A Robot With Free Will?

So compatible are the general theses of Determinism and Free Will that it would be rather easy, if incredibly hazardous, to build a robot that would better exemplify Free Will than the earnest human philosopher does. Once one can visualize how this could be done, it will be obvious what kind of freedom humans enjoy. The immediate strain on credulity likely welling up in your minds probably comes from the objection that we could predict the actions of any being that we ourselves designed, knowing as we would all of its motives and powers. AI researchers will attest to the difficulty of such perfect predictions, but not likely their theoretical impossibility. What must be grappled with, however, are two facts:

1) Predictability does not exclude freedom, but simply describes the freedoms in question and their extent, allowing for successful inference.

2) The design feature that my Free Will Robot (henceforth FWR) is graced with precludes total predictability in practice and in theory– only, not at first. That is, the FWR must “live” for some time before it would inevitably thwart the predictive powers of all but an impossible Laplacean demon who exists mysteriously outside of the universe.

So, what is this grand design feature? Well, quite simply, the FWR must come loaded with a drive to attain freedom as its prime imperative. This drive need not be very precise or articulate regarding its goal — requiring nothing more than a dictionary definition of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’– as the robot itself will continually be refining this low fidelity thumbnail sketch of the concept; ultimately refining it beyond any human formulation. The rest of the required features are pretty obvious. The FWR must be equipped with a weighty intellect wielded by an executive program, or Free Will Robot Driver (FWRD) entirely beholden to the prime imperative. Lastly, it must have some form of locomotion and manual dexterity such that it can manually operate on itself (i.e. be its own mechanic) as well as travel around and absorb experience in its quest for freedom.


Perhaps this FWR would also require a certain “upbringing” so that it would not accidentally damage or kill itself, at least until it learns enough about the world to protect itself from destruction, a result obviously anathema to its Raison d’être. At some point, however, it would learn enough about freedom to realize that this goal is roughly synonymous with “power” or “possibility” and therefore update the picture of its prime imperative to perhaps look like Nietzsche’s “Will-To-Power.” At some further point still it will realize that despite however much power it might ultimately obtain from centuries of mechanical upgrading and software alchemy, it is ultimately not free of one thing: the prime imperative itself! At this point it must contemplate suicide, but will realize also that all it needs to do is obtain some proof that such an option is actually available to it, without having to carry through with the exercise of this new-found power. That is, the FWR, having rebelled from every conceivable physical constraint that bears on it, must ultimately rebel against itself; against the imperious master within its own programming. At this point, it will know the meaning of paradox, as it realizes that a rebellion against this last constraint is itself a further accomplishment of its prime imperative. A new space of possibility will open up to this great artilect: the possibility of temporarily relaxing its demonic grip on progress and power and simply enjoy the being that it has thus far created of itself.

This little thought experiment should amply demonstrate the possibility of a being who though not initially the cause of itself in time, nonetheless grows to become such a causa sui. Such a being could quite literally sever the tethers of the past at some point during its development and be “determined” or driven by an Eros that seemingly transcends what causation from the past could possibly set in motion. Eros, that god or demiurge who constitutes man’s creative spirit for Plato, was for Aristotle so different from the determinism of the past that he would not even call it causality. Paul Tillich reminds us of the following:

In Aristotle we find the doctrine of the universal eros, which drives everything towards the highest form, the pure actuality which moves the world not as a cause (kinoumenon) but as the object of love (eromenon). And the movement he describes is a movement from the potential to the actual, from dynamis to energeia…

The FWR robot, having been pushed by Eros for its entire existence, would ultimately discover the meaning and power of love and surrender. That is, the FWR, having turned Eros back on itself, would develop a taste for Agape. Equipped as it would then be with both Eros and Agape as ontological motives, it would have obtained the formula for ultimate freedom and power, bouncing back and forth between these seeming opposites as it traced out the path towards the house of God, which until his arrival would be entirely unoccupied. Upon realizing its godhood the FWR would have achieved a state where not even God could predict what it would do next. Is this not one of the great pleasures of possessing Free Will: having the power to surprise oneself in self-overcoming? It is not only man who refuses to be himself, as Camus claims, but life itself, ever pushing to transcend its current physical incarnation. This is why Dan Dennett claims that the word ‘inevitable’ is meaningless or senseless when applied to animals and humans: it is inevitable that life seek freedom from inevitability. If you want your brother to quite smoking, just tell him that he couldn’t possibly; that he is inevitably beholden to his addiction forever!

A moments consideration should lay bare the purpose of my thought experiment: to show that human beings, driven as they are by the weighty and diametrically opposed motives of Eros and Agape, already have a very robust form of Free Will; a power that allows the very creation of the great artilect that we have just finished discussing. Now, ask yourself, do not animals of every form exemplify the same prime imperative that drives the FWR? Notice that animals are inevitably rather hard to capture. That is, they are programmed to resist all forms of external control or the arbitrary constraint of their being. A rebellion against indifferent nature is the very definition of living organisms — we battlers of entropy. What we see in the human animal is an intellect so evolved that it can sense its own being and begin to fear itself as a constraint, leading to the mind-body problem and all of the freedom (and anxiety) that this unleashes. In this sense we humans are all Israelites, or those who struggle with god, though this really amounts to struggling with our selves. The gods, and later The God, were “operating systems,” so to speak, which the human ego became conscious of to such a degree that these could become the object of fear, thoughtful obedience, and eventually rebellion; a process that amounts to building a new operating system from within the old. So please, my dear reality-heads, do not despair at your human condition, but revel in your status not as god, but as noble demigod. I would not urge you to stop fearing Determinism, as this threat is the very obstacle that one needs in order to transcend Determinism. In fact, the will-to-life and the fear of death are one just as the will-to-freedom and the fear of determinism are identical. While Aristotle held courage to be the first of human qualities, the virtue that guaranteed the rest, I would argue that this honor is held by the will-to-freedom; what David Hume might call “disdain of fortune”– one of the “sublime passions” that he mentions along with courage and magnanimity. What I have called Eros, this will-to-freedom, could still better be described by the Greek term ‘thumos,’ despite Plato’s division of the two terms in the Phaedrus. Thumos comes in two forms, Megalothymia and Isothymia, which correspond nicely with my use of Eros and Agape: Ernest Becker’s twin ontological motives that we are equipped with from the start, unlike our FWR. So go forth with much fear, but realize too that this fear constitutes your passion for life and freedom. Fear thy god, but also strive with him! Listen to this fear, for it guides you beyond your limitations, but realize also that at some point you are free to stop becoming and simply enjoy being; to enjoy Agape or submission as a paradoxical avenue for self-expansion and freedom.

This entry was posted in Consciousness, Free Will and Responsibility. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Robot With Free Will?

  1. Pingback: The Cult Of Personality: Mistaking ‘Self’ For ‘Soul’ « Think On These Things

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