Free will. Popular topic discussed by philosophers and scientists. Do we have it? Or do we have just an illusion of it? Can we be held responsible for our actions? I would like to share my position on this subject with you. Because I have no choice but to do that :-)
People feel that they have free will that is a free control over their decisions and actions. We punish people when they decide to do bad things to others, because they are the ones who freely choose that harmful behavior and thus are held responsible for their actions.
There’s an idea of free will that you can do absolutely anything, going around the laws of the universe is obviously not true, otherwise I wouldn't be in this kind of universe, writing this article, since I would be too busy playing around in a world of my own choice. So let’s focus on a free will that means we have any choice over what we do within the possibilities of our bodies and the universe we inhabit.
Are we just decision making algorithms?
We are made out of matter and energy, including our brains, which are very intricate “machines” that process information and control our behavior. We are our brains, at least everything we know at this moment points to that. If our brains are complex machines that work according to a determined set of rules that essentially boil down to very convoluted and complex interactions of basic elementary particles, does that mean that we have no free will and are subject to the laws of physics?
If we write a program that takes certain data as input and produces certain decision as output, did it achieve that decision by its own free will? It simply followed its predetermined behavior, a set of rules that given the same input variables produce the exactly same result. Even if we made the algorithm very large and convoluted, with many input variables influencing its output in various ways, its decision making process would be very difficult to follow as well as the influencing variables, but it still wouldn't make a free choice, but simply follow a deterministic set of rules.
Does randomness help?
And what makes us think that our brains are different? Perhaps quantum physics can help us here, with the uncertainty principle. It would be analogous to including a random number generator as an input variable (consider source of true random values, not a pseudo-random generator for the sake of argument). Then, given the same input variables (sans the random one) it would produce different result each time.
But does that make its decision making process actually free? It still follows a predetermined series of steps in order to achieve a conclusion. It’s just that one of the input variables is randomized and unknown in advance, which also means that the algorithm has no choice over it. There’s no conscious element choosing a particular outcome, only undetermined event influencing deterministic algorithm. Furthermore, given same determined input variables and same randomized variable, the algorithm would still produce same result.
So even if nondeterministic phenomena had any significant effect on the decision making process of our brains and neural networks, it would hardly be a free will.
No… for a true free will, our minds would have to exist outside of the causality and laws of physics, controlling our brains and bodies like puppets, but nothing in all the knowledge and understanding of how our brains work seems to indicate anything even remotely similar to that. So there’s little reason to believe there’s actual free will.
What kind of “free will” do we have?
But why do we feel that we have free will? Free choice over what we do and how we behave? Is free will just an illusion?
Indeed it is. Our behavior and decision making process is at the principle no different from the simple computer algorithm, but much more complicated and convoluted, with millions or even billions of various influences – “input variables”. Our behavior and choices are influenced by our genetics and environment.
As have many experiments shown, genetics has large say on our personality and nature, which interplays with the environment from the earliest stages of development in the womb. Differences in nurture can alter the way our brains develop and are structured to some extent as does education and interaction with the world after we're born.
Each day we are bombarded with tons of new information that our brains process and we are consciously aware only of small portion of it. Our conscious mind can’t keep track of all the influences, of the countless numbers of “input” variables that are continuously processed by our brains and in various ways influence the “output” – our behavior and choices we make.
Our decision can be influenced both by immediate experiences, like reacting to something that just happened and distant experiences, like a traumatic event in our childhood (but also much more subtler ones). We can’t control all these variables that produce our decisions and we can't even be aware of all of them, therefore we aren’t aware of how we actually reached to our decisions. Our behavior is even heavily influenced by our endocrine system as various hormones bathe the brain and influence its function.
However we consciously experience some of the mental processes that process the input stimuli and output a decision, which is why we have illusion of free will. The decision making process isn't a black box from our perspective. We are the decision making process.
Unlike a simple computer algorithm, we contain many more “algorithms” that process the world around us and take care of rationalizing, conscious thought, emotions. Our mind is interplay of these interconnected “algorithms” which are involved in various ways in the decision making process. Even if our rationalization and thinking follows some predetermined rules, it’s complicated and convoluted enough that it creates illusion of free choice.
So if I were to define a free will that definitely exists, I would define it as some self-aware “entity” (which can be manifestation of interactions of various parts of the brain, not a single physical thing) experiencing at least some of the decision making process, even if that process is completely deterministic and follows some physical laws that the entity has no control over.
Under that definition, we do have free will, but simple computer algorithm doesn’t. If we were to create a complex computer algorithm, which was capable of reasoning the way we do and internally experiencing its own decision making process, it would also have this free will, even if it’s just an illusion.
What responsibility really means
If we have no true free control over our actions and our behavior is just very convoluted and complex set of interactions which all boil down to the laws of physics, how can we attribute responsibility for someone’s actions? How can we say that someone is responsible for certain action when what they did is simply a result of the physical laws?
The whole world is full of specific interactions that follow the laws of physics. And we call some bunches of particles arranged and interacting in certain way X and another arrangement interacting in different way Y or even different interaction of the same arrangement Z. Considering this, free will is nothing more than another group of particles interacting in certain way.
Of course, no arrangement or interaction is the same. For example each apple is completely unique and I think you would have problems finding two apples that would be exactly the same, down to every single molecule. So it’s not about naming very specific arrangements something, but rather arrangements that have certain common and similar features. The whole word is fuzzy and only things that have enough apple-like features will be called apples, even if it’s just our concept and there’s no intrinsic concept of “apple” or any other isolated entity in the laws of physics.
And some other sets of arrangements of particles we call humans and we also label their interactions and actions in various ways. We can say that given person is responsible for certain action, because it originated from it. Free will is not necessary to assign responsibility and blame to some entity, if we say that responsibility means that given event was a result of actions of given entity.
Falling rocks and murderers
This of course means that if a large rock falls and kills a person, we can say that this rock is responsible for killing that person as well as the events that led to it falling down, whether there was any decision making process involved or not. It’s simply a non-factor. The rock could have fallen down perhaps simply due to unfortunate conditions and timing or perhaps a person made a decision and pushed it over with intention to kill someone else – in this case we can trace the responsibility to this person.
Some would ask a question then: Why don't we lock up the rock in prison then? And the answer is quite simple: Because it doesn't make any sense. But why do we then lock up murderers and serial killers in prison, when their behavior is simply result of physical laws of the universe?
Because we have evolved in a way that we try to ensure our further survival, we have to deal with these things in order to prevent any more harm to our society and to individuals. And while both rock falling by unfortunate timing and a person consciously deciding to shoot someone were simply following physical laws and are same in this regard, their properties and the way the series of interactions led to death of someone else are very different.
And that difference is what we base our response on. We should always try to find the best possible way to eliminate harm. Locking up rock in a prison is nonsensical, because the rock isn't capable of intentionally rolling around and falling on people again. A person on the other hand can keep shooting and killing more people if left free.
Free will or even conscious thought are irrelevant when dealing with potential harm: we have to consider the specific situation and circumstances and approach each case differently based on its nature and the way it could result in more harm.
In case of rock, we might place any loose rocks in the area somewhere else, where they have no risk of falling down. Or we can build barriers to stop them. Or also put up warning signs or even find alternate, safer route.
In the case of a person killing others, we can put this person in prison, to prevent any further murders. We can assign responsibility for the deaths to given person, when the person executed actions that led to these deaths. Therefore putting this specific person which kills other persons in prison will ensure safety of others.
Unfair world and the insane
Is it fair to the person that the physical laws ultimately led to them behaving in that way and ending up locked down? It’s definitely not. But it’s not fair either for people who are being killed or harmed in other way if the person is left free. And after all, we all follow the laws of nature and if the killer has no actual free will and choice to do things he did, neither do other people who capture this person and put it in prison to protect others.
Ideally we should try to influence these people in a way that they can be reintegrated back to society and have better life themselves. More importantly we should look for ways to help other people in less fortunate circumstances to prevent harmful behavior happening in the first place.
There’s also difference between someone who hurts others for personal gain and a mentally ill person. While both people had no actual choice in their behavior and their actions were determined by many factors following the physical laws, there’s a difference in the actual cause of their harmful behavior and the way we deal with them.
People in the first group usually understand that their actions will hurt other people and when dealt with appropriately, there’s a possibility they realize what they've done and won't do it again and can be reintegrated in the society.
The other group however has their reasoning skills impaired in some way. The legal system can classify them as “Not guilty for the reason of insanity”, but they are still the ones responsible for the things they did, even if their action stem from different mental processes. And we deal with these people different as well.
We take care of them in mental asylums, which are better suited for their situation. The point is, even though both groups are following the same basic physical laws, each one is structured somewhat differently. Their circumstances are different and just as we don't treat rock falling on people and a murderer the same way, we don't treat people who murder for personal benefit and are reasonably and people who don't realize they are actually killing others the same way.
Different response for different circumstances
Different circumstances need to be dealt with differently, even if they all boil down to the same physical laws.
Our own bodies deal with harmful elements, like bacterial or viral infections or cancerous cells and try to remove or eliminate them. Some cells can go rogue by a set of biochemical reactions that are simply unfortunate coincidences, but following the very same laws of nature as all the other healthy cells and they are sacrificed and destroyed to save the whole organism.
Same could be applied to society – certain kinds of behavior are simply harmful to the society as whole and we need to deal with them. Ideally not by destroying them, but by containing and helping them to change, so they can function better with others.
The world isn't a fair place. Lives of some are very lucky and full of joy, lives of some are extremely unfortunate and filled with pain and suffering and there are a lot of people somewhere in between these two extremes. But we should try to find ways to create influences and environment that push as many people as possible closer to the lucky side and generally make everyone’s lives better.
Even though all our actions and interactions might follow the physical laws and our free will is an illusion, we don't know what the future will bring because of the sheer amount of influences. My hope is for a world that better and happier place for everyone.
My hope is that the laws of nature will give people no choice but to create such world.