I’m fascinated by people who, like Daniel Miessler in his article The Two-lever Argument Against Free Will, claim that humans only have “the sensation” of free will. There are some serious heavy weights in the determinist camp who I agree with on many other issues. I’m going to take a look at Miessler’s argument and see if it convinces me. Let’s start with his definition:
Free will is the ability to have willfully chosen otherwise for any previous decision. If one could not have willfully chosen to do otherwise for any given previous decision then that decision cannot be said to be free.
This is weirdly worded. My definition is compatible, I think: Free will is the ability to consciously choose between two or more alternatives. The key to this definition is that the will, not prior cause or mere randomness, made the choice. Miessler then slips in this assertion:
Because we live in a deterministic universe, we can not have chosen otherwise.
What? When did we establish that the universe is deterministic? That’s the entire argument: Free will vs. determinism.
Quantum randomness leading to an alternative outcome does not count because humans don’t willfully influence quantum randomness.
I don’t know enough quantum mechanics to judge the truth of this, but I wouldn’t appeal to quantum randomness anyway.
The Two-lever Argument posits that there exist only two levers for humans gaining the ability to do otherwise during a decision, and that one must be able to control at least one of these in order to have true choice:
- The previous state of the universe
How the universe was configured at the moment prior to you making a decision.
- The laws that govern the universe
The physical rules that will determine how the universe transitions from one state to another, namely from the previous-state to the next-state.
OK. On what basis is consciousness excluded as a lever? Let’s see if that is explained.
If you do not have some measure of control over at least one of these two variables, you simply cannot control any future state of the universe. And if you are unable to control any future state of the universe, then—regardless of how it may feel to us—we are incapable of making a true, free decision. Instead, events are moving through you, and you are being given the perception that you made a choice.
Even if you accept that the two levers are it (i.e. there is nothing supernatural), there is an additional requirement: that there is no as yet unknown physical law that allows the will to control things at any level. That is a huge assumption. Given that we accept that we know all there is to know about physical laws, determinism does seem to follow. So, is consciousness merely a mere emergent property of the brain, a neat trick that evolved to give us a Darwinian advantage over the animals? Is everything we ever do predetermined from the moment of the big bang? If that’s true, why should we care about anything?
Alternatively, could it be that there is more to the universe than the physical laws we currently understand? Is there a new physical law waiting to be discovered? Could the universe have a purpose? Could that purpose even be to evolve the very consciousness that is able to transcend the physical in some way that we don’t currently understand, and give us the free will that we experience? I don’t claim to know. I think that those who do have jumped to a conclusion that may turn out to be wrong.