Nick pointed out in a comment to Wednesday’s post Philtrum Filtering that Free Will could be an illusion simply because we make our judgments on the back of all of the conditioning that we have been receiving since we were brought up.
When I was writing about free will (in Free Willy) I was kind of skipping over to that bit to get to the next question which is that while patently free will technically doesn’t exist what do we do about the fact that we as a society have to pretend that free will does exist all of the time.
So lets prove that free will doesn’t exist first. To do this I will use the words of Douglas Adams:
Anything that happens, happens. Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen. Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, causes itself to happen again.
Basically we can probably say that everything that happens happens for a reason. This may be disputed because things might be truly random. You will have to decide for yourself if you think that things are random (heh see what I did there) but it seems likely that things happen because other things caused them to happen. And that everything simply leads backwards to the big bang.
Just as a confusing aside it’s important to realise that nothing caused the big bang to happen. Religious people believe that they were made by God but that nothing made God. Scientists believe that they were made by the big bang (evolution is a local version of that because what made the first life-form?) but that nothing made the big bang.
Here’s a story that Steven Hawking told in his book A Brief History of Time:
“A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
“At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
“The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”*
But religions tend to believe that God is the creator but nothing needs to create him, that he was always just there. Which is kind of cheating. Because if things could always exist why couldn’t we be like that too? Why did we need to be created?
In science it seems like they suffer from the same problem. The universe just kind of begins and everything flows from there. So what caused the universe? Well nothing. Science has a handy trick of spotting it’s own flaws and kind of paving over them. Only at the point of the big bang does time begin. And because if you want to use the word “cause” you need to have something that happens before something then to use the word “cause” you need time. And time doesn’t start until the point the universe starts. So nothing can “cause” the universe because something would have had to have happened before the universe and there isn’t any time for all of that – still following me? So basically they’re saying nothing created the universe it just happened which sounds similar and lets face it probably is. Except if you think that things in the future can cause things to happen in the past in which case well we have a whole load of other problems on our hands.
So armed with the idea that after the big bang everything that has happened has been caused by that we have to decide if there is any chance of intervention in the process. Can we actually choose a thing. If we “decide” to have toast rather than cereal for breakfast is it because we have actually chosen to have one rather than the other or is it that we have no choice? Since the whole history of the universe has lead us to the situation of preferring toast. The weird thing is that it’s probably the second one. Because the second one is the easier to explain. People even do it themselves, “I like toast rather than cereal because I sometimes feel queasy if I have too much milk”. And the alternative requires you to have something more in your body than a series of cells. Because there would have to be some kind of thing (a soul perhaps) which science has never seen or been able to find which makes you able to ignore all of the history of the universe and have something else for breakfast. It’s the fact that we don’t know or have ever seen it which leads us to believe that Free Will doesn’t exist.
For what this means for us you’ll have to check back on Wednesday.
* This is why in Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books the earth is sitting on a turtle. He always felt peeved at this story because surely the woman should answer “don’t be a fool turtles don’t need to stand on anything they swim”.