February 21, 2007

Your Friend Free Will

When I choose one thing rather than another, there may be many reasons, some of which I am conscious of -– and others which I don’t know about and, properly, don’t care about. If you like you can say that all these determine my choice and so, in an absolute sense, there is no “free” will. But who holds the curious idea that there could be any phenomenon in the universe that is totally independent of the rest of the universe? It’s the old “problem” of mind versus body, or soul versus material world….

If I “drink my mead with a will,” to paraphrase an Icelandic saga, it is sufficient that there is a will, be it more or less free. The philosophical confusion arises because “free” is defined as unbounded, limitless freedom from causal and material phenomena, corresponding to the belief that consciousness, mind or soul are phenomena separated from matter…

That’s Bjarne Hellemann in a letter to New Scientist, Feb. 10, 2007, p. 19, responding to John Searle’s recent (subscription required) article on free will. (A google search reveals Hellemann to be a clinical psychologist in private practice in Arhus, Denmark –- which is nice work if you can get it: all those chain-smoking Danes, stuffed with bread and butter and herring in wine sauce and akvavit, complaining that they’re sad in winter.) Hellemann puts cogently an idea I’ve had too: that current scientists’ and philosophers’ denial of free will comes from a misunderstanding of what free will looks like.

Free will as seen in real life is not an existential choice made in opposition to, or rejection of, chance and necessity. It is not a question of closing one’s eyes to external causes in order to select some pure, detached alternative (sort of like refusing to ask for directions when one is lost). That kind of “free” choice would actually be a random choice made by one’s inner roulette wheel; and ultimately it would be a predetermined choice based on the physics of the wheel. You might as well toss a coin as make that kind of isolated, uncontingent choice. It would be a choice based in ignorance, a blind freedom, a meaningless gesture of counterfeit free will. You can’t freely choose between two paths unless you have some idea (accurate or not) of what to expect on them.

Freedom of the will doesn’t mean denial of causation -– just the opposite. To be genuinely free, a choice must be aware of its causes. Only then does the actor have a basis on which to act. If I’m choosing whether to eat Mexican or barbecue (the two perennial choices in Austin, Texas), I must know what Mexican and barbecue taste like, and how I’ve enjoyed them in the past, and how recently I’ve eaten each, and which restaurants I’m considering, and how much money I want to spend, and how far I’ll have to drive, and how hungry I am, and where my companions want to go. Then I can choose intelligently.

But I don’t just plug all the factors into my cranial computer and wait to see what comes out. I, the participating consciousness, affect the calculation both before and after it’s made, and, having received the cranial computer’s answer, can accept or reject it on the basis of additional, sometimes capricious factors, such as whether I feel like heeding the cranial computer or not, or what the wind tells me, or what memories pass through my mind as I’m driving, and how compelled or uncompelled I feel by those memories. I could crank through all the input and then decide to take a different course of action just because I’m in the mood to do the unexpected –- and the extent to which I do the unexpected is by definition unexpected.

Some of those inputs may be random; others may be determined; others might be flighty and trivial but arising from my wishes; and others may spring from the deep core of my personality.

The choice of Mexican or barbecue is a particular type of binary choice that dominates discussions of free will: Door A or Door B? The lady or the tiger? The terms of the choice are externally imposed, as if in a psych experiment. But I wonder whether that’s really the dominant kind of choice we face in life. In my experience, the terms of choices are often subjectively created, and not only is there an indistinct and often shifting number of choices – options flickering into view and winking out almost before we have time to consider them -- but there is no necessity to choose at all unless the subject wants to.

Suppose I set out to write a story. It’s not a question of asking, Should I write a story or not? Should I write Story A or Story B? I don’t need to write stories at all; I could easily stop, and have done so for sustained periods in the past. I get ideas for stories frequently, and write only a small percentage of them, but I have no established criteria for choosing which stories to write; it’s entirely a matter of feel. Once I start writing a story, I have a certain amount of conscious control over its outcome: I can shape the characters this way or that way, I can make this or that event happen. My control isn’t complete –- sometimes the groundwork I have laid for the story urges me down one path or another -- but I can go back and redo the groundwork if I choose; I can tear up three-quarters of the story and make it a new story instead of the one I first planned.

The most obvious element of decisionmaking in this process is the decision of whether to use one word or another. But although it’s sometimes a simple matter of choosing Synonym A or Synonym B, in most cases the issue goes further than that. There is not a predetermined number of words from which to choose: if I don’t like any of the synonyms the dictionary and thesaurus offer, I can always step back and decide to describe the scene in a different way, avoiding that specific word-choice. Meanwhile, when I do choose a given word, I often end up rewording other passages because the nuances and sound of the chosen word don’t fit in with the surrounding words. These choices are nonforced but nonrandom. They are literally endless. There is no point at which I need to stop the fiddling process and declare the story finished. The directing force is my own self-trained, continually re-self-training, intuition. You might call it informed stochastics.

The whole thing only exists in my imagination, anyway. The people have no reality, the story can be any length, I can discard it at any time along the way, and the combinations of possible words are infinite. I can get up in the middle of a paragraph to make a cup of tea Where could one pinpoint a specific choice that depended on the getting up for tea in the middle of a paragraph? There is no measurable set of choices that must be made or of times when they need to be made; any choice can be avoided entirely; and yet every moment is an occasion when a choice is possible. The determination of which choices are to be made is up to the chooser. The binary choice is irrelevant at every level.

So many choices are involved in writing one little story that mapping them out would take far more space than the story itself. A mechanism is needed in order to make the choices efficient, and the mechanism is that of a deciding consciousness –- which explains why stories are so imperfect. A story written according to rules of chance and necessity would be a bizarro story, or to put it another way, a computer-written story. And if such a story fooled some people into thinking it was a human-written story, that would only mean that either they didn’t know enough about stories, or that the stories they were comparing it to weren’t good enough.

The absence of a necessity to make the choice at all, and to make it at a particular time, and to make just one choice out of a limited number, keeps the options always fluid, and this makes free will advantageous, even adaptive. Free will creates room for invention. Free will discovered fire. The causal chain that led Homo erectus to notice how fire works was a chain of contingency, not necessity; they could just as well have noticed fire by chance, shrugged it off, and gone extinct. It is plausible to speculate that fire was discovered by one band and ignored by other bands, who then, not through their own free will, were wiped out by the fire-users.

Free will isn’t instead of chance or necessity, it’s on top of them. We’re riding the probability wave into the future. If we don’t take account of the wave’s chance fluctuations and its irresistible path, we’ll wipe out; but we’ll also wipe out if we can’t decide where and when to turn. And if we don’t know we have that power, we’re doomed.

Chance and history are only the materials that the deciding mind works with. The extent to which an overseeing ego exists is debatable, but whatever form or formlessness “I” consist of, I’m deeper and subtler than the cranial computer.

Free will bends to outside forces, but it does not surrender to them; it participates in directing them. I suspect that this is a Godelian proposition: true but unprovable.

Nor do we need to exercise free will in every situation, or in most situations, in order for it to exist and for it to be divinely important. A single instance of free will during a lifetime will do; and that single instance might well be the most important decision of a lifetime.