Free Will: I Solved the Problem This Morning!

Or at least I think I have. And I solved it strictly within the bounds of naturalism (a material and closed system multiverse), without any resort to supernaturalism (ghosts entering machines).

And I think I can explain it super concisely.

Ready? Here goes: We live in a big bang cosmos that got its laws and physical constants from a random quantum flux of the larger multiverse. From all the logically possible ways that our known cosmos could have banged at the big bang, it banged in just one way. It’s how the cookie crumbled.

And no, we humans, as part of this atomic flux, aren’t in any way disrupting the swerve of atoms from the big bang. Indeed, we are part of the determinate, 13.7 billion year, swerve. (Yes, I’m using the Roman atomist and poet Lucretius’s word swerve to characterize what atoms do.) Here’s Lucretius on the swerve of atoms (from On the Nature of Things, II 217-19, translated by Frank Copley):

Though atoms fall straight downward through the void

by their own weight, yet at certain times

and at certain points, they swerve [clinamen] a bit […]

In other words (to bring Lucretius into the 21st century), each new big bang cosmos produced by the multiverse is a fresh swerve of atoms blasting forth to cool and impact one another in a novel, yet determinate, manner. Here’s a bit more from Lucretius (just because he’s so good):

For myriad atoms sped such myriad ways

from the All forever, pounded, pushed, propelled

by weight of their own, launched and speeding along,

joining all possible ways, trying all forms,

whatever their meeting in congress could create,

that it’s no wonder if they all tumbled

into such patterns and entered on such orbits

as those that govern our cosmos and its changes. (V 187-194)

And, again, we aren’t in any way disrupting these material atoms in their determinate courses. Each of us consists of some of those atoms, and we’re all along for the ride. There is no such thing as contra-causal free will (minds disrupting the course of causally determined atoms).

But, then, why do we feel like we have free will? And this is my (perhaps unique) insight: The illusion of free will is caused by our ability to imagine logically possible futures, and to imagine how we might choose one of those futures over the others. We then notice in ourselves a desire to choose one of those futures. We follow that desire. But at no point in the process have we actually violated the deterministic cosmos; the swerve of atoms. We just imagine that we have.

Now I realize that philosophy has a name for this: compatibilism (the idea that determinism and free will are compatible). So maybe I’ve just restated compatibilism in a way that makes sense to me. But the two step process is what struck me as perhaps novel (or at least a fresh way of saying it):

  • first, we imagine logically possible alternative futures; then
  • we feel in ourselves the desire for following one of those futures, which we do.

We therefore confuse the tight coupling of imagination, desire, and action with free will. Our lives, in other words, run on a huge correlation-causation fallacy. Imagination, desire, and action seem to be in a causal relation to one another, but they aren’t. They’re only coincident. We make a narrative of them. We think we’re pushing the world around–making it break our way, in accordance with our purposes. We think we’re disturbing the universe, collapsing the wave function of logically possible worlds down to our single world–the world of our choosing. Actually, we’re just being puppeted by the swerve of atoms as we dream (as we run tapes in our heads of mental images of the future) and act on the desires that come to us. In short, we’ve got going a great narrative of ourselves as existential actors because we can imagine alternative futures. But that’s all it is. A story. In terms of the actual causal processes at work, we’ve got them completely backwards.

Perhaps the novelist Don DeLillo, in his novel White Noise, says this more clearly than I am:

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.

That’s the ballgame. You don’t really have free will. You imagine that you could go to Montana (it’s logically possible). You become aware of a desire to go to Montana. You go to Montana. Among the logically possible options you had before you, you imagine you chose to go to Montana. But it’s all an illusion. You were never really in an existential situation where the future was open. It was always closed. Closed by the big bang. The shrew of your little self didn’t really choose Montana. The Big Self–the Atomic Swerve–chose Montana. It chose you. It’s the real you. No atoms were harmed or disrupted in their courses because you went to Montana. They brought you there.

If you want to put God behind the Atomic Swerve and call Her the Big You, go ahead. But you are owned. You are mine, says the Atomic Swerve (or God). You feel free; you think you’ve chosen things. You haven’t.

Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that absurd?

So feel free to relax on a mushroom with the hookah caterpillar. You’re in the know now. You can’t really change anything. You’re belated. Everything was decided long before you got here. Smile. Stop with the uh oh and the oh no. Go with the flow. Say ah so. What else are you going to do?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Free Will: I Solved the Problem This Morning!

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    In what way would such a delusion improve our evolutionary compatibility with our environment? And why, if it is a true description of reality, should anyone care? And what would it mean to care? If the entire discussion is determined, as well as each of our positions in it and our reactions to them, who cares? And, finally, who or what is it that sees this determinism in action?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Well, I must say that your questions are like torpedoes to the hull of my thesis, and my rickety boat is headed to the bottom of dragon seas thanks to you! : )

      So I guess I didn’t solve free will this morning. But if the atomic swerve is not the ultimate answer, and if qualia must be accounted for, then I think we’re driven back towards some sort of mind-matter dualism.

      Maybe the physicist Andrei Linde is right. According to Discover magazine, Linde is reported to entertain a mind dependent cosmos: “[C]onsciousness may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time. He [Linde] wonders whether the physical universe, its laws, and conscious observers might form an integrated whole. A complete description of reality, he says, could require all three of those components, which he posits emerged simultaneously.”

      This sounds to me a bit like Thomism, with Aristotle’s formal and final causes returned to the equation of existence.

      But if Linde is correct, what does this mean for our understanding of the evolution of mind in animals? If mind is not a fluke of matter, but something that has always been “in the air” from the beginning with atoms, space, and time, then the evolution of animals with awareness may be akin to the evolution of land animals and migratory birds. Things that already exist–land, magnetic north, mind–are being discovered and exploited by life.

      In other words, just as land-dwelling animals do not create land, and migratory birds do not create magnetic north, perhaps the human brain does not generate mind, but stumbles upon it–taps into it–and so makes use of its existence as a strategy for survival.

      But Lucretius’s swerve also makes sense. So I’m quite confused again. At the moment, I’m at an impasse: Lucretius v. Andrei Linde? The material swerve v. qualia? Is there a middle route that reconciles these, or is one of them just flat out a dead-end?

      I don’t know.

      • Mikels Skele says:

        I’d go with Linde, if I had to choose. Those were sincere questions, by the way, not smarty-pants ones. 😉

      • Peter Smith says:

        Linde is reported to entertain a mind dependent cosmos: “[C]onsciousness may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time.

        David Chalmers, the well known philosopher of the mind, reached exactly the same conclusion. He claimed the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is so difficult that consciousness must be a fundamental property of nature.

        Here is one way to understand the matter. Think of consciousness as being a fundamental field in the Universe, much as the Higgs field is the fundamental field that gives particles their mass. Then, think of this field as permeating the Universe and wherever the field intersects brain cells it induces the experience of consciousness in the brain cells. The degree of consciousness would depend on the volume of brain cells and the richness of their connections to a sensory nerve system.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        That sounds plausible–a radio wave (mind)/radio box (the brain) analogy. But my question then becomes this: how do you test it? In other words, would it make sense to try to make an artificial brain radio to see if it could pick up the signal? And how would you know that the artificial intelligence generated was really having an internal mental experience or just mimicking one? And would the artificial intelligence be due to mind “in the air” or complexity in the box? These are very hard questions to chase, obviously.

        Somehow, mind needs an ecological component (brain or artificial brain interacting with the environment), but where is this mind that we can study it apart from our own brain radios and trust in our self-reporting that we are conscious (and not zombies)?

      • Peter Smith says:

        But my question then becomes this: how do you test it? In other words, would it make sense to try to make an artificial brain radio to see if it could pick up the signal?
        yes, that would be the path to go, although extremely difficult to do(think of the Higgs boson problem). The main problem is metaphysical prejudice, or, as I like to call it, pre-conceptual science. Who wants to pursue science that might lend support to the God hypotheses?

        Somehow, mind needs an ecological component (brain or artificial brain interacting with the environment)
        That is such an important observation. Alva Noe makes the same point in his book Action in Perception. Imagine for a moment you are suspended in an environment that allows no sensory inputs. No touch, no hearing, no sight, no smells, etc. Would your mind function under these conditions? Alva Noe thinks it would not. This is a form of Externalism

        I might as well make my metaphysical prejudices quite clear.
        I believe that:
        1) the Laws of Nature are the properties of God. This is what gives the Laws of Nature their prescriptive power. An easy, though crude way to visualize this is to think of the classic school physics demonstration of electromagnetism. A bar magnet is placed under a sheet of paper and iron filings are poured onto the paper. They immediately align themselves with the magnetic lines of force. The magnet would represent God, the lines of force would represent the Laws of Nature and the iron filings would represent the particles in the universe. I know that is a highly simplified analogy but it gets the idea across.

        2) the consciousness of God permeates the Universe and wherever it intersects suitable brain cells it induces consciousness in the brain cells. This consciousness has two special properties:
        2.1) the scope of the consciousness is limited by phenomenology. In other words it is limited by the sensory inputs of the organism, meaning it cannot experience other organism’s consciousness, even though they share the same field of consciousness, God’s consciousness.
        2.2) God, however, can experience the consciousness of all other organisms, giving God instant and direct awareness of the experiences of all other organisms. This thought has absolutely fascinating consequences, but I won’t go into them here. This thought has transformed my understanding of religion. God is not only the omniscient observer, God experiences his creation through the life forms in the Universe. Think of the difference between knowing every possible scientific detail about ice cream and actually tasting it.

        Returning to (1), I think you can now understand why I believe there cannot possibly be a conflict between religion and science. Of course there is a conflict between science and some people’s understanding of religion. However some peoples’ faulty understanding of a thing does not make that thing faulty. Many people have a faulty understanding of democracy but that does not invalidate the concept of democracy.

    • Peter Smith says:

      Here is David Chalmers’ paper. See the last part of his conclusions(Section 12).

  2. Peter Smith says:

    Here goes: We live in a big bang cosmos that got its laws and physical constants from a random quantum flux of the larger multiverse.

    Your starting point is an unproven metaphysical assumption.
    1) “We live in a big bang cosmos“: True, proven by hard empirical science.
    2) “that got its laws and physical constants from a random quantum flux“; Nope, unproven speculation.
    3) “ larger multiverse“: Once again, unproven speculation.

    What makes science essentially science is our insistence on using observation to empirically verify our hypotheses. There are competing hypotheses for (2) and (3) and these have never been empirically verified. Without empirical verification they are little better than mathematical speculation. We should not be passing off mathematical speculation as good science, that is plainly dishonest.

    What makes the problem even worse is that Sir Roger Penrose has shown that the Big Bang is an absolute information horizon. It is simply impossible to observe events before the Big Bang. Therefore we cannot ever verify our speculations about prior events. They will always remain speculation and and will never be science.

    The reason we cannot observe events before the Big Bang is that the Big Bang is required to have an incredibly low entropy of one part in 2^10^10^123.
    This is an accuracy of better than one part in all the particles in the Universe. In other words, no information about prior events can pass through the Big Bang. Therefore we can never ever verify our hypotheses about events prior to the Big Bang.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      In my view, the only way to plausibly account for the cosmological constants without God or mind prior to matter is the multiverse. I let that stand as the metaphysical assumption to see if I could explain free will without resort to God giving people a soul and free will at birth. But of course, I then ran into difficulties concerning the evolution of mind. This is why God will never go away as a live possibility, and why I’m an agnostic and not an atheist. Physical laws before the big bang cosmos (and before the multiverse, for that matter) and mind need explaining. Those are the two big aporias (impasses): law and mind. And perhaps one other: what made the law–the math–catch fire in physical embodiment? It makes Platonism tempting–and, of course, Christianity is Platonism for the masses. I think Nietzsche said that.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Christianity is Platonism for the masses
        I just love that.

        In my view, the only way to plausibly account for the cosmological constants without God or mind prior to matter is the multiverse.
        Or the cyclic universe of Neil Turok and Roger Penrose.

        But consider this. Christianity claims, in Genesis, that God created the Universe. Until the mid-sixties science rejected this possibility, claiming instead that the universe had always existed. Then science found that the universe did indeed have a beginning.

        Strike 1 to religion.

        Then science uncovered the fine tuning of the universe but frantically invented unprovable hypotheses to explain away the implications.

        Strike 2 to religion.

        Then it was discovered (Roger Penrose) that we could never, ever discover what happened prior to the Big Bang. Think entropy of less than 1 part in 2^10^10^123. Now here is the thing. If God created the Universe then this is exactly what we would expect. Science could not possibly go prior to God’s act of creating the universe.

        Strike 3 to religion.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Those are the two big aporias (impasses): law and mind.
        That sums it up in a most concise manner.

  3. Peter Smith says:

    You make two important points:
    1) “The illusion of free will is caused by our ability to imagine logically possible futures, and to imagine how we might choose one of those futures over the others.

    2) “We then notice in ourselves a desire to choose one of those futures. We follow that desire.”

    Point 1 is a genuinely useful insight. All decision making is either reactive (deals with a present situation) or creative (tries to create a new situation). Reactive decision making is constrained by causal determinacy. There is always a best decision for any given set of circumstances and we will seek that decision, unless we have brought point 1 into play. Creative decision making is essentially unconstrained, our vast body art is evidence of that.

    If I can imagine any possible future then in that imagination I am exercising free will. This is the key point, my imagination of the future blesses me with free will. It is free because there are no inherent constraints on the way I exercise that imagination. This means that the future creative output of our species is essentially unbounded. This is the most powerful argument for the existence of free will.

    Of course, in step 2, my desire begins to constrain my choices. This only means that our free will operates under constraints, not that it is absent. However my freely exercised imagination greatly expands the horizon of choices available to me. It is this expanded horizon of choices that creates a degree of free will in step 2.

    The second powerful argument for free will is the existence of consciousness. If our brains were merely optimum decision making devices that take inputs, apply decision rules and choose the best output, there could not be any conceivable role for consciousness. To imagine a world without free will is to imagine myself as a passenger in a car with a dummy set of controls. The car is going to do what it does anyway and the car informs me that I have the illusion of control.

    Now what would be the point of that? Why would evolution spend vast neural resources to give me consciousness and then create the illusion of control? If my brain is an efficient decision making device then consciousness is not needed at all.

    In principle, given enough programming skill, a powerful enough computer, a rich set of sensors, I could create a program that exactly mimics the behaviour of a person. It could learn, adapt and create new rule sets that would make it more adaptive. But it would not need consciousness, only the ability to efficiently process inputs and produce appropriate outputs from a modifiable rule set.

    But there is no way, even in principle, that I can create a program that can freely imagine an unbounded future. I cannot create a program that possesses free will. That is because consciousness is required for the ability to imagine the future and we don’t have even the foggiest idea how to create a program that is conscious. As a long time programmer of large corporate systems I am very relieved by this fact. This last thing on earth that I want is for my corporate program to begin operating in any way other than the way I determined it should.

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