Do humans truly have free will?

For example if fate is real, and everything is bound to a set timeline, is free will as we perceive it real? Or is it just a false perception to us?

  • 1
    What kind of answer do you expect from us ? – Boris Jan 10 '18 at 18:35
  • More just personal thoughts on the subject. If free will is legitimate in regards to fate. – BasedChinChin Jan 10 '18 at 18:38
  • 1
    Welcome to the Philosophy SE. This question is too broad (it would be the subject of entire course in philosophy) - can you please ask a more specific question that can be answered objectively? For reference, you can look up libertarian freewill and compatibilism. – Alexander S King Jan 10 '18 at 18:42
  • There is no agreement, and there is complex disagreement, about what it is or would be to have free will. What free will is would need to be . agreed before we could begin to discuss whether humans have it. That's not realistic here. But fatalism is a more manageable topic. If you asked a question about fatalism, cogent responses should be possible. But it would need to be clear and focused and (preferably, I suggest) cite a particular theory of fatalism. – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 10 '18 at 21:24
  • If you believe in cause and effect, then there probably is no free will. – jjack Jan 10 '18 at 21:40

While there is an argument for this around the concept of fate, it's also a serious question for AI research as well. The science and mathematics behind this question is not that complicated, but it does tend to fly in the face of our own empirical observations and the experience we have of being human. Let's start with the science.

Since Einstein, our concept of the universe revolves around a 4 dimensional space-time, in which time is merely another dimension of our universe. This becomes important because when discussing symmetry (a very important concept in physics which shows that we can predict what will happen in one place, orientation or time based on observations of the same phenomena in a different place, orientation or time) we see that time is as much bound to the laws of physics as any other direction.

With the single exception of the second law of thermodynamics (entropy, we'll get to that) all the laws of motion we understand work in both directions of time. If all these laws work in both directions, then it becomes clear that it's possible to predict the future by observing the past and extrapolating. If these laws hold perfectly in both directions of time and we are bound by them also, then the universe is algorithmic in nature, and that means 3 things;

1) We are algorithmic in nature also
2) It's possible for a computer to be aware because it's algorithmic
3) Free will (by definition) has to be an illusion because an algorithmic universe means that the future can be accurately predicted with enough information and (by extension) no choice we can make is able to change that future.

So, how does entropy apply? Well, entropy has been described in many different ways but the important point to note is that in a closed system (the universe), order degrades over time. For our purposes, this explains why we can only remember in one direction of time; the brain lays down memories (increased local order) through the release of heat (decreased global order) in the temporal direction set by entropy. That means that even if space-time is a static object, we appear to remember it through a lineal sequence because of the ways our memories are set down.

Lots of implications here, but let's get to the meat of it for the purposes of this question; if space time is deterministic (algorithmic) in nature, free will must be an illusion. If space time is non-algorithmic in nature, then algorithmic behaviour can still exist (it's a subset of non-algorithmic possibilities) but it's now possible that the human mind is non-algorithmic in nature meaning that it's possible that free will exists for us.

Even if that's the case, it means that computers cannot ever achieve human awareness because they are algorithmic in nature, and therefore at best could only simulate a subset of the functions of the brain and therefore could not achieve free will.

There's another scary thought here. The vast majority of science (physics in particular) is based on the idea that the universe is deterministic in nature, or that in other words we know how the universe works because we've seen how it works in the past. In order for us to have free will, it would mean that the universe can't be fully deterministic. Sure, the vast majority of it could still function according to algorithmic principles, but our own free will implies that at least part of the rest of the universe may not.

If that is the case, then all that we know about the universe must in some way be called into question. We cannot be certain of the past, or the future. In fairness, no scientist would ever say they were certain about concepts like the Big Bang, relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. But, if we could ever prove that free will did actually exist, we would have to be less sure of these things than we are today.

Is it possible that the organic brain is the only aspect of the universe that operates outside deterministic principles? Sure, it's possible. But, it's not very likely. So, that leaves us with one provable theory and two possibilities;

1) Computers can never have free will as they operate on deterministic principles.

a) If humans also operate on deterministic principles, our free will is a lie
b) If not, then free will may not be a lie, but proving that would force a re-think of all modern scientific principles to date.

Either way it would be both a thrilling and terrifying discovery.

  • 1
    +1 Although I agree with what you wrote generally, given that dark matter has not been found the motion of galaxies and clusters of galaxies may falsify Einstein's gravitation theory. Although there are alternate, "modified" gravity theories (see Moffat and Maeder) that don't need dark matter and are also deterministic, they may be falsified under other measurements. There may not be any deterministic and relativistic gravity theory that is not falsified by some measurements. I wonder what that would say for determinism? – Frank Hubeny Jan 10 '18 at 23:52
  • 1
    This is a very interesting point Frank. Like everything with science, what we think we know is still going to be 'best fit', and that includes the use of induction logic to form our proofs. Ultimately, measurements falsifying theories can lead to 2 conclusions; the theory isn't good enough or the consistency we observe in the universe isn't as solid as we think. So far, observations that falsify theory seem to only be considered against the first conclusion but like you point out, that may have to change. – Tim B II Jan 11 '18 at 0:31
  • Wait, back up. In every other area, having an illusion of something means that you have a percept of something. The percept that I have involving choice is entirely consistent with being algorithmic; for example, I don't feel like I actually travel to alternate possible futures and look around when deliberating, nor do I feel like I incarnate an "actual future". Rather, I feel like I'm simply guessing what might be a future, and it feels to me like it's entirely a guess (sometimes I chose something I'm not even sure I can pull off). ... – H Walters Jan 11 '18 at 3:33
  • ...furthermore, I feel like I can "instantiate" an action "somehow". How exactly is a bit invisible to my first person perspective; I can appeal to reasons that influenced me if the choice were made that way, but impulse decisions feel a bit mysterious. Everything about what I perceive myself as doing when I make a choice is consistent with being algorithmic. If you experience something that actually conflicts with it (and I mean experience, not theorize), then I'm very interested in a subjective description of it. – H Walters Jan 11 '18 at 3:41
  • @HWalters; this is one of those areas where our personal experience is not intuitively consistent with the math. In simple terms, if we have free will it means that our choices change the future, pure and simple. If our choice has no impact, then it's not a choice. If I choose a ham sandwich over a chicken sandwich for lunch for instance, what I eat is different to what I'd eat if I made the other choice. If that choice is real, then choice can't be algorithmic because the conditions around you can be used to predict which sandwich you choose. That's not choice because you can't change it – Tim B II Jan 11 '18 at 3:42

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.