17 May 2006

Free Will (Part II)

(This entry continues from my thoughts in the entry Free Will (Part I).)

My philosophical voyage into the question of whether we have free will has landed me in a quicksand of philosophical ideas.

It all began with an innocent discussion of movies with Yao. We eventually, if not inevitably, came to the topic of The Matrix trilogy and the debate of choice versus causality in Reloaded. It was then that the idea of anomalous monism burst into my attention, which in summary says that mental events (such as "reason") are not subjected to physical laws like all other things. Naturally, this is a concept hard to grasp, and Yao had a miserable time trying to explain it to me.

In the end I decided to do some mini-research on it, and from that I opened the floodgates of philosophical articles in Wikipedia. I found myself looking at determinism (in particular hard determinism), epiphenomenalism, behaviourism, as well as a host of many others.

It became clear to me that my previous opinion on free will had a couple of underlying assumptions which I was then unaware of. The first of which is what anomalous monism attacks: that mental events are subjected to physical laws. The second is that scientific laws are and will be deterministic. These two assumptions arose from the idea that science is capable of explaining every scientific question there is, and that it will be of the same nature as past theories. Of course these two assumptions I still take as valid, since the first is the ultimate (unspoken) goal of science, and the second I can't think of any exceptions.

Allow me to elaborate. The first assumption is that science can explain all scientific questions. By scientific I mean questions like "what is the shape of the vortex formed by a cylinder of fixed wall but rotating bottom?" and not questions like "does God exists?" or "is Harry Potter a better novel than The Lord of the Rings?", which are questions of opinions. This is important in the discussion of free will because while we know quite an amount of how our brain functions, with neurons and the parallel networks, we still have no idea of the precise mechanisms, that is what happens when we make a choice, how we make a choice etc.. I assume that science is capable of explaining that.

The second assumption mainly assumes that scientific laws are of a deterministic or indeterministic (but purely random) nature. Examples are Einstein's general relativity (deterministic) and quantum mechanics (indeterministic). Both natures do not allow free will to exist (see the previous post on why quantum mechanics does not allow free will). Quite frankly, I can't see how things can be different.

Now, I must digress a bit and touch on the possibility that there may exist random and indeterministic laws, but the randomness is governed by our free will. That is, our choices determine the outcome of the laws (which is a loose definition of free will anyway). But then the question we must ask ourselves is, what is a choice? Do humans have choices? Do animals have choices? Do plants have choices? Do bacteria have choices? Do quarks and gluons have choices? What is it that constitutes our choice? I'll leave this open for now, and I might come back.

Right now, I'm even more lost than before regarding this debate of free will. I daresay a part III will be coming (very soon) in the future.

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