Free will?

Edge magazine have posted their annual roundup of answers to the question:


Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the “esprit de divination”).

One of the topics in review is the matter of free will; do we or don’t we have free will? Clifford Pickover holds a view that is similar to mine: That we do have free will, even though our brains are essentially tinkertoys:

If we believe that consciousness is the result of patterns of neurons in the brain, our thoughts, emotions, and memories could be replicated in moving assemblies of Tinkertoys. The Tinkertoy minds would have to be very big to represent the complexity of our minds, but it nevertheless could be done, in the same way people have made computers out of 10,000 Tinkertoys. In principle, our minds could be hypostatized in patterns of twigs, in the movements of leaves, or in the flocking of birds. The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz liked to imagine a machine capable of conscious experiences and perceptions. He said that even if this machine were as big as a mill and we could explore inside, we would find “nothing but pieces which push one against the other and never anything to account for a perception.”

If our thoughts and consciousness do not depend on the actual substances in our brains but rather on the structures, patterns, and relationships between parts, then Tinkertoy minds could think. If you could make a copy of your brain with the same structure but using different materials, the copy would think it was you. This seemingly materialistic approach to mind does not diminish the hope of an afterlife, of transcendence, of communion with entities from parallel universes, or even of God. Even Tinkertoy minds can dream, seek salvation and bliss and pray.

Susan Blacmore has a totally opposing view, and is even trying to rid herself of her sense of making decisions and even of having a conscious self alltogether:

It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.” With recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time, more than 200 years ago. So I long ago set about systematically changing the experience. I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.

But what happens? People say I’m lying! They say it’s impossible and so I must be deluding myself to preserve my theory. And what can I do or say to challenge them? I have no idea – other than to suggest that other people try the exercise, demanding as it is.

When the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them, but then a new question arises: will the decisions be morally acceptable? Here I have made a great leap of faith (or the memes and genes and world have done so). It seems that when people throw out the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds but this too I cannot prove.

As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it I think it is true that I don’t.

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