I had this article on free will bookmarked for quite a while because I wanted to add a few observations of my own to it. So now I’m checking boxes and coming to it.
In that article it’s the term “free will” that is being questioned and I always though that when a complex discussion ends up focusing on a word then the point is being missed. Language is merely convention. A word only means what it is useful for it to mean, and whenever you need a more specific term, then a new one is produced.
If you focus too much on what the term means then you miss the point. When dealing with “free will” I have this scheme that I think helps to frame the problem, and so more easily look for solutions. In this specific case the meaning and usefulness of the term depend exclusively on perspective. So we have two opposite answers that are both valid depending on who’s asking (or, from where he’s asking). And that’s why it all ends up in so much confusion and controversy. But in the end this is not a problem of an ambiguous term, it’s instead a problem of perspective and context.
So once again let’s start from the center. We pose the question. “We” are consciousness, and consciousness happens in the brain. It became evident that the peculiarity of consciousness compared to everything else is associated with language. And the peculiarity of language, and of that association by extension, is one of its functions: the metalingual. What is that makes this function “special”? Reflexivity. Reflexivity is the propriety that lets language describe and define itself, and reflexivity is the property that enables a brain to develop a consciousness as we know and experience it. This reflexivity is the true, fundamental culprit of all these processes. This was all properly identified and described in “Gödel, Escher, Bach” as a “strange loop”, and the peculiarity of a strange loop is again the reflexivity.
In information theory the concept of reflexivity is used on the observation framework. What makes reflexivity (or the loop) “strange” is that recursion on itself. Reflexivity in observation means, essentially, introspection. Which means “confusing” subject with object. When observing, you observe an object. But when self-observing, you end up with this weird duplication: you as a subject observe yourself as an object, so at the same time you are both subject and object, here and there. This split is at the source of what we call the human “condition”. That we also know as Cartesian Dualism. That dualism fundamentally originates in the split and duplication of the observation. The mind detaches itself from a body, perceives itself as something else, “more than”. This “mistake” is the base that causes all consequent conflicts and paradoxes.
So we have reflexivity on one side, and a split of the process on the other. The dichotomy infuses everything else. There’s not just a conflict of subject/object, but also one of inside/outside. If observations (as distinctions) happen in the general structure of system (the subject of observation) and environment (what is observed), then system/object are essentially built as inside/outside. A distinction between a self/subject/inside and an environment/object/outside. So, formally speaking, we already have the paradox laid out: we perceive consciousness as something else than a brain, or, we consider consciousness (a subject) separate and independent from its ambient, which is the physical brain. Otherwise neither reflexivity nor observation are possible. They require distinction, and an object that self observes without a distinction perceives itself as a wholeness. So as something that is formally not observable (aka: non conscious). A brain without consciousness obviously doesn’t “think”, because it can’t observe. It can’t recognize itself from anything else. So it’s undivided from the flux of all creation. Exactly as all non-conscious things, alive or not. It’s non discrete.
The problem is embedded in the formality of the process that allows us to be conscious. It means that consciousness is based/enabled by a contradiction. So it’s also obvious that it can’t escape itself. Consciousness is bound to its rules, and so to its limits (aka boundaries). This is important when we’ll define whether “free will” is an useful and appropriate term.
What I just described is a simplification that is useful to “frame” the problem. One of the basic distinctions I took out is inside/outside. This is important because it’s the context that motivates free will as a concept. What is free will? This: something that controls itself independently from the outside. Determinism runs counter to free will because it says, in Bakker terms, that what comes before strictly defines what comes after. Which means that there isn’t any freedom of consciousness in there, at some point, to take control. Everything is already set-up by the pre-conditions. Which also means that it’s the outside (environment) that determines what goes on in the inside (system). So the inside/system/consciousness is merely under the complete control of what’s outside. Everything is already firmly determined. There’s no “freedom” of choice.
Now let’s ask the important question: how would free will happen (if it was truly free and not some surrogate)? Free will, formally, is a system with the possibility to be independent. In the case of a human being, so a system that is part of a much larger system with its rules (physical reality, or the universe), free will means escaping the larger system. So it means the possibility to “exit” the physical reality, escaping it. In religion free will exists because consciousness is seen as a metaphysical entity that ESCAPES rules of physical reality, so religion defines consciousness as something that can’t be merely described by the physical properties it comes from (so consciousness is seen as “more than a brain”). By being “special” (and metaphysical), consciousness acquires its “superpowers”, or: the possibility to punch holes in the physical reality, so transcend it, so, formally, to “exit” the system.
Exit the system. That’s what defines free will as a possibility. But remember that I also said consciousness originates as a paradox, and the paradox allows for consciousness but doesn’t allow consciousness to truly break its rules and boundaries. Which means, from the scientific perspective, that a consciousness isn’t allowed to “transcend” physical reality. So a consciousness can’t exit the system (physical reality), obviously, and so science says that, nope, we don’t have free will, because we are inside this system and subject to all its rules. We are slaves to the system, or, formally, just a system wholly contained within another (and so defined by it, not independent).
How the hell do we exit then? Through information. This is kind of tautological, but if you can actually reach some kind of information external to the system, and bring it inside, then the system is essentially broken. You exited it, by introducing something new into it. So you added variables that were not yet there. Hence forced an outcome that wasn’t previously defined. You obtained “free will”.
Now I’ve defined the superpower but this doesn’t mean I have it, or can obtain it. That’s not the point why I’m writing. The point is that the frame, of outside/inside, is useful to understand the deal with free will. The point is: the system who’s asking the question (whether free will is available or not, or useful as a term) is the same system that pretends to answer it by self-observing. What I mean is that the question CONTAINS the paradox, and then why it then can’t easily obtain an answer. Do I (system) have free will? Who will answer? Still I. So I am both subject and object. I am the entity that asks, analyzes self and then offers the answer. Which means confusing subject and object, inside and outside.
So where’s the mistake? The mistake is that, formally, who says that human beings have no free will is an abstract entity that is not assimilable to a “self”. “You don’t have free will” is not what an human can tell to another human (or to himself). Because the observation “you have not free will” is only possible for the system of reality (that we simplify as a surrogate: science). It’s Science, to whom we give voice, that tells us: you have no free will. So we know we don’t.
We know we don’t, but we don’t EXPERIENCE we don’t. Because Science is not an external entity. We give science its voice. It’s a golem, or a man-made god. Which means that, sure, we have that judgement and may believe it, but since we can’t truly POSSESS that affirmation (we can’t formally tell ourselves we lack free will, because we can’t formally make that observation) then it simply means that knowledge/experience of that affirmation, “you’ve got not free will”, is… useless. It’s *formally* useless. It can’t formally produce any change (or we would have actually enabled free will by not having it, since finally knowing that we have no free will would have actually brought CHANGE, learning something new, and so obtaining actual free will). If we don’t have free will, then it means that knowing we don’t have free will doesn’t “move” the system. So it’s as if we know nothing new. Which means this knowledge is IRRELEVANT, whatever the outcome. We can be sure it’s irrelevant in all possible cases.
The point of this whole deal is that this question isn’t “legal” in the formal system. Only an external system can say we have no free will. The system can’t speak (or it would be equal to “reach god”, or have a transcendent experience). So the system isn’t allowed its answer. We may IMAGINE that answer, but whenever we further consider it we violate a formality, and so produce something false. Like breaking a mathematical rule. So I’m saying we can’t, formally, get an answer. It’s denied. And, in any case, even if we got an answer it would be irrelevant for the reasons I’ve explained. So we covered all possibilities.
The lack of free will is an actual impossibility. We are basically FORCED to have free will. Or: to live as if. We can’t formally live otherwise. This is bound to the human condition: you can’t NOT make use of your free will. You have free will because it’s formally impossible for you to NOT have it (as long you possess consciousness, and so reflexivity, and so possibility to self-observe).
Everything else is just consequence. Morally, considering the possibility of a lack of free will, as discussed in that article, is pointless. Because our morals exist on the premise we have free will. And as far as we are concerned we HAVE free will. Only god (the system) could tell us we got no free will, but god won’t speak to us (if it did, we’d automatically and immediately acquire legit free will). Science could tell us, but science is given a voice. That voice is ours and we aren’t allowed to tell ourselves that sort of thing.
All this simply amounts to going repeatedly at a solid wall. There’s no way through (again because of the formality of the inside/outside rule, you can’t be both inside and outside, so when you try you get the wall in the face). No way around. Which means that the concept of free will as a term is only useful to us in the measure we already use it: the idea of consciousness and free will as we *experience it*. Because that presence of free will applies to us, and exists for us, exactly in that measure.
Which is very similar to the example of the flipped coin. Is a coin being flipped truly “random”? Nope, because we know that the face the coin will fall on depends on a myriad of variables, all dependent on the initial stages that coin was in. The result is already determined, but *for us*, the coin being flipped is an usable approximation of “random”, merely because we just can’t effectively manipulate the outcome. It’s beyond our grasp and so we accept the randomness of a flipped coin even if randomness isn’t a thing in a deterministic world.
Same as “free will”. We can only have a good approximation of it. We are forced to exercise it, as long we live. There’s no way out, there’s no way in. You can only live and use that will, relatively free or not. Knowledge won’t let you free, in this case.