Free will as an inherent property of objective reality
Yuri K. Shestopaloff
The reason for these philosophical notes is a deplorable present state of this important problem - of free will, when some people, writing and - even worse! - teaching on the subject, deny existence of free will as such. This proposition cannot be taken lightly, since it may have, and often has, devastating consequences when applied in a real world.
It used to be that the most distinguished and trustworthy philosophers of previous centuries and even millennia had absolutely no doubt with regard to existence of free will. Such a view was well reflected both in philosophical and religious teachings, of which ancient Greeks are often mentioned in this regard. Greeks considered their gods as powerful deities capable affecting life of people in numerous ways, of which Homer's poems Iliad and Odyssey provide many detailed examples. However, the Greeks' religion still left room for people's intervention to change events, regardless how they were desired to be arranged by gods. That important humans' ability was entrusted into a "golden string", which is reason, ability of mind to think and act rationally, and through this - changing the course of events, even contrary to the gods' wishes. Thus, the ancient Greeks not only admitted the existence of free will as such, but even raised it to a high esteem and to a degree of disobedience to wills of gods.
Later, the paradigm of free will was subjected to changes in different cultures and religions, with the average tendency to subdue people more to powers of priests and church, thus (often forcibly) instilling dogmatic views. However, even religious philosophers never went as far as to entirely deny the existence of free will and the ability of people to influence the course of events in a certain range. Even more so can be said about philosophers adherent to scientific principles of knowledge acquisition, whose names are many.
One of the precursors of modern denial of free will is fatalism, which became popular in 19-th century. It should be mentioned that such pessimistic views, that everything in our lives is predestined, have common grounds in different historic epochs. They always flourish in times of uncertainty, of suppressed public activity - by natural circumstances, such as plagues, or by despotic rulers, and when people, for whatsoever reasons, do have restricted abilities and means of resisting to unfortunate developments.
With regard to our time (as of year 2021), people of most countries also have rather unfortunate circumstances in this regard. Indeed, quick and steady rise of inequality, lack of social mobility, shrinking scope of opportunities for employment and business development (this trend is much induced by growing monopolization of industries by huge multinational corporations, as well as by the overall globalization), economic instability, restrictions of all kinds, imposed by governments to control pandemic (of which many are excessive and rather serve the governments' desire to closely control and monitor populations as such) - all these and many other factors, of which the manipulation of people's minds through technological means are gaining prominence by leaps and bounds, contribute to feelings of despondency, pessimism and inability to change things for the better. Still, at any time, in any circumstances, there are some possibilities to resist such attempts to dismay people. One just has to look harder for that.
The media in general is overwhelmingly controlled by governments and tied to them corporations (in many instances it would be more rightly to say the other way around). It works hard to inflate this feeling of helplessness, convince people that relying on governments' decisions and actions is the only option they have, thus forcing them to delegate more and more control to government officials. However, increase of governmental powers, with a simultaneous weakening of theirs control by a public, can lead only to abuses of people's rights and rapidly growing corruption, regardless of the government level. In turn, such a situation creates even more favorable conditions for the following corruption of official powers. The only way to balance and counteract such unfavorable developments is an active stand and persistent efforts of the whole society against corruption and abuse of people's rights by the governments. In such a situation, free will of people is certainly against the interests of powers of all levels. The denial of free will, thus, is of great help for powers, especially the ones with despotic inclinations (which these days can be found in any part of the globe, including the so called western democracies), and at the same time is of a great harm to the people ability to control their lives and keep governments accountable.
Consider the said above as a demonstration how the seemingly abstract philosophical problem bears immediate consequences in our everyday life, penetrating through its entire tissue. Indeed, if everything is predetermined, what's the point of resisting to flow of unfortunate events? What's the point of trying to turn back the tide of expansion of global monopolistic capitalism, flooding presently the one time more livable and friendly space of the Earth with its ruthless and inhuman ideology of ever increasing profits - by all means, and controlling the entire planet's population by few? According to deniers of free will - absolutely no point. But this is exactly what powers want to see - the obedience of people to circumstances, of which the powers are creators! Tell me after that that those articles about non-existence of free will, appearing in major newspapers, such as Guardian, are not ordered and directly financed by powers. Ideas are powerful weapons. More often than not, this is very effective weaponry of mass destruction. In all meanings. And this is especially true in our time of quickly rising ideological and political warfare.
In this paper, we will explore the nature of free will, the arguments of opponents - deniers of existence of free will, and what flaws these arguments have and why. Here, we will present proofs that free will exists. However, we will make a case of considering this important concept from the very base, without appealing to authorities, so that the entire line of argument could be presented on these pages. That would demonstrate that the basic knowledge of philosophical categories and common sense are sufficient means to address this problem of great practical and theoretical importance. In fact, it is not really hard to solve, as the reader will see in a due course.
Before proceeding with the definition of a free will, we first need to specify what consciousness and conscious decision mean. We describe them as follows.
Consciousness is a state of mind when it exercises rational reasoning based on maximally possible in given circumstances adequate perception of reality. Rational reasoning,in turn, assumes:(a) accountability for external and internal factors used by reasoning, and interaction of these factors; (b) reasonably reliable and realistic foreseeing of at least immediate consequences of actions, taken in accordance with made inferences; (c)recognized (but not necessarilyaccepted) responsibility for such actions.
Accordingly, we can speak of conscious decisions, which are the ones made in a conscious state of mind.
An example of a conscious decision. I exit to the street in light clothing, and discover the outside factors, which are rain with snow, strong wind and lots of accumulated slush. I also have a set of related internal factors, like a fever and the need to go shopping to get some food. Given the consideration that walking four kilometers to a grocery store in this weather in my poor health condition will only exacerbate the illness, while there is some food in the house, I consciously conclude that it would be more beneficially for my health to cancel the shopping.
Now, we can proceed with a Definition of a free will:
We say that a free will is exercised when a person consciously chooses a certain way of action among two or more possible alternatives, realizing at the moment of this selection its consequences.
Arguments of deniers of free will
In a nutshell, the deniers of existence of free will base their assertions on pre-determinacy of all events by previous history, being this an event in a life of a human being, or a hurricane, or political and economic turmoil. The recent studies of neurological activity in the brains of animals, including humans, are also used by the deniers of free will as arguments in favor of their views. To be clear, the only relevant to the problem thing these studies showed is that the state and functionality of certain areas and constituents of brain provide preprogrammed behavior. A well known example is when somebody consciously realizes a made choice, while the brain activity measurements show that the actual choice has been made few tens of milliseconds before the realization of the made decision.
However, the deniers are ignorant (apparently, intentionally) to the fact that such a behavioral certainty is valid only to a certain degree; it is not entirely deterministic. The aforementioned studies were conducted in a controlled environment, for a certain range of parameters, with a limited number of individual species at a limited time intervals. This alone should make any scientifically thinking person to be very cautious with regard to generalization of thus obtained results for the entire animal kingdom. Not so for the deniers, which took those results as the bullet proved evidence of an absolutely deterministic nature of neurological processes.
Actually, many people can confirm such a phenomenon based on personal experience; the author is among them too. This feeling, as if something is pushing from inside, is familiar to many people. On the other hand, this is also true that many people do not realize such instinctive decisions consciously, at least every time. However, once such recognition is in the consciousness domain, it can be overwritten based on reasoning - the fact, which is also ignored by deniers of a free will.
Where the arguments of deniers of free will fail?
So, by and large, the arguments of deniers of free will are doomed to fail if we prove that at least one human action is not an automatic, instinctive one. Let begin with the human ability to intercept instinctive decisions and register them consciously. There is an overwhelming body of evidence that such an intercepting ability and based on it actions is a matter of an appropriate training. The fact is very well demonstrated in numerous psychological studies of the so called Mindfulness, Awareness training, based on techniques introduced in Buddhism teaching. The first results of such exercises, that is the ability to consciously intercept disturbing thoughts, can be observed after as little as only four training sessions, while after four weeks of training the structural changes of the brain, caused by mindfulness training, become noticeable on functional MRI scans. Thus, the instinctive, preprogrammed mode of reacting to stimulus of the environment we live in is only one of the many possible ways of perception and interaction with reality. Apparently, the most common one, but certainly very far from being the single operational mode of the brain. The brain is composed of many structural and functional modules, most of which are very closely interconnected through shared resources and systems of different levels of generality, like hormonal, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, blood supply, etc. Besides, brain has enormous plasticity, which it readily demonstrated when in need to adjust to new environmental conditions. Accepting arguments of deniers of free will would mean that this complex system - brain plus the whole human body - works completely pre-determinately and automatically through the entire human life. No place is left to stochastic and probabilistic nature of events; even more so to a free will.
Let us start with a simple case of mechanistic determinism. The most critical aspect of the aforementioned preprogramming, namely the question "preprogrammed to what extent?", is not included into consideration of deniers. They just assume 100% deterministic workings of all processes and phenomena in the world. They mention uncertainly at the level of elementary particles (the physical principle of uncertainty), in order to immediately dismiss it as a non-essential aspect with regard to macro-world interworking, to which the problem of free will relates. I
In a macro-world, according to their opinion, everything evolves absolutely deterministically. An analogy of their thinking could be a deterministic flight of a thrown stone in a year from the present moment, whose trajectory can be described by the Second law of mechanics. However, even in this deterministic action there is a fundamentally non-zero chance of disrupting the stone's flight from the predetermined trajectory. That could happen due to fundamentally accidental, random turbulence of an air stream, with some precipitation like hail or heavy rain, whose characteristics are in principle impossible to calculate in advance, regardless of how many input parameters we provide and how many mathematical equations we use, because this is a fundamental uncertainty. The nature of this fundamental uncertainty lies in the deep principles of matter organization through qualitative states. A well known example when at some point increasing number of grains becomes a pile of grain. The same situation with input parameters for prediction of a trajectory of a thrown stone in a year from the present moment. The number of required parameters at some point will become so large that no number of deterministic mathematical equations could handle them with reasonable accuracy (in fact, the greater the number of equations, the greater an error will be, and such an effect is of fundamental nature). And so the next qualitative state forcibly occurs, which is a stochastic description of such a system with many variables. Stochastic description at some point - and this is a very important consideration - is not an option, but a necessity. It is not our caprice, but an objectively the most adequate way of describing such phenomena. Period. However, entering the stochastic realm also necessarily means accepting the probabilistic view of the surrounding environment. This in turn immediately results in pairing determinism and randomness as two mediative dialectical categories, that is depending on each other, and actually transforming one into another. (If one does not want to hear about dialectical categories, just consider determinism and randomness as general notions, in the meaning the common sense furnishes them.) In either case, the above consideration shows that wherever we start with pure determinism, we will have to necessarily end up with the pair determinism - randomness.
Is complete determinism possible in living organisms?
Let us take a closer look at a phenomenon of determinism in a more complex scenario, which is a human brain and a human organism as a whole. The brain receives new information all the time, processes it, makes inferences, makes decisions, that trigger actions, and so on. Could it be done in a completely preprogrammed, automatic regime? At a first glance, some E. coli microbe acts exactly this way - like an automata. What's the difference between E. coli and a human being then? Here, we come to a principal consideration of our study. The fundamental difference, compared to E. coli, is the brain's ability to synthesize new information. In turn, this new synthetic knowledge can be used as a basis for making reasonable inferences and decisions, and consequently take conscious actions, which is in essence is the discussed free will. Let us define what qualitatively new information means.
Qualitatively new information isthe one, which cannot be deduced in an obvious, direct way from available knowledge, but requires non-trivial synthetic intellectual thinking to create new previously unknown inferences on the basis of available knowledge.
Examples of such information are many. Important scientific discoveries is one of them, new political and economical tactics and strategies, new inventions, like a steam engine, a pump, etc. can be added to the list too.
Synthesis of qualitativelynew information is of paramount importance for our discussion. Actually, it presents a sufficient condition for existence of free will. In other words, if the brain has ability to synthesize qualitatively new information, then free will exists - this is the sufficient condition.
New information can be synthesized by reasoning, as well as subconsciously, and also by combination of these two modes of thinking. When synthesized subconsciously, it can be realized and thought through by reasoning. Almost surely many heuristic discoveries were done in this way, that is subconsciously first, and then, once realized, were analyzed by reasoning, often in order to submerge to subconsciousness again, and this way, iteratively and incrementally, these discoveries were working theirs way through to theirs more or less complete form.
The new information is synthesized on the basis of a fundamentally limited knowledge (nobody knows everything, the whole humankind does not know everything, right?). Thus, the input for synthesis of new information can differ in different situations and per individual (or groups of individuals) basis. Therefore, the output can be also different, when several individuals consider similar situations (say, choosing the place of residence - like continent, country, city, street, house, floor, etc). The same individual can also have several equivalent - from his / her perspective - preferences. When it comes to scientific truths, the new knowledge can be more definitive and deterministic, of course, although deviance of opinions still could exist. Thus, the new knowledge generally has a range of different states. This is not a principal consideration for our purposes. However, it is still worth to emphasize inherently both random and deterministic nature of new knowledge.
Therefore, we discovered that pure deterministic phenomena are not possible in the realm of living organism too, in particular the synthesized by human brain new information inherently presents both deterministic and random properties.
Synthesis of new information as a prerequisite of free will existence
The principal considerations, supporting existence of free will, resides mostly on two foundational blocks. The first one is a fundamental novelty of qualitatively new information. This information did not exist before, and so it could not be accounted for by preceding history of events. It was created by a fundamentally subjective human mind, and then can be used as input for the following reasoning and inferences. One cannot dodge around this fact by saying that this new information was available, it influenced the sequence of events, but that it just was not recognized by a conscious mind. That trick won't work, because the mind itself is the creator of this new information. It could be created, could be not - the event was a probabilistic one, as it was discussed previously.
The second foundation of a free will is a principally subjective interpretation of both new and prior available information. What is the human interpretation in a nutshell? There is a set of criteria, often interacting, a person is taking into account when considering input information. For instance, this could be a combination of long-term and short-term goals superimposed by a set of moral and ethical ideas, as well as by economic, political and family factors. This tightly interlaced and conflicting factors, beliefs, ideas and realities of the present day, each with its own priority ranking, have to be resolved in a compromise decision to be made by an individual (or by a group of individuals). Could this be strictly deterministic decision? No. No fundamentally, because priorities are principally subjective, they change, they have ranges, they interact with other criteria and factors, which affect and change both priorities and themselves. So, again, we have principally both deterministic and random interplay of different factors and criteria, and so the interpretation fundamentally has the same both random and deterministic nature.
What would be the argumentation of deniers of a free will in such a situation? That everything was predetermined from the dawn of the Universe? But the new information to be taken into account did not exist until very recently. Moreover, this subjective creature of a subjective human mind principally has a probabilistic nature. And so the only scenario possible is that the subject who is making decision deliberately chooses the most important at the moment priorities (say, the long-term goals) and will make a decision favoring those priorities and anticipating the consequences of the decision. Is it a free will? Let us recall the definition:
We say that a free will is exercised when a person consciously chooses a certain way of action among two or more possible alternatives, realizing at the moment of this selection its consequences.
Thus, we obtained that the only reasonable possible way of action in a described situation satisfies the definition of a free will. This (a) proves the existence of a free will; and (b) existence of real life conditions when the free will can, and actually needed, be exercised.
The problem of randomness and determinism, and of a free will, from the Dialectics perspective
Above, we considered the problem of a free will from scratch, using rather general considerations, accessible to anybody. However, this problem can be solved more formally too from the Dialectics perspective, meaning the Hegel's Dialectics put on materialistic foundation. This is rather one of the first author's attempts to use Hegel's categories in a strict sense for solving a real (and important) philosophical problem. The author previously wrote articles about application of Materialistic Dialectics to verification of scientific truths, as well as included other similar material into books and articles. Still, that was rather a preliminary work. Here, the next level of scientific rigorousness in using Materialistic Dialectics is claimed for the first time. Unfortunately, not many people will be able to follow the author's deductions. Well, that's the price to be paid for now. In the future, the author hopes to make a successive presentation of Materialistic Dialectics from the basis, gradually ascending to the use of Hegel's categorical apparatus (with necessary - in the author's opinion - modifications), and then applying it to philosophical problems.
In the previous discussion, we already found that one branch of the problem of a free will necessarily converges to the problem of randomness and determinism. Here, our approach is based on Materialistic Dialectics (sometimes another term, Dialectical Materialism is used), for which deniers of a free will should not have objection, since their position is implicitly materialistic one, while Dialectics is what governs this world, representing the most common laws of the Universe as it is known to humans. If we follow the dialectical principle, then, according to Hegel's teaching (we repeat, transformed to materialistic foundation, since the Hegel's philosophy is objective idealism), these are two meditative categories. This means that one cannot exist without the other. Determinism exists solely because randomness exists. Otherwise, we could know no notion of determinism at all; in the same way as we cannot know the notion of an Inner without its mediative notion of an Outer. (Here, we do not use more concrete Hegel's categories of relation and correlation, although they can be applied too, for which, though, one needs to consider the correspondence of levels of generalization of categories of randomness and determinism compared to the categories of relation and correlation.) Inner and Outer, Determinism and Randomness are contrarieties, when one category in a pair is defined through its the only opposite. In this, such pairs of mediative categories differ from varieties, which denote differents, which (a) loosely relate to each other (and they have to relate somehow, otherwise we cannot compare them), like a pencil and a camel, which are both at least material things; (b) for one different, many other differents can exist.
Then, since determinism and randomness are mediative categories, as such they are inherent to any scale level, from sub-elementary particles and phenomena to the Universe as a whole. As mediative categories, randomness and determinism are equal in their importance for the evolvement of the world. Their mediative nature entirely excludes possibility of standalone determinism in any phenomenon, in any process, that is without randomness. No randomness - no determinism. Since deniers of a free will rely solely on determinism of all phenomena, this alone dialectic argument, in one paragraph, destroys the mere foundation of deniers of a free will.
Thus, from the perspective of Materialistic Dialectics, we obtain that no pure determinism can exist. Then, any outcome can be only the result of interplay of many factors, of which the reasoning, the "golden string" is one. We can say with certainty that the reasoning exists, to which many evidences is available, like undeniable fact of existence of human civilization, which in many aspects is the creature of human reasoning - nobody could deny this fact. However, since reasoning, as any other phenomena, possesses both deterministic and random properties (which was proved in the previous paragraph on the basis of Materialistic Dialectics), that means that a free will, understood in the sense of the given above definition, as a conscious choice among two or more alternatives, exists.