What I love about free will is that whenever you think you’ve reached the bottom of it, you topple into dizzying new depths. Some of the respondents to my last post—particularly those wrestling with the relationship between free will and randomness—are clearly in a philosophical free fall. And so am I.
For example, I’ve suggested that free will is a variable quantity, roughly proportional to the capacity of an entity or agent to recognize and act upon choices. Then I realized that according to this definition, the IBM chess-playing computer Deep Blue has more free will than I do because it can recognize and select from infinitely more chess moves than I can.
Being hopelessly anthropocentric, I can’t accept this conclusion. I’m thus tempted to qualify my definition by stipulating that we can speak of free will only in the context of choices above a certain threshold of complexity; chess choices alone ain’t sufficient. I might add that free will requires consciousness, which drags us into the interminable debate of whether computers are or can ever be conscious. Now, alas, my simple, elegant definition has become ambiguous and messy.
This afternoon, moreover, I may choose to get away from this damn computer and take Merlin for a walk. But my “free” choice would actually be the culmination of an infinite sequence of proximate and long-range causes. Quantum mechanics and chaos theory suggest that pinpointing the causes would be extremely difficult and probably impossible, but that does not mean the causes do not exist. Retracing the steps that led to a particular act takes us back into childhood and the womb, back through the history of Homo sapiens and of all life on earth, and finally to the Big Bang itself, the creation event that supposedly set everything in motion. I didn’t ask for any of this. So how free can I be?
I nonetheless keep coming back to this one certainty: Unlike stars and planets and rocks and even computers, we have choices. Our choices are real, not illusory; they can alter the trajectory of reality.
But I’m still free-falling.