One of the most basic and fundamental premises of Mormonism is the idea of free will. While we take this for granted in Mormonism, in the secular world the debate is far from settled. In fact, the debate over determinism vs. libertarianism (not the political philosophy but the metaphysical philosophy) has raged on and on for centuries.
Determinism states that every event is causally determined by previous events. This further implies that if we knew all the events (causes) we could actually predict exactly what a particular agent would do. I think this is where most people have heartache with determinism (i.e. they don’t like to feel controlled, even if only by nature itself). However, I don’t think most people would deny that there is indeed an element of determinism in our behavior. There are enough commonalities between most people that we can quite accurately predict how a person will act in a particular situation (within limitations of course).
On the other hand, Libertarianism states that agents have free will. Libertarians (again not the political philosophy) assert that free will is logically incompatible with determinism, making the two mutually exclusive. The defining factor for libertarians is that an individual is able to take more than one possible course of action in any given scenario.
Artificial Intelligence and Humans
More recently, as our technology advances, debates over the capability and morality ofartificial intelligence (AI) have become more frequent. We see it in movies, books, and even in scientific journals. The issue explored in movies like iRobot is that AI eventually becomes so advanced it develops free will on its own. This seems to imply superiority of free will over determinism (i.e. the “robot” evolved to a higher state of intelligence making in on par with humans). And indeed, while I have met some who were convinced determinists, most people I know are at least compatibilists (those who assert free will and determinism are not logically incompatible and hence accept both positions), if not libertarians.
Rather than spur a fruitless debate over whether or not humans are deterministic or have free will, I want to discuss why one would be, or is, better than the other? Why, in Mormonism (and in humanity generally it seems to me) do we assume that free will is better than being deterministic? If we are deterministic beings, are we less interesting, or somehow not as good as we would be if we had free will? Is there some benefit that a free will agent has over a deterministic one?
An Aerospace Example
Consider the following example. In my research lab we are interested in autonomous uninhabited aircraft. Though we (as a society) have had autonomous airplanes for a while now, they’re not truly autonomous. There is always a human somewhere in the loop, whether at a computer screen, watching the aircraft, etc. The question is, could we design a fully autonomous (i.e. from launch to landing, including the proper handling of all unanticipated problems) aircraft that would perform as well (or better) than an expert pilot?
Before answering too quickly, consider:
- The laws of physics are well known and generally not subject to negotiation.
- Assume I can build a computer as intelligent as a human.
- Assume the computer can sense, or has access to ALL the information that a human pilot would.
If you believe the answer is no, why? Is there something intrinsically better about free will that makes such an agent better at flying an airplane than a deterministic one? Is having free will a more “enlightened” state than being deterministic? Why?
If you believe the answer is yes, do you also believe that humans are deterministic? Is it only a matter of time before we discover ALL the causal influences that impact human behavior and will thus have the ability to perfectly predict it?
Now, suppose I could actually demonstrate such an autonomous aircraft to you in an arbitrarily large number of flights. Would you concede there is nothing inherently better about free will, or would you hold out that there is always one untested case in which the expert pilot would do better?
How do your beliefs influence your answer?