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Is there any Objectivist literature reconciling free will with physics?

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Objectivism affirms the existence of libertarian free will - that is, it affirms that we have free will and that free will is incompatible with determinism. I am curious whether any attempt has been made in the literature to reconcile free will with the laws of physics, particularly the second law of thermodynamics. The only attempt I am aware of is Edwin Locke's very recent book The Illusion of Determinism, which spends one paragraph on the issue. You can assume that I am already familiar with Rand's work, as well as the discussions of free will in OPAR and Binswanger's book How We Know.

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12 minutes ago, gio said:

How the laws of physics, particularly the second law of thermodynamics, conflict with Objectivist view of free will?

I'm just asking whether there is literature (books or articles) on a particular topic. I do not claim that physics contradicts the Objectivist view of free will. If there is no such literature then that is fine.

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11 minutes ago, William O said:

I'm just asking whether there is literature (books or articles) on a particular topic. I do not claim that physics contradicts the Objectivist view of free will. If there is no such literature then that is fine.

But...if physics don't contradicts the Objectivist view of free will, there is no reason to reconcile them. I don't know if there is such litterature, it depends on what they conflicts with each other.

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Gentleman if I may, if we understand "reconcile" to mean "to make or show to be compatible with" then the question is valid is to why isn't there more scholarship, especially seeing as how this is a hot button "pop philosophy" type issue that people are talking about in the culture.

However, Gio also has a point that since you mentioned "especially the second law of thermodynamics" that if one needed to show something to be compatible, there needs to be first presented a line of argumentation as to why it wouldn't be, and then one could show why that's not the case.

Of course I avoid this by having a compatibilist interpretation of free will, so being compatible with physics is just built into my viewpoint, and I think Rand's too. Anyways, carry on...

Also: Since Rand's viewpoint is an introspective account of levels of awareness, it can't reslly be explained in terms of "how does this work" at the level of philosophy. Cognitive psychology has a lot of research on things like volition, willpower, sense of agency, locus of control, and things like how focus works, how cognitive biases work, and so on. All an objectivist philosopher is really going to be doing is correcting false assumptions of the other camps and then saying "this, this is all we mean by free will."

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If anyone wants to argue that the second law of thermodynamics conflicts with free will, one way to get some perspective might be to see what happens to their argument if we substitute mortality for the second law of thermodynamics.  Or if their emphasis is more short term, substitute gravity for the second law of thermodynamics.

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In reply to the OP, I have seen alleged reconciliation by defining free will to not be free (the person could not have chosen differently) which negates free will, and I have seen alleged reconciliation by invoking a pseudomystic supernature such as dualism or strong emergence which negates reality's reconciliation. 

The problem is that individual non conscious systems are known to either be deterministic or if you take QM seriously in some cases purely probabilistic.  At a high level what needs to be reconciled are the abstract ideas of "choosiness", determined, and random, and coming to terms with the fact that according to science a single whole complex system exhibiting choosiness can be composed or integrated from a set of smaller random and determined processes.  I think this is perfectly reasonable but I have not seen a formal presentation of it.  I have my own musings but that is not what the OP asks.

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Here's the paragraph that got me thinking about this:

Quote

Some commentators who have studied science claim that free will would violate the second law of thermodynamics in physics. This law says that in a closed system, if heat is introduced, it will spread out until the temperature is equal throughout. This process involves an increase in entropy, which is defined as an increase in disorder. However, disorder in this context has a technical, statistical meaning which has nothing to do with what you or I mean by disorder or chaos. Air molecules behave in a lawful fashion. I fail to see any connection here to free will. Humans have the power to mobilize mental and physical energy to think and to pursue values.

2

Source: The Illusion of Determinism by Edwin A. Locke, p. 107

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In Selected Topics in the Philosophy of Science, Harry Binswanger provided a more useful thumbnail sketch of entropy.

Not knowing the fuller context of the book, from this excerpt, Mr. Locke introduced a topic in this that legitimately raised more questions than he answered.

To the broader question on the table, it does not jog an particular recollection from my cross section of readings/listenings.

Edited by dream_weaver
'more useful' rather than 'better'
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1 hour ago, dream_weaver said:

In Selected Topics in the Philosophy of Science, Harry Binswanger provided a more useful thumbnail sketch of entropy.

 

Thanks, this might be useful. But does he discuss the connection to free will, or is his discussion confined to the science alone?

Quote

Not knowing the fuller context of the book, from this excerpt, Mr. Locke introduced a topic in this that legitimately raised more questions than he answered.

 

I'm glad someone else has that reaction too. This is basically why I started this thread - to try to find answers to some of those questions.

Edited by William O
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14 minutes ago, William O said:

Thanks, this might be useful. But does he discuss the connection to free will, or is his discussion confined to the science alone?

If memory serves me correctly, one of the tie-ins he made was to consciousness in general, and another to the terms of order/disorder as being epistemological.

 

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On 3/31/2018 at 1:59 PM, William O said:

 I am curious whether any attempt has been made in the literature to reconcile free will with the laws of physics, particularly the second law of thermodynamics.

Flat no.  No author of 'Objectivist literature' would see the need, it is literally a blind spot.  By 'the need' I mean a purely pedagogical need to address those who first come to understand math and physics and only later Objectivism or philosophy in general, and so fall into a common and near unavoidable trap in their thinking. 

For example here is Peikoff in OPAR

Quote

When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all man's ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true? Are the factors that shape his brain infallible? Does he automatically follow reason and logic? Clearly not; if he did, error would be impossible to him.

The determinist's position amounts to the following. "My mind does not automatically conform to facts, yet I have no choice about its course. I have no way to choose reality to be my guide as against subjective feeling, social pressure, or the falsifications inherent in being only semiconscious. If and when I distort the evidence through sloppiness or laziness, or place popularity above logic, or evade out of fear, or hide my evasions from myself under layers of rationalizations and lies, I have to do it, even if I realize at the time how badly I am acting. Whatever the irrationalities that warp and invalidate my mind's conclusion on any issue, they are irresistible, like every event in my history, and could not have been otherwise." If such were the case, a man could not rely on his own judgment. He could claim nothing as objective knowledge, including the theory of determinism.
 

This is a rationalist argumentation style, it does not address the premises that lead one to believe that the determinism of nature directly and naively applies to man.  That volition is axiomatic, that axioms cannot be coherently contradicted is all well and good as a shortcut for those of us who have cleared the hurdle of understanding and accepting what Rand considered axiomatic but most people that are determinists have not cleared that hurdle and so any version of that shortcut is incomprehensible or deeply unsatisfying.
 

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  • 2 years later...
On 4/2/2018 at 8:54 AM, Doug Morris said:

As I understand it, a person who focuses narrowly on a living organism might conclude that life is inconsistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but a person who takes into account the effect of the organism on its environment will see no conflict. 

Of related interest: 

"A Metaphysics for Freedom argues that agency itself-and not merely the special, distinctively human variety of it-is incompatible with determinism. For determinism is threatened just as surely by the existence of powers which can be unproblematically accorded to many sorts of animals, as by the distinctively human powers on which the free will debate has tended to focus. Helen Steward suggests that a tendency to approach the question of free will solely through the issue of moral responsibility has obscured the fact that there is a quite different route to incompatibilism, based on the idea that animal agents above a certain level of complexity possess a range of distinctive 'two-way' powers, not found in simpler substances. Determinism is not a doctrine of physics, but of metaphysics; and the idea that it is physics which will tell us whether our world is deterministic or not presupposes what must not be taken for granted-that is, that physics settles everything else, and that we are already in a position to say that there could be no irreducibly top-down forms of causal influence. Steward considers questions concerning supervenience, laws, and levels of explanation, and explores an outline of a variety of top-down causation which might sustain the idea that an animal itself, rather than merely events and states going on in its parts, might be able to bring something about. The resulting position permits certain important concessions to compatibilism to be made; and a convincing response is also offered to the charge that even if it is agreed that determinism is incompatible with agency, indeterminism can be of no possible help. The whole is an argument for a distinctive and resolutely non-dualistic, naturalistically respectable version of libertarianism, rooted in a conception of what biological forms of organisation might make possible in the way of freedom."

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4 hours ago, Boydstun said:

Of related interest: 

"A Metaphysics for Freedom argues that agency itself-and not merely the special, distinctively human variety of it-is incompatible with determinism. For determinism is threatened just as surely by the existence of powers which can be unproblematically accorded to many sorts of animals, as by the distinctively human powers on which the free will debate has tended to focus. Helen Steward suggests that a tendency to approach the question of free will solely through the issue of moral responsibility has obscured the fact that there is a quite different route to incompatibilism, based on the idea that animal agents above a certain level of complexity possess a range of distinctive 'two-way' powers, not found in simpler substances. Determinism is not a doctrine of physics, but of metaphysics; and the idea that it is physics which will tell us whether our world is deterministic or not presupposes what must not be taken for granted-that is, that physics settles everything else, and that we are already in a position to say that there could be no irreducibly top-down forms of causal influence. Steward considers questions concerning supervenience, laws, and levels of explanation, and explores an outline of a variety of top-down causation which might sustain the idea that an animal itself, rather than merely events and states going on in its parts, might be able to bring something about. The resulting position permits certain important concessions to compatibilism to be made; and a convincing response is also offered to the charge that even if it is agreed that determinism is incompatible with agency, indeterminism can be of no possible help. The whole is an argument for a distinctive and resolutely non-dualistic, naturalistically respectable version of libertarianism, rooted in a conception of what biological forms of organisation might make possible in the way of freedom."

Boydstun, have you read this?

I am a little concerned with the synopsis claiming she argues "indeterminism" can be of no possible help.  IF a system exhibits "choosiness" which is neither "determined" nor "indetermined" nor a mixture of the two... (a mixture of something which "can be of no possible help" might as well just be a mixture without that something) I wonder just what IS it?

Anyway, curious about your thoughts of the book and whether it is worth a purchase.

Edited by StrictlyLogical
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Thanks, Stephen, for posting about the book. I requested it via inter-library loan, whereby it usually takes several days to receive a book. The most intriguing part of the description for me was the ‘two-way’ powers. Using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ feature, I search for “two-way.” The results indicated what she meant by “two-pay” powers was an animal’s power to move its body one way or another or not.

Beforehand, I had wondered if she might mean an animal’s control of its attention, such as where to look or the source of a smell. So I searched for “perception” in the book. The pages returned didn’t match those for “two-way.” I also searched for “attention.” Some of the results might be about perceptual attention, but I couldn’t see the full text of those pages. I also searched for “top-down causation.” Those results didn’t reveal much either.

Others on OL might be interested in an article I wrote in 2006 titled Scope of Volition. It doesn’t try to reconcile any Objectivist views of volition with physics. On the other hand, perceptual attention, motivation, and goals don’t fall within the scope of physics.

Edited by merjet
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I think 2046 has her right.

“What I am calling the ‘Challenge from Chance’ has been formulated, over the years, in many different ways. The basic idea is that it is impossible to see how indeterminism could possibly provide us with anything that we might want in the way of freedom, anything that could really amount to control as opposed to an openness in the flow of reality that would constitute merely the injection of chance or randomness into the unfolding of the processes that underlie our activity. . . .

“This worry, in one form or another, is present in an enormous number of compatibilist critiques of libertarianism; it is no exaggeration, indeed, to say that it is the main challenge that the libertarian must meet. . . . Only [my] improved version has any hope of responding successfully to the Challenge from Chance.” (128–29) 

SL,

I haven’t read the book. It’s on the shelf where I’ve accumulated contemporary books that look to be important for getting further on free-will issues in the setting of the hard science we have to this point. I was writing about those things in the late 1990’s, in my essay Volitional Synapses, and I’ve gotten these books as I’ve seen them issued since then, but I’ve not gotten back to taking on the area again. This book by Steward looks completely competent in the science and in the philosophy writings. My interest was drawn to it by its shift of attention to animal agency generally in the context of determinism, as right setting for free will. (I had myself been drawn in my earlier composition to issues of organisms with their engineering character, and the way the engineered (viz. the living) does not deviate from physics; but is not itself simply unconstrained (unpurposive) physics, incorporates chance, contingency, determinism, and so forth.)

Steward’s book, like most all the books I’ve gotten on that shelf these last couple of decades, is pretty hard. I estimate it will repay sustained attention. Another book on my shelf that looks awfully appealing is Why Free Will Is Real by Christian List (Harvard 2019). I see he has assimilated some work of Steward he found helpful.

From the jacket:

List “concedes that free will and its prerequisites—intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions—cannot be found among the fundamental physical features of the natural world. But, he argues, that’s not where we should be looking. Free will is a “higher-level” phenomenon found at the level of psychology. It is like other phenomena that emerge from physical processes but are autonomous from them and not best understood in fundamental physical terms—like an ecosystem or the economy. When we discover it in its proper context, acknowledging that free will is real is not just scientifically respectable; it is indispensable for explaining our world.”

Edited by Boydstun
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“We do not need and should not want to have an openness in the flow of reality that consists in the possibility of our making decisions for which we can imagine no conceivable rationale. We do not therefore need the (incompatibilistically construed) power, in respect to each decision made, to have made the opposite decision. But we do need, if there is to be such a thing as agency at all, the general capacity to organize, order, and direct our lives in such a way that we thereby settle the particular details of what happens in those lives at the time at which we act (or decide to do something—for I take it that deciding is a species of acting). Moreover, I maintain, we cannot have this capacity if an action is merely the inevitable event-consequence of some set of antecedent events and states. In that case, there would then be nothing left for anyone to do, for there would be nothing left for anyone to settle at the time of action. Doings would become a mere part of the maelstrom of mere happenings, and agents would disappear from the world, their efficacy ceded to deterministically evolving series of events and states. Actions (including decisions) must be things, therefore, whose occurrence is always non-necessary relative to the totality of their antecedents. What this implies is that they must be exercises of a power that need not have been exercised at the moment or in the precise way that it was in fact exercised. The power to act, as many philosophers have remarked, is a two-way power that: to act or to refrain from acting. That is what makes it special. All sorts of objects have powers, e.g. . . . my heart has the power to pump blood around my body. But none of these things . . . has at the same time, the power not to exercise these other powers, once conditions for their realization are present (for this reason indeed, it is much more natural to speak of these one-way powers being realized than it is to speak of them being exercised). . . . My heart cannot help pumping my blood around my body provided it is working properly. In contrast, the power to act that animals possess is associated essentially and constantly, so I would insist, with a simultaniously-possessed power of refrainment. More will need to be said about this power of refrainment, for its precise characterization is not an easy matter. In particular, it will be essential to avoid any characterization of refrainment according to which it has itself to be a deliberate act; what I shall mean by the power to refrain is something much weaker than this.” (155–56)

Let me see now—the power to focus mind or to refrain from focus.

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My heart cannot help pumping my blood around my body provided it is working properly. In contrast, the power to act that animals possess is associated essentially and constantly, so I would insist, with a simultaneously-possessed power of refrainment” (A Metaphysics of Freedom, p. 156).
 

Yes, my heart does not choose to pump blood or not. I do have some control over how fast my heart pumps. I can do some exercise and more than double my heart rate.

I have even more control over what I see. Wherever I am looking, I can open and close my eyes. I can choose to look elsewhere by moving my eyes or head. I can choose/control what to focus on within my field of vision, i.e. attention. Vision is two-way as follows. One way is the incoming light. The other way is my control of attention. Other senses also have two-way aspects. Animals also show attention.


 

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