Some friends of mine were recently embroiled in another attempt to answer the perennial question of free will or determinism. Is everything pre-ordained? Or do we have control over the events in our lives? At least some of them, anyway…
This question comes up now and then for most people, although most people promptly shove it back under the bed, where it belongs. It is an intriguing question for some, however, and serves as an excellent opening for hours of logical entanglements and soul-crushing cosmologies. Since I also have fallen prey to the lure of free will philosophizing (read: gossip), my friends’ recent rantings prompted me to deliver a brief rant of my own.
Traditionally, arguments about free will devolve into speculation about God; in modern times, we take a more mechanistic view, and the arguments now generally devolve into speculation about the deterministic nature of the universe (with or without God). But the question is still basically the same. If everything follows the laws of nature, or God’s laws, then where is there any room for free will? Unfortunately, science itself has introduced a few monkey-wrenches into the mechanistic models of creation, rendering even the simple principle of cause-and-effect somewhat suspect.
The nature of the free will question, however, is intrinsically paradoxical only when explored from what we might call a single-context worldview. From certain other points of view, there is no paradox. If one is comfortable jumping among various levels of consciousness, or modes of thinking, then one can certainly find conceptual models that—if they were forced onto the same level—would be mutually contradictory.
The question is, however, does this contradiction really imply a paradox? Or is the paradox simply a misunderstanding of the different views? The short answer is that different levels of thinking are likely not to map perfectly onto each other, such that “translating” all the key concepts from one mode of thinking to another will lead to erroneous statements, confused overlapping definitions, and illogical conclusions. Thus the paradoxical nature of the question lies more in its semiotics than in the nature of reality.
In trying to think systematically, we usually forget the hierarchy of systems, in which that which is valid on one layer of the hierarchy may not make any sense at all on another layer. To whit, the notion of absolute location in space makes precious little sense at the quantum level, but absolute location in space is perfectly valid and even indispensable in the routine work of engineers, even at extremely fine degrees of precision.
The main principle of the hierarchy of systems view is simply that while each layer can entertain “laws” that describe the universe, these laws cannot, because of the hierarchy itself, be mapped from layer to layer. In a hierarchy of systems, each layer comprises “wholes” whose component parts are identities drawn from the next lower layer. In turn, these lower identities are wholes on that level, while the identities at the next higher layer, of which they are the parts, are mere abstractions and exist only as concepts.
In other words, looking “out” through the hierarchy, we see greater and greater degrees of abstraction, and looking “in” down the hierarchy, we see greater and greater specificity. But on any one level, the laws of nature can (at least in theory) be specified and could potentially describe the entire creation.
Each level contains the scope of each higher level, in some abstract manner, in the specific qualities of the entities at that level. Conversely, each level’s scope is an expression of its components on the next lower level—and so on, down to the most specific qualities of the lowest possible level. This means that the lowliest, least expressed entities at the very bottom of the hierarchy are responsible for everything that ever can be expressed, all the way up the hierarchy to the whole ocean of galaxies and beyond. This seems incongruous until, through the eyes of quantum physics, we discover that at the lowest level the few remaining abstractions are immensely powerful and the organizational mechanics at that level are fabulously comprehensive, providing a mere handful of identities with practically unlimited, inconceivably complex, overlapping relationships.
To add to the fun, Gödel tells us that any internally consistent expression of the laws at each layer will inevitably contain some meaningless relationships. Thus, even in the language we use to discuss concepts like free will, to resolve the linguistic paradox at one level, we must create a higher level, but the higher level will still contain its own unique meaninglessness.
We can see that a Newtonian universe could in theory be totally mechanical and therefore deterministic. But we also see that at the quantum level or below (and in certain situations here on the Newtonian level), determinism morphs into probability or worse. Alternatively, In the multiverse view, the basics of cause & effect are pretty well eliminated in an explosion of infinite complexity with no need for determinism (though it survives in a sense, for a brief moment, in each universe). Further begging the question is our quotidian notion of experience. Experience tells us something consistently simple—we actually do have free will.
So it returns to consciousness—if our experience includes transcending (in the Patanjali sense), then the very idea of “will” becomes moot. Who is driving the car? Is anyone at all driving the car? Is there a car, and is it driven? What is time? These are very personal experiences for a lot of us now, and we have seen the question of free will quietly dissolve into nonsense without ever being capable of having an answer one way or the other.
Finally, if we recognize time itself as an epiphenomenon, then cause & effect become epi-epiphenomena, and questions like free will don’t even arise. In the end, it’s a one-sided coin, and on the obverse, given a human nervous system trapped in waking state, free will is a constant, if frustrating, reality.