On Philosophy

May 19, 2006

The Philosophy of: Pak Protectors

Filed under: Free Will,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 10:05 pm

The Pak are an advanced form of the human species introduced by Larry Niven in his science fiction book Protector (amazon) and later explored further in his Ringworld series. You can also read the Wikipedia article on protectors here. What makes a protector different than a normal person (besides their looks of course) is that they are perfectly rational and perfectly informed. By perfectly rational I mean that they make their choices using based only on their faculties of reason and their preferences, and by perfectly informed I mean that they always know what course of action is most likely to maximally satisfy their preferences.

This talk about preference satisfaction may give you the idea that protectors are cold and emotionless beings, and while this is true in Larry Niven’s books, we need not assume so for the purposes of our discussion. It is allowable that the protector’s preferences may include an ethical code, the concern for the well-being of others, ect. What makes the notion of a protector interesting philosophically is not their motivations but the following question: do protectors have free will?

Larry Niven portrays the protectors as lacking free will, since in any situation there is only one best choice, which they know, and which they are rationally compelled to choose. However I will argue here that if we look closely at the situation we will see that in fact our intuitions and reasoning indicate that protectors have as much free will as any of us.

First let me argue that more information does not reduce one’s freedom of choice. Clearly to insist that more information makes one less free seems contrary to experience, for example consider a situation where you are shopping for a couch and you look up information about the couches you are considering. Your choice of which couch to buy does not feel less free because of this information, even though the information you have obtained will surely affect which couch you ultimately choose. Thus it should seem clear that the protector’s complete information does not take away their freedom,

We might then question the complete rationality of the protector. However, once again, our own rationality does not seem to restrict our free will. For example let us say that you sat down and thought about your possible couch choices until you were able to figure out a single best choice, which of course was then the couch you decided to buy. The fact that your rationality was able to reveal what the best choice was doesn’t make your action less free, or at least it doesn’t feel like it. The protector’s special abilities then are simply like the ability to determine what the best couch is, but in only a moment’s time instead of after a long deliberation, but why should the speed at which they think impair their freedom?

And yet many theories concerning free will say that to be free is to have the power to choose otherwise, but a protector will always make the same choices, even if they lived through the same events again and again, because at the time it was the best choice, and they have no reason to choose otherwise. But we can’t see a reason that the protector should lack free will, and from this I would argue that the ability to choose otherwise is a bad definition of what it means to be free. My personal definition of what free will could be called “self determination”, meaning that if your thoughts cause your actions, and if your thoughts are part of a stream of consciousness than you are free. Under this definition the protectors would be described as free, because they are as conscious and as in control of their actions as we are. This definition of free will is also compatible with a deterministic universe, if the physicals laws do in fact end up being deterministic.

As an aside I would also like to mention that this analysis of free will can also be used do defend the free will of God (although personally I do not believe in the existence of God). Like a protector God is supposed to be rational, have perfect knowledge of what the best choice is, and to have preferences (good over evil). Thus if you subscribed to the “could act otherwise” account of free will God would not be free, but if you instead think that “self determination” is sufficient for free will than God is in fact free.


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