Monday, January 1, 2007

Free Will: Illusion or Reality?

Free Will

At the basis of the God Axiom is the assertion that free will is an important element in the logical proof of God.

This assertion has proved to be an enormous stumbling block in the discussion. It is as if the term, free will, means entirely different things to different people, and as if those who think of it in one way cannot conceive of it in any other way.

There are those who in all seriousness, say that we do not have free will at all, that it is but an illusion. According to them, we are merely helpless puppets of nature, controlled entirely by forces which direct our every thought, word and action. In this view, I have no choice but to write the words I am writing, and you have no choice but to read them.

Alternatively, there are those who believe that free will exists, but that it is a product of nature itself. That is to say, free will (in their view) emerges from the complexity of a natural system. However, even in this view, we remain constrained in all our thoughts, words and actions, to the dictates of nature. If free will is a product of nature, then that product must obey the predictable chain of cause and effect, or else, obey the unpredictable, random and statistical outcomes of natural law.

In neither of the above two cases do we have genuine free will, because in both cases, our thoughts, words and actions are controlled for us, not by us.

The concept of free will which seems to elude so many people is this:

Free will can only be exercised by a being who is not totally constrained by the laws of nature, who is not chained to the inexorable sequence of cause and effect, and who does not act only according to the chance statistics of randomness and probability.

Such a being is an independent, volitional agent, who can introduce into the chain of cause and effect, new inputs, totally regardless of prior events and conditions.

So we have these three possible explanations of what appears to be free will:

1) It does not exist, we are robots of nature.

2) It exists, but it emerges from natural, complex systems, thereby constraining our thoughts, words and actions to the dictates of natural law.

3) It exists, enabling actions independent from a priori causes and conditions.

The first two explanations are naturalistic, but dismal. Both of them, in effect, relegate us to the role of reactions, to the role of phenomena, to a step in the sequence of causes and effects over which we have no genuine independent control.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the part of the discourse at which mutual conversation evaporates into "talking past each other." The adherents of explanation # 2 seem, in my view, unable to comprehend that this explanation is essentially like #1. They seem to view free will as independent thought and action, but only within certain boundaries set up by nature, preventing action outside those boundaries, but permitting genuine independence within those boundaries.

However, that explanation describes not true volition, but rather, chance. A truly random coin flip, if there could be such a thing, would permit only two possible outcomes head or tails (or perhaps a third, if the coin could possibly land on edge). Within that framework, the coin can land either heads or tails, independently of prior conditions.

But, and here is a crucial point that eludes so many people: the coin could not purpose (if I may make a verb from a noun). It could not choose, for example, to land only on heads every time. And purpose is inherently a part of free will which cannot be found in natural principles.

Many scientists who have remarked on the beauty of nature, its orderliness, its coherence and continuity, have also denied that there is any necessity for purpose in nature. It simply exists, and that is enough. They hold that there is nothing external to nature itself. Nature is, in and of itself, its own context. It is not conscious, it is heedless of its creatures, uncaring, unknowing in any sense that we might attribute to a cognitive, volitional being.

Nature is, in this view, as it is, and for no particular reason. Its laws are due to random chance, or perhaps due to some priciple yet to be discovered, but in no case, is there any evidence for nature having been created by a conscious, living God who cares about His creatures, who has a plan. purpose and meaning for creation.

Unless, that evidence is ourselves.

We cannot be explained by any known laws of nature. We can perceive ourselves as something profoundly different from mere phenomena, no matter how complex those phenomena may become. We sense that we are more than can be explained by neurology. We perceive that we have free will, that we are not mere puppets of blind, unknowing forces.

We might try to explain consciousness and free will as "emergent phenomena," arising from complexity, but if at its core, the universe is nothing more than pointless laws acting out, then we simply cannot trace any connection between inert matter and purposeful consciousness.

Nor can we produce a definition of "complexity," nor even of "order." These are attributes that we impose on nature, for example, when we define a collection of wood, metal, brick and other materials as a "house." But if the house collapses into rubble, and ceases to be a "house," does nature itself recognize any difference? What objective, formulable principle defines one group of materials as a house, and another as a pile of rubble? Only the intent of the builder, and only those who perceive the product.

However, if there is indeed intent, if there is indeed purpose, plan and meaning, then and only then, is there a difference between a house and rubble, and indeed, between a house and a home.