Free Will Exists, But It Doesn’t Come Cheap.

Is It Possible That Free Will Exists?

The answer is a guarded 'yes', which may seem unlikely to those of you who stand behind the currently fashionable position that the universe is set up in a way that prevents free will existing. Proponents of that idea, of course, include heavyweight philosophers, not just taxi drivers and internet warriors. On the other side of the divide are some equally heavy hitters, such as Michio Kaku, who mostly come at the question from a scientific perspective, sometimes even involving the dreaded quantum mechanics. So how can we be sure that some form of free will exists?

It's no secret that debates about this subject usually descend into arguments over the definition, but no matter how you prefer to define it, the base case against you possessing freedom of will is most commonly founded on the idea that we live in a causal universe, so everything is 'caused'. Therefore, you couldn’t have chosen otherwise, given the state of the universe at the time you made the decision. The argument, in fact, is a restatement of causality, claiming that everything in the universe, including your thoughts and decisions, results from previous events in the universe, and the physical laws that govern it. Implicit in that assertion is the claim that human minds don't have any 'supernatural' components, such as a 'soul', that could, in theory, be acting outside spacetime and the concomitant influence of the events within it. That's correct as far as it goes, because as I demonstrated rather conclusively in my book 'Nevermind: You, Deconstructed', the human mind is purely physical, and none of our mental faculties require or involve anything aside from the physical universe.

Why does it matter if free will exists?

Before we go any further, you may be wondering why it matters in the first place. After all, regardless of whether or not we have freedom of will, it still feels as though we do, even if we're actually nothing but supporting characters in the equivalent of a bad movie, acting out a pointless script. There are many answers to this question, but perhaps the most important is that you can't set a purpose for your own life unless free will exists. If you believe that your existence needs meaning, and you don't subscribe to the infantile hopes of the religious that some giant invisible sky-daddy sets that purpose for you, this would be a crushing blow. There are other considerations too. For example, we'll soon be sharing the planet with artificial minds, and whether we choose to give them free will has profound implications for the nature of that relationship.

But is the assertion correct? Does causality preclude the possibility free will exists? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘no’, and in fact, causality is actually one of the required conditions for freedom of will to exist. Here's why. We've already discounted the possibility that ‘you’ are composed of anything except physical elements, inside spacetime. There's no ‘actor' outside the universe who could be making your decisions without being influenced by previous events. As we also discovered in ‘Nevermind’, humans, in common with other animal species, possess the basic form of volition that is, to all intents and purposes, mechanical, despite the fact that it relies on previous experiences getting injected into the decision to make it 'better'. That initially suggests the deniers are correct, and your decisions are automatic results of the universe's causal nature. However, if you look a little closer, that isn't the case at all.

First off, as the erudite Professor Hawking is fond of saying, this universe is at most ‘adequately determined’. In other words, it’s not some kind of gigantic clockwork mechanism, ticking along to a predetermined destiny, as some philosophers a few hundred years ago supposed. That raises an immediate red flag against the denier position, because it means that the previous conditions can’t really be described as the ‘cause’ of the event in the sense that they ‘forced’ it to occur, they just provided the environment in which the possibility of the event arose. That should have gotten you thinking about the nature of causality, by the way, and why it is probably badly-named, because any apparently definite causal connection can only come into existence after the later event happens. Causality, you could rather obviously say, is an artefact of the past. To make this clear, it means that if you could somehow rewind time and restart the decision-making process from the exact same point, you might not get the exact same result, even if your volition worked as per spec both times. There is one way, however, to get around that problem, which would result in truly deterministic decisions that could therefore be described as ‘caused’, in the sense of being 100% predictable. This workaround would require us to build a layer on top of the workings of our physical brains blocky enough to insulate our decisions from the universe’s base indeterminacy. We don’t do that, as can be seen in many everyday examples, as well as in substantial research, as I discuss in ‘Nevermind’.

What would free will's existence require?

That should already be enough to dismiss the denier case, but if you want more, you need to consider what exactly 'you' are. This is important because as you’ll already know if you’ve read the book, the basic mechanism of volition that we share with other creatures, is, in the case of humans, moderated by ‘you’, which is a very specific subset of the mental models comprising your mind. It's also clear that 'you' are at least partly self-caused. The previous state of ‘you’, in other words, is an input into its own present state, and that gives us the answer. We can agree with free will deniers that human decisions have precursors that we describe as ‘causes’ after the event, but we can also be certain that one of those precursors is ‘you’. Because ‘you’ are partly self-caused, your decisions possess a degree of freedom. The basis for that contention is that if a situation arose in which one of your decisions had been entirely caused by ‘you’, there would be no other way to describe it except as having been made of ‘your own free will’, because no matter how the current state of ‘you’ arose, it wasn’t deterministically.

In short, because ‘you’ aren’t ‘inevitable’, neither are your decisions.

Is that enough to demonstrate that free will exists? Like everything else, it’s a question of degree, but there’s clearly at least some freedom available to us, and even a smidgeon is sufficient to collapse the denier case. You can make decisions that aren't absolutely predictable, and aren’t totally reliant upon external events or the previous events that led to your current mental state. Feel at liberty to suggest anything else you'd require in order to define your will as 'free'; in the meantime we can assume that free will exists, to some degree at least, although the base requirements are surprisingly expensive, being a purely physical self-aware mind, running in a universe with a causal past and indeterminate future, all of which we have. If you’re interested in the topic, I go into more detail in ‘Nevermind’, including how to deal with the argument that you can only be said to possess freedom of will if you ‘could have done otherwise after the fact’. Needless to say, that one’s a red herring too, based on how ‘you’ is implemented physically. Don’t thank me for giving you back your free will, by the way; I had no choice 🙂

Free Will is surprisingly expensive. The requirements start with a purely physical self-aware mind... Click To Tweet