RAPPOPORT INTERVIEWS EINSTEIN
THE PHILOSOPHIC INVENTION OF ROBOT HUMANS
FREE WILL VERSUS DETERMINISM
MAY 13, 2011. I love it when people tell me philosophy isn’t important. It makes me feel like a shark in a pool of farmed fish.
I’ll put this simply. If a person doesn’t think his own philosophic stance is important, then he should consider that other people have philosophies, and they are bent on creating reality FOR him…and in doing so, they use that philosophy “thingo” he doesn’t think matters at all.
And one of the great philosophic issues—it flies under the radar—is free will versus determinism. Determinism means: events and lives and reality itself are a parade of happenings ENTIRELY DEVOID OF CHOICE.
In labs all over the world, brain researchers are pushing this notion, believing that some day they will be able to control the brain to the nth degree. For them, you see, it really doesn’t matter what they do to that organ in our skulls and how that will affect the global population…because they’re sure PEOPLE WERE NEVER FREE TO BEGIN WITH.
Armed with such a philosophy, they can try to install whatever programming they want to, “for the good of all.” And they won’t feel even a twitch of guilt.
This is also how elites (and some genetic researchers) tend to look at the great unwashed masses. “Animals running around causing chaos, Pavlovian dogs.” The solution? Just change the stimulus, the input, and the “animals” will react differently. “INVENT A REALITY FOR THESE DOGS THAT WILL BRING THEM INTO LINE, WILL MAKE THEM DO WHAT WE WANT THEM TO DO.”
So this isn’t just an academic issue.
One other point. These days, scientists and quasi-scientists are fronting for all sorts of ideas about the universe and how it works. They talk very much like New Age types. You know, “the dancing waves of energy resonating in a transcendent symphony of rainbow effervescence…”
For them, the whole issue of freedom versus determinism is swallowed up in a “much larger” fizzing tonic. The individual—you, me, everybody—are just little joy cogs in the big Joy Machine. Freedom of the individual? An old Newtonian hangover. Now they’re on to something much better. “The spiritual collective.” Dreams merging into a golden haze of butter, personalties absorbed into the Great All…
It’s a cover-up for an unresolved question that will shape the future of the planet—freedom or top-down control.
So that’s a little background.
I was searching through a 1929 Saturday Evening Post interview with Albert Einstein. I found an interesting quote:
“I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will…Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.”
I’m always shocked but not surprised when I come across statements like this from scientists.
I guess after Einstein escaped from the Nazis in 1933, he eventually came to America because our brand of determinism just happened to be more gentle. Operating under our delusion of free will, we were compelled to choose a less punitive way of life. Or something.
Yes, folks, we don’t have choices about ANYTHING. We’re just billiard balls colliding with each other…
So I decided to pull Einstein back from the past and engage him in conversation.
DOES FREE WILL EXIST?
Q (Rappoport): Sir, would you say that the underlying nature of physical reality is atomic?
A (Einstein): If you’re asking me whether atoms and smaller particles exist everywhere in the universe, then of course, yes.
Q: And are you satisfied that, wherever they are found, they are the same? They exhibit a uniformity?
A: Well, as you know, there are different “kinds” of atoms. By that I simply mean that the hydrogen atom is not identical to the oxygen atom. But I suppose you’re asking whether all oxygen atoms are the same, for example. And the answer is yes. They are of the same structure.
Q: Regardless of location.
Q: And the same holds true for all the elements.
Q: So, for example, if we break down the brain into its constituent elements, those atoms are no different in kind from atoms of the same elements, wherever in the universe they are found.
A: That’s true. Actually, nothing inside the human body is composed of anything except these tiny particles. And the particles, everywhere in the universe, without exception, flow and interact and collide without any exertion of free will. It’s an unending stream of cause and effect.
Q: Suppose we imagine there is entanglement effect. What is done to one atom in, say, New Jersey, could create an immediate effect in another atom on the moon.
A: Still, even if that seems to present us with a different version of cause and effect, it is happening deterministically. There is no choice involved in the situation. There are no alternatives.
Q: And when you think to yourself, “I’ll get breakfast now,” what is that?
A: The thought?
A: Ultimately, it is the outcome of particles in motion.
Q: You were compelled to have that thought.
A: As odd as that may seem, yes. Of course, we tell ourselves stories to present ourselves with a different version of reality, but those are social or cultural constructs.
Q: And those “stories” we tell ourselves—they aren’t freely chosen rationalizations, either. We have no choice about that.
A: Well, yes. That’s right.
Q: So there is nothing in the human brain or what some would call the mind that allows us the possibility of free will.
A: Nothing at all.
Q: And as we are sitting here right now, sir, looking at each other, sitting and talking, this whole conversation is spooling out in the way that it must. Every word. Neither you nor I is really choosing what we say.
A: I may not like it, but it’s deterministic destiny. The particles flow.
Q: When you pause to consider a question I ask you and what your answer will be…even that act of considering is mandated by the motion of atomic and sub-atomic particles. What appears to be you deciding how to give me answer…that is a delusion.
A: Well, the act of considering isn’t delusional in itself. But, you see, it’s not done freely with a range of possible choices. I know that sounds harsh. It may be hard to swallow. But there is no free will.
Q: The act of considering is, you might say, a cultural or social artifact that is deterministically folded into the process of the conversation, without any real choice on your part.
A: I guess that’s so, yes.
Q: And the outcome of this conversation, whatever points we may or may not agree upon, and the issues we may settle here, about this subject of free will versus determinism…they don’t matter at all, because, when you boil it down, the entire conversation was determined by our thoughts, which are nothing more than the products of atomic and sub-atomic particles in motion—and that motion flows according to laws, none of which have anything to do with human choice.
Q: It’s not as if everything has already been determined in the past. It’s just that the entire flow of reality, so to speak, proceeds according to determined sets of laws.
Q: And we are in that flow.
A: Most certainly we are.
Q: But the earnestness with which we try to settle this issue, the application of feeling and thought and striving—that is irrelevant. It’s window dressing. This conversation actually cannot go in different possible directions. It can only go in one direction.
A: That would ultimately have to be so. Yes.
Q: Now, are atoms and their components, and any other tiny particles in the universe…are any of them conscious?
A: Of course not. But “conscious” is a tricky word.
Q: In what sense?
A: It is a word which could, if taken in a certain way, imply free choice.
Q: Is there another sense of “conscious?”
A: There could be, I suppose.
Q: A sense in which the tiny particles are conscious?
A: The particles themselves are not conscious.
Q: Some scientists speculate they are.
A: Some people speculate that the moon can be sliced and served on a plate with fruit.
Q: If I tap an atom on the head in New Jersey, and another atom on the moon vibrates in the same way?
A: That implies nothing about the particles being conscious. It would merely indicate our understanding of cause and effect—deterministic cause and effect—needs improvement.
Q: What do you think “conscious” means?
A: It means we participate in life. We take action. We converse. We gain knowledge. We dream.
Q: Is imagination made up of the same tiny particles that inhabit the whole universe?
A: That’s an odd idea.
Q: Let me broaden it. Any of the so-called faculties we possess—are they ultimately anything more than particles in motion?
A: I see. Well, no, they aren’t. Because everything is particles in motion. What else could be happening in this universe?
Q: All right. I’d like to consider the word “understanding.”
A: It’s a given. It’s real.
Q: How so?
A: The proof that it’s real, if you will, is that we are having this conversation.
Q: Yes, but how can there be understanding if everything is particles in motion? Do the particles possess understanding?
A: No they don’t. They just are.
Q: And does “are” include understanding?
Q: Then, to change the focus a bit, how can what you and I are saying have any meaning?
A: Words mean things.
Q: Again, I have to point out that, in a universe with no free will, we only have particles in motion. That’s all. That’s all we are. So where does “meaning” come from? Is it just an automatic reflex, a delusion, as “being conscious” is a delusion, as “understanding” is a delusion?
A: “We understand language” is a true proposition.
Q: You’re sure.
A: Of course.
Q: Then I suggest you’ve tangled yourself in a contradiction. In the universe you depict, there would be no room for understanding. There would nowhere for it to come from. Unless particles understand. Do they?
Q: Then where do “understanding” and “meaning” come from?
A: They are facts.
Q: Based on what?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Furthermore, if we accept your depiction of a universe of particles without free will, then there is no basis for this conversation at all. We don’t understand each other. How could we? We are not truly conscious, we are making sounds, we are “going back and forth,” the outcome is not within our choice, and we don’t understand what we are saying to each other. Again, there is no room for understanding in your universe.
A: But we do understand each other.
Q: And therefore, your philosophic materialism (no free will, only particles in motion) must have a flaw.
A: What flaw?
Q: Our existence contains more than particles in motion.
A: What would that be?
Q: Would you grant that whatever it is, it is non-material?
A: It would have to be.
Q: Then, driving further along this line, there is something non-material which is present, which allows us to understand each other, which allows us to comprehend meaning. We are conscious. Puppets are not conscious.
A: But that would open the door to all the religions that have fought with each for centuries.
Q: Why? Does “non-material” of necessity translate into “religion?”
A: Well, no, I suppose not. But it would certainly be a mystery.
Q: Is that acceptable?
A: The mystery? It would have to be, for the moment.
Q: As we sit here talking, I understand you. Do you understand me?
A: Of course.
Q: Then that is coming from something other than particles in motion. And freedom would be another quality, a non-material quality, that exceeds the “grasp” of particles in motion. In fact, without these non-material qualities, you and I would be gibbering and pretending to understand each other. And both the gibber and the pretense would be no more important than a rock developing a trace of fungus after a thousand years.
A: You’re saying that, if all the particles in the universe, including those that make up the human body, possess no consciousness, no understanding, no comprehension of meaning, no freedom, then how can they give birth to these qualities? There must be another factor, and it would have to be non-material.
Q: Yes. That’s what I’m saying.
A: We do have scientists that speculate particles are in some way conscious, but I see no convincing evidence of it. It’s a hypothesis at this point. Some people believe it fervently.
Q: People believe all sorts of things. For example, they believe we are all “part of a greater energy,” and for them that solves or dissolves the whole issue of freedom versus determinism.
A: This “greater energy.” I don’t see that it resolves the question about whether we have freedom. I don’t see that at all. That’s like saying God has always had a plan, and we are simply acting it out. You can say that, but that’s a belief. It’s religion.
Q: In other words, we can “re-translate” the issue of freedom versus determinism into “a larger reality” in which the original issue no longer means anything.
A: Exactly. But if we do that, we lose the the original question. We erase it. That’s spurious. Of course, people can believe anything they want to. But so? I can believe all scientists are crazy—and therefore, science is a fraud from top to bottom. But what does that accomplish?
Q: There are many people who would say this conversation is terribly old-fashioned and outmoded—and much newer concepts on the frontier of exploration have relegated what we are talking about to the dustbin of a bygone era.
A: Yes. But I could also say the notion of solid objects is passe, because we know nothing is actually solid. However, as long as I can stub my toe on a rock and break the toe, the notion of solidity is still relevant.
Q: The rejoinder to that would be: solidity has relevance within a limited context, but in the greater scheme of things, it means very little.
A: You can always invent “a greater context” and use it to avoid what you now call “lesser issues.”
Q: So you believe what we’ve been discussing here is significant.
A: Of course.
Q: And you admit your view of determinism and particles in motion—this picture of the universe—leads to several absurdities.
A: I’m forced to. Otherwise, this very conversation is absurd to a degree I can’t fathom.
Q: You and I understand each other. What we are saying has meaning.
A: I had not thought it through all the way before, but if there is nothing inherent in particles and their processes that gives rise tounderstanding and meaning, then everything, and I mean everything, is gibberish. Except it isn’t gibberish. I see the contradiction. The absurdity.
Q: And if these non-material factors—understanding and meaning—exist, then other non-material factors can exist.
A: For example, freedom. Yes.
Q: And the drive to eliminate freedom in the world…is more than just the unimportant deterministic attempt to substitute one delusion for another, one reflex for another.
A: That would be…yes, that’s so.
Q: One further point. The Uncertainty Principle has been taken to mean that whatever we observe we change.
A: That’s too wide an interpretation of the principle. I know what you’re getting to. “We’re incapable of nailing down what the universe is composed of, because every time we look, we are somehow foiled by that act of looking.” That generalization goes far beyond the scientific meaning of uncertainty. It’s used to eliminate the need to discuss the very issues we’ve been talking about here—issues which are very vital and real.
Q: Think about this as well. If we say “all particles in the universe are conscious” and that is where consciousness, meaning, understanding, and freedom come from—if we say that—then we are trying to tie meaning and freedom to material entities or energies. We are trying to say “the great conscious energy of the universe” is causing us—you and I—to have freedom, to know meaning, to have understanding, to possess consciousness.
A: That would just be another speculation. And if we accepted it, we would be denying that these qualities—freedom, consciousness, and so on—are actually non-material.
Q: In one way or another, there is a great impulse to deny the non-materiality of the qualities that are inherent to human life. There is a reason for this impulse. Scientists, for example, would be absolutely furious about the idea that, despite all their maneuvering and discovering in the physical and material realm, the most essential aspects of human life are beyond the scope of what they, the scientists, are “in charge of.”
A: It would be a naked challenge to their power. You know, I don’t like leaving this mystery hanging in the air.
Q: Which mystery is that?
A: We’ve come to agree that basic qualities of human life—meaning, understanding, consciousness, freedom—would have to be non-material. But where does that leave us? “Where” is the non-materiality?
Q: It’s certainly not going to be in the physical universe. By definition, that would be impossible.
A: I know.
Q: Let me suggest, in a way that people might find simplistic, that your capacity to understand, your ability to comprehend meaning, your freedom, your consciousness, are wherever you are.
A: I’ll have to think about that.
Q: I could say, “Well, you see, throughout the universe there are other levels of energy, and they aren’t based on atomic or sub-atomic particles. These other energies are ‘spiritual,’ they are most certainly conscious, and they impart to us our capacity to understand, to comprehend meaning, to have freedom, to imagine, and so on. This other energy is part of our very consciousness, or our consciousness is an aspect of this other energy.”
A: You could say that, yes. But that’s just a convoluted way of asserting that consciousness, meaning, understanding, freedom, ad imagination are beyond the realm of physical causation. It’s a hypothesis that doesn’t open the door to actual research, to science. To me, it’s just a kind of passive, permissive religion.
Q: Not only that, it tends to allow the idea that freedom, free choice are not really our own, and therefore, we don’t have to pay any price for the choices we make. We can become passive and quietly pass the buck to “the universe.” I’ve seen that outcome in many people who take this “cosmic view” of energy.
A: I wouldn’t like that at all. If we’re going to let freedom in the door, then we need to act on it in a dynamic way, and also accept the results of the free choices we make.
Visit the site, sign up for the email list and receive free articles, and order a copy of my e-book, THE OWNERSHIP OF ALL LIFE, in pdf or Kindle format.