Materialism, Free Will and Rationality

“Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics.”

Question from Graham:
If atheism is true then it would seem that materialism – physical matter is all that exists – is also true. If that is so, is it possible for there to be free will?

Materialism would seem to imply that everything functions in a purely mechanical way, with molecules simply interacting according to the laws of physics, and that would seem to leave no room for free will.

If there is no free will then it would seem to be impossible for us to engage in rational discussion. After all, the product of our “minds” would be determined entirely by a long chain of molecular interactions rather than by non-physical reasons.

Atheism implies materialism: materialism implies a mechanistic universe: a mechanistic universe implies no free will: and no free will implies non-rationality.

Do you agree?

Answer:
I’m with you some of the way, because I don’t believe in free will.

This is for roughly the reason you give. Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics, and for which there is no evidence.

That’s not to say that will doesn’t exist. We still want things, and we do what we want to do. The absence of free will simply means that we can’t choose what to want. We are driven by our desires. If we refuse to do something we want to, it’s because we want something else more. For example, if you want to lose weight, you don’t eat the big cake.

Will is an example of an abstract concept which accompanies the materialistic worldview for functional purposes. It’s a word which effectively describes an action or quality without physical presence except for a representation in the brain. In a physical sense, my will is a subset of my neurons which stores my short-term and long-term desires and coaxes my brain as a whole to think of other things in terms of those.

There is a long list of such concepts, which fall into the category “information”, including opinions, rules, agreements and of course discussions. A rational discussion is taking place between us, as defined thus: relevant, related information is getting from your brain to mine and vice versa, roughly as intended, through the media of our hands, our keyboards and a ton of networked hardware.

The religious or dualist alternative is that the discussion is essentially taking place between our souls through our subservient brains in addition to all the other media. The only difference is the nature of the participants, since the same information is exchanged. I submit then that if a discussion between two souls is rational then the same discussion must be rational between two brains, or for that matter two computers or other groups of molecules. Of course the brain is a computer, so it’s a thin distinction.

I suspect you have a definition of rationality in mind which makes a much larger distinction, and I’d like to hear it.

SmartLX

28 thoughts on “Materialism, Free Will and Rationality”

  1. “The absence of free will simply means that we can’t choose what to want.”

    Yes, I agree that we would be unable to choose what to want in a materialistic universe.

    “We are driven by our desires.:

    I take it you would say that that we are equally unable to choose what to desire?

    ” . . . my will is a subset of my neurons which stores my short-term and long-term desires and coaxes my brain as a whole to think of other things in terms of those.”

    Again, we cannot choose what to will? (Although the word “coaxes” seems rather out of place here.)

    Are there any aspects of our lives that we are able to make choices about?

    If so, what are they and how is it possible?

    If not, if we have no control over what we want, desire, will, or anything else, how are we able to engage in any behaviour that could be genuinely rational (appearances not withstanding)?

  2. I take it you would say that that we are equally unable to choose what to desire?

    “Desire”, Graham, is another word for “want”.

    Again, we cannot choose what to will?

    No we can’t, and that’s why it isn’t free will. And the verb “will” is another synonym for “want”, so you’re not exactly compiling an extensive list of unique items here.

    Are there any aspects of our lives that we are able to make choices about?

    Yes, namely anything else. Just because our choices are determined by our will/desires/whatever doesn’t mean they’re not choices, they’re just not free choices. (The distinction is the same as between will and free will.) The brain comprehends two or more options related to the world around it, and selects one while rejecting the others. Another word for a selection is a choice.

    If we have no control over what we want, desire, will, or anything else, how are we able to engage in any behaviour that could be genuinely rational (appearances not withstanding)?

    If all behaviour were irrational, we’d only ever achieve anything we wanted by dumb luck, and we wouldn’t last long. Rational behaviour is tailored to achieve our desires based on the situation, whether or not it succeeds. Rational behaviour “makes sense” in the context of one’s desires and one’s circumstances. In other words, if someone has done something rational, you can potentially understand why he or she did it.

    Meanwhile, your personal definition of rationality grows ever more mysterious. Not only is it not related to information content, it apparently has nothing to do with circumstances, motivation, consideration or effect. I’d like to hear it even more now.

  3. “Just because our choices are determined by our will/desires/whatever doesn’t mean they’re not choices, they’re just not free choices.” Can something meaningfully be called a “choice” if it is not a free choice? I don’t think so – it is only an apparent choice.

    It is non-sensical to say that I am going to “choose” between A and B when, given the state of the physical universe, including the state of my brain, it is impossible for me to only “choose” B, for example. Just because I do not know which way it will go does not make it a “choice”.

    “The brain comprehends two or more options related to the world around it, and selects one while rejecting the others.” Again, this is very loose use of language. The brain is just mechanically throwing up sensations, such as apparent “choices”, according to the physical state of things, not according to whether there are good or bad reasons for something. A “good” or a “bad” reason is not a physical state.

    “If all behaviour were irrational, we’d only ever achieve anything we wanted by dumb luck, and we wouldn’t last long.” Firstly, please note that I did not say that things would be irrational in a materialistic universe, but rather, non-rational. Neither rationality nor irrationality would come into the picture.

    But I do agree that everything in a materialistic universe would simply “happen” and if there should be any correspondence between our unchosen desires and what actually does occur in the universe, this would be by mere chance.

    On the one hand you say that we have no control over our choices yet you still seem to think we have some control over what happens – how is that possible? What controls things – no, that is a poor choice of words – what causes things to happen, in this universe?

    I believe that we are having a rational discussion. But I don’t believe that this is taking place because molecules just happen to be interacting, solely according to the laws of physics, in such a way as to give us the impression that we are having what would be only an apparent rational discussion. It is because we can talk rationally together is one reason that I believe genuine free will is real.

    Finally for now, do you think anything, given the universe that we actually live in, could have been otherwise than it is? In other words, is everything rigidly determined (other than the possible influence of random affects of quantum mechanics)?

  4. Time out.

    I’ll continue these quotation-mark-heavy semantic exercises if necessary, but we’re arguing over words again. “Rationality” is a major one this time. (You still haven’t defined it, except to say that “irrationality” isn’t its opposite.)

    My time-out point is, if you’re right about all of this and in a materialistic universe there are no real choices, no rationality…if we’re in that universe, would you notice? Wouldn’t you just keep making “apparent” choices, and carry on this faux-rational exchange with me? What would be perceptibly different?

    Is there actually something we’re doing which you think would be impossible in that universe (terminology aside), or are you saying that there must be free will and a god because otherwise we can’t claim rationality? The former I can engage you on if you present an example, but the latter is an argument from consequences.

    If you’re not aiming for either, and are merely trying to disqualify atheists from using the word “rational” as well as “right” and “wrong”, we’ll continue as before.

    I will answer your question which isn’t related to the semantics. It does appear that everything is determined by classical mechanics, quantum mechanics apart, but QM is a huge thing to set apart. The smallest spontaneous change in the arrangement of the dense matter in the first second after the Big Bang would have drastically changed the layout of a huge area of the current universe, and changed everything for us. That said, whatever isn’t random appears determined.

  5. I’m happy to use a normal dictionary definition for rational – “based on reasoning or reason”.

    I am surprised that you seem a bit annoyed about trying to establish what we mean by the words we use. Surely we have to try and know what the other is meaning in order to have a chance of being able to engage meaningfully.

    So, you believe that everything is totally determined, except there may be some degree of randomness due to quantum mechanics. (Obviously the possibility of randomness is no help to the free will view.) I take it that you believe it is the physics of matter – how molecules interact – that is the sole determinant of what happens, including what we say and think.

    Now if this correct, I believe it would be the case that it would be impossible for us to know that that was actually the case. It is arguable that the interactions of physical matter could generate the feelings that we are making free will decisions, that we are participating in rational discussion, and that it is reasonable to claim that we are being rational.

    But we have no way of stepping outside the picture, so to speak, in order to make an objective evaluation of what is actually going on. We are always within the picture – every thought we have is always only subject to the laws of physics and so we cannot tell if, or how, logical reasons may be playing any part in this. All our conclusions are determined just by the nature of matter.

    Of course we can say that things “work” – we are able to build buildings that don’t fall down for example – and that is true, but it does nothing to give us the objectivity that is needed to make a genuine evaluation of what is going on.

    So if you are correct, whatever happens is obviously possible because it has happened! But things may not be as they may appear. People build complex things but it may all be a matter of fantastic luck that they “work”. We have conversations where seemingly appropriate replies are made, but again this may all be a case of incredible luck that the conversations make sense. But we still have no way of objectively knowing what is actually going on.

    So, yes, it seems to me that for rationality to be possible (something that we certainly seem to be experiencing) we must be genuine free agents, which implies that thisis not a completely mechanistic universe, which implies that materialism is not true – there must be something non-physical that is able to override the clockwork mechanism – which implies that there is something/s that is/are above the natural world.

    In such a universe, any beings – humans perhaps – that have a “super” natural element to them, may thus be able to step outside (mentally at least) the physical picture and make assessments of what is going on that are not entirely subject to the rigid laws of mechanical physical interaction. Such beings could perhaps use reasons in their discussions and thus be rational.

    In your universe, things are the way they are because of the nature of matter, and nothing could be otherwise than it is. That means I can’t help believing what I do, nor can I stop myself writing the things that I am now writing. Neither can you influence the way you respond to what you are reading. We are all just pebbles being carried along in the river except that we have bizarre, false feelings that we are actually intentionally influencing things.

    The more I try to think about the implications of a deterministic universe the weirder it gets – at least that is so for me, but since your brain has different physical makeup to mine you will think about it differently. So there is no point getting annoyed with me if you are right, but then you won’t be able to alter the way you are going to feel anyway. Weird.

  6. Hi, please don’t get me wrong, but all this QM stuff for free will? Sorry to interrupt, but all this “free will” stuff is nonsensical. Please people correct me if i’m wrong, but isn’t “free will” an emergent property? if behavior or whatever you may call it is finally controlled by the spin of an atom instead of complex, high level functions, requiring resources from various parts of the system and according to internal and external data, which is then validated, then people would be completely unpredictable (atom activity such as change in spin is unpredictable) and most likely, in my opinion, would not be able to be any better or smarter than an amoeba or a romero zombie.

    By the way, things can be, in my opinion, all the mechanistic you may want, but mechanistic doesn’t mean simple or straightforward, and if we look brain as a piece of biological machinery, then we can assume it will get the same response from the same input every single time. With such a complex machine such a situation is impossible, since you can’t get the very same parameters to repeat ALL the conditions to reproduce a given response to a given input

  7. Rodrigo, I did define will as an abstract concept earlier on. The point of bringing QM into it at all is that it’s the only way current physics allows for true randomness as opposed to complete determinism. Graham advocates the existence of a form of supernatural free will which is neither determined nor random and, in order to have this quality, gives each of us power over physics. See his bit above about overriding the “clockwork mechanism”.

    Anyway Graham, I’m not annoyed about the semantics. I just got the impression that they’re not serving your main argument. We do “seem to be experiencing” rationality, but as you’ve agreed if it’s not true rationality as you define it we have no way of knowing, and therefore we have no way of knowing it at all.

    This right here is the utter subjectivity you’ve been arguing for the whole time. Your evidence for free will, the brain’s supernatural element and the god behind them both is an impression of rationality which you admit is wrong if you’re wrong.

  8. Pleaase define first the subject “we” or “I” before talking about if ‘it’ wills or does not will, reasons or does not reason, etc.

  9. X, for these purposes, “I” = the brain atop these shoulders combined with some of the information it holds chemically and electrically. “We” (as used) = the above, plus the equivalent for Graham. Either entity is capable of visualising a desired outcome based on the present world, and also actions which will bring it about. That’s an example of will and reason respectively.

    Knowledge is derived from data and information, both of which “I” am capable of retaining. Though it is conceptually more complex, like information it can ultimately be stored as data, at least in the sense that a book “contains” encoded knowledge. Why wouldn’t a skilled repository/manipulator of information like a brain be capable of handling knowledge?

  10. I am not a believer in free will of a similar mind to SmartLX.
    I think that SmartLX did a splendid job in his first post, to which these are comments.

    To reply to Graham’s comment of September 4th, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Your post raises a host of thorny philosophical issues which deserve lengthy discussions of their own. I would hope that we could discuss free will without having to address how we know what we know (Epistemology) and why the universe obeys laws (the unreasonable effectiveness of maths).

    You imply that one consequence of the no-free-will position is that an objective position is impossible and that it’s impossible to know why anything happens when the universe (or our delusions!) might be conspiring to make it appear that certain rules are being followed whereas in fact it’s just a huge coincidence or there are some other capricious rules in play.
    I doubt there’s a way of proving or arguing that the universe HAS to obey rules. If one day it ceases to do so, who would we be to gainsay it? You seem to dislike the conclusions that your premises lead to and use that to claim the invalidity of the premises. This is the falacy of argument from consequences that SmartLX referred to. You seem to want to invoke some exceptionalism for humans whereby you are happy if everything else is deterministic but for some reason humans aren’t. If you give this exceptionalism credence you have the problem of where, in a human’s development from zygote to adult they cease to be deterministic.

    I have no problem living a normal life while believing that someone with sufficiently advanced computing resources and data could predict before I was born everything I do down to the last atom for the rest of my life. I imagine you would be revolted by that thought. I’m amazed and pleased that the universe continues to appear to follow laws. I don’t really expect that it will cease to do so but I have to admit the possibility.

    Richard

  11. As a believer, SmartLX and Richard, I appreciate your posts. I struggle to understand atheists who won’t at least aknowledge the problem posed by “free will” – it seems most would eat their cake and have it too.

    I’m curious, though, about your definition of “will” – how do you define “will” – as an abstraction of the human mind? Does it really exist, or is it simply an illusion created by behavior and experience?

    Further, do you believe that in the absence of “free will” right and wrong lose all objective meaning? In other words, right and wrong can only refer to the relative values of the society/person espousing them?

  12. Hi Matt. Yes, my version of “will” is an abstract view of certain functions of the human brain or mind. While there’s a physical component to that in terms of neurons and synapses, it’s mostly information content. Like the US Bill of Rights which is independent of the piece of paper it was first written on, or any other human idea, will has no physical or ethereal/mystical form and yet it affects our lives greatly. I wouldn’t call that an illusion.

    As for “right” and “wrong” and objectivity, Graham and I recently hashed this out here. This question was his follow-up to that exchange.

  13. Thanks SmartLX, so if it’s just information content – and you have a full understanding of the mechanisms at work, than it should be predictable right?

    I mean, I understand WILL to mean that you have an actor and something being acted upon – meaning that you have one thing that is analyzing and deciding independently of the physical matter that is its subject. If you don’t than, there’s really no WILL, there’s just predictable and necessary processes at work. Me writing this comment should be a completely predictable activity. Granted, in order to make that prediction, you’d need to store more information and have the ability to analyze it than we’ll likely ever be capable of, but theoretically it should be possible. I think you would agree that it is this complexity, then, that would make it such a convincing illusion. I just don’t see how you can justify the existence of a WILL or a decider without accepting that something other than energy (regardless of form) exists.

    I believe it was Dawkins who said that belief in life without will or free choice would be unbearable to most people (possibly including himself) – but as an atheist, I think it would have to be something you accepted until a better explanation comes along.

    Please feel free to pick apart my feeble comment. Thanks.

  14. Please ignore my comment above. I jumped in on the conversation when many of the points/counterpoints I’ve been pondering have already been raised.

  15. For the materialists on this site, How do you explain responsibility as a material entity. Responsibility comes in many forms, and some of them reinforce free will. I am in the middle of writing a paper on this topic so I will not go crazy worrying about a sound, logical argument because I have not time, so discuss responsibility. For example, I have a responsibility to get this paper done by tomorrow, and I do not want to do it, but I probably will. However, if I fall asleep or an emergency arises, then maybe I will not get it done. This responsibility I have in front of me has no material attached to it whatsoever. I do not care if I get it done. My teacher does not care. It is my choice. Maybe I won’t finish it. It is yet to be determined. Please explain

  16. Responsibility is an expectation by one or more people that a person will perform an action, like protecting a child or mowing a lawn. If that expectation is not met, the person in question is seen as deserving of punishment, or at least blame, for the consequences.

    Essentially, it’s an abstract concept which is contained in human brains, so in terms of material it’s a particular arrangement of neurons and electrical activity, like all thoughts. That’s just the storage mechanism, of course; the same basic information can be stored on paper or in a computer (a work roster, for instance).

  17. I don’t believe in god but materialism and athiesm seem ironicaly impompatble to me. If we do not have free will and we don’t have an immaterial mind that can make decisions that have an effect on the physical world, then that means that every event in the universe; past present and future, is pre-determined. If there is nothing other than matter and energy in the universe then what “pre-determined” all these events? Do many atheists entertain the idea that immaterial mind could actually exist without believing in a god?

  18. Some atheists believe in free will as you describe it, but have difficulty backing it up without assuming something supernatural.

    As discussed above, there is a materialistic alternative to absolute determinism which is suggested by quantum mechanics: the idea that some things are truly random and causeless at a fundamental level. The exact moment at which a radioactive atom decays appears to behave like this. While the percentage of atoms in a given substance that decays in a given time is predictable enough that we can assign precise “half-life” values to different substances, the predictability breaks down completely when considering individual atoms. Likewise, the alternative to deterministic brain function is a small amount of quantum indeterminacy in bio-electrical activity, which might cause a given neuron to fire or not fire.

    Of course, this isn’t free will any more than pre-determined brain activity is. There’s no more control exerted (despite the claims of those who peddle “quantum jumping”), just a decrease in the potential to predict it. So to paraphrase the movie Waking Life, you can choose whether to consider yourself a gear in a machine, a random element or a combination of the two.

    So what’s actually wrong with this picture? The fact that it’s unappealing to many doesn’t make any it less likely to be true. Maybe the universe simply works in an unappealing way and that’s that.

    1. In my opinion free will does exist and it is the reason (though not the cause) for the existence of consciousness.

      Consider that virtually any complex task or group of tasks can be automated by algorithms directing the actions of a mechanical or biological machine. Self driving cars are a good example.

      This begs the question, why should consciousness have evolved in the first place? – given that it is not needed (i.e. its functions can be more efficiently carried out by algorithms). My belief is that consciousness exists as a creative force necessary to create algorithms. Consciousness must be creative in order to respond to the infinite array of new situations that arise which existing algorithms have not been faced with.

      This implies (to me) that free will is a reality as opposed to deterministic models.

      1. There’s a lot of discussion about why consciousness evolved, but to me a big clue is in what you’ve written: the marvellously efficient algorithms that run so much of our world today were designed by conscious beings. If you can see how it helps, you can see why it evolved (the how can be a bit harder), and consciousness has allowed us to help ourselves immeasurably by giving us the unique power to formulate and implement complex algorithms outside of our own instinct. Lots of animals have algorithms as instinctual behaviour, but we can customise like nothing else. Where evolution gave other animals the proverbial fish, it taught us how to fish.

      2. I agree SLX. To sum up, obviously consciousness is advantageous because it allows algorithms to be constructed consciously rather than by attrition through natural selection. There are many deterministic aspects to the way we construct algorithms, (e.g. Chiefly memory and past experience of ourselves and others whose experience we can access). Yet those deterministic aspects do not require conscious self awareness.

        I might be wrong, but it seems to me that we are looking at a pairing here. In the same way that “free will” has no meaning in the absence of consciousness, consciousness is totally unnecessary except for the purpose of excercising free will. Therefore free will exists.

        The implications of this is important to the “meaning” of life (if any) and philosophical arguments surrounding our existence. It obviously strengthens arguments favouring the non-material basis of consciousness and for God (though in no way unassailable evidence). If the argument is false, and free will is an illusion or irrelevant, then there needs to be an explanation as to why conscious / self awareness is advantageous over the evolution of “zombie” automa.

        1. John writes: [I might be wrong, but it seems to me that we are looking at a pairing here. In the same way that “free will” has no meaning in the absence of consciousness, consciousness is totally unnecessary except for the purpose of excercising free will. Therefore free will exists.]

          I can’t agree that consciousness is unnecessary in the absence of free will. There is no evidence that the evolution of animal brains and consciousness go hand in hand. Consciousness could be an unintended consequence of a mutation that was naturally selected for another reason entirely. Consider another thing we do – read and write. I think one would be hard pressed to say our brains evolved specifically to do this, given that there is no reading or writing in nature for us to react to. Those abilities therefore are most likely an accidental (yet beneficial) affect of something else.

          [The implications of this is important to the “meaning” of life (if any) and philosophical arguments surrounding our existence. It obviously strengthens arguments favouring the non-material basis of consciousness and for God (though in no way unassailable evidence).]

          I see no reason to think that the development of consciousness creates an argument for the existence of god creatures. That’s no different than ANY argument that people make about the existence of something. I often see the “X exists, therefore a god creature” argument. Problem is, there is no evidence that some supernatural force is responsible for the X. The only thing the existence of X proves is that X does indeed exist. It does not explain how or why it came to be.

          The existence of consciousness does not prove a god creature anymore than the existence of people, or the Earth, or etc etc etc.

          [If the argument is false, and free will is an illusion or irrelevant, then there needs to be an explanation as to why conscious / self awareness is advantageous over the evolution of “zombie” automa.]

          Sounds like a pretty good survival instinct if nothing else, wouldn’t you say?

          1. Thanks for your comments Tim. I didn’t mean to imply that free will is a watertight argument for non physical origins of consciousness (sic “God creatures”. I only suggested that consciousness supplies an argument for why free will is a real attribute rather than an illusion. Since atheists tend to favour the view that free will is an illusion, then there ought to be some reason that consciousness has an advantage over the evolution of simply more complex algorithms.

            Finally, your comment that the benefits of consciousness “sounds like a pretty good survival instinct…” Contradict our understanding that consciousness is more than and different from “instincts” which are automatic responses (I.e. Algorithms).

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