In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem is joined by Donna, Ashlyn, and Ian to talk about free will, determinism, and what it means to make a choice. Also on this episode, Donna sits down with August Berkshire of Minnesota Atheists to discuss the moral implications of a world without free will. We went a little long, but don’t blame us: determinism exempts us from all ethical responsibility!
Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism that is produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.
Note: Barium. Radioactive caesium decays into barium.
Links: Free Will: What is it? and Do we have it? (The Winnipeg Skeptics) | Free will (Wikipedia) | Phineas Gage (Wikipedia) | Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action (Behavioral and Brain Sciences) | Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain (Nature Neuroscience) | A Brief Defense of Free Will | Discovery of quantum vibrations in ‘microtubules’ corroborates theory of consciousness (Phys.org) | Quantum indeterminacy (Wikipedia) | Uncertainty principle (Wikipedia) | Minnesota Atheists | Freedom Evolves (Wikipedia) | Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett (Amazon.ca) | Free Will by Sam Harris | Breaking the Free Will Illusion by ‘Trick Slattery | Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B.F. Skinner (Amazon.ca) | Killing of Tim McLean (Wikipedia) | Li case exposes ugly truth about Tories (Winnipeg Free Press) | The Fallaway Slam Podcast (The only podcast that matters!)
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Determinism implies that the current events and current state reliably bring about the next events and the next state. This chain of causation goes on for eternity.
This interesting fact raises the question “So what?”
Is the fact that your next choice is inevitable helpful in any way? No. Because you cannot know for certain what you will choose until you go through your mental process of evaluating your options and making the choice yourself. And if you already knew the result you would skip right to the answer. Every deliberate choice begins with uncertainty. If there is no uncertainty then there is no choosing involved.
Suppose it were possible to see the future, and to know what would inevitably happen? Well, being the rebellious sort we are, we’d probably choose something else just for spite. So knowing the inevitable means it is no longer inevitable.
The physician knows what will inevitably happen if she fails to treat a fatal disease, the patient will die. So she chooses to treat the disease and the patient lives. The doctor was able to chose what would become inevitable and what would remain merely a possibility.
Inevitability itself changes nothing. Everything remains precisely as it is. In fact, it was inevitable that everything would be exactly as it is now.
This includes free will. You are still choosing for yourself what you will do. And what you do will determine what happens next. And, as long as someone else is not forcing you to do something against your will, you are acting of your own free will. And that means you are the final responsible cause of what results from your action.
If you commit a crime, it is useless to claim that “determinism made me do it”, because the judge can also claim a rich history of causes and effects that resulted in society creating and enforcing laws. Penalties repair the harm, correct the offender, and protect the rest of us. If there are “extenuating circumstances”, like mental incapacity, or contributing factors that were actually outside your knowledge and control, then they may be taken into account. But causality is always an assumed constant, on both sides of the equation, so it is never a “get out of jail free card”.
If everything is inevitable, can you just sit back and wait for it to happen? Well, you should try doing that when you’ve been tossed into a swimming pool. If you remain still, totally engrossed in observing what was inevitably to happen next, you’ll likely drown. The point is that inevitability requires your active participation. And if the choice is to sink or swim, you had best take control of your own destiny. You’ll find that life often tosses you into a swimming pool.
There is no separation between you and causality. It is not some foreign agency forcing you to comply. Causality is also you, thinking, choosing, and acting of your own free will. What becomes inevitable is in your hands. All of your reasons, feelings, beliefs, values, experience, and so on, that cause you to choose one thing rather than another, are totally impotent to cause anything without you.
So there you have it. Determinism is a fact of life. It is a deducible characteristic of the real world we inhabit. Free will is also a fact of life. It is an objectively observable phenomena that occurs in the real world. Therefore there can be no conflict.
To find conflict, you have to enter an irrational world, like the one proposed by the “anti-causal libertarian free willers” or the equally irrational world of the “anti-choice determinists”. Both of those worlds are trapped in the paradox. Don’t let the silly paradox trap you.
I wrote a kind of rambling blog post to comment on this episode. http://amateurrogue.blogspot.ca/2015/03/in-which-luee-says-all-things-i-would.html
The short version, though, is this:
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
“MY POINT EXACTLY.”
— Terry Pratchett.
I wrote a rambly rant as well called “Fractal Patterns, Fatalism, Transcendentalism, Quantum-mechanistics, and Pretentious Verbiage”.
My page is called “A Canadian Trepanation”.
Read at your own risk.