Posts Tagged ‘free will’

I was just reading a book in which JRR Tolkien’s name cropped up, together with a few lines of his.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost or wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
And keeps the rags of lordship he once owned.

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.


We make still by the law in which we’re made

(JRR Tolkien)

These thoughts of his remind me of how far humanity has fallen in the last few hundred years, during which time so many people have been beguiled by the easy doctrines of physics (especially) that they have come to think of themselves as machines – biological machines, to be sure, but machines nevertheless.

Now it is true that there is much that is mechanical about a person – as a trip to the dentist will remind us ; but there is also so much more that is not mechanical.  For example, can consciousness be properly described in mechanical terms?  is love a mechanical process? is free will mechanical?

Tolkien here straightens our ideas, I think.

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Something to think about
Some strange ideas about human nature have emerged in recent years.  One such idea appears to be that humans have no control over their actions.

The world is made of particles
The argument for the idea runs like this.  The entire universe is composed of particles which are perfectly invisible to us ; but these particles assemble themselves in systematic ways to produce larger particles, such as molecules  ; and the larger particles arrange themselves in ever larger groups, until the largest of them are actually able to influence our sensory organs.  In other words, they become visible, audible, tangible and so on.

The world is determined by natural laws
This is not a particularly surprising model of what the world might be like.  We can imagine such things as rocks, puddles, mountains, rivers and so on being made of trillions of invisible particles, all arranging themselves according to what appear to be natural laws which decide on the shapes and sizes and masses of natural things.  In accordance with the natural laws, objects, such as the stones, puddles, mountains and oceans, etc., may only take on certain physical arrangements.  And the things themselves have no power to alter their physical arrangements.  A mountain cannot choose to grow either bigger or smaller, heavier or lighter, etc. ; nor can it decide where to place itself on the Earth’s surface.  This model of the physical world is easily imagined, so no surprises there.

Humans are no different to non-living things
When we come to living creatures such as people, we can certainly imagine the shape and size of a person being decided by the same natural laws that decide the shape and size of a pebble or a mountain.  We can just about imagine those same natural physical laws arranging the matter of our bodies so that we move about on the Earth’s surface.  We are able to imagine this because, if circumstances are right, even pebbles move about on the Earth’s surface – in high winds, for example.  The difference between a moving person and a moving pebble is that the person moves more elegantly and in a much more complex way.

All human behaviour is determined by impersonal natural forces
But now we begin to approach a puzzle.  The puzzle is this : a person will often move about without there being any external natural forces being applied to his body.  But pebbles, etc. do not.  Thus, the model seems to say, people move in that way in response to internal forces acting on the body.  But those forces are of exactly the same kind as the external forces that move pebbles ; indeed, those internal forces are dependent on external forces, in the form of the food we eat (so it is doubtful if they can really be called internal).

Humans have no personal control over their behaviour
And the puzzle deepens.  For this model of the world does not give the person any control over his movements ; all movement is governed by the natural laws which decide the way in which the particles of the body shall act.  So a person has no more control over his movements than does a cloud of dust being driven by the wind.  It’s just that his movements are more complex because his particles are more complex.

Humans are completely material and mechanical
In the new model of the world, there is no ‘essence’ to a human being ; no mind, no soul.  There are just material particles doing what particles do in accordance with the usual natural laws.  Thus there is no ‘person’ in control of the human’s body ; there is no transcendent ’soul’ which is in control of the body.  The model is completely material, mechanical and impersonal.

Humans are machines that have gone crazy
There are many surprises to be investigated in this model of the human being, if only because it is utterly unlike the models we have been used to.  One puzzle is that a completely material, mechanical and impersonal biological machine could ever have come up with the ideas of personality and free-will.  Surely, aren’t such ideas aberrations in the proper functioning of the machine?

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Man is a creature of habit.  If he did not have habits, he would need to spend a lot of time consciously thinking about what he has to do.  He would have to evaluate every thought before he spoke of it and before he acted upon it.  He would have to evaluate every course of action before committing himself to it.  Life would be tedious.  But a habit, an automatic response to a thought, saves much time and mental effort ; it is productive of swift action and the satisfaction that goes with it.

It is perhaps small wonder that the most successful people tend to be more bound to their habits than the less successful.  Men and women who act with the minimum of thinking are the ‘achievers’ in this world, and they are rewarded accordingly.  Those less given to habits are the ‘philosophical’ types ; interesting people, but not noted for making their mark in the world of action – the world of trade and industry.

Scientists, too, tend to be creatures of habit.  Once a method or a theorem has been accepted, it takes hold of the scientist’s thoughts and becomes difficult to change.  Not impossible, but difficult.  A method or a theorem is difficult to change because it is productive ; it is productive of further research and is productive of new technology.  In other words, it is productive of wealth and so is a powerful motivator.

But there are some risks attached to scientific habits.  Perhaps the most obvious risk is that they lead to a canalising of research ; the easier lines of investigation are chosen at the expense of the more difficult.  And these lines lead on to other lines.  And as long as these particular lines of research are productive of quick material gains, they are pursued ; science is literally paying for itself.  But only superstition can presume that the easier investigations will lead to greater truths.

But there is a more sinister risk.  The present scientific method was first applied to astronomy and then developed to aid physics.  It was developed and refined to study the inanimate world ; the world which was properly regarded as a mechanism ; i.e., a world where motion is key, and the motion determined by forces external to the body being moved.  All this makes sense in physics.

The method was so successful that scientists then applied it to living things.  Living things were thus classified as machines, which ‘worked’ entirely by forces acting upon them.  So productive was this method of study that many inventions were made to improve the performance of the living machines.  Gradually, almost without anyone noticing, the habit of thinking of living things as machines grew in man’s mind.

The habit grew until many of those of a scientific persuasion came to believe that living things were nothing but machines.  It is now taken for granted by many scientists that man himself is just a machine.

I wonder how many of those scientists have set their habit aside for a while to consider the consequences of it?  What is the future for humanity if we are simply machines, whose every thought and every word and every action is the result of the blind forces of nature acting our bodies?

Where now is the concept of Truth?  of Justice?  How are people to be held accountable for their actions?  On what grounds may one praise a useful machine?

What credit or criticism may one give to somebody’s opinion, if that opinion is nothing more than the result of impersonal natural forces acting on his or her body?

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