Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, also has a blog, which is
one of my favourites. He writes about all sorts of things that don’t
appear in Dilbert, like politics and religion and stuff. It’s usually pretty
funny, but he’s quite an intelligent guy, so it’s frequently thought-provoking
as well. One subject that he writes about now and again is free will, or the
lack thereof. He believes that free will does not exist. By this he does not
mean that everything is predetermined, but that humans cannot control their own
actions or decisions. The idea is that given a certain environment and
set of inputs, your brain will make a deterministic decision.
Basically, free will is an illusion; what really
has control over our decisions is simply chemistry, biology, and physics.
I find this to be a fascinating topic, with zillions of implications. For me,
the primary implication is that of the law — should a person be found guilty
and punished for a crime that he did not explicitly choose to commit? If someone
is found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, the idea is that some defect
in his brain meant there was no way for him to make the choice not to
kill. There is talk of serial killers whose brains are “wired” to kill, and it is
not only inevitable that they will, but unreasonable to expect them to be able to
resist. But if there is no free will, then all of our
brains are wired in some way — most of us are wired not to kill,
but not all. Similarly, most of us are wired not to steal, but not all.
Therefore, those who steal (including those who know it’s morally wrong)
are simply following the instructions wired into their brains — they cannot
choose not to. Obviously we have to put people who are “wired” to kill in
jail or some kind of hospital, because they pose a danger to society. But what
about those park in a no-parking zone — do they
deserve to be punished for it, when it could be argued that they did not
choose to commit their crime; they are merely a victim of their own
For my part, I tend to agree with Scott. However, the “illusion” of free
will is enough for me. Perhaps it is completely deterministic that given a
particular set of circumstances, my brain will make a certain decision, but
there’s no way to calculate in advance what that decision would be, so my
decisions have the appearance of being in my control. This is why you
hear people watching people in some difficult situation (on TV or whatever) and
saying “I don’t know what I’d do in that situation”. Well, the answer is
essentially hard-wired into your brain, but since there’s no way to access it,
the fact that the answer is already there is of no use.
In addition, the number of
variables that go into a decision is incalculable, so even if you could access it,
you couldn’t look it up without knowing an unbounded amount of data about the
environment and circumstances. And if that weren’t enough, you can also throw
quantum mechanics and chaos theory into the mix, and now at least some of the
variables that have an affect on a decision are essentially random. It boggles
Aside: Actually, quantum mechanics is itself enough to boggle my mind.
I love reading about it, but I generally can’t wrap my head around the concepts.
I suspect I’m not alone in that respect.