Do we have free will?

For context, see part 1 and part 2.

It’s been a while since I’ve written, but I thought I should finish this series before I move on. In the previous two posts I concluded that all human action is completely deterministic. Psychology, given enough time (and research grants), is reducible to neuroscience. That is, a scientist with a machine that can read what’s happening in our brains and our environments could also, at least in theory, predict exactly what we will do as far in the future as he wants.

This immediately suggests that free will as we commonly think of it is impossible. When I come to a fork in the road I’m walking, I don’t really have a choice of which path to take. This path was already determined long before I was born, or even before our Solar System was born. But does this necessarily mean that we have no free will?

In the sense of being able to choose what paths we walk, we almost certainly don’t. If the path is predetermined, the concept of choice itself becomes meaningless; one can only choose when one has more than one option. If I walk into a restaurant (and I’m forced to buy something) but the menu only has one item, I don’t really have much of a choice.

This seems quite counter-intuitive to our first person perception of the world. When I walk into a restaurant now, I have many options of what to order. When I’m deliberating which of my many options I want, it seems to me that I am able to choose any of them—otherwise it would be silly of me to take fifteen minutes thinking about it. But think about it this way: Imagine I write a computer program that spits out what the biggest number is of any list I feed  it. If I give it a very large list, it might take a long time to crunch the list and tell me what  the biggest number is. This does not mean that the computer has a choice of which number to spit out in any meaningful way. Every time I run the program, it spits out the same number. The number it spits out is predetermined by the algorithm I wrote and the list I fed to it.

In the same way, when I’m trying to decide what to order in a restaurant, my brain makes a choice based on an algorithm and the options in the menu. Of course, that algorithm is a million times more complex than the one I wrote on my computer. It takes into account all my past experiences with food, the waiters’ recommendation, the prices on the menu, the amount of money I have in my pocket, what I had for lunch, etc. It then spits out what meal it thinks I will find most enjoyable. The process is more complicated, but it’s just as deterministic as the computer. Our idea of having a choice between all the menu items is just an illusion.

But there’s another way of thinking about free will. When my brain gives the order to my fingers to hit the keys of my keyboard, is it not me who types? Sure, it may have been pre-determined, but it’s still my “self” that types. The act of typing originates in me. And that, to me, is free will. The fact that, in some sense, my actions originate from me.

In the epilogue of his book What Is Life?, Schrödinger writes:

My body functions are a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature. Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them. The only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I—I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’—am the person, if any, who controls the ‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature.

That is, anything that is conscious can have a claim to free will. For free will doesn’t necessarily mean the ability to choose what the outcome of my thought processes is, it is the thought process itself. As long as I can see the fork in the road ahead, and make a conscious decision to take the one that I like best, I have free will—even if there was only one road for me to take.