The Problem of Free Will Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Problem of Free Will

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Most normal people (ie those not possessing a higher degree in any field of physics) assume that we have free will. We wake in the morning and immediately start to make all sorts of decisions: what to wear, what to eat, what to listen to on the radio while the breakfast cereal goes down, and so on. If we pause to catch the last bit of the news, and so miss the bus, we feel directly responsible. It was our choice (though James Naughtie1 may have some share of the blame).

So, what's the problem? The existence of free will is a no-brainer, isn't it?

Enter the Physicists

Other than for a few sandal-wearing philosophers, the existence of free will has been an accepted and unconsciously ignored aspect of life, like gravity or Teletext.

Then came quantum physics.

Quantum physics introduced fundamental uncertainties into the measurement and perception of the physical world. Particles cannot be pinned down in their behaviour or nature in the way that physicists classically liked to do. The wave-particle duality of photons or electrons is a good illustration of the way classical physics can't cope with the results of certain experiments.

The dawning of this understanding was something of a blow to classically-minded physicists, as it made a mockery of why they where drawn to science in the first place. We all try to develop satisfactory mental models of the world, and physics is a very large, intertwining set of models. Uncertainty limits a physicist's mental model to only being able to give predictions of the probabilities of certain things. Essentially, this makes physics a branch of weather forecasting, and this was not a welcome change of job description2.

A Physicist Fights Back - The End of Free Will?

One way classically-minded physicists have tried to remove uncertainty is to assume that everything is predestined. Instead of a number of possible outcomes to an experiment, say a measurement of some attribute of a particle, there could only ever be one outcome. Effectively, the attribute of the particle, the experiment, and its outcome are all fixed, predestined, and could only ever happen in that way. The probabilities which pass for descriptions of particles in quantum physics disappear, as there is no uncertainty anymore.

This 'superdeterminism', if it exists, has to spread in all directions, and forwards and backwards in time as well, so the experimenter is there to do the experiment to get the result. The whole universe could be thought of as a huge four-dimensional block of aspic, with every event that has ever happened, is happening, or will ever happen fixed in it.

On a more personal level, it means that you were always going to miss the bus; your choice had nothing to do with it - or rather, you had no choice but to make that choice3. The same goes for every other choice you've ever made, or will make.

This seems to be a large price to pay to allow some physicist to feel better about himself.

The trouble is a superdetermined world is going to look exactly like ours. There is no way to tell a free world from a superdetermined world. Even if we found an experiment to tell them apart, it could be argued that this was predetermined, we were always going to get results which disprove superdeterminism, and so they don't disprove it. There is, happily, a way out, a way back to common sense.

Free Will - The Answer

Let's agree that either free will exists, or it doesn't. Also, either we can live assuming that free will exists, or we can live assuming that it doesn't.

This gives us four possible places to live:

Region 1

Free will exists

We live assuming
free will exists.

Region 2

Free will exists

We live assuming
free will does not exist.

Region 3

Free will does not exist.

We live assuming
free will exists.

Region 4

Free will does not exist.

We live assuming
free will does not exist.

Now lets look at each region.

Region 1

Living here we have free will, and we live accordingly.

We choose to live as though free will exists, and it does, which is great, as we are both correct and free.

Region 2

Living here we have free will, but we live as if we didn't.

We choose to live as though freedom does not exist, but it does. This is sad, as we are both incorrect and in some ways denying our freedom. Living here seems a bit miserable and fatalistic.

Region 3

Living here we have no free will, but we live as if we did.

We do not have the freedom to choose to live believing in our freedom. We are incorrect in our belief in our freedom, but we were always going to believe this (our belief is predestined), so this can't be said to be sad or wrong. It's just how it is.

Region 4

Living here we have no free will, and we live accordingly.

We do not have the freedom to choose to live believing in our lack of freedom; we were always going to live this way.

So, Where Should We Live?

Region 4 is a bit of a 'Game Over' place. If we live there, then we are stuck, and we happen to be correct in our 'stuckness'.

Living in Region 2 seems pretty objectionable, as we are wilfully denying our true freedom, when we could choose to live in active awareness of it. People caught up in fatalistic thinking or misunderstood theories of karma can get stuck here.

So how can we avoid living in Regions 4 and 2?

Simple - Live as though free will exists.

If you live assuming your freedom, you can't be in region 4 or 2, so you must be living in Region 1 or 3.

If you live in Region 1, then great, you have free will, and you live accordingly.

If you live in Region 3, then so far as you are aware, you are living as though you have free will. The fact that you are wrong doesn't make a difference, as you are still living in a way that looks like freedom. Here, the apparent identity in appearance of a free and a superdetermined world actually works in our favour - we can live as if we are free, and nothing can prove us wrong.

A superdeterminist would say that you are living in Region 3, and that you are kidding yourself if you think you have free will. The sensible response is that if this is true, you were always going to kid yourself in this way, so there is no need to feel that you should think or act differently.

We are all off the hook. All we have to do is to choose to live life as though we are free.

So let's go out and enjoy the sunshine, shall we?

1Presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme.2Almost all physicists are cool about this now, but for a while even the people coming up with the theories and experimental results to prove quantum uncertainty were pretty rattled.3Though it's not recommended trying to use this as an excuse for being late.

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