Free Will vs. Determinism
© Charles Chandler
Sitting in a restaurant, reading the morning paper, and waiting for a client to arrive, I didn't look up when the waiter asked if I would like some more coffee. I just said, "Sure!" and pulled back the paper so he could see the cup. Then he turned to chat up another customer. When he didn't turn back right away, I bobbled my head for a second, and then spread out the paper again to resume my reading. What I didn't realize was that this particular waiter was so skillful that he could pour coffee without looking. In my case when he attempted this, the next thing I knew there was coffee running down the newspaper and into my lap.
So he cheerfully volunteered, "Oops. Well, things like this are just bound to happen every once in a while. Sorry 'bout that."
"Bound to happen? In what sense?" I looked up to see what he was bound to do to me next.
"Well, stuff happens, you know. I guess maybe it was just the coffee's destiny to act like that." He shrugged, tilted his head, and made it obvious that he was going to be OK.
"Ummm... is there any chance that you could find some paper towels in the back with a destiny to sop up some of this?"
Thankfully such paper towels were proved to exist, and after cleaning myself up as best as I could, I then thought of my own destiny for the rest of the morning. I decided not to cancel the meeting with my client, but rather, to simply make sure that I didn't get up from the table for any reason. After all, I didn't want her to think that something in the discussion had caused me to pee myself. Enthusiasm is good in the software consulting business. But never let the clients see you sweat, and never, ever let them think that you have just peed yourself, even if it's only spilt coffee.
After the meeting, I told the client that I was just going to sit there for a minute and write up the heads of agreement, so she left. Whew. Then I got to thinking, so I called the waiter back over.
"As fast as you came out with that whole destiny thing, it almost sounded like you've put some thought into it."
In fact, he was doing a thesis on the philosophy of determinism. Turns out that everything is predestined, down to me picking that restaurant for my meeting, getting a lapful of coffee, and somehow having the meeting go OK anyway.
"It's all just physics, you know. If you know all of the laws of physics, and you know all of the initial conditions, you can predict all future events. We don't have anything to do with it."
Thinking that I never did understand determinism, and perhaps never would, I gave him my best deer-in-the-headlights stare, and then asked, "Do you mean to tell me that every time I think that I'm trying to decide what to do about something, I'm really just trying to figure out what I was already predestined to do anyway?"
He shook his head and said, "No, you're not figuring anything out. The decision has already been made, and you are simply predestined to think about it for a little while before deciding what you were going to decide anyway."
Not satisfied, I continued, "So how do I know what I'm supposed to do? I mean, is there any way for me to know my destiny?"
Shaking his head again, he said, "Nope, and that's what makes life interesting. There's no way to know all of the initial conditions, so there's no way to know in advance what's going to happen. You just have to wait and see." Then he grinned, nodded his head in acknowledgment of the fact that he had just said something really important, and walked off.
Hmmm, thanks for that. So I finished my write-up, left some money on the table and walked out, but not without turning around and looking back, not exactly knowing why. I guess there was just something curiously unsettling about the waiter's gleeful acceptance of determinism, which most people find depressing.
Some time passed. I fulfilled the contract for the client, and I got paid. But the whole destiny thing kept nagging me. So I decided to do some research.
Turns out that there are a lot of flavors of Free Will, and of Determinism, and there are as many different treatments of the topic as there are philosophers. The whole debate goes back thousands of years, but as time goes on, the problem seems to be getting worse instead of better. Ancient philosophers had a lot of wiggle room in how they defined the mechanisms of a determinist universe, since not much was known about it. And they could be pretty creative in how they re-affirmed free will, or at least in how they established that one could still live a productive life without it. The modern debate is much more focused, and the wiggle room is disappearing fast. Scientists are developing mechanistic principles for all kinds of stuff. Heck, even the human brain is turning out to be just a biological machine made up of neurons.
Simply put, it is now reasonable to consider the possibility that someday everything, down to the music you like and why, will be explainable and predictable with scientific principles. Say goodbye to the ghosts in the machines — from here on out we'll be dealing just with the machines.
OK, this is starting to get scary. The argument for determinism is really starting to look airtight. And yet I know that I make decisions. In fact, I have to make decisions, all day long, every day. And in making these decisions, I can't just ask what I have been predestined to do. As the waiter pointed out, that would require infinite knowledge, which I do not have. In the absence of infinite knowledge, I make decisions "freely." But doesn't that mean that the more I know, the less freedom I have, and that the only "free" decisions are the ignorant ones? That doesn't sound good. And nothing in the modern literature offers any help on this question. One popular philosopher maintains,
"Science does not state that all events have been predestined. In fact, the Uncertainty Principle proves that indeterminacy is a fundamental property of nature."
So indeterminacy — not knowing how things are going to work out — is the active ingredient in free will? Argh. I don't want indeterminacy. I want to determine my future, making scientifically-informed decisions that are likely to succeed, not ignorant ones that are guaranteed to fail. So I embarked on a search for an understanding of how free will could exist, not in spite of determinism, but in addition to it, and of how the two could interact productively.
First, the definitions. In the most fundamental sense, determinism states that the future is already set. A chain of events has been initiated, and one thing will lead to another in a mechanistic fashion, determining everything that will ever happen. The fundamental premise of free will is that the future has not yet been set. Decisions that we make will determine the future. Until those decisions have been made, the future cannot be known. Determinism states that these decisions could be predicted, but it's an idle claim, since this would take infinite knowledge. So determinism is complete in theory, but incomplete in practice, and always will be. And free will is complete in practice, but lacking a theoretical foundation.
Hmmm. These are starting to look like diametrically opposed views, both of which are reasonable within their own respective contexts.
Well, maybe we should whittle this thing down a bit, by first identifying what is NOT a part of this debate.
As I was researching this paper, I couldn't help but acknowledge that there was something that I really didn't like about the idea of determinism. And it wasn't just the intellectual nagging of having two perfectly reasonable, yet diametrically opposed views. There was some sort of emotional counterpart to it. So what is it about not being able to decide for ourselves that so bites? Well duh... when did we EVER have the right to decide taken away without it biting? If a decision that we made didn't cause anybody any heartburn, our decision stood. But whenever a parent, a teacher, or somebody from five-o thought that a decision that we made was just not acceptable, the next thing that happened was never fun. So deciding for ourselves is good, and somebody else deciding for us is bad.
But determinism is not an authority figure who is taking away decisions that we wanted to make. It is saying that the way that we make decisions is invisibly constrained, to the point that there is really only one option: to do what we have been predestined to do. And that's different.
Besides, what kind of authority figure would determinism make anyway? We are not predestined to be good. We are predestined to be human. So sometimes when human nature speaks to us, it says something like, "Don't stay up too late. You need to get your sleep, so you'll be fully rested and ready for work tomorrow." Other times it's more like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now see what she'll do if you give her a twenty."
Yet even if the rules that constrain us are human rules, which in consideration of the kinds of things that humans are capable of doing aren't much of a constraint at all, there's still something irksome about determinism. It's that we don't like the idea that everything we think, do, and say can be predicted. Why is that? It's because if other people can predict our behaviors, then they can manipulate US. But that's a different issue. We can be predictable, and still be free, at least in the philosophical sense. For the outcome of a decision-making process to actually be unpredictable, there has to be absolutely no pre-existing knowledge of any kind with respect to the options. In other words, the "decision" has to be a blind guess. And the issue of free will versus determinism is not a question of whether or not blind guessing exists. It's a question of whether or not we can deliberately alter the outcome of future events. This always requires knowledge of external factors, and with the same knowledge, other people can predict our decisions. But that doesn't mean that we're not deciding. It just means that they agree.
On the flip side, there's also something that we instinctively like about determinism. With it, we can absolve ourselves of self-doubt when making tough decisions, and also of the guilt that we feel afterward when we realize that we could have done better. Saying that something was simply "meant to be" is saying that there was nothing that could have been done about it, so stop worrying. This can come in handy from time to time. But this too has nothing to do with the philosophical debate.
So OK, there are a lot of things that determinism is not. But what IS determinism? I mean, whose idea was it, and what's it good for?
It's ironic to realize that without free will, the concept of determinism wouldn't even exist. In order to exercise free will, and to have even the slightest chance of being successful at it, we first need to learn a little bit about how things work in the material world. Then we can use this knowledge, and the personal force that we can inject back into the situation, to alter the outcome of future events, hopefully to our advantage. If everything in nature was as free as we are when we are making decisions, this wouldn't work.
For instance, driving a car involves deciding which way we want to go, and turning the wheel to get the car to travel in that direction. But if the wheel was a free agent that could decide for itself what it wanted to do, without respect for which way we wanted to go, and without knowing (or caring) where the road might be, driving would be somewhat more exciting, yet far less reliable as a means of transportation. On observing this, we'd either find another way to steer the car, or we'd find another way to get to work and give the car to the mother-in-law.
So here's the real deal — in our scientific study of the world, we are not looking for the random, free agency. We are looking for the predictable mechanisms, so we can use them to get what we want. Without this utility, science never would have come into existence, and determinism never would have become conceivable. We can be free, and we can use scientific reasoning to improve the effectiveness of our actions. But if we forget that we were free in the first place, and get lost in the study of the mechanisms of the material world, we'll never find our way back to freedom, and never see ways in which we can use the knowledge that we have gained.
OK, I'm feeling better now. At least free will is back on top, if only in the sense that it is the prime mover in this whole deal. But we still have two perfectly reasonable, yet diametrically opposed views of the world, one that acknowledges free will and one that does not. Argh.
The problem is not with free will's existence, or with free will's relationship to determinism. The problem is that determinism does not acknowledge free will. We can understand why it does not. Determinist reasoning just doesn't have a use for free agency. But there's still a dichotomy.
One interesting way of attempting to resolve the dichotomy is to think of ourselves as decision-making machines, and that as machines, we are completely within the laws of science, while our capacity for decision-making means that we still have free will. From the determinist perspective, any decision made by a machine is predictable, but we've already established that predictability does not preclude free will. So it's possible that we can be free and mechanistic at the same time.
In this framework, it's really not that all decisions have already been made, and that all of history, including the part that hasn't happened yet, has already been written. It's that this chain of events involves decisions being made all along. The decisions aren't actually made until we make them. The future may be set, but it is our decisions that do the setting, and not in advance, but in real time. In this sense, free will and determinism are not actually incompatible.
Let's review the definitions.
"Determinism states that a chain of events has been initiated, wherein one thing will lead to another in a mechanistic fashion, determining everything that will ever happen. Free will states that the future has not yet been determined, and that it is the decisions that we make that will determine the future."
These statements are not actually mutually exclusive. Determinism states that a chain of events will determine everything that will ever happen, but if we take a close look at how this chain of events works, we see that we are right in the middle of the whole thing. We are the links in the chain, and it is our decisions that are doing the determining. To put it another way, as decision-making machines, we are the instruments of determinism. Yet if determinism is deciding our futures, then it has surely delegated all of the responsibility back to us, because we are definitely the ones actually making the decisions. Once we get back the ability to make decisions, we get back our free will. So while determinism is true, free will is also true, but predestination is false. Prediction is true, but prediction and predestination are two different things. If the responsibility for making decisions falls on decision-making machines, then those machines possess free will.
Ah, but we are still not free. Determinism might have delegated all of the responsibility back to the decision-making machines, but it also narrowed the options down to just one in each case. So we are "free" to decide only that which we are predestined to decide, and that ain't exactly freedom. Argh.
No matter what we do, the dichotomy between free will and determinism persists. Determinism states that feeling free is an illusion, and free will responds that feeling constrained is the true illusion. Both arguments are airtight, and the dichotomy is axiomatic. And finding a way through this stretch was the hardest part of the journey.
Finally, the true nature of the issue became obvious. Free will and determinism are not conflicting statements about the nature of reality; they are filters. And we deliberately designed these filters to isolate very different types of information.
First, let's consider determinism. In order to be effective in our search for a better life, we need to know how things work in the material world. So we go around looking for things that are determinate. In essence, we apply a filter to all of the data that we have. The mechanistic, predictable elements of reality pass this filter, while anything that is inexplicable or otherwise indeterminate is suppressed by this filter. (This even includes our own free will, because insofar as we haven't made our minds up yet, we can't predict the future taking our will into account.) The resulting subset of reality is pure mechanistic reasoning, and there isn't any free agency anywhere in it. With this, and only this, in mind, we see a world in which everything has already been decided, including all of our own actions, since we didn't acknowledge our own free agency. Of the total number of things that we might observe in this world, the actual portion of it that we can truthfully call determinate, with our existing knowledge, is the small part. But there's enough there that with a little bit of imagination, and a commitment to the principles of science, we can conceive a world in which all things have been predestined.
And then there is the other filter — free will. We all have a certain amount of personal force that we can inject back into the world, to alter the outcome of future events. In order to apply this force effectively, we need to know how things work in the material world, as mentioned above. But in addition to knowing about the determinate stuff, we also need to know the list of all things that can be changed with the amount of personal force that we have. And there are many things that we can change, some of them large, most of them small. And we spend most of our waking moments going over one part or another of this list. If we were to think of this list, and only of this list, then we would see only that given enough time, effort, and understanding, there isn't anything that we cannot change.
So here we have two diametrically opposed views of the world, one that states that all events have been predestined, and the other that states that there isn't anything that cannot be changed. Both are true within their own respective contexts. But both are subsets of reality, not representative of the whole. There IS an unbroken chain of events marching proudly through time, determining the outcome of all future events. But we are the links in that chain, and it is our decisions that are doing the determining. We are constrained in the way that we make decisions, but to what? A close inspection of neural mechanisms reveals that it is their nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That isn't a constraint.
The very concepts of determinism, and of free will, are actually meaningless if we attempt to take them out of context from each other. The only way that you can deterministically predict the future is to understand that people make decisions, and they make these decisions on the basis of what they want. Fail to take that into account, and you're predestined to be wrong a lot of the time. Similarly, when people think that anything can be changed, without respect for mechanistic principles, they're not going to change much. It takes a whole lot of knowledge about how the world works in order to change things.
The true nature of reality is that there are many things that we cannot change, but some that we can. And the trick in life is knowing the difference, and knowing how to exercise free will within the context of mechanistic principles, so that we succeed.
OK, that much makes sense. But how could people ever have taken such a simple thing and turned it into a major metaphysical dichotomy?
Easy. In our study of the world around us, we quickly learn that it's better if we keep our own wants and wishes out of the study, because subjective prerogatives tend to corrupt the results. If we let ourselves, we'll see what we want to see, not what we need to see in order to be effective in our interactions with the rest of the world. So we learn to think of the world in an unbiased, impartial, objective, mechanistic way, and to keep our personal considerations out of it.
Then, if we stop thinking about the world around us, and start thinking of the world within, we find that what we actually want out of life doesn't always make sense. Why, in fact, do we "want" anything? Why does one person want to be a politician, while another wants to be an engineer? Why is one person satisfied if she owns two cows and a straw mat, while another wouldn't be happy if she owned half of New York? And if you try to explain why you want something, is it a reason, or a rationalization? Perhaps there are rules for all of this, but we don't yet know these rules, and in the meantime, what we want is simply what we want. And when it comes time to make decisions, either we do what is logical, in which case we get to say that we acted logically, or we go after what we want, in which case we get to say that we are happy.
So there is causality, and then there is free will. Throw in the fact that we, in Western society, love taking reasonable arguments to their illogical extremes, and then pitting them against diametrically opposed positions so that we can have lively debates, and we have everything we need for an intractable metaphysical problem. But the dichotomy is deliberate and useful. Eventually, we learn to see the Big Picture that encompasses both determinism and free will. We have good reasons for keeping these modes of thinking separate, but we also need to let them come together every now and again, so that we can get what we want.
With this in mind, we may return to our scientific study of the world around us, and even of the world within us, knowing that we will never find a reason to believe that we are not free to pursue a better life.
Interestingly, as we proceed, we find new rules about the world, and about ourselves. And every time this happens, we feel like something that was once random and free has become ruled and constrained. Sometimes it almost seems like knowledge and freedom are mutually exclusive. Argh.
But the feeling is temporary. Knowledge of what is constraining us does not enslave us; it shows us the way to freedom. If we are ignorant of our natures, then indeed, we are unwittingly constrained to do just what our natures dictate. But if we understand our natures, we can find ways of overcoming our limitations.
It's interesting to note that the period of time in which determinism was the most popular was during the Renaissance. This is because that period saw an explosion of new scientific knowledge, but people hadn't yet figured out how to put that knowledge to use in mastering the world. After the Industrial Revolution, the popularity of determinism diminished rapidly. And when in life is a person most likely to believe in determinism? In college, of course. This is when one becomes saturated with knowledge about how things work, but before one has the freedom to use this knowledge to seek a better life.
First we are enslaved by our natures, but we don't know it, so we think that we're free. Then we learn more about our natures, and realize that we are enslaved. Then we figure out how to use this knowledge to overcome our limitations. Then we are truly free, and we truly know it. In the end, free will rules all of the rules, with only one exception — we will never be anything more, nor anything less, than human. Within that constraint, and with an understanding of human nature, we are free to achieve whatever humans can achieve. Not much of a constraint, actually.
In finishing up this paper, I thought back to the morning at the restaurant. Then I knew that I had to close the loop, and show the paper to the waiter who initiated the project in the first place. Well, he isn't a waiter anymore. They told me that he got a better job, teaching philosophy. Go figure. Anyway, I caught up with him at his office at UMBC. He still remembered me, partly because he starts out every freshman course with an object lesson on people who carelessly let life go by without paying attention to what is going on around them. Like the guy who held his newspaper over the coffee cup while the waiter poured the coffee. He laughed and I smiled when he told me that. Then I told him that the incident had sparked an interest that led me to write a paper, and that here was a copy for him.
He read it, thought for a while, and then said without looking up, "So this is why I was predestined to spill the coffee."
I rolled my eyes, and then sternly announced, "You were not predestined to spill any coffee. I made a bad decision when I thought you weren't ready to begin pouring, and you made a bad decision when you started pouring without looking. You wouldn't have gotten a tip from me had you not turned out to be a reasonable fellow. Now stop talking like that. It is your decisions that determine the future. Make decisions deliberately, using science, and you'll get more of what you want."
He looked up at me briefly, and then back at the paper for a while. Finally, he smirked and said softly, "Nice advice."
Then we both laughed as he started counting out 75 cents, all in nickels and dimes.

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