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Are You an NPC? (Or Do You Have Free Will?)

Kurzgesagt attempts to answer the question (from the perspective of physics): Do we have free will? Here’s the deterministic perspective (from the show notes):

Now imagine that if right after the Big Bang, a supersmart supercomputer looked at every single particle in the universe and noted all their properties. Just by applying the deterministic laws of physics, it should be able to predict what all the particles in existence would be doing until the end of time.

But if you are made of particles and it’s technically possible to calculate what particles will do forever, then you never decided anything. Your past, present and future were already predetermined and decided at the Big Bang. This would mean there is a kind of fate and you are not free to decide anything.

You may feel like you make decisions, but you are on autopilot. The motions of the particles that make up your brain cells that made you watch this video were decided 14 billion years ago. You are just in the room when it happens. You are only witnessing how the universe inside you unfolds in real time.

And the other side of the argument (in favor of free will):

We know that we can reduce everything that exists to its basic particles and the laws that guide them. While this makes physics feel like the only scientific discipline that actually matters, there is a problem: You can’t explain everything in our universe only from particles.

One key fact about reality that we can’t explain by looking just at electrons and quantum stuff is emergence. Emergence is when many small things together create new fundamental traits that didn’t exist before.

Emergence occurs at all levels of reality, and reality seems to be organized in layers: atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, you, society. Put many things in one layer together and they’ll create the next layer up. Every time they do, entirely new properties emerge.

Having thought about this for all of 20 minutes (or, practically all of my life), the emergence argument against determinism makes a lot of sense to me. Then again, James Gleick’s Chaos and Steven Johnson’s Emergence both made a huge impression on me when I read it more than 20 years ago.

Discussion  8 comments

Jack Orenstein

Determinism is compatible with unpredictability. I may not be able to determine exactly where the ball will end up in the roulette wheel, but that's because of my imperfect ability to measure things, my imperfect models of physics, and possibly because even if those things were perfect, perhaps I couldn't compute the outcome before it actually happens. But the outcome is still predetermined.

Determinism is also compatible with emergence, because whatever is happening at "the next layer up" is deterministic. The fact that there are "new properties" doesn't change the fact.

I think people get tied up in knots over free will because it feels like it does exist, and yet logically it cannot. But these are compatible. For any "decision" you "make", there had to be a reason for that choice. Free will is simply the feeling you have when your subconscious mind has made a decision.


Yes. This is where I land. It may seem like you made a free will choice but the experience of making a choice is just an illusion the brain constructs AFTER a decision is made. Even tho it seems like the conscious process of choosing came before the actual choice, the order is reversed: your brain tricks you into thinking you’re making a decision, but it’s already made the decision before you’re conscious of it.

What we call “free choice” is what a causation-determined-choice thought feels like. Which can be messy for folks unaware of non-duality to consider because there are layers of social and/or religious conditioning telling them there is an individual agent (themselves) inside the body orchestrating the activities of that particular body and mind… anything other than that feels scary.

Determinism/autopilot/non-duality can be overwhelming concepts but being bound to the roll of dice is no more free than an entirely deterministic universe, is it? That’s just our social framing of the notion of “free.” Also, determinism can be helpful in dealing with notions of regret.

Matt Smith

I more or less agree with what both of you have said, but to me the problem is that you have just moved the difficulty into the idea that we ‘feel’ like we have free will, i.e. we have subjective experience of making a choice. I don’t think anyone has given a satisfactory explanation of how subjective experience occurs, so it kind of falls apart as an explanation of things.

The way I see it, there are two possible ways of explaining things (given a generally materialist perspective) - either choice is genuinely free, with the consequence that subjective experience is baked into the material world, or there is no free will, and we put the subjective experience of free will into a box that we can’t explain.

Given this websites readership, I can imagine there are some much more informed people than me reading this. I’d love to know what they think!

Reply in this thread

Kari Halsted

You are only witnessing how the universe inside you unfolds in real time.

That "only" is doing some heavy lifting.

Carleton A

I won't comment directly on this debate, but one thing this topic reminds me of is something I learned in therapy: 1. I have a lot more power to make changes in my life than I sometimes realize and 2. There are a lot more external factors that have shaped who I am than I sometimes realize.

Thomas McGee

The obvious question for me is, isn't a new emergence a product of a deterministic law that we just don't understand yet? But on the other hand, how does the uncertainty principle work into all of this? Maybe emergent phenomena are products of quantum uncertainty.

Colter Mccorkindale

I'm not seeing how emergence changes the math. The math was always there, but with no superhuman perceiver to register it. We are witnesses to the unfolding of the universe just like any other species. Every choice we make has an impetus, a cause. And every cause is an effect of what came before. Follow the chain as it becomes a vast web back through time. Everything is an explosion in slow motion.

Dougal Featherstone

Well, that was disappointing. The emergence argument gets knocked down by just saying that my behaviour is determined by the people in my environment, right? I make choice X because of DNA, random sparks or the sum total of all the people in my life from my parents on. Who don't have free will either. That's at the same level, no?

But we don't need to have it black and white. I remember a law case in Scotland of a guy convicted of stealing trucks at night. Apparently all he ate was fried egg sandwiches and instant coffee with 6 sugars. But that was through his free will? Well he was unemployed, no money or education to buy veg etc. It seems to me that guy is less 'guilty' than I would be with all my priviledge. He needs much greater reserves of free will to over-come his circumstances.

For me it ties into the whole "just pull yourself up by your boot laces" myth. Whereas the increasing acceptance of neuro diversity is great, it's an indication of the acceptance that we all have less free will. More of that is the path to a more humane society where everyone gets a better change to live their best life.

But yes, I struggle to reconcile that with Carleton A's implied point 1, that the feeling of exercising (more) agency does make you feel happier. "No free will" might be right but it's not a very useful position to hold!

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