I have recently encountered a massive conflict between the proponents of free will and determinism, and to me both sides seem a little shortsighted. The free will crew believes they have free will more or less because they want to, or they argue that if the universe is deterministic then things like moral responsibility or experience become worthless. Now this is clearly false because the only thing the deterministic side claims is that the universe follows universal causal rules and there are no miracles that violate those rules. They can counter the free will arguments with arguments about building houses, saying that “you start building the house because if you just sit on your ass then it won’t get built.” Saying that it is predestined that the house be built and then doing nothing is an incorrect and fraudulent corruption of deterministic thinking.
Though a fascinating debate, you’re both wrong. And you’re both right. Free will is a direct result of a causal, deterministic universe to the point that without such a universe then free will would be meaningless. Time for an example; let’s take a deck of cards and mix it up randomly. Clearly, while the deck is just sitting there, the order of the cards is fixed, unchanging, and predetermined. The fact that this is true does not mean that the contents of the deck are somehow irrelevant. In fact, the knowledge that they aren’t changing doesn’t actually help you at all because you don’t know what they are. If you were playing a game like Texas Hold ‘Em Poker then you have to allow for the fact that any of the unknown cards could be any of the cards you haven’t accounted for. In reality the identity of those cards is completely fixed. Another player can be looking at some of those cards and be presented with exactly the same situation but with a different context containing differing information. By the logic of the free will corps, the fact that the cards are predetermined somehow makes the game irrelevant, boring, and useless. This is clearly false due to the interplay of information and unknowns. There is a case to be laid against my example because I introduce a second layer of free will in the players’ responses to their predetermined cards, but we’re talking imprecise examples right now and I’ll lay out my true and complete argument shortly. So with our deck of cards, you can draw a card and then its position is locked in in a past-historical sense, but its position was equally predetermined beforehand. Your knowledge has changed, and that’s all. It is a significant and common fallacy, however, to then assume that the cards could not have been ordered in any other way. The fact that they could have been drawn in any other logically possible way means that you are forced to allow for it on equal terms with the way they actually were drawn. Notice the quantum zippering effect of multiple strings of possible futures being reduced to one single past as you draw each card. Also note the interesting effects of inference as you go through the deck. If all the clubs are gone then you know that the next card will not be a club, for example. Saying that the future is predetermined is really an extremely short step from the obvious truth that the past is predetermined, or more accurately that it is unchangeable after the fact.
The fundamental principle in question is emergent behavior. Our universe exhibits emergent predictability based on inherently random subunits. The most elementary particles behave extraordinarily erratically, but macroscopic objects exhibit stability, and extremely large conglomerates of matter such as stars or galaxies are materially determined into the future, and the fluctuations on the lowest level aren’t going to affect entities of such a massive scale. The weight of probability is just too large at high scales. The basic organizing principle of the universe is therefore that, probabilistically speaking, it follows the path of least resistance. The universe resolves itself into the most probable stable arrangement based upon the input of all its particles. Humans inhabit the scale at which the world around us is stable, but still able to fluctuate enough for small systems’ outputs to produce differing results as conditions require. Life is the self-organization of matter, and as life becomes more sophisticated in its organization techniques, its ability to convert more matter into animate matter increases. Once upon a time the chaos event horizon was on the microbial level; random fluctuations in the primordial soup produced the first RNA capable of duplicating itself purely by “chance.” Statistically, on earth’s conditions, given the vast volume and time scales we’re talking about it wasn’t really “chance.” Especially so because of the anthropic principle. If we hadn’t appeared, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. If we had appeared somewhere else, we’d be talking about it wherever the conditions were suitable for us to appear. So it’s really not randomness. In the inexorable way that life does, it proceeded to duplicate itself and divide into more complex lifeforms. Eventually, the chaos event horizon broadened into macroscopic lifeforms by the development of the cell- particularly those of the eukaryotic variety which allowed organisms like us to overcome the problems of osmosis and diffusion. A giant, human-sized amoeba (or even a non-microscopic one) is impossible because substances absorbed through the membrane wouldn’t diffuse to the nucleus and other structures. So lifeforms like us are composed of trillions of little cooperating microbes which don’t violate those rules. How does this relate to determinism? Well, it could be said that the development of life exactly as it was, including down to the individual organism level, was predetermined. Does this change how, beforehand, it couldn’t have been determined how the future would have unrolled? Asking what would have happened had the universe proceeded in a slightly different manner is exactly the same as asking what would have happened if one of those cards in the deck was a different card. Guess what? The answer is very simple. The card you had drawn would simply be different, leaving you to ask the same question.
So now we’re ready to address the true issue on determinism. We live in a causal reality where effect follows cause all the time. We can formulate models and simulations to meaningfully represent the world around us and make predictions about our world. Let’s do an experiment. What happens if you throw a rock up? It falls down. Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ve just proved that we live in a deterministic universe. The fact that our universe is composed of immutable, consistent laws acting on a consistent basis means that it is possible to predict the future. Let’s take a more useful example. You’re walking along some mountain trail, and you come upon a gorge. Across this gorge are three bridges. One of them is extremely rickety, and if you try to cross it then you will fall. The second is very stable, but on the other side are some soldiers with guns, and you of course have no papers! If you try to cross there, you will be shot. The third bridge is a small townie bridge that looks safe. Which bridge do you cross? If you answered bridge #3 then I’m glad we can agree that we live in a deterministic universe compatible with free will. Due to the deck-of-cards-effect, whatever happens to occur was probabilistically certain. However, we live in a causal universe so if you choose to cross the rickety bridge and you fall to your death, you were predestined to arrive at the choice, choose the first bridge, and fall to your death. If you choose the second bridge, the same concept holds for you being shot. And if you choose the third bridge, your fate is to make it across and go on your merry way. If this sounds like I’m ignoring the deterministic aspect of my argument, that’s because your perspective of determinism is fundamentally flawed. You seem to think that the fact that it is predetermined has meaningful import on what is predetermined. You seem to think that if determinism is true, that makes it possible to say things like “your destiny is to take the first bridge and die.” This is ridiculous. Let’s modify our situation so that, back in Phuket, some mystic told you that you would be faced with this choice and that you would choose the first bridge and die. When you arrive at that situation, you choose the safe way, you live, and then laugh at the insanity of the mystic. Or perhaps you’re of the religious bent and you decide to run headlong down the rickety bridge, and fall to your death because the mystic said you would. Obviously any sort of mystic divination is impossible. Unless that mystic is blessed with an absolutely unbelievable amount of brainpower, their prediction is futile- more on this shortly. And even if the prediction was effective, the fact that they said it (actually just the fact that they predicted it) changed the conditions and thus invalidated the prediction. Lots of time travel fiction has all sorts of weird, twisted, self-referential paradoxes. For example, later on in your quest you come upon another bridge which looks perfectly sound but then as you’re crossing it gets hit with a meteor and you fall to your death while the mystic laughs over your corpse. Or maybe whichever bridge you choose turns out to be the rickety one and you fall to your death. Or maybe something even more bizarre. Such paradoxes/improbabilities/insanities are entertaining, but they embody a truly stupid way of understanding the world if they push it as truth.
Now we’re at an interesting understanding of fate. We can make useful predictions about stuff like rocksy flying, but not about the nature of the universe. Why are our simulations good in some circumstances, but not in others? Simple. Imperfect models will produce imperfect results. It turns out that our model of the rock flying is more than sufficient to predict something so simple. It’s a solved system. However, if you wanted to be perfectly accurate in describing the nature of the rock’s motion, down to the last particle, you would still require a massive amount of processing capability. That’s unnecessary because a simplified model is good enough for our practical purposes. Tic-tac-toe, young children eventually figure out, is a solved game. It’s possible to at least tie every single time. Theoretically, a sufficiently powerful intelligence can represent any information set or solve any such problem. If we can predict the way the rock will fall, a vastly more intelligent agent might predict the chemistry of a microbe and thus its activity. An even more intelligent agent might work on an organism as complicated as a human. An even more intelligent one might “solve” the planet and its ecosystem. We can’t play chess with that type of knowledge because the game is so fantastically complicated relative to our mental faculties that we cannot just solve it. In fact, we can’t even verify if it can be solved. I would bet it can as long as you don’t employ “infinite intelligences” in your proof, but now we’re getting off topic. Back to the real world, if you thought chess was complicated, then how on earth would you even begin to go about solving the behavior of, say, a squirrel? The task boggles the mind. However that wouldn’t even require that much processing capability- you only need all the data about the squirrel and its surroundings out to the limit of the squirrel’s perceptual ability, plus an exact model of the squirrel’s behavior. Now consider doing the same thing with the earth as a whole. Simply impossible by any modern standard. As we expand our simulation’s purview to a galaxy, a cluster, and so on, the amount of processing power required expands to insane levels. Eventually we reach the edge of the universe, but probably long before then we’ll have run out of real estate with which to run a simulation. In order to create processing capability, you have to store information somehow. Fundamentally, all our information storage methods involve the placement, polarization, or other modification or use of some form of the universe’s substance. It therefore follows that it is impossible to simulate the complete universe because in order to do so you would need one bit of information for every bit in the universe. Basically, you would have to represent the universe with itself, which gets us nowhere as to predicting it. However, more efficient but imperfect models can probably make fairly accurate assertions about the future, such as the case with the rock. The use of heuristic models in place of pure simulations is what gives intelligence its power.
Now I need to close the loop- free will and determinism. So we live in a predetermined universe because the universe follows causality, in the form of consistent laws and a consistent representation of itself. Yet at the same time the fact that it is predetermined alone gives us absolutely no information about its nature, and just like the deck of cards which is predetermined but at the same time unknown, the universe’s causality is exactly what makes it useful to us as organisms. You choose to cross the safe bridge because you know you’re going to get across, and you can make that prediction because you implicitly understand and respect the causality of the universe. Yet at the same time, because your intelligence allows you to do that, you are forced to acknowledge the fact that a more intelligent predictor could make more powerful predictions than you, and so on and so forth up until all solvable problems are, or can be, solved. However, it is the fact that these predictions can be abstracted that gives us the foundation upon which free will is built: choice. Without the power to abstract features of the universe into utility and options, there can be no choice. If you were unable to predict in the simulation sense, then trading money for food would have no meaning because food would have no meaning for you. In fact, the continuity of your existence would have no meaning, time itself would have no meaning. When you make a choice, it is implicitly assumed that there is a positive action being taken- “I choose this over that.” But in order to do that, you first have to know what this and that are, and you can only do that by extrapolating into the future. In fact, consciousness itself cannot exist without extrapolation into the future. It’s what processing power does that distinguishes it from the rock at the core of the earth with random electrical impulses flashing through it. Abstraction is an extrapolation into the future by creating, combining, refining, or modifying concepts derived from the past on the basis that such extrapolation will have utility later, even if it’s a split second later. Without “If I do this then this will happen” free will is completely worthless. A simulation takes data from the past and computes the future, and a hypothetical takes data that perhaps hasn’t happened (yet) and computes the potential future. The inference I was talking about back with the deck of cards is your mind rearranging and making manageable the objective world around it, in this case the deck of cards. You were simulating a few known conditions of the remainder of the deck when all the clubs, or all the kings were drawn. And clearly you can handle a hypothetical under the same conditions because you’re reading this right now and thinking about what would happen if all the kings or all the clubs were drawn.
So you really can’t get away from the conclusion: while the universe is predetermined, the fact that it cannot be simulated perfectly means that your experience right now is the best shot you’re going to get at it. You have free will because exactly what’s going to happen cannot be known, and must necessarily be unknown. It’s an endless deck containing an infinite variety of cards. We have an endlessly cascading moment of probabilistic chaos, and while we can throw imperfect simulations at it until we’re blue in the face, nobody can know with absolute certainty exactly what’s going to happen. The universe is predetermined, but each and every one of us is blessed with limited perspective. Enjoy it.
Of course I have another caveat, however. If we were somehow to have total perspective on our universe, it would be conclusive proof that there existed at least one other, more grandiose universe encompassing it that we couldn’t have total perspective on.