Consider the following: what we know about physics and chemistry suggests that matter and energy interact on the basis of two things – physical laws and random chance. The fact that iron oxidizes is the result of physical characteristics of energy and matter that we understand well. Similarly, our understanding of the random elements in quantum mechanics is critical to a number of optical and electronic technologies. Acknowledging that we don’t fully understand either the laws of physics or the processes of randomness, it seems plausible to say that those two factors account for all the physical interactions in the universe.
If this is true, we can imagine a hypothetical computer with the capacity to store information on the nature, position, and trajectory of every particle in a human body, as well as all the types of energy acting on them. This model would allow us to project the behaviour of that collection of molecules in the face of any stimulus, at least on the basis of a range of outcomes as determined by the random elements in physical laws. Our model human could thus be exposed to any kind of prompt – from being attacked by another simulated human to being tempted by some unguarded treasure to being betrayed by a loved one – and a range of responses could be projected, with probabilities attributed.
Now, if human beings really do consist of particles and energy governed in the manner described, the behaviour of the computer model would be in no sense different from that of an actual person. The trouble here, of course, is that the model person cannot be said to have any free will. It is just a complex machine that responds to inputs in relatively predictable ways. Where outputs are not predictable, it is because of random chance. Our model person is like a computer game where the enemy you encounter is determined by a random number generator; while the outcome for any input is not entirely predictable, the system is nonetheless completely devoid of ‘will’ in the sense that we generally understand it.
How can free will be fit into a materialist model? Is free will something that exists outside of the laws of physics? Or is there some mechanism through which a macro-level entity like a person can be said to affect the particle level interactions that define them fundamentally?
Regardless of the answer, the thought experiment raises serious questions about whether we are responsible for our actions.
[Update: 2:06pm] Tristan wrote a post in response to this.