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Is free will an illusion like Devs and Westworld suggest? The answer may horrify you
Hulu's new series Devs and the third season of HBO's Westworld both feel appropriately apocalyptic for our moment, but at least they're giving us something interesting to watch as we're all staying inside to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Both series are complex, giving viewers plenty to think about and theorize, and both touch on a really, really meaty question: Does free will even exist? Ponder that while you're social distancing.
Devs centers on the secret development department of a successful tech company led by Forest (Nick Offerman). The company is developing a number of technological innovations, but Forest is focused on a quantum computer that's attempting to unlock the secrets of the universe. Or, rather, the secret. He’s confirmed that the universe is deterministic in nature. There is no chance, nothing but physics, cause and effect, and as a result, no choice.
The first episode of Westworld Season 3 also involved a company scouring the big data of reality in order to get a sneak peek at what people will do, indicating that we don't have much choice in the matter. It’s interesting that both of these stories hit the airwaves at roughly the same time. One wonders what caused disparate writers to choose to tell these stories now — and if they had any choice at all.
There’s something inherently spooky about the notion of hard determinism. We seemingly have an innate subjective sense of free will. When the alarm goes off in the morning, you choose either to get up or to hit the snooze. You choose your clothes and your breakfast, whether or not you’ll take your coffee black or with sugar. Your day, your whole life, is a series of choices, up until you choose to go to bed.
Determinism suggests, however, that none of those choices are real. You have no say in the matter, despite your sense of things.
It goes like this: the universe is bound by physical laws. When two particles come into contact with one another, they act in predictable, definable ways. A photon, having come into contact with some other particle, cannot choose to behave in any way other than how it must. A rock, dropped from a height cannot choose to do anything other than fall. When it lands upon a surface it acts according to its nature. These are the rules which have bound all of reality since our universe’s inception.
The universe expands, gravity pulls, matter comes together into stars and planets, things go swirling on based on fixed laws. For billions of years, nothing does anything other than exactly what it’s supposed to do. Exactly what it was always going to do.
Then life arises, on one blue planet in an otherwise ordinary solar system, and over billions of years it changes, adapts, evolves. It discovers mathematics and science and begins to ask questions about its place in this vast cosmic arena. There is nothing which suggests that it should behave in any way contrary to the rest of existence. It is, after all, made of the same stuff.
This way of thinking leads to one conclusion, that there is no free choice, that whatever sense of free will we have is little more than an illusion. Whatever we do, today and every day of our lives, was what we were always going to do. This is what Einstein believed. He famously said that God didn’t play dice with the universe, meaning there is no chance, no randomness, only physical law.
Taking this idea to its ultimate extreme, and to the place Devs and Westworld go, would mean that if we could no enough, about the state of the universe, about the state of our minds, about all of the variables that make up this moment, we could predict with absolute certainty what would happen next. We could predict what would happen in ten minutes, in ten years, in a thousand years, in excruciating detail. You could know what your ten-times great-grandchild was going to have for dessert on their thirteenth birthday party. You could know anything.
In a deterministic universe, our ability to accurately predict things is limited only by our ability to know prior causes. One follows the other. And this extends to choice. We are, as Forest says, living our lives on tramlines, play-actors following a script which was written billions of years before we were born.
For a long time, these ideas existed purely in the realm of philosophy, something to be debated but unable to be tested. Then, in the '80s Benjamin Libet conducted experiments wherein he wired participants to an EEG machine and asked them to press a button and record the time at which they decided to act.
His measurements showed brain initiating fractions of a second before the stated decision. His conclusion: decisions happen in the brain before the conscious mind is aware of them. In short, there is no free will. The decision is an afterthought, for lack of a better term, a shoring up of our mind’s narrative, to bring it in line with events that have already been determined.
Modern philosophers like Sam Harris find these results to be compelling, though Harris will tell you that even if there were no disparity between brain activity and action, free will still wouldn’t exist. According to Harris, you can no more decide your next thought than you can decide the thoughts or actions of someone else.
Try and think of what your next thought will be. It can’t be done. Doing so would require that you think your thoughts before you think them. From a deterministic viewpoint, your thoughts arise of their own accord, the product of prior causes, of your upbringing, your genetics, a combination of nature and nurture, neither of which you had any control over.
This suggests all sorts of hard questions about ethics, morality, and the way we think and behave toward one another. If a person commits a heinous crime, are they responsible for their actions, considering they couldn’t have acted in any other way? And if not, what response should we have? Is punishment for a person’s actions ever justified? What about reward? In the end, does it even matter, if our reaction to a person’s actions are likewise determined?
There are, of course, those who reject hard determinism, who believe the science does not support this view of reality.
In order for us to truly be free, we must be able to, with all circumstances having been equal, act in a way other than the way we did. Maybe you had cereal for breakfast this morning, but free will suggests you could have had oatmeal, and that you were in fact free to make that choice. The prior causes of your life didn’t dictate the decision.
It’s difficult to see how that could be so. If the universe is bound by laws, if causes always dictate effects, then we are the sum of those prior causes and something as unimportant as a choice of breakfast food is was fated, so to speak.
In 1927, Werner Heisenberg introduced his uncertainty principle which showed there was a fundamental limit to how much we can know about the state of particles. It’s a common barrier in quantum physics which has led some to believe there is no true determinism in the universe.
If an electron can be in many places, then it’s location is not predetermined, and the billiard table of the universe falls into chaos.
It may be true that this is simply a gap in our knowledge, that given enough time we might eliminate the uncertainty demonstrated by Heisenberg and return to a truly determined universe. But maybe not, and if not, it might open the door to free will again.
Harris, for his part, argues that adding randomness to the equation doesn’t grant a person free will. Unless a person is the author of that randomness or can somehow actively harness that randomness, then we are still at the mercy of forces outside of ourselves. Our actions then may not be predetermined, but they are still determined.
It seems, no matter how we look at it, a materialistic look at existence doesn’t mesh with the common-sense notion that we are the author of our actions and of our lives.
It may be true that we don’t have control over the choices we make, but it probably makes sense for us to behave as if we do. After all, we don’t know any better way to live. But maybe that’s just what we were always meant to think.