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The Mind-Numbing Truth Of Beautiful Free Will

For those of you who know me better, you will know that I tend to get sucked into people’s worldview. My latest podcast superhero has been Sam Harris. And one of his big ideas is that there is no free will.

No free will. No such thing. Our brains and bodies are made up from atoms that follow physical laws, this gives rise to ideas and those ideas determine the choices we make. If you could rewind time and ask somebody the same question a trillion times, they would make the same choice. Every. Single. Time.

This idea has been bugging me for quite some time now. You see, I certainly believe that there is such a thing as ‘free will’. However, with my own background in physics, Sam’s argument seems quite strong. 

So let’s do an experiment. Suppose we have built our AI machine, vastly more intelligent than us. Humanity decides that we will give the choice to our AI machine. Let’s ask our machine whether it wants to be 

  1. Put into some kind of mainframe and control all the traffic and transportation in New York. Or… 
  2. Placed in some remote monastery to contemplate the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. 

And so the big moment arrives. As we ask our AI to make its choice, it will start computing. It will start crunching numbers. And in the end, it will just look at us with its cold iron eyes and tell us in a flat, monotone voice whether it chose option 1) or option 2). (You know how these AI’s are, emotionless creeps…)

Robot with free will

Now the question that remains is: Did our AI have free will? Was the choice it just made completely free and voluntarily, or should we say it in fact had no free choice in the matter? 

The choice that the machine ends up making was a product of all its physical components and all its experiences in the past. However, the complete decision-making process happened by the AI, inside of the AI, according to all the preferences and faults the AI might have.

If we live in a purely physical world, as our AI would surely do, then there is nothing more to being an AI than being a highly organized bulb of atoms in space that happens to be able to think for itself. And having a free will is nothing more than being able to make choices based on your own ideas, experiences and thoughts without any other conscious entity forcing you to do so.

So the conclusion should not be that the deterministic nature of the universe somehow took away our ability to make a free choice. The conclusion should be that we are that part of the deterministic universe that is making the free choice

There is simply no way in which the deterministic laws of physics that dictate the interactions between atoms and groups of particles, can force me to do anything. Those particles cannot force me to do anything because they are the building blocks from which my consciousness arises. 

To say that the ‘freeness’ of this choice can be taken away by the deterministic nature of the universe is to say that our consciousness is somehow separated from the physical matter that we are made of, instead of an emergent property of that matter. 

So I say: Yes, free will exists!

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