Probability and Free Will

I am not, I suppose, a good person to debate free will with, because I am heavily biased in its favor.

I expect there is little anyone will ever say, do, or discover that will shake my opinion. A world without free will is a world I cannot abide.

To be fair, I imagine that no one will ever really know if free will exists. It is one of many deeper truths which elude our control. But, in the absence of true knowledge, I have to choose – if I may – a paradigm to operate under.

And I chose free will.

Benjamin Libet’s study of neural impulses famously found brain activity before the conscious decision to move. This arguably proved free will was a myth – the brain makes an impulsive decision and our consciousness efficiently rationalizes it.

While there are neuroscience reasons to be critical of this claim, more generally, I don’t find it compelling to argue that advanced brain activity proves a lack of free will.

I suppose, though, that this is much in the definition of free will.

I don’t think of free will as a carte blanche dictum that allows a person to act in any imaginable way regardless of their context or experience. Rather I think of free will like this –

If you flip a coin, there is a 50% chance it will land heads and a 50% chance it will land tails. No matter how many times you flip the coin, this probability will remain the same. The coin doesn’t care. Every flip will have the same odds.

Free will is the ability to affect that probability.

Perhaps a person has, if you will, factory settings. Default rules that govern whether you are more prone to fight or to flight. Those deep instincts can be difficult to overcome, but, they can be overcome.

Perhaps you can’t change every instinct you have, and perhaps you don’t always take the path you would have liked. But you have the ability to effect the probability of the outcome. It doesn’t have to be a 50/50 split.

And that’s free will.



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