Free Will, Lost In Principle

I think it’s completely ridiculous to call a thing necessarily deterministic whose future states could “IN PRINCIPLE” be predicted, thus concluding there is no room for free will– never you mind that we will fundamentally never actually be able to predict the outcomes due to sheer complexity, sheer scope, sheer difference of scale, plain and simple computational problems. Like running my shitty prime generator script on my laptop, after a certain number further calculations are just impossible because of the stats of my system, although we could imagine IN PRINCIPLE greater numbers could be calculated (if we scale up to a better computer). What does this insolent phrase IN PRINCIPLE even mean? Differences of scale in a system can bring about fundamental differences in overall behavior, and I think that is what the language of emergence seeks to establish (I’m still not convinced, however absurd I may seem, that the concepts emergence-type ideas treat are really all that at odds with reductionist type models but that is for another time). Making the demand that free will be nondeterministic to be free is almost like saying if free will did exist, it would have to be something other than physical to be satisfactory, and that’s ridiculous. Like if we wanted someone to build some free will for us and we required that they use no materials that could physically exist in this universe because materials from this universe could “IN PRINCIPLE” be understood. Like refusing to use the internet because any cryptographical scheme could “IN PRINCIPLE” be broken. Like pretending freedom is defined by being not-everything else, as if it is truly free to just be against everything, to have a free will that acts on the world without having any discernible relationship to the world at all (because otherwise there would necessarily exist a mapping which could take us from sensory inputs to actions of free will– whether that mapping can be known by anyone else or not). This is counter to all of our experience and conjures the image of a younger me who couldn’t tell the difference between rebellion and freedom. Lee Smolin talks about this in his idea of soft determinism, showing soft determinism is actually necessary for free will, where as hard determinism and being anti-naturalist, anti-determinist, so to speak, could produce no free will at all.

All other feelings of mysticism about the topic of free will arise from sheer attitude and habit alone. Take a step back and look at it from a material point of view. Making these demands on the definition of free will from the beginning– that it should not be in principle predictable– is no better than saying the only kind of acceptable free will that can be conceived must be godlike… something that exists although we can never test it to find out, never know it in any meaningful way because it would be utterly independent of anything we might do. I don’t think admitting the existence of free will demands the same kinds of concessions as admitting the existence of god, because free will is, quite simply, the ability to choose your own intentions, and those inherently must relate to the world around you or else be meaningless.

Defining free will in the typical way is like starting your argument out with 1=0. It’s an inconsistency and anything that follows is likely to be completely absurd (for instance, concluding we have no choice or freedom). The language used to talk about these things is seriously flawed. It seems to me we should just throw out this conception that free will can only exist satisfactorily if it is not deterministic. Free will can certainly exist in chaos, which is deterministic but not predictable due to sensitivity to initial conditions. Even if we are conservative here and say that all actions then are dependent only on the ability to know exactly the initial conditions, even then we must admit free will. You are the only person that will ever have your exact same initial conditions. No simulation can recreate that, and thus your will is yours and yours alone, everything that you are is then coded into those conditions, including your “spirit,” or whatever collection of genetic traits you choose to generalize about that enables you to grow so complex that you can feedback upon yourself and become your own dynamic pattern, to create and recreate yourself in your own way. In fact exactly those sorts of relations are the mechanisms for free will, and I do not find it to be anything less than satisfactory that my free will is born of an understandable material interaction that has some relation to the outside world. Like Tegmark says, if the subjective experience of consciousness is only dependent on its own internal structure, then the ability to restructure oneself by changing habits and modifying the neural pathways in one’s own brain literally is free will.

If we cannot predict something, physically, tangibly, then it is not predictable. If no machine smaller than the universe can predict what you are going to do next, then what you are going to do next is unpredictable (it might even be the case that only one machine the size of the universe can predict what you will do next, so not just a matter of size, but also of the unique initial conditions being exactly correct). Just because we can predict what will happen next in very specific and simple circumstances does not imply we can just scale that up and say everything else is also predictable. It’s a religion hangover that causes people to think this way– to be completely comfortable with some sort of all-knowing-ness that has absolutely no basis in physical reality (no computer to point to that makes these free-will-killing predictions that everyone is certain can be made, but only “IN PRINCIPLE!”).

What hangs people up is mostly this idea of a spirit of being completely independent of everything around them, which is one of those rabbit holes of definition and meaning that other people find so entrancing but I find to have a very normal bottom made of dirt like any other hole. What does it even mean to be completely independent of everything around you? What I hear in these critiques of the existence of free will is a desperation, a terrible desire to be more than human, to be more than material and predictable, to fight against the bonds of the smallness of what we are; but also to need no one, to be connected to nothing, to be alone, and to be pure. These are only feelings.

It is meaningless to say a free will can only be satisfactory if it means one wills things that are completely in every way uninfluenced by their contexts. I don’t have the best feeling about Sartre, but I am also not sure anything at all can be defined all by itself in terms of itself. Everything in life is relational, and that is because understanding, comparison, measurement and the like is an active pursuit. One thing may be able to exist completely independently all on its own, but we cannot know anything about it without something that is “other” to probe it with. Lamenting that free will cannot be understood completely independent of anything around it is like lamenting that you cannot measure quantum states without interfering with them or that you cannot see what is in the dark without shining light on it. It is like complaining that you cannot have your cake and eat it, too. The nail in the coffin is that even if I could say we met with certainty those absurd conditions for free will– with such a unicorn version of free will, one wouldn’t even be able to use it as an apparatus to act out one’s intentions. One’s intentions are always related to their specific experiences, but a satisfactory free will in the common sense would not be allowed to have any particular relation to its context because then it it is “controlled” by outside forces, or could be “in principle” predicted. Idolizing or mourning the common version of free will is nothing more than a buried desire for the annihilation of one’s own self, one’s own agency, and one’s own relationship to the world.

As we know, cryptographical schemes achieve their purpose just fine until they are broken, and that is what counts. It makes no difference while that code is working that it is “IN PRINCIPLE” breakable. The thing that places meaning in the code is its relationship to its surroundings, and that is why once we use it to enact our intentions, it can carry those out just fine until the code is broken. Intentions, free will, CAN be carried out with things that are “IN PRINCIPLE” predictable. The reason determinists want to point out that everything is “IN PRINCIPLE” predictable is because of their fear of a false dichotomy. They seem to think that either everything in the universe must be predictable, or else it must be mystical and not understandable and thus something that would break science. This is a naive conception because things can indeed be unpredictable and understandable. Not all understanding necessitates the ability to predict all states. I can understand scientifically how my computer works but I may not be able to predict exactly all the possible states I could find it in. Free will can be understandable without being predictable, and thus remaining free, because of complexity.


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