On Free Will

Determinism versus foresight is an interesting theme, and of course central to the free will discussion. The movie (Minority Report) used the theme to drive the action, but it didn’t spend much time working through the process of foresight versus determinism. The only thing they said is that if we know something bad is going to happen, we can prevent it by changing our deterministic future. I actually agree; I think foresight is the key to free will, and the antidote to determinism in real life. This ‘superpower’ is limited, of course, and subject to a few outside factors. Among these factors are distance (remoteness of the danger), avoidability (the chance that the danger can be avoided with no preventative action), and the pleasure/pain ratio.

If the future bad thing is cancer and the cause is smoking, we have our foresight balanced against the remoteness of the danger and the chance that we (1) can quit later, or (2) might get lucky and avoid the ace of spades. The actual pleasure of smoking isn’t as strong as the fear of pain if we stop – I used to smoke – but the balancing act is the same. We balance distance, avoidability, and the pleasure/pain ratio to figure out when we will quit. My equation landed me at age forty-nine. Similar factors determine when we start eating better and exercising. We often wait too long.

A more immediate bad thing might be getting killed in an automobile accident. Preventative measures are driving slower and more carefully, making conservative choices, wearing seatbelts, and remaining sober. When we are very young we drive recklessly, and our boundless energy and enthusiasm might drive us – no pun intended – to make reckless choices like careening around blind corners and driving too fast for the road conditions. When does foresight overcome the outside factors and give immediacy to the danger? In this case, it depends on some other factors, like dependence on alcohol, but for the most part drivers choose to be more careful the older they get, in many cases due to some close calls that remind them of how suddenly remote danger can become immediate danger. Belt a child into the back seat and the immediacy becomes much more of a factor.

I think foresight might be even more important than I can explain with my feeble arguments. Without foresight, how can free will even work? I feel like it has been established that we don’t have purely original thoughts, so all free will has to be rooted in decisions that are based on past experience. Without foresight, we would simply keep repeating ourselves like the Homo habilis who kept producing the same hand-axe for a million years. Foresight allows us to recombine our experiences into new patterns, and produce what we perceive as better results. We want to be better because foresight tells us that we need to be.

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