Thomas The Tank Engine is the Ultimate Manifestation of the Illusion of Free Will: ScienceAlert

Are we free or are our actions determined by the laws of physics? And how much free will do we really want? These questions troubled philosophers for millennia – and there are still no perfect answers.

But it turns out that a character from a children’s TV series may provide a clue.
Thomas the Chariot Engine, despite being a locomotive, behaves like a human. He makes decisions and choices. And he is morally responsible: when he does something wrong, he is punished.

But look further and things get complicated. He is an engine. His movements are determined by the shape of the tracks, the operation of his locomotive and the employees of the railroad. So is his free will just an illusion?

The laws of physics explain how a past event leads to a future event. For example, if I put a kettle on the hob, the laws of thermodynamics determine that it will boil at some point in the future. If I don’t interfere with the kettle or the hob, there is only one possible outcome: the water will start boiling.

A powerful philosophical argument Against Free Will states that since we cannot change the past and since we cannot change the laws of physics, neither can we change the future.

This is because the future is only a consequence of the past and the laws of physics dictate that the past will result in the future. The future is not open to alternatives.

This also applies to us: our bodies are physical objects made up of atoms and molecules governed by the laws of physics. But every decision and action we take can ultimately be traced back to certain initial conditions at the beginning of the universe.

We may feel like we have free will, but that’s just an illusion. And it’s the same for Thomas: he may feel free, but his actions are decided by the layout of the tracks and the schedule of the railroad.

What he does is not open to alternatives. It is, after all, a steam engine governed by the laws of thermodynamics.

Moral responsibility

But if Thomas’ actions aren’t open to alternatives, why is he reprimanded when he’s wrong? If he were just a machine, would it be logical to think that he is morally responsible?

After all, it would be strange to say that my kettle deserves praise for boiling the water, if it really couldn’t have done otherwise.

United States philosopher Harry Frankfurt has developed a ingenious thought experiment show that the future does not have to be open to alternatives for us to be morally responsible.

Imagine two agents, let’s call them Killer and Controller. The controller has electrodes connected to Killer’s brain. If Killer doesn’t do what the Controller wants, he turns on the electrodes – forcing Killer to obey.

Now the Controller really wants someone, let’s call him Victim, to die. So he thinks of ordering Killer to kill Victim. But it turns out that Killer actually wants Victim to die as well, so she kills Victim without the Controller needing to intervene at all. The electrodes remain off.

What is the moral of the story? Although Killer’s actions were not open to alternatives (if she had decided not to kill, the controller would have forced her to anyway), she is still responsible and punished as a murderer.

It seems that Thomas is in the same situation: when he does things within the rules of the railroad, he must do them of his own volition. When he does not, someone intervenes: the driver, the driver or the worrying fat controller.

But he is always reprimanded when things go wrong. The fact that his actions are not open to alternatives does not change this.

How much free will is desirable?

So how about a universe where Thomas’ future is undetermined? Would he be free there?

Although we are uncomfortable with the idea that our actions can be determined, the alternative is not much better. A universe where the future is completely undeterminedwhere it is too open to alternatives, is just too chaotic.

I need to know that when I put the kettle on the hob it boils. A universe where water spontaneously turns into frozen orange juice is not where most of us want to live.

And the same goes for Thomas. If Thomas were allowed to go off the rails, soar through the air, or if his steam engine didn’t follow the laws of thermodynamics, his universe wouldn’t work.

His character captures our intuitions about free will. We need choice and moral responsibility, but we don’t want our actions to be completely indeterminate. We want our free will to be somewhere between total determinism and total chance.

Matyas MoravecGifford Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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