The few quintillion data points behind Free Will

I hate starting an essay with the words, “I had a really interesting discussion”, but, well, I actually did have a really interesting discussion with a colleague a couple days ago.

The discussion started with, “Have you ever heard Daniel Dennett talk about ‘avoiders’…?” In the space of the fifteen minutes that followed we managed to survey most of the territory of the argument of Determinism and Free Will — with diagrams on a whiteboard!

The thing about that dichotomy is that they just seem like false choices: Of course the universe is deterministic and of course we choose, at least, some near approximation that sure feels like choosing. Don’t our choices seem to have a more “choosy” quality when we have more knowledge? This little piece makes the whole realm of Free Will seem to expand and contract according to circumstances related to knowledge.

My colleague wasn’t so thrilled with that little metaphor. It isn’t that great, I’ll admit, but I still like the visual quality of it. I’m not the only one who has this sensation, am I?

In the end, though, we considered, nearly simultaneously, that we seem often to ascribe magical properties to things we don’t understand. It is only when we have all the data that the plain fact presents itself. Isn’t “understanding” a function of “knowledge”?

I think that Free Will is just an abstraction. It is like a sweeping generalization we ascribe to the simplest “average” of a just a few of the noisiest of the quintillion-or-so data points we are actually able to keep track of. We ignore the rest since we don’t have the mental acuity, the mental hardware even, let alone the technology or the software to track every point through time and space from beginning to end. If we could, though, I think we would see, plainly, the process and the magical turtles holding up a flat, Free Will disc world would vanish into the vast space of a deterministic universe.

I don’t think we need every data point, though. Even this abstraction we experience has particular properties which might be tested. A theory might also emerge.



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