November 05, 2004

What is Free Choice?

OK - here's something that I've asked both RE and Philosphy teachers, along with lots of other people, and no one has been able to give an answer that doesn't simply raise the same question:

If God knows everything, then God knows the future. So how do we have free choice over what happens in the future if the future is already known and thus set in stone?
Feel free to get your heads around this, or just confuse yourself into a frenzy of non existence and spontaneously implode. Either way…....


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  1. Chris May

    I heard a nice answer to this a while back; I make no claims as to it's usefulness:

    In physics and engineering, one commonly uses Newtonian Mechanics as a model. If I want to know how how strong to build a bridge, I start with F=ma and work it out from there. Now in reality F=ma is a gross oversimplification of General Relativity / Quantum Mechanics, but for calculating the strain on a girder GR/QM is just too complex, and doesn't add any useful extra precision – newton is precise enough.

    Similarly in matters of philosophy, Free Will is an approximation for the immensely complex set of interactions and influences that guide our actions. We don't really have free will (any more than we really have position and momentum), but it seems like we do, and if you're trying, say, to decide how to treat a thief, then asserting that the thief has free will and the ability to make a moral judgement is the most effective model we can use.

    05 Nov 2004, 21:16

  2. Depends on your view of free will – is free will compatible with determinism? (Determinism being the hypothesis that at any moment in time there exists only one possible future – God here is just a distraction.) If you think they are compatible, then you're a compatibilist, and if you don't, you're an incompatibilist (duh). This assumes that you believe in determinism (and I don't think quantum theory has a bearing on this; but you're the physicist).

    Free will is the idea that 'you' have a 'choice'; I quote those because this question is bound up with what your ideas about souls and so forth are. Personally I'm a materialist as well, so conscious states are somehow isomorphic to physical states of the brain. There's a whole school of thought that says that the 'self' is just an illusion; it is not this mystical 'self' which makes the choices, but you (as an existential being). Anyway…

    The argument then goes that even though there is only one future that will happen, that has not stopped you from having a choice - you should still reason that there is a probability of 0.5 of a coin coming up heads, not 0 or 1. That's a random example, but a similar case can be made for human decisions. It still makes sense to say that you could have made another choice, had circumstances been slightly different. They weren't, and you didn't, but 'you' could have.

    Daniel Dennett says it all a lot better in Freedom Evolves – but then I'm not sure whether or not I'm a compatibilist (I probably am). And you might not agree with one of the premises of the compatibilist argument – determinism (or materialism, but that's not really the main issue).

    Of course, if you're hoping for a discussion of the limitations of God, then I don't agree with one of your premises, so best not to start really. ;)

    05 Nov 2004, 21:31

  3. Hmm, I like the sound of your answer, Chris, but I think that's the problem – it sounds too nice! No offence meant, but I think that by treating 'free will' as an aproximation such that we can function as a society is a little naive, even if it is useful. In the same way as a hallucination seems real, but in fact is not (by definition of the word 'halucination') such that you wouldn't want to take an account of an event from someone who's been on magic mushrooms, 'free will' can't be assumed simply because it makes things easier. From this, probability also can't be assumed simply because it makes mathematical sense – if something is going to happen, we cannot say that it might just because we don't have the ability to tell whether it will or not. There must be a certainty beyond our realm of knowledge that doesn't necssarily not exist just because we can't tap into it.

    06 Nov 2004, 16:39

  4. The view that everything that will happen in the future can be predicted contradicts the fundamentals of quatum mechanics (QM). QM gives probabilities not the absolute results of classical physics. This leads to a time violation in that if you perform two identical experiments you can get two different results.Thus you have free will since the future cannot be predicted.
    However this is just a physics argument but it is nice that it also refutes the posibility of an omnipontent god.

    07 Nov 2004, 03:38

  5. As a physicist (albeit not a very good one!), i agree that we cannot predict the outcome of an event as classical mechanics would. However, I wouldn't say that it refutes the possibility of an omnipotent god – I would find it easier to argue that the uncertainty principle is just a manifestation of God. NB: I'm not talking about a god who is a supreme being – this avoids all logic. Rather, I speak of God as being the 'sum of all existence'. Put in a mathematical way: (1 + x)n = 1 + nx + n(n - 1)x2/2! etc. Each term here could be thought of as a manifestation of the general expression (1 + x)^n. It's not a mathematical imposibillity for this series to tend to infinity, yet each term is in it's own right of some importance. Equating this with the question of God, it could be reasoned that everything that appears to exist as a seperate "thing" is just one of the terms in this series, but the sum to infinity, the collection of everything that exists, is infinity whilst being the complete picture. From this, everybody and everthing is of the same existence, but exist as manifestations of this existence.
    I digress, but having said that, could the uncertainty principle not just be another manifestation of existence as a whole. There is nothing nor no one that can know the whole truth, including what the future holds, as a seperate manifestation of existence because they are limited to physical and psychological boundaries held within the finite value of a seperate term in the series. But, if we managed to 'plug in' (spiritually, mentally, however you want to think of it) to the general expression (1 + x)^n, i.e. the whole of existence, in theory, we could know what the future holds. In fact, we could know everything in existence.
    I might add that maybe this is what Jesus managed to do. I understand that some people don't believe in Jesus being the Son of God. I don't, at least not in a literal sense. Rather, he was a manifestaion who plugged into the whole of existence and lived through the whole of existence – he lived through time, saw into the future, performed miracles that would only be allowed by the uncertainty principle and lives, as part of this whole existence, even after the manifestaion that was his body died away.
    This is what I think the Buddhist idea of enlightenment is. For them, when one becomes enlightened, one's "life force" becomes extinguished, and they suffer no more. I would rather explain enlightenment as "plugging in" to the whole of existence, realising that in fact you have been living and will live forever, and becuase you are part of this whole existence, you can never fundamentally be hurt by it, because you are it, even if it seems that you (which is just a manifestation) are being hurt.

    07 Nov 2004, 17:14

  6. Freewill v Pre-destination:

    A Calvinist and an Arminianist both fall down the stairs. The Calvinist says 'Thank God I got that over with' and the Arminianist says 'I'd better tack down the stair carpet'.

    08 Nov 2004, 17:05

  7. Chris May

    treating 'free will' as an aproximation such that we can function as a society is a little naive, even if it is useful.

    Why so? In particular, why is it any more naive than treating F=ma as an approximation so we can build a functional suspension bridge?

    You say 'free will can't be assumed because it makes things easier', but I think that's what I'm saying too – I don't assume free will; I assert that there is no such thing – it just seems like there is.

    08 Nov 2004, 17:08

  8. Hey

    To Hannah – ooooo, like it! But then again, did the Arminianist choose to fix the carpet having fallen down it or did the falling experience cause the Arminianist to do something about the carpet, assuming that he/she actually does fix it in the end.

    To Chris – sorry, my bad. Also, i said 'free will can't be assumed SIMPLY because it makes things easier', as in free will can't be taken for granted. Although, I now see what you mean – I guess it can be assumed because after all, it's only assumed. But in the case of a court case, where the judgement of the court could result in the convicted's staying alive or being sentenced to death (as an extreme example – though any punishment would suffice), I feel that an assumption in this case is naive because no one could actually know whether free will exists 100%. And from this, if it shouldn't be assumed in this case, in theory, I feel it shouldn't be assumed in any case, fundamentally speaking.
    This discussion could easily conclude with Solipsism (as in thinking that nothing else exists but yourself because you are certain that you exist in some form because you have your own thoughts), such that it wouldn't matter if free will existed or not.

    The question I raised originally was if anybody had any ideas on whether free will exists or not definitively, as opposed to how effectively can it be used.

    But keep the comments rolling – some great ideas.

    08 Nov 2004, 18:35

  9. I guess the falling experience caused him to do something about it! Back to your original question: I believe in freewill but that it sits in balance with pre-destination on the other side of the scales. Too much emphasis on pre-destination is dangerous – we may then behave as thought we are simply acting out our part in a pre-ordained future, and become passive to our own responsibilities and actions. Too much emphasis on freewill makes us feel that we are entirely masters of our own destiny. The principles of cause and effect are built into the universe, as are laws of reprocicity, and so we develop within a defined but fluid set of laws and principles. Oh -er its getting deep!

    09 Nov 2004, 10:20

  10. Julie Moreton

    I think I'm with Hannah. But how does the concept of 'deja vu' fit in? Someone once told me that this happens when a message reaches your brain seconds before the thing actually happens, making you feel as if it has already happened. If this is true (it would be good to have some scientific feedback on this!) then it would suggest that there is a sort of pre-determination thing going on – but how much?

    09 Nov 2004, 14:39

  11. Chris May

    Someone once told me that this happens when a message reaches your brain seconds before the thing actually happens

    From a physicist's point of view, this seems most unlikely. There are experiments at the around very small scales that show effects preceding, or being concurrent with, causes, but they're surrounded by information-theory limitations preventing them from being of any practical use in the real world, and typically take place over ultra-short timescales.

    Getting information about an event seconds (or even tenths, or millionths of seconds) before it occurs would be a gross violation of the laws of thermodynamics. Apart from anything else, you might have time to prevent it from actually taking place!

    I suspect it's more to do with your brain just getting a wire crossed and storing more than one record of an event, or something like that.

    09 Nov 2004, 15:58

  12. I think the explanation for deja vu is that the message from one eye to the brain gets delayed slightly, such that the message from the other eye reaches your brain fractionally sooner. The time delay causes ou to have the same experience twice, but because it isn't stored in you long term memory, it feels wierd like you've experienced it before but can't remember.

    09 Nov 2004, 16:45

  13. Well, as a friend of james, i believe he has no free will.

    09 Nov 2004, 16:50

  14. To Hannah

    Yeh, so this is where my argument falls to pieces, and they're those annoying sharp, small pieces that get stuck to things and are hard to hoover up. Determinism implies that there is no meaning to life. In fact, it implies that everything in the future and present and past may as well happen at the same time or even not in order because they're going to happen anyway, such that I may as well stop breathing now because I was going to anyway and I've already lived out my life on Earth.
    But then I spin out and wake in a state of confusion so decide to eat some toast, which makes everything better again.
    Though I feel that, logically speaking, there can't be a balance between predestination and free will simply because they are mutually exclusive.
    There are two ways of allowing these to balance. One would be to say: "I have chosen this, but I was going to choose it anyway", such that there is only one line of life that has no doorways into other possibilities and therefore is infinitesimally small and therefore doesn't actually exist. I don't think this is the case, otherwise who or what is typing this comment? The other would be to say the same thing, such that there is only one path of life which induces the idea of fate. Fate is the idea that no matter what you choose, the same thing will happen anyway. Now, if you take the event that is fate for every infinitesimally piece/increment of time (because if one thing was going to happen anyway, then surely all things wee going to happen anyway), then you end up with solely predestination anyway because every fraction of time is due to fate and therefore WILL happen.

    As much as I hate to admit it, because it's not a nice idea, I can only logically theorise the existene of determinism, even if start by by trying to prove free will.

    Anyone want a go at "mathematically" proving free will? Or just by using a series of steps of logic, because I have yet to see a theory of free will that does not rely on assumptions.

    10 Nov 2004, 02:21

  15. Paddy

    When the idea of atoms first came about (about 420 bc) this greek guy hit the same problem, ie. if all atoms follow the laws of nature, then all future phenomena can be predicted, so how can we exercise free will?

    This seems silly to me too, but he (Epicurus) came up with a 'Swerve' theory, whereby any atom can, for no apparent reason, alter it's velocity. From here, if you can derive free will from randomness (?) , then you are on a winner. It's far fetched though. It's a dang nasty idea that we all have our fate sealed. Aarrgh too much thinking for me.

    Altogether, Mr Dan says current Physics is wrong. But if there is a definitive set of laws that govern the way atoms move and interact, free will is screwed. SO….................. is the universe at random, OR, is there a god? (Or both?)
    Or free will is out the window.

    Humph.

    11 Nov 2004, 16:32

  16. Erm, everyone seems to have missed something, what if there just is no god, or this god doesnt know everything and was just there to start things going. Also seeing as atoms seem to be going out of the window due to string theory getting pretty shit hot, i think it would be an idea to look into randomness in string theory as opposed to relying on quantum fuzz and the uncertainty principle to explain why everything isnt predestined due to laws of physics. Also i think people are kind of constantly moving through alternate universes, where everything does happen and its up to you to navigate through these universes by doing certain things, thinking certain ways etc. I dont have any idea though, i havent thought any of this through, im just bored of doing labwork

    18 Nov 2004, 16:11

  17. hmm

    i totally agree. ive always wondered that.

    22 Nov 2004, 21:16

  18. hmm

    i was agreeing with the first post, not the one above (which ive just read). obv i believe in God.

    22 Nov 2004, 21:18

  19. Wsup Dan. And anyone else who reads this actually. If God was just there to get things going, then what was there before, or why was it that this god got to do it and not any other (as it seems that from your idea, god isn't perfect and so is comparable to something else that existed at the same time). And what is this god doing now? As for moving through different existences, how do you know that the others exist when you're not going through them? And what if a 'you' from another existence decided to navigate himself into the same existence you've just navigated yourself into and you met? Not dissing your idea, just wondering how it could possibly work.
    Also, I thought that string theory doesn't refute the uncertainty principle, just sorta ignores it because it can't work on a smaller scale than the Planck Length.

    22 Nov 2004, 23:37

  20. Dont really give a shit. Its all above me. And you. And everyone else. Betcha.

    23 Nov 2004, 00:16

  21. James

    I'm too tired to be writing this really but it's such an interesting post I'll give it a go. How's this for an postulate (albeit one I'm not going to try and reason through right now):
    Time is an abstraction. There is no such thing as time, it is merely a perception. If God is omnipresent and omniscient, He sees all that happens. If it happens 'at the same time' (or in some other way our one-dimensional brain cannot interpret), then He sees it all, and thus knows it all, and thus knows what we currently see as 'the future'.

    That doesn't sit with my views on complete predetermination (which are that it does not exist), but there we go. I claim two consecutive all-nighters on my final year project as a valid exuse for any nonsense expressed above.

    23 Nov 2004, 21:46

  22. I think I see what you mean, or at least I think I think I do, I think…...
    Do you mean that because, whatever god is, god can see all at once, he knows everything, where as we can't see all at once, so don't know everything. And because the future doesn't exist (as it hasn't happened yet) it isn't there to know about in the first place?

    Good luck with the project.

    23 Nov 2004, 21:55

  23. Yeah, something like that. Taking your response just a little further, I suppose I would be able to argue that we do have free will, as we have no knowledge of any consequences of our actions (although sometimes we can make an educated guess!).

    We make our own choices but, whatever we choose, that choice is the one we have somehow already made, perhaps at some point 'outside of time', or contemporaneously with every other event that is happening now, tomorrow and 6000 years ago.

    When I start using words like 'contemporaneously', it's definitely time for sleep.
    Blatant plug for my project, just because it's so damn cool: link (homepage doesn't like Firefox as much as it should).

    23 Nov 2004, 22:31

  24. theres an easy way around this, given one situation you make a choice based on your past experinces etc, you have a free choice here entirely but it is certainly not a random choice.
    so now its the future slightly after this point and you decide to go back in time to just before the point you made the choice.
    now its the moment just before the choice and once again you have exactly the same past expiernces etc (seen as information cannot travel back in time, good luck trying to understand that but it cant) so of course under exactly the same conditions you will make the same choice again. this still allows the idea of fate to work, your just creating your own fate.

    29 Nov 2004, 21:49

  25. Paddy

    Mleh, but if you go back in time and always choose the same path, how will it help? This still sets us on one route through time, and if there is only one path to take, we will only end up at the end of that path. Similarly (in atomist terms) going back in time would be taking all our atoms back to the position and velocity they were at when the decision was made, and this would yield the same outcome for our 'decision'.

    05 Dec 2004, 23:29


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