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Beyond free will and determinism

Take a chance with the Dice Man.

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In the beginning The Die created the heaven and the earth. And The Die said, Let there be chance, and there was chance.

~ The First Book of The Die

To many people in our society, the idea that the will is not free is loathsome. We feel that we are in charge of many of our actions, and we want it to be so. Likewise, we enjoy holding others responsible for their actions, particularly when they annoy us. The specter of determinism threatens all this. If we live in a universe where everything happens for a reason (or more appropriately, for a cause), how could our behaviors -- and the intentions that precede them -- be exempt? At least implicitly, psychological science rests on the assumption that human behavior and experience can be studied because they arise in a deterministic world, just like everything else. Skinner's Beyond freedom and dignity is still valid (as is Nietzsche's Beyond good and evil).

The idea of free will means that we are free to make up our mind and that the resulting choices do not depend on causes preceding our decision-making. In other words, our decision-making is cut off from the causal flow of events. It arises from nothing. At the same time, our choices are not supposed to be random. Suppose I have a choice between renting an Italian and a French movie. My choice is free in the sense that there are no external constraints. Both types of movie are available, they cost the same, and no one is holding a gun to my head to go French. So when I choose the Italian movie, my choice is free in the everyday sense of the word. But my will isn't. I have a preference for Italian movies, and that's good. I know what I want. My will is unfree because I cannot choose what I want, as Schopenhauer pointed out 150 years ago in his award-winning essay.

For the sake of argument, suppose this ‘I' of mine were to make a truly free choice between Italian and French. If I have a freely willed preference, who is this I inside of me that makes it so? How did this I decide for me to have this preference? You see, here we go again with the dreaded homunculus and the paradox of infinite regress (there's a homunculus inside the homunculus and so on ad infinitum et ad nauseam). The problem of free will cannot be solved thus; it can only be pushed back, and then be pushed back some more, until we get tired.

Arguments likes this have been made many times, but they don't seem to have much effect on everyday imagination. Determinism just feels horrible. Who wants to be an automaton? So let's take a different tack. Instead of pitting determinism against free will, let's see how it compares with randomness.


Luke Rhinehart

This is where the Dice Man comes in.

Luke Rhinehart

This is where the Dice Man comes in.

The whole instinct of human behavior is to find environments congenial to the relaxation of consciousness. By creating problems for myself, I created thought.

~ The Dice Man

In his 1971 novel, The Dice Man, Luke Rhinehart proposes a daring thought experiment. What if we let our actions be chosen randomly? This is what his hero, who is also called Luke, starts doing out of boredom. The rules of his game are simple. He develops of set of options (e.g., watch a movie or spend time with sexy Arlene) and a set of probabilities. Then he rolls the dice and does whatever they tell him. The odds he gives himself against ‘seducing' Arlene are long, but when the dice speak he listens. Soon he is hooked. With time, what he has regarded as his personality is eroded away. His conventional self still controls the available behavior alternatives and their associated probabilities, but the choice of behavior at the end of the process is no longer his. At this final and crucial stage, both conscious will and other deterministic properties of his mind are overcome.

What a way to live! Luke learns to explore and experiment, discovering ever more behaviors and experiences that he would have never known had he remained in the traditional frame of will and determinism. The novel has many twists and turns that I'd rather not reveal here and spoil the fun. What I'm describing is only Rhinehart's opening salvo. What I take him to claim is this: We experiment far too little. Our behaviors and experience are constrained, limited, and stunted in myriad ways, hence giving us the illusion that we ‘are' a certain way. Among the best passages in the book are those that mock group therapy as Rhinehart experienced it in his day, where people agonize over their true selves. To Rhinehart, there are none.

The Dice Man is such a bold thought experiment because chances are [ ☺ ] that few, if any, will ever try for real what Rhinehart does in fiction, which raises the question of ‘Why not?' It seems to me that the book holds a message for the free will versus determinism debate. If we had free will, it should not be so scary to let chance rule once in a while. We can always put a stop to it. If determinism is true, however, our anxiety over chance makes sense. If our character, preferences, and behaviors are determined, it seems that we'd lose something essential if we gave ourselves over to chance. In Freud's terms, it's the ego's fear of its own destruction. A truly free ego would not need to be afraid.

Don't try the dice game at home, but read the book and visit Luke's website.

December 8, 2012

I emailed the Dice Man today and he responded! I don't know what odds he gave that but he shared that he selected 2 to 1 odds for addressing me by my first name. The die selected informality. Luke, whose real name is George, sent me links to a British production of Diceworld. The first one is here.

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