Causality, Determinism, and Free Will – By Andrew Skegg
Martin S Pribble
Much has been said about free will and determinism throughout the blogosphere in recent months. The discussion has been simulating and thought provoking with influential thinkers and authors such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford, and John Horgan dipping their oars into the water. Rather than addressing any one particular argument, I thought I might attempt to illuminate my position on this difficult subject in the strange environment of another’s blog.
Stop for a moment and reflect on where you are. I do not mean where you are geographically located at the moment, or the position of your body, but the very kernel of your “self”. The part of you you call “you”.
Have you found yourself?
Many people I speak to admit our “mind” seems to exist somewhere behind our eyes, between our ears, and above our necks. I do not think it’s a coincidence that this is where our brain resides, which seems to be the organ responsible for generating this powerful illusion.
To be brutally honest we must admit that we cannot say for sure if anyone else has a “mind”. Sure, we grant special privilege to other members of our species because we expect they experience the world in a similar manner to ourselves. This is probably the reason many are hesitant to entertain the idea that other animals are conscious thinking beings – an idea reinforced by religious beliefs that we are “specially created”. What is harder to admit is that we may not actually separate from our brains, but we are our brains.
We know physical damage to the brain has roughly predictable results. We know chemicals, diet, and drugs affect brain function, mood, and emotional states. Recent experiments have even induced “god feelings” with magnets, or utilised brain scans to rebuild what a patient is seeing. Every conceivable human function maps to our brain. There is no verifiable empirical evidence to suggest our “minds” exist independently of our brains. It seems the only reason we may even believe this in the first place is due to the illusion of “self”.
If the brain/mind divide is non-existent we must be bold enough to ask the next question: are we in charge of our own thoughts and actions? To answer this we must delve a little deeper.
States of mind
The notion of causality ties two distinct states of a system together – one *causing* the other. State “A” is always followed by state “B” in a causal chain such that if the system were reset to “state A” the resulting state would once again be “B”. This is what it means to say that “state A *causes* state B” and causality leads to predictability of a system. Everyday observations of our world lead us to believe the universe is one such predictable system. While we may not have enough information to predict any system with perfect clarity, this is an observation of observational powers rather than a comment on the system itself.
On the other hand, a truly chaotic universe as one in which every state is disconnected from everything preceding it. In such a system no notion of causality can be established. State “B” does not follow state “A”; indeed there is now possible way to predict which state would follow any other in a truly chaotic universe.
We are not shocked to discover which switch turns on the bathroom lights in the morning. We innately model our environment in order to predict, operate, and survive within it. We remember which actions give rise to the results we desire and repeat them every minute of every day. We know how to adjust the temperature of the shower to avoid scalding ourselves, put our socks on, and butter the toast and would be would be most surprised if the Vegemite suddenly appeared in orbit around Jupiter upon removing it from the cupboard as would be possible in a non-causal universe – if orbit or planets were possible at all in such universe.
If, as all of medical science suggests, our “mind” are irrevocably linked with our brain, then it follows that if we could reset a brain to a known state we could theoretically predict every resulting state. This of course assumes the sensory inputs experienced by this brain are also identical, which is also concordant with a causally deterministic universe. If this is the case, there is nowhere “free will” can hide.
Dealing with the quantum ghost
I stated earlier that the universe is predictable, and I am sure a number of readers already have their fingers poised over the keys with the words “quantum” in their minds, so I would be remiss not to address it.
There are mathematical models of the universe which indicate randomness may, after all, be at the heart of all things. It is this uncertainty which some people utilise to prop up their notion of “free will”. We are told that our “minds” or “souls” are able to somehow guide the behaviour of quantum foam, to affect subatomic particles, which affects the atoms which comprise us, which ultimately affects the decisions our brains make. It never ceases to astound me how far people are prepared to go to maintain their preconceived notions, however I cannot fully discard the idea – after all, there may be some truth to it.
If “minds” are real “things” then we should demand evidence of this “ghost in the machine” as distinct from the matter which it interacts with. I suspect some opponents of this position will cry foul and claim that immaterial “things” cannot be observed or measured with the empirical tools of science. Nevertheless, if we were to assume a “mind”, “ghost”, or “spirit” does exist then our “free will” has still not escaped the clutches of determinism.
The same “soul” interacting with the same universe would surely result in the same decisions. All that has been achieved by this pointless exercise is the addition of more machinery to the engine of causality and determinism. Of course, our “souls” could be random, but such a conclusion has devastating implications for many religious beliefs who cannot stomach chaotic souls.
While this is a very brief overview of the decisions I have come to regarding this topic, I hope I have communicated the salient points. In short, we is no choice – there is no such thing as “free will” because we live in a deterministic universe. We know this because causality seems to hold true in all relevant circumstances.