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Measure for Measure

This Post Might Be A Bit Free Willy

So, do I believe in free will?


However, I also believe in Forrest Gump’s feather – that although the fall of the feather appears random to the casual observer – it is not.

If you knew every gust of wind, the motion of every molecule in the almosphere at that particular moment – the feather would fall the same way.

Because as you know, if you sook out the air from the picture, the feather falls straight down. Like a stone.

This is why I think that omniscience trumps surprise.

If you know EVERYTHING at any point in time you would be able to figure out EVERYTHING that will ever happen. EVER.

This would seem to point to a touch of inevitability about everything.

But it doesn’t.

If I put out tuna, cheese and ham sandwiches for the lunch and my three children come in I “know” which child will choose each sandwich. They will choose out of their own free will. They could throw me a googly and pick something random and off piste, should they choose to do so. But they won’t.

I make no claim to be omniscient.

But some things I know.

Knowledge does not affect the free will behind the choice.


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23 thoughts on “This Post Might Be A Bit Free Willy

  1. Interesting. How do you relate knowledge and power? They are surely linked – and if one has knowledge, then do they not have power over that which is known?
    Also, do you ‘know’ your kids will choose a particular sandwich, or is this actually a prediction based on gathered evidence? For knowledge in the sense of omniscience is not a prediction, it is the documentation of an event that out-with the finite time contingency has already happened, therefore known, not predicted….. maybe??

    • No – I don’t relate knowledge and power. To use the weak example – I know what sandwich will be chosen. I can do nothing about that (except perhaps add pickle *eek* or something.)
      And no, I don’t “know” they will – that’s just an example. If there was hard actual knowledge – it would have no bearing on the choice. It would just feel inevitable from the POV of the knowledgeable onlooker. But it wouldn’t be.

      And remember, I think that if there were omniscience, it could only be an attribute of a being outside of time.

      So inevitability doesn’t come into it.

  2. You are so clear about knowledge and its relation to free will. Knowledge prior to an outcome does not negate free will’s power. You might know the possible outcome but it still doesn’t mean that you will do the sensible thing. Free will is out there and it can turn you into the other direction.

  3. An interesting discussion of the prompt. I went for flippant, as usual. 🙂

  4. All right, I am going to join Tilly Bud and being with the flippant – you live in Scotland! I realize I’ve beens reading your blog for less than a full month, but somehow I had you located in the United States. In New Jersey to be exact. Not over here on the same side of the pond as I am.

    To the less than flippant, as you no doubt know, this question of free will has exercised philosophical and theological minds for centuries. It has divided Christians among themselves and influenced the development of law in nations for thousands of years.

    We feel as if we have free will when we make choices, and yet sometimes we clearly don’t. Actually, this whole question of determinism has exercised scientists as much as it has theologians. Newton thought that if we had enough information, we could predict where every particle, every atom in the entire universe had ever been and where it will ever be in the future. But since Heisenberg developed his principle of indeterminacy, few scientists believe this today. They believe that there is an uncertainty at the very core of the universe that we cannot ever completely disperse. As Stephen Hawkings put it, the potential for new information is infinite. Therefore, there is always more we can learn, but we would never be able to know everything even if we lived forever.

    • I think we don’t when others deprive us. But given a free choice I think we can take one! Certainly humanly speaking we will never know everything – but it doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t out there – we just haven’t sourced a truth storage unit big enough yet.
      I still hold that if everything were known at any one point, the rest would be obvious. It’s just humanly impossible, but that shouldn’t make it false.
      (I haven’t a scientific bone in my body…)

  5. Free Will doesn’t exist but not for the reasons you touched on above.

    Free will as most people would define it is an illusion of the concious mind. Neuroscientists demonstrated experimentally that your subconscious makes decisions quite a suprising amount of time before you are consciously aware of it. This shouldn’t be too surprising people talk about “gut reactions” and “instinctive actions” all the time but it pervades every aspect of our lives. IThis illusion is so powerful that knowledge of it can have negative consequences on people’s behaviour. There is not enough space to go into this more fully but the New Scientist has a lovely little animation which summarises it here: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/nstv/2011/04/why-free-will-may-be-an-illusion.html

    Furthermore as mentioned above the Uncertainty Principle negates the possibility of omniscience, it’s quantum baby!

  6. In response to Cat, I would like to point out that there is a huge gap between evidence that concludes that free will may be an illusion and a definitive statement that free will does not exist. Clearly we are not totally free to do whatever we wish. (If you doubt it, try holding your breath for five minutes.) But because we are not totally free does not mean that we are never free.

    I would also like to point out that science is fallible. I am a scientist with a huge love for and respect for science. But I think that one of the most misunderstood essential truths about science is that our “facts”, even those backed up by a strong predictive record and tomes of evidence, even “facts” about which the majority of scientists are convinced, are disregarded as erroneous far more often than people appreciate.

    Science can clearly cast light on the complex subject of free will, but it cannot, by its very nature, specify those conditions which would prove that it does not exist. And so it is a question about which science can make a contribution but which also extends beyond science.

  7. Terry, I’m a scientist too. Of course I wasn’t as precise as I could have been in my response but I just wanted to throw in a different spicy spin to the mix.

  8. PS I’m not convinced that anything really extends beyond science, only beyond our current understanding of the problem or the available tools to test it.

  9. At the risk of hijacking Sanstorm’s post by changing the subject, I am fascinated by the question of how we know what we think we know and the secondary question of whether everything we know is known through using science.

    I know that some of the greatest minds beginning with the early Greeks have struggled with some form of this question. Plato decided that we must know what we know because we really belong to a perfect world of spirit and somehow have temporarily gotten ourselves trapped in this imperfect world of matter – a dreadful idea, in my view, that amazingly still pervades the modern world. Aristotle, on the other hand, decided we are born as blank slates, an idea compatible with some modern thinkers who believe that we are no more masters of our fate than the wave on the sea. Kant struggled with the question and to this day so do modern philosophers

    In this context of uncertainty among even the greatest thinkers, I feel free to make my own decision. For what it’s worth, I think a life informed solely by knowledge acquired through science would be seriously impoverished. I could not simply be transported by Beethoven or Picasso or Shakespeare or even a sunset. I could not be simply delighted by the look on a child’s face, strengthened by an act of kindness, absolutely trusting that my husband loves me. I would have to analyze these things. But I couldn’t just grab hold of them and experience them, to know them directly.

    In any case, science itself places private experience outside its competence. Only that which is publicly observable can be studied scientifically. Otherwise how can we know whether we are simply dealing with that illusion of consciousness of which we are all capable? Science checks for this error by demanding the possibility of replication.

    I approve of this as a scientific method. It has great strengths and value.

    But I don’t approve of it as a total approach to living. I’d rather trust my own experience when it comes to the really important decisions of my life. Even at the very real risk of self-delusion.

  10. Really enjoyed reading thru the comments.
    I’m staying at a monastery for a few days. Talking with the monks over dinner we discussed why they became monks. They spoke of an inner calling, a pull to the monastic, ‘clicking into place’ of their life. It got me thinking- how does free will relate if God is pulling / drawing one in a certain direction? How free is that will if it’s being influenced by desire of the soul? Were they truly free to walk away?
    I think my notion of the ‘free’ is perhaps lacking the weight of tradition.

  11. Pingback: Freedom, dom, DOM! « Wee Scoops

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