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The free will paradox

Posted 2014-01-11

Do we have free will or not? I just watched this video on Youtube: Sam Harris on "Free Will".

I was somewhat dismayed to hear Sam Harris reject the notion of free will so easily. (He did get in a few good jokes at the expensive of religion, though.) Dismissing free will seems to be in vogue these days, based on the issue that it's hard to square free will with a deterministic universe and also with experiments that can predict what subjects are going to do before they're aware that they've made a decision.

The paradox is that if there's no free will, why do we torture ourselves trying to make good decisions? It certainly seems that we have free will!

This is a fascinating topic that resists easy answers. It starts with defining what free will really is. Intuitively, it seems to have something to do with conscious decision making, opening the door towards the problem of consciousness, an even tougher nut to crack.

We certainly do have free will in the sense that it is possible for us to farm out some decisions to our consciousness. (Although a depressingly large part of our decision making happens subconsciously.) For instance, suppose we want to invest € 3250 for a year. There are two options: one with a 3% return and € 50 costs, while the other has a 4% return and € 85 costs. Most of us will not be able to determine which investment has a higher net return without consciously doing the arithmetic. So if we decide to go for the best return, we have to do the calculations to determine that the first one pays out € 47.50 and the second € 45 and then we can select the first option. In this case the timing of the whole process is irrelevant.

Could it be that this is why we have consciousness and that we feel anxious about making important decisions: we need the consciousness to run algorithms that our subconscious is incapable of, and the anxiousness is simply the (deterministic?) trigger to get us to spend the time and energy to do so.

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