Monday 25 September 2017

#262 Really basic thoughts on the existence of free will

For several days after writing #250 The Desolation of Windsor, I regularly checked the comments. In responding to a message containing the word "reject", I'd seized the opportunity to launch into one of my favourite discussions. That of the nature of free will. As usual, it was an easy conversation to start. Bringing the term into question often ruffled feathers.

If you leave a car running on a treadmill and step out of it, the seat belt alert will flash and bleep. You can walk out of the garage and go have your dinner, watch a film, take the dog for a walk and go to bed and that seat belt light will still be flashing. The car doesn't realise there's no one inside it.

Does it matter?

A concern held by some in the face of the abandoned car is that without free will, there can be no accountability. Yet I certainly hold my laptop accountable when it behaves inappropriately. If it does something really unwelcome, I make a judgement that it should be sent directly to a computer repair centre for a stretch. Once there, the laptop might be instructed to run diagnostics "to think about what it did".

With any luck and a bit of help from the repair specialist, my laptop would return to full functionality and service. It would have to complete certain tasks to show that it had changed. The machine's lack of free will seems no great hindrance to its operation or repair. In fact it probably makes both processes a lot simpler. I don't blame the machine when it goes wrong and it doesn't blame me for sending it away. Both I and the laptop simply do what we can to get it back to its optimum performance.


Running on empty said...

The difference is that people are not machines, they have personalities and souls. They are sentient.

Profound Familiarity said...

Saying that people are different from machines because they have personalities is like saying bananas are different from oranges because they have banana skins. They do both have skins though. If we look at the meaning behind the word personality, it boils down to the qualities that make one person different from another. Machines have an equivalent because they have different features. We could call it machinality.

Would you like to explain what you believe a soul is and why a machine (or human that behaves mechanically) couldn't have one?

If we take sentience to mean that people are able to perceive and feel things, I'd agree that people have a much greater level of self-awareness than a machine but it doesn't seem to follow that because a person is sentient, they have free will. This is because people are able to feel things that aren't real. It seems possible a person could feel like that they have free will without actually having it.

Running on empty said...

Well here is the wordy version of what I believe the soul is

It is the supernatural part of all of us. Great artists of all genres can capture it. I saw my first hubby's soul leave his body when he died, in that the light went out of him.

Profound Familiarity said...

Ah ok so you believe there's a part of each person that can't be explained by science and may not conform to any known laws of nature. I tend to more or less agree with that because there's probably still a lot about the people that science doesn't know.

How does that mean we have free will then?

Running on empty said...

I can't speak personally for anyone else, but I know I have free will. Sometimes I have to make decisions against what I'd like to do, and have a real struggle of will. In matters of choices I tend to follow a logical path, either using the pros and cons, or logical consequences thought trails. There is overlap. Much of my decision making is informed by my Christianity.

Profound Familiarity said...

So we're saying that because you struggle with decisions, you have free will.

We might then ask what does it mean to struggle with a decision? I can see how, when you're really striving and stressing over which decision to make, it'll certainly feel like a significant experience. You'll be having the experience of imagining the different outcomes, maybe thinking and talking about what a Christian should do in those circumstances. The difficulty, or if you like, the complexity of the decision would make it seem all the more real, maybe you get caught up in the decision-making process. Maybe it consumes you for a while. The more difficult a decision is to make, the more vivid and we might use a word like "heart-felt", the decision-making process becomes.

Notice how, when you consider all the options, think about them and talk about them, you're still just imagining what might happen. It's something that takes place in your mind (or soul if you believe the soul's involved). You might make some plans or preparations but you haven't actually made the decision yet, you're just thinking about it.

So when do the ideas actually happen?

When they become real. We know that the thoughts aren't real. I mean, they are real thoughts but they're not real in the outside world. Like if a child can't sleep because she says there's a monster in the closet, we can look in the closet and see there's not a real monster in there. Then we could say to the child that it was just her thoughts.

So, when you're deciding with two things and you make a decision, it feels like you're narrowing down the possibilities and in a sense you are. You pick an outcome and it happens. It becomes real. The question I'm asking is, what happened to the other outcome? The one that didn't happen?

Well, that's just it, it didn't happen. The free will believer says "oh but I could've chosen that outcome if I wanted to" and I say "prove it". Go back in time throughout the whole of history and prove that every single thing that hasn't happened could have happened.

It's not possible.

Now what?

Running on empty said...

Yes, the alternatives really could have happened if I, or we, had decided differently.

Profound Familiarity said...

But you can't prove it.

Fizzfan said...

Free will. Machines? The only options they have is manufactured into them by people.
Of course proving that something might have happened can't be proven. It didn't happen. That doesn't mean it couldn't have done. A lot of what we choose to do is based on what we know not to do. Not because we've done it but someone else has and it's had a bad outcome.
How much free will we actually have is questionable and probably a good thing. Free thought? Thankfully unlimited amounts, well mostly.

Profound Familiarity said...

Surely our thoughts are pretty much as free (or not free) as our will? I think most people find it hard to stop thinking, or start thinking about something from time to time. Plus, there are a lot of narrow-minded people, myself included, whose thoughts usually follow well-trodden paths, not always to the person's benefit.

Glad to see you chiming in with your ten cents Fizzy.

How're you?

Running on empty said...

I can, but I'm choosing not to.

Fizzfan said...

I'm fine thanks. yourself?
I couldn't post the other day because Google decided I wasn't me?
Anyway - Free will is limited because it's complicated by options, experience, perceived outcomes, social standing, wealth, support and confidence. We can DO practically anything, but our learned or perceived consequences control us.
Thought is the only freedom we have but even that is driven by mood, hormones, experience, lifestyle, emotional well being, support, genetics and circumstance.
Maybe nothing's truly free?

Running on empty said...

I think about walking away from my current life often, then choose not to do it. Previous choices I made would have avoided my current dilemma, but I wouldn't have my daughter. Those choices were thoroughly researched, too.

Running on empty said...

I think you have more freedoms than you realise. Habit can be a great inhibitor. Imagine that you were given a month to live. Then do some of the things you would do in that circumstance.

Running on empty said...

Dan, you are more free than either Fizz or I, being tied down by neither spouse, child or job. You should shrug off the shackles.

Fizzfan said...

If I didn't know I was about to snuff it (which would probably be quite crushing and spoil my mood somewhat) I'd probably get drunk with friends and family a lot, spend a fortune on living the high life and being pampered, treat everyone I cared for to whatever they fancied, and give a massive finger to the rest of the world.
Laughing and loving is often teamed up with self indulgence.