Probable, Possible, Free Will

I thought this topic deserved its own thread, since we are now swimming in very deep philosophical waters.

A reader writes in and says: " I would point out that probability is reduced as knowledge is increased."

My reply: That depends on ontological status of what we call ‘probability’.

Definition one:

If you say that ‘probability’ measures human knowledge about the situation, then you are right.

Suppose I am Questor the computer man, and with my robot brain I can measure all the forces acting on a flung coin with precision. If I know precisely how the coin will fall, I can call heads or tails with certainty, there being no ‘probability’ that it can fall any other way.

On the other hand, a more ignorant man, call him Sky Masterson, one who does not know the details of the forces acting on the coin, can only say the coin will either land heads up or tails up, and he can deduce it will do one or the other. He then says that out of one hundred cases, it coin will land headsup fifty times, on average. He is making a statement of probability.

However, Mr. Mxyzptlk from the Fifth Dimension cannot make any statement of probability at all. In his continuum, a tossed coin can split into two coins, or turn into a rabbit, or fall up. His ignorance is too great to make any statement of what might happen out of a hundred cases.

By this definition, there really is no such thing as probability: it exists in our minds, not in the real world.

Questor, Sky Masterson, and Mr. Mxyzptlk each see the same coin spin in the air. However, the ‘probability’ they see is not in the coin: it is in their minds. For Questor, the chance of the coin landing tails-up is zero; for Sky, fifty-fifty; for Mxyzptlk, anything can happen.

By this definition, knowledge abolishes probability. The only thing preventing us from living as robots (or like Dr. Manhattan of THE WATCHMAN) is our blissful ignorance.

Definition Two:

On the other hand, if we are speaking of the human acts of free will, then we are not discussing physics. We use many of the same words to refer to the various concepts involved in decision, but those words are ambiguous, and lead to endless (and pointless) confusion.

Because a coin in the air does not feel pain landing headsup and pleasure landing tailsup, and the coin does not deliberate and choose pleasure over pain, and decide to land tailsup in order to sate its numismatic desire for tail ecstasy. No one can describe the movements of physical systems in this fashion: it is nonsense, anthropomorphism.

But we indulge in the reverse nonsense without a qualm. We describe human action in mechanistic metaphors all the time. We talk about men being ‘forced’ to choose using the same words we use when we talk about a billiard ball reacting to the impact of the cue ball. We talk about the ‘chances’ that I will make a decision in probabilistic terms. This talk ranges from misleading metaphor to utter nonsense. We must take care to distinguish this ambiguity.

We I am faced with two doors, and I can choose either, my choice is not a ‘fifty fifty’ probability. I act according to final cause: my actions are deliberate, and aim at ends I select and employ means I choose to achieve those aims. Unlike a coin in the air, a living soul like me is motivated by pain and pleasure, justice and injustice, anger and passion, logic andaltruism.

We use the ‘probable’ or ‘possible’ to refer to a selection between available options, but not only is this not the same as the ignorance with which we behold the fall of the coin, IT IS AN UNRELATED CONCEPT.

You can know exactly what I will do when the two doors face me. You could have heard me swear a vow. You could be my best friend, one who knows me and my every quirk. Heck, for that matter, you could be a Time Traveler, one who came back from Futuropolis already knowing from your history tapes which door I selected. Nonetheless, my ability to chose one or the other is in no way impaired or diminished, any more than the one door is erased from the wall, merely because you know what I will do. It is still ‘possible’ for me yo go through it, because the future timeline where I go through the door not take is still real in my thinking, and I can still be attracted or repelled by the outcome I anticipate from my action. The final causes of that anticipated future still act on me.

It is important to note that mechanical cause works from past to future. The coin falls heads in moment two because Questor flung it in a particular manner at moment one. Final cause, which is goal directed behavior, works from future to past. I propose to Juliet in moment one because I anticipate the pleasure of matrimony is a future outcome in moment two.

In this second definition ‘probable’ means my ability to anticipate possible outcomes of my actions.

By this second definition, which is the one we really use in real life when speaking of human choices and decision, it is nonsense to speak of probability being reduced as knowledge is increased. 

In a like vein , I am also asked: 

"But if God already knows all of our actions, how free are those actions?"

There is no easy answer to your question, because it is nearly impossible to define such ideas as ‘eternity’ ‘free will’ and ‘foreknowledge’ clearly enough to draw a firm conclusion.

My own thinking is that freedom of the will is a descriptor of acts moved by final causes, that is, when act A is done ‘for the sake of’ goal G. Any action that can not be understood unless it is described in reference to its goals is a free will action. That definition of free will says nothing about cause and effect or predictability or knowledge or foreknowledge. So, for myself, the way I define the term, I see no paradox or conflict between foreknowledge and free will.

Are we talking about freedom or about predictability? The two concepts are unrelated. Freedom of the will means that the act of willing is not dependent upon, defined by, or controlled by mechanical causes. When used in this way, free will is meant merely to make it clear we are not talking about one billiard ball hitting another.

Suppose I read a history book, where I see that George Washington made the difficult and dangerous decision to cross the Delaware at Christmas and attack the enemy position. From Washington’s point of view, his decision is a decision, that is, an act of the will. From my point of view, since I do not occupy the same time as Washington, the decision is over and done with. Does that mean Washington, from my point of view, lacks free will? I hope not: for then there would be no merit to his act.

Suppose Shakespeare writes a play, where Hamlet, after much misgivings and hesitation, decides to commit regicide. From Hamlet’s point of view, (if Hamlet can be said to have a point of view) Hamlet has free will. From Shakespeare’s point of view, perhaps Hamlet does not — on the other hand, any novelist will tell you that sometimes characters come to life in your imagination, and seem to do things one cannot control or predict.

The problem is, that no one of us knows the ontological status of paths not chosen, choices not made. Are the real? Are they merely images that exist in speech? If the choice I did not make is unreal and impossible, that my free will is merely moving down a grove from which the laws of the universe make it impossible for me to deviate. Of course, whenever I make a decision, and ponder my options, the alternatives seem real enough to me: but in this model that seeming is an illusion.

We walk down the corridor of life, and at every branch there are two doors. We can never know if the door through which we did not walk was merely painted on the wall. Was it possible for us to go through that other door?

One answer says that if everything is foreknown by Omniscience, or if everything is fore-ordained by the relentless laws of cause and effect, the doors we did not take are just painted on the wall, not a real place we really might have ended up going. This answer says that the word "possible" means the same thing as "impossible." If the other door is the door you did not take, it was now and aways was impossible that you could have taken it.

My answer is that the word "possible" means just that. At one time it could have been, but now it can no longer be.

On the other hand, if the choice I did not take is as real and solid in an parallel stream of events as real as the road to Bakersfield I did not take, then my choice is entirely my own doing, not hemmed in by the walls of the road.

Common sense suggests that the road not taken does not snap out of being just because I do not take it; likewise choices not made are as real as the choice I did make, except that they did not come to pass.

If an ordinary mortal, say, for example, your wife, sees you come to the two doors, and she knows both your past actions and your present intentions, and you select the door behind which the lady waits rather than the one behind which the tiger crouches, your wife has not sucked away your free will, even though she knew, with mortal knowing at least, what you would do.

Nor, if she looks away, goes asleep, or forgets she knew you, does your free will and your probabilities come flooding back to you.

The question is slightly different if The Omniscient Being is standing by watching you reach for the door handle. But I do not see why it is logically necessary for you not to have free will if the Big Being is watching you.

You see, the argument rests on an ambiguity. It is ‘possible’ in one sense of the word, the ordinary sense, that you would have chosen the Tiger door. But it is ‘impossible’ in the definitional sense of the word that the Omniscient Being should foreknow your decision and foreknow in error. If the Being cannot be wrong, it is impossible (in the definitional sense of the word) for you to pick a door other than the one He foretells you shall select.

But this is merely a word game, an ambiguity. The Omniscience might also be said to know which of the two possibilities you will decide, and He might know what the possibilities are. That does not make the possibilities suddenly not exist, any more than the door suddenly turns into a painted door.

The topic merits a longer answer, for it is overburdened with philosophical subtleties: but this is the internet, so a bumper sticker answer is all I can deliver.