Re: Choice and "Randomness" as Illusions

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Thu, 26 May 1994 16:56:50 +1000

> C. Pate's remark that I seem to define choice as an illusion is quite
> correct. Randomness is readily mistaken for evidence of indeterminacy,
> as is our impression that we make choices out of our own free will. But
> the belief that randomness inheres in phenomena, and the belief that
> free will inheres in us, are equally illusory in the strict sense of
> the term as Freud used it: illusions are not necessarily false; they are
> beliefs we embrace because of wishful thinking rather than evidence.
> Maybe God does take all Believers to be with Him for Eternity; but the
> belief is an illusion. Part of the problem is that most of us still
> assume things are more or less as they seem. Once one takes seriously
> the overwhelming evidence,especially from physics, that reality is quite
> different from immediate appearances, it becomes plausible--to me,
> undeniable--that choice, which feels like an act of a free will, is not
> that at all. It appears that a coin is free to come up heads or tails,
> just as it appears we are free to believe or behave as we will. But
> these appearances are illusions. We embrace the illusions because they
> "feel good," and they are sustainable because we are ignorant of the act
> ual determinants. In the case of the coin, we--physicists, anyway--know
> the determining variables but not their values on a given flip; In the c
> ase of the human, we social scientists do not even know--though we have
> some general hunches--what the determining variables are. Our ignorance
> of the determination of our own behavior is fairly profound; but that
> ignorance is neither a necessity nor a virtue. --Bob Graber

While I agree that "free will", in the sense of something mysterious
inhering in people which is independent of ordinary causality, is just
plain obscure (ie not even well defined, let along non-existent), I
do think the term can usefully be used in studying behaviour; there
is a real difference between opening a door of one's own accord and
doing it at gunpoint.

And it must be pointed out that quantum mechanics suggests that
randomness DOES inhere in phenomena. However I believe that this has
absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether individuals
have free will or not (contra Penrose's _The Emperor's New Mind_ and
Capra's _The Tao of Physics_). Randomness at the level of qm IS
evidence for indeterminacy, but neither of these are evidence for
"contra-causal freedom" or anything silly like that.

You CAN define determinism at higher levels than physics, but
it becomes progressively less useful a concept. So "getting the
same result" every time your rerun something with the same initial
conditions is a not unreasonable defintion in physics - it becomes an
unreasonable thought experiment at higher levels. And "the future is
predictable if you have a big enough computer" approach is reasonable
at the level of individual particle interactions, but is completely
infeasible at the level of the social.

And even if we were to pass over the ludicrous computational
requirements and agree that "in theory" we could predict human
behaviour just using physics and a big computer, we would still have
to translate "up" and "down" from psychological and cognitive terms
to physics in order to be able to ask questions and understand
the answers; a prediction of the future in terms of particle
momentum/position vectors doesn't give you any of the things you want
if you are studying human behaviour. (This is why reductionism is
completely flawed.)

So I suspect the real reason philosophers have always thought that
determinism was incompatible with freedom is because they have
been afflicted with reductionism and haven't had anthropological
training; once one realises just how complicated the forces that shape
individuals are, it isn't such an awful thing to accept that one is
"nothing more" than the interaction of one's biological heritage and
one's socialisation/life history.

Danny Yee (Philosopher-Anthropologist in training :-).