Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Big Deal about free will (a reply to Josh)

Recently, my friend Josh did a post about free will on his blog. Below is his post and then my reply.

Thursday, May 12, 2005
What’s the big deal about free will?

Either we have “free will” or we don’t.
If we don’t, then free will is an illusion, because we certainly have the perception of free will. But if we have the perception of free will, why does it matter whether or not the perception is true / valid?

Example: If I have to make a choice between A or B (i.e. not A). It may be true that my choice is pre-determined by the interaction between the environment and the cells in my body. However, my perception is that there is a possibility of choosing either (A or B). I perceive freedom to choose. I perceive that the probability of choosing A or B is greater than zero for both options. If I am wrong, and the “choice” is really an illusion, so what? I still have to participate in that illusion, don’t I?

posted by Cosd @ 10:52 AM 2 comments

My Reply:

Oh, how I love’s the free will talk. The first thing that should occur (and I hope you shall do soon or at least next time) is to precisely define what it is that you mean by free will. There are many different definitions, as well as perspectives to take, that affect the answer one might return. I shall first discuss a few definitions (and their corresponding answers) and then attempt a description of why it matters.

Definition 1) The ability to make a choice independent of one’s physiology. I think this is the most comprehensive, initial viewpoint of free will. This can only occur if one posits various ethereal non-material stuff (i.e., souls). This free will does not exist.

Definition 2) Though relatively constrained by previous events, random fluctuations from the quantum world provide enough of a break in the causal chain of things for their to be a ‘freer’ choice. Thoughts like this are incoherent on many levels. First, why would randomness give ‘you’ any more choice? Second, it is not necessarily the case that random quantum fluctuations would scale up to any larger indeterminacy. It is possible that the noise is dampened. Third, free will is complicated enough, is it really wise to rely on whatever ‘the collapse of the waveform’ means?

Definition 3) The ability to make a selection among a set of options. Well, just look at what someone does at a restaurant. They selected one item over another. Hence, a ‘choice’ occurred. Humans have this ability.

To address your little example, in one sense you do have to participate in the ‘illusion,’ I even suggested as much when I quoted Dennett recently. From a human’s point of view, there is subjective uncertainty and the role of deliberation is an important one. It makes no sense to shun it, as one would soon find out. The universe has (purposelessly) created a highly rational, deliberative processing system that often does what is in its best interests. The ‘feeling’ of choice is a part of that it seems.

In another sense, you don’t have to participate as fully. Why? The illusory nature of free will is such that it breaks down if you start to examine it. Here is a quick little dialogue, please permit me some leeway because I’m going to put words in your mouth (as I think they represent thoughts many would have, even if you do not).

Darren: If you feel like you have a choice, who is doing choosing?

Josh: Well, I am.

Darren: Okay. Who are you? Please describe what exactly is choosing?

Josh: Maybe you want me to say that the collection of cells that comprises “Josh” that has existed in, and been shaped by, myriad environments throughout all of time?

Darren: Well, that’s what I think is a good description of an individual (not exclusively of course, there is always room for relevant specific designations. i.e., juggler).

Josh: But that still doesn’t really say who or what is choosing does it, it just gives a general description.

Darren: Right you are. I feel one must start with generalities because if there is a foundational disagreement greater specificity is wasted. So, the trillion-molecular machine that is Josh does the choosing. If I knew exactly how this happens we would both be lounging by my large pool, but here are various thoughts that might help understanding. Over the 4.5 billion years that Earth has existed, various life forms have emerged. For nearly all of that time, various organisms interacted with each other, they ate, they killed, they mated. In short, some of them survived. This naturally selective process created organisms that were highly compatible with their environments. Fast forwarding, an ape starts to stand a bit, but more importantly, the ape can talk. The transmission of ideas through language is likely what allowed for the various aspects of consciousness we currently possess. The brains of these primates still show their hundred million-year ancestry in the anatomy of the brain: the old stuff is under the new stuff. In many situations (more than they care to realize), these homo sapiens are heavily influenced by these ‘ancestral’ brain regions. Does anyone here enjoy eating and/or sex? How about not enjoying being attacked? There are reasons for this. Those who like sex (and dislike dying) are simply those that are going to be around to pass on those ‘dispositions.’

If you open up the brain, there is nobody home. It seems there is no centre, no main processing unit, no homunculus, and no ghost in that machine. Why this matters is that it offers greater explanatory power for understanding the world (and it is empirically supported!).

Here are some questions to ponder.

Have you ever wanted to do something, but you still did it? I want to diet, so I plan not to eat junk food. Yet, I still do. Why is this? Or there is something truly important to you, but you forgot. How is that possible if ‘you’ are in control? What about addicts or people with OCD? Are they in control? Have you ever forgotten anything? How could this happen if you were decided things?

More generally, how did you decide to have the thought you have right now? Where did it come from? Did ‘you’ decide to think it? Who decided on that decision then? Isn’t it more accurate to say, “a thought just pops in, and that seems to be what I think?”

If anyone has ever been really introspective, they are likely to hit a wall. If you are honest, and have thought about various reasons for behaviour, all you can do is assign probabilities to potential causes. Why did I do X? Maybe it was A, B, or C, but you might be left with a feeling of uncertainty. This is because you do not have full access to what you are. It is an odd sentence, but the speed and complexity of the processing of your brain creates a simpler world for you. There is a problem with this last sentence, which I’ll address after an example.

Your eyes often move around in very short bursts, or saccades. Several of these occur each second, and unless you are tracking a moving object, your eyes are not moving continuously but in these little bursts. These saccades are ballistic, meaning once a saccade begins it does not change trajectory in mid-air. When you read the words in this sentence, you do not read every word. Depending on your reading level, you might just scan part of each word, or you might skip whole words. Think about who is deciding where to look (and why you don’t see the ‘visual smear’ that the world becomes when you saccade? i.e., why don’t you perceive the stuff between saccades?). There have been experiments done to examine the nature of saccades. In one, a participant reads text on a screen while having their eyes monitored in real-time. A person reads along, saccading to words and reading sentences. They perceive it as very straight forward. But, during a saccade (when it is in mid-flight) the program can change the word the participant is saccading to. Here’s the kicker: they don’t notice. This can happen multiple times, and thy still don’t notice. If a second person looks at the screen from further back while the first person is doing the task, they will see the words changing because they are reading at different place/pace. The example is just to display that just because things appear a certain way, doesn’t mean they are.

Do you remember I said there was a problem with the sentence “It is an odd sentence, but the speed and complexity of the processing of your brain creates a simpler world for you”?

The problem is that an unnecessary dichotomy was created. Concisely, I separated you from your brain; this does not correspond to reality and that’s the problem. This occurs VERY frequently. It has to do with a sense of self and personhood, but there seems to be this tendency to say, “Did Josh do it, or did Josh’s brain?” That is an incoherent question. ‘Josh’ is a created (but not like output) by his brain, which is connected to his body, which is connected to the environment. All these things are connected and none of these parts work in isolation.

The topic of free will is an important one, because if one realizes that ‘they’ are a product of the interaction of their genetics and their environment (two things they had nothing to do with, at least initially), then one might feel less judgemental of others. For if you are just ‘fortunate’ enough to have the ‘right’ genes and the ‘right’ environments, and it is easy to imagine things could be different, how mad could you get at someone that has ‘failed’ our codes of behaviour, ethics or morality. I’m not saying remove responsibility, but I think compassion reasonably follows out of realizing that there is no free will (or that oneself is distributed in space and time).

Of course, there are many more issues here, but I think this reply is relatively sufficient to answer your question. You are what is choosing. You are a complex aggregation of billions of parts that exist together and whose design has been successful against numerous others. Some processing systems will be more successful in this world than others. If you happen to be one of the successful ones: a) thank the universe; b) do what you can to help those that weren’t the recipients of your probabilistic success.

Phew! Any questions or thoughts?


Blogger Cosd said...

So, what you’re trying to say (in answer to my question) is:
If “free will” is an illusion, it is worth knowing, because such knowledge allows achievement of a higher level of morality (and understanding), otherwise unattainable?

9:53 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

It's not just about morality (because it is possible to get that elsewhere), but it explains the world better. Again, it isn't just the explanation, it is that there is great empirical support for this.

Almost any issue on this planet, directly or indirectly, relates to thinking. I think most people think about thinking incorrectly.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Xander said...

My response is posted on my blog:

2:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a pretty far leap to connect the evolutionary impulses we have in order to propagate the species into evidence for or against free will. Without elaborating on the fact that humans are not the only animals who are able to communicate, your argument doesn't address specific, widespread contradictions to your premise that we are all slaves to our experience; and implying that behavior and thought can be accurately predicted if enough is known about the individual's experiences and upbringing. I don't remember reading the latter statement in your post, but we have to consider the implications that come along with the ideas that we choose to propose. I would agree that we subconsciously, "choose" based upon our established knowledge base; but I argue that those are only choices that don't require conscious thought. If we define "conscious" as the totality of one's thoughts and feelings, then one would have to examine the underlying emotions and experiences as to why they chose A instead of B. This introspection-which you stated to be impossible-is evident in all those who learn from experience. The stories of the countless people who "beat the odds," those who overcome addiction and even the fact that this communication takes place are all examples of free will. Certainly one has to choose to even engage in philosophical dialogue-which is not an essential function in most socio-cultural groups and certainly not essential from an evolutionary standpoint.

2:03 PM  

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