Science scares some people into thinking they have no control over what they’re thinking. Which is a terrible spiral to be caught in. And not much of a reward for thinking so much about science in the first place. If physical laws determine what will happen for any collection of particles, and your brain is a collection of particles, everything you do is already determined. Which turns consciousness will into a sadistic joke, because we were pre-determined to develop free will and then find out we hadn’t.
The first escape from this classical trap is quantum chaos, which sounds like a great way to escape from anything. Possibly by confusing it. Quantum mechanics means we can’t precisely measure everything about anything. We have to choose between knowing something’s position or momentum, its energy or how long it has that energy. This uncertainty introduces error into our measurements, which chaos theory amplifies until it’s so stupidly impossible to predict what a human brain will do that people ask Cosmopolitan columnists for answers instead of the laws of physics.
The problem in that solution is that it isn’t one. Quantum chaos only says that we can’t predict what happens next, not that it isn’t predetermined. It’s a relief to know that someone can’t fire up a You-mo-tron 3000 and spend the rest of your life annoying you by saying things just before you do, but it doesn’t salvage free will from physics.
Our second stage is to go full quantum. Quantum mechanics shows that observing things changes the result. Not just for bullied cats, but even for bashful electrons which behave differently when they’re under examination. This should turn the brain into an observation engine, an existential-bootstrap turning its ability to observe into the ability to choose what to observe.
This doesn’t save free will, but makes something more interesting. “Observation changes the result” is the large text simplification of quantum mechanics. When we say observation changes the result, we mean that it forces a photon (for example) to choose between linear or circular polarization. Once we filter it in linear we force it to be horizontal or vertical, but we don’t get to choose which. Likewise, filtering it for circular forces the photon to choose between left- or right-circular, but all the observational machinery in the universe can’t bully it into being sinister.
Since the behaviour of an electron doesn’t directly translate into whether you enjoy Ghostbusters, this leaves your consciousness vulnerable to questions. Is your spark of consciousness the result of a septillion electronic dice rolls? Has consciousness evolved to take advantage of observational effects? Or did Zeus just build an insanely sophisticated stage to check if we’d masturbate if he put genitals within arms’ reach?
How you deal with the free will conundrum tells you a lot about yourself. Whether you had a choice in that or not. Ignorance seems to make a lot of people happy, while others try to absolve themselves of their selves.I already revealed my solution by mentioning Ghostbusters.
My solution? I believe in free will, because either I have free will or I was determined to think I had free will, and either way it’s by far the funner option, letting Occam’s razor shaves away the stubble of insecurity.
Might I change my mind? Of course. That’s the point of having one.
A third choice is the possibility that free will is a true emergent property.