Monday, April 26, 2010

The Problem of Free Will - Solved!

I decide to pick up my pen - I reach for my pen - and my hand moves in accordance with my will. The connection between my conscious thought and my actions is an empirical fact. If this is free will, there are few who would deny we have free will. And this, I think, is the only sort of free will that really matters.

(Daniel M. Wegner, in The Illusion of Conscious Will, argues that the connection is not nearly so close as our intuition suggests. He points to phenomena such as automatic writing, hypnosis, and multiple personalities that indicate it's possible for there to be action without the feeling of will, and will without a corresponding action. This may well be true, but the "normal" connection of will and action persists nonetheless.)

To summarize what I've been writing about:

  • - We need not fear determinism, for the world is not deterministic.
  • - We need not fear the fixity of the future; that is the fatalist fallacy.
  • - We need not worry that strict microscopic laws of physics allow our every action to be predicted, because chaos and quantum mechanics will not allow such predictability.
  • - We need not worry that the electrons are in control, because the electrons are us.
    So it seems there's nothing much left to worry about. As Daniel Dennett puts it in Elbow Room (p.169):

    When we look closely at the sources of our suspicion and dread, we find again and again that they are not indisputable axioms or overwhelmingly well-supported, empirical discoveries, but unfocused images, hastily glanced at - like the shadows on the bedroom wall that take on an apparent robustness and menace precisely because we do not look at them closely.

    There are other varieties of free will discussed by philosophers. Some would prefer an immaterial spirit that somehow affects our material bodies. Others attempt to create free will out of the very quantum jumps that (perhaps) leave our actions unpredictable. 

    But the plain ability to decide to reach for my pencil, and then to do so, seems to me a variety of free will "worth wanting," in Dennett's phrase. If I can make my body do what my thoughts choose to do, what more could I want? To defy the laws of physics? Wishing for a supernatural miracle, or a natural, quantum-mechanical miracle, is as pointless as wishing I could leap tall buildings in a single bound.

    I do not need such miracles to be content. I can glory in the notion that all of the human race's complex thought is a result of purely physical processes, and that those processes are the result of millions of years of evolution. From simple one-celled organisms whose only need was to find the next organic molecule to devour, through uncountable small changes in the ability to respond to the environment, and hence the ability to survive, came the amazing information-processing creatures we call humans. That's a heritage we can be proud of.

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