Free as in Will, not Free as in Beer.

free as in will, not free as in beer

“It’s true: Since the 1980s, it has been possible – in principle – to resolve resource allocation problems algorithmically, by computer, instead of needing a market. Markets are wasteful: They allow competition, much of which is thrown on the scrap heap. So why do they persist?”

Manfred shrugs. “You tell me. Conservativism?”

Gianni closes the book and puts it back on the shelf. “Markets afford their participants the illusion of free will, my friend. You will find that human beings do not like being forced into doing something, even if it is in their best interests. Of necessity, a command economy must be coercive – it does, after all, command.”

Charles Stross Accelerando 2005

We cling to our concept of free will like blood. Declaring one is without free will is akin to admitting you don’t have a sense of humour, it is effectively saying you aren’t human. For what are we without free will – robots; actors; performing monkeys?

Philosophy has wrestled with free will vs determinism for as long as there has been philosophy. In more recent times science has pitched in on the debate too. Physiologist Ben Libet, who died in 2007, conducted a number of experiments in the 1970s on the timing of neural events. His measurements demonstrated that when the decision to perform an action is made, the beginnings of the action occur before the corresponding activity in the consciousness centre of the brain. These findings seem to suggest that the conscious mind, the area we regard as our decision making centre, is actually nothing of the the sort. It is subconscious processes that make all our decisions; the only role of the consciousness is to retrospectively justify these decisions to ourselves.

Our sense of free will, if Libet’s experiments are to be believed, is nothing more than an illusion. It is just another bi-product of our massively over-sized brains. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox in quantum mechanics seems to back up this conclusion, I burbled excitedly about this realisation in a post two years ago. But even if we had something more accessible than conceptual psychology or quantum mechanics to prove this point, would we ever be able to accept it?

My answer: who gives a toss? We are certainly the only animal who believes in, or cares about such a concept. The dog I questioned on the matter was very clearly disinterested in the subject, and I suspect his may be the right attitude. Does it really matter whether we have free will, or only the illusion of it? Our actions will still be the same either way. Whether we have a strong grip upon the rudder of destiny, or we are just socks thrown around in the washing machine of chance, our lives will still be the same – messy, chaotic and surprising.

Believing in free will is akin to believing in God. We are welcome to do so, but it’s probably ever-so-slightly nutty of us. If the concept makes us feel better about ourselves, and we can pretend we are more important than all the other bundles of matter in the cosmos, it doesn’t cost us anything, and it doesn’t do us any harm, does it?

Um, yes, I think it probably does do a lot of harm. But that’s another post.

posted May 22nd, 2009

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