Freedom, the Self, and Free Will

After last week’s talk about speculation and metaphysics, this week we’re going to tackle the subject of free will. Free will is a weird problem, with a hundred subtle variations of the initial problem statement and equally many solutions depending on how you define various words. The fact that so much depends on precise word definitions is usually a hint.

First, lets start with some positions we can easily reject: although my posts on systems theory may lead you to believe otherwise, I am not a determinist; I made a point of permitting the definition of a system to include non-determinism. As such I find the whole question of whether or not free will is compatible with determinism to be irrelevant at best.

But let’s go back to that thing about definitions I mentioned in the first paragraph: if we want to talk about free will (and whether it’s possible, or whether we have it) we should pin down what it is exactly we’re talking about. A layman’s definition of free will tends to be something like “the ability of a person to freely make a decision” which does very little to actually clarify the issue. What does it mean to make a decision? What does it mean to do so freely?

There are a number of ways to unpack these questions further, but I find most of those unconvincing. At the root, to seriously ask the question of free will in the first place, I find that you have to include a dualist assumption in your worldview. The concept of free will only makes sense in a universe where the actual self and the physical self are different entities and so the observable self could conceivably behave differently than the actual self ends up willing. In a physicalist view (or in other weird unified-self views), those are in effect a single thing, and it is incoherent to talk of that thing behaving differently than it behaves or willing differently than it wills.

Since I am, in short, a physicalist, I follow this path to its natural conclusion and end up rejecting the question: free will has a hidden dualist premise which I reject.

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The Nature of the Brain

Our little subsection on biology and genetics has covered the core points I wanted to mention, so now we take a sharp left turn and head back to an application of systems theory. Specifically, the next couple of posts will deal with the philosophy’s classic mind-body problem. If you haven’t already, I suggest you skim through my systems-theory posts, in particular “Reality as a System“. They really set the stage for what’s coming here.

As suggested in my last systems-theory post, if we view reality as a system then we can draw some interesting information-theoretic conclusions about our brains. Specifically, our brains must be seen as open (i.e. not closed), recursively modelling subsystems of reality.

Simply by being part of reality it must be a subsystem therein. Because it interacts with other parts of reality, it is open, not closed. The claim that it provides a recursive model of (part of) reality is perhaps less obvious, but should still be intuitive on reflection. When we imagine what it would be like to make some decision, what else is our brain doing but simulating that part of reality. Obviously it is not simulating the actual underlying reality (atoms or molecules or whatever) but it is simulating some relevant abstraction of that.

In fact, I will argue later that this is effectively all our brains do: they recursively model an abstraction of reality. But this is obviously a more contentious claim, so I will leave it for another day.