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I Just Had to Post This

So the old question of Free Will (link takes you to a teaser; paid subscription required to read the article) is once again rearing its head:

Underneath the uncertainty of quantum mechanics could lie a deeper reality in which, shockingly, all our actions are predetermined

"WE MUST believe in free will, we have no choice," the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once said. He might as well have said, "We must believe in quantum mechanics, we have no choice," if two new studies are anything to go by.

Early last month, a Nobel laureate physicist finished polishing up his theory that a deeper, deterministic reality underlies the apparent uncertainty of quantum mechanics. A week after he announced it, two eminent mathematicians showed that the theory has profound implications beyond physics: abandoning the uncertainty of quantum physics means we must give up the cherished notion that we have free will. The mathematicians believe the physicist is wrong.

"It's striking that we have one of the greatest scientists of our generation pitted against two of the world's greatest mathematicians," says Hans Halvorson, a philosopher of physics at Princeton University.

I think Isaac Bashevis Singer got it right. Whatever they prove, life must be lived with the assumption of free will. Even if we know we don't have it -- and my guess is that we're still a long way from knowing for sure -- we have to assume that we do have it.

We may have free will; we may not. But life without the presumption of free will is absurd.


The debate between free-will and determinism is one of the most common false dichotomies I run across in philosophical discussion. Allow me to break down the various positions in the debate. First there are the compatibalists and incompatiblists. The comps say that determinism is compatible with freedom (Spinoza, Einstein, the Stoics etc,); while the incomps, of course, say they are not. Among the incomps are those who beleive that we have free-will and nothing is determined (Kierkegaard, Sartre, etc.) and those who believe that the Cosmos is determined and that we have no free-will(Augustine, Calvin, etc.).
Also a subcategory of compatibilism is the two-worlds metaphysics of such philosophers as Descartes and Kant which stipulate that the physical world is determined but that the mind is in another world and is free.
And finally their is the pragmatist position made famous by William James which asserts "The Will to Believe" in free-will as a prerequisite for living ethically and as an absolute metaphysical presupposition.

Micah --

That's a nice run-down of the various views, but I don't follow your characterization of this as a false dichotomy. It may be false for the comps, but the incomps seem to view it as a pretty stark dichotomy. Or are you just taking the comp position and assuming that everyone else should, too?

I think I'm with William James on this one.

A system that is deterministic but unpredictable is free, as far as external observers are concerned.

I'm not sure why people discuss it further.

Even if possible that our brains are 100% deterministic, does that necessarily mean it is 100% predictable? Can you have a good enough model predict actions? Probably not.

That might be different if we're eventually based in silicon (or some other designed and engineered modality of thought)

Phil -
Your right. I suppose I should have said that freedom and determinism do not necessarily constitute a dichotomy. However it is true that I am a compatablist but I also have a lot of respect for James' pragmatist position. If you have ever read some of the Stoic writings, such as that of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, my view is similar to theirs. If you haven't read these thinkers I would highly recommend them. Their voices are just as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago and its a pleasure to read their prose.

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