Quora – Are humans confused as to their own free will?

Are humans confused as to their own free will?

[ 8/4/20 ]

Necessarily, as there is no agreement about what it might mean.

Many people are in a group that believes that all events are preceded by necessary causes. In such a world, there can be no free will.

Another group of people argue that even if there is not necessary prior cause to all events, that free will is still impossible.

I am not in either of those camps.

It seems clear to me, beyond reasonable doubt, that this universe in which we live, and biology at every level of evolution, is a balance between the lawful and the random.

At the most basic level we currently have any glimmerings of an understanding of, quantum mechanics at the level of individual quanta deals only in probabilities. Anything can happen, but some things are more likely than others.

When you get large collections of such things (and even a single tick of a cesium atom is some 10^30 Planck time units – which is a fairly large collection) then they can form a very predictable distribution. So even with this fundamental unpredictability, we can still build things like computers that are very reliable – provided that we keep them within appropriate limits of temperature, voltage, current, magnetic field, cosmic ray density, etc.

So it seems that reality contains many levels of fundamental uncertainty, and at the same time can be very reliable and predictable in some sets of contexts. This seems to give us the best of both worlds much of the time (computers and freedom) – though occasionally we can get the worst of both – reality can be like that.

Trying to get some sort of concept set of just how freedom might emerge in such a context is not at all easy.

I am something of a geek, who aced my math tests at school, but was lucky to pass an English test. I got seriously interested in biology, in evolution, in biochemistry, which forced me to gain some sort of an understanding of quantum mechanics, and enough math to be able to work through Hilbert, Einstein, Goedel etc. I started working with computers, and have done enough work with complexity theory and computational theory and some reasonably complex math; that I have a reasonable model in my head as to how it all works, but it requires at least 15 levels of systems (15 levels of abstraction), with a lot of connections between all levels of the structure, that it is not at all easy to explain to anyone else. I have not managed it yet, despite putting in quite a bit of effort.

But at the end of all that, the sort of freedom that emerges is not at all simple, and not what most think of as freedom.

If most think of freedom at all, they think of the ability to follow whim or fancy; and they think of anything in the way of that as a restriction on liberty.

For me, whim and fancy are not freedom – they are the expression of genetic and cultural systems selected over deep time by evolutionary pressure that contain many levels of random inputs to whatever that output is.

So if someone tries to claim that freedom is following whim, then to me they are not free, but are slaves to aspects of biology and culture about which they have little or no awareness.

And that is not to say that whim and fancy are always inappropriate. Clearly, if that were true then our ancestors wouldn’t have made it this far.

I am not saying that whim and fancy are always wrong.

I am saying that they are tuned by experience to the conditions of our past.

In our rapidly changing present, that means that they are not always appropriate.

There needs to be an additional level of test applied to pass for freedom.

And this is where it gets deeply complex, and I wonder if anyone else will understand how subtle and recursive this notion is.

Freedom cannot be an absence of influence from the past. The many levels of the complexity that is our embodied being demands influence from the past.

What freedom can be, is an ability to question everything about our genetic and cultural defaults; to model and test possible sets of alternate structures, and to bring some of those into reality in a responsible way that acknowledges our social and ecological realities.

If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is somewhere near correct (and it seems to be very close indeed), then all things influence all other things, but not in a hard deterministic sort of way, but in a softer, probabilistic sort of way.

Thus everything we do influences everything else, but in most cases the influences are so small we can treat them as zero in practice, but not always – and we need to be alert for those exceptions.

If freedom is to survive, then it must be constrained to the class of actions that are survivable. In the past evolution has done that, and in a sense that will continue as a limiting case. Differential survival of individuals does change things. And we have other options.

We can learn,

We can accept that all freedom comes with responsibilities if it is to be survivable.

If it is not so constrained, then it must, logically and inevitably, lead to destruction.

Is there any infallible way of knowing exactly what responsibility is in any particular context?


Reality seems to be sufficiently complex and contain sufficient classes of things which may not be known in advance by any computational agent; that all any of us can do is give it our best try. And sometimes, it really does need to be our best – and not anything less.

And if we each look, we all have a fairly reasonable idea of what is needed to keep society working, to keep people interested and peaceful and to have a balance in life that allows us to both be part of our groups, and to be free and creative individuals.

And there is always and necessarily a tension present in every level of that.

So yes – I’d say many people are very confused about what freedom is, and have accepted a form of slavery as freedom (in an Orwellian fashion – be it in slavery to an idea or a group or a culture or money or anything else {the ideas of money, or markets, or nations, or religions, or any forms of righteousness, etc)).

And it is far from simple, as reality seems to be so complex that all of our understandings of it are necessarily simplifications, our experience of it is of a subconsciously generated model, not the thing itself (like a subconsciously generated virtual reality). Added to that is the frequent need to make rapid decisions on little information, which demands further simplification of something already simple. So there is a reasonable case to be made for having simple models in some contexts; they are in fact essential.

The big question is around specific contexts and specific models, and that can get very tricky when many people have very low resolution models of probability (the lowest being simple binaries like right/wrong, true/false – when reality seems to be much more subtle than that in many contexts, but often denies us the time to explore such subtleties).

Freedom seems to be a very complex and subtle thing, that demands of each of us the greatest degrees of responsibility if it is to reach anything remotely approximating its full potential.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
This entry was posted in Ideas, Nature, understanding and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comment and critique welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s