Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The "First Cause" Concept

Picture the three of us (my son-in-law with his Masters in apologetics from Biola, working on a second Masters in spirituality; my son, currently reading John McArthur (the leading US proponent of Calvinism; and me working on this issue around the pool overlooking the Pacific in Hawaii. We tend to agree with the conclusions of the previous post:

Most concepts of a Christian God make the concept of free will pretty hard to consistently consider.

In general, it is hard to imagine any effect, including any human decision that is not informed 100% by previous causality.

Defining Free Will is fraught with peril.

In the midst of this brainstorming session, an original thought (whatever that is) presented itself. There had to be at least one first cause in history. Why only one? Thus humans (and who knows who else) might have the capacity to being completely creative and generate first causes. This doesn't require a spiritual side or a soul. However, it does go to the matter as first presented, who am "I" if I'm not capable of free will decisions. Now it is proposed that I am an agent of first causes.


bernardo said...

You generate "first causes" as initiatives to fulfill needs/wants/desires/preferences, but those needs/wants/desires/preferences are caused by previous states, by the structure and chemistry of your brain, by your memories, and by your models of how the world works.

In other words, your solution may be original and spontaneous (I'm not 100% sure on this but I will grant it for now), but it solves problems that were previously caused.

Yes, you are an agent who can make decisions on your own. You can invent a course of action and turn it into reality. You can go "I like A better than B, and from the way I understand how the world works, doing X tends to lead to A and doing Y tends to lead to B, so I will do X". I think this is very special and sets us apart from pretty much anything else we have ever seen in the universe. This does not contradict your point, it's just the way I find most useful, simplest, and easiest to define, when I am asked (or ask myself) what makes the human mind so special. It is deliberately aware of its own "X->A, Y->B" models, can test them and modify them. Some of them even apply to the mind's own functioning, which is what essentially causes consciousness.

Now, I have heard your "first cause" idea twice before. Once was when I was trying to define "free will" with some friends during a road trip, and a Mormon friend of mine, who is a physicist, came up with the following: The universe flows along a timeline. Whenever something could happen one way or another - such as unpredictable quantum behavior - the universe branches into one parallel universe for each possibility. (Think "Back to the Future 2"). Free will, according to my friend, means that, whenever we are about to make a choice, the universe is coming to a fork in the road, and we get to say "Go left". In other words, we can "steer" the universe somewhat. And since the universe is chaotic, a small change in conditions can lead to very different futures (butterfly effect, etc), so we wield a lot of power when we make the universe go one way rather than the other, i.e. when we "choose" to be in the universe that goes down this branch rather than that branch.

The second time I heard this kind of idea was when a naturalist was arguing against the idea of the soul. He explain this "spontaneous cause"/"pick the branch" view of agency, and said that it assumes that either outcome is equally likely, i.e. there is no reason why it could not have happened differently. In other words, the assumption is: It is possible that we could decide X, and it is possible that we could decide Y. Only if this is true do we have free will in the sense you are defining.

But is that assumption true? Is it really perfectly possible for us to have decided something differently? It certainly is conceivable. But given that the particles in our brain interacted in such a way that made us decide X, then those particles in the same conditions would NOT interact in such a way that would make us decide Y. In other words, this assumption clashes with the "reproducible" assumption that is the foundation of science: Given the same initial conditions, if all relevant parameters are equal, the outcome will be the same. (Quantum effects violate this somewhat, but unless you can show that quantum effects influence neuron behavior, the "reproducible" assumption still holds for the brain). This does not mean that our brain is necessarily predictable. But it means that, once it found itself in a specific situation and chose X, we know that if it were in that exact same specific situation (which will never quite happen the same way again, but it did once), it would NOT choose Y. Therefore, this idea that we have a kind of agency where we could have caused a different cause is basically an illusion. We THINK we could have steered the universe to go a different direction, but sorry, that is simply not the case. The particles in your brain, given they are in a certain state, will necessarily move on to whatever state naturally follows, even if we can't know in advance what that will be. (We can know in hindsight, though).

Unless the processes of the brain are affected by quantum mechanics or supernatural causes, of course.

bernardo said...

I said I had heard this way of defining free will before, twice. The second time was a talk on naturalism. Here is the video:

Tom W Clark argues against the idea of the soul by (among other ways) pointing out that, while it seems to us that we could have made a different choice, our choices are natural and inevitable consequences of our brain states, which work in deterministic ways:

Also touches on the "Why punish criminals if they didn't really have a choice?" question you raise in your previous blog post.

Hey Skipper said...

Why punish criminals if they didn't really have a choice?

The answer to this is very, very, simple.

Hint: find the question's implicit assumption.

Randy Kirk said...

I find that the issue of choice is a bit different than the issue of "first cause." My first blush analysis would be like the difference between a multiple choice test and an essay. As I think out loud about this, I suppose when I make choices under the first cause premise, I still would like to have it be "I" who is choosing as opposed to any predetermined set of influences or influencers. But, I am especially interested in capturing how "I" might dream up an original idea or fall in love because of the way that "I" am responding to another "I."

Does that make sense? It is early.

bernardo said...

how "I" might dream up an original idea or fall in love because of the way that "I" am responding to another "I."

Sorry, you lost me there...

Randy Kirk said...

I don't want my choice of whom I love to be a response to that whole list of causes and effects, nor do I want the person who chooses to love me only be reacting to some set of previous conditions or mechanical responses. Otherwise it might be better to go back to parents selecting, or the king, or a grand lottery.

bernardo said...

But those previous conditions and mechanical impulses ARE you, which makes a choice dictated by them much more free than a choice dictated by the king or your parents or a lottery.

Randy Kirk said...

I hate it when you make a strong AND succinct argument.

I need to think.