I just made a post in the forum that I believe is substantial enough to warrant its own discussion. It is a thought experiment meant to disprove "free will"; it is a mind-bending concept for sure, enough so that I spent time unsuccessfully trying to disprove myself thinking there must be something wrong with my logic. But I can think of no other way. Perhaps you guys could let me know what you think, or if you see any failures in this line of thinking.


Defining Free Will

I just devised an experiment to attempt to disprove free will under a physicalist framework. For those that don't know, physicalism is a strong form of naturalism, and it states that the only things that exist in this world should be physical things that operate under the assumption of natural sciences. Regarding the mind-body problem, physicalism would state that mental states, consciousness, etc., are all reducible to underlying physical brain states.

Why is the lack of free will necessary in a world that requires only science to explain? Because without a ghost in the machine, everything in this world would be dependent on cause and effect. It would make no sense for an entity to arise independently of everything before it. To be clear, there is no doubt that actions are generated by brain processes, and the brain could be said to be a part of a person's identity -- that's not what I'm arguing against. What I'm arguing against is the idea that given the same situation, a different result could arise, possibly from a different decision. What I'm saying is everything you've ever done was inevitable and there is no other option. And I have proof.

What We Know

Assuming physicalism -- assuming that the scientific method is the only thing we need to discover how the world works -- we can go a step further and say:

1. Everything in this world is reducible physically to molecular states (or smaller, atomic, etc.).

2. If an external force is applied to an object, the action that object takes is predictable assuming no other force exists.

3. For the conservation of energy to be true, for every action, there is a reaction.

In practice, if I kick the ball in the exact same way, ignoring atmospheric pressures or wind for the moment, the ball will have the exact same trajectory each time. If I press buttons in a calculator, it will give the exact same results. When equal quantities of bleach and ammonia mix, it will have the same chemical reaction each time, assuming the environment is the same. Okay so far?

The Experiment

So for this experiment, first we imagine that if time were frozen in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, there is an exact molecular state representing your body, including your brain, and the environment around you in which you perceive. (If physicalism is true, the only way in which we have access to the external world is through the 5 senses.)

If we make an exact clone of your body at this given time, and feed it a perfect simulation of the surrounding environment at this given time, in a way that could be said that what each clone of the body perceives is the exact same thing, then given that your thought processes must be wholly contained in that molecular state, and that the external forces you perceive is the same, in the next immediate moment, your molecular state will always react exactly in the same way no matter how many times we run this experiment.


And if you object and say: Our thought processes must count for something, maybe they are independent? All we have to do is take a step backwards and examine each slice of time immediately preceding the current time, where you formed those thoughts. Every intelligent entity, like non-intelligent entities, could be reduced to molecular states, as we've previously stated, and a neuron firing an electric signal across synapses is simply a bio-electric, physical response. This action causes a reaction, and is a reaction of a previous action, possibly another bio-electric signal, and we could infinitely regress until the moment of your birth, or further, your conception, your parents' births, the dinosaurs, the Big Bang...

You could also object using a theory of quantum physics to say that there exists a physical property where two possible outcomes simultaneously exist after an observation, but quantum decoherence would also show that the different possible outcomes have no interaction with each other, and in each world, the same actions would result in the same reaction. But more importantly, this does not really object to determinism, not the least because these possibilities cannot be consciously controlled, even if they exist.

And whether you prescribe to naturalist monism or property dualism, which ascribes both physical and mental properties to physical substances, cause and effect affects physical substances directly, so property dualism would not contradict determinism. Mental properties also have no physical interaction and would be impossible to prove using science. For example, it would be impossible to know what mental states a rock has, because while mental properties may be dependent on physical susbstances in property dualism, the physical substance does not change depending on mental properties.

What does all this imply?

Abstractly, that we don't truly have the freedom to act of think as we would like to think we do, and that human intelligence is no different than artificial intelligence aside from magnitude. Practically, it means less than you might think. The law would still be the same, because any action that a person's physical body commits, or habits that are programmed inside his physical body, even if he lacks the ability of will to actually change that, is still attributable to what is understood to be his "identity". So if someone commits murder, it will still be that person's "fault", and it will make sense that a natural reaction to that action is prison. Morality wouldn't exist, but the delusion of its functionality would persist in the same way as if there were free will; people would still continue to impose rules on other people that would help them make sense of their time on Earth, according to whatever arbitrary criteria they choose (e.g. self-survival, or survival of the species, of peace in community, or survival of the fittest, or equality, etc.). The world will largely be the same. In fact that's one of the reasons we can be so sure there is no such thing as free will, because if we imagine if the current world has free will, and if it doesn't, then it will be indistinguishable.

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Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 7, 2012 at 12:14am

Digression is the oxygen of intelligence.

Comment by Jonathan Chang on September 6, 2012 at 11:08pm

I'll give part way on the power structure; power structure is a big part of any society. Of course you can't do very much without power in any endeavor. The point of democracy was to bring as much power to the people, but no system is perfect. The theoretical purpose of law is to uphold society, but interests are weighted in a scale towards people with more influence -- and that could mean money, fame, a lot of different things along with political clout.

There are a lot of people as far as I can tell that, despite their allegiance to science, claim to have some secret power of choice free from cause and effect. They may not agree with my characterization of the issue, or be otherwise rational beings, but certain subjects in philosophy are so unintuitive that, even if you could prove them with some logic, defies understanding. You could think about the lack of free will, which leads you to think more about the lack of free will, and end up thinking about how you could think about the lack of free will without free will; so it shouldn't come as a surprise if anybody allows themselves a special escape clause -- it is evolutionarily built into the human ego. Same thing with morality: I cannot understand how it would be acceptable to respond to "X doesn't exist" with "I believe X exists". But I digress...

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 6, 2012 at 10:41pm

JC, how dissapointing to realize I mostly agree with what you have written. Your definition of free will is cogent. Last paragraph, same here.

Dont agree that law is more a reflection of attitude regarding society than enforcing power structure. That is unless you are talking about attitude held by aristocracy.

You mention how if free will does not exist we invent our own. Interestingly there is a long blog on AN concerning free will and determinism. All of the contributors reject free will. But a few of them support a notion of choice through what I consider tortured ratiocination. Other animals do not possess this choice, only man. Just though it was self-serving invent a god rationalizing.So it is best to avoid it or accept it philosophically.

Comment by Jonathan Chang on September 6, 2012 at 10:22pm

An actor exercises control when the mechanism of control originates from the actor -- that is how I would define free will. It can't be called control if it was caused by anything else.

The law is a reflection of power and morality, you're right, but even more so it is a reflection of attitude people hold regarding society. If society can't be upheld, then there would be no purpose for law. It is problematic to assume determinism will lead to legal nihilism because people are motivated ultimately, not be logic, but by biological imperatives (this could be hormonal response leading to emotion, or nerve response gravitating towards pleasure, and away from pain). For this reason, people, and by extension law, would rather commit philosophical suicide than biological suicide. If it came to be that the prevalent philosophy is that of determinism, then the law would change to reflect that so that society could continue.

In my opinion, we have already seen this done when it came to morality. In the early 20th century, people wrestled with how to deal with ethical and existential nihilism. What was the point of life if there were no meaning to life, if God doesn't exist, if there's no natural morality property? As philosophers came to answer this question, one has gained quite a following: Nietzsche, and his Existentialism. The idea of "subjective morality" came to be -- and that's a whole 'nother story, but long story short: Instead of all the atheists committing suicide, we inventing our own meaning. And if it came to be that free will doesn't exist, we will invent our own will. And of course it would make no cognitive sense to do so, people will do it anyways.

Even though I have accepted that there is no free will, I continue to do what I have always done before that realization, because there is no alternative that is more or less logical.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 6, 2012 at 9:31pm

The actor is in control. FREE WILL

How can the actor exercise control when the mechanism of control is loose? FREE WILLY

Law is a reflection of power and mores. When blacks were powerless in America Dred Scott said blacks were property. Slavery was customary. But law is also a reflection of societal philosophy or the dominant world view. And there is little doubt that free will underscores common and statutory law. That is why manslaughter carries a lighter penalty than first degree murder. "Oh he caught his wife in bed with another woman and in a rage he hacked the two to death". Not as bad as plotting to kill them after the discovery. In the former case the murderer's free will was overcome. In the latter we see the quintessence of free will. So we punish badass Willy. 

So to the extent the law contemplates our actions as continuation of big bang mechanics the actor cannot be held accountable. However as a practical matter even when we abnegate free will intellectually we act and live under the assumption we is Willy. Willy aint free. The implicit endogenous Willy is appreciated when we are pensive or introspective.

Some smartass lawyer is going to use a philospher as an expert who opines the lyrics of strict determinism. Naah. Jury wont buy it. But if they did NOT GUILTY

Comment by Jonathan Chang on September 6, 2012 at 8:55pm

Glen, can you please explain why free will cannot exist if it is somehow acausal?

I believe law has a different scope than ontological philosophy. A broader definition of free will could arise where as long as a thought originates out of a person's physical body without the influence of mind-altering drugs or other living, conscious entities recognized by law, then it could be considered his legal will.

While philosophers are often concerned with what we can know of the objective truth, the common person is usually satisfied with intuition and "common sense". And so law would also reflect legal intuition. A good example of how we've already done this is morality. Many people would agree there is no such thing as objective morality, that hasn't yet stopped personal, or societal judgments from guiding law.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 6, 2012 at 12:51pm

JC, in a wierd way this question is moot. If the universe operates in a completely mechanistic, matter in motion, cause and effect manner, free will can not occur.

If man's will is in some way acausal there is no free will under this scenario either.

I dont agree that upending the popular assumption of free will has no have practical consequences. In american jurisprudence free will is an underlying notion, a given. In criminal law mens rea is moot. . .

Comment by Jonathan Chang on September 5, 2012 at 11:07pm

Thanks for commenting, Ruth. I wasn't aware of complex pendulums, so I'll look into that. I'm not sure if these systems are truly chaotic or just increasingly complex. If a system could form different outcomes from the same initial conditions out of randomness though, I don't think that would contradict determinism, since randomness can't be consciously controlled.

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on September 5, 2012 at 10:33pm

#2 "If an external force is applied to an object, the action that object takes is predictable assuming no other force exists." doesn't apply to complex systems, where extreme sensitivity to initial conditions occurs. Even quantum fluctuations effect the path of the moving object after enough iterations. A complex pendulum is one example.

You can position the pendulum as exactly as you please, for multiple runs. The motions will not be predictable.



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