On Determinism and Free Will

For the past two or three weeks I’ve been somehow obsessed with the idea that there’s no free will, that humans possess no free will. This idea didn’t just pop up in my head, it’s the result of all the other ideas I’ve heard or read before. This time it clicked, though, and it clicked so hard that I feel I’m in the midst of an existential crisis. In high-school it was whether there’s any purpose in life and I managed to overcome that one quite easily in retrospect. Now it’s harder, but maybe there’s nothing I can do about it, as I shall explain immediately. What follows is mostly a brain dump in an attempt to defuse my head.

Determinism vs Free Will

My current belief is that the universe is a deterministic entity, that the present is entirely determined by its past, that the past is determined by its past and so on, until the beginning of time. I’m also reticent of believing that there’s anything else “outside” the universe, for example a God, heaven, angels and so on, although I kind of wish it were true.

Now, if the universe is all there is to it and we’re also part of the universe, our minds included, then it must be that all that we feel we are is a deterministic result of the initial conditions of the universe. Every thought we had, have or will have can virtually be traced back to the beginning of the universe. Every decision we make, every action we take is a result of a previous configuration of the universe we’re occupying. Where’s free will then? Whose free will even?

It seems that the feeling of free will is one of those traits that natural selection has favored, but which bear no actual relation to the reality. We think we have free will because otherwise we’d get depressed and we’d commit suicide, I presume.

However, it gets meta. I believe these thoughts I’ve put down here were meant to exist from the very beginning of time. There’s no contribution of any entity to anything. The particles I’m made of are now in a state that can influence other particles into some other states and them, in turn, influence others, i.e., any reader of this. A continuous movement of star dust in the universe, but certain clumps form our selves. Or rather, form machines complex enough to build a certain, most likely imprecise model of themselves, a model that sees the machine as having a special sauce — consciousness.

As with anything in this universe, my thoughts are bound to evolve over time. I might read about some discovery or opinion that will change how I see things right now. But will these thoughts change me at this moment? Technically, they won’t cause anything to happen that wasn’t meant to happen. Whether I’ll decide to ignore them completely or get depressed, it was meant to be that way.

These aren’t new thoughts, of course. There have been many more before me that have thought of this problem, but it’s still an open one. It’s called the free will problem and appears because there seems to be an incompatibility between determinism and free will. One quote that resonates with me, attributed by Wikipedia to Arthur Schopenhaur reads:

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.

Atheists vs Free Will

A few years ago I had a small argument with a work colleague where I argued that what a person can achieve in life is limited by the biological substrate, to which he disagreed. At the time I didn’t completely realized the conflict between determinism and free will. What really surprised me about that discussion was when my colleague said that I have a religious view of the world. A deterministic existence would be one where God dictates what you can or cannot do, whereas an existence where free will existed didn’t require a God. It struck me as totally paradoxical. To me, free will requires something outside the universe, like a God or a soul, but a deterministic, machine-like existence doesn’t require a God.

The reason I’ve recounted this is because I’ve recently come across a video where someone says basically the same thing — as an atheist he believed in free will and thought that only religious people would believe in a deterministic life. Isn’t it ironic? It is to me.

I, Robot

You know, some movies related to artificial intelligence, the strong one, raise questions on how a robot might feel if it finds out that it’s just a robot, that it’s not the real thing. I’d like to see a movie where human beings realize that they’re less than they think they are — just machines. Maybe someone has made such a film already?

I normally have a resources section at the end of my blog posts, with links to resources I’ve used while doing my research. I won’t do this now because the research is still in progress and I’m pretty sure you can find them yourself just as easily.