Posts tagged ‘free will’


The buzzing of distant bees

Is there evil in Heaven? And is there free will?

I know it doesn’t really make sense to spend too much time wondering about the details of fictional universes (“if Peter and his friends could only fly when they were having happy thoughts, why did Tinkerbell, who was after all the source of the pixie-dust that let them fly, seem to have no trouble flying even when she was upset?”), but I am somehow fond of these questions at the moment.
Heaven, the flowchart
It’s a subject that I don’t remember coming up in the average Internet discussion of (Judeo-Christian) religion, and it seems to me like a real quandary.

Seems likely that there is free will in Heaven (otherwise why give it to us on Earth?), and seems unlikely that there is evil (it being Heaven and all); and yet if God can make a place where there is no evil even though there is free will, why didn’t he do that on Earth?

(I started to wonder about this after hearing a couple of different theist types talk about their ideas of Heaven on NPR or something: the Jewish one said that there must be a wonderfully just afterlife because he strongly believes that the universe is just, whereas the evidence he has suggests that life isn’t just, so there must be some really very just stuff after life to make up for it; and the Christian one says that Heaven is a place where we all get whatever we truly want, and we all have learned to live together in harmony. Ha ha funny people, I thought, and also thought the “well if God can make it happen in Heaven, what’s his excuse for not doing so on Earth?” thought that we consider here.)

(Ooh, here they are! The Rabbi and the pastor; so you can judge for yourself how badly I’m misreporting their statements above.)

The usual answer to the Problem of Evil, that is comes about as a direct and inevitable result of imperfect beings with free will, seems to sort of evaporate if (as seems hard to avoid) Heaven is a place where imperfect beings have free will, and yet there is no evil there. So evil can’t really be the inevitable result of free will. So the Problem of Evil, it would seem, remains.

I did have a rather detailed discussion of this with my Jehovah’s Witness friend back in the day. He (and therefore I assume the JWs in general) have a pretty complete and interesting (if maybe sort of creepy) picture of life after the umm Big Thing, where (in the case of the JWs) the 400,000 special people or whatever it is go to live with God in Heaven or something, and all the other good people live on Earth under their direct governance more or less.

He said that yes in that world people would still have free will, and that in fact they would be able to do evil. They wouldn’t do it very much, because they would be good people living in a great environment, but it would still happen, and in that case God (i.e. Jehovah) would look into their hearts, and between the time they made a really bad decision and became evil and the time they were able to actually do anything bad as a result, He would stop them, in a very final way.

Since the JWs don’t believe in Hell, and think that all the stuff about burning and fire and stuff in the Bible is just a way of talking about ceasing to exist altogether, what happens to you if you freely chose evil after the Big Thing happens is that you just cease to exist.

Pretty weird, I thought!

And this got me thinking of a story set in that world, which I’ve never gotten around to writing, but which I think I will try to set down a general idea of here.

And in the meantime, you can ask your local rabbi or pastor or Judeo-Christian friend whether there is free will in Heaven, and whether there is evil there. I wonder if that is a hard question…

“I cannot follow the Elders anymore,” he’d said, that night, as they walked back from the orchards where they had been picking the perfect fruits that Jehovah provided for them in this perfect Earth.

“Jeremiah,” she’d exclaimed, “what can you mean, you cannot follow them? How could anyone do anything but follow them? We know that they are the appointed ones of Jehovah, that they have only our welfare at heart, that they are good and wise men. You cannot doubt, when you have seen Jehovah and His Son moving about on the Earth with your own eyes.”

“I have.” They were walking close together, hands brushing each other now and then, innocently, like brother and sister. “And I do not doubt that the Elders are those chosen of Jehovah. But…”

“But what? What is it that you can doubt?”

He’d taken a deep breath. He looked, she remembered thinking, like someone who was not quite sure of what he was saying, and speaking as much to convince himself as to convince her.

“I do not doubt the facts. The Elders are the chosen of Jehovah, and they do truly intend the best for me. But I doubt, no, I reject, their authority over me.”

“What can you mean by that, Jeremiah? Jehovah is the source of all authority, of all rightness, and He has given them their authority! It cannot be doubted, or rejected.”

“But I do reject it,” he’d said, his voice louder but still with an undercurrent of uncertainty, “I reject it as I am free to do, using the free will that Jehovah has given me. It is my right!”

She’d stopped, and taken his hands, looking very seriously into his face. The others walking in the same direction continued along, and were soon out of any danger of hearing.

“This is blasphemy,” she’d said, “this is not the use we are supposed to make of the freedom that has been given us. Can you truly do this? Do you truly, of your own free will, reject the authority of Jehovah?”

She had meant it rhetorically, really, or so she told herself afterward, saying it only so that he would say no, of course not, not that. But his face said that he took the question very seriously, and was considering it, somewhere deep inside. When he spoke again, the uncertainty was gone from his voice.

“Yes, Sarah. Yes, I d–“.

And before he’d finished that last word, her head was filled by a strange sound, like the buzzing of distant bees, and her hands were empty. And Jeremiah was gone, forever.

So now, in her bed at night, she lies curled tensely after her prayers, telling herself, telling Jehovah who can see into her very heart, that she does accept His goodness and His authority, that she is His true daughter, and that she would never reject Him.

And she cries until sleep comes.

Something like that, anyway…


Quantum Physics and (not really) Free Will

TWIN SPIN FINIt turns out that there is a well-known thing in quantum physics called “The Free Will Theorem”, developed by smart persons John Conway and Simon Kochen.

(I haven’t heard of this before, which I suspect means that, like L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction, it didn’t exist in my original birth universe; I wonder if that means I’ve switched again recently. Always hard to tell.)

Anyway, the Free Will Theorem, which is described in two papers that are both quite readable really, is not actually about Free Will to speak of, at least not if you are a sensible compatibilist like we are, and I want to write down my thoughts here as to why and how that is.

What the Theorem actually shows is that, if some generally but not universally accepted parts of quantum physics and relativity are true, then if there is some behavior of some humans that can’t be predicted, even in principle if you knew every fact about the universe up to that point, then there is also some behavior of some elementary particles (as evidenced by the behavior of some macroscopic detection apparatus) that can’t be predicted, even in principle if you knew every fact about the universe up to that point.

Which is not a big surprise really; it’s hard to imagine a universe in which all elementary particle behavior was predictable but human behavior was somehow not, humans being made of elementary particles and all. But this Theorem puts a solid example under that intuition (as well as bringing up some other issues in physics that I won’t talk about more here).

Conway admits somewhere in the coverage of this that he chose the name, the Free Will Theorem, intentionally to get attention. But he’s also responded to criticism of the name by saying things worth noting.

The most obvious criticism is that being unpredictable even in principle isn’t the same as having free will (and if you’re a compatibilist it’s not even a necessary condition). Conway has said a couple of things about this.

First, he’s said informally that humans and particles are the same in this way, and since we say that humans have free will we should say that about particles too:

“That’s why I insisted on using this evocative language,” Conway says. “Many people thought I should say the particle’s behaviour is indeterminate. But it would be really rude if I told you that you were indeterminate! It’s the same property and I don’t see why we should be required to speak of it as if it were a different property. Our theorem says that if humans have it, then so do particles.”

But that’s sort of silly. The fact that humans and particles share some property X, and humans have free will, doesn’t imply that particles therefore have free will; it’s just a non-sequitur.

He’s also responded to the “randomness isn’t enough for free will” argument by claiming that the indeterminacy they’ve proved for particles isn’t just randomness. From that same link above:

and which action the particle does is free in this sense, it is not a predetermined function of the past. And that’s not the same as randomness, oh dear me no!”

Exclamatory cuteness aside, if “not determined by anything that’s come before, and not predictable even in principle” isn’t the same as randomness, I don’t know what is.

What Conway apparently has in mind here is that the randomness is weird and quantumly nonlocal: when the behavior goes from undetermined to determined, it does it at two places at once, and the places can be sufficiently far apart that no signal can get between them in time. That doesn’t mean it’s not random, it just means that as well as being random it’s also bizarre in the usual QM way; the Free Will Theorem doesn’t tell us anything particularly new about the weirdness, it’s just one of the three assumptions that it starts from.

Conway gets all sort of Penrose-like and speculates that while all the little “free decisions” made by particles usually sort of cancel out, our brains somehow avoid this canceling out, and that through some as yet unknown process our human-level free will pops out as a result. This, he says, makes the whole Compatibilism thing a moot point; since the universe isn’t deterministic, it just doesn’t matter whether free will is compatible with determinism. Compatibilism, the second of the papers says, is just “a now unnecessary attempt to allow for human free will in a deterministic world”.

Which is not quite right. :) Compatibilism is the recognition that indeterminicity is neither necessary nor sufficient for free will. Free will has to do with the freedom to express one’s preferences and goals in the world, not necessarily the ability to escape prediction by a hypothetical omniscient seer. Free will is possible with or without random or undetermined bits of fundamental physics (and those people who told Conway he ought to just say the particle behaviors are undetermined were right).

In fact free will requires that various of our actions are in fact influenced by, reflective of, if not determined by, past facts about the universe, those facts being the preferences, plans, and goals of the person acting with free will.

Hope that clears that up. :)


Getting free will wrong

Free Will book cover pictureHave I really never weblogified about this? I see I have written about it briefly in the ancient Problems of Consciousness tree, and that pretty much lays out my (i.e. the correct :) ) view, but I will write about it again here Just Because.

I have just had delivered to my ‘Pad Sam Harris’s recent book “Free Will”, because I heard Harris talking on the Brian Lehrer Show (also on my ‘Pad; see last month’s post on how odd the world is these days).

I haven’t read the book yet, just skimmed around a bit, but it looks as though he is going to get free will wrong in the way that so many others have gotten it wrong: by assuming that free will is possible only under certain conditions, showing that those conditions don’t hold, and concluding that there is no free will.

When in fact, of course, they just got the definition wrong.

Free will exists. I got that Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie just now, on the way here from the other side of the house, of my own free will. If someone had been holding a gun to my head and required that I got a Samoa instead, that would not have been of my own free will.

Those things are facts. The job of the philosopher is to explicate just what “free will” means, given facts like that. The philosopher who concludes that there is in fact no free will bears a very heavy responsibility, that includes convincing me that in fact I didn’t get that Thin Mint of my own free will. No philosopher has ever done that, and I think none is likely to (although I’ve been wrong before!).

From listening to Sam Harris on NPR, and looking through some of this here book, it looks like he will be getting free will wrong in a pretty typical way. Here are some excerpts from the beginning of the book:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are not simply of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

These statements reveal a whole swarm of background assumptions that I think are pretty flatly wrong. These include:

  • To have free will, our wills must be simply of our own making.
  • To have free will, we must be aware of, and exert conscious control over, the causes of our thoughts and intentions.
  • We can be responsible for our decisions only if those decisions are neither determined by prior causes, nor random.

I don’t think any of these background assumptions are true. It will be interesting to see, as I actually read the book, whether Harris makes them explicit and analyzes and defends them, or if he just takes them for granted and repeatedly points out that they are not satisfied by the facts.

So if I don’t think those kinds of things are true about free will, what do I think is true about free will?

I think free will is a useful concept that we humans have come up with to determine when to ascribe moral responsibility to a moral actor, and when not to. It is a concept that we learn mostly by ostention (i.e. by reading and hearing and talking about examples and stories) rather than by definition, and so (like “knowledge” and “virtue” and really most other interesting words) it tends to have fuzzy edges, and people can have honest disagreements about when it applies. But that doesn’t mean it never applies at all.

Roughly, we say that someone does something of their own free will if their doing it reflects primarily their own nature, their own desires, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses. If, that is, it provides useful evidence about what kind of person they are in morally-relevant ways. Which is just what you want as a criterion when you’re deciding which acts to include when doing moral judgement and assigning moral responsibility.

If I unknowingly step on a weak board and the board breaks, all that tells anyone about me is that I weigh more than the holding capacity of the board; my having broken the board tells you nothing about my morally-relevant properties, and I didn’t intentionally break it, didn’t break it “of my own free will”. I broke it by accident.

If on the other hand I saw the board making up part of the wall of an abandoned building, and kicked it so it broke just ’cause I like hearing things break and didn’t really care that it wasn’t officially mine to break, that was a freely-willed action, and it tells you something morally relevant about me. You might not want to include me in certain activities; you might even want society to fine me for wanton destruction.

All that seems pretty easy. So why does Harris (and why do the many other philosophers who’ve made similar arguments) think that free will is an illusion?

Well, they argue, science can (at least in principle) explain why I broke the board in both cases. In both cases there is a story about my birth and upbringing, about purely physical processes occurring in my brain and body, that show how the board ended up being broken. In the second case this involves my enjoyment of things breaking and my disregard for the concept of ownership, but those things can themselves be explained.

And if, the argument goes, science can explain why I have certain tendencies and values, then surely I can’t be held responsible for them.

To which the reply is “whyever not”? The assumption is that people can’t be held responsible for their preferences and desires and values because we can explain how they ended up with those preferences and desires and values, and/or because the person didn’t choose to have those preferences and desires and values (or at least didn’t choose to have the initial genes and early-life experiences that led to having them).

But why should we accept that assumption?

The usual argument by analogy is that if it turned out that I have a small brain tumor that is pressing on a certain part of my cerebrum that is causing me to enjoy breaking things and to ignore property rights, then surely I wouldn’t be held morally responsible. And having genes and life-experiences that cause me to do those things is just like having a small brain tumor.

This strikes me as unconvincing. Having certain genes and life-experiences really isn’t all that much like having a small brain tumor. When we exercise moral judgement, we are trying to determine (basically) what sort of person this person’s genes and life-experiences have brought into being.

We may or may not be willing to factor out small and identifiable and perhaps reparable things like brain tumors (I think this is an edge-case of free will where different people may have different intuitions), but we are not willing to factor out every single fact that makes this person different from every other person.

This form of the denial of free will hinges, I would say, on a false dichotomy, related to the dichotomy in the second Harris quote above: either, the dichotomy says, our actions are determined by causes (in which case those causes are responsible, we are not, and we don’t have free will), or our actions are random (in which case, again, we are not responsible for them, and we don’t have free will).

The actual fact of the matter, I believe, is that our actions are determined by various causes, and to the extent that those causes are part of what kind of person we are, we are responsible for the action and we exercise free will. To the extent that those causes are outside of the morally-relevant parts of us (including random die-rolls, although perhaps not the weighting of the dice), the actions are not morally relevant, and don’t count as free(ly) will(ed).

The fact that I didn’t cause myself to have the nature that I do isn’t relevant to the fact that when my actions are expressions of that nature, they are expressions of my free will, and I bear the responsibility for them.

Which seems pretty simple, really. :)

When I actually read the book, I will see if any of it applies to the sort of objection that I put forth here, and report back with any interesting findings, on that issue or any other.