Background: I listened to a podcast of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. As we know – Sam Harris says that free will doesn’t exist and Jordan Peterson is in opposition to that. I was thinking about it.
Does existence of free will matter at all? Can we, bounded by our human bodies really tell if we have free will? Will existence or lack of it really change anything?
This is to me the most fundamental question of life.
I think Sam and Dan make several logical errors, that are very common in philosophy, and physics/mathematics.
Put most simply, if there is hard determinism, then there is no choice, everything that has happened, will happen, ever, was already there in the first instant of existence. In such a universe, morality and choice are illusion.
That is a possible mode of existence, and it seems to have been invalidated by the balance of evidence – but Sam and Dan and many others are so attached to the notion that they cannot see past it.
What seems to actually be the case is that this universe we find ourselves in is a balance of the lawful and the random. It seems that at all levels there exists constrained uncertainty (randomness within bounds of probability).
This seems to be what quantum mechanics is telling us about existence.
When you look at such systems over long enough times, or large enough collections (both of which involve large populations of instances) then the probability distributions become so well populated that they deliver very predictable outcomes in aggregate (even as they are unpredictable in the individual cases).
It now seems clear, that only in a world that is such a constrained balance of the random and the lawful can we have both sufficient predictability to have such things as engineering and computers and biochemistry leading to all the levels of complexity we see instantiated around us, and also have the possibility of free will.
And the sort of freedom that can exist in such systems is extremely interesting.
It is not a freedom from all influence, but rather a freedom to create influence.
By default, everything follows from the influences of the past, and in every distribution of pattern, at every level (both within individuals and within populations), there will exist outliers and relationships that are finely balanced at some boundary.
It is at those boundaries, in those balances, that our real choice lives.
To me, as a skeptic, as a trained scientist, as a geek who started a software business 31 years ago that I am still running, as someone who has been looking into existential risk at every level I can discover (and effective mitigation strategies), I find Jordan to have the best understanding I have encountered in another of the evolutionary significance, and mythological understanding of the importance of this ever evolving boundary between order and chaos.
I see in our modern society a tendency to order, to systems, to law, that is a fundamental existential level risk to us all, as it completely hides and masks the very real uncertainties and risk present in that failure of balance at many levels.
When I read Dawkins’ 1976 classic (Selfish Gene) in 1978, it was the most profound work I had encountered, as it was the first clear exposition of the evolution of cooperation I had encountered.
I am now clear from a strategic systems perspective how evolution works, and that the emergence of new levels of complexity is predicated upon new levels of cooperation and creativity, and that competition always tends to reduce complexity and drive systems to simplicity. And naive cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by “cheating” strategies, and so at every level there emerges a complex evolutionary strategic “arms race” of secondary systems required to detect cheating, expose it, and return the cheats to the cooperative. And that latter aspect of returning those individuals using cheating strategies to using fundamentally cooperative strategies is something that is absolutely required for long term stability, and something that is captured in the essence of Christianity in many readings. So in that sense, I see enormous power in Jordan’s expression of the power of the unknown and the “divine” within each of us to give us profound insight into what is required in reality.
Our modern systems of money and law are now taking us into profoundly risky territory (in their imposed order, and lack of acceptance of chaos and novelty), and need to be balanced by a profound respect for individual life and individual freedom, which must be expressed in the universal provision of opportunities of life (water, food, shelter, education, communication, transport, medical support, security, freedom); and those must be balanced by individual responsibility in both social and ecological contexts, both of which are profound and eternal explorations of uncertain territories.
So I see in Jordan’s understandings and explanations one of the best possible simple explanations of the profound uncertainties and responsibilities and opportunities in existence, that to me are evident from explorations of evolutionary biology, cosmology, geology, complexity, information theory, and the nature of infinities.
An essential part of that was, for me, seeing that mathematics was a system for creating models and maps of this territory we call reality, and they are the best maps we can have, and they are not necessarily the territory itself. Even with the most profound knowledge of mathematics and logic possible, there can remain eternal uncertainty. Wolfram’s NKS is a clear pointer in that direction.
So I love Jordan’s mix, of respect for the past, for the deep lessons of culture, mixed with the explorations of the possibilities of the present, mixed with an acceptance of the eternal need for outliers that create the new paths to safety. And there must exist risk and uncertainty, particularly at those boundaries that are so distant from the common understanding of our social groups.
Actually, what you said makes no sense, in maths or logic or reality.
What we find is that “laws” are approximations to something, that work at certain scales.
The idea that the earth is flat is close enough if you are building a house with lumber.
The idea that the earth is round and the stars are fixed is close enough if you are sailing around the planet using a sextant for navigation.
The idea of Newtonian gravitation is close enough to predict the orbits of earth and moon and planets to within a few meters over a few centuries – which is close enough for most purposes.
To get a constellation of GPS satellites to give us accuracy at centimeter level we need relativistic space time.
Each level of successive approximation is useful in its context – so in that sense they remain “laws”, and each has limits of utility.
It seems clear that all of our laws are useful approximations to something at certain scales and in certain contexts.
And at some scales and some contexts they can be very useful indeed – as evidenced by the systems that make this communication between us possible. The layers of systems present that reduce the probability of error in transmission and display of these symbols, and the meaning encoded within them are indeed amazing- few people have much idea just how complex they are, how contextually sensitive and constrained their reliability, the narrow ranges of temperature, voltage, frequency, etc, required to sustain them. So many levels of systems and constraints and checks required.
So yes – in a sense, our laws work in the contexts that they do, and to the degrees that they do in those contexts. They are very useful and valuable tools, and it is a deep mistake to go beyond that.
To my understanding, QM seems to be telling us that at the base level, one cannot know pairs of quantities, like position and momentum. The more you constrain one, the more dispersed (randomised) becomes the other. And there seem to be fundamental limits to the degrees that things may be known.
It really does seem to be more than simple “approximation”.
QM seems to be saying that there is fundamental randomness, fundamental uncertainty, present.
And within those constraints, given large samples, one can derive some aspects of collections over time with very high confidence.
That seems to be the nature of this reality we find ourselves in.
If some of the mathematicians are right, and there really are infinities within the finites we can sample, then there must be a real sense of randomness present in such things.
Of course QM applies.
Electronics, transistors, rely upon quantum tunneling.
Many macroscopic devices rely upon quantum effects – all life in fact – many of our biochemical systems rely upon quantum processes.
The notion of free will can only make sense if there is the possibility of cause and effect not always having the same relationship, if there are in fact probabilities, rather than hard necessities, in relationships.
It is only in such systems that the notion of freedom has any real meaning.
If hard causal rules always apply, then there is only necessity.
That does not seem to be the case in our reality.
It does in fact seem to be the case that there is a fundamental probabilistic aspect to all relationships.
We do in fact seem to have the power of choice, if we claim it.
Morality does in fact seem to be something real.
Our choices, or lack thereof, do in fact seem to have real impacts in existence.
It matters what we choose to do.
A little over 7 years ago I made a choice to do what I could to change the probabilities of my survival. I had not planned on having an oncologist send me home “palliative care only”, after being told I could be dead in 6 weeks, and there was nothing known to medical science that could alter that.
I challenged that.
I read a lot.
I tried a lot.
I am still here, 6.5 years free of tumours.
That took a lot of persistent choices, a lot of overriding the defaults of my likes and dislikes in respect of food.
For me it worked.
Few have the discipline not to cheat, even once, for thousands of days.
That was (is) a choice.
Completely agree with you about the pseudo-science of mind over matter being nonsense – that is not what I am talking about.
What interests me is the effect of systems on probabilities, how software can influence hardware, and the degrees of independence that can occur in very complex systems.
That is what free will looks like to me.
As someone who started with a passion for biology, and delved deeply into the connections between atoms and behaviour, then got into computers, complexity, chaos, complex adaptive systems, far from equilibrium systems, etc, the often very subtle ways in which systems interact and influence each other, across all levels, started to fascinate me. I grew up on farms, learned to hunt early, so had some practical understanding of animal and plant behaviour before getting into the theories available.
It is a really complex set of topics, with really complex sets of relationships and interactions, and after 50 years of immersion in the topics, it is very clear to me that those boundary regions, the regions where the illusion of hard determinacy clearly breaks down, are fundamental to many aspects of being. All creativity, all choice, can only come from delving into those regions. And there are real dangers there, real chaos, they are, by definition, beyond prediction. And we need them.
Look at the history of the transformation of understandings we see in just the last few thousand years of human understanding, then the last few hundred, then the last few decades, then the last few years, the last few months.
None of those transformations were possible by sticking strictly to the previous paradigms.
Each required going beyond what was known and accepted as “Truth”.
Each was, by definition, heretical.
Not all claims that are beyond the bounds of the known are valid – most are not, and some are.
Being prepared to look, to test, to look carefully at the results of those tests, is important.
Most people seem to prefer certainty to existence.
In the last 7 years, since I managed to cure myself of “terminal cancer”, it has amazed me how many people would rather die than change their diet consistently, no exceptions.
The sort of discipline required to do that, and the will to execute it, in the face of no agreement from those in authority, seems quite rare.
And to me, who has never known anything else, that seems strange.
I am me, not anyone else.
I cannot give another my experiences, my intuitions, my abstractions.
I can only point in the direction of those things.
I can never have the experience of being other than me, and being married is about as close as I can get to that.
So I can say things, suggest to people that they do what it takes to read and understand Einstein, Goedel, Feynman, Darwin, Dawkins, David Snowden, Wolfram, etc; but I cannot make people read those things in the way I did, going over and over until I was confident that I had all the relevant concepts and understood what was being written about; then integrating them all, and developing further levels of abstraction. I don’t have the time to write all that out, too much that needs doing.
And I can leave conversations like this, as a sort of “trail of breadcrumbs”, for anyone who is interested to follow (human or non-human, biological or non-biological).
For me, JBP added something to the puzzle, something not at all easy to explain, deeply metaphorical.
And part of it is in the notion of freedom, and part of it in the notion of responsibility that must come with freedom if it is to survive very long in this reality we seem to find ourselves in.