If you didn't have free will, would you know it?
I'm sure other's have had this thought before me, and probably
even written about it someplace, but I've rarely seen my particular
take on it anywhere. The Matrix was the only movie I've seen
that came close, and I was gratified to see that Hollywood didn't
dumb it down too much.
This is just a little thought experiment:
Imagine you had a kind of
3-dimensional scanner that could scan any object in an instant
and record the positions and velocities of every sub-atomic
particle in the object. (Never mind for the moment minor
inconveniences such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle,
I'll get to that.)
Imagine you also had a super-fast computer, running a
program which could read the data from this scanner, and
simulate the motions and interactions of all the paricles
which the scanner had recorded in some instant of time. Actually,
the computer doesn't have to be all that fast if you have enough
time on your hands. But you don't, so it better be fast. And
big. And the scanner has to be impossibly fast.
Now, this scanner is big too, say big enough to scan an eniire
room. In fact, an entire room is exactly what we will mentally
scan into this imaginary computer.
Before scanning this room, we'll put a microphone and a video
camera in the room, and turn them on. And we'll put a loudspeaker
and TV set in the room too.
Then we'll sit in front of the camera and the microphone and
press the big red "scan" button.
Zap. Exactly one instant later, we're all scanned into the
computer and the simulation commences. The simulation has
some special features. It has special simulated walls that
can exchange simulated CO2 for O2 etc.
And it can monitor the (simulated) voltage levels on the plug
of the (simulated) microphone. And it can monitor the
(simulated) CCD chip in the video camera. That's so we, the
we that's outside the simulation, can see and hear what's going
on inside the simulation.
And so we look into our computer screen to see this simulated
collection of molecules and what do we see?
Here's where the questions start.
If our simulation and our scanner are good enough, then what
we should see would be ourselves. We would see ourself look around
and see the simulated walls, and hear our simulated self say "Oh
crap, I'm the simulated me, and I can't ever leave this
room, because that's all there is to this simulation! Hey,
(looking into the simulated video camera) Don't turn me off, OK?,
I'm glad we got that UPS."
And we could talk back to ourself by using a real microphone that
caused simulated electrons to flow down simulated copper wires
forming the voice coil of a simulated loudspeaker.
So into this computer simulation, which, in it's construction,
has only rules about how subatomic particles interact, and nothing
about conciousness programmed into it, we have dropped a concious
being, ourself in fact. So does the self inside the computer
have free will? The computer mechanically calculates the influences
of each particle on each other partical, perhaps with some errors,
some randomness that may influence outcomes, some degree of
uncertainty, but with high enough fidelity that the simulation
works, and the creature inside it appears to function.
Does this creature have free will? If it doesn't, does it know
it doesn't? Does it know anything at all?
If you say the creature inside the computer does not
have free will, then ask yourself this, do you? If you
do, how do you know? How do you know it's not just the molecules
of your body and brain bouncing around in their usual way, a way
that you have no control over.
You have free will because you can decide to do or not to do
things? It's just those molecules bouncing around in your head
in such a way that the outcome is that "you think" (do you even
think?) that you have decided something. I'm not saying that
everything is predetermined. That would be saying that the system
is deterministic. It might not be. There might be some randomness
in there, or even a lot of randomness. But non-determinism doesn't
get you free will. It doesn't get you control. It just means
you can't predict the future. It does seem rather clear though
that at least on a macroscopic scale, there isn't so much randomness
that nothing can be predicted. If I tip over a domino, it will
usually tip over the next one, etc.
Why am I bothering to type these words? Molecules.
Does any of this make any difference to me? Of course
not. It can't. The question of whether you have
free will or not is
really completely meaningless, in a very real sense. Suppose
you do have free will? Great. No difference from what seems
intuitively obvious. Suppose you don't? What will
you do about it? Well, if that's the case then what you will
do about it is not even up to you, is it? Whatever the answer,
it can't and won't change anything, by the very
nature of the question.
I promised to get back to the Heisenberg uncertainty
So, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says,
in a very strict and deep way, that you can't
know both the position and velocity of anything
arbitrary precision. (with some interesting effects
when you cool things to near absolute zero and their
velocity becomes known with a high degree of precision,
i.e. pretty much zero. What happens to the knowledge
of the object's position? The particle in question sort
of spreads itself out in space. Boseman condensation I
think it's called.) Anyway, so the scanner couldn't
work perfectly, probably couldn't ever be made to work
in any real way at all. Neither could the computer.
So what? That doesn't really affect the experiment,
the fact that it could not actually be carried out.
Oh, and a funny thought just occurred
to me. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and all that
quantum mechanical crap is really weird stuff.
What if the
reason it's so weird is because we're just looking too closely
at the simulation that we're all running in, and what we're
seeing are artifacts of the simulation's limited resolution?
Now that would be funny. (Of course I don't believe that.)
So, anyway, just something fun to think about, (whether
you want to or not, heh.)
Ah, crap, the real me tells me that he's got
to turn off the big computer, it's using up too much power,