Free will in a deterministic universe

Originally written in June 2014. Revised and published in September 2017.
Thank you, George the Handsome, for the notes.

The purpose of this essay is to inform the reader about the philosophical views on the topic of free will. The existence of free will, though it may seem as a far-fetched and non-everyday issue, it has some very important consequences on our lives. For instance, let’s examine happiness. It is said that in order to be happy you need to pick and do the things that you like, things that define you. Firstly, though, you have to find what these things are. In order to be sure about these you need to act based on your own free will.

Free will has been discussed as an issue since the ancient times. This can be considered as an indication of its significance. Many philosophers contributed with their views on free will. These opinions have been classified in four broad categories, which I will analyze later on.

I deemed appropriate to start my argument with an important, yet not clearly defined concept. This is randomness. It may seem simple enough; a random event is one we cannot predict. In order to predict an event you have to observe and measure its causes. This means that if an event’s causes are immeasurable then this event is truly random. To elaborate, when a die is thrown, we can neither control our hand’s force nor measure any other forces that are being exerted at the die. This inability of ours to take exact measurements of all these variables is where we support the argument of the die’s randomness. However, this does not mean that these variables are inherently unmeasurable.

Free will initially may feel as a non-issue, but if we give it some thought we will realize it is not a simple concept at all. Every action we take has some specific causes. Since, as I showed above, there is nothing random then the causes of our actions are not random either. They were also caused by some other non-random events. Continuing this way, we can constantly go back until the first event we know (or at least assume) that existed: the Big Bang. This is the event that we can picture as the first link of a chain. A different Big Bang would result in different subsequent events and thus a different chain. This pattern of thinking describes the deterministic view on the universe. In this way, even our thoughts, as part of the universe can be described as deterministic, which means that it was inevitable for them to happen. We can resonate in the following way: every thought has a trigger-thought behind it i.e. a thought that caused it. This trigger-thought has its own triggers-thoughts. Continuing in the same way we did with the events, there is one original thought, which in this case is not very important because its bearer (a human) is influenced to a great degree by their external environment. The universe, though, does not have such external influences — at least, none that we know of.

I mentioned that views on free will are classified into four major categories. These are: hard determinism, compatibilism, hard incompatibilism and libertarianism.

If someone adheres to hard determinism then they accept the deterministic view of the universe, while they deny the existence of free will. This can be easily understood. Free will is defined as being able to make choices unconstrained by certain factors. Nonetheless, a deterministic universe implies that any choice you make will be influenced by factors which could not have happened otherwise, and actually be predicted. Therefore, free will is incompatible with a deterministic universe.

Compatibilists, on the other hand, claim that free will is indeed compatible with a deterministic universe. Arguments for this view can be supported by a different definition of free will. Some definitions include that free will means the lack of physical restraints, or that free will is defined as dictated by events such as the die throw. This means that randomness is synonymous to unpredictability, and since randomness is possible, determinism is not and events that cannot be predicted can happen. Another view on this by Daniel Dennett is that if we exclude an omnipotent God then because of chaos and epistemic limits on the precision of our knowledge of the current state of the world, the future is ill-defined for all finite beings. The only well-defined things are “expectations”, which are the choices we have on a specific case and we choose one of them on each case or event.

John Locke, regarded as a proponent of hard incompatibilism claimed that “free will” as a phrase is absurd. Contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson, agreeing with Locke, claims that free will is impossible because man cannot create himself or his mental states “ex nihilo”, i.e. “out of nothing” in latin. Hard incompatibilists do not agree with the existence of determinism, but they do not necessarily imply that the lack of it is in any way correlated to free will.

Another most interesting view, that falls under the umbrella of hard incompatibilism, is by Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI researcher with controversial opinions. As far as free will is concerned, he claims it being a cognitive element representing the basic game-theoretical unit of moral responsibility. In a way, this means that if someone has free will then we can say he is responsible for his physical and mental state. According to Yudkowsky, free will does not exist in reality with the common definition we use; it is the representation of the algorithm our mind uses to make decisions. In this case, the dilemma I stated: whether free will is possible since determinism implies that everything can be predicted, does not stand as a question; free will is irrelevant to determinism.

Libertarianism, the fourth of the major views is a position that argues that free will is indeed logically incompatible with a deterministic universe, but humans do have free will, therefore, determinism is false. Essentially, libertarians’ arguments merge the notion of free will’s existence of compatibilists with the lack of determinism. Robert Kane, one of the leading contemporary philosophers on free will, talks about the existence of alternative possibilities, which resembles Dennett’s idea of expectations.

Although, all arguments about free will are divided into four categories, there is a high degree of disagreement between philosophers, even about this classification. This is not unexpected at all, taking into consideration the fact that we cannot be sure about most of the arguments.

Quantum mechanics, a branch of physics which deals with physical phenomena at nanoscopic scales, has some important extensions to randomness. Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, introduced the uncertainty principle, which states that we cannot measure the exact position and velocity of a particle at the same time. We could theorize that this means there is true randomness in physics and the universe, but we cannot prove the fact that, despite us, humans, even the universe does not know the exact measurements of all variables of particles. This debate is part of many, regarding quantum mechanics, between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Einstein believed that randomness is a reflection of humanity’s inability and ignorance while Bohr claimed it being a universe-level fundamental property.

Another argument which exposes this probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena is the Double-slit experiment; which also demonstrates the role of an observer-consciousness, making it one of the most absurd and counter­intuitive manifestations of reality.

Certainly, there are definitions for randomness in other science disciplines too. For example, computer scientists argue about pseudo-random and cryptographically secure pseudo-random number generators. In biology, the diversity of life is attributed to random genetic mutations. In statistics, statistically random can refer to a numeric sequence when it contains no recognizable patterns. The usage of the concept in these cases adds more complicacy to its definition, as the fundamental notion is not clear. Apart from the convoluted saturation of the word, it is also clear how fundamental randomness is across all of science.

In conclusion, many views have been heard since the antiquity on the topic of free will. Unfortunately, none of them is convincing enough for the advocates of the other views. The rise of quantum physics in the last centuries, though, has had some unexpected consequences on this topic because of the theory’s relations to randomness. Hopefully cracking quantum mechanics will also mean the unraveling of randomness, determinism, and ideally free will and eventually consciousness.


This article was also published on ART + marketing.