. I took this opportunity to flesh out my position in favour of ‘free will,’ which I will share with you now for posterity as much as anything else :

Subject: Re: Free Will book
From: Peter Dushenski <dushenski@gmail.com>
To: Ann [redacted] <[redacted]@hotmail.com>
Date: Sat, 11 Apr 2015 16:32:13 -0600

Without having read this particular book myself, for the purposes of a healthy discourse from which we might both benefit, and as your position last night seemed to be inclined towards absolute determinism and the absence of free will, I’ll take the counter-position in this age-old debate and say that humans do indeed have the ability to possess free will, while first granting that this freedom necessarily cannot be exercised in all times and all places.

These conditions aside, the question of ‘free will’ must begin with the slightly trickier ‘freedom’ aspect of the proposition. If you’re to argue that our destinies are ‘written in the stars’ as it were, then this is not to deny the ‘will’ – which is to say desire, something we can all confess to having experienced – but rather the freedom to veer off from our pre-determined courses.

Freedom, be it of a single particle or an entire person, is essentially the observation of something’s indeterminability both from both the position of the observer and the agent in question. This is to say that that unfree things are largely predictable and free things aren’t. That’s it, nothing more.

With this definition in mind, we can logically demonstrate that freedom, and by extension free will, exists by demonstrating that the converse is false – so if freedom doesn’t exist, then we should be able to observe complete determinism in everything all the time, and we can then proceed to make this proof either theoretically or in practise. Since the theoretical requires some maths that don’t necessarily form a common language, let’s stick with the practical for now. Start with a cup of coffee and some cream. Take a pipette and drop a single drop of cream into the cup of coffee. Can you predict how the turbulent patterns of cream with disperse within the mixed medium? I certainly can’t. And it turns out that no human can, nor can the most powerful supercomputers on the planet, not even the almighty Bitcoin network (at least not for more than a few seconds into the future). Crazy, eh? Something this relatively simple and this inanimate, and yet we can’t even determine, step-by-step, how it will over the next few minutes (though we can still infer complete and ultimately uniform distribution, just as we can predict that we’ll all die someday without knowing when or how). If simple coffee and cream are this complex, it’s no wonder we can’t predict what the precise temperature will be next June 6th at 5:49am.

To take another practical example, let’s pick up a baseball-sized rock. Now, we know that if we place this rock in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, far from the reach of man or animal, it will largely stay there for the next few centuries or millennia as the elements slowly erode it, but that by and large it ain’t budgin’. By and large, this is a simple inorganic system, one we can feel pretty confident about making predictions about, and precisely because there’s very little freedom involved.

So what if instead of placing a rock in the middle of a field we planted a small black seed in the ground, one of unrecognized providence. Well, this little seed, since we don’t know what kind it is, may, given suitable conditions, grow into any number of plants. We could come back in 20 years to find a tasty apple tree or perhaps even a great big lumbering oak tree ; any of which would, again from the our perspective at the outset, have an unpredictable number of flowering bodies, an unpredictable number of stems and branches, and be of unpredictable height.

Now this is not to say that, particularly if we knew what kind of seed we were planting, we couldn’t guess ranges of these emergent quantities and qualities based on past experience, much in the same way that we could guess that our significant others will order some type of Eggs Benedict every time we go for brunch, but this is far from written in stone. Surprises are always possible, they could order the waffles!, even if they aren’t typical. This is really the fundament of freedom and life itself : the ability to surprise. And for as long as this ability exists, so too does freedom.

From this, we can see that your pet cat might surprise you with a dead mouse one morning, to remind you how much he appreciates your hospitality and friendship, but a human slave, who, not being free and therefore not having the agency of free will, cannot. So while there is no price that can be put on freedom, as anyone who earns a monthly salary can attest, there is most definitely a price that can be placed on the lack of freedom.

As we’ve taken the concept of freedom up the chain from the inorganic to the more complex biological level, where billions of individual cells ‘talk’ to each other by secreting chemicals that interact with one another in a myriad of cascading and non-linear capacities, we can see we’ve created a system so inherently opaque and so unpredictable as to embody the essence of what it means to be alive. The more predictable something is, the closer it is to being inorganic, which is to say, dead; the less predictable, the more alive.

And that’s all that freedom really is – being unpredictable – having the ability to go this way or that, to say yes or to say no, to write a 1,000 word response to a one-line email recommending a book or not to. So for as long as you can’t even predict what city you’ll live in in 5 years, much less 25 years from now, you’re free.

Freedom being addressed, the second part of the proposition, that of ‘will,’ is easier and quicker to assess, so I’ll wrap this lengthy diatribe up. Given that we know what freedom looks like, at what level in the hierarchy of organic beings can we say that will, that is, desire, comes into play? Personally, I’d argue that this is what separates man from beast, so to speak. To take a basic example of will, whereas animals eat out of necessity, humans can and do eat out of desire. How else can we explain strawberry cheesecake or coconut curry? That humans have desire can scarcely be contested, and I’d argue that from this desire (and freedom of course) comes much of the beauty of the human condition.

So the question of having free will or not seems to me to reduce to the question of being unpredictable and being desirous. Last time I checked, you seemed to possess both of these qualities, just as I do.

So I guess we must have free will.

10 thoughts on “Free will : to surprise and desire, a letter.

  1. majamalu says:

    There’s an obvious contradiction in the deterministic position, and a quick way to end the debate. Just ask her the following: Why are you trying to convince me that we are not free? — If you try to convince me that your position is valid, it is because you think I have the ability to change my mind.

    • Well, to put myself in her shoes, I suppose she could argue a number of things to counter that point :
      1. She doesn’t know if I genuinely believe in non-determinism and needs to test me.
      2. She may not actually be trying to convince me so much as expresses her opinion irrespective of the consequences.
      3. The vibrations of her vocal chords may be much more powerful than merely changing minds, and, like the butterfly’s beating wings, may cause tornadoes or wars or what have you, all of which is pre-ordained.

      I’m not sure that the act of arguing against determinism is proof that it can’t exist, but her freedom and desire to have the conversation at all certainly is.

  2. majamalu says:

    She can say that her desire to have the conversation is predetermined. The contradiction is not there, but in the very act of arguing.

    Why is she not having a debate with a washing machine, or a toaster, if indeed she is just expressing herself irrespective of the consequences?

    The act of arguing for determinism is proof that whoever is arguing do not believe in determinism.

  3. funkenstein says:

    Nice. All well and good until you separate “man from beast”, which certainly sounds ludicrous. Going back through however, it seems these are metaphors as your cat has played the role of “man” and a monthly wage earner the role of “beast”. At the moment I like to think intent goes all the way down the heirarchy (free will is everywhere.. after all the n-body problem is unpredictable).

    • Freedom is certainly everywhere in nature, certainly everywhere that life exists, but will as well ? I suppose this hinges on how we agree to understand desire, which I take to mean “a strong want or wish.” To my mind, an owl cannot wish anything in the sense that humans can wish. The owl, for example, doesn’t wish to be a hairless flat-nailed biped, though if you ask enough people, you’ll find one who very much envies the freedom of the owl and would trade places with it given the opportunity, no matter how absurd this proposition is on the face of it.

      It’s really this imagination, however foolhardy, that separates man from beast. It’s this ability to conceive of the preposterous and to pursue unlikely ends that pushes us to literally travel to the moon… and beyond. This is quite a bit more advanced from simple, in-the-moment intent.

  4. funkenstein says:

    Great answer. I don’t presume to know what owls imagine, but going to the moon probably seems really dumb to an owl. Not sure I’ve seen a really good argument for it yet either. Anyway what you say about imagination has a certain inspirational ring of truth to it. Ad astra!

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