Does continuity of causality negate freedom of will?

ANIL MITRA © NOVEMBER  2017—November 2017

Home | Contact

Contents

Preface

Answer

Does continuity of causality negate freedom of will?

Preface

This was written as https://www.quora.com/How-does-the-continuity-of-causality-imply-the-negation-of-free-will/answer/Anil-Mitra-2.

Here, I will be improving the foregoing answer.

Answer

11.27.2017 — “How does the continuity of causality imply the negation of free will?

Thank you for asking me to answer this question, Dick Marti.


I’ll begin with a short demonstration that continuity of causality does not negate free will.

An argument from causality to negation of free will depends on

         (a) continuity of causation which suggests that insertion of mind in the causal chain is a violation of causality (the question), and

         (b) that the natural-causal world is deterministic and therefore leaves no room for freedom. That is, neither the ‘free’ nor the ‘will’ part of free will are possible.

The assumption in (a) above is that mind is external to nature or matter and therefore its insertion in nature violates continuity.

However, if nature is all there is then mind is a part of nature and there is no ‘insertion’ and so no violation of the causal chain (even though it may seem that way).

That addresses the question.


The following is an elaboration; it is long for Quora: read at your peril.

I will also consider (b) above.

There may be some subtleties.


Detailed discussion

That the concept of free will violates causal determinism, e.g. in physics and biology, is taken to be a strong argument against the existence of free will.

Canonically, causality is marked by (a) antecedence—the causes of events must be earlier in time and (b) continuity—events occur in an uninterrupted chain. This was an objection to universal gravitation—’propagation’ is instantaneous and so there is neither antecedence nor a temporal chain (for gravity though not for motion). Wave theories of electromagnetism and gravity give and are indeed a model for causality (the model of links is misleading because the ‘chain’ in wave propagation is of infinitesimal links as is manifest in the fact that the governing equations are partial differential equations). Because of the very local nature of causality in a continuum (the partial differential equations), ‘continuity’ is sometimes enhanced to ‘contiguity’.

The insertion of will into cause appears to violate the chain of continuity.

This appears to be so when we regard the world as natural but mind as somehow outside nature. The source of this thought is associated with Descartes but there is more to it than Cartesian Dualism. In much of our lives we are just experiencing the world in itself. But at times of reflection we also experience the experiencing. The two ‘objects’ of experience seem fundamentally different. One is nature, matter, or life and the other seems to be quite something else. So the tendency to think of mind as other than matter is rather natural. When a tiger is lurking nearby—perhaps we hear a roar—it is adaptive to focus on the tiger and not on “oh I am experiencing my experience of the tiger” or even “I am thinking about the tiger”.

But suppose that all the world is nature (e.g. matter). Then mind also has to be part of nature. What part? Perhaps a known part (particles, fields) perhaps a part yet unknown. What is more important is how mind is a part of nature. Clearly it is an interaction that we may label ‘internal’ in that we don’t experience it as such. Further the production of experience (consciousness) occurs among the elements in such a way that we do not see the production and so it may appear to be outside nature. And we take this appearance to be the way things are; which is a source of the Cartesian divide; which is adaptive—we don’t want to think about thinking about the tiger and we don’t need to be privy to elementary neural processes—it would probably seem incoherent; but which is also false.

That is, the occurrence of will in natural events is not outside nature, is not an insertion, and is in no way a violation of the nature of nature and any of its true properties. I.e. if causation is a true and complete aspect of nature, the presence of mental process and mental causation in it is neither unnatural nor contradictory nor impossible.

Free will does not violate continuity in causality.

A side-note: the view of mind as somehow outside nature has led to a number of artificial views (1) there is no such thing as mind or consciousness (Daniel Dennett has said this but does not really mean it; he means that consciousness is not what you think it is; and he is characteristically unclear about how that is so) (2) mind is epiphenomenal like the foam on the wave (the motive is to recognize mind while respecting the objection that it cannot be causal) (3) mind is supervenient on matter (which could be taken to be a way of saying what I say above but cannot quite say it because it continues to somehow still see mind as immaterial; therefore it resorts to ‘mind is supervenient on nature’ rather than mind is nature—i.e., mind is just part of nature). However, the present argument removes the need for these artificial views.

That more or less answers the question.


I will now take up some further considerations, especially the issue of determinism, that are peripheral to this specific question but which make for a more complete discussion of the mutual implications of cause and free will.

I will begin with the free part of free will—item (b) near the beginning of the discussion. Is there any violation of causality there? The following arguments are made against freedom of the will

  1. Objection—nature is deterministic (indeed the models so far mentioned, classical particles and waves, are deterministic). And if the evolution of the world right through all instants of time through the present, is given at the very origin of time freedom of will would then seem to be impossible. Response—quantum mechanics is not deterministic. Now, while this view is widespread, not all physicists would agree. Still, since we are not sure that quantum theory is not deterministic, it cannot be said to show that free will is impossible. Further, we do not know that quantum mechanics (including quantum relativistic field theories) are complete (and in fact because of the lack of a satisfactory comprehensive field theory—i.e., one that incorporates gravity, we should be pretty certain that they are not complete).
  2. Objection—nature is deterministic (indeed the models so far mentioned, classical particles and waves, are deterministic). And if the evolution of the world is given at the origin of time freedom of will would seem impossible Response—quantum mechanics is not deterministic. Now, while this view is widespread, not all physicists would agree. Still, since we are not sure that quantum theory is not deterministic, it cannot be said to show that free will is impossible. Further, we do not know that quantum mechanics (including quantum relativistic field theories) are complete (and in fact because of the lack of a satisfactory comprehensive field theory we should be pretty certain that they are not complete).
  3. Objection—but if indeterminism obtains it is then hard to see there could be will at all for everything would be random (David Hume is one thinker who argued so). Response—quantum mechanics already seems to be a model of how indeterminism and determinism (and structure) coexist. First, quantum behavior at the particle level gives rise to classical behavior at a macroscopic level. Second, even at the quantum level there is both indeterminism and structure: the indeterministic events are transitions between one structure and another (as manifest in bound systems). Thus it is untrue that the presence of indeterminism must violate all order. In fact determinism has a problem that essentially new order cannot arise and therefore indeterminism is necessary for new order and quantum theory shows how. This also appears in the evolution of life where new adaptive structures are arrived at by random variation. The variation is random; in general the mutations are not adaptive; but the few adaptive / stable ones survive, selectively. We can put it this way: a fundamental source of order lies at the border of indeterminism and structure that, for many purposes, behaves deterministically (i.e. it is the structure that is almost deterministic in its behavior).
  4. Objection—but brains are macroscopic systems and their macro behavior is classical and unaffected by the quantum / microscopic level. Response—now after almost a century of the new quantum mechanics of Heisenberg and Schrödinger, it ought to be clear that while for many purposes brains are and behave as classical systems, this need not rule out all quantum / indeterministic behavior at the macro level. Even in physics there are systems where the microscopic is at least indirectly manifest at the macroscopic level—e.g. superfluidity, black holes, and the very non esoteric and everyday stability of ordinary matter. It should not be at all surprising, then, that quantum and/or next/future physics are pertinent to macroscopic processes in brains.
  5. Objection—but this gives us no clue how free will works. Response 1—true but it does overcome the contemplated objections from physics. Response 2—of course we are interested in physical / natural models of free will but these must be tentative. The discussion so far already suggests the outline of a model. Here is one. There are random events in the brain. These include random new thoughts. The thought structure of the brain then picks up on these. Some of these create / envisage new viable options for action (obviously the details of what is going on is complex at both micro and macro levels). But once conceived, the options can be analyzed and selected from. If the analysis is omitted, free will is an experimental endeavor. When analysis is present it adds a degree of rationality and efficiency to the experimental side of the endeavor.

General comment. Arguments from physics to psychology abound. These are often regarded as necessary arguments of the form “mind can” or “mind cannot”. Generally, however, since we do not fully understand the physics and since physics is neither final nor complete, these arguments are at most suggestive when of the “cannot” kind and plausible when of the “can” kind. I regard the attitude that turns the suggestive and the plausible into the necessary as the tyranny of physics (note: I have been steeped in and am an admirer of physics in itself).

From reasoning already stated I hold, to adapt a famous quote, that the proper study of mind is mind. For example, starting from the idea behind Descartes’ ‘cogito’ argument, I suspect it is possible to similarly argue for free will—but I expect that this would be harder than the original cogito but the outline of an argument is not hard to extract from the cogito and the foregoing discussion; it may require us to carefully think about what is allowed as data in a science of psychology. I further hold that we have direct access to mind in many ways, some of which we may be blinded to by the adaptive need to typically see only the product of lower level processing and to not focus on higher level processing, e.g. ‘experience of experience’; and, finally, I hold that psychology may and should inform physics.

This, the relation between physics and psychology—and biology—at a metaphysical level, is a complex and potentially fruitful field of endeavor. For example, if it should be shown that quantum field theory is deterministic; and if we can argue in a philosophical and psychological / cognitive science mode that free will must obtain, that would demonstrate the incompleteness of quantum physics (independently of arguments internal to physics itself).