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A Layperson Wonders About His Free Will

Recipient profile picture Meghan Griffith
25 August
Dear Meghan Griffith,
Recently, I’ve been most curious about free will. Unfortunately, my partner is not. And she is tired of me asking her whether or not she believes in free will. So to save her from further misery, I will take my questions and thoughts to you and the Internet. I hope you won’t mind. (I should note, of course, that I am not a philosopher. So I am obviously retracing ground that has long been covered by others.) I also wanted to say thank you for writing your book on the basics of free will. I consumed it overnight and enjoyed it immensely. And I am doubly grateful that you wrote the piece without prejudice or jargon. I sometimes feel that other books in philosophy seek to ostracize the layperson through muddy language. I hope you’ll write more books in the near future. I would especially enjoy a full cross-disciplinary treatment of your Chapter 7 on ‘Free Will and Science’. On the topic itself, my personal suspicion of free-will was originally similar to that of hard-incompatibilism—that we do not have free-will because we are a product of the laws of nature, and the laws of nature are inescapable. (Although I am not yet convinced if this says anything about our moral responsibility or lack of.) I wondered, however, if there was some way for ‘free will’ to emerge or ‘breakthrough’ from the hierarchies of natural law (much in the same way that chemistry emerges from physics, biology from chemistry, society from biology, and so forth). That said, this line of thinking seems to run into an attribution problem. Sure, we might say that humans use ‘emergent systems’ in their minds to compare and act ‘freely’. But one can always argue that these rules are ultimately derived from natural law itself.  More importantly, I was encouraged by your book and other papers to clarify what exactly ‘free will’ means to me. And I realized then that the sort of unbounded free-will I was grasping for probably cannot be. After all, every lifeform on Earth is an elaborate biochemical network and information-processing machine. This is what separates the humble beetle or human being from an equivalent mass of inert rock. So perhaps we might content ourselves to say that free will is simply the degree to which systems can process information, compare alternatives, and act accordingly—noting, of course, that this capacity is a product of causal and random factors, from experience to learning to genetics to sheer chance and whatnot. So if we limit our scope to processing, perhaps we can say that free-will is a matter of degree. Maybe I can say that while humans exhibit more free will than the slug or the house dog, we do not have more free will than these creatures in every respect. Plants, animals, and fungi, after all, process and respond to stimuli that we can only dream of experiencing. Similarly, perhaps in the game of chess, we might also say that computer engines have more free-will than the amateur player. In this domain, the machine analyzes the search space at a depth that the beginner cannot possibly handle. But outside of chess, the engine is as good as an empty shell. Others might object by saying that the engine is just a brute-force algorithm. But don’t we humans move according to our own biosocial program too?  Meghan, you were quite impartial in your book. But I was wondering if you could share the positions on free-will that appeal most to your sensibilities? You also wrote the first edition of your book a number of years ago. Has there been any recent developments in neuroscience or artificial intelligence that you might someday add to Chapter 7? I imagine those two fields will have a lot more to say about the subject over the next few decades. Clearly, I have a lot to learn about the subject and will slowly make my way through your suggested readings. But thank you again for an accessible, stimulating read. Warm regards, Tobias

Tobias Lim

Author profile picture Tobias Lim

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