Free will and the Black Box

Yingzhe asked:

I am a master’s student in philosophy from China. After reading your short story “The Black Box” I was deeply shocked and had a few questions that I hope you can help me answer.

First and foremost, does the main character in the story still have Free Will after activating the black box? Does the protagonist simply succumb to his own desires and laziness?

Second, If the box in the story is controlled by an omniscient god, can the holder of the box act freely against god’s prophecy? If he or she succeeds does that indicate that he or she has Free Will?

Last but not least, could you share some of your ideas about Free Will with me? I have a strong interest in it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

‘The Black Box’ is the second science fiction story in Pathways to Philosophy Program A, The Possible World Machine. On that page you will find unit 2 on free will, which includes a useful classroom discussion, partially fictionalized but based on the classes I’ve given on this topic. (You might have come across my story in a collection edited by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn Doing Philosophy: an Introduction Through Thought Experiments published by McGraw-Hill.)

In the story, the character Joe is given a black box which (allegedly!) is capable of predicting any future event. At first, he and his wife Betty are convinced by its predictions and soon make a fortune betting on horse races. Belatedly, they realize that they have somehow become prisoners of the black box. Whatever it says they will do, they do.

Betty refuses to believe this, while Joe succumbs. As it turns out, the black box is able to answer any question about Joe’s future actions but not Betty’s. What’s going on here?

There is a simple, logical point which is brought out in the classroom discussion. Assuming that the black box is indeed omniscient, as it claims, then it knows that Betty is the kind of person who is capable of refusing to perform an action if it is predicted by a ‘reliable predictor’ that she will do it, while Joe, on the other hand, lacks the ‘will’, or maybe the scepticism. Of course, we are assuming that the black box still knows what Betty or Joe are going to do. But it also knows that it can tell Joe but not Betty.

We are assuming that the universe is deterministic. The omniscience is like that of the ‘supermind’ posited by the mathematician Laplace, rather than the God of monotheistic religion who views creation from a vantage point outside of time. Even in a determinist universe, there is a sense in which one can be ‘free’, which, possibly, is capable of having degrees. In this sense, Betty is more ‘free’ than Joe. One could make a case that this is the kind of freedom Jean-Paul Sartre talks about, an attitude of mind rather than a metaphysical absolute. However, I think Sartre wanted more than this.

Here we get to the nub. When I wrote ‘the Black Box’, originally around 1990-1 for my evening class students, I held the common view that freedom of the will is ‘compatible’ with determinism (sometimes known as ‘combatibilism’). The argument that convinced me is based on a remark by the philosopher David Hume. It takes the form of a dilemma. In a determinist universe, we are all just wound-up clockwork, while in an indeterminist universe we are roulette wheels. Any decision, insofar as it is not determined by our character or brain state, is merely random. The ‘freedom’ of indifference, or mentally tossing a coin, is not a ‘freedom worth wanting’, to quote a phrase philosophers use.

In my post, Free will and creative reverie, I describe a third alternative, that gives strong support to the view that a ‘free will worth wanting’ would be achievable only in an indeterminist universe. In such a universe, there could be no Laplacian supermind, no black box. I won’t go over the details again, but the essential point is that any decision that requires pondering, when after all the relevant facts have been considered you still don’t immediately know what you should do, involves a point where imagination can move in different directions. Here you will find a kind of randomness, as in dreams, but the crucial point is that we then take responsibility for following through on a train of thought and acting upon it.

This is related to a notion Thomas Nagel talks about, ‘moral luck’. A drunk driver narrowly misses knocking down an innocent pedestrian. If the pedestrian had stepped out just a second earlier, they would have been killed and the driver sent to jail. In the possible world where the pedestrian dies, the driver is not a ‘worse’ man, he’s just unlucky. A similar point applies, I claim, to the actual process of decision making. In a possible world identical to the actual world up to a given point in time, I might have not have applied to university to do a degree in Philosophy, but pursued a career in photography instead. Or I might have become a minister of religion, or turned to crime. Bad decisions come to good people and good decisions to bad people, not ‘out of the blue’ but understandable given the trains of thought that led up to them.

Is this free will? Is it a free will worth wanting? I’m not making any big claims here. However, I do think that this is a view that would satisfy Jean-Paul Sartre, and until someone comes up with a better alternative, it is good enough for me.

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