Archive for July 28th, 2010

July 28, 2010

Free will and randomness

by Neil Rickert

Free will and randomness

While we are on the “free will” topic, a few more thoughts.

Much of the belief that we don’t have free will stems from a view that the universe operates in a completely deterministic manner, so the future is already decided.  Personally, I have never seen any convincing evidence of determinism.  That the laws of physics are deterministic is not sufficient to conclude determinism.  Some of those laws are only approximate, and they might not be a complete set of laws.

One of the arguments for free will is based on the thesis of compatibilism, the view that free will is compatible with determinism.  It’s a clever argument, but many people do not find it persuasive.

In any case, the current evidence from physics, is against determinism.  Some phenomena, such as radioactive decay, seem to be random.  That shifts the argument over free will from one of whether determinism allows it, to one of whether randomness can account for the appearance of free will.

The skeptical response is that no, randomness does not have what is required.  When we talk of people having free will, we expect that to indicate that can determine their future actions.  That seems to require something like determinism and to be contrary to randomness.  A common comment is that random behavior is not what we mean by “free will.”

That skeptical reaction is, I think, mistaken.  It is true that by “free will” we do not mean random behavior.  However, randomness in the world need not result in random behavior.  If our response to randomness in the world is linear, then our response will be as random as the events that we are responding to.  However, there is the possibility of a non-linear response, perhaps a highly non-linear response.

Take yachting, as an example.  If the wind is blowing in the direction that the yachtsman wants to go, then he just sets his sails and the wind carries him along.  If the wind blows in the opposite direction, then a linear response would he to allow the wind to carry him away from his destination.  But that is not what the yachtsman does.  Instead, he reconfigures his sails for tacking.  He cannot sail directly into the wind, but he can adjust his sails for a direction across the wind and partially into the wind.  Then he switches to going across the wind in the other direction, but still partially into the wind.  This way he sails a zigzag course that takes him, overall, in the direction of his destination.

In electronics, we can use a diode to give a non-linear response to possibly random electrical currents.  In biology, we see semipermeable membranes which can presumably give non-linear responses to random variation in the chemical constituents of the environment.

My suggestion is that randomness could indeed be sufficient to account for our apparent free will.  It’s just that we have non-linear ways of responding to randomness, and we can use those to exploit the available randomness in order to achieve our goals.

July 28, 2010

Free will madness

by Neil Rickert

A few days ago, of his own free will Jerry Coyne blogged about why he thinks that we don’t have free will.  Apparently William Eggington, in yesterday’s New York Times, said “Yes we do.”  Today, apparently of his own free will, Coyne again says “No we don’t.”  And then he comments on how we can use our free will to deal with the problem of not having free will.

It’s a mess.  Discussions of free will always turn out to be messy, generating more heat than light.

The real story, is that people do not agree on what they even mean by “free will.”

Coyne is using Anthony Cashmore’s definition:

I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

That seems to suggest that free will implies an ability to circumvent physics or causation (or however we should describe it).  That is surely too strong a definition.  Usually, free will is associated with moral responsibility for one’s actions.  That does not seem to demand any violation of causation.

Science requires that the experimenter be able to vary conditions at will in his experiments.  Accordingly, I like to define free will as “the ability to make the kind of independent decisions that are required to do science.”  Fewer people will deny that kind of free will.

July 28, 2010

Fundie Math

by Neil Rickert

For a brief diversion, take a look at Jason’s post on fundamentalist mathematics.  (Hey, this is a blog, so I can take diversions.  Besides, nobody is reading this blog anyway).

I have long been concerned that home schooled children were getting a poor education.  If this is an example of how they teach mathematics, then the concerns are justified.

Somehow I am reminded of the saying “Those who cannot teach, teach teachers.”  Here we seem to have somebody with a very poor understanding of mathematics who is teaching home schooling parents on how to teach.

Incidentally, Jason commentary is about right.  But then Jason is a mathematician, so that is no surprise.