The relativity of philosophy, a rule-based Universe and free will

An axiomatization of philosophy

Many philosophical publications deal with absolute questions and potential answers to such questions. This is likewise true for ancient and modern pieces of philosophy. To me this seems quite surprising, considering the fact that we are part of a system which we do not fully understand. Of course, it could make sense to formulate and answer absolute questions, providing that we possess sufficient and correct information about all relevant aspects related to such a question and that we are in addition certain about the correctness of the available information. Questions like “Is Switzerland a country in Europe?” or “Did it rain in London on August 23, 2015?”, with the conventional meanings for these words and dates, are perfectly legitimate, while this is not true for questions like “Do humans have free will?”, “Is there a meaning of life?” or “What caused the Big Bang?”. We simply do not possess the information which are required to answer the latter questions and it is not clear if we will ever be able to obtain sufficient information. Nevertheless, it is possible to relativize those questions based on certain assumptions. We could ask “Do humans have a free will based on the assumption that the Roman Catholic view of the Universe (whatever that means) is correct?” or “Do humans have a free will based on the assumption that quantum theory is an adequate model for the behavior of the Universe?”. Those assumptions are similar to the axioms used in mathematics and on top of them we are able to construct a certain kind of philosophy. Without explicit assumptions given, we can only expect that the reasoning is based on the subjective understanding of the Universe by some person or the person’s social environment at the time of writing.

I have recently read the book “Hirnforschung und Willensfreiheit” (could be translated as “Brain research and free will”) containing several essays written by philosophers, theologians, historians, literary scholars and criminal law experts regarding brain research and free will. It is evident that the essays are based on completely different subjective models of the Universe. This leads to an impressive amount of confusion among the different authors and apparently to diverging answers regarding the free will of humans. It is not surprising at all, that the answer to such an absolute question about the free will of humans is different for someone who reasons based on the Roman Catholic view of the Universe and for someone else who reasons based on the latest physical theories. Not the answers are wrong, but the absolute form of the question is the actual problem, at least as long as we are not able to give an absolute answer.

Another absolute question is “What is the Universe made of?”. This question has puzzled humans since the beginnings of philosophy. The answer is that we simply do not know what the Universe is made of. In ancient times some people believed that the Universe is made of the five elements earth, water, air, fire and aether, while some others, following Leucippus and Democritus, believed that the Universe consists of indivisible atoms and empty space between them. To me personally the ideas of those times seem like wild guesses. Nowadays we despise the idea that the Universe is made of five elements, while we praise the ingenious foresight of Leucippus and Democritus, because their ideas are more or less consistent with our modern physical theories. But the point is that we do not know what the Universe is made of. How can we praise one wild guess from ancient times, while we despise other wild guesses? Who knows whether the next physical theory is consistent with the idea of elementary particles or not. Maybe we will realize at a certain point that some continuous physical model is a better description of the Universe. Again, the absolute form of the question is the problem. And it will remain a problem as long as we are not able to give an absolute answer. And who knows if this is possible or if it will ever happen.

Meanwhile, I would suggest to relativize such absolute questions. Making certain assumptions gives us a solid fundament to base our philosophy on. In this way we could avoid the confusion caused by the implicit assumptions based on the different subjective understandings of the Universe. Of course, different sets of assumptions are legitimate as long as they are consistent with the information we possess about the Universe. But within a fixed set of assumptions a healthy discourse could evolve.

A rule-based Universe

In the remaining part of this blog entry I would like to discuss a certain set of assumptions and what these assumptions would imply for the free will of humans. In fact, my only assumption is that the behavior of the Universe strictly follows certain rules. With this very vague definition I mean that the Universe evolves from a given state in a certain way according to some laws. I would like to add that these laws might even be of stochastic nature, which means that the Universe might not be necessarily deterministic. We do not know if this assumption is correct and I do not want to argue about that at this point. Instead, I would like to discuss if this assumption is plausible, that means if it is consistent with our experiences and observations of the Universe. Afterwards, I will focus on the implications of this assumption for the free will of humans.

It is not possible to prove that the assumption is true. But what does it mean that the assumption is plausible? By plausible I mean that there is no compelling evidence for observations which are contrary to that assumption. In my opinion the assumption is indeed plausible. I am not a theoretical physicist, but according to my understanding of physics the assumption is consistent with modern physical theories. In fact, the assumption seems to be the basis of physical models. I also think that most of our observations and experiences of the Universe are consistent with that assumption. Galaxies, stars, planets and intelligent life, all these things could have been evolved in such a rule-based Universe. Only our subjective perception as an individual seems to contradict the assumption. But our subjective perception has turned out to be wrong in many situations and I could imagine that this perception itself has even been evolved in such a rule-based Universe. While this is not a full proof of the plausibility, I am personally not aware of any compelling evidence against the assumption. If any such evidence will be found, the following discussion of the implications of the assumption on the free will of humans will turn out to be obsolete.

Implications on free will

So what are the implications of a Universe that follows certain rules for the free will of humans? To answer this question we first have to define what we actually mean by free will. Free will is the ability of a human to choose between different possible courses of action. In some situations it seems that we have on a certain level of abstraction the choice between different options. On a hiking trail we might arrive at a fork where we could go either left or right. With free will I do not mean the mere possibility of these options on a certain level of abstraction. I also do not mean that there is the actual possibility in a stochastic sense. With free will I mean that a certain mechanism belonging to an individual is able to actively chose one of the available options. Having to decide between several options, this mechanism is the solely cause of the decision. Obviously, this is not compatible with our initial assumption, since this mechanism is overwriting the rules that determine the behavior of the Universe. On the other hand, this is in stark contrast to our subjective feelings which suggest that we can actively perform decisions which are not limited by any rules. But based on our assumption, this kind of free will has to be an illusion. Our intuition turned out to be wrong many times throughout the recorded history, so it would not be that surprising if free will would actually be an illusion.

Are there any other reasons against this kind of free will, maybe some which are rooted as well in our subjective perception? There are. Well, at least there are questions which we have to adequately address in order to allow something like free will. We humans do not attribute the same kind of free will, which holds for us according to our subjective perception, to other forms of life. The border which separates forms of life that possess free will and those that do not possess free will may vary for different people, but the point is that we can imagine for all forms of life situations in which on some level of abstraction different actions are possible. We then observe that these forms of life perform exactly one action. This is exactly the same that we observe in other human beings. One question we have to answer is that if those forms of life do not have a free will, why would we proclaim a free will for us, although we seem to behave in the same way? Another interesting question is connected with the growth of humans. Up to a certain development of a human being (which might even be during the growth of the embryo) we do not observe any sort of free will. The question we have to answer is why should this change at a later stage? The last question I would like to present here is related to the theory of evolution. This theory is compatible with our assumption and so far there is no compelling evidence against this theory. If evolution is a valid description for the development of complex forms of life starting from extremely simple organisms and if we do not attribute free will to such simple organisms, then free will is a product of evolution. The questions we have to answer are at which point during the evolutionary process did free will evolve and why would free will be better from an evolutionary point of view than the illusion of free will?

So do we humans have a free will or not? We do not know. But what we can say with certainty is that the concept of free will, which has been used above, is not compatible with our assumption of a rule-based Universe.