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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I am one with Raymond Tallis (a neurosurgeon and neuro-philosopher who has much respect for Dennet) who claims that the intentionality of mental activities has not yet been properly explained by physical events in the brain and that we have no convincing reason to expect an answer other than "how could we not eventually explain it?". It doesn't make him a dualist. He is simply totally dissatisfied with current models of mind/consciousness. We are lacking a revolutionary theory of mind/consciousness of the quality of the theory of relativity or natural selection.  Perhaps such a theory will defend dualism or perhaps discard dualism or likely propose some other -ism. Until that happens...I think Dennet offers a far more useful explanation for the illusory "free will" than the current group of scientists/philosophers who claim with absolute certainty that free will is impossible because how could the universe not be 100% determinist/materialist?

I agree. It would be great for someone to put forward a ground-breaking theory that opened new lines of enquiry. It is understood down to the really fine detail how, for example, the visual cortex works but we cannot yet even get our heads around what to talk about when we start to explain how this produces the phenomenon of our 3D visual experience. I don't think it's an impossible problem, just a very, very difficult one.

Free will to a biological entity seems rather limited.

Did anyone here get to decide their DNA code, body type, intelligence level?

OK so you are pushed out into the world basically helpless for years.... see any free will there?

Can you control your kidneys and liver...not me. Can I choose not to breathe and live? Nope.

OK I picked a blue shirt today. Do I really know why? I think I do, but why not red? Can I force my self to like the red shirt more than the blue one? I can't. I think free will is an illusion. We are biological machines that happen to be self aware. We evolved from single cell animals. Do we really think "free will" is somehow evolved into us, or is it more likely we being deceived by the untold gazillion chemical / electrical / mechanical  /biological processes occurring every second without our cognition.

Yes, we are in the infancy of understanding the brain, but I can't even consider the idea that "free will" is some test of faith dumped on us from some co-dependent supernatural force.

I tend to lean toward Robert's view.  I think we are biological machines functioning within the parameters of our physical forms and within our finite environment with its limited choices (red shirt or blue shirt, decaf or regular, pepperoni or sausage).  In that way we are closer in the grand scheme to the amoeba than we are to any kind of true free will. 

The thousands of banal choices we make each day give us the illusion of free will.

Maybe the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Indonesia 6 months ago caused me to pick the blue shirt today.

The only way the butterfly effect would apply is if you phrased it this way:

If that particular butterfly at that particular time hadn't flapped its wing then you would have picked a different coloured shirt (six months later).

This is possible. And not only for chosing the colour of a shirt...but also whether or not to hurt someone or do something rather rotten.

This is also why ethical and moral decisions cannot be isolated to brain activity (if you are a hard-determinist). And why no one can be properly/reliably held responsible for their actions (if you are a hard-determinist).

Why do you single out ethical and moral decisions in relations to chaos theory if one is a hard determinist? Behavior is caused by antecedent physical events no matter how one looks at it. The effects (chaotic or otherwise) come after the decision is made.

Morals and ethics are all about intent. We don't hold people liable in a moral/ethical way for unintended and unforeseeable consequences of their decisions.

Do you believe that free will (if it exists) is necessarily wrapped up in some supernatural force?

Do you believe that free will (if it exists) is necessarily wrapped up in some supernatural force?

I think a most common context across the centuries is that free will is a divine gift that distinguishes us from plants and animals and that we are responsible to decide our eternal fates.

Without the supernatural element we could de talking about determinism, stochastic processes, quantum mechanics, brain function, etc...but maybe "free will"  is not the most scientific word.

I agree Robert that maybe "free will" is not the most scientific word.

“You imagine a fictional mental construct called “free will” which is kind of like believing in leprechauns or UFO’s to a cognitive neuroscientist”

A character  in Brain Storm by Richard Dooling and referenced by Dennett in chapter 8 of Freedom Evolves.

Free will is a nonsensical concept.

I understand where you're coming from but I think it's important to not mix the idea that the term "free will" is not coherent with the idea that we do not have free will. This may seem contradictory but the important thing is not to go down a path of fatalism where people become convinced they have no responsibility or choices because "free will" does not exist. I don't want that sort of world.


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