Saturday 3 March 2007

Free will?

What is "Free Will"? Does it even exist?

I recently argued against a viewpoint that no such thing exist. That all we are is the sum of our genes and experiences.

I don't like this particular viewpoint because it leads to the idea that we really don't have free will. Everything we do has already been determined by our past, in other words we couldn't really choose differently. But to me this smacks too much of Laplace's Demon and that one was deemed a faulty idea some hundred years ago. The universe simply works chaotically why wouldn't we?

Let's assume we have two choices to make but can't make up our mind. So we flip a coin. Depending on how the coin falls our life could end up very differently. Chaos theory says the universe does these coin flips all the time and since our brain is in that universe, there are lots of coin flips going on in our brains all the time. You could of course argue that events at the quantum level "even out" in the same way as even though you can't predict when an uranium atom splits you do know the half-life of uranium. But at the same time it is impossible to determine what consequences this radiation has on other particles.

But does this randomness equate to free will? First you would have to determine what free will is. And to determine that you would first have to determine what "self" is. What mechanism makes us conscious of ourselves? Self-consciousness very obviously is a prerequisite for free will. How can we say there is no free will if we don't even know what makes us what we are? From a tightly scientific viewpoint we could arrive at the conclusion I'm arguing against but the problem is science hasn't provided the answers to even these fundamental questions.

And just to add another twist to this: I recently saw a documentary on epigenetics. This is a recent new idea that has gained popularity quickly in the scientific world because there are several problems in genetics that it can solve. Firstly, there are some diseases like diabetes or the enigma of Angelman syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome that doesn't seem to make any sense from a genetic point of view. The latter two syndromes are caused by the same genetic change but which one the patient gets depends on which parent he inherited it. This doesn't seem to make any sense, because genes do not have a memory. So how do they know which parent they came from? Diabetes also doesn't seem to follow any genetic rules. The second big problem is that now that the Human Genome Project project has been finalised scientist realised there simply aren't enough gene sequences to explain everything.
The interesting part of epigenetics regarding genes is that it looks like you could inherit events from your ancestors' past. There is evidence that if your grandparents suffered from famine at the right time you have a much higher risk of getting diabetes. Also, there is evidence that children whose parents or grandparents suffered a great trauma have a greater chance of suffering from depression. Think about it: some elements of your psyche could be down to something your grandparents experienced.

Of course you could group epigenetics into the same category as genetics but my point is that there is just too much randomness involved to make the original claim. Free will, I believe, is mostly created by randomness. We are the product of random events right from the beginning of the universe and what we do, what actions we take and decisions we make are partly random. Whether this randomness is just the same randomness inherit in the universe or if it is something more than that can't be determined before we know who we are. But with this amount of randomness and the fact we are self-conscious (as proved by Descartes with his famous "I Think Therefore I Am") we can safely say that even if we don't have free will it is damn near impossible to tell the difference. And without any evidence suggesting otherwise I rather believe I am really able to make choices rather than just working like a computer.

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