Science knows of two processes as of today. These are random processes and deterministic (but not really) processes. Mixing these together we get probabilistic processes.
A neural network which has learnt to distinguish cats from dogs after considering different things (like droopy ears, the shape of the nose, the presence of whiskers etc.) only gives answers in probabilities. Humans, animals and other organisms are no different. We take in data through our senses and shove them into a calculator which is being calibrated and readjusted to this very day: our entire body. Will I be late to work if I take this route? Would anyone in the audience notice if I don’t learn this part of this piece for the performance? We give answers to questions like these on a day to day basis by taking in data from our surroundings, consulting other calculators and looking at our past experiences.
The calculator that is your body was not forged by you; you were not even consulted about how it should be set up or what should go where. Because of this you aren’t truly in control of your actions. Our ancestors cooked up the idea of free will because they didn’t know any better. The great human desire to label the unknown is perhaps one thing you and I can agree on. Those who came before us looked within and looked around and saw things that they thought were inexplicable. But now we know better. We know which hormones (to a large extent) do what to you, which genes are responsible for those hormones, and how different parts of the brain react to different situations.
We have started to peek behind the curtain that has kept hidden the reasons behind our actions and found not a black box but genes whose architect is nature itself. Genes over which we have no control over. Genes that prevent “us” from having control over what “we” desire. We are not only the product of our times, but also the product of our genes. You might feel like you have control over what you do in life, but our senses can be fooled stupidly easily. To see this is action, just google optical illusions (or what they should be called: sensory organ failures). It’s important to think about questions like these thoroughly instead of relying on what you “feel” is right.
Looking towards physics for more answers is even more futile. General relativity paints a picture of a completely deterministic past, present and future of the universe and everything in it. There are situations which can be constructed using relativity where two people share the present, but one person’s past is the other person’s future (you just can’t make this stuff up). Scenarios like this seem to throw out non-deterministic theories right out the window. People like to say that quantum mechanics might save the day, with its “random” processes and what not, but this just does not seem to be the case. Just like in classical physics, isolated identical microscopic system will remain identical and non-identical macroscopic systems will remain non-identical with passage of time. We still haven’t ruled out the possibility of global (not local) hidden variable theories and there aren’t many great explanations as to how not knowing the spin of an electron would lead to free will.
Now whatever I’ve written here sounds totally depressing, but it’s what the latest developments in science tell us. What science, however, also tells us is to go wherever the evidence leads us. Nothing in science is absolutely true, c’mon this is not mathematics. Tomorrow we might get some evidence that consciousness is not at all deterministic and we all truly are free. But if and until something like that happens, I really can’t think of a good enough reason for the existence of free will.
Don’t get me wrong, I would like nothing more than for free will to exist. I act as though free will exists, but I argue that it does not. Most people who do not believe in free will still act as though it exists. If you think about it, there really is no harm in it. If free will does not exist, then regardless of what you believe, what was supposed to happen will happen. If on the other hand free will exists, believing in it would strengthen you and might even call you to take action and make the lives of those around you better.
Originally published at http://shortdotcircuit.wordpress.com on March 11, 2021.