Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Don't Care About Determinism (Agency as a Law of Nature, take 2)

I don't care about deterministic universes. If I live in one then everything I do is predetermined. If Compatibilists are correct, then I can still meaningfully experience and act on choice, but more than one outcome of my choices was never a possibility. I also couldn't do anything else than what I am doing in my search to understand agency or free will. It's nice that Compatibilists would conclude that I ultimately want to do what I'm doing, but I don't find a deterministic universe meaningful. I know there are people who believe the universe is deterministic and still find meaning, but I (possibly misguidedly) want my life to have meaning that is both an internal experience and shapes the future of the universe in undetermined ways. If my choosing to become a God is not something I can help doing, then I will get there whether I explore the nature of reality or not (or I won't be able to help exploring the nature of reality because it is what I want and the deterministic system I call me enables that path). I care about universes where my becoming a God (or failing to) is not a foregone conclusion. The universe may be deterministic, but if a possible understanding of nature leads me to conclude the universe is deterministic, I discard it--not because it can't be true, but because what I do with it isn't going to change the future at all. I don't care about the kind of free will that might exist in a deterministic universe.

Some people have argued that the alternative to a deterministic universe is one where events are governed by purely random happenings. Narrowing this scope to the events in my brain that I call my choices, if these are reducible to ultimately random occurrences, then I'm not freely choosing. Some random number generator somewhere is doing the choosing for me--at least some of the time. If the system that is me is able to shape outcomes so that random events don't ever determine my choices, then all I've done is made a completely determined system from a random beginning. This may be possible, since it looks a lot like what we learn from physics and psychology--random quantum events scale up to perfectly predictable Newtonian mechanics, or very nearly. Again, I don't want my future to be ultimately controlled by random impulses. I reject this type of universe because I believe I make some choices that are not fundamentally random.

Until recently, I was unwilling to fully reject the mixed random/determined universe for two reasons: 1. it looks most like what physics tells us we have, and 2. I couldn't find any hope for a type of free will I could care about in a purely deterministic universe. The problem was that the type of agency I wanted was being forced into this tiny little box where, instead of a random quantum event determining my thought and making me choose something, a magical, free will thought happened that superficially looked exactly like a random/determined event going on in my brain. But since no one could prove the magical event wasn't happening, I could continue to tentatively believe in it. Unfortunately, I didn't much like this rapidly shrinking kind of Free Will--the Free Will of the Gaps. 

Thanks to John Conway and Simon Kochen's Free Will Theorem, I have seen an alternative. I will summarize the Free Will Theorem: If you or I can choose, in some sense that is neither predetermined nor random, one out of 33 or 40 buttons, then subatomic particles also make limited choices that are not predetermined. This is true if it is impossible to know the outcome of some distant event before that event happens. Basically, it's true if time travel is impossible. The other two criteria for the Free Will Theorem to be true are both experimentally demonstrated results of quantum mechanics. There is one research group which argues that in a stochastic and determined universe the "no time travel" requirement of the Free Will Theorem doesn't behave as Conway and Kochen assert. After rereading the articles several times, I think the critics are wrong, but ultimately it doesn't matter to me. The only possible universes in which they are right are deterministic, and I don't care about those. So there are currently no rigorous objections to the Free Will Theorem that hold within any universe I care to wonder about.

I think (as does John Conway) that it is important to note that the Free Will Theorem does not disprove determinism. If determinism holds, then no experimenter can choose among the buttons in a way that isn't predetermined, so we have no proof of free will among subatomic particles. However, I have already concluded that deterministic universes are uninteresting, so in any universe I care about the Free Will Theorem holds. This means that not only do you and I have the ability to make some choices without predetermined outcomes, but all of matter, and possibly all of energy, have this ability, although the choices available to a photon are not as complex as those available to a human. Instead of agency being something that happens at specific moments that we call decisions, agency is embedded in the very fabric of existence. We exist as we currently do because all the matter in us is choosing to be in these states that are compatible with our being.

It's not too much of a stretch to think this relationship extends to all that is, both within and outside of our universe. The choices available likely change as the qualities of matter, energy, space, and time change, but if we aren't in a deterministic universe, and we aren't in a random universe, then the most likely conclusion is we are in a universe where agency is a Law of Nature.

Thanks to Benjamin Kelsey for helpful discussions on this topic. Hopefully I have removed a number of misconceptions and misrepresentations in my now abbreviated references to various philosophical positions. I also want to thank him specifically for putting into words the idea of agency being a continuous state rather than occasional events.

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