Prediction is big business. Whether it is forecasting tomorrow’s weather, foretelling market trends or picking the winner in the Derby, there are people ready to do it and people willing to pay good money for the information. Then there are horoscopes and prophecies. If Nostradamus were alive today, he’d be a millionaire. All because if only we know what lay in the future we could turn it to our advantage.
Among this mêlée of guruism and pseudo-science lies a serious philosophical question, one that has probably been debated ever since we became human. I mean the question of whether we have free will or whether the future is fixed so that our lives run along an unalterable track, every stage and detail of which is, as it were, set in stone.
The mind instinctively rebels against the notion that we have no free will, that we are merely automatons acting in the only way that we can. Yet when we come to look at the arguments adduced by philosophers, the outlook for free will is bleak. All the arguments in favour of free will are easily countered. I won’t go through these arguments here as they have already been done to death and a good account of them can be found in Mark Rowlands’s excellent book The Philosopher at the End of the Universe.
What concerns me here is something that occurred to me recently when mulling over this topic. That is that our usual thoughts on the subject tend to fall short in one very important respect: we tend to think of this as a binary problem, i.e. that either we we have free will or that everything is pre-determined. (To be fair, I used the word “pre-determined” myself above.)
Pre-determination implies that all events throughout the whole of time were laid out before time began; that once the clock started ticking, everything had to happen exactly according to the script. How events are determined doesn’t matter: it could be a plan in the mind of God or simply that the chain of cause and effect, once initiated, is necessarily fixed.
Hand in hand with the idea of predetermination goes the idea of prediction: if the future is fixed, so the argument runs, then we can in principle predict it. The whole of the vast industry of forecasting, prophecy and horoscopy is based on this notion. (This of course ignores the fact that if all is pre-determined then we are not free to investigate the future unless it is pre-determined that we do so in which can we can have no faith in the results because what we believe about what we see is also pre-determined. We might see white and believe it black.)
This idea is so ingrained that our (claimed) ability to predict such things as the weather, solar eclipses, market trends, etc. is often advanced as evidence of pre-determination. If we can forecast the future, say supporters of this hypothesis, then that implies that the future is fixed, i.e. that pre-determination rules. There might be some sense in this if the choice really is a binary one, free will or pre-determination.
But is that the choice before us? I don’t think it is. I think the choice is at least trinary: free will, pre-determination and unpredictable determinism. Of the three, I personally would opt for the third.
Unpredictable determinism means that what happens is the result of an interplay of forces that resolve themselves in a particular outcome as they of course must. Throw a beach ball into the sea and its movement becomes subject to the push of the waves, the pull of the tides, the wind and the local currents. No one can say where it will end up but it will certainly end up somewhere and once it does, we can in theory explain exactly how and why it came to be where it is but beforehand we could not say. I don’t mean that the calculation is beyond us and might one day be possible if only we could set enough computers to work on the problem. No, I mean that the future path of the beach ball is actually impossible to forecast but that its path is nonetheless determined because it has a cause, namely the forces acting on it and how these are resolved into its movement.
What goes for beach balls goes for human affairs: our thoughts, words and actions. Even our desires. For example, I know what I want to do tomorrow and I may or may not actually get around to doing it because my wanting is only one of the forces involved in pushing me along my path but even my wanting is a result of various forces acting on my mind and my emotions. It might in principle be possible to investigate my wanting and say how it arose but it will not be possible – even in principle – to say with any certainty what I will want tomorrow as that is still in the making.
Unpredictable determinism would account for our feeling that we have free will: wanting to do something, being “determined” to do it, is only one of the causes of our doing something but an important one nevertheless and as long as we only look at our wanting and don’t investigate its causes, it will seem to us that we act according to our will. In a sense we do. The only problem is that our will is not “our” will but the result of previous causes.