Day 004 - Free will in a deterministic system

Submitted by Sam on 25 May, 2011 - 00:04

As hinted at earlier, an essential ingredient of the human condition – free will – violently resists deterministic theories of our own universe, which throws a bit of a dampener on the whole thing. How can Stephen Wolfram, a well-regarded physicist, software developer, mathematician, author and businessman even begin to consider the existence of a rule for the universe when such a rule would utterly preclude true free will, which is presumably as integral to his own humanity as it is to ours? After all, a rule for the universe would render Wolfram himself as functionally no different from one of his own cellular automata, and would simultaneously reduce all of human endeavour to nothing more than a procedural inevitability.

So how might a man with free will be explained by a deterministic universe? In a nutshell, it can't be done. Not if we're talking about one particular flavour of free will we might find in the OED, which is as follows:

The power of an individual to make free choices, not determined by divine predestination, the laws of physical causality, fate, etc. Also: the doctrine that human beings possess this power and are hence able to direct and bear responsibility for their own actions. Freq. opposed to determinism n. 2, predestination n. 1b.1

A deterministic universe can't satisfy this OED definition, but it is able to specify programmatic thinking machines who happen to be constructed in such a way that they offer themselves a healthily compelling illusion of free-will. Ooh-er!

These thinking machines would experience the sensation of free will as a result of the practically unpredictable emergent interactions of a finite set of rules. This is the butterfly effect once again, and this is chess on a very, very, very big level. Here's the chess analogy: chess has very rigid rules, but yet produces very unpredictable games – so unpredictable that there are probably more board positions than there are atoms in the universe. With many orders of magnitude more rules than chess, the 'brain' of a thinking machine in a deterministic universe would have a near-infinite number of possible configurations, which are to all intents and purposes unpredictable. If the brain's configuration (read: thoughts) cannot be predicted in any practical sense, then the experience of free will can emerge.

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