Free Will Is But an Unspecified Feeling in the Brain

posted before 2019-09-15

Does free will exist? Our answer will depend on our exact definition of it. My definition is from my conception of what I think most people mean when they talk about free will: a person in a past environmental state X with a mind state Y and the same ‘random’ quantum mechanical inputs Z, could have actually done a different action A.

This definition implies free will is preposterous. Our reality is either deterministic or it’s not, and any system of it is either deterministic or not. Under either of these assumptions, simple physical machines cannot meaningfully do otherwise, more complex machines like computers cannot meaningfully do otherwise, and the most complex machines, people, cannot meaningfully do otherwise.

Maybe free will doesn’t exist in the physical world, but perhaps it does as a metaphysical object? This might get one trying to dream up some sort of superintelligent, time-traveling, computational machine. However, as soon as one actually starts formalizing their imaginations, they should see that their creations can be described as a machine in a state X in environment Y with ‘random’ inputs Z, which means they are effectively deterministic. So what about free will then? It’s simple: free will is nothing more than an unspecified, unformalized feeling in the brain often ascribed to subjectively-unpredictable machines and is not a coherent concept.

The truth about free will isn’t problematic and doesn’t really change the situation we’re in. One keeps on keeping on without it, trying to make optimal ‘choices’, incentivizing productive behavior, and deterring undesirable behavior with the threat of punishment. When one truly considers free will’s nonexistence, one finds that it’s not even a necessary concept and that we’ve been functioning fine all along without having actual free will in the first place.

I hope that more people realize the debate has been settled for some time now, but I think that we can all agree that more interesting questions lie ahead: How does the human brain process information and make decisions? What incentive structures are optimal? How do we design more intelligent decision-making algorithms?