What is Free-Will?

In this standard encyclopedia entry, Dennet and Wolfram both argue that free will may be compatible with determinism. Wolfram, in particular, argues that free will may be the same as ‘computational irreducibility’.

Certainly this makes sense – even if something is deterministic, in any system it may be so complex it might as well be treated as a ‘free variable’ that, for all intents and purposes, isn’t predictable in any useful way. This is not necessarily to imply that predictable and free will are opposites.

However, I wonder whether free will is still ‘more than’ or ‘different than’ mere computational irreducibility.

Just as I have argued when we ask “Can computer’s think?” we may actually be asking do they have subjective experience of their computation – the same line of thinking, the difference between words used to describe the subjective versus the objective – may apply here.

Indeed – what if ‘free will’ is synonymous with the “rich, subjective inner experience” of computational irreducibility? What if we not only considered the game of life – which is itself irreducible – but somehow also knew that it was also hard conscious? That it experienced? Would we then say that that game of life had ‘free will’? Or, at least, would we be comfortable with saying that it experienced free will?

In these terms, when we ask whether we have free will, or whether some other entity has free will, what we are really asking is two fold – does the thing experience, and is the thing computationally irreducible? Or perhaps what we’re really asking isn’t an objective fact at all – free will isn’t a predicate to assign an entity. Perhaps what we’re asking is does the entity in question experience free will? If free will isn’t merely irreducible complexity by an experiencing entity, but rather, the experience of irreducibility itself, then we’re asking a slightly different question than the above.

Going further, this renders the question of free will very different for humans as well. When we ask whether or not we have free will, it’s a moot point to say we’re entirely determined by the laws of physics. If free will is a question of experience rather than of behavior, then we’re asking a different question altogether than one of mere determinism. It becomes even more clear that merely calling free will ‘an illusion’ is a circular argument, as free will may be purely a phenomenological thing, having no real correlate in the cold, objective story we tell ourselves. It’s entirely an experience to be had, not a behavior to see in others.

Indeed, I’d say if you ask a few fatalists whether or not they feel like they have free will, or if they have had the experience of having free will, some may actually say no, that they have not had the experience. This is to contrast with others who may say that they’ve had the experience, but that it’s merely an illusion (which we parryed above).

To sum up, if free will is another term for both computational irreducibility, as well as the experience thereof, then to say that one does or does not have free will is a question of phenomenology and not physicalism or psychology.

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