On Billiard Balls and Scorched Cats

I once got into a relatively lively email debate with a friend of mine concerning the nature of free will. One of us argued that we had it and the other argued that we didn't. The exchange ended when he sent me an email explaining that he was agitated and losing sleep over the matter.

My life is weird sometimes.

People hear that story and often assume that my friend was the one who believed in free will and that I was one who didn't but in reality the reverse was true. I believed in free will; my friend did not.

To this day I'm not 100% sure why he got so agitated but I suspect he thought I was spouting some sort of mystical, new age nonsense and that this (rightly) irritated him. If I'm right, that's unfortunate, because that's about as far away from my views as you can get.

To be clear, I don't actually believe in or practice mysticism of any kind. But I do believe in free will. In retrospect, I can see how this stance might be confusing. At least one of my friends has called it "strange". Generally speaking, I think it can all be traced back to the way the free will debate is peddled to the general public (when people think about it at all).

Traditional Dichotomies

The free will debate is conventionally framed as a contest between free will and determinism. Traditionally, these concepts are understood to be mutually exclusive - if you believe in one, you can't believe in the other. Believing in determinism means believing that we live in a kind of "clockwork" universe, where one physical event causes another physical event in an endless chain going back to the beginning of time. All possible events in the universe are subject to this causal chain. In particular, since people are generally considered to be part of the physical universe, and since their brains are generally considered to be physical objects, and since their choices are generally considered to be physical events, it can be said that a person's choices are subject to this causal chain like any other physical event. A person making a choice, in this kind of universe, is not really fundamentally different than the operation of any physical system - like a steam engine, for example. A really, really complicated steam engine.

People have a hard time imagining what a person's free will (as generally understood) would even look like under such a framework. Where exactly would it fit among all the swirling particles bumping up against each other in predetermined ways? The reason why it's so hard to imagine has to do with a concept that's normally built into the popular account of free will: the principle of "alternative possibilities". The basic idea here is simple and intuitive: if a person makes a free choice, let's say choosing A over B, it must have been possible for her to choose B. That is to say, if one were to "rewind the universe" to the point just before the choice was made, and watch the whole thing play out again, it would still be possible for the person in question to choose B over A. You could do the same thing over and over again, and you wouldn't be able to reliably predict the outcome.

This particular version of "alternative possibilities" (also known as the "could have done otherwise" principle) is completely at odds with determinism, which is why many people think that if you want to believe in free will, you have to reject determinism, which effectively means rejecting science - or at least rejecting the notion that the universe consists solely of swirling particles bouncing off against each other like so many billiard balls (I'm grossly simplifying classical physics for the sake of argument, but you get the idea). Believing in free will, under this dichotomy, means believing that human beings somehow have the ability to step outside the laws of physics when they make a choice. As it is virtually impossible to describe how such an act is even conceivable, this belief tends to be equated with a belief in miracles, or mysticism, or some new age gobbledygook. In other words, it's not to be taken seriously by rationally minded people.

A Detour Into Quantum Physics

Of course, people with a certain amount of scientific knowledge understand that the universe doesn't actually work this way - that the popular image of the universe as a giant collection of billiard balls hitting each other in mathematically calculable ways is patently false. The relevant theory here is quantum mechanics, and it has pretty much shown determinism the door. Without going into the details (partly because they are not necessary, but mostly because I don't know them), most interpretations state that movement of particles in the universe is, to a large extent, completely random. In this case, "rewinding the universe" really might lead to a different outcome.

For a while, people thought that quantum mechanics could breathe new life into the traditional notion of free will but as the years went on it became clear that there was no easy way to make it work. For one thing, just because the universe operates in a fundamentally random manner, it doesn't follow that our brains operate in a similar way. Steam engines, with all their classical, mathematical predictability, didn't suddenly stop working when quantum mechanics was discovered even though their operation, like everything else in the universe, is fundamentally based on quantum mechanical theory. At a high enough level the universe becomes deterministic and predictable; the question is whether our brains operate at a high enough level for this to happen.

The problem, though, is more fundamental than that. Even if it were discovered that quantum mechanical randomness formed an essential, observable part of the every day operation of our brains, saying that one's choices are the results of "random fluctuations" hardly seems any better than saying that they are the result of a series of determined causes. If it's hard to imagine where free will fits among the predetermined trajectories of swirling particles, it's equally hard to imagine where free will fits among the completely random trajectories of swirling particles.

And so we're back to square one. The universe may or may not be deterministic, our brains may or may be deterministic, but it seems that no matter how the cake is sliced, there's no room for free will to operate in this universe unless you embrace the notion that human beings somehow operate outside the realm of physical law.

Rejecting the Dichotomy

As I mentioned before, I believe this last part is why my friend became irritated with me. Given my support for the idea of free will, he thought I was suggesting that human beings were in some way "magic", that I was in some way rejecting the idea that humans beings were physical entities, subject to same physical rules as anything else. I wasn't, but it's an understandable mistake. The way the debate is generally portrayed, there really isn't any other way to think about it.

It's not true, of course; there are many different ways to think about it. The first step is to realize that the free will debate, as it is traditionally formulated, is founded on a false dichotomy.

When I was in high school, I joined the debate team. I'm not sure what the rules are elsewhere, but where I went to school, the "affirmative" side got to define the terms of the debate, while the "negative" side had to accept those terms. I always thought this was grossly unfair; it seemed to me that the affirmative side had a huge advantage. What if they defined the terms in such a way that they couldn't help but win?

To some extent, this sense of unfairness still colours my thoughts. I tend to think that the point of any debate is really about who gets the right the use the words involved without the scare quotes. Do you believe, for example, that gay people can be married - or do you believe instead that gay people can merely be "married"?

In the case of free will, I think that the reason why people have a hard time imagining how it could possibly exist in a completely deterministic, scientific universe is because, to put it bluntly, they're thinking about it wrong. People want something out of the term that the universe can't deliver and this means, in my opinion, that their definitions are bad.

Words are slippery things. They denote things, yes, but they also come with baggage and history, conveniently referred to as connotations. The trick is figuring out which parts of the word are essential and which are not. At what point does fiddling with the word change its meaning entirely? At what point are you better off using a completely different word - or using scare quotes, just to be safe?

Take a word like life, for example. Now there's a word loaded with baggage. There was a time, not so long ago, when the word was drenched in religious and mystical connotations. People basically used to believe that something could only be alive if it possessed a kind of non-material "vital spark". That belief, that there is something fundamentally and intangibly different about the chemistry of living systems as opposed to non-living systems, is called vitalism and it's been thoroughly discredited, basically ever since urea was first synthesized from non-organic materials. Most (rationally minded) people don't believe it anymore.

It's easy to imagine a scientifically-minded skeptic during that period of upheaval, patting himself on the back for never having believed in any sort of mystical life force, ridiculing all people who dared to believe that there was ever anything special about living things. But this person is now faced with a dilemma. Should the concept of life itself be shunned as tainted goods? Is it so imbued with religious and mystical significance that we'd be better off rejecting the concept - and hence the word - entirely?

It's a definite option. Why not? He could declare his belief, for example, that life, as it had been hitherto understood, being so intertwined with the notion of a mysterious vital spark, does not exist. He could declare that nothing is truly alive in the sense of possessing this undetectable spark. And he'd be right, of course, as far as that went. He could do it - but he'd still be faced with the deceptively simple task of distinguishing between, let's say, a cat which purrs and eats and runs - and a cat which does none of these things because someone stabbed it through the heart. Or between someone who talks and laughs - and someone who doesn't because he or she is lying six feet underground in a coffin. There's a very clear and obvious contrast to be made here and words like alive and dead and life all seem to fit the concepts quite nicely - even if you reject the vitalism with which they used to come bundled.

Obviously, no one actually took the option I'm suggesting. When scientists use the word life, they don't mean something vastly different than the average person. Even for hard-nosed atheists, there's a ton of conceptual overlap between their usage of the word and, let's say, a Catholic's usage of the word - enough so that we don't bother coming up with a different word. Perhaps more to the point, no one would ever say today that we are misusing the word life if we don't believe in a vital spark. That's not to say that no one believes in a life force, just that it's not essential to the concept of life. More likely, we would describe what biologists do today as explaining life rather than denying its existence. This is, I feel, a profound truth. The denial of vitalism didn't eradicate the concept of life; it clarified it.

Making Choices

The case of free will is completely analogous. Some people may believe that the idea must come bundled with some sort of mystical ability break the laws of physics, but why does this have to be the linchpin of the definition? Free will, at its most basic, is simply the ability of humans to deliberate, consider alternatives, and make conscious decisions. The ability to do what you want to do, and to act in accordance with your own character - indeed, the ability to even have a character. It has a very behavioural component to it. There doesn't have to be anything mystical about it.

In my mind, free will very obviously exists. How could it not? We see people making deliberate, conscious choices every single day. Every time someone chooses to wear a blue t-shirt over a black one, every time someone chooses peanut butter over cream cheese, every time someone decides to go to the movies over cleaning the apartment. This is what it means to exercise one's free will. It's nothing more than an observable, natural aspect of human existence that warrants study and explanation. Denying its existence is akin to denying the existence of the colour red.

If I claimed that free will did not exist because human beings are ultimately nothing more than physical entities, I would be making the same mistake as someone who claimed that life did not exist because vitalism is false. I would be underestimating the amount of everyday, non-mysterious overlap between my naturalistic view of the word and another with more religious overtones. I would still be faced with the need to distinguish between, let's say, murder and suicide, or between rape and sex - very tough to do unless you have a clear, concrete notion of what it means for someone's will to be violated, or of what it means to want something as opposed to not wanting something. In other words, unless you have a clear notion of free will.

Does it really matter, in the end, if our choices and wants and desires have ultimately physical causes? As long as, at the end of the day, you get to do what you want - isn't that enough to say that you have free will? Why does there have to be magic involved as well?

Some people will think that I'm playing word games here. For a lot of people, a non-negotiable feature of what they would call free will must be, as mentioned before, the ability to "have done otherwise". For every metaphorical split in the road, it must have been possible for you to pick the other path. For many, it feels like the science is actively working against the intuition here - and, if I'm honest with myself, I can see where they're coming from.

It seems irresistible, but is the power to have done otherwise really necessary to the concept of free will? Simply put, I don't think so. A friend of mine loves cats, for example. If someone offered her $100 to set a kitten on fire, I think I (or anyone) could safely predict what her answer would be. You could "rewind the universe" as much as you like, and I suspect her answer would be the same, every single time. What would it even mean, in this context, to say that she "could have done otherwise"? The idea itself is incoherent. You'd have to have the ability to act against your own character. Are we suppose to think that there's a parallel universe out there where my friend, cat lover to the core, decides that today is the day she starts hating kittens and accepts the $100 to set one on fire?

Consider the following narrative:

The ivory billiard ball is moving at 30km an hour, at an angle of 43 degrees. It hits another billiard ball, also made of ivory, which then sets off at 17 degrees and 19km an hour. That ball hits a third, identical ball, which moves away at 56 degrees and 10km an hour, and falls into the side pocket of the table.

And contrast it with this one:

Donald walks to the corner store because he wants to buy some milk. He sees a homeless person on the way and gives him a dollar, like he always does. He arrives at the store and sees a litre of organic milk and a litre of regular milk, for half as much sitting side by side. He has never in his life bought organic anything and sure as hell isn't going to start now. He picks up the litre of regular milk and brings it to the cashier, who proceeds to ring it up. Donald thinks briefly about what it would be like to hold up the store and steal all the money in the register, but this never amounts to anything but idle speculation. He pays for the milk and leaves.

There's no fundamental difference between these narratives. They just describe fairly ordinary situations at different levels of abstraction. In either case, if you believe in determinism, "rewinding the universe" would have no effect on the outcome of either narrative - the ball would always be sunk, and Donald would always leave having paid for the regular milk. And yet, when people assert that free will doesn't exist, I suspect they're probably thinking a lot more about the first narrative than the second. The first narrative describes the popular conception of determinism to a tee. The balls move in the direction they move because of physics - because they had to move that way. The second narrative is just much more...mundane. Donald doesn't buy the organic milk, not because he's a puppet controlled by the laws of physics, but simply because he doesn't want to. He gives a dollar to the homeless person, because that's just the kind of guy he is. Watching the scenario play out the same way time and time again doesn't seem to have nearly the same sort profound metaphysical effect - at least on me. I would have a very difficult time convincing myself that Donald doesn't have free will, just as I would have a very difficult time convincing myself that my friend the cat lover doesn't have it, no matter how many times they make the same choice over and over again.

Maybe, instead of making the "could have done otherwise" principle a critical part of the idea of free will, we should replace it with "could have done otherwise, if you had wanted to". That seems much more reasonable to me.

I Never Said I Was Original

If you're interested in labels, it turns out that the name for what I'm proposing is called compatibilism. It's the belief that free will is, in fact, compatible with determinism. It turns out I share roughly the same views as David Hume and Thomas Hobbes.

One the one hand, I'm little disappointed that I didn't come up with anything novel. On the other hand, I suppose it's nice to independently come to the same conclusions as people who are generally considered to be pretty smart.

Ultimately, I suppose I just think that words should be, first and foremost, useful and that useful in this context means effective in delineating contrasting ideas. A word doesn't stop being useful just because some part of its historical baggage ends up being incoherent. One can use the word mind for example without being accused of religiosity.

So it is with free will. Denying it is useless, since there is very obviously something out there in the real world matching the concept. The task at hand is just making sure it aligns with reality.