Decisions

This is the third of six parts in my essay on free will.

Fundamental to the concept of free will is the process of decision-making. The theist concept of free will arises, I believe, from a misconception of how decision-making takes place. Theists appear to believe that an entity capable of making decisions must, at some fundamental level, be qualitatively different from, and superior to, the options this entity has to decide among.

For instance, if an entity can choose between different colors, then the entity cannot itself be a color, but must be something more sophisticated. I believe there is some truth to this belief, which I will expound upon shortly, but I think theists have misidentified it. The theist holds that because the options human minds have to decide among are natural phenomena, the human mind itself has to be more than a natural phenomenon: it must transcend the limitations of matter and energy.

Perhaps this idea is motivated by distaste for the deterministic implications a wholly natural mind would have. Indeed, as far as I can tell, such freedom from natural control is what theists regard as “free will”. The situation is represented in Figure 3a: the soul, which exists outside the confines of the natural, causal world, can make decisions with the aid of “free will”, a phenomenon which itself has no causes.

Figure 3. (a) Theists suggest that the decision-making process must be qualitatively different from the naturalist options it has to decide among. Theists therefore place decision-making in a non-natural entity called a “soul” or “spirit”. (b) Naturalists consider the decision-making process to be part of the natural world, and therefore subject to the chain of causation that influences every natural entity.

The deterministic view is represented in Figure 3b: here, the decision-making process, which takes place in the brain, is fully part of the natural, causal world, and is therefore controlled by natural processes. The available options, together with the brain state of the individual, actually cause a certain decision to be made.

The theist objects to the idea that he is compelled, by outside influences, to make decisions (perhaps he would warm to the idea if he understood that the influence of his brain state, which codifies his personal experiences, is a powerful component of decision-making). He likes instead to think that there is nothing causing his decision but himself. But what does “himself” mean? Usually, the theist refers to the “soul” here. I find this concept problematic, as discussed in further detail later in this essay.

The theist might also object that the decision-making process depicted in Figure 3b violates the central idea that decision-making entities must be qualitatively distinct from the options they take as inputs. In other words, the theist might object that the process depicted in Figure 3b is not “real” decision-making. What, then, does it really mean to make decisions? I offer the following definition:

Definition 3.1 Decision-making processes.

A decision-making process is an operation (or algorithm, or recipe) that takes multiple inputs and produces one or more output.

According to this definition, the decision-making process is, indeed, something qualitatively different from the inputs it takes. But, its qualitative uniqueness does not require it to be supernatural. Certainly, the decision-making process is a concept, not a physical object, but this does not require it to be supernatural any more than, say, the rules of football, or mathematics.

The theist might object that the deterministic view of the decision-making process does not allow us to make our own decisions based on the merits of the available options, but forces the outcome upon us. Again, this objection is borne from the misconception that “us” and the decision-making process are separate entities, when in fact they are the same. Determinism is not imposed on us by the outside world, it is part of who we are.

Furthermore, by the above definition, it is entirely possible for there to exist a deterministically-based decision-making process whose function is to weigh its inputs based on their intrinsic merit. To say that such a system is deterministic is simply another way of saying that such a system will always choose the most meritorious input – that random, unpredictable changes in its decision-making algorithm will not occur.  Determinism is nothing more than reliability. It may be very tempting at this point to conclude that since human minds are often unpredictable, they cannot be deterministic. However, as the above discussion indicates, human minds are unpredictable only because of practical limitations: we currently have no way of determining the large number of complex and constantly varying inputs into the human mind.

Note that my definition of decision-making processes makes no reference to where such processes might occur. There are many such places: a thermostat, for instance, takes the ambient and desired temperatures as inputs, and produces an output that commands the heating system to take a certain action (“switch yourself on” or “switch yourself off” or “do nothing”). A thermostat is thus a decision-making device. Similarly, the scoring of a gymnast’s performance is a decision-making process: it takes as input the gymnast’s actual movements, and the movements a hypothetically perfect gymnast would make, and produces a numerical score as its output. If a human mind carries out this decision-making process, then that mind is, at least for that moment, a decision-making device.

Next part of this essay.

Previous part of this essay.

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