We've Replaced Your Freedom
With the Illusion of Freedom.
Let's See if You Can Tell the Difference...
Philosophy of Mind
Q: Does God control everything that happens in my life?
A: He could, if He used the debugger, but it's tedious
to step through all those variables.
-- author unknown
Do human beings have free will?
This timeless and rather unsettling question has nagged many
people (some of whom perversely enjoy such nagging
questions and become philosophers) through the ages.
There are three common answers to this question, each having its
own assumptions and implications. I will present them and
evaluate them in order from least to most interesting.
Yup. Free will exists.
The first and perhaps most common view is "Yes, human beings have
free will." This is commonly taken to mean that my pinky wiggles
as a consequence of my having intended it to wiggle. I will
myself to do something and I subsequently do it. This theory is
very simple and seems perfectly reasonable. It presumes that we
have control over our thoughts, actions, and destinies. Oddly,
this reassures many people; not that they could do anything about
it if they didn't have free will...
Yes, but we only have free will to do certain things.
A second division of the belief in free will is selective belief
in free will. There are some that believe that while we have
control over the minutiae of everyday life, a higher power
controls our destinies and the "big picture." The higher power
in this case is frequently suggested by Judeo-Christians to be a
benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God. While this politely
acknowledges both determinism and free will and is more acceptable
to some people than either alone, I think it is philosophically
less sound than either.
To wit: Determinism implies a universe that is orderly
and whose parts function as a cohesive whole. This necessitates
that everything is interconnected and that nothing can happen
independently of anything else. If there were a higher power able
to control aspects of our lives, and if it had a purpose to which
we could relate (such as promoting good over evil), then to affect
our lives in a purposeful way (such as punishing us for
doing evil) it must necessarily control every aspect of
our lives. If the god-figure were to only control certain things
in our lives, then that implies that the things left to us to
control must be independent of the god's influence, invalidating
determinism. In other words, determinism must be universal in
scope in order for it to be valid.
Nope. There's no such thing as free will.
The second most common opinion would be "No, humans do not have
free will." This is exemplified by the belief that all our
actions are scripted and that we have utterly no control over
anything. Even our lament that we cannot control anything is
scripted into the universe's workings. This may be depressing,
but there's not much we can do about it, right?
Um, I dunno... Hey, is this Folgers Crystals?
The third, and seemingly least popular answer to the question of
free will, but the one I find most interesting, is "There is no
way to know whether free will exists or not. It is possible that
we only have the illusion of free will." This is unsatisfactory
to some, who wish to know everything, but I do not believe that
anyone can know everything. Indeed, according to Gödel's
Second Incompleteness Theorem, certainty is unattainable.
Wow. That's really a mindfuck, isn't it? Consider the existence
of an all-knowing, all-powerful being--one who could move through
time and space at will and make alterations to the universe
without our knowledge, let alone our consent. This resembles
capabilities possessed by the classical Judeo-Christian God, as
well as by the deities of other cultures. This being can do
things we cannot.
The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on,
nor all your piety and wit shall will it back to cast out
half a line nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
While we are restricted to the linear "arrow of time" and cannot
undo what we have done, this being may move in time as easily as
we can in space. Thus, if it were to go to a point in our past
and amend our history, we would be ignorant of this; in fact, from
our perspective, we would never have known of the
original course of history. Knowledge of two separate time
streams occurring simultaneously would require that we step out of
our arrow of time, if only mentally, to examine an alternate
reality. Our simple act of imagining the past to be different
than it was engenders paradox in our minds. This paradox would
presumably--I cannot be certain!--be soluble given experience
with nonlinear time. We cannot presume to know anything of
nonlinear time since we have not experienced it; any suppositions
made could not be based on personal experience. The goldfish who
swims in her fishbowl may imagine what it is like to be human, yet
she is almost certainly wrong about at least a few of the details.
This godlike being has the ability to alter any aspect of our
lives, "past," "present," or "future," for those terms simply
describe time to it as "left," "center," and "right"
describe position to us; it is as able to move past-ward as we are
to step to our left. Moreover, in much the same way as we may
perceive infinitesimal differences in position--an atom being to
the immediate right of another atom, this being is able to
perceive the entire state of the universe at infinitesimally
different time intervals--right now, and now,
As such, this god could be "running" the universe on a
computer--a four-dimensional kind of computer, with (to us)
infinite storage capacity and processor speed. Or, the "god"
could simply be the computer, "simulating" our
universe (Except that it would be a perfect representation of our
universe, so it wouldn't really be a simulation. Which implies
that if you can describe something well enough, it no longer is
simulated, but has "existence". Does this mean that we can
imbue that which we have the ability to perfectly
understand--say, a sphere, which has extent in the three
dimensions we are able to simultaneously perceive--with the
commodity of existence? The reader is encouraged to speculate.)
This god, or computer, or god-cum-computer can
shape our reality to anything it wants, simply by modifying our
universe at different times and in different places. Therefore,
it could make us believe that we had free will by making
us think that we believe that we have free will. It is ironic
that we could indeed have free will, but be deluding ourselves
into thinking that a god could make us think that we believed that
we have free will. This soon becomes a pointlessly recursive
hypothesis, with the only possible conclusion being that we
can't know for certain whether or not we have free will.
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