Friday, March 4, 2016


To those of you just joining my blog, and to those who've been here since the beginning, welcome!  I'll be taking a break tonight from my series of 125 Rebuttals, to address a very old topic which I think could use some breaking down.

Context is Everything.

I was party to a Twitter debate recently, concerning free will.

You can view the context at that link, but I'm going to skip ahead a bit to this part:

 That's the important bit, because I promised I'd address the claims that exist within the context of that blog post.  I shall be as respectful as I can, and I'll do my best to avoid copying the full text here.  It's typically much easier to address points when they're directly on this page, however, so there will be some of it here.  Fair use and all that.  I recommend visiting his site, if for nothing else than to verify that I'm actually addressing the arguments he makes.

What is Determinism?

In keeping with the flow of his blog, I'll address each section in the same way it's presented.  I'll first start by saying that he's not using the reasonably standard definition of determinism, which google gladly provides as follows:
  1. the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.
For handy reference, here's his definition.
 Determinism is the belief in the reliability of cause and effect. We are so used to living in a deterministic universe that it would be difficult to imagine anything else.
 Suffice to say, his basic definition isn't actually that far from this mark.  It is via illustration, however, that the actual terms he's using to define 'determinism' aren't actually what he's intended.

Given is the example that there exists a dial, which can be adjusted from complete determinism to complete non-determinism.  Adjusting this dial one way, and reality maintains consistency.  Adjust it the other, and it loses all consistency.  The example specifically mentions objects literally changing to other objects.  This is a fallacy of false correlation, for one, because it doesn't actually address the argument of will, but rather of the consistency of the universe.  Apples do not spontaneously become bananas (but some subatomic particles can spontaneously become others, etc), and even if they did, it says nothing about the actions that may be performed upon it.  The consistency of the universe isn't really part of the greater argument of determinism, which deals with our ability to interact with the universe, not the universe's ability to spontaneously change.

Even so, in a universe which could spontaneously change, that doesn't rule out the fact that a complete lack of consistency (his definition of determinism) would have no bearing on freedom of will, or even its existence.  It's entirely possible that the spontaneity would have its own rules.  However, I'm getting off-track here, so let's continue.

The claim is then made that "we need a deterministic universe." While it may be true that organisms might not develop via evolution in such a universe lacking consistency, it in no way rules out that organisms like us could just crop up, completely 'indeterminate' of past or future.  Surely we need a deterministic universe to do things which we can do in our universe, but there's no evidence that things like us couldn't exist in some other universe.  It sounds like a fine-tuning fallacy, so I'll leave it at that.

His next statement is basically correct, regarding how science presumes rationality (although this isn't strictly true - if the universe were not rational, science would observe that too).  I'll leave it stand for now, because we find out something interesting in the next paragraph:
But there is another side to determinism that really bothers people. If cause and effect are perfectly reliable, then the future can only unfold in a single way. This bothers us because it makes us feel like the future is out of our control.
Well, it might bother some of us, but it's not what I'm here to discuss.  I want to call this a fallacy of composition/division, but I'm not sure it is exactly.  It's definitely a modified Appeal to Consequence of Belief fallacy, which is a form of Appeal to Emotion fallacy.  There's absolutely nothing stating that we are in control of the future.  Lots of things beyond our control can happen.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, it shows a more basic misunderstanding of cosmology and quantum sciences.  That's where that composition/division fallacy works in.  The macro universe doesn't work like the micro.  Some things really are going to happen whether we like them or not.  Other things we might actually be able to have influence over.

I will take one moment here to say that I think the idea of 'will' is merely an idea.  As a complex organism, we have at our disposal an open system, rather than a simply closed one like the entire universe.  Entropy becomes important here a bit, because we can actually harvest energy and use it for purposes other than what it would have been used 'naturally.'  That is, if you exclude humans from the rest of nature.  Arguably, building rockets is one of the natural outcomes of a planet like earth existing long enough around a star.  Everything we are comes from nature.  This doesn't mean we are forced to do one thing or another, but simply that anything we do is natural.  This'll probably be an important part later, so I thought I'd simply take a moment now to mention it.

But [the idea that the universe only has one outcome] is an illusion. To be true, determinism must include all causes. One of those causes is us.
Actually, we're not a cause, unless we're also an effect.  Your parents had a choice to give you birth, presuming you survived your birth and are now able to read this.  If not, sorry about your luck, I guess?  I mean, you're not going to be reading this anyway.
The laws of nature don’t just hold atoms together and keep the planets in orbit. They also keep our blood running, give power to our muscles, and provide the neurological framework in which we think and feel.
Again, all of those things are because atoms get held together.  The strong force and weak force are pretty important, but don't really have a lot to do with entropy at the level we tend to experience it.  Similarly, it doesn't have much bearing on will.  If anything, it introduces a case where 'will' doesn't actually exist, but we do indeed still have the ability to make choices.  I'd call this a quasi-will universe, wherein when a system becomes complex enough, it can indeed start to use the laws of nature to its benefit.  Which is a pretty damning argument against free will, considering that most things don't choose how to use their energy, but rather work to utilize it in the most efficient form.  In fact, your body is doing this as you read these words.

I'm gonna let some of that stuff sink in.  Let's take a small intermission here.
Since we're on the topic of free will anyway...

I wonder if that video will be important later?

What are we?

Well, there's a loaded question fallacy.  It presumes we 'are' something.  I'm something of a nihilist,  but for the sake of not wanting to drag this out forever, I'll grant that one.  Here's what he says we are:
We are purposeful causal agents in a deterministic universe.
Well, maybe.  Again, the entire universe may not be deterministic, and even if it is, one of the effects is that the determinism can determine that some aspects aren't. It's a bit meta, this argument, but I'm sticking with it.
Like any other biological organism, we come into this world with a built-in purpose: to survive, thrive, and reproduce.
Well, for a particular definition of purpose, I completely agree.  I don't like using the word purpose, however, because it implies something that isn't actually part of the given defintion.
And, more so than most biological organisms, we have evolved a complex brain that helps us adapt our behavior to our environment and to adapt our environment to our own needs.
See, that's what I was afraid of.  We didn't consciously decide one day that we need a bigger brain.  It's literally deterministic: our brains grew because people with larger brains tended to mate together. and produce offspring who, on average over long periods of time, happened to have larger brains.  This is a fallacy of conflation (ambiguity), such that two different definitions of purpose are being used here.  I really don't like that word.  Here's what google has to say on it:
noun: purpose; plural noun: purposes
  1. 1.
    the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

    • a person's sense of resolve or determination.

    • a particular requirement or consideration, typically one that is temporary or restricted in scope or extent.

There is indeed a reason why we exist: because of progeny.  There is exactly the same kind of purpose to our brain: it exists because we selectively bred for that trait, whether we were conscious of it or not.   It certainly helps us make decisions, lots of which are done autonomously, but a few of which might be conscious.

The second sense of the word can literally be seen as following from this: mating is the purpose of sexuality.  Hunger is the purpose for eating.  Logic is the purpose for wanting to figure things out, to make the first two easier.  As an asexual, I don't find people sexually attractive.  I still feel those purposeful urges (not so different from needing to use the bathroom, or eat).  I don't think there's any special purpose in not having sexuality, any more than there is in having it.  But I digress, let us continue.

The rest of this section does not argue effectively that it is the case, even though it's the conclusion which is given absent logical premises to support it.
In short, we cause stuff, we make stuff happen. And we do these things for a purpose: to survive and thrive as individuals, as societies, and as a species.
Again, pure determinism actually does account for that.  We do things because things cause us to do them, and some things happen because of the stuff we did.  It's what I'd call a fallacy of ignoring a common cause, or perhaps a false dichotomy.  No argument has been made effectively yet, for the conclusion provided, and it ignores any argument in-between (as well as the argument that it could simply not exist, or be consistently inconsistent like some kinds of entropy/open systems, etc).

What is Free Will?

Now here's the part of the article where things should start to get interesting. It is, after all, the whole point of the prior two sections existing, one presumes.
Within a deterministic universe, we decide what we will do.
Actually, you just argued against that in the previous two sections.  In a deterministic universe, it's actually impossible to do that.  I think that generally our universe is deterministic: stars will die, black holes will collapse, and so on.  I think that specifically, some things aren't bound exactly this way.  In fact, he also made this argument earlier.  I stick by my assertion that a quasi-will state exists for any sufficiently-advanced organism.

The “free” distinguishes our own decisions from cases where someone forces us to do what they want, against our will. In those cases, our will is not free, but subordinate to theirs.
The only problem is, if you're arguing for free will from determinism, it's certainly a choice whether or not to obey the coercion.  You can hold your bladder indefinitely if you so desired, but you might die.  It would likely be extremely painful, but there's nothing (apart from your own physical limitations) that actually stops you doing that, or so free will actually argues.  If we follow this backwards a bit, let's imagine that a person wants something badly but can't afford it.  Is the person coerced into stealing it simply because some other factors limit that person's income?  Most people would say that theft is an act of free will, however, there is definite coercion (in the form of a price, or of laws, or any number of other factors) which should limit free will.  The same goes with speed limits.  Do you actually have free will to violate speed limits, or do you not have free will since you're being coerced into not doing that?

Again, this kind of argument for free will breaks down as a false dichotomy.  However, in either a quasi-will, or will-free scenario, the choices are best framed as "what's the most advantageous?" It's not dissimilar at all from other natural biological processes, like evolution or mating pressures.

I'm going to skip the next couple sections, as I think the last couple paragraphs here have addressed most of the arguments presented there.  This will give you a good opportunity to consider both sides as well, if you're able to, that is.  Maybe you feel as though my side, or his side, is coercing you into thinking one or the other is correct.  It's a bit of a (modified) slippery slope, I guess, is what I'm saying.

Myths of Incompatibility

Well, as I discussed earlier, the two are not mutually exclusive necessarily. It's merely my claim that 'will' doesn't exist as presented here, and possibly doesn't exist at all, unless it exists in some quasi-state (which makes the most sense, I think), like a will of advantages as I posited a couple paragraphs ago.

Since we're on the idea of the future and the past being set in stone, let's take some words from an expert.  Sit back, make some popcorn, grab a beer or draw some tea.  I think you'll enjoy this.  It's only nine more minutes.  If you've read this far, you owe yourself something nice like this video, don't you think?  I do.  Also, this video is quite lengthy, but you only need to watch perhaps the first 8-10 minutes to get my point.  By all means, I suggest watching the entire thing.

As should be quite apparent now, the idea that the past and the future are separable is not such a strong idea.  Partially, this is because time doesn't move just one direction, and partially this is because of observation.  Your observation that you move forward in time is dependent on something we've possibly not figured out yet.  Why do we only experience time in the direction that we do?  Why does the future not seem determined, even though every bit of evidence shows us that it probably is?  It probably has something to do with the observation itself, collapsing the waveform that is 'choice' into the one you actually observed in this direction in time.  It's entirely possible that every 'choice' you could ever make was made simultaneously.

While his argument didn't delve into it here, it's the same argument against a god having will.  If a god can literally see everything that exists all at once, it would be impossible for it to draw any meaning from anything.  For it would observe everything, including the infinite observations where it isn't necessary, and it wouldn't be able to react to any of them.  You might ask why, and I'd tell you simply that it's because such a god could only observe the things it could observe.  If it observed everything in this way, it would make literally every choice ever.  If it didn't, it wouldn't, and it would be forever prohibited from it.  This is why we say it's complicated to think about things outside of nature, the universe, etc.  We've gotta master this one before we try jumping on toward the next one.

If you managed to get all the way here, congratulations!  You have some wonderful mental stamina, and I look forward to your continued readership!