Free Will, Creativity, and the Game of Philosophy

Posted on 2011 November 19


I believe in maximum freedom for all, tempered by personal responsibility. As such, I often read and respond to Web essays on libertarianism, which — as its name implies — espouses political freedom and minimal government intrusion. Sometimes these discussions can get rather arcane, the commenters going back and forth with vigorous disagreements about the tiniest minutiae. I call them “How many libertarians can dance on the head of a pin” arguments. You’ll find this type of disputation everywhere, of course; no topic of interest thrives without a core of dedicated and eccentric debaters.

One such controversy, however, touched on a theme so old, it’s almost eternal — a topic important to many systems of religious and political thought. It’s “freedom versus determination.” Basically, if the universe is completely controlled by the laws of physics, then it doesn’t matter what we decide to do because our every action is predicted by rules we can’t escape. We merely think we’re free agents choosing our destiny, when, in fact, we’re just robots. The other side of the argument is that our minds are somehow independent and can act on their own, beyond the limits that apply to the physical universe.

This debate often becomes loopy, as when Christians claim we have free will but that God already knows everything that will happen. (I better not wade into that one!) But the stream of this disagreement trickles down through our culture and pools around the pillars of political belief.

The problem, for many libertarians, is that their ideology relies on the concept of agency — that humans are free willed and therefore responsible for their actions. Without this autonomy, the whole point of a political system based on freedom would be moot. Authoritarians could simply argue that, if all human activity is predetermined, no one is responsible for anything, and therefore crimes could be excused and the poor relieved of the duty to work for a living. (This argument itself contains paradoxes that any scholar of Christianity would recognize. But we’ll leave that for another day.)

In a recent blog, libertarian philosopher Sheldon Richman took issue with scientists who claim that the mind is merely the reflection of physical brain states:

“If mind is brain, there is no ‘psychological’ freedom or responsibility—no humanity. And if those don’t exist, there can be no political freedom or self-responsibility. What does not exist cannot be violated.”

The implication is that, were we to adopt fatalism as a philosophy, statists would win all the political arguments. And libertarians would be even further out in the cold than they are already.


Having more courage than sense, I replied with my own comment: I took the view that libertarians don’t really have to rely on free will in defense of their beliefs:

“What if the scientists turn out to be right? Does that disprove libertarian theories? Does that force us to accept authoritarian states? Hanging the entire libertarian ideal on the notion that the mind is rebelliously free of the laws of physics is a walk on thin ice, and if we fall through we lose the political debate as well. It’s a risky path, requiring that the reader accept a form of spirituality — a notion of the mind as a ‘ghost in the machine’ — before he or she can accept libertarian principles. That’s a lot for many people to swallow.

“But we don’t have to defend that viewpoint at all! In fact, Sheldon Richman’s arguments are protected, not disproven, by science. ‘Freedom vs. determinism’ is really a nineteenth century debate about ‘the universe as billiard balls’ that’s been transcended by later discoveries in math and physics, and the verdict casts aside both arguments:

“The mind may very well reflect a brain state — or at least an emergent property of brain states — but brain states themselves are complex non-linear processes subject to quantum uncertainty and Chaos Theory. So they’re essentially and forever unpredictable! This is also true of the weather, and galaxy formation, and the evolution of life on a changing planet, and the development of technology, etc etc. No one can predict any of these beyond a short span of time. Likewise, no one — not even scientists — will be able to predict the complete unfolding of brain states.

“Human purpose and freedom, then, are alive and well quite within the laws of physics — neither predetermined nor random, but more akin to something spontaneous. So it’s perfectly safe for libertarians to regard the mind as ‘the brain viewed from the inside’, because the brain itself is forever frisky and unpredictable.

“We are now free (literally) to focus on very straightforward libertarian arguments that even devotees of scientism can appreciate, e.g., ‘Force doesn’t work’ and ‘Freedom is vastly more productive’ and ‘Adults logically should choose for themselves’, etc. . . . ”

As you might guess, my arguments can be inserted, not just into a libertarian debate, but anywhere in the general discussion of free will vs. determinism.

There was one back-and-forth between me and another participant, an exchange interesting in its own right, but I’ll save you the agony. After that, the debate moved on, growling and storming like a receding thundercloud. I thought my part in it was over.

Then a new participant chimed in, speaking directly to my comments. “A lot of unnecessary mystery-mongering, here. If ‘free will’ is to mean anything important, it can’t be that actions are somehow uncaused (e.g., quantum effects, or chaos, or ’emergence’). What is the moral agency of randomness? It has to be, rather, that they are the result of *deliberation*. Deliberation is computation, which is physically and causally un-mysterious. This grounding in the ordinary causal world in no way frees people of responsibility; one of the inputs to deliberation is rules, constraints, and anticipated consequences and reactions. I’m a Ph.D. cognitive scientist, and it is dismaying to me that so many of my colleagues are so deeply confused about this.”

His comment raised multiple issues. But for our purposes, note his use of “quantum effects, or chaos, or ’emergence'” — he’s talking directly to me! He also added the casual assumption that “deliberation is calculation”, a highly debatable idea. The thinker in me was again fully aroused, stretching its claws, pawing the earth, and preparing to roar. (And you thought philosophy was for wimps!) I replied:

“Deliberation is computation? If that were true, our computers already would outthink us all the time. Sometimes they do, as in chess, but they use a system completely different from that of humans. Computers calculate as many different moves as possible, rating each branch of the resulting logic tree and moving forward along the best line; the great international grandmasters, on the other hand, think positionally, using a kind of inductive pattern awareness that ‘creates’ entirely new possibilities.

“These new positions can’t be deduced logically; rather, they’re ‘invented’, the results unanticipated by any rational system. Otherwise, chess books would merely lay out the obvious, and there’d be no point in playing. High-level chess positions emerge as brand-new things in the universe. The number of possible chess moves, though enormous, is finite, but the number of positional ideas is unbounded.

“We may be able, to a certain extent, to predict the activities of brain neurons, but we’re unable to predict the ’emergent properties’ of the collective actions of those neurons, i.e., new ideas and concepts. Brains aren’t computers; only sometimes do they calculate; the rest of the time they invent new ideas.

“Creativity is inherently unpredictable; otherwise, it’s not new. The fact that science admits it can’t fully chart out complex nonlinear processes, like the brain, doesn’t mean those processes are random! It means they’re ‘unknowable ahead of time’. It’s not random vs. determined; it’s something beyond that, something for which we have no words. (If we had the words, we’d be discussing a knowable computational process. I tried, in an earlier comment, to use the term ‘spontaneous’, but there’s really no way to strap down creativity under the fetters of words.)

“The mind, then — even if it’s in a one-to-one correspondence with brain states — is an unpredictable (though not merely ‘random’) part of life’s deliberations, and is therefore a separate and — as Sheldon Richman would put it — ‘responsible’ entity, not reducible to a formula.

“This is all a topic in philosophy — which itself stands outside science — so your professional colleagues are free to disagree about it. They’re perhaps not as misguided as they seem.”

…So there, buddy!

Okay, I admit it: I’ve been “dancing on the head of a pin” just like the people I make fun of. But this pin is one on which we all pirouette, and different steps can lead off that pin to entirely different life choreographies. (I’ll stop now with the strained dance metaphor.) It all can sound murky, but it’s a topic that matters: Are we free to invent our lives? Or are we constrained to walk in channels set down for us by the laws of the universe? It’s an endless question.

Sheldon Richman flattered me with a final reply: “Bottom line: No volition, no discourse. No discourse, no denying volition. Ergo volition.”

Interesting! Of course, I found a flaw in his humorous syllogism — not that he wasn’t aware of it himself — and I was tempted briefly to respond. But I decided it would be wise not to pull the lion’s tail more than once.