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Determinism and free will


To: Greg H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Determinism and free will
Date: 19 December 2001 18:31

Dear Greg,

Thank you for your e-mail of 9 December, with your essay for Possible World Machine in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

This is a question which calls for an answer in two parts. You have attempted an answer to the first part only. That is perfectly OK. For future reference, you do not have to stick to the precise wording of the question, so long as you are clear what question you are responding to.

Your idea that our everyday actions can be divided into routine and innovation is an interesting angle on the free will question.

I don't think that you meant to imply that finding the orange starts off a routine which I do not have the power to bring to a halt. Rather, we make certain decisions which then lead to actions which we perform without having to think about it. However, if, say, the telephone rings, we have the power to interrupt the sequence. By contrast, you might click the wrong icon on your computer which starts off a routine which cannot be aborted, and you have to sit dumbly by and wait for the computer to finish doing its thing. A programmed 'routine' in a computer is not like a 'routine' sequence of human actions, where we have the 'freedom' to interrupt the routine, if we choose.

What is true, is that if I grasp an orange with the intention of eating it, I will perform actions which an observer would be able to predict with a high degree of reliability that I would perform. Whereas, in the case of innovation, we take everyone (including our own selves) by surprise. 'Fancy you choosing to study philosophy!'

Some philosophers, notably Elizabeth Anscombe, have responded to the seeming conflict between free will and determinism by questioning whether it makes sense to talk of the existence of 'universal laws' of cause and effect. We have to consider two kinds of case here. There is apparent experimental evidence that certain events happen without a determining cause, i.e. quantum phenomena. That is one case. However, there is another type of case which you (and Elizabeth Anscombe) seem to be talking about where it is impossible to duplicate experimental conditions sufficiently precisely to guarantee that the result will always be A rather than B. What we would like to say is that there *is* a universal law, but it is impossible to formulate the law, because it would require an endless series of conditions. (For example, trying to formulate the law which says exactly when the triangle will fall to the left and when it will fall to the right.)

Elizabeth Anscombe concludes that it is impossible to define cause and effect in terms of universal laws. I do not disagree with this, but I do think there is a way to define what we mean by 'determinism' in terms of universal law, by reference to the whole universe. If the universe ever comes around again to the point where at 5 pm on the date locally known as '19 December 2001', 'GK' is deciding whether or not to write to 'GH', then 'GK' will decide to write. You may say, it is extremely improbable that the universe will ever get into the same state again. Yes, but this is just a definition. And it succeeds in making the point that challenges us when we try to define what we mean by 'free will'. Given the entire state of the universe (which includes a series of conditions which it would be impossible to list) I had to write to you today. For if the universe is ever in the same state again then etc. etc.

How, in a deterministic universe is it possible for there to be such a thing as innovation? That is a good question to raise. The evolution of life on Earth is a pretty impressive example of how innovation arises through the dumb mechanics of cause and effect. The computer chess program Deeper Blue that beat Gary Kasparov doubtless made many 'innovative' moves, i.e. moves which chess theory up to that point had not recognized but which subsequently became incorporated into the growing body of chess knowledge.

Your example of the triangle, and the experiment which sometimes produces A and sometime produces B is the perfect response. Innovations are not exceptions to the law of cause and effect. Rather, they are cases where we lack sufficient insight into the processes of nature to be able to predict what the result will be.

So what does that show? Our actions can sometimes be innovative, which leads us to think that they are 'free'. But this is consistent with the universe running according to strict laws of cause and effect. Does that mean we are not free, after all? Or does it show that what we ought to *mean* by the term 'freedom' is not incompatibility with cause and effect, but rather...what?

All the best,