Monday, August 6, 2012

How ID sheds light on the classic free will dilemma

Copied over from my original posting at Uncommon Descent.

The standard argument against free will is that it is incoherent.  It claims that a free agent must either be determined or non-determined.  If the free agent is determined, then it cannot be responsible for its choices.  On the other hand, if it is non-determined, then its choices are random and uncontrolled.  Neither case preserves the notion of responsibility that proponents of free will wish to maintain.  Thus, since there is no sensible way to define free will, it is incoherent. [1]
Note that this is not really an argument against free will, but merely an argument that we cannot talk about free will.  So, if someone were to produce another way of talking about free will the argument is satisfied.
Does ID help us in this case?  It appears so.  If we relabel “determinism” and “non-determinism” as “necessity” and “chance”, ID shows us that there is a third way we might talk about free will.
In the universe of ID there are more causal agents than the duo of necessity and chance.  There is also intelligent causality.  Dr. Dembski demonstrates this through his notion of the explanatory filter.  While the tractability of the explanatory filter may be up for debate, it is clear that the filter is a coherent concept.  The very fact that there is debate over whether it can be applied in a tractable manner means the filter is well defined enough to be debated.
The explanatory filter consists of a three stage process to detect design in an event.  First, necessity must be eliminated as a causal explanation.  This means the event cannot have been the precisely determined outcome of a prior state.  Second, chance must be eliminated.  As such, the event must be very unlikely to have occurred, such that it isn’t possible to have queried half or more of the event space with the number of queries available.
At this point, it may appear we’ve arrived at our needed third way, and quite easily at that.  We merely must deny that an event is caused by chance or necessity.  However, things are not so simple.  The problem is that these criteria do not specify an event.  If an event does meet these criteria, then the unfortunate implication is so does every other event in the event space.  In the end the criteria become a distinction without a difference, and we are thrust right back into the original dilemma.  Removing chance and necessity merely gives us improbability (P < 0.5), also called “complexity” in ID parlance.
What we need is a third criteria, called specificity.  This criteria can be thought of as a sort of compression, it describes the event in simpler terms.  One example is a STOP sign.  The basic material of the sign is a set of particles in a configuration.  To describe the sign in terms of the configuration is a very arduous and lengthy task, essentially a list of each particle’s type and position.  However, we can describe the sign in a much simpler manner by providing a computer, which knows how to compose particles into a sign according to a pattern language, with the instructions to write the word STOP on a sign.
According to a concept called Kolmogrov Complexity [2], such machines and instructions form a compression of the event, and thus specify a subset of the event space in an objective manner.  This solves the previous problem where no events were specified.  Now, only a small set of events are specified.  While KC is not a necessary component of Dr. Dembski’s explanatory filter, it can be considered a sufficient criteria for specificity.
With this third criteria of specificity, we now have a distinction that makes a difference.  Namely, it shows we still have something even after removing chance and necessity: we have complex specified information (CSI).  CSI has two properties that make it useful for the free will debate.  First, it is a definition of an event that is neither caused by necessity or chance.  As such, it is not susceptible to the original dilemma.  Furthermore, it provides a subtle and helpful distinction for the argument.  CSI does not avoid the distinction between determinism and non-determinism.  It still falls within the non-determinism branch.  However, CSI shows that randomness is not an exhaustive description of non-determinism.  Instead, the non-determinism branch further splits into a randomness branch and a CSI branch.
The second advantage of CSI is that it is a coherent concept defined with mathematical precision.  And, with a coherently definition, the original argument vanishes.  As pointed out in the beginning of the article, the classic argument against free will is not an argument against something.  It is merely an argument that we cannot talk about something because we do not possess sufficient language.  Properly understood, the classical argument is more of a question, asking what is the correct terminology.  But, with the advent of CSI we now have at least one answer to the classical question about free will.
So, how can we coherently talk about a responsible free will if we can only say it is either determined and necessary, or non-determined and potentially random?  One precise answer is that CSI describes an entity that is both non-determined while at the same time non-random.
[1] A rundown of many different forms of this argument is located here:

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