Statistics and Free Will

Statistics and Free Will: Dice

The first part of this article can be read here.

Someone who considers that humans are entirely determined by the activity of their neurons, might illustrate his idea by saying that real robots, created by human beings, also make decisions, despite the fact that they are lacking free will.

‘Do we not see, might he continue, that computers learn and make decisions based on what they learn? Does a computer program – created to scare mischievous cats from a property, which has learned to distinguish a moving cat in the night from any other animal – not choose between reacting to the presence of a cat and not reacting to the presence of a bird?’ Indeed, it does, must we answer.

Except, it is not conscious and therefore plagued with the question of being or not being a robot and identifying the exact moment when its decisions result from a program running behind its consciousness. Computers do not and cannot ask themselves (yet) if they should or should not (re)act in any concrete case.

With respect to the previous example, they can choose between cats and other animals but cannot choose to react to cats. Essentially, they have been programmed to react to cats (and not to something else), and from this point of view, they react as automatically as a switch when it turns the light automatically off and on if pressed by a human finger. This is why they (still) are real automata. 

It is impossible to decide directly if the statement humans do have free will or not is or is not true. However another track might open. Namely, that this hypothesis is not to be proved directly but only indirectly, namely by science. Let’s now follow that track.

How does science proceed? Science is based on principles, theories, methods, and experiments (at least natural science). What are scientific principles? They are statements about all possible members of an existing class of items. For example, when we take the second principle of mechanics, the so-called principle of inertia, we see it says something about every possible body placed in a special condition.

No possibility is accepted that, if those conditions are entirely held, that body could behave differently. Thus, science cannot question its own principles. Or rather, a given science cannot do this at any time during its evolution. Those principles can be questioned, indeed, from a different angle and at a specific stage of that science’s development. 

For example, the geocentric principle of Ptolemaic astronomy, which supported all the gathered data concerning the celestial vault from antiquity until Copernicus, allowed the calculation of all the orbits of the planets starting from the principle that they move around the Earth.

But as we know very well, the same motion can be seen from many different angles, and therefore you can get very different results in those calculations. You can even get a total stasis if you move at the same speed as the moving object that you observe.

This was also known already in antiquity, which is why the heliocentric hypothesis was also formulated in antiquity, but it was rejected due to other considerations.

Almost one and a half millennia later, Copernicus changed the angle of observation, but he also changed the principles of astronomy. He stated that planets and Sun do not orbit around the Earth, but all the planets orbit around the Sun. Now, this principle, once accepted, demanded that scientists observe and calculate the motions of the planets differently. 

Thus, expressed in a more general way, through its principles, a science postulates the existence of an object that must always behave in a certain way and exclusively in that way. For example, Copernican science cannot tolerate that planets move (i.e., behave) according to the geocentric principle but only to the heliocentric principle. 

The science of nature has many other principles according to which it thinks of its objects. Another fundamental principle is the one saying that everything in the universe has an effective cause to be as it is.

For example, if I see that water boils, I am constrained by this principle to think that there is an external cause that makes water boil. Then I must look around and search for the cause that induces this effect, and I find a source of heat.

But there is also something else involved here. Science must think of any effect as being an utterly passive entity, something that only reacts to the external cause and has no autonomy or freedom to take a stance against it.

Science sees the entire universe as an infinite network of causes and effects in which, necessarily, no effect has any freedom, but it is a clump of passivity, of something lifeless (in the sense that it only moves when it is pushed or hit by something else and can never ever move by itself). 

Thus, when brain sciences – like brain anatomy, neurology, molecular and cellular neurology, the chemistry of the brain, etc. – study the human being, they ab initio must assume that what they research is devoid of any freedom, that the neuron which they observe must be as passive as a ball hit by another ball on a billiard table.

And the whole brain must be like a huge billiard table on which innumerable balls are placed, moving according to specific mechanical laws of motion.

(Of course, there are synapses, axons, dendrites, and many other things in our brains, but this diversity is not the point here. The point is that all these elements are thought of as being completely passive, like the balls on the billiard table. Even their background and network are nothing more than a result of another avalanche of passive motions. This is why I speak of ‘mechanical’ laws, although strictly speaking, there are very many other types of laws there, like chemical, electrical or quantum laws.) 

Is it necessary to remind ourselves that all the other natural sciences studying the human being proceed necessarily according to the same ‘mechanical’ paradigm? That they cannot proceed otherwise? This paradigm is like spectacles that let only a specific kind of information from outside enter the body of scientific explanation. 

Thus if I adopt a scientific stance, then from the beginning, I cannot see the human being otherwise than as a dummy or a puppet made up of a myriad of small balls kept together in the shape of a human being by their mutual impacts on each other.

The human being is seen necessarily as being similar to a cup of coffee in which it is only a matter of the statistics of the mutual impacts of the coffee molecules in that cup that prevents them rising spontaneously in the air and hovering there rather than remaining in the cup.

The first part of this article can be read here.

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