Intellectualism and Free Will

Not that I’m prone to over thinking these things, but you have to love the way a simple Twitter query can raise the whole nature of the cosmos into question.

Question: What is the scientific basis of Free Will?

Answer: I don’t know. Choose your own answer.

Of course, that doesn’t address the question so much as wrap it in a fallacious paradox and return to sender.

If I were to approach the question from a “pop-science” perspective, I’d say that free will appears to be randomised (ie non-logical, or unpredictable) decision making, and we can observe plenty of wholly random events in nature. Brownian motion is a classic example to demonstrate the complexity of a system increasing exponentially with the number of its components, to the point where “randomness” becomes inherent.

If you want to see true randomness in action, take a rectangle of paper in landscape format and make two vertical cuts from the top edge halfway down, one a third of the way in from the left edge, and the other a third of the way in from the right. Now grasp the top corners and tear the piece of paper into three in one swift motion. If you measure the cuts accurately, and balance the forces, the central piece should come apart from the left piece and right piece simultaneously, right? Wrong. It’s impossible to tear a flat sheet of paper into three without holding all three bits, and you won’t usually be able to tell which side will detach successfully. That’s randomness.

A note to engineers. The copier paper at work looks like an endless supply, but please don’t try this more than half a dozen times. Hiding the evidence will prove problematic and someone will only ask what you’re doing. At which point they begin to try it, and so on. For a more “real life” model of how badly this can go, see “nuclear chain reaction”. To explain to an arts graduate why this is bad, threaten them with a remix of “Diana Ross, Chain Reaction.”

Free will might be, then, just a large scale demonstration of the basic randomness of complex systems. Your brain might give you an instruction but your body apparently fails to carry it out. I have that with resisting chocolate. Circumstances might curtail your choices, but there always remains an essential decision between compliance with expectation and compliance with your will, and sometimes when those two align themselves there is the option of compliance with a deeper (or left-field) anarchy. Well done, brain chemistry and the subconscious, taking us on a path we might never have chosen if we were thinking clearly at the time.

At a personal level, I find very little in “popular science” to explain free will, but plenty of inference that it’s endemic in our universe. Entropy might rule eventually, but it’ll be the slow and relentless normalisation of a random existence that consistently changes tack and defies expectation.

As a man of faith, I have no problem with this. Musically I’m deeply into making things up as we go along and bouncing music and ideas off my collaborators. I like to work in smaller bands because the complexity is just right, not too much to handle but more than I can achieve solo. I can comfortably live in a universe that has freeform improv built into the design at a fundamental level. Who knew God digs jazz?

Addendum: Brownhills Bob points out the paper illustration above is not an example of randomness but of mechanics. The unpredictable outcome is a function of unseen variables not chance, so I concede the point entirely.

By “Free Will”, I guess though that you could say it’s a function of unknowable variables in the person and/or situation. Again with the subconscious and brain chemistry, taking over where sensible physics was hoping we’d managed to get a handle on things. The Brownian motion bit stands though – there isn’t enough space to audit and record data about every particle in the known universe, and the status of one particle cannot be completely determined by knowing the status of another because there are too many elements creating a complex and effectively random system. Except for the possible applications of quantum entanglement, which seems right now only to be the most expensive party trick in the cosmos, we just have to live with some of this stuff.


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