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Freedom of Will & The Myth of The Third Alternative

Freedom of Will & The Myth of The Third Alternative.

We each believe that we possess an Ego, Self, or Final Center of Control, from which we choose what we shall do at every fork in the road of time. To be sure, we sometimes have the sense of being dragged along despite ourselves, by internal processes which, though they come from within our minds, nevertheless seem to work against our wishes. But on the whole we still feel that we can choose what we shall do. Whence comes this sense of being in control? According to the modern scientific view, there is simply no room at all for "freedom of the human will." Everything that happens in our universe is either completely determined by what's already happened in the past or else depends, in part, on random chance. Everything, including that which happens in our brains, depends on these and only on these:

  • A set of fixed, deterministic laws.
  • A purely random set of accidents.

    There is no room on either side for any third alternative. Whatever actions we may "choose," they cannot make the slightest change in what might otherwise have been-- because those rigid, natural laws already caused the states of mind that caused us to decide that way. And if that choice was in part made by chance--it still leaves nothing for us to decide.

    Every action we perform stems from a host of processes inside our minds. We sometimes understand a few of them, but most lie far beyond our ken. But none of us enjoys the thought that what we do depends on processes we do not know ; we prefer to attribute our choices to volition, will, or self-control. We like to give names to what we do not know, and instead of wondering how we work, we simply talk of being "free." Perhaps it would be more honest to say, "My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand." But no one likes to feel controlled by something else.

    Why don't we like to feel compelled? Because we're largely made of systems designed to learn to achieve goals. But in order to achieve any long-range goals, effective difference-engines must also learn to resist whatever other processes attempt to make them change those goals. In childhood, everyone learns to recognize, dislike, and resist those various forms of aggression and compulsion. Naturally, we're horrified to hear about agents that hide in our minds and influence what we decide.

    In any case, both alternatives are unacceptable to self-respecting minds. No one wants to submit to laws that come to us like the whims of tyrants who are too remote for any possible appeal. And it's equally tormenting to feel that we're a toy to mindless chance, caprice, or probability--for though these leave our fate unfixed, we'd still not play the slightest part in choosing what shall come to be. So, though, it's futile to resist, we continue to regard both Cause and Chance as intrusions on our freedom of choice. There remains only one thing to do: we add another region to our model of our mind. We imagine a third alternative, one easier to tolerate; we imagine a thing called "freedom of will," which lies beyond both kinds of constraint.

    The Myth of The Third Alternative

    To save our belief in the freedom of will from the fateful grasp of cause and chance, people simply postulate an empty, third alternative. We imagine that somewhere in each person's mind there lies a Spirit, Will, or Soul, so well concealed that it can elude the reach of any law--or lawless accident.

  • |Cause|----|Free Will|----|Chance|

    I've drawn the box for Will so small because we're always taking things out of it--and scarcely ever putting things in! This is because whenever we find some scrap of order in the world, we have to attribute it to Cause--and whenever things seem to obey no laws at all, we attribute that to Chance. This means that the dominion controlled by Will can only hold what, up to now, we don't yet understand. In ancient times, that realm was huge; when every planet had its god, and every storm or animal did manifest some spirit's wish. But now for many centuries, we've had to watch that empire shrink.

    Does this mean that we must embrace the modern scientific view and put aside the ancient myth of voluntary choice? No. We can't do that; too much of what we think and do revolves around those old beliefs. Consider how our social lives depend upon the notion of responsibility and how little that idea would mean without our belief that personal actions are voluntary. Without that belief, no praise or shame could accrue to actions that were caused by Cause, nor could we assign any credit or blame to deeds that came about by Chance. What could we make our children learn if neither they nor we perceived some fault or virtue anywhere? We also use a selfish impulse, yet turn it aside because it seems wrong, and that must happen when some self-ideal has intervened to overrule another goal. We can feel virtuous when we think that we ourselves have chosen to resist an evil temptation. But if we suspected that such choices were not made freely, but by the interference of some hidden agency, we might very well resent that interference. Then we might become impelled to try to wreck the precious value-schemes that underlie our personalities or become depressed about the futility of a predestination tempered only by uncertainty. Such thoughts must be suppressed.

    No matter that the physical world provides no room for freedom of will; that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We're virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it's false--except, of course, when we're inspired to find flaws in all our beliefs, whatever may be the consequence to cheerfulness and mental peace. (From Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind)
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