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Free Will is Meaningless Without Context

by Niklas Haas on March 29, 2020

Tagged as: philosophy, life.

Much time has been wasted debating the nature of “free will”, and I am unfortunately going to add to that. If only to get it off my mind, so I can stop wasting time thinking about it. When you really try breaking it down, the argument of “free will” comes down to a meaningless debate about semantics (in other words, philosophy). Even if we assume we have an ability to define what “will” means, there’s still the major open question of what the will is supposed to be free from; and it’s in the subtlety of how we choose to define this wherein the crux of the argument lies.

I get the sense that the most abstract and general interpretation is supposed to be understood as some sort of vague sense of “freedom from being shackled to my own fate”, which is practically absurd by definition. My own fate is my own fate, no matter whether it is determined by my own “free will” or not. So that can’t be a useful debate. A more refined variation might be “freedom to make my own life choices”, which is just rephrasing it in a way that makes the definitional problem more obvious: if my choices were not my own, whose would they be? God’s? If so, this debate only makes sense in the context of religion, the entire domain of which breaks down irreparably the moment you assert the nonexistence of god and thus no logical arguments can be made. What about freedom from the laws of the universe? This is also an uninteresting question, because by definition the laws of the universe must describe “whatever is”. The moment something exists, the laws of the universe must describe it - or else they wouldn’t be the laws of the universe. So naturally, everything (free will included) must be described by the laws of the universe, therefore this question is easily answered and thus the debate meaningless. What I’m getting at here is that such attempts at answering free will from an “objective” standpoint can’t get very far. What I’d like to suggest is that “free will” is an inherently subjective concept.

A good way to illustrate my point is to translate the question of “free will” to its effective “opposite”, the question of whether or not the universe is deterministic. But this is an equally absurd question without context. The universe can’t somehow fundamentally be “non-deterministic”, it can only fail to be determined by some given set of laws and information. It becomes a question of perspective.

Let me make an analogy by substituting “non-determinism” with “randomness”. Randomness is often assumed to be some intrinsic aspect of a thing or process, i.e. “a variable is random”. But this obscures the fact that randomness is also a subjective phenomenon: something is random, by definition, if it is impossible to predict. In other words, a variable can only be random in the absence of information about its state. For example, we generate random numbers for our purposes by relying on processes which may well be deterministic, but which we cannot observe the internal states of.1 Even if I tell you that my fully deterministic random number generator spit out the number 532952357598189623, you’ve gained essentially zero information about what number it will spit out next, until I reveal its internal state to you. From your point of view, it remains fully random. This seeming contradiction of something simple being both deterministic and random is resolved by realizing that it’s deterministic given one set of information (internal state + algorithm), but random in its absence. (Non-)Determinism is therefore a subjective phenomenon, not an objective truth: an inability to determine given available information.

Much in the same way that something can be deterministic and random at the same time, given different information, the universe can be both deterministic and free will can exist at the same time, depending on who or what it’s supposed to be free from, and what information they have access to.

Let me end my argument by suggesting one more possible definition of “free will”, one which I personally find the most useful: “free from our ourselves”. In essence, under this interpretation, free will would only begin to break down when we gain information about our future history, which is both practically impossible (due to the immeasurable complexity of the chaotic reality around us) and theoretically impossible (due to the role of quantum mechanical uncertainty in causing macroscopic phenomena like cancer) to do with any significant amount of certainty. If you choose to subscribe to this interpretation of “free will”, then we can safely assert its existence even if we assume that we have a complete, deterministic picture of the physical laws of nature. By this definition, the moment you still wake up without a perfect understanding of what it is you’re going to be experiencing on that day, you still have a free will. Because the information you’re using to decide on your behavior does not include knowledge of the future evolution of the universe, from your perspective, you are free to act within the scope of whatever future for yourself you choose to imagine. Even if the universe, or god, or whoever else, were to know that in advance. Essentially, your will is free from the burden of precognition.

  1. It’s worth pointing out that some (all?) physical systems have internal states which the laws of physics prevent us from ever fully observing. Quantum randomness, in a sense, isn’t a statement about some universal property of the predictability of quantum systems, it’s foremost a statement about our ability to ever measure the information needed to predict it. Whether we choose to interpret this restriction as “the information doesn’t exist at all”, or “the information exists but is forever hidden from view” is up to pure interpretation and ultimately meaningless.