Randomness, Determinism, and Free Will

    What is randomness?  To say something is random simply means that we "let the chips fall where they may;" we impose no additional structure on an event beyond what is intrinsic to the event.  So, to say we toss a die randomly simply means that we toss the die without trying to influence the roll in any way.  If this is a balanced die, then the probability of any number coming up is 1/6 because all that matters is the intrinsic structure of the die (having six sides).  

    It is not necessary for the die to be balanced to toss it randomly.  An unbalanced die where different sides are weighted differently can still be tossed randomly if we do nothing to influence which face comes up on the die.  This means that randomness is a negative condition; it is the absence of restrictions.  Hence, randomness cannot be a cause of anything.  Bruce Charlton has a post about randomness, saying similar things.  

    If random means nothing outside influences the experiment, then the important thing in randomness is the underlying universe of possibilities of the experiment.  In the case of a die, this would be the six sides.  In the case of a survey, this would be a population.  So, the concept of randomness implies an underlying universe of possibilities.  

    Determinism on the other hand, only considers one possibility.  It may be that the single possibility is found at the end of a long chain of reasoning or calculations, but there was only one to begin with.  

    In some discussions about free will, it is stated that the only possibilities are randomness and determinism, so how can freedom come in?  But I think this sidesteps the issue.  

    Pierre Simon Laplace wrote: 

    "We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future.  An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these date to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

    This hypothetical being is known as Laplace's Demon.  The idea is that given the laws of physics, there is only one possible future and one possible past.  

    On the other hand, the quantum multiverse theory (also known as the Everett interpretation) states that every time there are multiple possibilities for something to happen, the universe splits and each one happens in a different copy of the universe.  In the previous case, only one thing can happen, but in this case, everything happens.  

    But the problem is, that neither of these options are actually solutions to the problem.  The common sense interpretation of events is that at any given time multiple things could happen, but only one thing does happen.  In order to explain this, we need some means to explain how one option among many is chosen, we need a means of choice.  

    Determinism avoids the problem by saying, "Well, it looked like multiple things could happen, but actually there was only one possibility to begin with."  The quantum multiverse avoids the problem by saying, "It appears that only one thing happens, but actually everything happens in some universe."  Both sidestep the problem by denying the common sense interpretation.  

    But who is to say the common sense interpretation is wrong?  I think what we have here is that we cannot model choice, so it appears that the only two possibilities are determinism and randomness because we have models that incorporate those concepts.  But, the common sense interpretation, that we have free will and there are multiple possibilities for events in the universe but only one happens are confirmed by our experience.  Models are also confirmed by experience, when they make predictions, so free will is on the same epistemic footing as science.  

    What's more, we not only have empirical experience of free will, we also have the internal experience of choosing, which is as real as anything else in our consciousness.  

    Because science has been successful, people have been conditioned to believe that the only things that are real are what we can model.  But, this is in fact not true.  The laws of nature exist in nature, not on a piece of paper.  We have models for them, but those are not the same as the laws themselves.  In order to really understand free will, we have to move past model to reality.

6 comments:

  1. This has been a really important matter for me! I suppose the reason why free will is so elusive a concept for moderns is that it cannot - by definition - be modelled. Any (coherent) model will Not be what we mean by free will.

    I think it is not a problem to conceptualize until we try to model it.

    But human free will is a problem in a world where God is omnipotent and omniscient. An omni-God allows no place for (what we mean by) free will to exist. To 'allow' it, one is forced to resort to truly massive and mind-numbing abstractions, such that Time is not really real; or mysterious non-explanations like 'God makes it possible' (which is, I believe, what the Aquinas position amounts to).

    For me, the reality of free will was a decisive argument in favour of a pluralistic (and 'polytheistic') reality; since any agent with real free will functions as a potential source of creation.

    This, then, creates the problem of God aligning all these free wills, all these agents of creation; and that is (for me) the history of reality and salvation - God making a primary creation, within which we may choose to create, all these many creators being kept in harmony by love.

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    1. "I suppose the reason why free will is so elusive a concept for moderns is that it cannot - by definition - be modelled. Any (coherent) model will Not be what we mean by free will."

      Good insight. When I wrote this, I meant we can't model in the sense that we don't currently know how and had not decided whether I thought it was possible or not. I think you make a good point here that we don't know how to model free will because it can't be done.

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  2. For de facto free will to exist implies that at least some contents of the universe have some degree of freedom from the physical constraints of being in the universe.

    Quantum mechanics introduces irresolvable uncertainty to the mix at a very low level of granularity. What it does not do is grant a degree of freedom for something inside the universe to choose. What we do have - even the most dyed-in-the-wool determinists - is a persistent subjective sense of self at least while conscious and not suffering from an extreme neurological or psychiatric disorder, or unless highly dosed on LSD, ayahuasca, DMT et cetera. That said: A subjective sense of self is not sufficient for de facto free will to exist. At best what we have is the subjective sense of choosing, not the reality of it. To truly have free will would require some part to be in and another part outside of the universe such that the external was able to influence what is inside without being "corrupted" into determinism through being bound to what is inside. Postulating a timeless aspect that is outside the space-time bubble is about the only way that seems remotely plausible, but as soon as something is timeless it is both unchanging and incapable of choice since choice requires the passage of time. The other interesting thing to think about is how would one timeless aspect be different from another one? It would seem that if there is a timeless aspect that it is singular rather than plural - at least with respect to those who experience the unfolding of space-time in this universe.

    (Such things I think of before fading off to sleep.)

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    1. Thanks, this is a very interesting comment.

      "At best what we have is the subjective sense of choosing, not the reality of it."

      I would argue that the subjective sense of choice is on the same footing the subjective sense of understanding scientific theories or philosophical arguments.

      Even if a scientific theory is confirmed by experiment, that in turn is justified by our subjective sense of observing the result of the experiment, so we can't get away from the subjective aspect.

      "To truly have free will would require some part to be in and another part outside of the universe such that the external was able to influence what is inside without being 'corrupted' into determinism through being bound to what is inside."

      This is an interesting idea. I believe something like this to be true, that the soul is not entirely inside the universe and through some mysterious means, it is intimately connected with the body and hence provides the means for free will.

      But it's not just the soul. I think the qualitative aspect of the universe (colors, etc.) and the fact that matter is organized, rather than just being chaos of potentiality (which it seems to be close to on the quantum level) is the contribution of the spiritual realm. Without the spiritual, matter would just be chaos, similar to the prima materia of the alchemists.

      "Postulating a timeless aspect that is outside the space-time bubble is about the only way that seems remotely plausible, but as soon as something is timeless it is both unchanging and incapable of choice since choice requires the passage of time."

      That is a thought-provoking proposal.

      Perhps what is outside the space time bubble isn't atemporal, but exists at higher different level of reality, which has its own time. And then what is outside the spacetime bubble relates to the body in a way that is neither spatial nor temporal, maybe analogous to the relation of ideas, such as when we say two ideas are similar.

      I think these are certainly issues worth thinking about, but human beings probably won't ever get to the bottom of them. It may well be that they can only be properly understood by a higher type of thinking.

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  3. I like the definition I read somewhere for 'natural laws':
    observed regularities.

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