Q: What are the consequences of accepting the proposition “There is no Free Will” as true?
Q: Of course you must explain yourself.
DrC: I’ll try. But first let me refer you back to a series of posts, initiated as a reply to Felix Grant’s comments on information handling in robots, that attempted to show that decisions made by a human could be narrowed down to the firing of a single neuron. These comments were much discussed in 2007 and a list of the posts can be found at:
This firing of that neuron could be further narrowed down to one, single chemical interaction (the closing or opening of an ion channel). That interaction could be finally narrowed down to the statistical chance that a bimolecular reaction would exceed the energy barrier (Gibbs Free Energy) of the reaction and go to completion. This initiated a chain of reactions which resulted in an action (muscles contracting). We used the example of General Loan.
Since all of these processes are based on classical molecular chemistry and do not involve or invoke the uncertainties of quantum mechanics (e.g. tunneling), it is difficult to conceive how this framework could be influenced in any way by some non chemical, perhaps “spiritual or psychic” force. Such a force would invoke interactions with classical, chemical reactions that have not been seen in any other system.
An important observation by neuroscientists that inflects on this scheme is that it can be shown that humans, when they make a decision, have already initiated that decision before they are conscious of it. (These observations come from observations of subjects picking between alternatives while being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging or PET scanning.)
Q: So, Dr. C., you would propose that if you were a LaPlace Demon you could predict the decision of any human being? That is, if you had instantaneous knowledge of the status of every ion channel of every neuron in the cerebral cortex, and you knew the neural pathways of every reaction circuit in the same, you could predict what any human would do in any situation?
Q: Does that mean that, when confronted with any decision, that a human will choose that path which is determined by the electrochemical state that exists in the brain?
Q: So, back to the original question, how does this proposition impact our conception of human behavior?
DrC: This proposition impacts every area of human behavior in the legal, political, social and personal spheres. It is hard to imagine an area that it does not impact. While I cannot speak to civilizations other than the Western (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, etc.) and then only minutely, the concept of Free Will is integral to our current society in America.
Q: That is a rather dramatic assertion, Dr. C. Could you give us some examples.
DrC: I’ll try. Think for a moment about our legal system. This system is based entirely on the proposition that a human has “responsibility” for his or her actions. That when confronted with a decision, e.g. whether to steal a loaf of bread from a bakery, that we pick to do so even though we know that it is “wrong.” What is “wrong” is codified in Laws, which often have to do with property rights. Society, using the instruments of the police and courts, will apprehend us and punish us for committing a crime. A rather dramatic scenario of this situation is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
While the Courts will frequently try to determine “motive,” it is still felt that the human has a free choice when confronted with the decision. In the case of Jean Valjean, he stole the bread because his sister and her children were starving. We would argue that Jean Valjean did not have a choice in the matter. The decision was automatic and would have been made in this case no matter what. The information from Valjean’s senses (eyes, ears, etc.) interacted with the underlying configuration of the neurons in the cerebral cortex to produce the response. A Laplace Demon could have predicted it as Valjean stood outside the shop window looking at the loaf of bread within.
Q: That is an interesting contention, Dr. C. But surely you are pulling at our heart strings as did Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. You can’t possibly mean that there is no personal responsibility, can you?
DrC: Yes, I do believe that, in the way that we view it, there is no personal responsibility, even though I try and act as if there is so in my daily life. That is, if I perform an action that is detrimental to society, I should be held accountable. But this is not because I am personally to “blame” for the action. It is simply necessary for actions that are detrimental to be corrected, otherwise society could not function. I would ask you to look overall at our legal system, particularly in the United States. We have more people incarcerated per capita than any other place in the World. We also are the most litigious society and, until recently, the most wealthy. In order to keep such a structure functioning, there has to be an extraordinary amount of legal action. Do Americans have the same Free Will as everyone else? If so, why so many crimes? If Free Will were intact, every single instance should be a de novo assertion of this in the decision making. The only argument that will not assign personal responsibility (i.e. not guilty vs guilty) is insanity. And insanity assumes that the subject does not have free will, a circular argument. Yes, judges may use mitigating circumstances (upbringing, first crime, etc.) to determine the degree of punishment, but no one would currently argue in court that a sane person did not have free will.
Q: In what other instances do you see the impact of your proposition?
DrC: Well, the most contentious, of course, will be religion. And, in spite of the American Constitution definitively separating Church and State, this separation has been extensively eroded in recent years. At the very core of many Western religious sects is the assertion that man freely chooses to believe in a non-material godhead and, in many cases, a human emissary (Christ) who may or may not have been divine. Since these beliefs are illogical, one has to choose to believe them based on faith. But, again, the choice to believe, i.e. the exercise of Free Will, is felt to be available to every sane human. Furthermore, as in the legal system, if one does not choose to believe, one might well wind up experiencing eternal punishment. (the sort of proposition faced by Calvin and Hobbes.)
Once again, as in the legal system, a human is assumed to arrive at the decision to believe in a pristine state. That is, no account is taken for the commitment to be made under mitigating circumstances (e.g. children raised in an agnostic environment). A person is felt to be entirely responsible for their decision to accept or reject salvation at every instant this proposition is made. If one “accepts Jesus as your personal Savior” then one doesn’t have to go to the bad place after death. Interestingly enough, there is no talk of someone later “rejecting Jesus as your personal Savior” since the overwhelming majority of people in the World could care less. (Note to self: is the plethora of religions in the World, all contending their validity, an argument against Free Will?)
In the end, Western religion is deeply tied in with personal morality. This is almost certainly a result of the Jewish God Yahweh or Mony Python’s Jehovah Who definitely liked things to go His way.
Other religions, e.g. the Greeks, seemed to take a more population based stance vis a vis the gods. Since there was more than one god, and it was the population that was under consideration, the idea of a personal morality wasn’t very important except for occasional guys like Prometheus.
I guess one could make an argument that Socrates was leaning towards personal morality as he appears in some of Plato’s more moral dialogues. Perhaps I should reread Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics
including the pursuit of Eudaimonia, i.e. the good and virtuous life. Eudaimonia is constituted, according to Aristotle, not by honor, or wealth, or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. This, throws another clinker into the argument as we wonder whether rationality demands Free Will.
Q: All this is really hard for me. I don’t know what the words “responsible, guilty, conscience, virtue, grace, right, wrong, blame or sin” mean anymore. Do I need a new dictionary?
DrC: You betcha.