I recently read a book called Freedom Evolves by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. In it, he puts forward the idea that free will is compatible with a deterministic view of the universe.

Determinism is the idea that everything that happens has been determined by a previous state of affairs. Imagine a beaker of liquid. If we know all the positions of the molecules in the liquid at time T we also know their positions at time T + 1 because they will all move in accordance with the laws of physics and we can calculate what their new positions will be. This idea can be applied to the universe as a whole. Theoretically, by knowing the position of every particle at the beginning of the universe and knowing the laws of physics governing those particles you can extrapolate everything that will ever happen.

At face value the idea of determinism seems to contradict the idea of free will. If everything is determined by what has gone before then how can any individual make a free choice? This has caused many thinkers to imagine there is some kind of non-material substance (e.g. mind, soul, spirit) that is not subject to the laws of physics. This supernatural substance is supposedly the seat of our free will and interacts with our brain to freely cause our actions. The philosopher Rene Descartes believed this interaction occurred at the pineal gland (source). I am not comfortable with supernatural entities at the best of times but even less so when they can interact with the natural world (i.e. our brain). Therefore I do not subscribe to dualism and have to account for all our actions from our material brain.

Dennett explains that some people have tried to use quantum indeterminancy to resolve the issue. The trick is to have some form of genuine randomness (through quantum particles) involved in our decision making process such that strict determinism is avoided. I do not know enough about quantum theory to confidently speak about it but I understand that in some way quantum-level randomness is different from the sort of pseudo-randomness you get from a computer algorithm. A computer algorithm will give you a bunch of numbers that seem random to us but they are actually predictable (since a set of deterministic computer instructions creates them). Quantum randomness is supposed to be genuinely random (completely unpredictable).

Dennett does not hold with the quantum explanation though. He states that, even if it were true that quantum level events occur as part of our thought processes, this does not provide us with the free will we seek because by definition we do not control this randomness. Therefore we are just slave to a different kind of process that happens to be random rather than determined. This does not make you any more free in his opinion, and I agree with him.

So what is Dennett's approach? Obviously condensing a large and complex book down to a few paragraphs does not do it justice but there was a particular example he used which I think illustrates his point. Imagine two computers that are designed to play chess. The first is a rather crudely written program which uses a sort of trial and error approach. It will analyse the result of a potential move and according to some basic rules work out whether this move puts it in a better position or not. It may even consider two, or three moves ahead depending on the computing power available. The number of possible moves in chess is so vast that the computer must be constrained in some way to keep it practical. A computer designed in this way will play a serviceable game of chess.

Now consider the second computer. Instead of trial and error it has been equipped with a database of previous chess games by grand-masters, along with a framework for understanding more complex strategies such as protecting the queen, or sacrificing pawns. Due to the superior design this computer plays chess at a much higher level than the first computer.

If you present these two computers with the same chessboard configuration the second computer, due to its design, has more useful options available to it than the first computer. A useful option is defined as one that increases the chances of the computer winning. This gives the second computer more freedom, according to Dennett. The level of freedom is defined by the amount of benefit-enhancing potential moves available. This is despite the fact that both computers are entirely deterministic (because they are running a predictable set of algorithms). Dennett claims that it is the same with humans. Our cognitive equipment presents us with a myriad of potential moves at any point in time and this gives us our freedom even though all the atoms composing our brains follow a deterministic course.

It's an interesting idea and I am drawn to it. It does imply that humans have more free will than, say, a fly because humans are more cognitively equipped. I am comfortable with this notion. However, an extension of this argument is that adult humans have more free will than baby humans. It also implies that the more knowledgeable one gets, the more free will one has. This is because the knowledge one gains presents more options for actions than were previously available. I'm not sure I can get on board with this idea.

What do others think? Can we be free in a deterministic universe?

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The only way to argue for free will is by redefining it. 

It's like proving that round squares are possible by defining "existence" such that imaginary objects enjoy a kind of existence, voila! a round square can exist.

This is how free will is typically "proven." Through the use of minority or aberrant definitions which don't mean what people mean typically when using ordinary language.

To be honest, I don't see any notable difference between your approach and Dennet's approach to free will. Have you actually read one of his books on free will like Elbow Room or even better Freedom Evolves?

It's a false dichotomy. If you add any piece of randomness to the system, then the system is non-deterministic. All long-term outcomes are then unpredictable. Since quantum mechanics is based on practically everything being probabilistic, there's a lot of randomness about. But it also means is that you can't distinguish free will. Free-will is non-deterministic behaviour - in other words it contains elements that look like randomness. Free-will will also contain elements that are random.

Take an example: you are asked to choose from three indistinguishable apples. Since they are the same, you will choose based on a random criteria - eg the way the wind is blowing, toss of a coin etc (there's quite a lot of evidence of this in the theory of choice).

So the answer you end up with is determinism doesn't exist, but neither quite does total free-will.

Take an example: you are asked to choose from three indistinguishable apples. Since they are the same, you will choose based on a random criteria - eg the way the wind is blowing, toss of a coin etc (there's quite a lot of evidence of this in the theory of choice).

What goes on in the brain isn't random. It follows deterministic laws, UNLESS something on the quantum level interferes. But once that interference emerges on the gross level above the quantum level, we're talking determinism again. Randomness doesn't salvage free will any more than determinism does. That's because free will is a nonsensical concept to start with.

We can argue about that but as you note, whether your or I or right, there's no free will, which would require the existence of a soul that operates somehow apart from the laws of the physical universe.

What goes on in the brain is hit by randomness - it's like a weather system. It contains both chaos and randomness.Chaos is deterministic, but as soon as you have even the smallest bit of randomness (and quantum mechanics adds a lot), then the system is not deterministic. It may move in patterns with a predictability - ie statistical outcomes broadly hold true, but an individual event is never entirely predictable. As we also learn based on outcomes, this has the effect that such small changes can shift the pattern of choices. To an outside observer this is indistinguishable from free-will. And no I don't believe in souls - if you make a pattern matching machine suitably large, it starts to recognise itself as a pattern.

In terms of free will, determinism, randomness, or some stew of both makes no difference because free will is nonsensical. If you press the average person as to what they mean by it, their ad hoc definitions will be simplistic.to a degree of uselessness (e.g., "Free will means I can do what I want to do").

Once one accepts that no matter what an individual does, it was DETERMINED by antecedent events, even if they were random, there's no freedom, much less free will.


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