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Free Will

 
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PostPosted: Mon Sep 21, 2009 7:32 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

ah free-will. this would be a very tricky topic. first you need a working definition of free will. for example: ants. ants have a brain, they are able to communicate with one another, however, do ants have free will? i would say no, as they can't really act against their biological imperative (procreation, sustenance, etc. )
now let's scale up. dogs. do dogs have free will? in this case i would say yes. while dogs i don't think are self aware, they are quite capable of having emotion, and therefore actioning against their biological imperative.
this gets us to our definition. something has free will if it can act against its basic needs. which leads to the question, is the existence of free will proof of the existence of God? well, why, in nature, would you want something capable of acting against its basic needs? i can think of several reasons. for example, i feel hungry. but i also feel that i have too much weight on my body. should i still eat? i can weigh this kind of question much more easily with an ability to resist my biology than without. also, having free will can allow you to communicate ideas. for example, let's say i see a tree with many leaves. and i see the sky with many stars. i might communicate the idea to someone that the stars are like a tree, many separate yet interwoven leaves. now you know that the stars aren't physically connected, except by gravity, yet this concept might be new to you. so even though i didn't convey truly important information, i helped you visualise your world better, even if somewhat inaccurately. while its true ants can communicate things like: walk this far, i found food. they probably don't know what kind of food they found, and this may be vital information for larger creatures. so once again i ask, is free will proof of the existence of god? well, i'd say no, but it certainly can be a suggestion of higher purpose. for example, i can convey the idea of god. that there is something that loves me and wants me to act in a reasonable manner. i can convey this idea to others. and then we can have things like morals. questions like "when is it okay to kill?" become relevant. etc.
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lacavin
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PostPosted: Mon Sep 21, 2009 12:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Anonymous wrote:
so once again i ask, is free will proof of the existence of god?

I placed myself within the framework of actual science, which is founded on causality. Let me first illustrate this:
  • The whole procedure of scientific work is to publish with enough details so that people can repeat the experiments and verify the results. It is expected that they obtain the same results, because the same cause lead to the same effects. If the result is different, the next step is to look for "changing factors" - what was not exactly similar in both experiments.
  • Why do we investigate the relationship of CO2 with global warming if we don't think that there is a valid causal relation, i.e. that less CO2 will lead to less warming.
So within this framework (which is by no means "proven", but belongs to the basic hypothesis of science and techniques), where can you fit "free-will"? How can you reconciliate free-will with causality?

So for people like me that "believe" in causality, the free-will seems impossible. However, I also "believe" in free-will! How can I reconciliate both beliefs? An option is to admit that the nature is causal, and that there is "something" out there that does not belong to the causal nature - i.e. it is surpernatural - and that is not subject to causality. This something is the source of free-will (in the sence of engine, it is the motor that allow us to overcome the causal chain).

Now what this "something" is, is undefined. It may be an amorphous force, or a personal God, or the greek pantheon. But it must have some characteristics:
  • It can evade causality, not only act without cause.
  • It is present now, not only (like the "first cause") in a remote past.
  • Somehow it is in relation with the creatures with free-will.
Therefore it is not important whether ants or dogs have free will as long as one creature somewhere has it. The questions to answer are:
* Does free-will exist?
* Is nature absolutely causal?
* Is free-will compatible with causality?

For those (like me but I am open to discussion) that answer Yes, Yes and No, the logical conclusion is that natural creatures with free-will need to have something supernatural to evade causality.
Hence a stone can be added to the wall of necessary properties of God, defined for now as a supernatural thing that could (and did) create the universe without being caused (created) itself.

In guest's post, a definition of free-will has been proposed: it is the possibility to act against the biological imperatives. It is an interesting definition and our guest argued therefore in favor of the existence of free-will.
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TFBW
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PostPosted: Mon Sep 21, 2009 3:46 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

lacavin, can you define "causality"? Does "causality" imply determinism? If not, then is there scope for free will to be understood as a form of nondeterminism?
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lacavin
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 22, 2009 3:00 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

TFBW wrote:
lacavin, can you define "causality"? Does "causality" imply determinism? If not, then is there scope for free will to be understood as a form of nondeterminism?


This is the core of the problem.

I define (absolute) causality in that every effect has a (or several) causes.

This is mecanistic: if something is accelerating, there must be at least one "engine" somewhere, which can be a motor or gravitation, for instance. In absence of engine, there is no acceleration.
While this is easy to accept (because it fits with all observations) in a mecanical perspective, it is of course valid for other phenomena. For instance as a chemical engineer, I routinely assume in my professional life that by changing something in the mixture, I can steer a chemical reaction: chemical reactions are also caused by the present molecular species and the physical conditions.

Now if physical (mecanical) and chemical processes are caused by the physical and chemical conditions, the next easy step is to consider that biological processes (which are mecanical and chemical) are also similar. So our brain chemistry is caused by the conditions, i.e. by the present conditions of the system.

So in essence, what we decide in our brain is caused by our history and our environment. This means that we have no "freedom". The IMHO unavoidable conclusion of causality is determinism.

I do not see where determinism would leave some place for free will. While some seem to accept a compatibility between determinism and free will, this looks to me (but I probably did not understand fully) like sophistry with -the choices are not free but we would have taken the same choice if we were free so we have free will- sort of argumentation.

If there is only one door, and I need to go through, I will open that door, but I won't consider that I had a free choice of doors...
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TFBW
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 23, 2009 1:54 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

So you're saying that there's no place for free will in a perfectly deterministic, mechanistic universe, and that we live in such a universe? I won't argue with the former part (unless I have to), given that the latter part seems rather controversial.
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lacavin
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 23, 2009 9:36 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

TFBW wrote:
So you're saying that there's no place for free will in a perfectly deterministic, mechanistic universe, and that we live in such a universe? I won't argue with the former part (unless I have to), given that the latter part seems rather controversial.


Of course it is not proven that we live in such a universe. There is however IMHO an enormous amount of evidence that lean this way, and therefore I believe we do.

The evidence includes basically all we know and observe in science - in the sense that we can understand, model and theorize to make predictions. Predictions would statistically not work in a non deterministic universe, would they?
It also includes most of our living experience in day to day situations (otherwise we could not learn by experience), even if we sometimes have the feeling that some events are just "lucky" because the causal chain is too complex to be obvious.

But... any evidence that we don't live in such a universe?
Why do you think this is so controversial?


Short note on two "usual" arguments against causality:

Obviously there are probabilistic causality if we look down to the quantum mecanics where the probability of an outcome is deterministic, but not the outcome itself. That includes non deterministic factors (e.g. random chance) but still don't provide an obvious opportunity for free will as we have no control over random chance. That may be a loophole for supernatural action, however?
Note that the sheer amount of random effects boils down to the "probability" being actually the observable outcome at a larger scale (i.e. all things human can directly observe/handle), and therefore for all practical purposes, specific outcomes (in form of distributions) are also deterministic, similar to the individual movements of gas molecules being random, but the resulting shocks against the wall making a perfectly determined pressure.

Chaos theory is fully causal, chaotic system are theoretically predictable, but the sensitivity of a system renders it practically not predictable. The existence of practically unpredictable systems is not evidence against causality, when we see that the unpredictability is "only" due to our imperfect knowledge of initial conditions or system constants, and when we can predict behaviors (attractors) correctly.


Finally a quote (link given by Gully Foyle) from Johnson: "All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it."
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TFBW
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 23, 2009 1:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

lacavin wrote:
The evidence includes basically all we know and observe in science - in the sense that we can understand, model and theorize to make predictions. Predictions would statistically not work in a non deterministic universe, would they?

There's a range of possibilities between "fully deterministic" and "completely random".

lacavin wrote:
Obviously there are probabilistic causality if we look down to the quantum mecanics where the probability of an outcome is deterministic, but not the outcome itself.

You're mixing the meanings of "determinism" there. Mathematically, a deterministic system is one that does not involve randomness. Deterministic systems always evolve the same way, given the same initial conditions and input. Microprocessors are deterministic in this way -- when they're working properly. So if you're admitting probabilistic outcomes, then you've denied strict (mathematical) determinism: a system based on probabilities is nondeterministic.

To say that "the probability of an outcome is deterministic" is to rob the term "determinism" of all useful meaning. An outcome is either deterministic or not: if it is deterministic, then perfect knowledge of the system is sufficient to predict its future states; if it is not deterministic, then its future states can only be expressed as probabilities, or possibilities, even if its current state is known perfectly.

lacavin wrote:
That includes non deterministic factors (e.g. random chance) but still don't provide an obvious opportunity for free will as we have no control over random chance. That may be a loophole for supernatural action, however?

I think that if free will exists at all, it must be supernatural. If our actions are just the products of physics and chemistry, then they are probably nondeterministic, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for free will. Free will must have some (limited) influence over the state of the universe: it must be a causal agent in the chain of cause and effect. The distinguishing feature of a free-willed agent is its ability to decide: not merely compute (deterministically) or select at random (nondeterministically).

In terms of causality, then, we might have three kinds of explanation for questions of the sort, "why did X happen?" We might say that X was the inevitable outcome of prior condition Y: a deterministic explanation. We might also say that X was a truly random event, describable only as a probability function. Radioactive decay is described this way. Our third alternative is to say that X was the result of a decision made by Z. Why did the glass break? The stone hit it. Why did the stone hit it? Jim decided to throw the stone at the window -- and he succeeded.

I can't prove that free will exists, by the way: I'm just trying to show how it can fit in to the universe as we understand it. It's just a special case of nondeterminism.

lacavin wrote:
Note that the sheer amount of random effects boils down to the "probability" being actually the observable outcome at a larger scale (i.e. all things human can directly observe/handle), and therefore for all practical purposes, specific outcomes (in form of distributions) are also deterministic.

Large-scale processes made up of constrained random processes do tend to approximate a deterministic system, but they do so with an "expected error". So when you let a large number of balls rattle down over a grid of pegs, you expect them to distribute themselves in an orderly bell curve because they move randomly. You would, however, say that the process was rigged if that bell curve turned out to be mathematically perfect.

More often than not, scientists treat the world as though it were completely deterministic, and write off the "imperfections" in their observations as "experimental error" or such like. Whether the universe actually conforms to their ideal or not is an open question, although I believe the weight of opinion is shifting towards nondeterminism thanks to the shortcomings of deterministic models of quantum physics.
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lacavin
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2009 2:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

TFBW wrote:
You're mixing the meanings of "determinism" there. Mathematically, a deterministic system is one that does not involve randomness.

You are right, sorry for the mix-up.
So I lack a word. Let's but "probabilistic determinism" for what I mean:

Let me try again:
Strict causality leads to determinism. For most phenomena at our scale, the universe seems to follow strict causality rules, which is the base upon which learning by experience and science/techology is founded.

At very small scale (quantum physics) most phenomena seems to escape determinism by the introdution of probabilities. In those system however, the causality is targeted at the probabilities themselves, and not at a particuliar outcome, thus leading to a probabilitstic determinism. Therefore we can still learn by experience or make prediction, but only for large numbers of events. As it happens, these large numbers of events are also what we discussed above ("at our scale").
Therefore the microsimal indeterminism does usually not impact the larger scales. as the probabilities (and hence the distribution of outcomes, and hence the global outcome) is causal and appear fully determinist.

This yield to a system that always evolve the same way, given the same initial conditions and input. But only macroscopically - similarly, for instance, to how your eyes work: they react or not to a single photon, but they are so many photons that a single impact more or less does not make any difference in the image - otherwise you would always see the world blinking).

TFBW wrote:
Large-scale processes made up of constrained random processes do tend to approximate a deterministic system, but they do so with an "expected error".

While it is formally correct, when the approximation is good enough it is undistinguishable from the thing itself. Therefore for all practical purposes the error can be ignored because we don't have "many" (hundreds? thousands?) balls that fall at random, but we have billions of trillions of particles (e.g. 1.7 10^21 molecules in a drop of water). The larger the random sample, the better the approximation. Downto a non-measurable error...

That means in my opinion that you can have a system with all the characteristics of determinism based on randomness, if you have enough random events to "average out" and the distribution is probabilistic deterministic.
Of course this is a somewhat weaker determinism, as you can not fully duplicate the evolution of the system down to the last detail, but this is still determinism in the sense that you can predict the evolution of the system globally - it does not have anymore randomness in it, and does not need anymore to be expressed in terms of possibilities.

Now it is possible to design a system that makes a macroscopic influence based on a random quantum effect. This means I should probably admit that the universe is not fully deterministic... there is a loophole with usually no visible consequence, but if somehow something could steer this underlying randomness (is it even random?), then it is thinkable that it would finally have a macroscopic effect.

TFBW wrote:
I think that if free will exists at all, it must be supernatural. [...] Free will must have some (limited) influence over the state of the universe: it must be a causal agent in the chain of cause and effect. The distinguishing feature of a free-willed agent is its ability to decide: not merely compute (deterministically) or select at random (nondeterministically). [...] I can't prove that free will exists, by the way: I'm just trying to show how it can fit in to the universe as we understand it. It's just a special case of nondeterminism.

I fully agree. Besides the argumentation whether the world is deterministic or not, my core message was: you need something supernatural if you want to have free-will.

This is why I considered that free-will discussion would actually broaden and complement the proof of God thread (even if it is better placed separately).


Final note on you causality examples:
TFBW wrote:
In terms of causality, then, we might have three kinds of explanation for questions of the sort, "why did X happen?" We might say that X was the inevitable outcome of prior condition Y: a deterministic explanation. We might also say that X was a truly random event, describable only as a probability function. Radioactive decay is described this way. Our third alternative is to say that X was the result of a decision made by Z. Why did the glass break? The stone hit it. Why did the stone hit it? Jim decided to throw the stone at the window -- and he succeeded.

Causality can a posteriori of course support free will.
But the issue is more the opposite: What caused Jim's decision?
Jim has a certain biological state, memories and education. This translate (to simplify) in potentials in his brain. For these electric potentials (the "causes") really lead to different outcomes? There should then be a physically uncaused (i.e. not the result of the potential in the surrounding synapse) way to MODIFY some electric potential in some synapses... in order to start an aternative cascade leading to the arm of Jim throwing or not.

That is the issue between causality and free-will.
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TFBW
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2009 5:00 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

lacavin wrote:
That means in my opinion that you can have a system with all the characteristics of determinism based on randomness, if you have enough random events to "average out" and the distribution is probabilistic deterministic.

This is true -- of linear systems. If you consider a coin toss to have a value of "1" for heads and "0" for tails, the average value of your coin tosses will get closer and closer to 0.5 the more coins you toss. The exact sequence of coins is completely unpredictable, but the average will certainly converge on 0.5 if the coin is genuinely unbiased.

Complex, non-linear systems are a completely different kettle of fish. The slightest bit of uncertainty (or imprecision) in a chaotic system renders the long term behaviour of the system utterly unpredictable (other than to say it will follow its usual pattern of unpredictable, chaotic behaviour). That's what we know as the "butterfly effect".

lacavin wrote:
Now it is possible to design a system that makes a macroscopic influence based on a random quantum effect. This means I should probably admit that the universe is not fully deterministic... there is a loophole with usually no visible consequence, but if somehow something could steer this underlying randomness (is it even random?), then it is thinkable that it would finally have a macroscopic effect.

This is the point of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. A random event of radioactive decay is the trigger for administering a lethal poison to the cat. That one random, quantum event is the difference between a live cat and a dead cat. For the purposes of our discussion, this would provide an interesting and completely undetectable way for a deity to intervene in our universe: we can't tell whether a single quantum event like that was "natural" or "supernatural". The intervention isn't significant enough to measure, despite its "macro" consequences.

lacavin wrote:
Jim has a certain biological state, memories and education. This translate (to simplify) in potentials in his brain. For these electric potentials (the "causes") really lead to different outcomes? There should then be a physically uncaused (i.e. not the result of the potential in the surrounding synapse) way to MODIFY some electric potential in some synapses... in order to start an aternative cascade leading to the arm of Jim throwing or not.

The brain is a complex, non-linear system. It is perhaps the most complex and most non-linear system known to man. This leaves it wide open to "macro" effects resulting from "micro" influences. That is to say, your "free will", or some kind of non-physical "soul" if you prefer, could interact with your physical body at the quantum level and produce such "macro" effects. Such interaction would be impossible to measure, so far as I'm aware -- like the problem of determining whether "random" radioactive decay is random or carefully selected by God so as to present the overall appearance of randomness. Bear in mind that the quantum influence could be distributed across the brain -- not merely localised to one area. The brain could be like an "autopilot" which performs most of your actions automatically (based on instinct and habit), but provides a means to override default behaviour via this external influence.

Again, I emphasise that I'm not promoting a particular theory of the soul or free will here: I am merely trying to demonstrate that these "supernatural" ideas are ultimately compatible with present understanding of the natural world.
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YawningMan
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PostPosted: Mon Dec 06, 2010 5:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"We are but humble pirates, mi'lady!"

Ignoring that character's next line, I would like to know if the philosophers can tone it down a notch for those who haven't trained their minds so rigorously as you two have? It gets hard to follow after the second post.

Thanks, guys!

Edit: This is where I would normally give my two cents, but the computer lab is closing. I don't have internet at my place, so I'll save it for another day.
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