The “Problem” of Free Will
Perception Theory (Perception is Everything, [Jan., 2016]) describes human existence as a perpetual juxtaposition of empirical sense data from the outside, veridical, “real,” objective world outside our brains with imagined data of concepts, ideas, and orders from the “inside,” non-veridical, epiphenomenal subjectivity inside our brains — all projected upon our world view “screen” (perceived by the mind’s “eye”), upon which we simultaneously perceive what we “see” from the real world and what we “see” with our imagination. (Again, see Perception is Everything, [Jan., 2016]) Clearly, the areas of philosophy emphasized by Perception Theory are ontology and epistemology.
Almost any extended discussion of human ontology and epistemology sooner or later gets around to the topic of “free will,” the problem of whether we have discretionary powers over what we think and do, or, are we slaves to the laws of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry, such that any such discretionary powers are delusional. Do we have free will or not?
It seems reasonable that Perception Theory has the ability to answer the question of free will and “solve” the problem of free will.
In Perception is Everything, [Jan., 2016] the “subjective trap” is defined as the impossibility of an individual to see both the perception of something like “red” on our world screen inside our heads and the biochemistry within the neurons of our brain we know responsible for causing the perception “red” on our screen. This impossibility leads to our assuming without proof that our perception of anything is just like someone else’s perception of the same thing. Were we to look inside the head of that someone else perceiving red, we would see only his/her biochemistry of red, not his/her perception of red. Hence, because of the subjective trap, we ASSUME others’ perceptions are as our perceptions, but there is no way of justifying that assumption in a scientific, objective way; we justify the assumption only in a practical, utilitarian way — communication among all of us seems to be compatibly possible making this assumption.
Is free will assumed similarly as are the perceptions of others? If so, it would have to be assumptions within and about the individual mind, not assumptions about the perceptions of others. Let’s say I am on a pleasant walk among a park’s many walkways and I come to a two-pronged fork in the path of equally appealing potential pathways, and, to all appearances, including my own, I CHOOSE one of the two paths and continue my walk. Did I choose of my own free will? A proponent of objective deterministic free will might argue that all my previous experience, if known, would predict with certainty which path I would choose, and only because I cannot command from my memory ALL my experiences (If I could, my brain would be flooded to insanity with stored empirical data.), I delude myself into thinking I flippantly, “for-no-reason,” “just-because-I-feel-like-it,” or randomly chose which path to take; in other words, I do not have free will, but have not the capacity of realizing I do not; my choosing is illusory. A proponent of subjective free will might just as well argue that I have complete discretion in the two possible states of walking one path or another. Even if my past experiences tend me toward my left or right, with each new decision I am free to choose either way in disregard of my tendencies, without having to justify that decision to anyone, including myself. “Choosing without thinking about it” is a hallmark of my exercising what everyone is assumed to have, a free will. But, just like the objective argument admits the futility of realizing all the assumed factors that “determine” the illusion of free will, the subjective argument irresponsibly assumes a “freedom” of choice ignoring all the physical laws to which the complexity of the brain and its epiphenomenal mind are subject. Note how both arguments employ non-demonstrable assumptions, implying free will is not demonstrable without such assumptions.
Perception Theory, an admitted blend of the objective and the subjective (Perception is Everything, [Jan., 2016]), suggests both arguments are useful in solving the problem of free will. The patterns of empirical data that demand strong veridical resonance of the mind with the “outside” world compel science and medicine to conclude all causes and effects, including our apparent free will, to be understandable in terms of particles, fields, and energy. Yet these particles, fields, and energy are creations, or concepts, or imagined orders of the subjective mind. (The epistemological “bottom line” of particles, fields, and energy existing outside our brains (mind) is that when we observe external to ourselves as objectively as possible [scientifically], we have to say the universe outside us behaves AS IF all the universe is made of particles, fields, and energy.) We know how these particles, fields, and energy can demonstrate and explain physical phenomenon throughout the universe, but we do not know how they can be used (yet) to demonstrate how empirical data and previously store ideas can produce veridical and non-veridical projections upon our world screen of perception in our heads. Similarly, particles, fields, and energy cannot demonstrate (yet) the explanation of free will not being “free” at all. On the other hand, the “freedom” of the subjective argument cannot be truly free, as our perceptions ultimately are products of “star-stuff” just as much as our brain and body are, and star-stuff is bound by the universe’s demonstrable laws of physical science and life science.
What is suggested by Perception Theory, then, is that just like it is logically impossible for a person to simultaneously experience both her biochemical (objective) perception of red and her non-veridical (subjective) perception of red, it is logically impossible for free will to be both completely deterministic and completely without empirical cause. In other words, when I appear to exercise free will at the fork of paths I cannot assume my choice is determined NOR can I assume I’ve exercised any kind of free will.
So what is free will, given the logically impossibilities and forced assumptions of both free will’s detractors and proponents? What is suggested in my mind as a trained physicist is that free will is just like light. When you ask a physicist what is the nature of light, waves or particles, the answer is “both; it depends upon how light is measured or observed.” Similarly, free will is neither determined or undetermined. “Free will” has to be a non-veridical concept, but not a scientific one trying to explain the veridical world outside our brain. Rather, free will is a concept trying to explain human choice or volition, a behavior of possibilities, just like human love is a behavior of possibilities. Gravity is a concept that can take on objectivity; free will, like any other human psychological concept, cannot, as DEFINITIVE SELF-STUDY CANNOT BE AS OBJECTIVE AS DEFINITIVE STUDY OF OUTSIDE THE SELF. When we study the star-stuff that is us, we cannot escape ourselves, so that we cannot ever see ourselves as if we were outside ourselves; we cannot see ourselves objectively like the subjects of physical science. This is why physics is considered a “hard” science, while psychology is considered a “soft” science. It is as if the study of our minds has built-in an unavoidable uncertainty principle, like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. Just like light can behave differently in different cases, the exercise of our free will can appear deterministic in some cases and wildly free in others. Two different observers of my choice at the fork of paths could describe my exercise of “free will” differently. One might say he predicted my choice and the other might say my choice looked completely random to her. Neither could measure the “amount” of free will I exercised, and, neither could I. I could recall my choice later as one of conscious or unconscious deliberation, or as one of complete obliviousness to either path, or as one somewhere in between.
All this uncertainty and lack of objective definition suggests that free will is a rationalization of convenience arrived at in the minds of humans over thousands of years to obtain the mental comfort of explanation of particular human behavior in the act of choosing. Free will is psychological balm soothing the discomfort in trying to answer “Why did I do that?”, or “Why did he do that?”, or “Why did she do that?” The real answer, down to the neuron, is like education, too complicated to understand entirely. The non-veridical concept of “free will” or “lack of free will” is assumed as a practical vehicle toward understanding human behavior. Free will, like concepts of gods or god stories, is a practical and illogical explanation that conveniently and more easily explains behaviors without having to take the trouble to objectively study them; free will makes dealing with human choices efficient. Free will is an unconscious assumption of the human mind passed on generation to generation directly or indirectly.
So, who is right when it comes to free will, the objective proponent or the subjective proponent? Both. Who is wrong when it comes to free will, the objective proponent or the subjective proponent? Both. The “problem” of free will is not a problem at all.
Yet, any impasse about free will implied by the foregoing discussion is not a “hard” impasse like the subjective trap in Perception is Everything, [Jan., 2016]. Progress can be made toward understanding free will, by, first, dropping the “free” part and just talk about “will,” or just talk about human volition. So my choice of paths employed above would come to a discussion of my choice being a product of my personal volition in that moment. Next, one’s volition, or will, can be seen as a well-developed psycho-physio behavior practiced inside the individual from early days of infancy, if not before in the womb (See “I. Development of Self-Consciousness in a Human Infant” in Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016]).
Part of human self-consciousness is the awareness we can willfully do or think things just by employing an “I want to..” in our mind. In my opinion, the “feeling,” perception, genetic tendency, or epiphenomenal “extra” for self-consciousness that we can will any action or thought of our own free will is one of many important evolved results of the “Cognitive Revolution” that occurred in our species, according to Harari (Sapiens and Homo Deus), between 70,000 and 12,000 years ago, before the Agricultural Revolution. Clearly, our conviction we have a will that we control had, and probably still has, survival value — a trait “favored” by our physical and cultural evolution. Perception Theory emphasizes that, as our self-consciousness was developed, probably around and within the Cognitive Revolution, our imaginations developed the ability of perceiving ourselves independent of our present setting. That is, we could imagine ourselves not only in the present, but also imagine ourselves in the past or in the future. Imagining ourselves in this way naturally includes imagining ourselves doing or thinking something in the present, past, or future. The logical explanation of the cause of our doing or thinking something independent of setting is having the ability to command our thoughts and actions of our imagination; it is logical to us we have a will “barking orders of our judgement or whimsy” within our imagination. And it is logical to us because we’ve been exercising that will since we were infants, according to our imagination. (Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016]) We can easily imagine all infants, including ourselves when we were one, for the first time reaching out with a hand to touch or grasp some object that is not part of their body; the baby “wanted to” or “willed” his/herself to touch or grasp.
Not only can “will” be seen as a natural evolutionary development in our heads, it can be seen, thanks to modern science, as subject to statistics and probabilities of the complicated. In the wake of the revolutionary development of the Kinetic Theory of Matter wherein all matter (including our bodies and our brains) is seen as composed of countless particles called atoms or clusters of atoms, molecules, statistical mechanics was developed in place of Newtonian mechanics, which had “no prayer” to describe countless masses moving and colliding with each other. Statistical measurements, such as temperature, were defined to represent an average value of kinetic energy for all the masses, which tells you nothing about the value for a single particle. Moreover, the scale of atoms and molecules is quantum mechanical, meaning mechanics are quantum, not Newtonian. Hence, interactions on an atomic scale, such as the firing of a neuron in a brain cell, are statistical and quantum, not biological in scale and behavior. In other words, our brain-based non-veridical “mind” exists because of countless neurons (brain cell) quantum mechanically interacting in accordance to biochemistry; just like the “well-defined” big-scale images on our TV screens are produced by atomic-level, quantum solid state circuitry understood in terms of electrons which are so tiny they can only be “seen” indirectly, our “well-defined” imagined images on our world perception screen in our heads are produced by atomic-level, quantum biochemistry within neurons understood in terms of the same electrons. And all quantum phenomena are “fuzzy,” not fixed, subject to statistical fluctuations and unavoidably described in uncertain probabilities; the appearance of certainty on the scale of our bodies (big-scale) is the statistical mean of atomic “outputs” filtered by our averaging senses to a single result. When we perceive “red,” the probability that we are perceiving data similar to previous perceptions of red is high, but, statistically, can never, ever be exactly the same, because the same exact set of electrons, atoms, and molecules that produced the previous perception are not available to produce the next; our big-scale senses only deliver the average of countless atomic-level inputs from incoming light data and processed, averaged biochemical data by our retina cells and optic nerve cells. Imagine how “averaged” must be the non-veridical images on our world screen! Our “feelings,” perceptions, and convictions are our big-scale utilitarian “averaging” of unimaginably numerous and unfathomably complicated quantum behaviors of the atomic level particles making up our brain. And each “averaging,” it stands to reason, can never be repeated in detail. Equally reasonable is the assumption that the averaging only has to be accurate enough to “get us by,” to assure that we survive as a species.
Our “will” is a self-imposed, evolutionary, imagined property describing our subjective “self,” the epiphenomenal result of the long-ago origin of self-awareness and self-consciousness. It is a psychological, positive, mental “crutch” to attribute to ourselves the ability to conjure actions and thoughts; it is basic to our self-confidence. There is, however, as best we know, no reason to call it “free.”
Further ontological insight into “will” can only be possible through future understanding, via scientific research, of how the physical, veridical brain can produce epiphenomenal, non-veridical perceptions. The same research will perhaps make progress toward understanding and, maybe, redefining (“overcoming”) the subjective trap. Though obviously useful, Perception Theory can be improved with better models and metaphors than veridical, non-veridical, world-view screen, etc. Building a better theory seems necessary toward better understanding “will” and the subjective trap.