Measured Against Reality

Monday, November 13, 2006

Free Will Prize

(Update on the contest here.)

Free will seems like something of a contentious topic. I firmly believe that we can’t tell either way if we have it or not, but I think that most people disagree with me, some to both extremes.

So I’ve decided to hold a contest. If you can prove conclusively, through any means, that free will either exists or is an illusion, then I will send you:

  • A box of cookies, your choice.
  • A Trophy, engraved with your name and a description of your feat.
  • A Medal, also engraved with your name and feat. It will be on a big sash so you can wear it around and impress people.

No, I’m not joking. I specifically made the prizes fun and desirable while still being within my means so that, if it is won, I can award it (unlike Creationist prizes for “proving” evolution). The criteria for proving it is that if I think the submission is convincing, I will repost it here and solicit feedback from my readers. If they also find it convincing, then you will win the prize. I will be as unbiased as I possibly can be, and I don’t care what kind of evidence you use (philosophical reasoning, experimental proof, quantum theory, etc), but I need to be able to understand it, so no super-complex math or jargon.

However, as I’ve stated before (and is distilled here in comic form) I’m fairly confident that free will cannot be conclusively proved or disproved at this time, so I doubt anyone will be able to claim this prize.

So give it the best you’ve got. And if you know a philosopher or neuroscientist or quantum physicist who has strong feelings about this subject, show them this page. I want to give this prize away, and all you have to do is solve a millennia-old philosophical conundrum. Not only could you win cookies, a trophy, and a medal, but the respect of your peers and you’ll go down in history as the best philosopher of all time.

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  • I am very tired and would like to take a nap. Soon, I will. First, I wish to comment on this. I will myself to respond to your challenge before napping even though I don't care about the prizes, even though I've never read your blog before, even though I don't know who is reading this, and even though I couldn't care less who does. I have willed myself to do this because I can.

    By Blogger gnossos, at 12:17 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • Philosophy is not about answers, it's about questions.

    Asking impossible questions helps to sort out the parts we can deal with.

    In practical terms, attempts to answer or illustrate philosophical arguments tend to lead to new branches of science.

    By Anonymous Aristus, at 12:24 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • Is it okay if I just submit Schoepenhauer's "On the Freedom of Will"?

    I think I remember that winning a prize for answering nearly the same question.


    By Blogger Steve, at 12:45 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • Gnossos, you haven't ruled out determinism in any way.

    Steve, I'd prefer if it were your own work, but post a link (or transcript) if you think he did solve it.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 12:48 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • 1) The laws of logic are true in all possible worlds
    2) By the "Law Of Excluded Middle" a proposition is either true or false
    3) So the the proposition "You will send me my cookies" is either true or false. We call that proposition 'P'
    3) If P is true, then there is nothing that you or anyone else can do now to stop you sending me the cookies
    4) If P is false, the converse, ditto, blah, blah
    5) Therefore you have no freedom as to whether you send me the cookies or not
    6) Therefore send me the cookies - as I have proven free will is an illusion
    7) er... please? if you feel like it anyway. (Aristotle is no longer in a position to take the credit and appreciate them)

    By Anonymous Pali Gap, at 1:07 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • My philosophy is still very much in flux, so I wouldn't even consider myself in the running for this esteemed award (which needs a really catchy name), but a quick google turns up some interesting musings.

    This one might mean more to you than to me, since it hinges on an understanding of physics that I don't presently have. It is interesting, though, allowing us a 'limited' free will within the framework of a dynamic and interconnected universe.

    This one touches on Schoepenhauer (invoked but not explained by steve's post above) who tied eastern philosophy (all is one) to western physics and logic (feel free to expand on this if you know about it, I'm just doing a cursory summation of a couple sources).

    This link, to a philosophy professor's lecture notes on the argument, has some interesting observations and by section 6, makes the argument:

    "If, however, one adopts a thoroughgoing descriptive view of natural laws, the problem of free will does not even arise. On the view I am proposing, there simply is no problem of free will. We make choices – some trivial, such as to buy a newspaper; others, rather more consequential, such as to buy a home, or to get married, or to go to university, etc. – but these choices are not forced upon us by the laws of nature. Indeed, it is the other way round. Laws of nature are (a subclass of the) true descriptions of the world. Whatever happens in the world, there are true descriptions of those events. It's true that you cannot 'violate' a law of nature, but that's not because the laws of nature 'force' you to behave in some certain way. It is rather that whatever you do, there is a true description of what you have done. You certainly don't get to choose the laws that describe the charge on an electron or the properties of hydrogen and oxygen that explain their combining to form water. But you do get to choose a great many other laws. How do you do that? Simply by doing whatever you do in fact do. "

    This argument is very interesting, but implies that the laws of moral behaviour (he refers to them as prescriptive laws) given man by religion and philosophy are not natural at all, but manmade and implicitly and essentially situational.

    This argument may work well to Stu's worldview since it throws out the unfalsifiable metaphysics and describes a universe that is not anthropocentric. Now, since Prof. Swartz's universe rejects the possibility that moral prescriptive laws are part of the universal order (so to speak), his universe is essentially amoral - offering no moral guidance whatsoever.

    I don't care for it, but it's a compelling answer.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic!, at 1:50 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • Pali Gap, your entry made me laugh, but sadly you have not proven anything, as you've left out how we determine whether P is true or false, which is the crux of the issue. Good entry though.

    Fantastic, the Wikipedia entry on Free Will was a nice summary on the topic, apparently there's some evidence that brain imaging can tell us what we're going to do before we actually feel we've decided. I'll give your links a read through, and if something merits reply I will.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 3:01 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • Just some comments on "free will": First, check out the Free Will Theorem of J.H. Conway. Based on three hard to deny postulates of quantum mechanics, the theorem shows that if humans have "free will" then certain subatomic particles do too. The Wikiped article on the Free Will Theorem has details. Personally, I think that the "question" is a category error. If behavior is rigorously predictable - the mind is a simple deterministic mechanism - then there is no such thing and probably no self awareness either. If decisions are completely unrelated to external stimuli, effectively the brain is a complicated coin flipper and nothing more. What we seem to have is a system where it is impossible to get sufficient data and to process, if we had such, adequate algorithms to reliably predict behavior in detail. Decisions, from what brain researchers say, are taken at some unconscious level and the idea that "we" "make choices" is an illusion. It is possible to alter people's choices by applying a suitable electric field to the brain and the subjects will insist that they freely made the altered choices. I like to say that people are rationalizing creatures, not rational ones since the "reasons" we give for choices are essentially manufactured after the fact of the decision for the most part to convince ourselves that we made it. Basically, the operation of "free will" is an artifact of our lack of omniscience regarding the processes of our own brains and therefore a case of effective nondeterminism, much like the mathematical concept of deterministic chaos. This type of "free will", incidentally, would fall within the parameters of the Free Will Theorem. Electrons are people too?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:46 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • I think in order to "prove" free will, one must first "prove" god.

    This is not original thought, but in order to have free will you must have a) more than one option, b) each option must be avoidable, c) a state of uncertainty during a period of potential, and d) no knowledge of the future.

    Without God, humans definitely have free will, in almost all circumstances.

    Throw an all-knowing deity into the mix, one who knows the future, knows what you're going to do, and then free will becomes an illusion.

    The all-powerful deity who *doesn't* know what we'll do, isn't so all-knowing. And if this deity knows the future, possibly having planned out alternate "futures" but allows us to truly choose and have free will, and has to go forward with plans based on OUR actions, then that god isn't so all-powerful.

    So, in answer to your question, yes we have free will, because almost all decisions have more than one solution, we don't know the future, and even if we *think* we can predict what we would do in a given situation, we truly don't know until we get there and the decision has been made.

    Throwing some sentient bus driver into the mix complicates things.

    Proof? You decide.

    By Anonymous Hmac, at 9:39 AM, November 14, 2006  

  • Does free will exist? Yes - life is the co-existence of endless paradoxes, such as night and day, good and evil, right and wrong. The opposites define each other, and depend on the other to exist. Determinism exists, you can see it in traffic in Saudi Arabia where they drive like crazy men, because it doesn't matter - if it's their day to die, then nothing they do will change that. Or in Haiti, where there are no property rights, because in Voodoo culture the devil made you do it and there's no personal responsibility. And in the US, most people are the opposite of Saudi and Haiti - so both philosophies exist in practice and in the minds of men ... if you accept that anything exists, then free will exists, too.
    Also, it's clearly not possible that neither free will nor determinism exist - so they must BOTH exist. The paradox demands it.
    qed, you can bring my prizes when you come home for Thanksgiving.

    By Anonymous dcoleman, at 9:46 PM, November 14, 2006  

  • Take a look at this article:

    By Anonymous Ulrich Mohrhoff, at 12:21 AM, November 15, 2006  

  • There is no such thing as free will because I had no choice in being here in the first place. My particular sperm one the race against all the others, whereas my philosophy is not to compete against my fellow man.So therfore the first act being instictive and not of freewill excludes the existance of freewill.

    By Anonymous peter in france, at 9:30 AM, November 15, 2006  

  • My previous post on the denial of free will is of course correct because I wrote one instead of won which was the product of a very nice St.Emillion. I would also like to add that I would like the free will of when I depart from this world, but my attachement to it precludes me from making an easy exit.

    By Anonymous peter in france, at 11:02 AM, November 15, 2006  

  • I think I'll host a contest on my blog: Whoever can create lasting peace in the Middle East wins a $20 iTunes Store gift certificate and a T-shirt that says, "I made peace in the Middle East and all I got was a lousy T-shirt and iTunes gift certificate."

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 3:50 PM, November 15, 2006  

  • Fantastic, the Wikipedia entry on Free Will was a nice summary on the topic, apparently there's some evidence that brain imaging can tell us what we're going to do before we actually feel we've decided. I'll give your links a read through, and if something

    By Anonymous Viagra Online without prescription, at 7:49 AM, January 05, 2012  

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