Thursday, 8 January 2015

Free Will

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Do we have free will? A deceptively simple question which most would answer in the affirmative. But this conundrum has occupied active and inquisitive minds for over two millennia. Until the 19th century this question was the exclusive preserve of pure philosophy. In the 19th century psychologists started to wade in and contribute to this most vexed of problems. Relatively recently disciplines as diverse as genetics, neurobiology and quantum physics have deemed free to add their own particular brand of wisdom/insanity. Surprisingly, at least to the layman’s mind, the view obtained from most studies and pure reasoning sides with the notion that we do not have free will. This deterministic perspective is counter intuitive and one which most would feel uncomfortable with. But it is not just about a vague feeling of unease that is at stake here. If the world is truly deterministic, if we have no real choice over our actions, then there can be no voluntary violation on our part and that, of course, has profound implications on our perceived notion of morality. If we have no free will then how can we be morally culpable for our actions? If our behaviour is determined from the day we are born to the day we die, then accountability is meaningless. We have no control over how we act and consequently traditional morality cannot apply. The ramifications from this sort of reasoning are immense and reach to the very core of what it means to be human. The practical implications are also disturbing and the judiciary should release all the felons from our criminal institutions immediately. After all we are mere automata. Trinkets driven by deterministic causal chains of events of which we have no conscious control. Arse.

As mentioned earlier, the idea that we are bereft of will free is counter to intuition and seems bizarre. Therefore, it will be profitable to outline why this viewpoint is prevalent amongst those who make a living by contemplating this sort of thing.

It is argued that all atoms obey predictable physical laws. The neurons in the brain, which are the ultimate arbiter of our actions, consist of atoms. Therefore in principle, at least, we should be able to plot the behaviour of all atoms in the brain and therefore the response of all the billions of neurons comprising our nervous systems, together with all their interactions, and hence all our behaviour should be liable to prediction with unerring certainly. Of course, this would only relate to a ‘closed system’. Or in other words an individual suspended in a blackened room not receiving any stimuli or any form of interaction from the outside. When we emerge into the sunlight and blink, things start to get complex. The point being that everything is predetermined and has an antecedent stretching back to the ultimate cause, the big bang. Or is this a case of classic scientific reductionism and causality running amok and turning the absurd into absolute madness (wibble bucket). If it makes you feel better you are free to disagree. Or are you?
To my mind this is one of sciences and  philosophies greatest challenges and is ultimately unresolvable. Perhaps we should stop pondering the imponderable and channel humanities immense talents into curing cancer or at least inventing the everlasting light bulb.

Very relevant after the atrocities in France caused by followers of the 'Religion of Peace'.                         Roland awake..... 

1 comment:

  1. Given my views on all forms of religion, I guess I need to go into hiding...