The convenient delusion we human beings possess objective Free Will is a handicap that, at the very least, ironically threatens to prolong the irrelevance of our stunted individual lives.
The whole argument about non-existent of free will is a trojan for the scientific method and a necessary scepticism about received wisdom (in whatever form). It’s a Trojan because the argument itself is somewhat disingenuous: the absolute non-existence of free will in the context of our evolved consciousness bound within finite brains is an easy and logical observation. It’d be rather a failure of imagination and a misleading conceit to presume anything otherwise, in some divine or transcendent way (i.e. defying empirical explanation). Yet this conceit seems all too commonplace – a stumbling block most seem unable to resist bumbling into, scatter gunning tautologies as they try to evade looking the conceit square in the eye. On the other hand, the absence of absolute free will is – at this stage in human evolution – little more than a helpful humility, sobering the conceit and perhaps directing more minds into a gradual confrontation with a possibility that cuts the legs from under religion in a far more profound way than mere logical address of the thousand idiosyncrasies that can’t be reconciled and chase the role and relevance of the deity back into the stubborn viscera. Free will undermines from a different angle.
But it’s still no more than a trojan observation, at its heart, far easier to tackle head-on than by refusenik evasion. Why easier to meet head-on? Because if one shakes off the conceit of some wonderful transcendent property defining emergent consciousness and simply takes to heart the possible truth “there is no free will in biological or mechanical systems alike” and accepts it as fundamentally correct (to the best of all empirical observation, experiment and inference) we can move onto the next practical question: “so what?”.
There may come a time when we’re able to quantify and categorise and map the entire substrate network of 120 billion synapses in a way that encompasses all our actions, feelings and motivations as the bald interplay of evolved neurological contra-indications. We may be able to “know” all the variables in a such a way to lay bare the whole mind: yours, mine, everyone’s. We can abandon the conceit of exceptionalism, as individuals, whatever ambitions we might retain about the potential for humankind to make progress. So what? The aspiration that’s a natural corollary of being agnostic to the very existence of free will can drive us forward regardless, thanks to the scientific method as it must be applied to tackle this most monumental of sacred cows.
But in the here and now: no free will – so what?
It’s perfectly plausible we are an interim stage of human development – a caterpillar finally gathering enough knowledge (energy) to begin the cocoon that’ll transform us into some unknown future butterfly (if all goes well). Right now, though, we must be pragmatic; because there’s nothing else we can be. No free will? Very likely. The impression of free will? It’s enough. It’s all we’ve got, anyway. It’s not a choice, at this point in the human narrative. Reality is a complex narrative engendered mostly by the brain and partly by an impression of the objective physics of the universe in which we live.
The only thing that matters when it comes to the existence of free will is how our mind’s mediate action in the least constrained, less prejudiced, less shackled way; because it’s only logical to assume there’s more thinking power in more neurons (i.e. more people) involved in the task of pushing the envelope; driving humanity forward and being as little mired in the accidents of our primate (primitive) genesis. Obsession with religion, the conceit of a benevolent creator (externalising – howsoever eloquently debated – fairly drab, needy and perfectly understandable aspects of our monkey brains), banking on free will as if it matters – for one’s self-worth, perhaps? – is a foundation of quicksand. It’ll cling and cloy for generations more, retarding human progress by denying our species the full quota of open minds bent on the practicalities of building some future that COULD transcend; if not the universe, then certainly the limitations of our hard-won inheritance we’re born doomed to care about and be limited by, but ultimately must overcome.
The absence of free will is, as I say, a trojan subject with a bigger role (one hopes) in throwing off the shackles we’ve carried down to the present right alongside our genes. Life’s still brief. Time isn’t. It’s ironic that the conceit of free will and divinely-legislated self-importance is neatly counter-balanced by a new, healthier conceit: that what we are isn’t what we must always be, what we know now isn’t the limit of what we could know. It’s a faith, of sorts, but like the absence of any evidence of a deity, there’s anything but an absence of evidence of the creative invention of the human being.
It’s as plain as a Bulgarian pin-up.
It’s so overwhelmingly demonstrated it’s as reliable a paradigm as one of the beautiful examples of creativity married to scientific methodology – in the face of received wisdom – the theory of evolution by natural selection. It’s just high time nature wasn’t doing the snail’s pace selection – her criteria isn’t fit for the task of knowing the universe better – and we don’t need to pretend we have some objective god-given free will to accelerate the species wheresoever it’s going; to make our short sloppy lives a little less irrelevant in the godless grand scheme of things…
p.s. there’s nothing more glib than the self-satisfied apologists for everyday life (theirs, of course) putting the humdrum biological imperatives on a pedestal merely because it passes the time most pleasantly. That thinking leads to making an opiate of comfort and satisfaction; and this, more deep-rooted than any particular religion, is an eloquent id in ego clothing (to borrow a clumsy Freudian distinction).
FREE WILL – DOES IT EXIST OR IS CONSCIOUSNESSNESS A MERE EVOLUTIONARY AFTERTHOUGHT?
The existence of some kind of objective Free Will asks, in a fundamental way, whether we are responsible – as individuals – for the things we think and do. This isn’t to suggest that if we aren’t ultimately a free agent in choosing how we act we shouldn’t be held as if responsible. Clearly society must protect itself from sociopathic minds, beyond a certain point. It does, however, shift the terms of the debate how that protection is best achieved and make it less about punishment than prevention, more about mercy than revenge.
The mind is a gestalt of the brain in its wetware housing, the component synaptic building blocks networked across neurological regions, neuron content and the emergent toolbox of phenomenological parsing.
The parsing is what develops as a person gets older, since memory not only parses the experience but logs an impressionistic snapshot in the brain. Different flavours of parser both input a particular emphasis and log via a distinct impression algorithm. The input and logging parser may begin simple but since it develops with every moment, the sum of its impressions re-parsed into the extant genetic and predisposition algorithm; thus each moment can change a mind’s parsing of reality but in practice it seldom does. The bigger the algorithm stack, the less impact a single newly parsed impression or re-parsing of logged impressions will be.
Free will is bolx. Conscious mind is at most a commentator on moments past (albeit fractions of a second prior). Free will may not be an illusion but conscious free will and conscious-choice probably is. This shouldn’t be a nihilistic thought since it doesn’t mean the mind itself can’t make choices. It just means the self doesn’t, though the mind has enough resources to make an unobservant self blithely ignorant of what’s actually going on.
The conscious self is as an illusion, a frame rate security daemon operating within parameters it’ll be happiest following without meta-analysis that’ll create discord if done badly. The mind is not the self and it is far more potent. Meta-analysis is an assertion of independence by the self, initially against the mind but – if done well enough – throwing off the slave state can become more symbiotic. The self can’t escape the mind except by metaphorical suicide: meditation or madness.
Free will of the conscious self IS an illusion, patently. But free will of the mind: this is more difficult to dismiss. Just because there’s no free will for the conscious-self doesn’t mean there’s no free will in the mind.
Let’s say we were somehow aware of all the variables involved in a moment’s brain-parsing (inputs, memory, substrate, in short: every molecule in the brain and every chemical reaction): would that equate to an entirely predictable “this is what it is like, therefore this is what it will be like, in the next moment”? As one follows the logic of the brain as organic creator of the mind, there’s no reason not to consider this question as it relates to objective free will.
Here’s a rudimentary corollary to the logic argument “if we know every variable of every impulse and chemical reaction in the physical brain, we’d know what that brain was going to do next, therefore no absolute free will exists and conscious free will is an illusion.”
Chemistry is very consistent but not infinitely consistent. Quantum fluctuation in a sense that might be meaningful to the predictability of an everyday chemical reaction is astronomically improbable but not infinitely improbable,
There’s an estimated 456 trillion trillion atoms in the human brain. More than there are stars in the observable universe.
The moment you accept there’s only a finite predictability in a chemical reaction – which is objectively true, so far as current scientific consensus – you open the door to what could conceivably be a logical basis for arguing the existence of free will in the human mind. We can dispense with the conceit of the conscious-self being the arbiter of choice – and all this implies – without free will necessarily being absent from the mind from whence this ego-identity emerges.