Free Will and Physics: No Conflict

Part of an ongoing conversation.

“Is not one of the central points, which our arguments circle, the assertion by non-materialists that humans have free will? And if they do, then how can they not break the deterministic laws of physics?”

Good question, but it is based on a false assumption.

The assumption is that the laws of physics describe something other than physics. The laws of physics describe the mechanical causes of an action, how it moved, to what degree, by how many quanta of a quantifiable magnitude. Free will is a category used to distinguish decisions (human action) from physical reactions (billiard balls colliding).

Now, suppose I am in a billiard game, and have wagered a large sum on the outcome. The game comes down to a final shot, and I must make the eight ball in the side pocket to win the game. Let us furthermore suppose gambling is illegal in this state, and let us furthermore suppose that the girl I have asked to marry me says she will wed me if and only if I win this game and can afford the wedding.

Standing next to me is a Chinese physicist who does not speak a word of English. No one has explained to him the stakes of the game.

Your task is to describe to him what is going on.

Statement one: “The cue ball weighs six ounces. It strikes the eightball offcenter, but momentum is conserved, so the recoil and the vector is proportional to the incoming impulse. The eightball recoils at ten miles per hour, recoils from the bumper, but angle of incidence equals angle of refraction, ergo the eightball will miss the side pocket.”

Statement two: “It is the end of the game. You score points in this game is to knock the eight balls — black means “eight” — into the pockets with the cue ball. White means cue ball. Right now he trails by one point. If he misses this shot, he will lose the game, lose a lot of money, go to jail, lose his girl, and take out a revolver and shoot himself in the head.”

Suppose you made only statement one to the Chinaman. He would not be surprised when the eight ball missed, since he was told the position and motion of the ball. He would be surprised when I blew my brains out. The description of the events is incomplete.

Suppose you made only statement two to the Chinaman. He might indeed be surprised when the eight ball missed, because you have not told him the location and the motion of the balls. But he would not be surprised when I blew my brains out. In its own way, that statement is also incomplete.

Notice that statement one contains no description whatsoever of the meaning of the billiard ball motions. It describes the physical motions and nothing but. It describes mechanical causes: it describes the weight of the cue ball and the velocity of the recoil from the impact.

Notice statement two contains no description whatsoever of the mass or location or vector or velocity of the billiard balls. It treats them as ideal or conceptual properties.  The only reference to any physical properties is a description of the symbolic value of the balls, that the black on is the eight, the white one is the cue. However, the meaning, the purpose, the legality, and the other non-quantifiable realities concerning the game are described. It describes final causes. It describes what meaning the events have, and why they are taking place.

Now, you seem to think that if the second statement is true, the first statement is false.

If the universe or any part of it can be described by describing the final causes of the events, so you assume, then the universe cannot and no part of it be described by describing the mechanical causes of the events.

This assumption has no warrant. Descriptions of events involving free will do not ‘break’ the mechanical laws of nature. They have nothing whatever to do with those laws.

The ambiguity here is that you use one word, “cause” to refer to two distinct and unrelated concepts, and your metaphysical assumption that one of the two forms of causation, the other meaning of the word, simply does not exist. (You then continue to use that word, or its related concepts, in blithe disregard of the fact that you are contradicting yourself. The mere fact that it is impossible to speak as you claim we could speak, making no reference to final cause, lends powerful support to my argument: you yourself are a witness on my behalf.)

The true degree of your inability to describe final causation in terms of mechanical causation has not been impressed upon you.

Let me try again:

Imagine a game of naughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe). You are “playing against” a group of matchboxes. Each matchbox has one possible board on it with the X’s and O’s filled in. Your move consists of picking up the matchbox that has the drawing of the move you want to make, so that, for example, if you want to fill in an X to the center square on your first turn, you pick up the matchbox with that design on it. The design represents the move.

Inside the matchbox are a number of jellybeans, eight or less, representing one of the possible counter moves. You shake the box and remove a bean at random, without looking. You select the next matchbox that represents the countermove represented by the jellybean, and make your move in turn, and repeat the process.

Any game that ends in a draw, or a win for the matchboxes, you restore the beans to the matchboxes. Any game that ends in the victory for you, you eat the jellybeans.

Got it? If you do this several times, soon the matchboxes will “learn” how to avoid losing moves, because the bean that led to a loss last time, you ate, and so it is no longer a possible move you can blindly draw forth from the matchbox. Eventually, all the games will end in a draw.

Now, describe this extremely, extremely simple machine without using any words that refer to final cause, such as “represent” or “move” or “win” or “draw.”

All you can describe is the material composition of the system and nothing else: the size and shape of the meaningless cross shaped marks, or the diameter and color of the meaningless circle shaped marks, the chemical composition of the sugars in the jellybeans, or the wavelengths of light reflected from their surfaces, but do NOT describe what they stand for, mean, or what purpose they serve.

You said you could describe the purposeful behavior of a designed machine without making any reference to purposes or design. Do so.

You will find you have only three possible responses:

1. change the subject/do not answer my question. This is an illegitimate and irrelevant response.

2. merely state that you believe that it is possible for someone somewhere, by describing all the nerve cells in my brain and they every possible state of motion or action, and in the brain of Martin Gardner (who invented the game I describe above), will somehow, somehwere, somewhen, perhaps with the help of the Wizard of Oz, provide a description of the rather simpler system of match boxes and jellybeans, including its final causes and purposes.

Of course, saying an answer exists is not the same as actually answering the question. I could say that somewhere beyond the antipodes is a witness who saw the murder, and who can convince the jury, and I can swear and testify that such a person exists: but unless the witness himself takes the stand and gives his testimony, my assurance that maybe someday he could or might is hearsay. This response is not rude, but it is still irrelevant.

3. Use some weasel word that means the same thing as “represent” or “symbolize” or “stand for” but which has a more mechanistic sound to it, and right the sentence in the passive voice. This is merely a sly attempt to sneak back into the discussion the very concept that you, not I, have said you have excluded from the discussion. This is not only irrelevant (and humorous at your expense) it is probative of my argument.

You have done this “sneak the stolen concept back” trick so often so far in this discussion, that I assume you are unaware of when you are doing it:  such as when you casually mention that the properties of the brain of a football player include the size, shape, weight, temperature of the gray matter, and also his intention to win.

Intention? Perhaps he wants to score the winning goal to impress the cheerleader he is sweet on, but which is in raging conflict with his desire to throw the game in order to win a bet placed on the other team in an illegal gambling ring.

But wait! Which of these things is not like the other? Let me see. Size, shape, weight, temperature, INTENTION.

The term free will refers to the categorical difference between

(1)  the  size, shape, weight, temperature of the football player’s brain. These are external facts which he cannot, merely by taking thought, absent brain surgery, alter. And

(2) compare this to his determination to win a touchdown and impress a cheerleader, versus his contrary desire to throw the game, betray his team, and collect an illegal bet. Unlike the former, this is an internal decision, an act for which he is legally and morally responsible, which is to say, he could alter his action by taking thought.

An account of the position of his brain atoms would not change his legal liability or moral responsibility.

Suppose you could predict, with a Buck Rogers brain-atom reading machine, the exact position of his every brain atom, and therefore deduce, even before he knew it, what he outcome of his internal mental struggle, his lust warring with his greed, would be. Does this mean he does not have free will?

Suppose his mother, who knows his character and his personality, with just as much certainty could deduce, even before he knew it, the outcome of his internal mental struggle. This does not mean he does not have free will. It merely means he has good character or bad.

I suggest that the Buck Rogers brain machine no more removes his free will than the insight of his mother does: it provide you, a human read who can decode the meaning of the thoughts represented by the brain atoms, a telepathic style insight, like what a mother has, into his character.

The “conflict” between free will and physics is an illusion, caused by improper and imprecise classification, that is, improper definitions, sloppy thinking, mistaking words for objects, metaphors for reality.

Reading Aristotle would help.

Please read and support my work on Patreon!