Free Choice: What is it and do we have it?

The question of free choice is one of the “hard” philosophical questions that has been debated for thousands of years. Most people, if asked if they have free choice – or free will as some call it – will say with strong conviction that they do. We really don’t like the idea that we are totally predictable or that life is predetermined.

  1. Some argue that everything is determined by the initial conditions at the time the universe came into existence (if it did). Those conditions and their evolution to the present instant are the result of a set of natural laws.
  2. Others think we are choosing freely when we choose or act in accordance with our own desires and values.
  3. Finally, a free choice is one where we are able to choose something different than what we, in fact, do choose.

These three different views are by no means an exhaustive list of all the variations of opinions, but they briefly cover a broad range of ideas proposed.

  1. With respect to determinism, it would seem the theory of quantum mechanics – at least as we currently understand it – would strongly suggest that type of “hard” determinism is unlikely, or even impossible. Quantum theory is filled with truly random outcomes that don’t actually exist until they are measured or observed.
  2. Are we exercising free choice when we do what our habits and belief systems would almost certainly cause us to choose?
  3. We may choose to act differently than our habitual pattern only if a foreign, or one might say, random influence enters our decision-making process. Are we then the ultimate source of our choice?

I like to think of choice in terms of predictability in the same way that random numbers can have predictability from 0.5 (perfectly random: entropy = 1.0) up to 1.0 (totally predictable: entropy = 0). These measures can also be represented in terms of bits of information received. This provides a way to quantify free choice when it is usually entirely subjective.

Let’s say we are driving and we come to a fork going left or right. To the left is town and our workplace – we always go left, though we don’t have to. The predictability is near, but not exactly, 1.0. There is always a tiny possibility of going right, in spite of everything. 999 times out of 1000 we go left and 1 time, for perhaps inexplicable reasons, we turn right. The predictability is therefore, 0.999 and with a corresponding entropy of 0.011408 bits of information. In contrast, we drive to an unfamiliar area for an outing. 6 out of 10 turns we go left for no particular reason, though there would be many qualifications to the assumption of “no particular reason”. The average predictability is 0.6 giving entropy of 0.970951 bits of information. For any choice, the bits of entropy can be normalized by dividing by the maximum possible bits of entropy in the choice. This will give a ranking from 0 to 1 representing the degree of “freeness” of the choice.

The bits of entropy can be considered a measure of free choice. These example choices have a maximum of 1 bit because there are only two possible outcomes. Other choices may be more complex involving multiple bits of entropy. Shannon information theory can be used to calculate the number of bits of entropy, and even the rate at which the information is obtained or received. The information rate, in bits per second, is (1-H)(bits/t), where bits it the total number of possible bits in the choice and t is the time in seconds to make the choice.

Clearly from this probabilistic perspective, habitual behavior greatly reduces the degree of free choice. Even though the habitual behavior is in our own interest, there really is no choice being made at all. It is almost entirely deterministic, like a computer algorithm.

This method of measurement can be applied to other ideas of free choice, as long as a proper interpretation is found for representing bits of information.

What do you calculate to get 0.001443 and 0.737?

I edited the original message, which I wrote out last night as a stream of thought. The bits of information should more directly be expressed as bits of information entropy. The resulting bits of entropy for the two cases are 0.011408 and 0.970951. These are calculated using the Shannon information entropy equation. When there is only one bit of information (two possible outcomes), the entropy equation simplifies to:
H = (–1/Ln(2))(P Ln(P)+(1–P)(Ln(1–P))), where P is the probability. In probability theory, this is known as the marginal probability, p(A). It is the unconditional probability (not dependent on other events) of event A occurring (0.999 and 0.6 in the examples). The 1/Ln(2) term normalizes the result as bits of entropy.

I think, that problem of free choice is ill defined. Because either our choice is based on something, or it’s random. Either way it’s unlikely, that we can decide anything on our own in such interpretation. Because manifestation of will is far from being random.
Free choice must be an act of will. So, it has reasons and causes. Question is where our self in that process. I think, that free will and free choice exist if our self exist as stable informational object. If processes inside that object can decide which causes will influence it and cause certain outcomes.
Also, will isn’t about how to overcome our self. It’s about how to follow our desires. How to build them into complex and highly functional system, where different desires and emotions has their own places.

I’ll add few words to clarify better.
So, as I said, completely free choice, without causality contradicts itself. So, only question is where causes of OUR free choice are localised. Free means, that there should be area of parameters in our universe, that corresponds to certain self. And nothing outside can influence that area without inner permission.
However, that seems not valid. Because we already can think about very much possibilities, how theoretically one’s mind can be controlled. Propaganda, special drugs, direct psychosurgery, weird rays, etc.
However, probably, that’s not theoretical question, but practical one. Free will is protected with secret how to conquer it. Protection of our free will is a lot like cryptography. Everyone could be controlled, but only if someone else know how to do it. It’s entire nature of control, described in cybernetics: if you want to control system, you need to know which reaction will cause your influence.
So, that’s why I’m not very happy about perspective to obtain every possible information. Because, it’s not so complex to make someone to go insane and eat his own shit if you know right words. What if someone will have possibility to find out right words on demand?
Free will isn’t granted to us by god. It’s property of our mind, which we should develop and protect. It’s matter of survival. If we won’t protect informational boundary of self and care about inner consistency, we’ll be worse than dead.

Also, freedom of certain region of universe(self) from outer influence is only one side of free will. Other side is what defines inner algorithm of actions inside that area. And I think, that it’s spirit. Spirit is completely immaterial being from Plato’s world of ideas. It’s idea, self consistent principle, which defines rule, how our intention is organized. Spirit is a lot like equation. Logical structure, which is eternal and exists somewhere in seas of possibilities just because it’s self-consistent. It’s attractor, which our personal evolution of self does follow.
And, I believe, that there are soul. Force/process, which drives matter to states, which fullfill immaterial principle. Substance, which binds matter and spirit. Physically speaking, it’s entropy force, which makes certain configurations of information more likely to occur. R. Sheldrake tryed to describe it as morphogenetic fields. I think, that MMI works on soul’s power. And possibly, we’ll be able to build artifical body, which can host soul instead of biological one, using that effect.
So, our freedom of will is provided by our soul, which drives random process to sustain area of universe, which corresponds to principle of certain spirit and forms biological manifestation of our self.

Also, it means, that if something will be able to break our will irreversibly, it’s completely equal to death. Because, our soul will be disconnected from body in that case. As we see, most of world governments invest great money to develop technologies, which can influence will of people and control population. Technologies, which can invade privacy are developing pretty fast too. And if we have no privacy, it greatly reduce our area of freedom and can be used to “find right words”. That can literally fucking kill us as individual beings, which has soul. And, possibly, people, who do it understand it better, than I do.

Loving the deep thread here. I can’t say I’ve ever tried to put into words my own thoughts and beliefs regarding free will but will give it some eager thought (pun intended, intentionally I guess;)

I spat out my coffee at the making someone eat their own shit part lol

It’s not so funny when you’ve seen it.