Free Will: A Thought Experiment in Three Lunches – Part 1: Intro

I frequently come across asides on Free Will in articles, scientific or philosophical, that strike me as religious statements in the scientific drag.

Their core argument:

  • human behavior is composed of material mechanisms
  • material mechanisms can be modeled scientifically and predicted
  • therefore human behavior is determined
  • and, hence, Free Will is an illusion.

The author then generally goes on to explicitly clue us in on our delusion: the activity we engage in that feels to us like the exercise of Free Will is not…and the illusion’s time is almost up!

I disagree. I think Free Will is what it is.

I can explain the divergence using a little historical background. Descartes split the human experience into two components– the body and the mind– connected, if I remember correctly, by the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature is the classic ghost in the machine.

This is essentially a religious perspective with a separate severable soul.

As science claimed all phenomena as a single set of unified physical systems, the immaterial had to either be delegated to the illusory (the ghost isn’t real so how can its attributes be) or had to be reframed as a material process. Many things made the transition but folks tend to choke when trying to bring Free Will across.

My contention is that this is misguided and we need to follow the other fork in the road. Perhaps it’s the terminology that has tripped us up with free having a variety of meanings including, prominently, ‘unconstrained’ At any rate, I contend that ‘free’ will is exactly what it appears to be…the ability to make meaningful conscious choices.

Defining Free Will.

To restate, I contend that Free Will is a meaningful process that works exactly as it presents itself to us.

The basic unit, the monad of Free Will as it were, is the consideration of at least two options and a meaningful, i.e. non-illusory, conscious choice.

Free Will will be treated here as an emergent property of matter related to other mental phenomena such as intention, planning depth and prediction. (In most places where I use the term, I have capitalized Free Will to emphasize that I am working with this particular definition.)

This definition views Free Will as being composed of material entities interacting in chains of causality. And that means it is in some sense determined. The choices we consider, the motivation for choosing, the limits on our ability to work through options are all determined in the way that material process must be.

What I am contending is that, without that ‘Free Will’ component of our mental processes, we would not take the same actions. Snipping it out would radically change the process. Free Will as we experience it is precisely the physical process by which some action is guided.

To insist that Free Will has to be an unconstrained non-material process to be meaningful is residual religious thinking.

Part 2 is here.

My 2 cents on the compatibility of Science and Religion are here.

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