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 principle.

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 to some 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, so "Bye".