Contemplation: Determinism, Free Will, and Probability

Over the past couple of days The New York Time’s philosophy centered column, The Stone, has offered to interesting discussions about the idea of free will versus determinism.  The first, entitled “Your Move: The Maze of Free Will” by Galen Strawson takes a stance that is far more supportive of at least a limited degree of determinism, while William Egginton, in his piece, “The Limits of the Coded World,” argues much more for a world of free will.  Both of the writers offer beneficial insights into the argument fore and against free will, and hence provide me for a stepping off point for my own contemplation on the matter.

The discussion on the existence, or lack there of, of free will, may be one of the most contemplated topics in the greater disciple of philosophy (perhaps only overshadowed by questions about the nature/reality of truth, and concepts of being in and of itself).  The general idea behind free will can be simplified thusly: either we are all truly free and we shape reality by making our own decisions or the universe is a determined thread and really we have no freedom whatsoever (even if we think that we do).  Questions of free will and determinism are ones that can easily make a person loose his or her sleep.  The gut reaction that must of us have is that of course we have free will, don’t we constantly make our own de cisions and guide our lives?  But then, if you start to ask some questions about our decisions and just how much we really are guiding our lives, it is easy to more and more think that maybe there isn’t all that much free will at all.The question then that arises is pretty simply, “do we have free will or not?”

Of course if the answer was nearly as simple as the question than the debate would have been done and gone with a long time ago.  As Mr. Strawson and Mr. Egginton demonstrate, there are some pretty strong arguments on either side of the discussion.  What are we then to think?  Do we really have free will or are our lives already fully determined for us?

I myself think that there is both a proximity and mathematic issue at hand, that may often be overlooked or disregarded in the whole freewill/no free will debate.  Allow me to explain.

While we are going about out lives, not particularly scrutinizing all too much, it probably seems that a lof of what we choose to do is a product of free will.  Sure, we can affirm that there are outside forces that often influence the decisions that we make, but in the end, for better or worse, it still feels as if we are making our own decisions as free agents with our own perspecitves and driving wills.  This is proximity.  Individually, in our unique perspectives, actions, ideas, decisons, etc. appear as products of being entirely free entities with our own personal driving wills.

Now pull back a minute.  No longer think of our own personal decisions but consider instead the observer of an agent (while remembering that this agent is acting with a general assumption of personal free will).  To the observer there may be any number of factors that influence the agents actions, thus suggesting that the agent is not in fact acting freely but is being guided by some determined force.  The actions of an agent my not appear nearly as free when ocnsidered by an outside observer.

Let us pull back further and consider a hypothetical higher knowing entity, not an omniscience mind you, but something, say a sentient super computer, that can, at any time, know vastly more information that an average human.  if this hypothetical higher knowing entity were to observe the agent and consider all multiple known factors to it (perhaps physical conditions of the world, other agents’ decisions, etc.).  To this hypothetical entity it might be even more clear that the agent truly has no free will but is a product of determined happenings.  To this hypothetical entity the agent’s free will would be negligible in regards to all the factors affecting the agent and his or her actions.

Now imagine an omniscience.  If there is such a hypothetical all knowing then free will would have to be entirely void, becuase the all knowing would deem that everything, including all future decisions is already known.  In that “already known” state it would be argued that a decisions is determined.  Omniscience, such as God, pose a very challenging issue to free will because how can an action ever be truly free if it is already know.  It seems that either there could be an omniscience and no free will, or free will and no omniscience.

Thus far I am offering the proximity perspective.  That free will exists in a matter of proximity of observer and agent, wherein when the agent is the observer, free will may seem rather evident, while when the observer is an outsider with varying degree of information access the amound of free will, if any, dwindles.  With that in mind, especially the last ultimate observer, the potential omniscience, I now want to consider probability.

Here is a question: does omniscience, being all-knowing, meain an awareness of all possibilities, or merely the actions and consequences that have, are and will occur? Let me see if I can word this clearer.  If I have a choice to pick an orange or an apple would the omniscience only know which of the two I pick, or would it in fact know the possibility of my picking one or the other.  In the end in this scenario I have only one choice and that choice will be absolute and irrefutable once it has been made, but can an all-knowing omniscience see the probability of the other choice?

I ask this because I think the concept of probability may effect the necessity of an omniscience int he first place.  Let us consider the apple orange choice.  Theoretically we can argue I have three choices (actually there could be many mroe, but for simplicity we’ll keep it at three).  The choices are as follows: I pick the apple, I pick the orange, or I pick neither (I am not allowed to pick both in this scenario).  Before I act to pick is is safe to assume that each choice of action has an equal probability of being chosen?  If so then all choices are even and equally valid as a possibile reality.  However as soon as I move to choose, only one option becomes actual realities.  What heppens to the remaining two then?  The existed in the past as equally possible to the actual chosen option, but now they are no longer available as a choice.  Probability has shifted to 100% to the choice that was actually made.  But is it possible that the probabilities never shift?  Perhaps we only experience the one choice, but the reality of existence allows for all three choices to continue to have an equal probability.

What I am suggesting is that I, as an observer-agent, only experience one choice, say the apple, but that the other two choices actually occur just as e qually, I just don’t experience them.  Basically I suggest here that at a margin of probability and angent diverges along each of the choice options.  Does this meant here are three of me at the end the apple/organge/none scenario?  Technically no, not from my observer-agent perspective, but pull back to the omniscience and then it becomes a technically yes.  To the ominiscinece all otions are equally valid.

Free will then becomes the observer-agents perogitive and experience influenced from a subjective world view.  It is not so much that a choice is any more determined than another one, but instead that it is equally determined as all choices.  It is the expereince of the effects of a singular choice that distinguish it from the others and make it take on a quality of being freely chosen.

Basically, what I think it comes down to, is that free will and determinism might be two sides of the same coin.  I realize that this in some ways may seem like a cop-out for taking a firm stance one way or another, but the way I see it, there is both freedom and determined aspects of existence.  Our sentience allows for us to examine our options and pursue a choice, but in a world of multiple options, possibilities, and probablities.  This creates a kind of many-minds/many-worlds view of reality.  We, as agents, are both freely choosing while at them same time encompassing the determined realm of possibilities (all of which are equally probable).

Personally, I think that we live life with a relatively free-will mindset.  We believe ourselves to be responsible for our actions and thus work to be free of suffering and negative consequesnces.  Our options might be determined in a broad range of possibility, but the experiential occurence is entirely our own.

~ by Nathaniel on July 26, 2010.

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