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Is Free Will Compatible with Determinism?

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    Posted by Simon Mathews on September 30, 2014 at 6:45am in Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, Psychology

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    I recently read a book called Freedom Evolves by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. In it, he puts forward the idea that free will is compatible with a deterministic view of the universe.

    Determinism is the idea that everything that happens has been determined by a previous state of affairs. Imagine a beaker of liquid. If we know all the positions of the molecules in the liquid at time T we also know their positions at time T + 1 because they will all move in accordance with the laws of physics and we can calculate what their new positions will be. This idea can be applied to the universe as a whole. Theoretically, by knowing the position of every particle at the beginning of the universe and knowing the laws of physics governing those particles you can extrapolate everything that will ever happen.

    At face value the idea of determinism seems to contradict the idea of free will. If everything is determined by what has gone before then how can any individual make a free choice? This has caused many thinkers to imagine there is some kind of non-material substance (e.g. mind, soul, spirit) that is not subject to the laws of physics. This supernatural substance is supposedly the seat of our free will and interacts with our brain to freely cause our actions. The philosopher Rene Descartes believed this interaction occurred at the pineal gland (source). I am not comfortable with supernatural entities at the best of times but even less so when they can interact with the natural world (i.e. our brain). Therefore I do not subscribe to dualism and have to account for all our actions from our material brain.

    Dennett explains that some people have tried to use quantum indeterminancy to resolve the issue. The trick is to have some form of genuine randomness (through quantum particles) involved in our decision making process such that strict determinism is avoided. I do not know enough about quantum theory to confidently speak about it but I understand that in some way quantum-level randomness is different from the sort of pseudo-randomness you get from a computer algorithm. A computer algorithm will give you a bunch of numbers that seem random to us but they are actually predictable (since a set of deterministic computer instructions creates them). Quantum randomness is supposed to be genuinely random (completely unpredictable).

    Dennett does not hold with the quantum explanation though. He states that, even if it were true that quantum level events occur as part of our thought processes, this does not provide us with the free will we seek because by definition we do not control this randomness. Therefore we are just slave to a different kind of process that happens to be random rather than determined. This does not make you any more free in his opinion, and I agree with him.

    [Continue reading at Think Atheist]

    (You may still reply here, below, if you like.)

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