Consciousness is a Form of Life, #3–Solving The Free Will Problem.

By Robert Hanna

“The Sower,” by Vincent Van Gogh (1888/1889)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. Introduction

II. Conscious-Mind-is-a-Form-of-Life 1: Solving The Mind-Body Problem

III. Dynamic Systems Theory and The Dynamic World Picture

IV. Conscious-Mind-is-a-Form-of-Life 2: Solving The Free Will Problem

V. Dynamic Emergence, Life, and Consciousness

VI. Conclusion

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This installment contains section IV.

But you can also download or read a .pdf of the complete version of this essay HERE.

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IV. Conscious-Mind-is-a-Form-of-Life 2: Solving The Free Will Problem

The task [of understanding free agency] requires some reflection on the organizational principles of living creatures, for it is only through such reflection … that we can start to understand where the difference really lies between, on the one hand those things that are true agents, and, on the other, mere machines, entities that nothing will ever be up to, however impressive they may be…. I am exceedingly hopeful that the next few years will see the beginnings of a revolution in our conception of the human person, as philosophical and everyday conceptions of the scientific picture of the world are freed from outdated Newtonian ideas and begin to take more note, both of the complexities of science as it really is and of the undeniable fact of our animal nature.[i]

Is human free agency really possible in the natural world as correctly described by contemporary physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience–and if so, how is that really possible? Or more briefly put, given the truth of the contemporary natural sciences, are you really a free agent–and if so, how? Yes!; and given what I’ve argued so far in this essay, here’s how.

By free agency, I mean the conjunction of free will and practical agency, which in turn means (i) that you can choose and do what you want to, or refrain from so choosing or doing, without being in any way compelled or prevented by irresistible inner or outer forces (i.e., free will), and (ii) that you can self-consciously choose and do what you want to, for reasons, and with deep moral or non-moral responsibility (i.e., practical agency). And by deep moral or non-moral responsibility for X, I mean (i) that X is something you chose or did yourself, whose objective moral value flows from and directly attaches to your freely willed choice or action, and (ii) that deep moral responsibility requires free will — if you were not able to choose or do X, without being in any way compelled or prevented by irresistible inner or outer forces, then you could not be deeply morally or non-morally responsible for X. An example of choice and action with deep moral responsibility would be your deciding, right now, either to join, or to quit, The Democratic Socialists of America. And an example of choice and action with deep non-moral responsibility would be creating a work of art.

The thesis of natural determinism says that everything that happens now and in the future is strictly fixed by the laws of nature together with all the actual facts about the past. And the thesis of natural indeterminism says that at least some things and perhaps all things that happen are not strictly fixed by the laws of nature together with all the actual facts about the past, but also happen more or less randomly, according to mathematical laws of probability. Most contemporary philosophers and scientists, and many non-philosophers too, hold that you are not really free, because they also believe that the truth of modern science entails a thesis I’ll call natural mechanism. Natural mechanism says (i) that everything that happens is either deterministic, indeterministic, or some mixture of both (say, macroscopically deterministic but microscopically indeterministic at the quantum level), and (ii) that all the causal and quantitative characteristics of those happenings are not only (ii.a) strictly fixed by the general causal laws of nature and/or the mathematical laws of probability, especially those laws governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy, together with all the settled facts about the past, especially including The Big Bang Singularity, but also (ii.b) calculable from those laws and facts on an ideal digital computer, aka a Turing machine.[ii] If natural mechanism is true, then you are not really free, because, instead, no matter what you may believe about your own freedom, you are really a deterministic or indeterministic natural automaton, ultimately caused by The Big Bang Singularity.

I’ll now briefly present a theory of free agency called natural libertarianism,[iii] that is neither contrary to contemporary natural science nor committed to the thesis of natural mechanism — indeed, it is not only smoothly consistent with but also presupposes The Dynamic World Picture — and, correspondingly, I will also briefly provide a new proof for the real possibility of human free agency, by explaining and proving its actual existence.

Natural libertarianism flows from two simple but earth-shattering ideas proposed by Kant in the 18th century, and also from one slightly less simple but still earth-shattering idea proposed by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine in 1997,[iv] that’s fully in accordance with the essential embodiment theory of the mind-body relation, or EET, and also The Dynamic World Picture, that I have been spelling out and arguing for in section III above. First, action that is perfectly in conformity with a law, is not necessarily entailed or otherwise necessitated by that law (Kant’s earth-shattering idea #1). Second, real freedom presupposes, in rational human animals, the natural processes specifically characteristic of living organisms; but living organisms are not natural automata, whether deterministic or indeterministic, because they are self-organizing and purposive; hence real freedom is grounded in biological anti-mechanism (Kant’s earth-shattering idea #2). And third, the correct physics is a non-deterministic (and also non-indeterministic, but for simplicity’s sake in this sub-section I will highlight the non-determinism) interpretation of non-equilibrium thermodynamics (Prigogine’s earth-shattering idea).

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to Prigogine’s earth-shattering idea by using the acronym “NDI-NET.” And let us suppose, for the purposes of argument, that NDI-NET, as worked out, for example, by Prigogine in The End of Certainty is true, and that all the general causal laws of nature and/or mathematical laws of probability, as formulated by modern science, are also true, under the NDI-NET interpretation. From these suppositions, taken together with Kant’s two ideas, not only does it not follow that natural mechanism is true and that we are really natural automata, it also follows that natural mechanism is not true and that we are really not natural automata.

To see this, suppose that everything we choose and do is at least consistent with those general causal natural laws and/or mathematical laws of probability, and that therefore we never violate any of them. And in particular, suppose that we never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, hence we never violate any of the general causal natural laws and/or mathematical laws of probability governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy. Nevertheless, it does not follow that whatever we choose and do is entailed or otherwise necessitated by those laws. This is because, as Kant pointed out, mere conformity of action with laws is not the same as entailment or necessitation by laws.

Indeed, for any general causal law of nature and/or mathematical law of probability whatsoever, no matter how specific it is, together with all the settled natural facts about the past, nevertheless, there is always some physical open texture that is not entailed or necessitated by that law, although it remains perfectly in conformity with the laws. More precisely, in the wake of The Big Bang Singularity, there is always and everywhere some physical open texture that, at various stages of far-from-equilibrium, temporally-unidirectional, complex, self-organizing thermodynamic activity, as studied in NDI-NET, creates targets for ultra-specific, context-sensitive natural activity, for example: (i) the roiling surface-structures of boiling water, (ii) the Belousov-Zhabotinsky chemical reaction, plus light excitation, (iii) the unfolding of weather systems, (iv) the development of viruses, (v) organismic activity including the purposive lives of simple organisms, plants, and animals, (vi) the desires, feelings, passions, perceptions, and thoughts of conscious animals, and above all, (vii) really free choice and action by conscious animals, including rational and somatically intuitive human animals. I will call these thermodynamic targets live options, and this physical open texture natural open space. Given some live options in natural open space, then, even though you never violate any general causal laws of nature and/or mathematical laws of probability and never bring any new matter or energy into the natural world, it remains really possible for you, in context, to choose and do some things you want to, in purposive, creative, and morally-empowered ways, by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring the total quantity of matter or energy that is always already available then and there. For example, imagine Nietzsche writing The Birth of Tragedy Out of The Spirit of Music. Needless to say, that amazing book had never been produced before in the actual history of the natural universe. Correspondingly, I’ll call this sort of activity, natural autonomy or natural self-determination.

Now, inspired by Nietzsche’s example, I am now going to do a little spontaneous Dionysian dance by flapping my arms and legs, bobbing my head, and hopping up and down a bit (but also being very careful not to spill my coffee, or knock over my laptop computer): I will call this The Freedom Dance. The Freedom Dance, as an act of natural self-determination, is just like a creative artist who makes an original work of art by spontaneously locally re-organizing and re-structuring whatever already-existing materials are given to her: in that sense, it is just like Nietzsche creating The Birth of Tragedy. As naturally self-determining animals, we are all creative natural artists, little bangs, little Singularities, who purposively bring new energy-structures into the world, and thereby actualize potential energy. As we’ve seen, The Big Bang Singularity has done many things. But it did not, on its own, write The Birth of Tragedy, nor did it do The Freedom Dance. On the contrary, Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy, and I did The Freedom Dance, with actual free agency in both cases. Therefore, neither Nietzsche, I, nor anyone else, is a natural automaton; instead we are all naturally self-determining animals fully capable of free agency.[v] So, self-evidently, natural libertarianism is true, given my original assumptions.

NOTES

[i] Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom, pp. 198–199.

[ii] See Turing, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem; and Boolos and Jeffrey, Computability and Logic, ch. 3.

[iii] It should be especially noted that natural libertarianism does not have anything to do with political Libertarianism, which is a combination of psychological egoism, ethical egoism, neoliberalism, and the self-serving self-delusion that it’s a form of political anarchism.

[iv] Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time’s Flow and the Laws of Nature.

[v] Notice that I’m not saying that it is impossible to design and build a natural machine that, when it is turned on, makes various motions that might fool someone, or even many people, into believing that it was I or you doing The Freedom Dance. It is logically, really, naturally, and perhaps even technologically possible that there is such a machine. On the contrary, what I am saying is that, necessarily, the deceptive naturally mechanical motions of such a natural mechanism could not be The Freedom Dance, since that and only that was actually freely performed by me, or for that matter by you, and not by any natural machine that was designed and built to resemble us in various ways.

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