Free will, again


Ther’s an interesting discussion going on at one of the other blogs I look at occasionally, inspired by Clarence Darrow (of the Scopes trial, as dramatized in Inherit the Wind). Apparently Mr. Darrow was not a supporter of the concept of free will, in the famous Leopold & Loeb murder case, arguing instead that the defendants “had no choice” but to act as they did.

Well, I doubt that. There is so much random contingency going on in life that no one has “no choice but” to act as they do. How many thousands of kids had the same kind of upbringing, and didn’t commit murder? Why did two kids act as Leopold & Loeb did and so few others committed random murders just to see what it was like?

The opponents of free will suggest either a strict determinism, or a divine pre-destination. But I counter that, whatever the circumstances, any choice really is free. We may be powerfully influenced in one direction or another, by instinct or by circumstance. There is, however, always the possibility to take the less easy, the less automatic choice. The path of least resistance is not inevitable. And it is sophistry to suggest that whatever choice is made must be the easiest choice. Haven’t you ever had a hard choice? How did you resolve it? I suggest that the very possibility that there is a choice; that you could conceivably make a different decision, negates the concept of determinism.

If we have no choices, can we then choose as we want? Can I say, “there is no free will, therefore I have no choice but to steal this bread?” I doubt that is the strict definition anyone would insist upon.

What about, then, the person who is forced to choose between stealing bread or allowing someone, a child perhaps, to starve to death? The dilemma has no doubt occurred many times throughout history, yet not every case ends in theft or in starvation. If you were to counter that every case has its own set of particular circumstances, then I shall suggest that an infinitude of circumstances means an infinitude of decisions.

In mathematics, it is a simple theorem that you can solve only for a number of unknowns equal to the number of equations. If there are three unknowns, then you have to have three (distinct) equations to solve for them. Similarly, you can fit on an x-y plane any polynomial curve for which you have enough points: two for a line, three for a quadratic, four for a cubic, etcetera. Another way of expressing this is that it is always possible to perfectly fit an n+1-ordered polynomial to n points.

If you have 1,000 kids in similar but not identical circumstances, but only one becomes a murderer, you need to account for a thousand variables to say why Leopold was a killer but Jackson was not. If you make a thousand variables, aren’t you just conceding that there are so many variables that determinism is impossible? “If the mother is an unemployed seamstress and the father is an alcoholic bricklayer, and the son is bright but has a neglectful teacher in first grade, and…” But then the next-door neighbor kid has all the same circumstances except that his dad is a teetotaler…

Some of the determinists say that all decisions being basically brain phenomena, and the brain being essentially biological, and the biology being basically chemical, and the chemistry being basically physics. — assuming all that: there is no such thing as choice, it is all physics. To argue otherwise, they say, is that there is an immaterial thing called Mind, which exists separate from the physical reality.

I think that Mind is an emergent phenomenon that is fundamentally irreducible to simple physics, or even chemistry. The neural network, so plastic in infancy and early childhood, is a product of uncountable contingencies that develop toward a convergence, but not an identicality, of Self. Each of you has Self, and that self is different from all other instances of Self. Your experience, and the response that you generate to that experience, is uniquely you. Your own Self is shaped by external events and your internal responses to those events. The number of events that happen – hundreds on a dull day, thousands on an eventful day, millions in a year – combined with the equally complex matrix of circumstances – is so vast as to mean determinism is a useless construct.

Perhaps what I am (again?) approaching is that determinism as a philosophical position requires an ability to do the determining, thus omniscience. If it is impossible even in theory to do the determining that Determinism supposes, then determinism cannot be true. Again, I am brought to the concept of information theory that I approached in an earlier post.

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