Overview,  Philosophy

What is Free Will, Really?

The previous post examined the materialist critique of freewill, and showed why the reduction of free will to rationality (and then to mechanization of rationality) is flawed because rationality itself involves choices of axioms which themselves cannot be rationalized―i.e. reduced to more fundamental axioms. The only way to solve the problem of free will is to postulate that it is fundamental. This post examines what that free will is, and how it operates and controls the world we live in.

The Role of Interpretations

Free will is seen in our how we interpret the world around us―i.e. give it meaning. A common example of such an interpretation is looking at a partially filled glass of water and determining whether that glass is half-full or half-empty.

Half Full or Half Empty?
Half Full or Half Empty?

Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is our interpretation of the facts, and it cannot be reduced to those facts because both interpretations are compatible with the facts. Willard Quine―a famous philosopher of science―called this the underdetermination of theories by the facts. The idea is pretty simple: whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is our theory about nature, and there are multiple such theories by which we can describe any fact about the world. The facts, therefore, do not automatically decide how the world is interpreted, and therefore there is a choice involved in interpreting these facts to formulate theories.

These interpretations may change when we take into account different facts. For instance, consider a set of three glasses that are 9/10th full, 3/4th full, and 1/2 full. If your partially filled glass from the above picture is complemented by two other glasses that are 9/10th full and 3/4th full, a more likely interpretation of the above picture is that the glass is half-full, provided you order the glasses from the most filled to the least filled. In producing this interpretation, you have chosen a reference point (the origin) of your ordering process that begins with the most filled glass from which water is gradually removed.

If on the other hand, you complement the previous picture with glasses that are 1/10th full and 1/4th full, and order them from least filled to most filled, then you are likely to describe the situation as a glass that is half-empty rather than fully empty.

The key problem in interpreting the same fact is: What other facts are being considered in the total set of facts to be described, and what is the order in which they are being sequenced? If you think that the totally empty glass is the “zero” or “origin” of your fact ordering system, then the glass in the above picture would be called half-empty. If, instead, you think that the totally full glass is the “reference” for counting glasses, then the above glass will be called half-full. If more facts are added into your system, and you change the ordering, you can change how you described the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.

Choices Give Meaning to the World

As facts are added or removed, different methods of ordering appear to be more “natural”, which in turn lead to new ways of describing the same facts. Taken in isolation, all these descriptions are perfectly equivalent descriptions, and therefore the meaning you associate with the facts (half-full versus half-empty) are underdetermined. This underdetermination can sway either way when other facts are added.

The evolution of modern science clearly illustrates interpretations. For instance, during Greek times, the motion of planets was described by Ptolemy’s cycles. During the Renaissance, the planetary motion was described by Newton’s gravitational theory. In modern times, this motion is described by Einstein’s General Relativity. Through such successive descriptions, we have given different meanings to the same facts, but that evolution has arisen because new facts were added to the previous facts.

The theories of science are the meanings we attribute to the world―i.e. the concepts and laws by which we suppose that the world is governed. These meanings are choices when we include phenomena that are not presented to us as facts (e.g., the other glasses in the set of glasses) and they might sway our choices when included.

However, even when we add all the facts, we might still be inclined to order the world in different ways. For instance, we might still order the glasses from completely empty to completely full, measuring the relative “emptiness” rather than “fullness”. In the former case, the world would be described in terms of emptiness, which becomes more or less empty. In the latter case, the world would be described in terms of fullness, which becomes more or less full. Accordingly, in one theory, emptiness would be a fundamental concept and fullness a derived construct, while in another fullness would be a fundamental concept and emptiness a derived construct.

Free Will is Our Choice of a Natural Theory

While the addition and removal of facts tilts our theory in one direction versus another, it does not eliminate the possibility of using different concepts to describe the same facts. In the above example, should we suppose that the universe began as an empty glass and came to its present state because water was added to it? Or, should we suppose that the universe began as a full glass, and came to its present state by removing water?

The problems for the theory are different in the two cases. If the universe begins as emptiness, then information must be added to it to bring it to the current state. If, however, the universe begins in fullness, then information must be removed from it to bring it to the current state. Should we postulate a theory that explains how information is being created, or a theory that explains how information is lost over time?

Our free will operates in the natural world in two distinct ways.

First, it limits which facts we include in the set of facts that must be explained. Different fields of science―e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, economics, sociology, etc.―include and preclude different facts. No theory tries to include everything, because that is not only very hard, but it also often entails fundamental revisions to the concepts involved in the theory. By limiting the facts that we consider in a particular field of science, we create many “sciences” out of the same natural world.

Second, among the facts that are chosen to belong to a particular science, we have the choice of what we designate as being fundamental versus epiphenomenal. Since physics started out by describing the motion of particles, particles were designated as more fundamental. Later, when physics had to explain heat, physicists tried to reduce heat to the motion of particles. If physics had started out by describing heat, and heat was designated as the fundamental property, then motion would be a consequence of heat rather than heat being a consequence of motion. Therefore, even when there is a certain set of facts within the domain of a particular science, which facts are fundamental and which others are epiphenomenal is a choice made by scientists.

In limiting our focus on a certain set of facts, and then selecting some facts as the fundamental facts using which other facts are explained, science is dependent on our choices. The outcome of these choices is that we might measure fullness or emptiness as physical properties, begin the universe in two (or more) different states, postulate different natural processes (e.g. addition or removal of information), formulate different laws that govern these processes (by supposing some facts are fundamental), etc.

The result obtained by such succession of choices may appear to deny choices, but that is only because we have made a series of choices to even produce it.

Good and Bad Choices

Most scientists would assert that it doesn’t matter how we arrive at a theory, if indeed the theory works. If you are going to make that claim, just pause for a second, and re-read that claim again. We are saying that we don’t have a method, or at least the method operates as a succession of choices that pick some facts, designate some of those selected facts as fundamental, use that choice to decide what to measure, and then employ the resulting order to formulate a law that seems to explain it within the chosen limits.

If that is indeed the method of science, then it depends on choices. Those choices may be good or bad, and we can know if they are good only if they work. While that’s a fair point, the fact that we used choices to even pick facts and designate them as fundamental, itself means that the resulting theories could not hope to deny that choice as something fundamental that went into the formulation of the theories themselves.

The empirical and rational criteria can be used to decide whether the choices are good or bad (i.e. whether they work or don’t) but they can’t be used to deny choices. In that sense, the empirical confirmation and the logical consistency of science doesn’t in any way prove that choices don’t exist in nature, because we used choices to select a set of facts, and then to designate them as fundamental. If you change these choices, you will also change the theory, and thereby all the concepts, natural laws, and predictions.

Experience and reason are therefore tools to decide whether a choice is good or bad, but not to determine whether the choice itself is real or not.

A Personal Perspective on Choices

The above method of science is in no way different from our personal choices, and this is an important point because people often link choices to our personal lives but not to the practice of science. In both science and in personal lives, we have learnt to interpret the world as half-full or half-empty. Most of the time we just don’t realize that it is our interpretation―which is being tested―empirically and rationally.

Many people will ask you to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Why? Because we know that by changing our interpretation, we change our actions, and then alter the consequences. The materialist often denies this choice because science appears to say that nature is determined. The materialist only needs to realize that if nature was only facts, and meanings about that nature weren’t part of nature, then we could never be wrong. After all, a logically consistent system cannot produce falsities!

The fact that we can make mistakes and errors of judgment can only be explained if there was a room for choice in nature, and those choices could be judged to be good and bad by their consequences, and changed from one to another.

Good Choices Lead to Truth

Choices of interpretation are therefore good when they produce a consistent and complete picture of reality, and bad when they produce inconsistency and incompleteness. This is a rational criterion for good and bad, practically employable, and widely used even today. We just don’t seem to recognize its existence enough.

There is a correct way to see the world, but that truth doesn’t preclude the existence of false theories. Both correct and false theories are choices―but they are not equivalent because the truthful theory will be consistent and complete, while the false theory may work with limited facts or erroneous designations of which facts are fundamental.

In one sense, our lives are no different than science: we try different interpretations, then test their consequences, and then change our choices. Science is one manifestation of our choices; there are as many instances of this choice as there are types of sciences; indeed when the acts of theory formation are seen in the proper light as methods of selection, interpretation, and ordering, they all become manifestations of choice.