In his CairoScene debut, Aly Shawky explores the limitations of free will with contrasting examples from physics, music, and philosophy.
Usually, when faced with a problem, I discover that the problem is in fact inside me and not the opposite. To clarify, I’ll use a very simple yet rather profound example. It’s well known that our ideas of the physical universe have undergone and still are subjected to continuous change, refining, and restructuring. A good example of this is when the holiness of Newton’s theory of gravitation had been bashed by general relativity. When Einstein announced the ultimate level of speed as being that of light in his theory of special relativity, Newton’s instantaneous mystical force of gravity was then confronted with great skepticism because the former revealed its incompatibility with the fact that nothing travels faster than light, which is a direct inference of the Newtonian gravitational theory. Despite the fact that Newton’s theory gives us nearly accurate reconciliation and predictions with experimental observation regarding the motion of celestial bodies, the fact that these nearly accurate calculations differ from observational data at very high speed by a very minuscule percentage of error was a sufficient reason for their dismissal by physicists, who found that Einstein’s equations yield exact results regarding its explanatory and predictive powers. The real value of general relativity that makes it part of a reminiscent scientific revolution is because it was accompanied by collateral damage to our intuitive belief that space and time are separate and that they are also passive. By relating gravity to the curvature of space, it was then realised that space is something instead of nothing.
Intuitive belief or faith, though having some benefits, can be a real unseen obstacle against any form of progress. It’s invisible because the consciousness is often distracted from it, and its presence guides the pattern of thinking or the logical flow of thoughts. However, discovering it leads you to a lateral road through which you can bypass any problem. At the beginning, when I mentioned that the source of most problems is inside of us and not outside, I meant that we are the ones who limit ourselves. We are the ones who get weaker in the face of the problem; the problem is a constant issue and regardless of how strong it may be, it still has its limitations.
In art, I find the most obvious evidence for the limitless nature of the human mind. Music, for instance, has that property of fuzzy logic. There is no ideal ground for judging a musical category, but there is what I personally call musical logic – the harmony between the components of a musical note as being expressed by the sequence and timing of playing the keys of a piano, for example, to produce something meaningful. This logic (the sequence and timing) doesn’t have a fundamental form; rather, there are many ways of pressing the keys that can produce a tune that can be accepted by the audience, as there are many patterns of mixing colours to produce a painting that can be judged as good by the fans of that painter.
Understanding other people and accepting the multicultural fact of our modern societies, where information can be instantaneously transduced, is based on one’s ability to discover those intuitive barriers that provoke the feelings of hostility, xenophobia, surprise, and shock when confronted with someone who is completely different from us. A child who is familiar with travelling and witnessing different cultural patterns will surely not be equal to one who is stuck with and imprisoned in an environment dominated by a particular pattern of cultural impulses. The latter, upon becoming a grown adult and being released into the world outside his home, will not find many differences between the cultural values of his home and those outside his home. A great deal of flexibility will not be expected from this person, and he will always find solace in refraining from anything that appears to be strange or different from what he has experienced.
The potency and frequency of exposure to negative cultural impulses generates the stupid belief and false intuition that any person who is different is evil and should be avoided or even battled. This resistance can be avoided by questioning oneself with the aim of undermining this negative belief and exposing all we’ve been taught to skepticism, just as when physicists once asked themselves, “ Why do we believe that space and time are absolute, separate, and nonexistent?”
While some people describe themselves as free spirits, their behaviour shows a great deal of contradictions to this notion. A free spirit is someone who always resolves to skepticism when faced with a particular problem in order to find an answer to his questions. An extreme form of skepticism is to attempt to undermine the validity of things, even if they don’t call for questioning or reveal conundrums. The latter form is connected to creating theories that are not supported by experimental evidence and there is nothing to be said about this type of skepticism.
Two of the most successful scientific theories in human history have some of their elements driven by means of inductive reasoning – the kind of reasoning that is not completely certain about its conclusion but rather rephrases it in terms of probability, as contrasted by deduction, which is the mathematical kind of logic, stating a conclusion with complete certainty – evolution and the big bang theory. Scientists are aware of the fact that some of their truths are just probable ones, as both of the theories can’t be directly accessed by experimental observations simply because the theories deal with realities that happened within the dark abyss of the past. However, there is a crucial difference between the two theories: evolution has not yet been dismissed from the office of direct experimental confirmation (it is probable that it can be witnessed experimentally at any moment), whereas hope for direct experimental probing of another big bang might have been completely tormented, unless time travel or creation of an artificial cosmos are now an embryo inside the uterus of the future.
Rational thinking has truly proven its loyalty to us humans; huge technological advances are owed to the ability of humans to logically derive useful facts from abstract mathematical formalism, or from weird directly unexplainable phenomena, If the mathematics of gravity or any other theory were not well understood, despite being well explained in simple language, we wouldn’t have been able to launch rockets. Sometimes deriving those facts occurs purely inside the mind; sometimes the theories mate with a phenomenon that is in favour of it, sometimes other phenomena will reveal a flaw in the theory, even causing us to abandon it. Regardless, we must admit that any theory is just an approximate model of reality. A theory is man imposing his rational values on reality, trying to attribute some form of intelligence to nature and claiming to truly understand it. However, nature is not rational; it is just us who interpret it to be rational.
If rationalism was the sole mirror of truth, it could be possible for super computers or ultra-intelligent machines to rise above and supervene humans. Until now we’ve yet to know of machines like this but, surely, if such a machine exists, it will also be living. It will not only ace rational tasks, but will also have gone beyond that and developed self-awareness – free will.
It’s easy to identify some of the limitations of human logic or rational thinking, and that it can’t account for the property of our self-awarenes . We not only perceive existence and deduce facts and fundamental basic principles from a number of seemingly meaningless phenomena, but we also reflect on our existence by asking questions like, “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “What is the origin of the cosmos?” “What will the end be like?“ We truly feel mysteries and find excitement – and sometimes fear –in them, and that is not a property of the rational left hemisphere of our brain, but rather the intuitive right hemisphere.
Surely our potentially fictitious ultimate machine, that can predict the flow of physical events and the evolution of the physical system, will not supervene humans if it possesses nothing beside its rational talents – if it merely exists rather than lives. All the information it uses to fascinate us with its ultimately deterministic powers is formulated by the legendary human mind – possessing free will and bouncing over from intuitions to counter-intuitions. Free will is intimately connected with the property of free spirit to counteract the destructive effect of a malignant form of faith.
It is certain that, sometimes, rational thinking leads us to faulty consolidated faith that becomes forgotten and creates obstacles to our progress. Whenever this faith is recognized, we become certain that logic is not a one-way road to truth; some things can be certain based on our logical methods but may not have one particular meaning, because revolving around that particular meaning is the exact opposite pole of being a free spirit.
Free will has been a debated concept since the dawn of philosophy, and yet some psychologists have attempted to advocate the issue in a scientific, objective manner. It has to be clear that free will can’t be addressed by any form of materialistic sciences – like neurobiology, for example – because that renders the question of whether free will exists or not to be quite meaningless. Grappling with this subject by way of the materialistic sciences means that it has to be decided from the outset that free will is nothing but an illusion of the human psyche, because every thought, behaviour, feeling, and emotion that one experiences on the mental level has a physical origin. Even some psychologists deduced that free will doesn’t exist from the apparent assumption that human actions are determined by one’s circumstances, and by one’s psychological not genetic makeup. That is, a cowardly person has no other choice but to be cowardly because he was raised that way, all of his life experiences precipitated cowardice in him. What if – regardless of the biochemical reality going on in his brain – this person to punch a bodyguard for no reason? That would be fair proof of free will, I suppose, because he refused to contribute in the theatrical reality portraying the scene of the domino effect, with the players being the circumstances.