Wednesday, February 25th 2015
I have often said in these pages that I have difficulty making up my mind when I have to choose between two or more similar things. For example, suppose I go into a shop to buy a new pair of trousers and am presented with two pairs. Let’s say that both fit me perfectly, both cost the same and I like both of them but there are slight differences between them. Which shall I choose?
In such circumstances, I find myself in what we might call a state of elective inertia or, if you prefer, I can’t make up my mind.
This is the situation that the 14th-century philosopher Jean Buridan studied and illustrated with an imaginary scenario that has come down to us as Buridan’s Ass. (The problem in fact already occurs in Aristotle but we needn’t let that detain us apart from acknowledging the Greek philosopher’s primacy.) Buridan imagines an ass, or donkey, standing equidistant from two piles of hay. The piles are the same size and the hay in both is equally fresh and tasty. The donkey therefore cannot make up his mind which pile to eat and therefore dies of hunger.
Now, of course, Buridan’s ass isn’t a real donkey. He is an imaginary entity, like Schrodinger’s cat, dreamed up to illustrate a paradox. In real life, donkeys don’t die of starvation in the presence of piles of hay. Similarly, I am confident that I will eventually emerge from the shop carrying my new pair of trousers. But if neither the donkey nor I can make up our minds which hay or which trousers to go for, how do we reach a solution to the dilemma?
All this hinges, of course, on the question of free will. Philosophers have argued throughout long centuries as to whether human beings (and perhaps also donkeys) possess free will. The problem is not made any easier by the difficulty of defining exactly what we mean by free will. What is it, do I have it and how can you tell?
Suppose we are out and about and decide to go for coffee. Looking around, we see a pair of coffee bars side by side. Each belongs to a well known chain so we know what to expect in each. “Shall we go to coffee bar A or to coffee bar B?” asks Tigger. “You decide.” I reflect and then say “On previous occasions when we went to B, the coffee was weak and tepid and altogether not very good, whereas the coffee in A has always been excellent. Let’s go to A.”
Did I use my free will in choosing A over B? I might have done, for all that any of us knows, but it wouldn’t have been necessary. There is clear and sufficient reason for choosing A rather than B. In the modern parlance, “It’s a no-brainer”.
Now suppose that in fact we like both coffee bar A and coffee bar B equally and have always found the coffee, the service and the surroundings excellent in both. Which shall I choose then?
To tell you the truth, I will find it difficult. I will hum and ha, shuffle my feet, try to persuade Tigger to choose but in the end I will make a decision. How?
If you say “By exercising your free will”, you are not answering the question in any meaningful way. I will simply ask you “How did I, exercising my free will, make up my mind?” Postulating free will doesn’t explain how we make choices. Therefore, the fact that we do make choices does not imply that we possess free will.
Let’s suppose we invent a robot with an electronic brain. Its job is to negotiate a maze. Every time it reaches an intersection, it has to choose whether to go left or right. Because we are not very clever at artificial intelligence, we program the robot to choose by generating a random number. If the number is odd, the robot goes left and if the number is even, the robot goes right. We can say that the robot is making a choice but we can’t say that it has free will because it is entirely constrained by its programming which is purely deterministic. (Even generating a random number is deterministic because it is performed by a fixed algorithm. We may not know what the outcome will be but once it has occurred, we can in principle explain why.)
So, when I choose one of the coffee bars over the other, am I exercising free will or am I merely responding to some deterministic process? Putting this another way, in the presence of two options of which neither has a clear advantage (or disadvantage) over the other, how do I nevertheless make a choice?
There is a principle which most philosophers and scientists adhere to, and to which I too in my humble way also adhere, and is expressed in the neat little Latin tag: Nihil sine ratione, which means “Nothing (happens) without a reason”. Looking at it another way, it is an expression of the well founded belief that everything that happens in the universe is the result of chains of cause and effect.
If this is right, and I cannot imagine that it could possibly not be right, then whenever I make a choice, there is a reason for my choice whether I recognize this or not. Worse still, if I can still make a choice in the absence of a clear and sufficient reason for doing so, how can I be sure that what I think is my clear and sufficient reason for a choice really is not merely a fantasy explanation dreamed to reassure myself that I have made a free and rational choice? I would argue that I can never be absolutely sure about that.
If I can never be absolutely sure about my reasons for making a choice, where does that leave free will? If my choice is not the result of conscious ratiocination, then it is the result of hidden causes of which I am unaware, like the robot in the maze responding to the random number generator.
I would argue that my (and the donkey’s) situation is a little better than that of the robot, but only a little. There will be all sorts of impulses milling about in my brain, of which I am for the most part totally unaware (except when they pop up in dreams, Freudian slips, etc), and when I need to make a choice, I may find myself pulled this way and that by contrary impulses. Eventually, this storm somehow resolves itself and a choice emerges. I think I have “made” the choice, and in a sense I have, but I haven’t made it in the clear and conscious way I think I have.
Does this mean we have no free will but are merely driven by an unconscious that continually argues with itself? I think that depends on how we define free will. If we take it to mean that we have the freedom to act when we are not constrained or coerced by forces external to us (such as moral and legal laws), then yes, we have free will. If, on the other hand, we take it to mean that we are free to act according to conscious choices arrived at through balancing lists of pros and cons, then no, I don’t think we have free will in that sense. I think our choices are always mediated by impulses that are partly or even completely obscure to us.