Kim Slawson
19990519 0720
Philosophy of Mind

We've Replaced Your Freedom With the Illusion of Freedom. Let's See if You Can Tell the Difference...

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, 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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