Freewill and Randomness

Letter to Philosophy Now

Published in Issue 100

Dear Editor,

In Issue 98 in his review of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them by Constantine Sandis, Les Reid writes that when libertarians evoke quantum physics to defend free will, determinists invariably miss the point of their argument. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but we are still missing an explanation from the libertarians concerning the crux of the debate – how randomly-caused events outside the boundary of Newtonian physics can contribute to the sort of free decisions we would all like to think we make. I suspect that there is no explanation of the type desired.

It seems to me, however, that the random and the Newtonian can be combined to produce something unexpectedly useful. We apply our reason in order to foresee the most likely outcomes of what our emotions and instincts are proposing as a course of action. The result, in turn, feeds back into the decision-making process itself. Curiously, though, this means that we can let randomness in as well.

So let us suppose that our thoughts are, at least sometimes, the consequence of quantum randomness inherent in the atoms or molecules of our neurons. One may think that this would lead to madness, but, in fact, what may be random, truly unpredictable thoughts, could, in moderation at least, have a beneficial effect.  How?  Because our thoughts, however they arise, are ultimately subject to our rational checking processes.  So then, to have some randomly-generated thoughts need be no more dangerous to our sanity than a suggestion randomly read in a book or heard in a discussion with a friend, and could be just as productive of rational change.  If we conjecture that such randomness is inherent in our brains, then, perhaps this is a significant way of making us look at things differently.  It may be a source of our creativity.

Let’s just hope that our intellectual verification system has built-in ways of avoiding random changes to its software.  Maybe there’s a factory reset button?

Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy