My name is Ram Rachum, and I'm a software developer based in Israel, specializing in the Python programming language.

This is my personal blog. I write about technology, programming, Python, and any other thoughts that come to my mind.

I'm sometimes available for freelance work in Python and Django. My expertise is in developing a product from scratch.

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23rd November 2013

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My take on free will

The problem of free will is considered a serious and profound philosophical conundrum. The crux of it seems to be this: On one hand, as we live our lives we feel that we have free will and that we can choose our own actions; but on the other hand, we know that a person is nothing more than a bunch of atoms that obey laws of physics, and therefore their behavior could be absolutely determined by physical analysis. The problem is clear: We feel that we can do whatever we want, but physics seem to be saying: We don’t have a choice in what we do, it’s all determined by physical laws. This seems like a contradiction.

Let me present my own take on the free will problem. My answer in one sentence: Every person has free will in certain points of view, but doesn’t have it in other points of view, so the whole problem where on one hand we seem to have free will but on the other hand we don’t can be traced to mixing points of view.

Points of view

We’ve known for hundreds of years that a person’s point of view will affect his opinion on various things. For example, as I’m sitting at my desk, and my roommate is sleeping in the room next to me, his velocity is very close to zero. However, if I were to leave my computer, go out on the street and board a bus, his velocity will suddenly become around 50 kilometers per hour, simply because I changed my point of view by boarding a bus.

About a hundred years ago, Einstein taught us that our point of view affects even more than what we thought before. We now know that as I board the bus, my roommate will not only gain a velocity of 50 kilometers per hour, but also gain a little bit of weight: He’ll be about 75 picograms heavier. Granted, that’s not an amount to go on a diet over, but it’s definitely mindblowing that a person’s weight could be changed just because I boarded a bus. But then, it’s a verified scientific fact, which no credible physicist would disagree with.

To be clear, the fact he has gained 75 picograms will not be some kind of illusion. For all intents and purposes, he has gained 75 picograms— From my point of view. From his point of view, he has not gained these picograms. None of our points of views are more privileged than the other. Each of them are just as valid as the other.

And if the gaining of weight didn’t blow your mind, consider that his pulse will also be lower, just because I boarded the bus. Instead of having a pulse of 50 beats per minute, his heart will beat at around 49.99999999994 beats per minute. A very tiny change, but still a change. And again, this is a widely accepted fact in Physics, and has been for the last hundred years.

Now let’s see how this ties in with free will.

Point of view and free will

What I’m claiming is that in some points of view, a person will have free will, and in some points of view he won’t, and this fact poses no more of a contradiction than the fact that my roommate weighs 50 kilos from his point of view but 50 kilos plus 75 picograms from mine.

Let’s say that I’m watching Star Wars on my TV. Can it be said that the characters in the movie have free will? When Luke decides to leave Tatooine to join the rebellion and become a Jedi, it sure seems like a big decision to him. He’s very unsure of what future awaits him, and whether he should leave or stay. I, however, have watched this movie dozens of times, and I can tell you with certainty that he does indeed leave Tatooine, and those power converters at Tosche station are going to have to find someone else to pick them up.

In this situation, from the point of view of Luke, Ben Kenobi, and the other people in their universe, Luke does have free will. He could say “fuck it, I’m staying on Tatooine,” if he wants to. From my point of view, and from your point of view, and from the point of view of all the people in our universe, Luke does not have free will. That’s because Luke’s story is a story told within our universe.

Now let’s look at our universe. As I am writing this essay, I’m pondering taking a break to get something to eat. I might do it, but I might also not. I have free will in this matter. Now, if all the atoms in my body (and especially my brain) were analyzed, it might be possible to deduce in advance what course of action I will take.

I claim the following: It’s physically impossible from within our own universe to analyze a person’s brain completely, i.e. be 100% sure of what actions the person connected to that brain will take. It’s possible to give estimates with some likelihood of success, but never a 100% certain prediction. In order to do that one would need to know the exact locations, velocities, etc of each of the quintillions of particles in a human’s body, and we can’t even find this information for one particle.

Therefore, from the point of view of anyone in our universe, I have free will on whether to take a food break or not.

If there were an omniscient being, some kind of God that did have the power to know the positions and velocities of all the atoms in my body, and then analyze those to deduce exactly what my actions will be, then in that deity’s point of view, I would not have free will. And I’m cool with that, really.

Conclusion

We’ve presented here three different points of view, and in each of which different people might posess or not posess free will. The highest point of view was of a God-like entity. In his point of view, I don’t posess free will, and neither does any other person on Earth, and neither do the characters in Star Wars. In the next point of view in line, my point of view, I do posess free will, but Luke Skywalker does not. Finally, in Luke’s point of view, he does posess free will.

The free will problem is nothing more than mixing up those different points of view. When someone says, “How could you have free will on your decision to get a coffee when each of your actions is determined by the chemistry of your brain,” they’re confusing two different points of view, our point of view and the point of view of the hypothetical omniscient creature who could analyze our brain chemistry to make that prediction; thus they arrive at a nonsensical result, much like a physicist who is solving a Physics problem but uses two different reference frames and mixes up the numbers obtained in one reference frame with numbers obtained in another.

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