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What Rock-Paper-Scissors Teaches Us About Free Will

May 21, 2013, 10:20 AM

I think everybody knows the game Rock-Paper-Scissors.  Paper covers rock.  Rock breaks scissors.  Scissors cut paper.  We all learned to play this and what you want to do is be unpredictable to your opponent.  What’s the best strategy?  Well, if you just don’t want to lose, your best strategy is to play randomly because then there’s no pattern in your moves so there’s nothing to track.  There’s no way for your opponent to track your moves.  It’s very hard for human beings to play randomly, to do anything randomly.  We’re not good at creating random series.  It’s been studied carefully.

If you were obliged to play Rock-Paper-Scissors for big bucks and you wanted to break even, here’s the strategy you might well adopt.  Go to a table of random numbers and copy down a few hundred and trade the numbers in for R, P and S – rock, paper and scissors.  And memorize the list or keep the list in a secure place and then play according to that list.  That should pretty well guarantee that you’re moves will have no pattern that will be detectable by your opponent as long as he can’t see your list.  It’s very important that you keep it secret. Otherwise, of course, you’re a sitting duck.  

I think that simple example exposes one of the seeds of the free will literature.  People want a certain amount of unpredictability in their lives. There’s a very good reason for this. Because if you’re too predictable, especially if you’re sort of hyper-rational and you’re always making the best move all things considered.  If somebody else could figure out what those best rules are then they could take you for a ride.

People have recognized for thousands of years that an autonomous agent needs to preserve a certain amount of unpredictability in order to maintain autonomy.  And they’ve figured as philosophers and others often do, that if unpredictability is good, perfect unpredictability is better.  And so they decided that they ought to be perfectly unpredictable. So, as Jerry Fodor once said, “Even God couldn’t tell whether Eve would eat the apple or not.”  Well, if you have to worry about God – if you’re playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with God, then you should want quantum indeterminacy.  Because then even God can’t read your list.

But for ordinary mortals, for the sorts of antagonists and interlockers we’re apt to encounter in our lives, you don’t need perfect unpredictability.  We just need good enough for government work unpredictability and we can have that without indeterminacy altogether.  In other words, there’s no reason to hold out hope for indeterminism.  It is not a threat to free will in the important moral sense.  You can have all the free will you could ever reasonably want without indeterminacy.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 


What Rock-Paper-Scissors Te...

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