Monday, December 10, 2012

Free Will versus Determinism and Moral Responsibility

Michio Kaku, the Physicist of the New World Order, who calls those opposed to globalization terrorists, tells us in this video (via Aangirfan's interesting post on free will and consciousness) that quantum theory proves that human action is not predetermined.

But the point he makes is a trivial quibble of absolutely no consequence. Microscopic events may be indeterminate, but anyone expecting a bunch of air molecules by chance to pile up behind their automobile and drive them to the office without the use of gasoline is going to be late for work. The behavior of most macroscopic systems is highly deterministic.

Quantum uncertainty? Image source.
And when a macroscopic system behaves in an unexpected fashion, for example, if your car accelerates when you put your foot on the brake, no sensible person will say it must have been due to quantum randomness. In such an event, the sensible assumption is that there has been a serious mechanical or electronic malfunction, or perhaps someone sabotaged your car.

The human brain, so far as we know, functions as a deterministic system little if at all affected by quantum uncertainty, which means that Kaku's remarks about Einstein versus Heisenberg are irrelevant. But, that does not mean that the workings of the human brain are necessarily predictable. For one thing, complex macroscopic systems, though operating in accordance with classical deterministic laws, can be highly unpredictable. Thus, as Richard Feynman explained:
If water falls over a dam, it splashes. If we stand nearby, every now and then a drop will land on our nose. This appears to be completely random … The tiniest irregularities are magnified in falling, so that we get complete randomness.
Feynman's insight has since been formalized in chaos theory, which reveals that many complex systems, the weather for example, or the economy, operate chaotically, which means for all practical purposes, indeterminately.

Transitions in the evolution of a complex system under the
influence of a strange attractor. Image source.
An interesting feature of chaotic systems is that they may show a relatively constant pattern of behavior for long periods, following what is know as a "strange attractor," but then abruptly switch to a totally different pattern.

Not surprisingly, the brain, the most complex system that we know of in the entire universe, will sometime undergo a sharp transition in mode of operation, shifting abruptly from one more or less constant pattern to a strikingly different pattern. Such epiphanies may occur spontaneously, although they are perhaps more often the result of an external shock.

But even if, for classical or quantum reasons, the operations of the brain — which we assume to underlie the workings of the mind — are indeterminate, this tells us little of interest about the question of free will.

Image source.
If the possession of free will consists solely in the fact that our brains sometimes do random and hence unpredictable things, so what? As far as the question of moral responsibility is concerned, we can no more take credit or blame for what is strictly determined than for what occurs as a matter of pure chance.

Which brings us to the core question: what is free will, anyhow? If Cain willed to kill Abel, how could he have acted otherwise than to go ahead and kill him? Could he, at the same time, have willed not to will to kill Abel? But if so, what if the will to kill Abel were stronger? Could he then have willed to will not to kill Abel more strongly? This leads to an infinite regress.

The conclusion seems to be that we will what we will and that's that for good or ill. And if sometimes our actions are theoretically unpredictable due to classical or quantum indeterminism, our actions are nevertheless driven either by chance or necessity, which is rather different from the idea that most people have of free will.

But this is a dangerous conclusion if naively understood, since it seems to imply that we are not responsible for our actions. But this is an error arising from ambiguity of the term "responsible."

Cain killing Abel. (Rubens)
To many, the notion that Cain could do no other than kill his brother means that he was not morally responsible for his actions and therefore should not have been held accountable or punished. But "moral responsibility" is not synonymous with "legal responsibility." Under the law of sane and civilized society, Cain would be held responsible for killing Abel, for the simple reason that he did indeed kill Abel.

Furthermore, under the law of any sane and civilized society, Cain would be punished for killing Abel, not because of his moral culpability but to deter others who might otherwise emulate his crime. And if a jeering hate-filled mob attended Cain's public hanging, so much the better to deter others who might otherwise follow Cain's criminal example.

Sadly, such simple logic is beyond the comprehension of most brought up under the lib-left ideology propagated by Western cultural institutions. We have been taught by the state propaganda machine — known as the K-to-middle-age education system — to see only the relationships among events that the state wishes us to see, while ignoring most of the picture without an understanding of which a sane and civilized society is impossible.

But what is perhaps an even more subversive and dangerous view of the world than some flaky notion about free will, is the Parmenidesian belief that all change, and therefore, all human action, good or evil, is an illusion.

In Parmenides' day, the best evidence for this idea was provided by the paradoxes of Zeno, which showed that movement was, if not impossible, almost so. The most famous of Zeno's paradoxes concerned the race between Achilles and the tortoise, in which Achilles was continually reaching the point just left by the tortoise, by which time the tortoise had moved ahead just a little bit more, so Archilles was always behind.

Image source
Zeno had another zinger: the Arrow Paradox. At any instant, an arrow in flight must be at a particular place. At that moment it cannot be moving to any other place or it would not be where it is, so at no instant can it move. This would have been more convincing if Zeno had offered to serve as the target at javelin practice. Still many sharp physicists of the modern era are Parmenidisians: Einstein for instance, and Hermann Weyl who wrote:
The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the world-line of my body, does a section of the world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.
On this view, we are like flies in amber, incapable of doing right or wrong. Our entire potential, intellectual, physical and moral, has already been realized and is open to view by any time traveler, in which case, the notion of free will is entirely redundant.


Medical Express: Our brains reveal our choices before we're even aware of them

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