Does free will exist?

At every moment in time, you’re faced with a specific scenario and you perceive the ability to make choices. I’m on the subway right now on my way home from work. Should I eat leftovers for dinner, buy new food at the grocery store or just get a pizza when I get of the train? I perceive that I have the ability to make any of these choices. I would rather buy something new than eat left overs, but it would on the other hand be pragmatic to just eat the food I have. Should I be pragmatic or should I aim for something I’d rather eat?

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Today, I’m going with the pragmatic choice and eat what I have. I made this decision and I perceived that I was in control in making it. Some will argue that I never had an actual choice, that it was an illusion. Some would argue that it’s totally random, anything could have happened but I didn’t really make a free choice.

I believe in free will. A friend of mine does not. He argues that it is unreasonable to believe in free will because nothing suggests free will to be the case. He also argues that the burden of proof falls upon the person claiming free will to exist.

I should point out that I don’t claim to know if free will exists, and if someone can prove that it doesn’t exists then I will reconsider. Until this happens, I will trust my perception about my existence and live my life as if I had free will. So this blog post is not about proving anything, it’s about arguments against free will.

Why is it important though?

The importance in debating free will lies with the ethical ramifications. To accept free will is to accept that each individual have the ability to decide how he or she will act in a specific situation, based on a set of defined possibilities. The individual has to take responsibility for whatever happens as a result of his or her actions in most scenarios. This is in essence how our society is built today. But accepting an existence without free will means we have no moral argument for judging people in their poor decisions, and by extension no justification for forcing some people to live with very poor life standards (for example prisoners).

I will explore some of my friend’s arguments in this blog.

“The burden of proof falls upon the one making a claim”

While this is true in most cases, I’m not so sure it’s relevant in this discussion. This is after all a philosophical debate and not a juridical exercise. I spoke with a friend about the subject and he brought up Xenos paradox about the tortoise and the hare. By reasoning that every moment is a snapshot in time which yields a certain output to the next snapshot in time, this paradox tells us that a hare starting behind a tortoise can’t outrun the tortoise. We all know this isn’t true, and it was regarded as a bug in thought and not proof that our perception of a hare having the means to outrun a tortoise was wrong. Much later, we invented integral math which did have the means to solve this paradox.

My point here is that we all perceive free will, and us not having the logical means to describe how it works, or to solve this questions is not proof that our perception is wrong. Would the burden of logical proof lie with the person claiming that the hare can outrun the tortoise despite our perception showing us otherwise?

“Nothing points towards free will being the case”

I would argue that our inconclusive understanding about the universe and our existence doesn’t point towards anything else either. First of, let’s just dismiss any notion that there would be proof of a deterministic universe. The most widely accepted interpretation of Quantum physics “The Copenhagen interpretation” tells us that the act of measuring a wave collapses it into a particle where one of the many probable outcomes happens stochastically. If we try to measure the particle, we get either it’s position or it’s motion; but not both.

The truth is that our understanding of quantum physics today tells us two things: 1. The act of trying to observe how things work interferes with how it works and 2. It’s impossible to plot the future of a particle since we can only know it’s position or it’s motion, not both.

So while there’s no proof of a deterministic universe, this could be interpreted as a stochastic universe.

Not too long ago, our understanding of physics could only explain a deterministic universe. This was before we split open the atom and discovered the amazing world of quantum mechanics. What will we discover a hundred years from now?

Moving on…

This whole argument against free will seem to be based on the fact that according to what we know now; there’s nothing pointing towards free will, and thus we can’t accept it to be the case. My perception is that I have the ability to make choices in my life, I’m able to analyze data and choose my actions accordingly. Is it an illusion? Maybe… But I’m going to need proof before I disregard my own perception of my existence.

If this was a scientific debate it would be reasonable to say “The burden of proof lies with the one making the claim”. Scientific debate defined as using our current scientific frameworks (they change a lot). But this is a philosophical debate, which means we get to look at our perception of our existence as well as imagine what might lie beyond our understanding of the universe. Or is the argument here that since we split open the atom; we decided that we don’t need philosophy anymore?

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