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.

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3 Comments to “Free will and randomness”

  1. Hi, Neil. Nice new blog!

    You write,

    “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.”

    The thing is, the compatibalist has been saying the same thing about the relationship between free will and determinism for over a hundred years. It may be, of course, that there is both randomness and free will of the libertarian sort in the world, but it is no support for that position to say that one “may be sufficient to account” for the other. You make the anti-randomness case nicely and fairly: it really DOES seem like some sort of causal efficacy is necessary for what we mean by freedom. That it turns out that there is randomness in the world causes trouble for both free-willists and determinists, and puts the indeterminists (those who say that freedom is nothing but an illusion) on top for the moment. That’s unfortunate, from my point of view as well as yours, but it can’t be gainsaid by your yachting analogy, I don’t think.

    Best

    Walto

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment.

      People don’t agree on what “free will” means, which is part of why this issue cannot be settled.

      I am actually more interested in the apparent purposefulness of biological organisms, and with the questions of human intentionality. I’ll eventually be posting more on those topics.

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  2. What is randomness? Really, what is it in this universe? That something happened with no prior cause – are we throwing out causality? Is it something entering our universe from elsewhere (other dimensions, outside the universe, whatever these mean) – and if so, do we need to incorporate that source into our model of the universe to maintain nice cosy causality, even determinism?

    Our instinct is to still ask, well how did it come about then? We still want a specific cause for a random event. The closest we have to true randomness is quantum effects, but some physicists still feel there’s sufficient room for determinism in there. But no matter, we can assume there is real randomness, whatever it turns out to mean.

    When a random event at Ta occurs I agree that the linear response to that is, at some later event at Tc, also effectively random. But looking from the perspective of a point between Ta and Tc, say Tb, the event at Ta has now happened, so we can now predict the event at Tc, based on the linear relationship.

    If random events are intervening in the universe all the time and everywhere, then that makes the universe practically random all over, so even at event at Tb, there’s some local (in time/place) event impacting at Tb, or events soon after, that still makes the event at Tc unpredictable.

    But we do find patterns, linear behaviours. Yes, they may be approximations, and yes they may be full of random events at lower levels of detail. But statistically we can still discern patterns. And we can maintain patterns over long periods, even with plenty of interference, whether it be random, chaotic, or completely deterministic.

    “My suggestion is that randomness could indeed be sufficient to account for our apparent free will.”

    I still go along with the idea that there is enough chaos and unpredictability in a deterministic universe to make it essentially indeterminate to us. Apparent free-will can survive right there without the need for randomness.

    The crucial point is that free-will is apparent – in other words the ‘will’ is not free of material causes of it, and not is it free to cause material changes un-hindered. The ‘will’, what we perceive as agency, intention, active action, is easy to account for in a complex biological system where the most immediate and localised material causes of the will are internal to the brain of the individual, to the extent that the person with the brain is acting as what is best described as an autonomous system.

    Autonomy (as used in the context of automata, machines, robots, of whatever complexity) is an adequate conception of what characterises human behaviour, as components of a material universe.

    “People don’t agree on what “free will” means, which is part of why this issue cannot be settled.” [your comment]

    I agree. The difficulty with the term ‘free-will’ is the overlap between the dualist notion of something free of the material world, and those who claim they are non-dualists but who still think there is something else, or that humans are still free of material causes in some sense that goes beyond them being complex automata – they appear to be pseudo-non-dualists.

    If we classify ‘causality’ as the interesting phenomenon, and allow it to include both deterministic and undetermined (random) sources as causes, then the problem that many dislike about determinism alone (and which they often appeal to non-determinism for rescue) still applies. All our actions, behaviours, beliefs, thoughts, concepts, ideas, are caused by prior material events; and the only sense in which we are remotely free is in the degree of autonomy as automata.

    “I am actually more interested in the apparent purposefulness of biological organisms, and with the questions of human intentionality.”

    I agree that apparent purpisefulness is the interesting point. But just to clarify, you include in ‘apparent’ the human intentionality?

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