Humanity has long pondered the question of free will; and whether chicken or egg came first. Like Xeno’s paradoxes the questions identify flaws in both language and logic. What does Free Will (FW) really mean?
Mythos is the ancient Greek counterpart to logos (reason). The two sides of mind. Myths help us understand and live in this world. They carry a deep truth, even if the events are not factual. This Atlantic article‘s title was “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will –
But we’re better off believing in it anyway.” A mythos. It was “one of the most read and hotly debated Atlantic pieces this month. The galaxy of philosophical issues called “free will and determinism” is where morals and physics come together. In other words, it’s a subject that genuinely matters, and one that’s a hell of a lot of fun to argue about.” Want to try?
A follow-up article explains: “Conscious or sub-conscious, if our choices are governed by chemical interactions in the brain, then they are not choices or free will [FW] at all.”
As Johnson noted more than 200 years ago, despite the philosophical and empirical evidence against the concept of FW, it remains a subjective reality. And while the events of our lives are largely determined by our genes and environments, we experience a sea of choices.
Can we reconcile our experience FW with either an all-powerful God or the laws of physics? It may help to recall the Law of Paradox, where the universe seems to require paradoxical truths to co-exist (eg, particle and wave nature of light). Perhaps, a key point it to understand how language might fool us in our efforts to understand FW.
Propositional logic ascribes a Truth Value to any proposition. Let me propose that: “all words lie.” Argument: words can only ever imperfectly describe Reality (as shown by quantum physics). Since a lie can be defined as something that’s not perfectly true, therefore “all words lie”, at least in the sense of providing an imperfect understanding.
If true, the proposition refers to itself as false. How can this be? Similarly if the proposition about ‘all words’ is false, then ‘all words are true’. We have a symmetrical paradox. Hurt your head, yet?
Science tells a compelling story, from the birth of our universe to the birth of life on Earth. From simple chemicals to cells to complex life; from fish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals; from monkeys to many human species then to our species that emerged some 200,000 years ago and spread from Africa perhaps 50,000 years ago. All 7+ billion of us are not only from the same small species, but perhaps one or so families.
A creation story I find more awesome than the one in the Bible. Awe for a universe that creates self-conscious beings; and our human story: capable of understanding and changing the world.
I wonder if Humans will create G-d?
The Bible’s G-d seems a human Creation; in our image created. Yet, if our human family is acts for our collective well-being, will we not have created G-d? If this sounds Utopian, it is. But not unrealistic. Already, we have a world where there is an all-knowing entity that tracks every aspect of our life: Google, Facebook, Apple and others are the different heads of that entity. All proceeding, as though an inexorable force of nature.
I return to the subjective sense of choice that I experience. Especially as a citizen of an advanced economy, or civilised society. I remain ever grateful not live in another time-space where my liberty and life would be constantly under threat. (Thanks!!)
In every moment I feel I have many choices; even more choices when I rid myself of the yoke of beliefs. Yet, the reality is that most of my choices have been made by my history; my genes and environment playing out the chemical dance of life.
Mammals invented love, with care of their young. Primates invested more; and humans even more.
Mammals exert choice in their lives; the range of choices is greater for humans than other mammals. When we make the many choices that make up each of our days, are we making free choices, or are they all pre-determined by our biology and environment?
And if we were to accept that, despite all personal experience, there is no such thing as FW for most of my choices, if not all. How would that change how we organise the world, especially Criminal Justice?
A consequentialist view works with or without FW. Society imposes consequences, just as a parent does for a toddler, to prevent certain behaviours. However, to punish where it not only harms the recipient but also wider society makes no sense. And if you look at the results of our Justice system today, you will see that it is anything but just; or efficient.
It becomes more sensible to design a system that aims to prevent crime, than to simply punish it. If those punishments prevent poorly. The sad truth is that most of these punished lack some basic capacities, through no fault of their own. Genes and upbringing brought them there, not FW. Is compassion cure for crime?
There are dangers to letting go of FW; it gives us a ‘pass’ to behave badly; and we are all too good at giving ourselves passes. But if we remember that we need to hold ourselves to the same standard as we do others, that we are blind to our own faults, and that the universe knows far better than we do. Then, perhaps, we will have found God. And at that point, who really cares about FW?
In an earlier age, and perhaps even now, what I just wrote could be considered blasphemous. And yet, it is just the result of my history. It seems likely that I have had not real choices, though I have a keen sense of free choice for some decisions. I forget about the ones where the choice is automatic. My choices are inevitably largely, if not entirely, determined by my past experiences and genes; nurture and nature. As are these words?
The sense of choice may be illusory, yet it is the most real aspect of my existence. I think.