How can we save the elves?

Having read Sam Harris book Free Will I feel like returning just a little bit to that very topic. I wrote a few posts about it back in 2008, posts that go along the same lines as Mr. Harris. Seems like I wasn’t alone holding those particular views but as I mentioned earlier, he beat me to the publisher.

The more I think about the question “do we have free will?” the more it sounds like a moot question, a question that is best un-asked with a “mu” (as Douglas Hofstadter’s taught us in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach). The problem is, as I have argued in earlier posts, that there is not even an adequate definition of “free will”. “Free” from what?

“Do we have free will?” is like asking “how can we save the elves?” (for everybody except Icelanders perhaps).

Elves were once part of a mental model of the world that was shared by many people. This is no longer the case in most parts of the world. I suggest that we do away with the concept of free will from our mental models, just like most of us have dumped the elves concept (the fact that many people believe in other supernatural beings much like the elves is an other story). Concepts that don’t add to our understanding of the world are for the sake of simplicity best scrapped.

My world is unfolding. It is an eternal (at least for all practical purposes) chain of causal (and sometimes random) events, one event leading to another. Thoughts and human deeds are unfolding as a part of the larger universal roller coaster ride. To make things more interesting there is some chaos thrown in so that a future state of mind and matter is infinitely sensitive to today’s state (the “butterfly effect”). Did I mention that there is no place for “free” in any of the above.

The machinery that takes input from our senses and internal state of mind and produces actions and a new state of mind is extremely complicated and wonderfully powerful, no doubt about it. We can build mental models of the world (including ourselves) and use them to predict what will happen as a result of our actions and therefore take useful actions. But it is a causal system and powerful is not the same as free.

Can we let “will” go the same way as “free”? Perhaps. I think the word “goal” (I’m also considering “attractor”) is more appropriate. A goal is a desired future state such as a full stomach or having a child. Goals may be known or unknown by the holder. Therefore not all goals are (at least consciously) willed. In the long run we are not free to choose our own goals either since some goals are outright rejected by our environment (such as constantly being on an adrenaline high from taking large risks). Ultimately, evolution has seen to it (and will see to it) that not a too large percentage of people hold the wrong goals. (There is always space for the odd free-rider or risk-taker with alternative goals but not everybody in a population can be a free-rider or a risk-taker all the time.)

Will hunting.

One interesting attempt to define free will is that of Hegel as quoted in [1]:

The absolute goal,…, of the free mind is to make freedom its oject… True freedom thus lies not merely in doing och choosing what one wishes, but in being a “free will which wills the free will”.

According to Hegel, the free will thus must will the free will in order to be free. “Going meta” is always an interesting trick. I will (must?) think about that for a while and will perhaps write a few lines when I have wrapped my brain around it. Are we free to will the free will to be free?


[1] An Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth and History, Stephen Houlgate.

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