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An Indeterministic Alternative to Free Will

Robert Dimuro

Posted on May 27, 2020 17:19

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Probabilism is a position in this debate that rejects the notion of a self AND that the universe and all of its contents are determined.

In part two of this article, I concluded that the debate over the existence of free will is predicated on the existence of self. I also noted that the argument for determinism states, or at least implies, that the self doesn’t exist. Here, I will address a position in this debate that rejects the notion of a self AND that the universe and all of its contents are determined.

Probabilism rejects both of these notions. It simply asserts that there are many -- perhaps an infinite amount of -- possible effects of a given cause, rather than only one. Basic interactions with the world obscure this idea, as, for example, the only probable effect of imparting a force on an object is that it moves in the exact way one would predict based on formulae. However, it’s an entirely different notion to assert that this exact movement was guaranteed to have happened.

Other examples bring this to light. The seemingly random patterns of how trees grow and how their leaves are shaped have no evident set of causes. However, certain species of trees have probable growth patterns, and the amalgamation of these patterns gives a species of tree a generic “look”. The same can also be said about the inheritance of genes. The Punnett Square is based on determining the probability of an offspring’s inheriting of specific genotypes. The individual’s inheritance of genotypes and expression of phenotypes, although not determined (as far as we can tell), are predictable, especially when extrapolated to an entire population.

Although these are just examples and not iron-clad arguments for probabilism, they should humble determinists who claim that their position is self-evident. Determinism is only seemingly self-evident based on a preschool notion of cause and effect. At the quantum level, for example, there’s no basis for this self-evidence, as the physics by which we understand the natural world breaks down. Random or probabilistic activity at the quantum level may coalesce to bring about the seemingly determined result that we observe with the naked eye.

Although we sometimes conflate probability with random chance, we inherently understand the seemingly “deterministic” quality of probability in our daily life. We all know that 100 coin flips won't result in heads because of how unlikely that outcome would be. However, this doesn't prove that the outcome is determined.

The punchline here is that brain activity could indeed be probabilistic in this same way. Our brains may interpret random firings of neurons in their totality to produce a predictable mood, thought, or action. Although I don’t understand enough about neuroscience to elaborate on how probabilism could explain brain activity, it seems to me that determinists are unfairly attempting to shut the door on their philosophic adversaries on the basis of neuroscience. 

If this is true, I strongly suspect it’s because of how the debate is traditionally framed. In summary, you don’t have to be a determinist to believe that free will, whether metaphysical or corporeal, is an illusion.

Robert Dimuro

Posted on May 27, 2020 17:19

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