Free Will vs. Indeterminacy

There's been a stir recently in math/philosophy circles due to John Conway's "mathematical proof" that the universe has freedom of will. You can read a good article about it here. As my buddy Kevin West pointed out, however, there is a difference between free will and indeterminacy.

Conway uses the terms interchangeably, but I think Kevin's right: there is an important distinction. Lucretius Carus asks this question:
If the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?
The indeterminacy implied by quantum physics certainly problematizes the idea of causality. In fact, it might even throw a big wrench in Aristotle's Prime Mover argument for the existence of God. It does not, however, imply freedom of will, which seems to require consciousness. Random movement is not the same as being free to decide where to go.


Nick said...

It seems to me that the argument (so far as free will is concerned) is for a redefinition of apparent "free will" in conscious beings as a result of either determinate or indeterminate forces. All Conway and Kochen seem to argue is that there are such things as indeterminate forces. If anything, by tying free will to indeterminate forces, the authors are arguing against free will as basically understood.

Bryan Tarpley said...

i think free will requires both indeterminacy and consciousness. they claim to have proved the indeterminacy part (and this isn't new--heisenberg's uncertainty principle has been around since 1926). wouldn't this be in favor of free will?

Nick said...

Not if consciousness is an illusion, which, and I may have been getting ahead of myself, I thought was implied by conflation of the two in the article description: "If we have free will, so do subatomic particles, mathematicians claim to prove."

Mostly I was agreeing with you; a distinction should be made.

Nick said...

I guess I feel that consciousness and free will are mutually dependent.

Nick said...

Or, to further qualify, consciousness without free will is meaningless.

Dakota said...

While the consciousness + free will + other philosophical argument discussion is interesting, from the point of view of this theorem it is mostly irrelevant.

Consciousness is not strictly necessary for this discussion to hold.

The only things required for this theorem are two "observers", two "measurements" and some basic assumptions about our physical world. The observers and measurements could easily be carried out by two computers and the same result would apply. That is, neither computer could know the definitive answer before measuring, and once the measurement takes place both computers will measure the same result.

I would try to treat this result as a constriction on the relativistic "simultaneity principle", that two events can appear to one observer to be simultaneous, but another observer sees these events occurring at different times. Note again in this discussion that "observer" could be a computer with no contradiction.

With those preliminaries I will say this: indeterminacy does not imply free will and does not eliminate the possibility of determinism (from my current understanding, I'm still studying the proof). It *does* restrict the information that is available to each observer before observation.

Nick: You can be sure that Conway is arguing on the side of free will =) He's just that kind of guy.

Bryan: Strictly speaking the uncertainty principle does not imply indeterminacy. It is another result that merely places restrictions on the availability of information to an observer.

Nick said...

Good to see you, Dakota. :) I was more on the article than I was Conway.

Nick said...

commenting more on the article, even.

Bryan Tarpley said...

@dakota: i agree with your analysis, that conway's "proof" doesn't rule out determinacy; that it simply tips the scale of probability a little further toward indeterminacy, which as i said in my post, does not imply free will.

Thoughts said...

Conscious free will would seem to be a different concept from what these mathematicians were exploring. Conscious free will is about you or I consciously putting a different interpretation on events from those that we have been taught. Unfortunately this has problems such as the fact that the brain shows clear activity related to "conscious" decisions up to 7 seconds before we are conscious of those decisions! See Conscious free will and Empiricism

Jim Arvo said...

I have a simple-sounding question about "free will": Can someone please give me a definition of it? Seriously. The more I contemplate arguments on both sides of the free will debate, the more I am inclined to wonder whether the notion is even meaningful.

Surely, if my every thought and action is consequence of the state of my molecules, we can all agree that I lack free will. Right? But this does not tell me what free will is. If we were to throw in indeterminacy (quantum or otherwise), does that in itself grant me free will? If it did, then "free will" would be essentially a synonym for indeterminacy. I don't think that fits the "intuitive" notion of what free will is. There must be something more than that, right?

Bottom line: I think it entirely possible that "free will" is an ill-conceived notion that, in the final analysis, has no meaningful definition. Hence, arguing over whether we possess it or not may be futile.

Any thoughts?

Dakota said...

@Jim Arvo

First we need some preliminary definitions.

A *conscious being* is one whose mind is able to take stimuli from reality as we know it, and produce a response that can be measured in reality as we know it.

A conscious being is *self-aware* when the being has a developed concept of "self" and "other" which can be observed through possessive tendencies. "This thing is mine, not yours."

A conscious self-aware being is said to be *reasoning* if from a number of visible outcomes this being can distinguish between them.

Now I will state my operating definition for "free will":

A reasoning conscious self-aware being is said to have *free will* if at a given point in that being's life there are at least two outcomes (distinguishable by the being) to a situation and _solely through the whim of this being's will_ the outcome is visible in reality as we know it to this being.

Therefore, there is a choice, the being recognizes the choice and the options, the being is able to choose one option, this choice is only determined by the being's will, and the outcome is observably different according to that being's view of reality as it knows it.

The act of choosing is the will part. The "solely through the whim of this being's will" is the free part. So when all external factors are taken into account, if there are still multiple outcomes that can be chosen only by the will of the being itself, that being has free will.

Jim Arvo said...

Hi Dakota,

Thanks for the careful reply. I agree with your definitions of "conscious being", "self-aware", and "reasoning" and also agree that they likely have bearing on my question.

The crux of your definition, of course, is the "solely through the whim of this being's will", part. Within this phrase, surely it is the words "whim" and "will" that are key, right? By "whim" I understand independence from outside influences, but is there more to it than that? By "will" I suspect you mean a "conclusion" or "desire" to effect a certain outcome. Or maybe another way to put it is a predisposition that is the end-result of reasoning. Am I close, or have I wandered off the path here?

It seems that what I'm looking for is wrapped up in one or both of those two words, "whim" and "will", but I confess that I don't see it yet. If "will" is in fact the end result of reasoning (e.g. weighing alternatives based on inductive and deductive inferences and assorted complex heuristics), then it would seem that the important bit must be hiding under the other word, "whim" (unless I'm missing something, which is likely).

You also said "...if there are still multiple outcomes that can be chosen only by the will of the being itself, that being has free will." Here I trip over the "can be chosen" part, and then the "only by the will" part, for different reasons. When you say "can" do you mean that each outcome is consistent with the world outside of the entity making the "choice"? By "only by the will" I understand that this "choice" is internal to the organism, and not the world outside, but I feel like we've reached a little homunculus here. Freedom comes from the little chooser that is free to make a choice! :-) Do you see what I'm saying?

Here's another way to approach the question that might be easier to untangle. Is there an operational means by which an outside observer could distinguish between two organisms, one with free will and the other not? Let's be really generous and grant ourselves time travel, so that we can perform multiple experiments on the *same* organism (i.e. all the same memories, not changing over time). Is there a way to do it?