Free will and a golden medal

(and strong materialism is a kind of metaphysic)

If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.
(C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?)

It happened many years ago, but I still remember when I read the story of Michele Trombello. In April 2001 there was an exhibition of cranes in Busto Arsizio (Italy), and a heavy load felt down while a six years old child was passing by. Michele Trombello, says the motivation of his gold medal for civil valor: “with heroic impulse, threw himself into the child and, pushing him out of the way of a heavy load unfastened from a cart, saved the life of the child, losing his own. “

Michele Trombello performed his heroic act in the blink of an eye. Was that the product of a conscious choice? Was that the result of his free will? You can not make any choice in the short time a weight takes to fall down on the floor from few meters high. It was, then, a reflex action. So a bug question raise: how much his free will influenced his heroism? Or maybe it didn’t influence it at all, and we are celebrating a choice of fate as one the highest expression of humanity? Can we say that Michele Trombello was not a real hero, but a hero only by chance? Should we say that the gesture of Michele Trombello is meaningless?

He has been described as a generous man, words that are worth to say: “the heroic choice was inherent his human nature.” Which could mean either that we are in a deterministic frame: Michele Trombello had the genes of altruism and acted consequentially accordingly its nature. But it could also mean that we are in a frame of absolute free will: Michele Trombello choosed to be a generous man, and his heroic gesture was the consequence of its human choices. Finally, for all we know may have been pure words of circumstance. This, however, does not dissolve our doubts.

From this incident it is evident that the presence or absence of free will is crucial in determining the value and meaning of life of Michele Trombello and, consequently, the value and meaning of our lives.

I begin from two literary ideas.

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Devil, Florence, Baptistry

Reading last canto of Dante’s Hell we find Lucifer, the fallen angel, reduced to a monstrous stage machinery. Dante, describing Lucifer, abhors the grotesque of his era: instead of the devil of the baptistery of his Florence he gives us a giant windmill that flaps its wings to freeze the damned traitors and himself. The three faces and three colors of his faces are a parody of the divine trinity and a parody of her virtues on which rivers of ink has been poured (it represents impotence, ignorance and hatred, in contrast to divine power, highest wisdom and first love). But the most terrifying fact, what most coaches in this canto, is that Dante’s Lucifer does not interact with the pilgrim Dante, but he is locked up in his loneliness. When Virgil and Dante climb on his hair Lucifer seems completely unaware of their action.

Lucifer’s feets and Dante climbing them on Virgil’s shoulders

This idea of an emptied personality is to me invariably associated with the novelPerelandra by CS Lewis, an allegory of the temptation of Eve. CS Lewis wrote Pereleandra after commenting on Milton’s Paradise Lost, but if Milton enhances Satan and makes him a romantic character, CS Lewis walks in the path of Dante. Weston, the satanic character, is emptied of himself. Skillful dialectic, he attempts to convince the green woman, a sort of venusian Eve, to commit her original sin (stay on the only not floating island in the planet-Eden where she lives), but he does not seem to act on his own will. The demoniac becomes parody of kenosis and the Christian concept of emptying. Based on this literary suggestion you could say that the demoniac makes the transition from the world of freedom to a deterministic world. The link with a nineteenth-century materialism appears very strong.

End of literary suggestions.

Some weeks ago I was reading a text on italian edition of Scientific American that strongly deny we possess free will (Sabine Hossenfelder, Dieci errori concettuali in materia di libero arbitrio). Here some of what she says…

Everything in the universe, including us and our brain, is made up of elementary particles. What do these particles is described by the basic laws of physics.

So …

a) If your future decisions are determined by the past, you do not have free will.
b) If your future decisions are random, meaning that nothing can affect, and then you do not have free will.
c) If your decisions are any combination of a) and b), you do not have free will.

There is actually a lot of randomness in what we are. Being born in Bergamo instead of London, Rhyad or Gjirokastra, determines clearly the boundary conditions of my moral convictions and my suggestions. My choices will be affected. The difference between an enlightened cosmopolitan, a furious hooligan or a Bedouin crushed by the duties of polygamy will depend in large part on the case.

But it is also an illusion to think that I live alone in my thought processes chopped. I do not live there, no more than the car is ascertained only of its pistons. Certainly without pistons no engine can run. But the pistons alone can not lead anywhere. I can appreciate the charm of being just a cog in a machine, but my understanding of being it, combined with my illusion of being able to be conscious, radically affects the situation.

C. S. Lewis

The problem set in this way is not recent. It’s at least a century old and people tried to give an answer from different points of view.

J. B. S. Haldane wrote: If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.

C. S. Lewis starting from this idea in Miracles, a preliminary studywrote All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning…Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. In other words if we follow Hossenfelder’s way of reasoning we are compelled to deny any sense of what we are saying. If the idea that what we do is only or random or deterministic is true, it is also meaningless, because we have no way to test it. We have no way to try to falsify it and we fall into the metaphysic we want to avoid. I think that this is not a correct way to go on.

There are a different trial to solve the problem. One seems the way chosen by Robert Nozick in his Philosophical explanations when he tries an indeterministic theory of free will. He sets his ideas on a long tradition that starts from quantum physic (see also Ettore Majorana in his Il valore delle leggi statistiche nella fisica e nelle scienze sociali — The value of statistical laws in physics and in social sciences written before his disappearance in the late Thirties).

Robert Nozick

About his indeterministic theory he says: it may help to compare it to the currently orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics. The purpose of this comparison is not to derive free will from quantum mechanics or to use physical theory to prove free will exists, or even to say that nondeterminism at the quantum level leaves room for free will. Rather, we wish to see whether quantum theory provides an analogue, whether it presents structural possibilities which if instanced at the macro-level of action — this is not implied by micro-quantum theory — would fit the situation we have described. According to the currently orthodox quantum mechanical theory of measurement, as specified by John von Neumann, a quantum mechanical system is in a superposition of states, a probability mixture of states, which changes continuously in accordance with the quantum mechanical equations of motion, and which changes discontinuously via a measurement or observation. Such a measurement “collapses the wave packet”, reducing the superposition to a particular state; which state the superposition will reduce to is not predictable.” Analogously, a person before decision has reasons without fixed weights; he is in a superposition of (precise) weights, perhaps within certain limits, or a mixed state (which need not be a superposition with fixed probabilities). The process of decision reduces the superposition to one state (or to a set of states corresponding to a comparative ranking of reasons), but it is not predictable or determined to which state of the weights the decision (analogous to a measurement) will reduce the superposition. […] Our point is not to endorse the orthodox account as a correct account of quantum mechanics, only to draw upon its theoretical structure to show our conception of decision is a coherent one. Decision fixes the weights of reasons; it reduces the previously obtaining mixed state or superposition. However, it does not do so at random.

This explanation seems also good in order to overcome the problem exposed in the Eighties by Benjamin Libet’s experiments that showed that unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts. And we must admit that the idea of Libet itself is that we can consciously intervene to veto actions that have started unconsciously. In this way of considering things it is quite clear that we cannot consider free will as the results of a single action, but as it were built step by step in the brain after the subject become aware of what he’s deciding.

And in this sense also Benjamin Libet in his Conscious mental field theoryhelps out the possibility of free will. Libet points out that conscious, subjective experience is a field that emerges from brain activity and can in turn act upon and influence that brain activity.

Benjamin Libet

Acording to Benjamin Libet the Conscious mental field is not a Cartesian dualistic phenomenon; it is not separable from the brain. Rather, it is proposed to be a localizable system property produced by appropriate neuronal activities, and it cannot exist without them. Again, it is not a ‘‘ghost’’ in the machine. But, as a system produced by billions of nerve cell actions, it can have properties not directly predictable from these neuronal activities. It is a non-physical phenomenon, like the subjective experience that it represents. The process by which the CMF arises from its contributing elements is not describable. It must simply be regarded as a new fundamental ‘‘given’’ phenomenon in nature, which is different from other fundamental ‘‘givens,’’ like gravity or electromagnetism.

This idea is testable and falsifiable, and it is far from a metaphysical trial to deny that there is nothing else than randomness and determinism.

So we come back to our question: Can we say that Michele Trombello was not a real hero, but a hero only by chance? Should we say that the gesture of Michele Trombello is meaningless? Probably “not”. Even if Michele Trombello had not the time to decide to lose his life to save that child, this gesture was probably the logical conclusion of what he built up of himself step by step during his life. And in this sense was an expression of his free will.

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