Re: John Conway, "Free Will Theorem"

From: George Levy <>
Date: Sun, 10 Apr 2005 17:08:23 -0700

Russel, Stathis

I agree that free will and legal responsibility are different. Free will
is a subjective concept. It is a feeling that one has about being
"master" of one's decisions. In the terminology used in this list, free
will is also a "first person" issue.

Legal responsibility is an objective concept about restricting or
punishing members of a society, used to insure that the society is
functioning porperly. Legal responsibility is also a third person issue.

Confusion arise because we are mixing first person and third person
concepts, that is we assume that other members of our species (third
persons) have free will like ourselves (first person). Hence, we deduce
that others have free will and therefore they should be masters of their
own decisions to do "good and evil" - in relation to society or to
conscious deity - and therefore can be guided by a system of rewards and
punishments. This key assumption may be justified on practical ground
for the stability of our society and requires the existence of conscious

Treating free will as a first person concept, implies that it is also
relative to the observer. For example a super being observing our brain
as we make decisions, will come to the conclusion that we have no free
will. Our choices, as Stathis said, is only the result of causally
driven sodium atoms pushing through nerve membranes. Similarly, a
programmer who understand his code thoroughly, can believe that his
program has no free will. We can also have a super being watching a
programmer watching his program....there is no absolute free will.

 From an absolute viewpoint, that is looking at the whole plenitude,
there is no quantum free will since any decision involving quantum
branching is no decision at all.

 From the relative point of view of a classical superbeing observing a
human making a decision generated by a quantum event, the superbeing
must deduce that the decision is produced by free will since, being
classical, he cannot understand the causality behind the decision.

My point is that free will cannot be absolute. It is really a relative,
subjective and first person concept that depends on the state of mind of
the observer and the complexity of the observed entity in relation to
the observer.


Russell Standish wrote:

>Since this topic of legal responsibility regularly comes up in
>discussions of free, it needs to be squashed from a great height.
>The notion of legal responsibility has nothing whatsoever to do with
>free will.
>Legal responsibility is used for different purposes, depending on
>whether the case is civil or criminal. In civil cases, legal
>responsibility who pays cost and damages. In criminal cases, it used
>to decide whether an agent should be punished. An agent here may be a
>person, or a company, or any other legal entitity that that legal
>tradition recognises.
>The purpose of punishment is to prevent that occurrence from happening
>again. Human society depends on punishment to ensure altruism
>(reference to recent work by that Swiss guy here...). If the agent is
>a learning system, then applying punishment to the agent can cause the
>agent to learn - the stick of carrot & a stick. Alternatively, the
>punishment is used to deter others from committing the same crime.
>The notion of diminished responsibility is an interesting case. Here,
>an agent may be found to be under the influence of another agent, so
>one can attribute some of the responsibility to another
>agent. However, as the Nuernberg trials showed, this is a very shaky
>defence. It cannot be applied to the sources of randomness within your
>brain - those sources of randomness are still part of the legal entity
>that is you.
>Pleading the defence of insanity can really only alter the
>punishment. Punishing an insane person to make them learn will
>probably not work - different sort of treatment, such as medical
>intervention might be appropriate.
>Religions have a notion of responsibility rather similar to the legal
>one, however theological doctrine seems to have more to say about free
>will. However, being essentially atheist, and unlikely to ever meet a
>god face to face, this line of argumentation doesn't impress me much.
>So I leave it at that - responsibility has nothing whatsoever to do
>with free will.
>On Sun, Apr 10, 2005 at 03:19:19PM +1000, Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
>>Norman Samish writes:
>>>The answer to Stat[h]is' question seems straightforward. Given quantum
>>>indeterminacy, thought processes cannot be predictable. Therefore, genuine
>>>free will exists.
>>>"...Can someone please explain how I can tell when I am exercising
>>>free will, as opposed to this pseudo-free variety, which clearly I have no
>>>control over?"
>>>Norman Samish
>>So if, on a whim, I commit murder, I can present the following argument to
>>the judge:
>>Your Honour, quantum indeterminacy made me do it. If you could have looked
>>inside my brain just prior to the moment when I decided to become a
>>murderer you would have seen a sodium ion teetering at the edge of a
>>protein ion channel embedded in the membrane of a particular neuron. If the
>>sodium ion passes through the channel it will raise the voltage across the
>>membrane to just past the threshold required to trigger an action
>>potential. The neurone will then "fire", setting off a cascade of neuronal
>>events which I experience as the decision to kill an innocent stranger -
>>which I then proceeded to do. If, on the other hand, that crucial sodium
>>ion had not passed through the membrane channel, a different cascade of
>>neuronal events would have ensued, causing me to allow the stranger to live.
>>I cannot deny that it felt like I was exercising my free will when I
>>decided to kill, but clearly this must have been a delusion. Firstly, the
>>cause of my "decision" was a random event (to the extent where
>>non-classical behaviour applies to the sort of biochemical reactions which
>>occur in the brain). Secondly, my "decision" had already been determined at
>>the point where the behaviour of that initial sodium ion was determined;
>>when I experienced myself "deciding" to kill, in a sense my brain had
>>already been programmed to do so. Therefore, I don't think it is fair that
>>I should be punished!
>>--Stathis Papaioannou
>>Update your mobile with a hot polyphonic ringtone:
Received on Sun Apr 10 2005 - 20:11:32 PDT

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