22 April 2006

Free Will (Part I)

(This entry is entitled "Part I" because I suspect I will be speaking more on this, especially when the comments come in and exams over. If that turns out to be false, then this "Part I" will be the one and only part.)

I know during the exams is probably the worst time to be embroiled in a philosophical question, but somehow you just can't stop one from silently creeping into your thoughts. I forgot from where did this philosophical question of mine inspire from, but it has certainly taken quite a good amount of my time (which could otherwise be better/worse spent in mugging for the exams).

Do we have free will?

The age-old question that dates back at least to the Greeks, molded by science throughout its course in history. Forget what the ancient people thought; today's scientific ideas were not known to them. I pondered over this, using current scientific philosophies and logical reasoning, without basing in on any religious ideas (hopefully).

A quick review: prior to the 20th century, all physics laws are deterministic. That is to say, it can give an absolutely precise prediction of the future given the appropriate equations and necessary data. For example, based on Kepler's and Newton's Laws, we can predict to amazing accuracy the paths of the interstellar objects in the years to come. So if we have a theory which can describe the world, we can, in principle, know what's going to happen in the future with absolute certainty. This is the philosophy famous scientists like Descarte and Laplace expound.

Then comes the quantum revolution at the turn of the 20th century, which replaces absolute precision with a smear of probability. Philosophy was turned upside-down and inside-out. The world became riddled with nonsensical ideas such as Schrödinger's Cat. Yet precisely because reality became a probability that proponents of free will push for the idea that free will exists in this region of undeterminism.

And in the mid-20th century came the chaos theory. In essence, a chaos system is one in which its equations of motion cannot be solved. It was encountered long ago; I know that Newton was troubled by a three-body gravitation problem which turns out to be a chaos system. This is different from quantum mechanics in that the theory is completely deterministic, but it is extremely sensitive to initial conditions. A slight difference in initial condition will result in a completely different path. This is also known as the butterfly effect. (Click here for a gif animation of a chaos system, and this is a very good introduction to chaos.)

So where does this free will reside in? Or more appropriately, in the onslaught of science, where does free will seek refuge in? Certainly not in the deterministic theories of the classical era. How about the quantum world? But quantum mechanics describe everything in probabilities, so does that mean that everytime we make a choice, it is actually not our free will that is choosing, but just that the dice happen to fall that way? Or is free will the dice? If free will is a function of probability, then we don't really have control over our "free" will. If a quantum mechanical system manifests our free will, does that mean that a radioactive nucleus, which is also subjected to the laws of quantum mechanics during decay, has free will too?

Or is it chaos that free will hides in? But chaotic systems are wholly deterministic. It is just that because it is so complex and sensitive to the inputs, it is almost impossible to predict the outcome (since there is always an error when making a measurement, however small it is). And if you call this free will, doesn't free will then become a "pseudo-free will"? In that it appears that we have free will, but the truth is, it is deterministic ultimately. (Put it in another way: if we have all the data in the world, and the correct equations, and an infinite amount of computing power, then we can predict with absolute certainty what your choices will be, what you will be doing in ten years time, and how many stomach aches you're going to get before you die.)

In any ways I can think of, in any direction of science, it seems that free will doesn't exist, or is just something that we cannot control (and hence a contradiction in itself). I personally don't like this idea at all, that I'm not in control of my life, but as it turns out so often in history, nature doesn't care what we like or not.

Perhaps The Merovingian was right after all.

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