Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Greatest Gift

"You OK?"

The voice had genuine concern, whatever that meant. She tried to answer but the attempt induced a fit of coughing: the remnants of the river she had inhaled barking and spluttering from her mouth. Gradually the coughing subsided.

"Yeah, I think so."

There was a long pause, then he spoke again. Tentatively.

"If I might say, that seemed deliberate."

"What did?"

"Well I was watching and that definitely wasn't a fall. You jumped right in there."

She looked at her rescuer. Hair plastered to his face. Clothes shining wet in the moonlight.

"No it wasn't. An accident, I mean. My intention was to kill myself."

"Well I'd say it was a good job that I was here. But you might not think so."

Her attempt to reply was drowned in more coughing.

"I mean, you might ask what right I have to prevent someone from carrying out an action that they clearly intended. An act that, one might say, was of their own free will."

She looked at him sharply. Did he know? But his face was impassive and gave no indication of any deeper knowledge of her predicament.

"Fuck that." She replied. A dry cough serving to underscore the final word.

"You think I have that right?"

"No. I don't think anyone has any rights at all. Or at least if they do, it doesn't make any difference. The "that" I was fucking was free will. It was free will -- or rather the absence of it -- that led me here in the first place. That drove me to try to take my own life."

His subsequent exhalation metamorphosed into a laugh. This annoyed her. There was something stage-managed about it, almost commedia dell'arte. A laugh invoked by the recognition of something that an unseen audience had yet to find out. The exaggerated thigh-slapping laugh an English Literature teacher does in front of his pupils on hearing a Shakespearean joke. Seemingly recognising her irritation he spoke ahead of her retort.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. It would be odd enough to say that you were compelled to do something because of free will. It seems even odder to say that you were compelled to do something because of the absence of free will. Or, thinking about it further, maybe the absence of free will just leaves one perpetually compelled. For if there is no freedom, what else remains but compulsion?"

"I wonder." She said. "Whether it is traditional for people to have this kind of conversation when one of them saves the other from drowning. It could be the case, I suppose, I guess such conversations are rarely recorded for posterity."

He laughed again, this time more naturally.

"I imagine closeness to death seldom inspires immediate philosophising. A friend of mine was involved in a near-fatal car accident and he told me that far from his life flashing before his eyes all he could think about was whether he had put the bins out."

It was her turn to laugh, but he continued.

"Philosophy is seldom best done when ones mind is doused in adrenaline -- if I may be so bold and mix ontologies in such a way -- a cup of tea and an armchair, yes, drowning, definitely not."

She looked at him more closely now. He'd scooped his sodden hair back off his face. It was an everyday kind of face, a face that does the job of presenting its owner to the world without presumption, a face that makes no specific claims about the person beneath. By the two pink depressions on either side of the bridge of his nose he had also lost his glasses.

"Well you're certainly managing to sound like a philosopher, bins or no bins."

"I dabble. Although I would hate to call myself 'a philosopher'. It is a bit like calling oneself a poet or a comedian no sooner has the word passed your lips than its 'ooh give me a rhyming couplet then, crack me a joke, explain Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence'. And of course, in such situations one's mind quite dries up. Although, I guess that might be useful right now."

He blew a drip of water theatrically off his nose.

This time they both laughed.

She shivered which brought her mind back to the reason why she was here.

"Strange that of all the people who would rescue me it should be a philosopher. Or at least someone who dabbles, or should that be paddles?"

The expected laugh did not come. She turned to face him, for the first time there was an intense, almost grim, look upon his face. He was staring right at her.

"Miss Bailey, I'm afraid I'm here to rescue you twice."


Thursday, January 05, 2012

Free Will: A comfort blanket for the distressed

Free will is a huge pain in the arse for those who think about it and particularly for me. Here is the central paradox.

If we live in a deterministic universe then free will is impossible, if we live in an indeterministic universe then free will is impossible.

Here's why.

A deterministic universe means that so long as you know the particular starting conditions of the universe AND you know all the laws of physics then you can predict all future events (this is an 'in principle' argument, as you might have realised). So a sufficiently intelligent and knowledgeable individual could predict knowing the conditions after the Big Bang all future events, including the formation of the solar system, the evolution of life and -- because our minds are just made of stuff -- your response to this sentence (the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace imagined a daemon that could do this).

This means that all your actions could have been predicted billions of years ago. There is exactly one possible future (as Dennett puts it), so no free will.

On the other hand if the universe is indeterministic then this means that there is an element of randomness. Sometimes a particle goes this way, sometimes that way. Which means that your decisions might also contain and element of randomness -- a coin flip. The reason why you decided to read this post might have just been the result of some random event inside your head. Your actions are -- at least partly 'determined' by indeterminate randomness. Again, doesn't feel like free will to me.

Many people get depressed by this, but you really shouldn't. The source of most people's depression is the feeling that what they do 'doesn't matter'. "If everything is determined" they say "then it doesn't matter what I do." Or "This means that I have no control over anything".

Both of these positions are, I believe, false. The problem is that bloody word 'I' (or 'me' in some cases).

If you are talking about some kind of ghostly 'I' (or 'me') that is somehow outside the physical world then this is true, but if you think of 'I' as meaning 'The set of biological/cognitive processes that constitute what I am as a human' then you very much do matter and you DO have a choice. Take the decision to save a drowning child (I assume you would do this because I assume you are nice people). You might say that that is not a free decision because someone (Laplace's Daemon) could have predicted your choice a billions years ago. But the fact is that YOU with all you particular genetic quirks and life experience had to be exactly how you are in order to make that choice. That simple decision is a the result of a cascade of neuronal/cognitive processes drawing on information from inside (your emotional response -- sympathy, empathy) and outside (that the rescue is possible, for example).

In Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' the protagonist gets to see the world as it would be if he had never lived. He sees misery and corruption, a dead brother that he was never around to save, an 'old maid' that he was never able to marry, etc., etc. The central message is that he mattered, he made a difference because the world would have been different had he not been born.

It is the same with free will. You genuinely did make that decision to save that drowning child, to join that gym to give up smoking. No one or thing make that decision for you. If the universe were deterministic that decision could -- in principle -- have been predicted but you were the one that chose to do it.

The reason for the confusion and nihilism is that people ask the wrong question they ask 'do I have free will', To this I think the answer is no. Free will is not something that you 'have' like a cocktail shaker or a cocker spaniel. Having something means that you can do something with it. If you want to preserve the term 'free will' then think of it as something that you are.

As a coda I must address a final point of nihilism which is when people respond to the above by saying 'OK OK I get all that but it still means that it is impossible to change the future'. WTF does that even mean? Of course you can't change the future because it hasn't happened yet and once it has happened it's the past (and you can't change that either!)