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The Determined Will
Stephen Brewer’s couple are determined to argue about free will.
An old redbrick warehouse right next to the rail track dividing the city in two has become a popular downtown bar, with a shaded patio alongside the track. On a humid summer’s day, Freya and Max’s conversation is stopped for several minutes by the loud rumbling and squealing as a mile of shipping containers stacked two high trundle past them.
Freya: Being that close to such a monster is an awesome experience. I just love it! What made you choose this fantastic bar?
Max: The short answer is, it was recommended by a friend, and I thought it would be the sort of place you would like as well.
Freya: And what’s the long answer?
Max: That I didn’t choose it at all. Our being here was predetermined by a network of past causes and events: how we came to live here, the history of the city, the building of the rail-track through the centre of this town, the heat of the day… the chain of cause and effect stretches all the way back into the past… So in fact it was destined to happen.
Freya: I don’t know how you can believe such nonsense.
Max: Well you don’t believe you have free will, do you?
Freya: Our will is determined in the sense that it’s a result of a powerful animal drive for survival and reproduction. In fact, all animals have a ‘determined will’ in this sense – the ‘will for life’. We must, however, freely choose the path most likely to achieve these ends, using all our available resources. Yet the path itself cannot be predetermined, since our relationships with the world are much too complex to predict them. Uncertainty means the universe can’t ever be completely determined, can it? What’s more, humans have demonstrated their freedom to overcome even our most basic drives, by choosing a life of celibacy and self-sacrifice, for example.
Max: Your concept of a ‘determined will’ striving to survive is a delusion. Instead, everything we are is ultimately determined by the motion of inanimate atoms and molecules that cannot feel desire, have goals, or the will to achieve them.
Freya: But that mechanical view can’t apply to the living world. Just look around you: that wasp you’ve been trying to swat seems very determined to get at your drink, and those ants are making a resolute beeline for the crumbs on the floor. Even you yourself seem very determined to pursue your tenureship. It’s obvious that you must overcome all sorts of unforeseen obstacles to reach your goal. Same for everyone else too. This shows that everyone’s futures, and their histories too, are the result of their choices.
Image © Miles Walker 2022 Please visit mileswalker.com
Max: You only believe this because you’re rewriting history to show that what was going to happen anyway was the result of choices and goals. But however much it upsets your beliefs, science has no room for anything – including living objects – to be independently influenced by any purpose. There’s no way to alter the universe’s unstoppable course.
Freya: Just because the concept of will doesn’t fit your mechanical explanations of the world and life, that’s no good reason to deny the obvious evidence that these little beasts have a purposeful will. You need to adjust your science to include it, not deny what’s obvious!
Max: All you’re seeing is the operation of these insects’ predetermined inbuilt programs. You’re simply projecting your own goals and desires onto to dumb animals.
Freya: How can I project my goals onto other animals if we don’t have any goals to project? And do you think we’re a special creation?
Max: No. Just a self-deluded creation!
Freya: So that would mean all the work you did for your PhD on quantum mechanics was all predetermined, not your choice at all. But did you have no freely chosen goals making you study for all those years, working sixteen hours a day – no burning desire to prove yourself amongst other physicists? And did you have no original thoughts on quantum processes?
Max: But I could only discover preexisting quantum processes. If I truly created anything, my thesis would just be a work of fiction!
Freya: Perhaps your work should have told you that all these myriads of objects in motion collide and sometimes make new objects with new properties. After all, this process is supposed to have produced us clever social animals with the delusion that we have a will and the freedom to achieve our ends.
Max: Yes, that is how evolution works.
Split Decisions (detail) by Dror Rosenski, 2022
Freya: And that includes the occurrence of random mutations leading to beings with unexpected behaviours? If the events are random, this means the future of life cannot be predetermined.
Max: You should drop the idea of randomness. In our determined universe there are no truly random events – events without causes – just a lack of knowledge of those causes. If we had all the facts then we would see that everything is predetermined – including how evolution could produce deluded machines programmed to think they are creative and have a ‘determined will’.
Freya: But even your mechanical process of nature can produce an infinite diversity of complex objects, some of which have unforeseen properties and powers. After all, you claim this process produced us deluded machines. If it can produce consciousness – even deluded consciousness – then it might also be able to produce entities with real choice and freedom.
Max: What you life-scientists fail to understand is that there are no really random mutations, and no emergence of unpredictable properties. Because everything’s determined, everything’s predictable, at least in principle.
Freya: Okay, so what’s the goal of your deterministic mechanical science?
Max: To completely understand everything! There are only a finite number of facts and processes in the universe, and once these are all known we will be able to determine the entire history and future of the universe. When that is achieved our work will be complete.
Freya: However, after all your researches and studies, you now conclude that your hard work can’t achieve its goal of knowing everything, because in your deterministic world the very concept of goals is itself a delusion! And now you’ve reached the conclusion that your work is itself delusional nonsense, how can you carry on with it?
Max: That’s easy! (Pointing to himself) This machine is programmed to enjoy such delusions – just like it’s programmed to enjoy eating and drinking.
Freya: Well, here’s the menu. So, what does your program tell you to eat?
Max: Now this is a problem. Will it choose a starter of nachos or wings, or perhaps both?
© Stephen J. Brewer 2022
Steve Brewer is a retired biochemist and the author of The Origins of Self (2015), available for free download from originsofself.com.