Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

On Free Will

by Gus Simpson, (H2)

What is free will? Wikipedia defines it thusly, “Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action.”
I’m typing this essay of my own will. I could choose not to. That would be my choice.
Just like it’s your choice to read it.
And President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice to make racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic remarks about people. He could choose not to. Right?
We all have free will. The dread you feel on your way to the job you hate, knowing you’re gonna have to spend eight and a half hours interacting with greedy consumers. That’s your will too. You could choose not to feel that way. You could choose to enjoy your job, or “suck it up” and deal with it.
Just like someone with anxiety can choose not to have their chest tighten up at the very thought that something could go wrong. Their body is washed over by a feeling of panic as their heart rate increases, skipping beats and pounding hard. They ignore rational thought. Why do they do that? It’s their choice.
Just like someone with Autism has the choice to communicate their emotions and pick up on social cues. They could do it if they wanted to.
And someone with schizophrenia can just choose not to hear voices in their head.
Someone with insomnia can just choose to fall asleep.
My cats can choose not to stare out the window, watching squirrels and bugs and jumping at them.
The trees can choose not to turn their colors red and die in the fall.
The tides can choose not to swell and recede according to the moon.
Obviously these are all things we can control. We have free will. What a silly question. Such a silly topic for debate.

We do have free will don’t we?

Maybe you’re starting to think about it. Good. But is that really you? Are you really compelling yourself to think about that.
Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant.
Did you think of a pink elephant? If you did, why did you do that? Did you compel yourself to? Do you compel yourself to fall asleep? To dream? To wake up? To see colors? To extrude waste? To feel love?

Maybe we don’t have free will.

In my last essay, “On Life, the Universe, and Everything” I talked about how we give complex meaning to and withhold any meaning for, or give unfavorable meanings to various arrangements of the same elementary particles. Everything in the universe is made up of the same stuff, yet we give them different meanings, somewhat arbitrarily.
That flows quite well into what I’m talking about now.
I’d like to reiterate from my last essay that science and philosophy are not mutually exclusive. For a scientist to say that philosophy is silly is, quite frankly, just silly.
Normally, this is said in reference to certain philosophical thought experiments. For example, “A building is on fire. Inside the building is a case full of thousands of frozen embryos and a baby. You have only enough time to save one. Which do you go and get?”
For a scientist, this is quite frustrating. In the realm of science, there is never just two answers, two ways to experiment. It’s counterintuitive. And I agree.
The philosopher will say, “Science is too empirical. Sometimes you need to think outside the box, even if it seems fanciful.” And I agree.
Most modern sciences began as philosophy. Psychology was originally Philosophy of the Mind. Early mathematicians were also philosophers. The field of empirical problem solving and fanciful thought experimenting and inextricable. You can’t have one without the other.

That being said, I think that the topic of whether or not we  have free will is an incredibly scientific question. Or, rather, the path to answering the question is.
I have often seen the quality of us humans having free will attributed to God. As an answer to “Why are humans evil?” Why would God allow humans to kill one another? Well, because God gave humans free will.
But then did God just forget to give it to people with mental disorders? What about less complex animals?

I’m not satisfied with that answer. I’ll lay my belief out in the open, then draw for you a path to how I came there.
We do not have free will. Free will just doesn’t exist. We as humans are mindless automatons that operate based on impulses, like a squirrel hunting for nuts, or my cats chasing bugs. We are merely complex organizations of atoms given the appearance of animation via electrical impulses with our carbon rich bodies and cognitive awareness by having a complex enough neural network to connect perceptions with visual and auditory symbols. We have no more free will than the stars in the sky.

Nihilistic? Yes, incredibly. But pragmatically so. I think the analogy that we have as much free will as stars do is fairly representative of what I am trying to get across.
Stars are just giant balls of burning hydrogen and helium. They were formed by gasses that collected, brought together by gravity, and ignited by fusion. In 4-5 billion years, our sun will have exhausted its supply of hydrogen and will begin burning its helium, expanding until it engulfs the Earth, then receding into a black dwarf. Not because it willed itself to, but because that was how the atoms it was made up of were set into motion.
Likewise, we humans are set forth by incredibly small reproductive cells and eventually grow into humans. We learn to eat, poop, talk, think, go to school everyday, do work everyday, go to work every day, until eventually, we too die.
This idea that we are just automatons may be upsetting to some. My mom always says with regard to my cats, “I wonder what they’re thinking.”
But they’re not. Thinking requires language, at least the way we do it (and the way mom mom means it). Every morning, my mom wakes up, and the cats wake up with her. They follow her to the kitchen because they know there will be food for them. They know my mom will give them attention and amuse them with the weird human things she does.
It’s not as hard to imagine cats as automatons. Acting based purely on instinct. It’s actually rather easy.
Well, try now to imagine what it would be like if you had no language. Sounds hard, right? But have you ever had a job where you are doing the same thing over and over again. You don’t think about it the whole time.
When I worked at a grocery store and had to grab carts from the parking lot, I didn’t think, “Okay time to walk over to the corral, grab the carts, five at a time, two hands now, aaand back to the store.” Of course I didn’t.
When you have to poop, do you think, “Oh my, I have to poop!” No. Unless you do. Then you do you. But most of us probably don’t. We just go do it.
We are incredibly complex creatures, but fundamentally we are impulse driven. We are products of natural selection, and just because we are aware of it doesn’t mean it has stopped applying to us.
When you manly men get all worked up over a woman who has a healthy body, you do so impulsively.
When you fall in love with someone, you are exhibiting what your generations of ancestors have found the best way to reproduce. And that excited feeling you get when you’re with your partner? Natural selection.
We get tired at night. We feel pain. We are compelled to seek out food. We are prone to violence when threatened. We get territorial. We are scared of one another. We are scared of people from other tribes- the strangers on the other side of the hill, who look different, speak differently, live differently.

Alright, alright. So what, nothing matters then? When a poor young man with dark skin robs a store because he’s starving and needs to feed his family, we should just let him go? When people kill one another, we shouldn’t do anything because it’s just biology?
No. We have this wonderful thing called cognisance. Sapience. Sentience. We can think. We can make rational, logical decisions. We can feel a certain way, but act in spite of it. Maybe you are uncomfortable with homosexuality. But accepting it means that you have to fight that natural urge to oppose something that won’t lead to reproduction.
We might not have free will, but the very fact of that is also the reason we can feel things like compassion, empathy, and love. We can’t change that we are impulsive, primordial creatures with the sole intent of reproducing. But we can become one with that idea. We can reconcile with our natural feelings and say, “No. I won’t act like this.”
We have the unique privilege of being aware of our existence and, to a certain extent, what the implications of our existence means. We have the unique privilege of knowing that, yes we are just atoms acting impulsively so that we can shape more atoms that will do the same. But I think having that knowledge can make you a better person.
If, of course, you have the will to be.

(Link to first essay I commented on: https://cophilosophy.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-taoist-faithphilosophy-laozi.html?showComment=1481071669812#c3825219513825644356)
(And to the second: https://cophilosophy.blogspot.com/2016/11/buddhism-h02-morgan.html?showComment=1481072319990#c2252525467217004147)

1 comment:

  1. "We can’t change that we are impulsive, primordial creatures with the sole intent of reproducing. But we can become one with that idea. We can reconcile with our natural feelings and say, “No. I won’t act like this.”" - But can we ACT on that negation? If we can, if we ever can arrest an impulse with a counter-impulsive thought, how are we still just automata?

    "having that knowledge can make you a better person.
    If, of course, you have the will to be." - We can HAVE the will to be a better person, but cannot WILL to have it? But isn't that what it means to have free will? Or at least free WON'T?

    Fascinating, infuriatingly irresolute topic. Keep on pondering it, if you will.