Determinism, And The Illusion Of Free Will.

There is the common concept that randomness and chaos play a significant role in the operations of the world, human interactions, and the universe. As an example let’s consider people who track lottery numbers so that they might be able to predict what future numbers will be, the argument against this is that no matter what the numbers were in the past the odds still do not favor particular numbers showing up in the future, randomness rules. Yet if you were to completely replicate what happened the first time the numbers were picked, down to the energy given off by the light bulbs and barometric pressure, even returning to that point in space and time if need be, then the same numbers would be chosen, there is no other possible outcome any more than 4 + 4 continually equaling 8. So it is not that randomness exists, it is that the variables involved in predicting such outcomes are too great for us to calculate. The error our numbers tracker makes is not in assuming that there are predictable outcomes, it is in assuming what variables need to be taken into account when predicting the outcome, and don’t get excited about figuring out future lottery numbers, the variables are far too numerous and unknown to fully account for. This concept is called determinism.

Consider your music player, it probably has a shuffle function. Now your music player does not just magically pull songs titles out of the air when you turn on this function, it had to be programmed to do this, one could imagine any number of ways software engineers accomplished this, add 7 to the initial selection, subtract 3, add 7, as an example, and this probably isn’t hard to do and fool the listener, we are after are more interested in listening to music than we are in deciphering algorithms. But if one were to try to program true randomness it would be a daunting task. This is significant when one considers that science lives on the basis of predictability, if outcomes weren’t predictable when variables were understood then science would be no more than watching natural phenomenon through the kaleidoscope of experience. Physics has shown us that the natural world operates according to laws. These laws can be expressed by mathematical formulas. Formulas serve two purposes, to name, a group of four objects is just a group of four objects, it isn’t the number “4”, and to predict outcomes, if I put four elephants on the platform it will collapse. Since these operations work consistently when variables or inputs are clearly understood it is obvious that randomness has not been ‘programmed’ in to the functioning of the universe.

Something which may seem to fly in the face of this is chaos theory, which states that some infinitesimally small altertations in an initial condition can create unpredictable actions. However unpredictability is far different than causality. I have no problem accepting that most of the effects of variables interacting on a given state or situation do  in fact create unpredictable results, the variables are too great for us to calculate, but that does not mean that variables do not affect a state or situation in a specific manner. The problem here is that predictability equates to the ability to prove something. If you can’t predict something or replicate it then you cannot prove it, and so while determinism states that everything is bound to the laws of cause and effect the “causes” which drive the “effects” are so many that the idea cannot be proven. A paradox.

So everything we see around us is the result of huge amounts of variables interacting with each other to produce a given state, which contains all the variables which will interact to create the next in an endless progression, and since the actions of these variables are bound by laws, and the results they produce are also bound by laws the current state was the only one possible. This also means that the given trajectories of all the current variables can play out to produce only one future.

The implication of this for ourselves is one that most people are uncomfortable with. Since we are made of stuff, a biochemical stew of proteins, hormones, electrical charges, etc., we are simply another, albeit very complex, variable in a set of variables. Our thoughts themselves, the result of the reaction to stimulus, our current biological state, and experience, are simply the outcomes of a given set of variables. This would mean that free will does not exist. In any moment there is but one way we can act. Think of it this way, if you had an exact double in a universe which was an exact copy of ours in every way, and this double was identical to you in life experiences, etc., etc., and you both came to a point where you had to make a decision what would be the chance that one of you would make a different decision than the other? Zero, you would, of course, make the same decision.

It is surprising that people find it so hard to give up the idea of free will since they are really so uninterested in exercising it. If you ask someone why they did something they will give you the reason, quite obviously the point in making the decision wasn’t to demonstrate how it was possible to choose among many options, it was simply to arrive at the best course of action. Even when people do bad things they are still choosing what to them seems to be the best of possible options, to say they do otherwise is to imply that people intentionally do things which seem to be disadvantageous. If they do act in such a way it is due to variables which have made the disadvantageous choice seem to be desirable. In this way “free will” is functionally no different than determinism. And if they haven’t reasoned out which path to take, and they simply relied on a “gut feeling” or intuition then they were turning the decision over to the part of them least likely to engage in free choice, their biology.

Someone may ask about the act of changing ones mind, perhaps they had decided on a course of action but then relented and chose an alternate course, wouldn’t this prove the existence of free will? Not at all, if you make a decision and then change your mind a minute later you are in fact operating in a completely different set of variables, in the space of that minute your biology has altered in imperceptible ways, memories and thoughts have flitted through your mind, as the variables have changed the outcome of them might also change, only one resolution is still possible.

So even with the input of humans who supposedly have free will there is still only one possible outcome from the interaction of a family of variables. What is the practical implication of this? What I would hope would be the practical outcome of this is that we would come to recognize how profoundly we affect everything, and especially everyone, around us. We are used to viewing people around us as independent agents whose actions we have little impact on. In fact those around us are constantly in a state of reaction to the variables around them, we form of a web of interaction were our actions cause real results, either moral or immoral. Ideally this sense of the power of our actions should create a variable that affects how we act.

Determinism may then also be seen as an apologist way of looking at people who make bad choices. Since we are acting the only way possible, heavily influenced  by the actions of those around us, then perhaps no responsibility exists for individual actions. This would be an absurd way of looking at it. Of course you have responsibility for your actions, you performed the actions, not someone else, you bear responsibility for them, even if they were the only actions you would pursue with a given set of variables in existence. It is also perfectly fitting that you should experience the fruits of your actions, if you do not eat you starve, if you punch someone they dislike you, if you murder you go to jail.

People like to see ourselves as moral agents, often we like to assume that our actions are some sort of test for our souls. While it is true that we do act as moral agents, (we are social creatures and our species has benefitted from a history of moral actions), the fact that we are compelled to act in these ways is simply a strong variable to produce the only outcome possible. Life is not, however, a test of our cosmic worth. Since we will act in only one way given a certain set of internal and external variables our choices are not a test of our worth in the eyes of God. Unless God is simply running experiments to see the outcomes of sets of variables…

Since the idea of God has come up here it would be worthwhile to  point out that determinism does not negate the idea of the existence of a God. Given that outcomes are strictly tied to cause and effect God may exist but only in the sense of an amazing clockmaker. If God exists it does simply in the sense of an amazing clockmaker. God would have created a reality which spins according to set laws without deviation.

Given our fondness for the idea of free will one may be inclined to ask what is the point? Why go on if everything is simply pre-determined? Now are we so interested in making decisions that all of life is meaningless in the absence of free will? You have been living your life so far without a problem, a piece of chocolate cake stills tastes just as good even if your were on a trajectory to eat it from the day you were born, sharing a laugh with friends is still just as satisfying.

It would also be a mistake to assume that not doing anything is the correct response to this idea, after all you are still a vibrant variable in your own right, you effect everything around you, what you do determines the next circumstance you will exist in. You may only have one choice, but if that choice turns out to be removing yourself from life then your further circumstances will be far less enjoyable.

Live life in the knowledge that you yourself are a profoundly powerful agent, a profoundly active variable, and that you are connected in a very deep way to everything around you. That you do not exist in a vacuum, that the duality of me and it really does not exist. The self reflects upon the process and gives the illusion of separateness, but we are part of a soup of interactions. We may be bound to certain paths given certain circumstances but the complexity of those circumstances means that we are  incapable of fully understanding them, so we must act in the best way we can to improve the quality of the whole. Take responsibility for the power of your actions, and recognize how you are a product of the everything around and within you, these are the simultaneous and equal powers that create what is, and what is evolving every moment.