Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Free as a bird

I had a few words to say the other day about the Problem of Evil: If God is all-powerful, and all-good, why does evil exist? That is to say: Why do bad things happen to good people? The problem has a ready solution, which I need not elaborate again. In any case, as an eyelash moon rose orange this morning with Mercury and Venus in a star-spangled sky, the Problem of Evil seemed remote and far away.

But why was I up and on the terrace, instead of snug in bed? Which brings me to another of the Big Problems of philosophy: The Problem of Free Will. If the mind can be reduced to electrochemical states in the brain, as modern science suggests, and the laws of electrochemistry are causal, then in what sense can we be said to be free and responsible for our actions?

Possible solutions:

1) The mind cannot be reduced to electrochemistry. The mind is nonmaterial, supernatural, and potentially immortal, not subject to the laws of physics and chemistry.

2) The mind is reducible to physical sates in the brain, but those states are subject to quantum indeterminacy -- a la Roger Penrose. An illusion of freedom arises from stochastic randomness.

3) The mind is reducible to physical states in the brain, but the brain is so complex as to be in practice indeterminate, only to be understood -- in so far as that is possible -- by chaos theory. Like the weather, the elements of the system are causal, but the causal connections are so multitudinous and slippery as to render the outcome of any sequence of mental events entirely unpredictable.

The first solution requires a leap of faith, unsupported by even a shred of empirical evidence. It is, of course, the solution of those who long for immortality.

The second solution also has an inadequate empirical basis. Somehow, for a "free" action to occur, the supposed quantum effects would have to cohere across large areas of the brain. But large-scale quantum coherence, as we presently understand it, only occurs at extremely low temperatures, near absolute zero. The brain would seem to be too warm for this to happen. And besides, is an illusion of freedom arising from randomness any more attractive that an illusion of freedom that is causally determined?

Which leaves us with the third possibility, an illusion of freedom that emerges from complexity, the astounding complexity of a brain in interaction with its environment. This is not what philosophers traditionally meant by free will, but -- get this -- it is indistinguishable from what philosophers traditionally meant by free will. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck.

What then of responsibility? Is "my neurons made me do it" an adequate defense in a court of law? Responsibility is not a scientific question, but rather a social construct. Free will may be a walking, quacking duck, but humans have discovered that civil society requires that we keep our ducks in a row.