Yes, free will is real -- and it exists for a reason

Illustration for article titled Yes, free will is real -- and it exists for a reason

Does free will actually exist? Or are we all just puppets to physics or biochemistry or some other form of determinism? A great essay over in Slate argues that free will is real, and that it evolved for a reason.

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Image via Guy Incognito.

Writes Roy F. Baumeister:

There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.

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The whole essay is well worth reading. [Slate]

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DISCUSSION

Anekanta
Anekanta - spoon denier

I know I'm late to this thread (alas, I don't have the same time for io9 I once did), but I'm seeing a lot of hate directed at the linked article that seems to indicate that people simply didn't understand it.

Baumeister is NOT disputing that all our actions are ultimately reducible to physical causes. What he's saying is this: Reducing human choices down to brute physical causes tells you nothing useful about human choices. Physics is the wrong level of analysis for discussing free will.

And he's absolutely right.

/rant warning

It's actually sad that I have to explain this, but it's a problem that's rampant here at io9 and perhaps in geek and science culture generally. The physical sciences, technology, and engineering are much older disciplines than psychology. They're also far easier to understand in many ways, because they deal with phenomena that can be directly measured. As a result, they've also received the lion's share of attention from writers of science fiction and science articles.

And as a result, a lot of people seem to think that the whole universe can be understood completely by understanding the physical processes that make it all work. But unless you're actually doing physics research or engineering a bridge, that's kind of a stupid way to look at reality.

We don't live our lives interacting with reality as if it were the cloud of vibrating subatomic particles that it really is. The "reality" that human beings interact with consists of choices, emotions, intentions, and ideas at least as much as it involves physical objects. Psychological realities are just as real—if not more real, in the day to day living sense—than the mathematical abstractions of physics or engineering, and frankly it's high time people started paying attention to that fact.

We ignore it at our peril—because ignoring these realities to focus only on the strictly material is what allows our technology to advance ever more rapidly, while our society becomes increasingly crippled in an emotional and moral sense.

/end rant