For as long as people have thought about philosophy, they have argued about whether we have free will. I think that both sides are wrong.
In one corner of the ring, there are those who say that we do have free will. They usually say that this ability:
- Makes us personally responsible for our own choices
- Makes us far more than mere machines
- Makes us far greater than anything that we could possibly create
- Gives us great intrinsic worth
- Makes us deserve to be treated with dignity
In the other corner, there are those who say that we have no free will. Today, these people generally believe that we’re machines, and thus:
- Not personally responsible for our own choices
- “Only” machines – that is, no better than the machines that we create, or could possibly create someday
- Have no more intrinsic worth than them
- Deserve to be treated with no more dignity than them
Now it seems that everyone with an opinion on this subject thinks that it’s pretty cut and dry – they’re right, and the other guys are totally wrong. But there’s strong evidence for both sides. This is one reason why free will (and lack thereof) has remained controversial.
Why we have free will:
- We make choices
If I feel like taking a nap, and do homework instead, I have -of my own will – made a choice. If I had instead chosen to take a nap, I would’ve still made a choice. Even though your mind must – due to the nature of computing -follow some kind of pre-defined algorithm to make a choice, that algorithm still is your will. That being said, there are some reasons that I can think of where an action is not a personal choice:
- It’s involuntary
That is, done by a part of my brain or body that I have no conscious control over
- Insanity/brain damage
Generally a madman isn’t considered personally responsible for his actions
This one may or may not be considered a choice. One one hand, habits run automatically, and you can’t always prevent yourself from following your habits. On the other hand, they’re created by a personal choice to start doing whatever you’re in the habit of doing.
Decisions made in this group are technically choices, but people often aren’t held fully personally responsible for them. For example, if someone who’s severely autistic offends someone, they’re (hopefully) not treated in the same way as someone who does the same thing, but doesn’t have that disability.
- It’s involuntary
Why we don’t have free will:
- Thinking is fundamentally computing, and algorithms are by their nature predefined
Even though the human brain isn’t built the same way that man-made computers currently are, it’s still some kind of computational device. The human mind, too, is made of thoughts, memories, emotions, and instincts. All these things are not physical by nature, but are instead computational. And as far as I know, it’s a universal principle of computing that if something isn’t very precisely predefined, it doesn’t exist. “Predefined” could mean:
- In a lookup table
Also known as memorized, habitual, or instinctive.
- Follows a formula
Habits and instincts can fall into this category too, but so can skills and problem solving. Google can’t build their business around a magical function findRelevantResults(yourSearch) that nobody ever had to write it. Neither can you solve problems without using a problem-solving algorithm that you either learned or have built into your brain.
- Follows a learning algorithm that creates a lookup table, formula, or other learning algorithm
- In a lookup table
- Even emotions – one of the two strongholds of those who believe we have free will – can certainly be implemented in a computer. Here’s one technology that could probably be used as a starting point. See also some examples of how neural networks can be used to do some fundamental electronic logic operations. The human brain is a very advanced neural network.
- Also, if anyone doubts that the brain is the seat of at least most of his consciousness, I point out the fact that there are many things that can be done to the head and brain which profoundly affect our minds, like getting punched in the face or getting drunk.
As far as I can tell, the truth is a muddled mix of the two main sides:
- Our minds are decision-making machines, that run in our brains
- Our wills are about as free as possible, given the nature of computing
- For most practical purposes, we have free will…
- …But there are plenty of ways that we can be manipulated by those who understand human nature
Next: Possible Objections