25 June 2018

Free will

From time to time in atheist circles, the topic of the existence of free will comes up.  Here's how I see the issue.

Imagine that a thousand years ago some scientifically-minded people had set out to discover how the Sun shines.  Assuming they were able to gather accurate data, they would quickly have realized that no process known to them could explain it.  Fire or any other chemical process couldn't generate anything close to enough energy, nor last as long as the Sun was known to have been shining.  The correct answer -- thermonuclear fusion -- wasn't remotely knowable or even imaginable to them.  Many, many intermediate stages of scientific discovery and understanding were needed between 11th-century knowledge and the ability to hypothesize nuclear fusion.

So they would have soberly announced that no matter how self-evident the existence of the Sun seemed to be, it must be an illusion.  The Earth was really in darkness all the time, and if we were convinced there was light everywhere during the day, we must be mistaken, since the existence of sunlight was impossible according to the knowledge of physics available at the time.

Religionists would have jumped in and declared, aha, science can't explain the sunlight, so it must be a miracle!  Only a supernatural explanation -- God -- could account for it.  At this point the first group would become all the more determined to insist that sunlight didn't really exist, because they would feel that admitting it did would be conceding a point to the religionists.

They would both be wrong, because they would both be taking an unscientific attitude.  In science, "we don't know the explanation yet" is a perfectly valid stance to take -- more valid than the stance that our present inability to explain it means that something obviously real doesn't exist, or means that something supernatural must be going on.  In its own way, the first group's position would be just as "religious" as the second group's -- claiming dogmatic certainty about something no human at that time could actually know.

You see the analogy, I hope.  The existence of free will is at least as self-evident as the existence of sunlight at high noon -- even people who claim not to believe in free will never behave the way they would if they really didn't believe in it.  The brain generates self-awareness and free will, and we don't yet have any idea how it does that.  It is simply a phenomenon which can't be accounted for by our current knowledge of physics.  It's absurd to claim that that means it can't exist, or that a magic sky fairy giving us a "soul" is the reason for it.  Our free will is just something our science is not advanced enough to understand yet.  I'm confident that we will understand it eventually, and probably in a lot less than another thousand years.

10 Comments:

Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Free will forever!

26 June, 2018 05:47  
Blogger Adam said...

While free will does exist, it's funny how many of us rank and file to certain things like mindless robots.

26 June, 2018 07:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: I'd never leave home without it.

Adam: That's their choice :-)

26 June, 2018 08:18  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

It's interesting to see what people will come up with as an answer to a question when they can't figure something out.

26 June, 2018 12:28  
Blogger Professor Chaos said...

Science is fake, haven't you heard?

26 June, 2018 16:47  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: Some people can't stand admitting that they don't know the answer. It's strange.

Professor: I've heard, but I have to take into account the apparent IQ of the messengers.

27 June, 2018 03:20  
Blogger Martha said...

"we don't know the explanation yet" Love that. That is often the best answer to give!

27 June, 2018 06:07  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

And often the only honest one!

27 June, 2018 08:43  
Blogger Dave Dubya said...

While most humans are unconcerned with such matters, I view free will like "sanity" or rationality. Some of us value, seek, and employ them, but they are still volitional qualities, and susceptible to stress, reflex, emotion and our ability to gather and process information.

I see free will, rationality, sanity as less absolute states of mind than they are fluctuating bands on our psychic spectrum, so to speak. We've seen enough history to know how free will and rationality and sanity can be suppressed by the highly charged emotions of political and religious fanaticism.

Sometimes reflex and emotions can be a sane and rational response before free will enters the equation. It is, after all, quite sane and rational to pull our finger off a hot stove.

Yet many of us are still compelled to put our finger on the stove... or vote for Trump.

Maybe it simply comes down to our mindfulness, of lack thereof. Humans are such odd and paradoxical critters. We are still quite unstable as a species.

28 June, 2018 07:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Dave: Will power often has a hard time exerting itself against impulse, habit, addiction, and so on. But at least we do have will power to exert.

29 June, 2018 16:16  

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