A chess program thinks for a moment, its algorithms running at inconceivable speeds. Split seconds pass by while it assesses billions of potential moves and counter moves. It finally chooses, and in an instant you realize that you’ve been crushed again by the computer.
This is the shared experience of any chess player who bravely challenges the world’s top chess programs. Even the best human players can no longer avoid this experience.
Yet do humans get the last laugh? Does free will put us above such rudimentary processing machines? It seems that way, but logic says otherwise.
When you think of free will, inevitably you’re brought to the human idea of choice. Yet choice itself proves nothing. The chess playing program chooses every time it decides upon a move. The choices just happen to be the result of a complicated algorithm capable of beating human chess players.
You need to illustrate that you are free to choose to logically illustrate free will. This should be easy you might say. But I promise you, its not only difficult ~ it is logically impossible!
No matter how impressive the playing skills of a chess computer, we know that every choice it makes is entirely the result of a prior cause. The program takes a series of data (moves, position, time, theory) and calculates its best move. There is no freedom involved, each decision is entirely chained to the data. Change the inputs, and the choices it makes will change.
We can definitively say that any choice that is the result of a prior cause is not the result of freedom – it is the result of that cause. Just like the billiard ball whose motion can be traced back through a series of prior causes, so can each of the moves of a chess playing program provided you can understand its coding.
What about you? How many of the choices you make are the result of prior causes versus free will?
Consider how much freedom you had in your choice to think about chess playing programs just now. Or purple monkeys. Both ideas were just imput into your mind because you read these words. These are prior causes, which by definition are void of free will.
But take it a step further. What about every preference you have? Did you choose your favorite color or is it an existing preference derived from elements outside of your influence? Though your preferences can change, do you control this? If you prefer the color blue, can you force yourself to prefer the color purple?
Any choice you make based on a preference, whether it be something simple like an apple over an orange, or more complex that mixes many preferences like a particular career path – each time these choices are developed entirely on preexisting data that your brain processes.
You are capable of choosing, but you are not capable of changing the elements that influence those choices any more than you can change the past or that chess playing programs can alter their inputs.
Yet you say, I am free to choose an orange even if I prefer an apple. But what would cause you to choose against your preferences? As soon as you can answer that, you are back to another cause, and in fact just replacing one cause for another. As long as there is a cause, just like with the chess playing program, there can be no free will.
With every decision, you have a lifetime of experience to rely on. Yet all your wisdom and moral leanings are based on what you’ve developed up that this point in life. Your values, no matter how they are developed, are mere inputs that influence each decision in the same manner that the chess playing program uses certain principles to decide its best move.
You may argue that your moral compass isn’t based on any life experience, you were born a certain way, or your soul defines who you are. But what freedom did you have to be born a certain way or with a particular soul?
Even if these elements represent the overwhelming source of what influences your choices, you are still not free to choose them at birth any more than you are free to choose your parents or your genetic composition.
Sam Harris offers an astoundingly simple yet profound experiment in his book“Free Will” that demonstrates how easy it is to overlook a lack of free will. To paraphrase:
There are over 2 million cities around the world. Pick a particular city.
Think about the process that just took place in your brain. Were you free to choose any city on the planet? You would have to know the name of every city for that to be even possible. You were therefore not free to choose any city.
But even among those cities that you do know, were you free to choose any of them? Did you consciously review every city you know the name of and rule most of them out?
What naturally occurs is a small selection of cities appear in your thoughts, and you chose from among this group. But what causes this particular list of cities to appear?
Perhaps you visited these cities recently, read about them, or saw a picture of one on the wall. Maybe they are places you have lived, saw on television, or heard mentioned in a nearby conversation. What is important to note here is that you have no conscious control over the small selection of cities that popped into your thoughts. The entire selection you had to choose from is the result of prior causes, many of which you might not even be able to explain.
Take it a step further. What made you choose the particular city from this small group? Personal preference? Randomness? It had to be something. And whatever it was, it had a cause. If it had a prior cause, its was not free.
You can analyze the process of any choice in this manner. It is always either a prior cause, an external factor, complete randomness, or a combination of all three. Yet in none of these areas does logic permit free will
Back to Billiards
Consider for a moment a game of billiards. A shot is taken that sets multiple balls into motion. If the exact same setup could be reconstructed, and the exact same initial shot taken, the balls would end up in the identical position. The laws of physics do not permit otherwise.
Compare this to the manner in which you define your choices. If you could live your entire life up to this moment the with the exact same set of experiences and circumstances, would you choose a different city in the experiment above or the same one?
If the answer is the same, then you understand how you are entirely locked into your choice by the sum of all your prior experiences and preferences.
If the answer is different, then there must be a variable that changed, and this new variable is a new cause. You are thus replacing one cause for another, but still tied to a prior cause.
And if you assume your answer could be different because it may be entirely random, then you are still left void of freedom.
What is Human Choice?
When you follow the logic, choice falls entirely within the confines of one or more of three distinct elements, none of which allow for free will:
1 – the influence of prior causes 2 – external influences 3 – randomness
What part of choice falls outside of any of these?
It is difficult to accept, but in any given moment, you have no control over what you will choose next.
Even if you stop reading at this moment and walk away in disgust, this is a choice that is the result of preexisting preferences and biases that elicit emotions with regard to the topic. You did not consciously choose to like or dislike this any more than you consciously chose to like or dislike a particular food.
And if you still don’t agree, imagine that you lived your entire life over again up to this very moment. Would you possibly feel any different?