EAI OnTheNatureOfFreedom

Many people fail to understand how freedom will can be compatible with a rational, materialistic approach to life, whereby conscience would be an epiphenomenon of physical interactions. Often, they tie this problem to that of there being or not determinism in the way we think and act; or they require the introduction of a "special" notion of conscience (or soul) to justify free will.

First note that if we define matter as the constituents behind what is physically immediately or mediately observable, and laws of nature as whatever is knowable of the material systems, then by definition, every observable phenomenon, including conscience as far as we can know it, is an epiphenomenon of physical interactions (that is, the conceptual result of quotienting the structure of physical interactions by a high-level enough set of observers). By definition, any observable phenomenon will be compatible with it, and since we can somehow observe free will, this free will must be compatible. An additional notion of conscience wouldn't quite bring anything interesting; actually, either this notion would be associated with no possible observation, and would be completely irrelevant, or it would be subject to observation, and would ipso facto be as material as any other physical phenomenon, and as subject to rational study and description. The need for a new special notion, or lack thereof, would depend on such a concept bringing or not any simplification to the overall state of science, which does not remotely seem to be the case for a special notion of conscience, since epiphenomena (that may be usefully considered at for the study of many different physical observations) suffice to explain all that there currently is to explain about conscience.

Now, even such a notion of conscience would only push back the original ontological problem (if any) of compatibility of freedom with the laws of nature, without solving it, since by extending the material notion of body to the old notion of body+soul we get just the same problem. It's just like saying that "God created the universe", which doesn't solve the ontological question of existence of the universe since we may now ask how God came into existence. To get deeper insight on how free will doesn't contradict materialism, we thus have to narrow down the meaning of "free", and the limits of laws of nature. Again, the question becomes not whether free will is compatible with an knowledge of an "absolute truth" or nature, its laws, its state, but whether it is compatible with the laws of nature as known, and as knowable. That is, the question is to give an informational interpretation of "freedom". Freedom is easily explained as a concept relative to a given knowledge base. Some parameter has freedom in as much as the knowledge base does not contain enough information to determine the value of this parameter. That someone be free with respect to us means that we cannot know what he will decide. Certainly, if we knew the state of matter inside his mind, we might deduce from it what he thinks; but we don't, so we can't, and that one is free with respect to us. A god might base its judgement and its actions on its grand godly knowledge; a human can only base his judgement on his actions on his petty human knowledge. Personal ethics as well as social organization of human beings can only be based on such human knowledge. Maybe god's laws are made from godly knowledge, human laws have to be done from mere human knowledge. Maybe the actions of some people "are" predestinated, for some "absolute" meaning of the verb "to be"; however we do not and cannot know that to be true, and we cannot know the predestined future until it happens, so we must act according to our sole knowledge, of which this predestination isn't part. Maybe predestination cancels human freedom and responsibility with respect to some god; it doesn't cancel human freedom and responsibility with respect to other human beings, with respect to ourselves. Maybe some deed or crime was predetermined, and from an absolute knowledge requires no reward or punishment; but we have no such knowledge, and from what we know, this deed or crime does deserve some due, that we ought to give; and from the same absolute knowledge, it will be predetermined that we so do. Again and again, arguments based on absolute knowledge are irrelevant as far as human action is concerned, and may always be turned in either way of any objective dilemma.

We are free and responsible with respect to ourselves in as much as we are (mostly) ignorant of ourselves, of our own future behavior; the intrinsic limits of any reflective introspection (as established by Cantor's diagonal argument) imply that we will always be thus free. We are free and responsible with respect to other human beings, by the very fact that we are distinct individuals, each endowed with one's own will, with one's own internal state, one's own information acquisition and processing mechanisms, one's own possibilities of action. In all cases, Responsibility comes automatically together with Liberty.

This page is linked from: Ethics and Information