Why the free will issue is unsolvable
Regular Network Norfolk columnist Jame Knight explains where the is never a resolution to the debate over free will.
Free will debates seem to come up every five minutes somewhere on the Internet, and seemingly always with no resolution or agreement. Ask yourself why a subject never reaches agreement and you'll usually find one of two reasons; either the question is unanswerable (due to some kind of limited human capacity), or category mistakes are being made in the terms and definitions being applied in discourse. Free will may be one of those philosophical issues about which both reasons apply. Even if we accept a limitation on how far we can get with the former reason, it seems to me that the latter problem kills the debate every time - particularly as virtually nobody seems to insist on rectifying this before the debate ensues properly. I'm talking, of course, about the inability and/or unwillingness to define free will properly.
So, given the foregoing, I think I can show how far we can take the free will debate, by insisting on an explanation and then showing how the most palatable definition leads us into a cul-de-sac. I don’t think we have free will – I think it is a concept we’ve made up (albeit for good reasons). Many people disagree with me – they think we do have free will. To begin with, I usually submit the following challenge to those who think we do have free will, and I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer yet. My first bit of advice is, don’t believe anyone who says we have ‘free will’ until they have first told you what they mean by free will, and what being ‘free’ means in a universe that drives organisms thermodynamically without the aid of human thought. I think you’ll be surprised how infrequent it is that anyone can even explain free will in terms of what I just asked for.
I don't think anyone sensible denies that the universe is a seamless whole - rich in its 14 billion year history of causal activity. In that universe we humans do seem to make choices, don't we - just as we do seem to observe the weather. If the weather and our choices are both happening in nature then on what grounds can we say the weather exists and free will doesn't? It's a good question - and one that is frequently asked by philosophers. But I think it is easy to solve. Take a hurricane as an example. The causal factors in a hurricane are connected to everything else in the universe's seamless whole. A hurricane lies in cycle of evaporation, which lies in complex interactions amongst trillions of molecules, which lies in complex interactions in the quantum world, which lies in complex interactions that extend right the way back to the governing laws in nature's blueprint (however that came about). So we have no trouble agreeing that a hurricane is part of nature, just like all other physical laws are part of nature.
But it is because a hurricane is part of nature that I think free will is an illusion. The universe is a complex nexus of physical interactions that will run an inevitable course irrespective of human will – and this includes the physical agitations that make up the human mind. We are right to identify 'choices' because they do seem to be a genuinely true aspect of human cognition in that it does appear we make them. Perhaps for clarity's sake we could say that choices appear to exist in conjunction with perception and experience, and that they are an evolutionary utility that places nature's cosmological inevitability in the background of experience. To use an analogy, it is rather like actors on a stage playing out improvisations while all the time being aware that the overall performance and plot pertains to a script that they are not free to change ultimately.
But is there inconsistency in my saying that a cycle of evaporation or a hurricane is a part of nature and that free will is an illusion? In other words, where do we stop? Is every level of explanation of every phenomenon an illusion, just because there’s always another level right the way back to nature's blueprint? Or are they just different kinds of illusion? Well, I won’t deny that both the cycle of evaporation and free will exist in as useful a sense as anything at all in reality can be said to exist. But the trouble is, a cycle of evaporation is, like free will, a kind of “illusion", but the illusion isn't down to the fact that there are other levels - it is due to the fact that the human mind constructs a reality exclusive to its own mental manifold.
This is the important thing that so many are missing. In the sense of human proprietary mental constructions – everything qualifies as a kind of illusion. Just think how many different ways a human being can perceive a table in a sunlit room, dependent on his position of observations – you’ll see there is not one absolute perception of the table – there are only contingent perceptions, which shows them all to be human constructs, which shows they are kinds of illusion in that they don’t exist anywhere else except in the minds that perceive them.
I think the following illustration will show what I mean: imagine if there could be some kind of consciousness in a neutrino, or some kind of deeper dimensional particulate object - do you think a cycle of evaporation or a hurricane or a table would exist then? No it wouldn’t, because such things are exclusive to animals that have evolved in a particular ecological niche that facilitates those perceptions. I know this because I know that a table doesn’t exist for an ant or a flea in the same way that it exists for a human.
I said that both a cycle of evaporation and free will exist in regard to some kind of practical usefulness. But that means little in philosophical terms - my cousin's young son imagines he is a superhero when he is in his costume, and that has practical recreational utility for him - but no one would suggest that his 'superhero-ness' exists in any useful philosophical sense. So, we have to state that there is one key distinction to make - a cycle of evaporation belongs in the class of objects we 'perceive' - it's a class that involves things like tables, chairs, plants, and empirical objects of that kind. Free will belongs in the class of objects we 'conceive' - it's a class that involves things like 'happiness', 'justice', 'team spirit', etc, which are not physical objects of study, but concepts that help us interface with physical reality.
Given the foregoing assessment, I think 1) We might find it useful to keep in mind a category distinction between objects of perception and objects of conception. And 2) Our world appears to be a world in which nature's inevitable trajectory brings about minds that construct a perspectival first person reality within that trajectory that leads them to believe they are making free choices, when what they are actually doing is operating within a mental matrix that disallows the vast majority of information implicit in this inevitable trajectory that makes up nature's grand cosmic story.
This means that once we get the definition of free will right we find out how to answer the philosophical conundrum. Maybe that's why so few people are willing to define it - because we find that as soon as we define it we drive ourselves into a philosophical cul-de-sac. We can certainly accept that both free will and a cycle of evaporation exist in as useful a sense as anything at all in the physical universe can be said to exist. But the cul-de-sac remains in front of us, because the grounds on which I would say 'free will' is not a fact and a 'cycle of evaporation' is a fact is that the latter is not inconsistent with nature's inevitable trajectory and the former is. In other words, a cycle of evaporation and a hurricane can be part of the inevitable trajectory, whereas free will cannot, because one is never 'free' from that cosmic trajectory. So the free will either is part of the trajectory - in which case, it is not really acting in any kind of freedom separate from the trajectory, making it only a useful illusion; or free will is not part of the cosmic trajectory - in which case it is claimed to be no longer part of nature, where, at that point it falls down by not being definable (as per my initial request for a definition). Either way, the idea of 'free will' gets us in philosophical trouble.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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