FREE WILL

 

You asked about my opinion on free will. I believe that humans have a supernatural part, that they can make decisions. Maybe some of our other mental activities are supernatural or maybe they are physical and only affected by the will. I couldn’t guess at what is supernatural and what is physical (natural) in people. Here’s what is logical: Matter, energy, and movement follow strict laws. A rock never decides to fall. A planet never wills itself out of its orbit. If we believe that people are not supernatural, we have to believe that they never decide or choose anything. If we believe that people make choices, we have to believe that something nonnatural (I use the term supernatural) is happening.

The question of human free will may be related to religion but let’s divide them. We won’t say, “God exists, therefore humans have free will” or “Humans have free will, therefore God exists.” Calvin’s Christian predestination denied human free will. His general argument was that God was omniscient and omnipotent so that there was no room for people to make decisions on their own. I have had trouble finding the original writings of Buddha but his adherents suggest that he was a materialist: He believed that what we call the ego was an illusion. These examples show that it is possible to have a religion that denies human free will. However, it is not possible for humans to have free will without some nonnatural element because purely physical things can’t decide.

People have free will or they don’t. There is an objective truth. The trouble is that we cannot know objective truth. We can only know conditional truth. As I pointed out in “Alien Asylum” and many others have said, we can’t be completely sure that there is a relation between what our senses tell us and reality. We can’t even be sure that our memories are even close to true; it could be that you were someone else with totally different memories just five seconds ago. It seems useful to assume that our memories are basically correct and that our senses are giving us a fairly accurate picture of the world. I cannot think of a use in thinking otherwise unless a person was faced with such horrors that he wanted to deny his own experience and perceptions. I stress, though, that these premises of ours are not objectively true but only fairly obviously useful. In “Alien Asylum” I suggest that the concept of objective truth be replaced with the subjective notion of utility.

Christian and classical thinkers tend to believe in something called spirit or soul. Some divide the person into body, mind, and spirit. There are probably technical arguments about what is body, what is mind, etc., etc. The relation between body and spirit (or soul or mind) is often portrayed as adversarial:

Matthew 26:41: Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.


Among some classical philosophers the body is seen as something lowly to be despised or as a prison to be escaped from. We even see a tendency to “punish the evil flesh” among those who hold this idea. I can’t know whether such a system is true but I can ask what use it serves. What are the psychological origins of asceticism? It is hard to get into the mind of others but I suppose there is a pleasure to be obtained from endurance. Epictetus often compares the Stoic philosopher to the wrestler. Our modern athletes often make great sacrifices to obtain their ends but it seems to me that suffering becomes an end in itself.

Denigrating the body and individual desires is quite useful for those who want to control the actions of others. In this category, we can put parents, spouses, employers, politicians, and assorted busy bodies. When we consider that people who are comfortable and healthy turn their thoughts to the actions and opinions of others, we can see how this belief in the tension between body and spirit has become popular. There are millions of people walking around feeling vaguely guilty about one thing or another because of the their concept of correct action. Still, these people continue to do the things they feel guilty about. I am not saying that everyone is an evil manipulator of others; there may be good, positive reasons for trying to change other people’s actions. What I am saying is only that the body-spirit conflict is a very natural intellectual tool.

I said that I believe that humans have free will, which must be nonnatural, but I continue to refer to the mind. In common language we say that our minds choose actions and then our wills cause our bodies to carry them out. We also say that we can choose (will) to think about something, which means that our wills can instruct our minds. I ask what parts of the human mind are supernatural. When we talk about the brain and the mind we are confronted with an array of concepts: reason, creativity, emotion, physical desire, psychological desire, abstractions, and so on. I would never try to explain all these things and I doubt that they are even explainable. I only assert there is something in humans that cannot be explained in purely physical terms.

There are some very simple things that I will say. First, all actions originate within the person and so all human action is selfish or self-interested. When we look at altruism or even self-denial, we can trace the motive back the satisfaction of something inside the individual. If the whole world were an illusion, you would act as you do. Your motives are your particular property; you cannot have an external motive.

Another point was made by David Hume, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” I assume that the word passions include such things as hunger, thirst, desire for pleasure, and avoidance of pain as well as more psychological desires. I do not understand why Hume says, “ought only to be.” We are what we are and our minds serve our bodies and emotions. Constructing a different sort of being is hard to imagine.

Abraham Maslow attempted to construct a “hierarchy of needs” in his article “A Theory of Human Motivation.” His idea is that as one’s needs are met, one goes to another level of needs. I mention this because of the ability of people to subjective themselves to suffering for strange reasons or to make incredible personal sacrifices for the sake of others. It is as though the hierarchy of human needs (by which I mean desires) can be turned upside down. It is rather hard to explain such conduct if the mind is a purely physical machine. Twenty-first century Americans are so physically comfortable that it is common for people to seek love, fame, power, self-esteem, and other such intangible goals even at the expense of more mundane and monetary desires. We are living in a post-Maslow world.

The last point I will make is in regard to human language. When my younger daughter was 4 or 5 she saw a car with a Pennsylvania license plate. She asked, “Are all cars from Pennsylvania green?” We make the most extraordinary generalizations only to refine them later. The word bush is quite useful but it is essentially meaningless in certain contexts. Some thinkers assert that our words reflect objective reality but our generalizations are often outrageous. There are few political, social, or religious statements that cannot be torn to pieces by thoughtful analysis.

The philosophy called materialism asserts that there is nothing in the universe but matter and energy. Those who believe this idea claim that there is no supernatural element in human beings. Many people who hold this view have not considered what this idea implies for the human mind or human will. Many of those who have considered the question simply assert that the brain is a sort of computer.

There is a game called “Paper, Rock, Scissors.” We can construct a simple computer to play this game. We label three glasses paper, rock, and scissors and put them under an inclined board with three holes in it. That’s our computer. If we choose paper, we cover the paper and the rock holes. That’s our input. Now we roll a marble down the board and it drops into the scissors glass. Scissors cut paper and the computer has won. The computer always wins.

We can build a more complicated computer to play tic-tac-toe by building a series of inclined planes and covering various holes according to our move. The computer will never be beaten. There is no theoretical limit to the size and complexity of our marbles and inclined planes computer; there could be one large enough to match the biggest super computer on earth. Of course, it might take hours or days to give the result that real computers give in a billionth of a second. However, there would be no essential difference between an electronic computer and a marbles and inclined planes computer. We have simply substituted marbles and planes for current and wires or etched chips.

No one would be deceived into thinking that the marbles computer was making decisions but many people think that electronic computers can be programmed to make decisions they way that humans do. People are overly impressed by complexity. They don’t understand electricity. They don’t understand the brain. They don’t understand what a central processing unit does. And so they roll all their ignorance into one big ball and call it a mind.

Some materialists accept the logic of a purely physical person and reject the idea of free will. Once we reject free will, we also have to reject any sort of value system because value implies choice; but it doesn’t end there. In “The First Paradox” I ask you to imagine a human transporter from science fiction. The machine does not transport the individual’s atoms but only the pattern of his atoms. The individual’s atomic blueprint is sent, at the speed of light, to another city or planet where a transporter receiver assembles an identical individual from atoms on that planet. But what of the original individual? He is, of course, vaporized to prevent redundancy. Would you choose this method of transportation? I would not. I believe that I am more than an arrangement of atoms. I can’t imagine that the most ardent materialist would submit to vaporization of his illusory ego in order to get to Los Angeles 4 hours sooner. Materialism implies that what I call myself does not exist.

Nothing I have said implies that humans have a supernatural component. I am only pointing out the implications of denying its existence. Here’s another problem. A man says, “Allah wants us to kill all nonbelievers.” The materialist listens and says, “This man’s statements can be explained by heredity and life experiences.” The materialist says, “Nothing nonphysical exists.” I then say, “This man’s statements can be explained by his heredity and life experiences.” How, then, do we determine the truth of either statement? Is one person’s heredity and experience better than another’s? That would be a value statement. I would have to choose which person had better heredity and experience but I am told that my choices are illusory. We call a statement true if it agrees with reality. Materialism implies that truth is an illusion; it is simply the movement of atoms in a brain. The belief that materialism is correct would be nothing more than the movement of atoms in a brain. Hence, the snake devours itself by eating up its own tail.

How useful is the concept of materialism? I have never heard that a materialist had a special ability to predict an individual’s action. If he could do that, he would make a fortune at poker. I have not heard of a way to predict the actions of groups. No one can predict how the stock market will act with any certainty. Materialists seem to limit themselves to making tasteless pronouncements about the nature of human beings. In doing so, they often look to animals to explain human behavior. I have heard people using other primates to explain humans. Our closest relative is the chimpanzee but it lives in different social groups from humans and has a different diet. It also turns out that chimps display a hundred times more interpersonal violence than humans. I’ve read of materialists referring to a “quantum mind” because “classical physics does not explain human behavior.” Nothing in quantum physics would change the basic arguments against materialism but putting the words quantum and mind together certainly sounds scientific. In the same way, describing humans as primates sounds scientific.

There is often the assumption that chimps are more “authentic” primate than humans. All the speculation seems useless to me. It as though the chef at an expensive restaurant studied the diets of prehistoric humans in order to create the perfect menu. I am not saying that humans are not animals. I am not saying that they do not have tendencies to act in certain ways. I am not even saying that they don’t act instinctively on many occasions. I am saying that what distinguishes people is there ability to decide, to will, and to instruct their bodies to carry out their decisions. I am not saying that this power is unlimited. A person may starve himself to death but he can’t decide to stop breathing.

What, then, is the use of materialism? To answer this question, we consider a remark made by Archimedes. At the battle of Syracuse, Archimedes reportedly used a system of pulleys and a claw to pull Roman ships out of the water and then sink them. Archimedes reportedly stated, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth with my system of pulleys.” The problem for Archimedes was that there was no place to stand outside the world. The problem for the materialist is that there is nothing that is not physical.

The materialist has a solution to this problem; he gets up every morning and pretends that he has free will. He pretends that his value system has meaning. He mentally placed himself outside the material world. He looks at people as so many ants scurrying around by instinct. In a sense we all do this. We treat other people as input-output devices and try to find the right words or actions to produce the correct response. The difference is in attitude. The materialist sets himself apart from and above the universe. This unstated assumption of special status and superiority is the use of materialism. “Oh, you poor people, clinging to your Bibles and guns!” The philosophy has as many paradoxes as time travel. It produces little but baseless generalizations. However, it gives its adherents an all-important feeling of a position above and beyond mere humanity.

I have said nothing that proves the existence of free will. The objective truth of that idea is beyond human knowledge even if we make some obvious assumptions. Free will must remain a premise to be accepted or rejected. The use of subjective value is so important in understanding human action that I have extended the concept to the general idea of Subjectivism. We do not seek after objective truth but after subjective utility. Since utility demands repeatability, it is easy to see how experimental science is subjectively useful whether or not it is objectively true. I have looked at the question of free will from the same perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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