Why am I cursed with a love of philosophical discussion? Or, if I were more honest, I would say I’m cursed with a love of philosophical monologue — I keep doing it even though I get little to no response.
But in any case, I once again find the 140 characters that Twitter allows too few to express my thoughts adequately. So here goes.
Over on Identi.ca (an open source, de-centralized version of Twitter), I got into a discussion with @teddks about the god that both he and I don’t believe in. But don’t worry, that’s not the discussion I want to talk about here.
While talking to @teddks about all this I made a statement about free will that John Goerzen picked up on. After a little back-n-forth, John asked (and here I translate freely from the twitterese he used):
What you’re saying has echos of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism where he said “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” Is unhappy knowledge better than blissful ignorance?
Now, I hadn’t read anything about John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. So I did what anyone who’s mildly curious would do: I read the Wikipedia article.
After that quick read, it looks like Mill’s Utilitarianism is a distraction. Sure, I can see the similarities between “if free will doesn’t objectively exist, it won’t affect my choice to believe that it does” and “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, but I don’t really think its relevant.
Instead, my point is existentialist: who cares about theories of reality when they don’t match our own experience of reality? Even if you don’t believe that free will actually exists, you still make choices.
Dwelling on the proof of free will is, itself, a distraction. Don’t get me wrong: acceptance of free-will is important — it affects the choices we make. But proving or dis-proving it existence is futile. We’ll still end up making choices.
To me, the interesting bit is how often we’ve re-visited the argument for or against free will. Before classical physics, men developed systematic theologies that relied on God’s omnipotence to eliminate the possibility of (at least some) choice.
The we got Newtonian physics which, taken to its natural conclusion, seems to say that everything is predictable. Take a snapshot of a system (even, say, your brain) and you can predict with precision any future state. In other words, if you know all the variables, you know the future.
Now-a-days we have quantum physics — something I don’t pretend to understand at all — but it seems to allow some sort of free will.
Even without quantum, though, we can’t model all the variables. The future is unknowable. The choices others will make can’t be predicted. Our own choices are still, effectively, our own.
As a result, isn’t it best to believe in free will and act as if it exists? Believing in our own ability to affect change in the world empowers us. Denying free will seems to lead us to nihilism — something I’m not too excited about.