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<   No. 964   2005-09-16   >

Comic #964

1 {scene: The Death picket line, only all the Deaths have left except for the one in the fine top hat, who clings to a protest sign}
1 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: Hey! Where is everyone?
1 Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals: They've all scarpered.
2 Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals: What'choo don't realise is, as Deaffs, we 'ave to respond when someone karks it. We ain't got no free will, see?
3 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: So why are you still here?
4 Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals: When did'choo last 'ear o' someone dyin' from in'alin' 'atmakin' chemicals, guv?

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Meet Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals. I just wanted to say that last sentence has more apostrophes than any other sentence I think I've ever written.

2014-11-27 Rerun commentary: The question of free will is an interesting one, and far too big to go into detail here.

The basic question is: If the laws of physics are deterministic, meaning that the behaviour of particles and energy is determined by physical laws given their initial conditions, then are decisions and actions made by humans determined and fixed by the arrangements of atoms and energy in our bodies, or do we have the capacity to choose between different alternative actions?

The gut feeling of pretty much everyone is that of course we have free will. I can choose to go get a glass of water right now, or I can choose not to, right? Why on Earth would my decision be predetermined by the laws of physics?

But change the scenario slightly. If I'm standing on a tall cliff with sharp rocks a hundred metres below, I can choose to either jump off, or not jump off, right?

Actually, I'm not so sure. If I think about it, I'm darn near 100% certain that I could not in actual fact bring myself to jump off. There is something in my mind or my body, or the arrangement of atoms and energy that makes it up, which prevents me from "choosing" to jump off that cliff. I cannot possibly choose to do it. In theory, yeah, sure, I can imagine myself jumping off the cliff, but in reality, no way. I could not do it.

So, to me at least, it's not obvious that our assumption of free will is in fact true at the deepest level.

On the other hand, I behave and think about my behaviour as though I do have free will. In my head I still feel like I'm choosing whether to have that last slice of cake or to save it for tomorrow. Because if I think too deeply about the possibility of actually not having any choice at all and just being dictated by the laws of physics, then ... quite frankly, I think down that path lies madness.

A fascinating study on the perception of free will was published recently. The researchers found that people who were coached to doubt the existence of free will tended to cheat more on psychological tests of moral behaviour. This is an interesting, and slightly disturbing, result.

A possible conclusion you could draw from this is that people who don't believe in free will, because they believe their own actions are predetermined, don't feel as much moral obligation to be accountable for their actions. So they end up behaving differently - less morally - presumably because they feel, "Well, I couldn't help myself anyway."

I think - whether we actually have free will at the atomic level or not - the macroscopic level of human behaviour is to our senses so far removed from the determinism of the laws of physics that the only sensible thing is for us to behave as though we really do have free will. We have to believe we are accountable for our actions, otherwise the complex nature of human psychology can lead us down dark and dangerous paths.

In practice, we cannot predict individual human behaviour, even if we knew where every atom in their body was, the physics and maths to do so are way too complicated. So we should accept that our behaviour is, at least effectively if not in truth, not fixed or predetermined.

(There's also the issue that the laws of physics might not be deterministic after all. Quantum physics in particular produces probabilistic results for the behaviour of individual particles. But averaged over large numbers, to the level of macroscopic entities which we can observe at human scale, it becomes deterministic. It's a tricky question no matter where you look at it!)

This is a tricky topic to talk about at any length, and I hope I haven't misrepresented my own views on it, or the underlying issues themselves. If I have, I apologise, and beg your understanding.

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