Darel Rex Finley in 888

Free Will and Population Statistics

2008.02.22   prev     next

IN my previous article, “Dennett/D’Souza Debate — D’Souza,” I touched on the subject of population statistics and what they mean for the idea of individual free will. Here I intend to expand on that subject and analyze it more precisely.

Let’s look at an abstract choice, A versus B, that can be made on an individual-by-individual basis. If this decision is controlled by the individual’s free will, what should that look like in population statistics? I submit that it should look like a 50-50 split:

Figure 1

To be truly free, free will must be unpredictable. For example, suppose the statistics with regard to the A-B decision are like this:

Figure 2

In that case, there is no free will, at least when it comes to choosing between A and B. There still might, hypothetically, be free will with regard to other decisions that we make, but for this particular decision we do not have free will. Everyone chooses B because we’re simply hard-coded to do so. An example of that kind of decision would be eating dirt versus not eating dirt, or drinking Drano versus not drinking Drano. It’s just not human nature to eat dirt or drink Drano; we don’t have a choice in the matter.

This is true even if someone, somewhere, has actually eaten dirt or drunk Drano:

Figure 3

In that case, we could say that perhaps one person in a million has a free choice to eat dirt, but almost everyone does not.

Back to a generic choice: What if the statistics show this:

Figure 4

In that case, we could say that perhaps 20% of the population has free will with regard to this (A-B) decision — half of them (10%) choose A and the other half (10%) choose B. The remaining 80% of the population has no free will and must choose B every time.

Note, however, that this is not the only interpretation of Figure 4. It could be that there is no free will at all with regard to decision A-B: 10% of the population, due to the peculiarities of their DNA and their best learned information, must choose A, and the other 90% must choose B. But, if free will does exist for this decision, it is held by, at most, 20% of the population as described in the above paragraph.

Now let’s apply this analysis to the gender-violence statistic. (I’m making up the exact percentages arguendo.)



Figure 5

If virtually 0% of females choose to engage in violence (combat or assault), but 10% of males do, what does this mean with regard to free will? It means that virtually all females do not have free will when it comes to this particular decision. And at most, 20% of males do.

Now let’s examine the reason that this is so:

not caughtcaught
violence bad worse
Figure 6

For virtually every female, the decision is a no-brainer: Violence, whether she gets away with it or not, is less desirable (due to her genetic preferences) than nonviolence. So for females, being violent is in the same no-free-will category as eating dirt or drinking Drano.

not caughtcaught
violence cool! bad
Figure 7

Many males doubtlessly share the Figure 6 situation with females. But a large percentage of males are described by the Figure 7 diagram immediately above. Now, it’s not a no-brainer. Should he commit act(s) of violence and hopefully get away with it, which for his particular genetic preferences would be fun; better than a life of nonviolence? Or should he choose the nonviolent life, to avoid imprisonment? Perhaps he has free will to choose?

not caughtcaught
violence WAY cool! kinda bad

not caughtcaught
violence kinda cool VERY bad

Figure 8

Perhaps he doesn’t. If, like Al above, he has a strong genetic preference to commit violence, and believes (whether correctly or not) that he has a high probability of getting away with it, and for whom imprisonment is only a relatively minor negative as compared to not going to prison (perhaps he has been in prison before, and his life outside prison is in a bad neighborhood with little money), then the decision might be a no-brainer just as it is in Figure 6.

Or, if like Bob above, he has a weak genetic preference to commit violence, and believes (whether correctly or not) that he has a low probability of getting away with it, and for whom imprisonment would be a huge negative as compared to not going to prison (perhaps he has never been imprisoned or even jailed before, and his life outside prison is in a good neighborhood with plenty of money), then the decision would also be a no-brainer.

What delicate balance between these competing factors must exist in an individual before his decision to be violent or nonviolent becomes, even hypothetically, “free?” What percentage of the population lives in such a precisely balanced state? 0.001%?

Why Advocate For Free Will?

When advocates of free will, such as D’Souza, argue that virtually everyone has free will in virtually every decision they make, they are directly implying that we have free will to choose against our own desires and knowledge. And not just when choosing to eat dirt, drink Drano, or throw microphones across the room (see previous article) — when making any decision for which our desires and knowledge indicate that path B should be taken instead of A, D’Souza would have us believe that we are “free” to choose A.

Why would D’Souza (or anyone, for that matter) try to convince people that they are “free” to choose against the option pointed to by their desires and knowledge? Choosing against our desires is a recipe for unhappiness. Choosing against our knowledge is a path to chaos and mass destruction. Why would D’Souza push us in the direction of unhappiness and destruction?

The answer is to be found in D’Souza’s arbitrary assignment of activities to the categories of “free” and “not free.” D’Souza takes constructive activities (building universities and holding intellectual debates in them) and arbitrarily files those activities into the category of “things free will allows you to do.” Simultaneously, he takes destructive activities (massacres) and arbitrarily files them into the category of “things free will allows you to avoid.” So, to D’Souza, free will means building and attending universities, and refraining from going on massacres. An individual without free will, he wants us to think, would be more likely to avoid universities, and to go on killing sprees.

But you could just as easily (and as arbitrarily) assign the activities to the categories in the opposite manner as D’Souza, and wind up thinking that free will means avoiding universities and going on killing sprees. And, in fact, that interpretation is probably more in line with many young people’s vision of freedom, in that doing what society wants you to do (conforming) is considered by them a failure to be free.

D’Souza, I think, is simply hoping to encourage people to be productive (and non-destructive) by telling them that they are “free” if they do. This religious solution to malcontents and massacres has, I believe, been very helpful in centuries past. But today, with mature travel and communications technologies, it just doesn’t work any more — people know about all the wild and weird variety of religions in the world (even without Dennett’s proposed religion class). If you want your children to get a college degree, and to refrain from killing random strangers, you will need to come up with more practical reasons for those choices than “you’re not really free without them,” or “you’ll go to hell without them” (or be “separate from God” as D’Souza waters it down).

And if persuasion doesn’t work — and many times it simply won’t — society must continually refine its systems of force, deterrence, and detection against those individuals who, if not stopped, will be destructive. This, I think, is actually good news. Saying that a mass-murderer chose “freely” to carry out his mission is to say that we can’t predict such events, and must simply resign ourselves to live with them (perhaps installing metal detectors and armed guards everywhere). Recognizing that the mass-murderer did not freely choose his act is the first step toward finding out why he did it, and how others like him can be stopped.


Update 2008.02.25 — “The majority of males (as implied by Figure 5) share the Figure 6 situation with females. But a significant percentage of males” changed to “Many males doubtlessly share the Figure 6 situation with females. But a large percentage of males”.


Update 2008.04.14 — Interviewer questioning Richard Dawkins, as quoted at Uncommon Descent:

I think there is an inconsistency and I hoped you would clarify it ... [Y]ou seem to take a position of a strong determinist who says that what we see around us is the product of physical laws playing themselves out but on the other hand it would seem that you would do things like taking credit for writing this book and things like that.

Dawkins responds to this with, in my opinion, a rather weak answer that I would summarize as, “That’s a tricky question and I’m not sure what the answer is.” I have a better response:

What reason do we have to classify “taking credit for books you write” under the heading “things that free will allows you to do” instead of under “things free will allows you to avoid”? Why can’t a deterministic universe include humans that take credit for the books they write? Why can’t determinism require Dawkins to take credit for his books, just as the interviewer thinks it might require him not to?

It’s a totally arbitrary assignment, just like the one D’Souza makes (see above).


Update 2008.05.09 — Here’s another, perhaps better way of making the point. There are two ways to define “taking credit”:

1. If “taking credit for writing a book” means “I wrote this book. My nextdoor neighbor didn’t write it. My best friend didn’t write it. The barista at my coffee shop didn’t. I did.” — then Richard Dawkins can take credit for writing his books.

2. If “taking credit for writing a book” means “I am the ultimate, originating source of most, if not all, ideas and information in this book.” — then Richard Dawkins cannot take credit for writing his books.

Notice that both of the above statements are correct irrespective of whether there is such a thing as human free will. So determining whether Dawkins should take credit for his books is simply a function of what it means to “take credit” (1 or 2), and is not a function of whether or not humans have free will.

It is also not a function of whether we live in a 100% deterministic universe — a designer could conceivably intervene in this universe to create humans (who otherwise could not have come into existence), but those humans, ever since, have operated in a strictly deterministic fashion as they were designed to.

The religious right, and much of the ID movement’s membership, has a hang-up about free will somehow being required, for human thought and action to be legitimate. This hang-up has no logical foundation — it springs, I believe, from the emotional desire to be free.


Update 2008.05.28 — The term “choose” can be understood similarly:

Definition A: To “choose” means to logically analyze options with the knowledge and preferences in one’s brain, determine which will be most likely to satisfy those preferences, then attempt to bring that option to fruition.

Definition B: To “choose” means to select which option to pursue, in a way that is not dictated by the knowledge or preferences in one’s brain, and in fact is free from the dictates of any deterministic process.

Free-will advocates equivocate between definitions A and B when they say that their daily choices (A) prove that they have free will (B), and when they say that if we didn’t have free will (B) then there would be no point in doing anything (A).


Update 2008.06.27 — Fascinating research into this very subject.


Update 2008.07.19 — If there’s no such thing as free will, then yes, as D’Souza points out, you can accurately say, “My neurons made me do it.” OK. But if there’s no such thing as free will, then “my neurons made me do it” is just a fancy way of saying, “I made myself do it,” or, “I did it” — or even, “I chose to do it.”

D’Souza wants the phrase, “My neurons made me do it” to mean, “Something other than myself took away my choice, so it’s not my fault.” If, however, the built-in preferences and analytical abilities realized by the neurons of a human brain are “my choice,” then, “My neurons made me do it” really means, “I chose to do it.”


Update 2008.08.19 — Even more fascinating research into this subject.


Update 2009.01.01Fascinatinger and fascinatinger...


See also:
Behavior and Free Will, Unconfused
What Free Will Is Really About


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