Showing posts with label The Swerve. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Swerve. Show all posts

Thursday 31 December 2020

Free Will and Determinism

 The Choice is clear

Faced with a choice between free will and determinism, the choice has always been clear.  Neither our legal system nor our morality could exist without free will.  No-one could be accused of a crime or a sin, unless we accept that they had free will, that they had a choice.  In recent eras, the conviction that determinism is wrong has been reinforced by expressions like "biological determinism" and "social determinism."  

Biological determinism

"Biological determinism" is widely recognized as the fallacious belief which claims that the limitations and diminished social status of women are determined by their biology, not by patriarchal societies and cultures.  In fact, there is a schism inside feminism with French feminists recognizing some role for biology and American feminists denying biology.

Social Determinism

"Social determinism" allows the idea that members of the upper classes of society are in fact superior. Some 19th-century novels, in particular, Dickens' Oliver Twist, have been criticized for the alleged subtext that certain characters, like Oliver, were morally superior and immune from corruption because they were the biological offspring of a wealthy ruling elite. 

Christian philosophy

Christian philosophy has been particularly challenged by the incompatible, mutually exclusive dichotomy of an omniscient, omnipotent God and individuals who have free will.  If God knows what I'm going to do and chooses to allow me to do it, how can I be blamed for whatever I do?  Partially in response, John Calvin elaborated a new kind of deterministic Christianity which became the basis of Puritanism.  According to Calvinism, God has already chosen his "elect" and there is limited possibility for atonement for most of humanity. Anathema for Calvin was the Catholic practice of indulgences; that is, that I could buy my way into heaven by purchasing another gold chalice for the church. 


The word "puritanism" was first used, quite mockingly, to describe the most extreme anti-Catholics, who wanted to "purify" Christianity of any vestige of Catholicism.  One of the causes of the American revolution was that Puritans who had ventured to North America in part to practice their particularly fervent "Protestantism" (meaning "protest" against Catholicism) discovered that, under the Quebec Act, the English government had granted a landmass stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Mississippi Valley to French Catholics.

Physics and free will

Just when I was ready to relax and accept free will as an obvious state of affairs, I was introduced to Sabine Hossenfelder's "You don't have free will, but don't worry." In her vlog, Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist, presents straightforward, no-nonsense analyses, explanations and critiques of the current state of physics.  Her style--which is key to the vlog's appeal--is to do away with uncertainty and waffling.  She offers her opinions and judgments as ineluctable facts, and the alternatives as "rubbish" (one of her favourite words).  She is, as it were, the Judge Judy of physics.

I must confess that while I find it relatively easy to deny the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God, I find it much harder to dismiss the laws of physics. Human brains and human bodies, Hossenfelder argues, are collections of particles and atoms and molecules.  We might feel that we are making choices and changing reality by exercising free will, but particles, atoms and molecules will do what particles, atoms and molecules will do.  This is what our brains do; they follow the laws of physics.  Our feelings of having made a decision are chronologically after our brains have completed the chemical reactions necessary in decision making. To put it simply--as Hossenfelder does--the idea of free will is incompatible with the laws of physics.

The argument is so counterintuitive that it is hard to credit.  However, counterintuitive does not mean wrong.  The argument aligns with Pierre-Simon Laplace's Demon, as described in Sean Carroll's The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself.  Laplace (1749 - 1825), the "French atheist mathematician," claimed that a Demon who had "perfect knowledge" of the present would be able to perfectly predict the future.

 Laplace’s Demon could say with confidence what the probability of every future history will be, and no amount of human volition would be able to change it. There is no room for human choice, so there is no such thing as free will. We are just material objects who obey the laws of nature.

Thought Experiments on free will

Despite the fact that Hossenfelder is not only a theoretical physicist but a German theoretical physicist, she does not seem very taken with Gedankenexperiments ("thought experiments" in English). As a counter-argument to Hossenfeld's, I performed the following simple thought experiment. I placed both of my hands on my desk. I told myself that I would then decide which hand--left or right--I would raise. After reflection, I raised my left hand. According to Hossenfelder, my decision . . . actually there was no "decision," my raising of my left hand was determined at the Big Bang. Like the falling of a domino in a chain of dominoes, the raising of my left hand was an inevitable consequence of the tumbling of the first domino, the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.

Don't worry, be happy!

What does my thought experiment prove?  Not much--except perhaps how extremely counterintuitive the denial of free will is.  I'm left to wonder if every word that Shakespeare wrote was the inevitable consequence of interacting particles--not a reflection of the brilliance of the Bard.  Diminishing Shakespeare does seem to diminish us all.  But Hossenfelder tells us "not to worry."  We can think of our lives as stories or films, and we can carry on believing in our free wills until we arrive happily at the end of the story which is our inevitable, pre-determined conclusion.

Free Will as legal fiction

Sean Carroll presents the inescapable argument that life as we humans know it would be impossible without the concept of free will.  The legal system, human psychology, human sociology and human life, itself, would all be quite baseless without free will.  Whatever you might choose to do or not do in life would mean nothing because choice itself is an illusion and all consequences are already determined.  However, the fact that the concept of free will is necessary does not prove that free will actually exists.  Free will might, in fact, be another example of a "legal fiction"  (see my post on Terrorism and Madness); that is, something we pretend to believe because it serves a legal purpose.   If so, free will is the legal fiction of all legal fictions.


Free Will in The Swerve

In Stephen Greenblatt's remarkable research into Lucretius, the Roman poet/philosopher, and Poggio Bracciolini, the 15th-century "book hunter" and papal secretary, who saved Lucretius's work from ignominy, the existence of free will is once again in question.  Writing fifty years before the birth of Christ, in his poem On the Nature of Things, Lucretius repudiated all religions as cruel superstition, denied the existence of an afterlife and the idea that human beings had immortal souls.  He described the nature of all things, including humans, as collections of particles in constant motion; in other words, much as sub-atomic, quantum-theory physicists do today.

Greenblatt paraphrases Lucretius's Latin poem:

The swerve is the source of free will. In the lives of all sentient creatures, human and animal alike, the random swerve of elementary particles is responsible for the existence of free will. For if all of motion were one long predetermined chain, there would be no possibility of freedom.

The "swerve" is "an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter," but how it proves free will is less than obvious.  Greenblatt asks rhetorically, "what is the evidence that free will exists?"  But what follows is more an inkling than an answer.  The analogy of a horse race invokes "the thrilling spectacle of a mental act bidding a mass of matter into motion."  Lucretius further argues that a man

may deliberately hold himself back: Both willing oneself to go forward and willing oneself to remain stationary are only possible because everything is not strictly determined, that is, because of the subtle, unpredictable, free movements of matter. What keeps the mind from being crushed by inner necessity is “the minute swerve [clinamen principiorum] of the atoms at unpredictable places and times” (2.293–94).

The Possibility of free will

In a seemingly unrelated vlog post, Do We Need a Theory of Everything?, Hossenfelder opens the possibility of a swerve and of free will.  She asserts: "There is no reason that nature should actually be described by a theory of everything." Nature might occasionally swerve outside of or from between the theories of physics.  The human being might be more than and different from the sum of her parts; therefore, capable of behaving unlike particles, atoms and molecules.   It seems more than possible that human consciousness, what physicists call an "emerging property," might actually, in moments of swerve if not beyond, affect the material universe--instantiating what we call free will.


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