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  • Moritz Wenzel

Free will is a joke

Updated: May 6, 2020

Free will has a problem called determinism. A concept established by science that had its biggest moment when Newton found his marvelous laws of motion. These laws show that celestial bodies, like planets, are the same as everyday objects, such as chairs and feet, and thereby dissolved the artificial boundary between the world we see in front of us and the sky. By showing how magical it is to truly understand nature, he basically ruined magic forever.

His findings made determinism, which means that every action has a cause, a real contender to god, who acts completely at random (in mysterious ways) according to the church. To put it more precisely:

whatever happens in the NOW is just the result of something that has happened earlier and everything that will happen in the FUTURE is just a result of the previously mentioned thing, which is happening right now, due to the other thing, mentioned after the first thing, namely the PAST.

For example, if we were to pick up a rock and let go of it, it would fall on the ground. The rock would fall because we’d let It go, which is perfectly fine, but what we have to think about is where does this behavior stop? Are our thoughts also completely predetermined by previous experiences or events? Did we decide to pick up the rock because we actually had the freedom to decide that, or were we going to make exactly the decision we made, because every single thing that happens is already predetermined.

At some point in history (not NOW or the FUTURE, but the PAST) the concept of perfect determinism was well summarized by Laplace who proposed that if there was a daemon who knew absolutely everything, the position and motion of every particle and every grain of spacetime in the entire universe, that daemon could see the FUTURE and the PAST alike, since everything is completely determined by how things are right NOW. We don’t want this to be true, because it would make what we experience as free will an illusion emerging from a predetermined universe. More recently, some people have argued that quantum mechanics may provide us with free will by introducing inherent randomness to the world. Here, inherently random means that it is not our ignorance, our unknowingness of what the system actually is, that imposes the randomness, but that the system simply does not have a precise state unless we take a real good look at it. So somehow true randomness is built into nature and may therefore provide us with the non-determinism we are looking for. But having something random present and having free will are still two separate things. After all, it is still possible that our minds are just very complicated machines that react in a completely rigid manner to received inputs, be they random or predetermined.

Besides that, we must consider the scale of quantum effects: they are very small indeed. Let’s contemplate the fact that we have laws of nature that do not rely on quantum mechanics but represent what we see in a very accurate way, such as Newtons laws of motion mentioned earlier. (While they have been mentioned earlier for you and are therefore in your PAST, they are still written right there at the beginning of this article NOW, and may very well stay there until sometime in the FUTURE). Newton found out that force is equal to mass times acceleration and that objects in motion want to keep moving. These laws work really well, as you may have experienced personally, when, for example, you banged your foot into a chair. The foot would have happily kept on moving, but due to the chair that was not possible. Your toe paid the price. So non quantum rules are pretty much true for everything we need to worry about in our daily lives.

However, when you look at fantastically small things like electrons and whatnot, these rules seem to become less accurate and actually wrong at times. So other laws were ‘invented/found’ that could capture the phenomena in a better way and are now regarded as some of the most astonishingly precise laws that have ever

been established. This means that the old rules were wrong for tiny things, but pretty accurate for big stuff. This is a problem, since we are big and therefore the laws of the small should have only very small effects (possibly no effect at all) on the way we are. To sum up the point (in space time) I am trying to make: it does not make sense to push the responsibility of being conscious and having free will on quantum mechanics just because there is inherent randomness involved, a mysterious property that we don’t really understand.

We should much rather find the answer in ourselves. Ultimately, it does definitely feel like we have free will, which should already count for something. So why not try to approach the problem from the other side? Is there something about us that simply defies determinism? Defies cause and effect? I would like to argue that what we are looking for is not intelligence or problem-solving skills, because those are meaningful responses to inputs form the outside. No, I believe we need to look for something that doesn’t need to be logical, something inherent to humans.

That thing, I’d like to argue, is humor. Humor doesn’t know boundaries or rules. In fact, the more boundary shattering strange and outside the box the humor is, the funnier it gets. So, from my point of view, humor is the one thing that tells us we are actually alive and free to make decisions, and that we are not just complicated machines executing action after action corresponding to input after input. Precisely because I can make a joke NOW about something that has never happened in the PAST, I am convinced that the FUTURE needs to be ready for whatever nonsense my mind may come up with. It‘s like saying that something will be happening before NOW, which is technically in the PAST, but happens in the FUTURE, while NOW is already over and hasn’t even figured out the sentence yet. Just like master Yoda now will have said:

“Machines we are not, jokes on the fabric of space time we shall be” [citation needed].
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