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Do we have free will - and do we want it? Thomas Hector offers clues

Thomas is a locomotive and his movements are determined by the shape of the track, his operation as a locomotive and the railway workers. So is his free will just an illusion? And what does this mean about humans in reality?

By      Matyáš Moravec Gifford Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews

Thomas the Locomotive - A version of the locomotive operating in Pennsylvania. Image:
Thomas Hector - a version of the locomotive operating in Pennsylvania. Image:

Are we free or are our actions determined by the laws of physics? And how much free will do we really want? These questions bothered you the philosophers For thousands of years - and they still don't have perfect answers.

But it turns out that a character from a children's TV series can provide a clue. Thomas the tank engine, despite being a locomotive, behaves like a human being. He makes decisions and choices. And he is morally responsible: when he does something wrong, he is punished.

But when you look deeper things get complicated. He is a locomotive. Its movements are determined by the shape of the track, its operation as a locomotive and the railway workers. So is his free will just an illusion?

The laws of physics explain how a past event leads to a future event. For example, if I put a kettle on the stove, the laws of thermodynamics state that it will boil at some point in the near future. If I don't disturb the kettle or stove, there is only one possible outcome: the water will start to boil.

A powerful philosophical argument Against free will states that since we cannot change the past and since we cannot change the laws of physics, we cannot change the future either. This is because the future is only a result of the past, and the laws of physics dictate that the past will lead to the future. The future is not open to alternatives.

This also applies to us: our bodies are physical objects made of atoms and molecules governed by the laws of physics. But every decision and action we take can ultimately be related to some initial conditions at the beginning of the universe.

We may feel that we have free will, but this Just an illusion. And the same is true for Thomas: it may seem to him that he is free, but his actions are determined by the track layout and the train schedule. What he does is not open to alternatives. It is, after all, a steam engine governed by the laws of thermodynamics.

Moral responsibility

But if Thomas' actions are not open to alternatives, why is he dismissed when he is wrong? If he was nothing more than a machine, would it make sense to think he was morally responsible? After all, it would be strange to say that my kettle deserves praise for boiling the water, if it really could not do otherwise.

American philosopher Harry Frankfurt Developed A genius thought experiment To show that the future does not have to be open to alternatives for us to be morally responsible. Imagine two agents, let's call them the killer and the visitor. The visitor has electrodes attached to the killer's brain. If the killer does not do as the visitor wants, he activates the electrodes - which forces the killer to obey.

Now, the reviewer really wants someone, let's call him a victim, to die. So he thinks to direct the killer to kill the victim. But it turns out that the killer also actually wants the victim to die, so she kills the victim without the visitor having to intervene at all. The electrodes remain off.

What is the moral of the story? Although the killer's actions were not open to alternatives (if he had decided not to kill, the visitor would have forced her to do so anyway), he is still responsible and punished as a murderer.

Thomas seems to be in the same situation: when he does things within the railway rules, he is left to do them of his own free will. When he doesn't, someone intervenes: the driver, the ticket taker or theThe threatening visitor. But he still gets scolded when things go wrong. The fact that his actions are not open to alternatives does not change anything in this matter.

How much free will is desirable?

So how about a universe where Thomas' future is undecided? Will he be free there?

Although we feel uncomfortable with the fact that our actions may be determined, the alternative is not much better. A universe where the future is is not defined Absolutely, where it's too open to alternatives, it's just too chaotic. I need to know that when I put the kettle on the stove, it will boil. A universe where water spontaneously turns into frozen orange juice is not one most of us would want to live in.

And the same goes for Thomas. If Thomas were allowed to leave the tracks, fly into the air, or if his steam engine did not obey the laws of thermodynamics, his universe would not function.

His character captures our intuitions about free will. We need choice and moral responsibility, but we don't want our actions to be completely undetermined. We want our free will to be somewhere between complete determinism and complete randomness.

For an article in The Conversation

"Everything is predictable and permission is impossible" On the reading stag website

More of the topic in Hayadan:

6 תגובות

  1. Is it possible that there could be a universe (perhaps the current one) where there is a possibility of limited free choice that does not create general chaos? This (of course has to be scientifically proven)
    If there is such a situation, is it possible that this physical field, this space, is "utilized" by biological systems in such a way that it gives them a better chance of survival? Those who look at biological systems see a system with relative isolation from the external environment
    But in order to exist, you need interaction with the external environment, if it is to avoid dangerous situations, if it is to obtain energy resources to act, etc.. In some living biological systems, an entire expensive system has been created that requires energy resources to make decisions through actions (the brain), so there is a decision-making system here, but The question that remains is whether this is a free or deterministic decision-making system?
    A question that should perhaps be asked is what property a physical system needs to allow free choice
    delimited that does not cause general chaos, there are too few scientists who try to look for this possibility when the great majority supports determinism even though our knowledge is still not complete enough to say with certainty what the reality is in which we live, it is difficult to see how in a deterministic world something called good or bad morality exists because actually There is no choice here, these are automatic biological machines where since the big bang everything that happened happens and will happen is already deterministically determined even if there is some random statistical freedom it does not change the final picture in which we are directed to a certain behavior that has degrees like good bad law but at the basic level it will be Quite shaky, only with true free choice at some level can we really talk about good and bad, morality and justice.

  2. The missing word in the discussion is evolution. If I see some detail or feature in some living creature, which has obviously evolved over many generations, I must conclude that it has an important role in the functioning and survival of the creature. It can be feathers, or eyes or a striking resemblance to a dangerous creature. If you look at consciousness, you see that it also did not appear out of nowhere only with us, and that there is a consistent development across at least two separate evolutionary lineages: mammals and birds, over a period of tens of millions of years, starting with their reptilian ancestors, with limited consciousness (if any) up to creatures It is clear that they understand that they exist and operate in the world, and that they have goals at a given time, and are equipped with environmental understanding and intelligence at one level or another that allows them to solve problems to achieve these goals.

    Consciousness is one of the most complicated and incomprehensible things there is. We are not close to understanding how this happens through neurons, but we know that it is completely non-trivial, and that it consumes a lot of energy, so to think that it is just something that appeared, and has no part in the survival of the organism, which is expressed in an active understanding of the world, the creation of priorities, strategic planning and decision-making, and that Our sense of free will and choice is entirely imaginary - well, it's an idea that's hard to assume actually came from a truly intelligent mind.

  3. Our thinking and choices are also fixed in time, not something that can really be changed, although the future cannot be seen to be predetermined.
    There are two possibilities, either one universe where time is constant and flows from the past to the future or endless parallel universes that are always splitting apart more and more.

  4. Free will can only exist in "objective reality" meaning that all information is known and the position and momentum of each and every particle can be measured at any given moment. However, such measurement is not possible and therefore each and every one of them has a "subjective reality" or in scientific-philosophical language, super-deterministic in which there is a lack of information. The lack of information makes it possible to measure the position and momentum of a particle at any given moment, i.e. instead we have a wave function which cannot be measured but can only be estimated in the form of probabilities.
    I will give an example, a child standing in a candy store and out of the variety of candies on the shelf chooses a raspberry flavored candy (up to this point he apparently has free will). After paying, he puts the candy in his mouth and it has a sour taste. Hence he lacks critical information and when there is no information about the acidity of the candy there is no more free will, very simple.

  5. The presentation of the dilemma is wrong, because the future is not the result of only one factor. Already 150 years ago, Henri Poncara showed that the effect of even just two factors on a third party is incalculable. Certainly in the decisions of the human mind that are influenced by an infinite number of factors.
    The problem is not only the phenomenon of chaos, that a small change in the opening conditions can cause a big change in the result. Today it is also accepted in physics that mutual effects have probabilistic behavior (quanta, strings, etc.) and not absolute, and in any case knowing the past does not lead to knowing the future.
    The attempt to give philosophical answers through the natural sciences is destined for failure. Already 400 years ago the scientific revolution separated them (or at least - between the natural sciences and the humanities).

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