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"I think therefore I am." Descarte's most basic tenet of free will. But how "free" is it?The more I study this and make observations of the people around me, the more I am convinced that free will is nothing more than an illusion.


"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke.


Now let me rephrase Clarke's third law in context of this discussion:


"Any sufficiently complex memoryplex is indistinguishable from free will."


Note the phrase memoryplex, not memeplex. I'm referring here to our collective memories from the earliest retained memory right up to this instant. That instant has now passed (a few milliseconds ago) and as you continue to read, those instants are similarly passing into your collective memoryplex.


If our decisions are based on what we know (assuming that we're not mentally ill) and what we know is the memories we have formed, then free will simply isn't.


I've thought about this for some time now and I'm only summarising here, but if this is correct, it has frightening implications. For instance, what you've just read, based on what you already know, has influenced you - and you have no choice in what you're about to do: reply, ignore, digest, etc... everything is based on your experience to date plus this last few dozen words of argument.


So how "free" is your will?

Tags: free will

Views: 151

Replies to This Discussion

I personally can't come up with a definition of freedom which could be applicable to the decision making systems of animals and people, except in the legal sense. But I don't think that we are completely deterministic either. Roughly speaking, our brains are comparing the sensory input to the contents of our memory. When there's a match, output signals will be launched. In this stable mode of operation the decision making process is probably as causal as it can be.


This breaks down when there's no match to be found and the brain has to do something new. This is most likely an unstable mode of operation, because the brain hasn't been thrown in it before. Now the usual factors are not enough to yield a decision.


We know what other systems, like the weather, or a pencil on its tip do under these kind of circumstances: details which are normally irrelevant will tip the balance one way or the other. In the brain these details could be something like the kinetics of the atoms in the synapses or the background noise. And if all these factors also happened to be in perfect balance by a miraculous coincidence, then the direction which would ultimately lead to a decision would come from the absolutely random quantum world.


With this sort of reasoning there is enough room for indeterminism in the atomic level, but the free will still does not fit in - unless the concept can also be extended to pencils and to the weather.

This is my understanding of the workings of the brain also...

Basically caused, with the possibility of randomness.

I did see an interesting show about a theory of quantum world, allowing our nervous system to go back in time slightly - or something like that.... it was a bit beyond me, and the presenters of the show I felt also.... :)

As no one yet understands the quantum world yet, that leads me to believe that we won't find out how randomness occures in terms of our thinking, until some one has done some more figuring out...

I was actually trying to argue that the quantum level is not of direct importance for the brain because there is already more than enough randomness in the fluid dynamics and in the brownian motion of the molecules in the synapses, which in turn are influenced by all kinds of things: what we have been eating, how we have been sleeping etc.


Just think of how many factors you'd need to balance, before the quantum fluctuations could be the decisive factor in which direction a sharp needle standing on its tip would fall: all the minor asymmetries in the shape of the needle, the roughness of the underlying surface, temperature, pressure and density variations in the surrounding air, light and shadows, electric and magnetic fields, and so on.



All these things that a computer simulation does not have...


In the film, Short Circuit, Number 5 would crave "input" but when you consider how much input our brains deal with minute by minute - even just riding on a bus or driving a car - while listening to music and talking to another passenger, it's a wonder our minds don't explode!

IBM's Watson project demonstrates natural language ability and mass database of facts - but in terms of a memoryplex it barely even begins to scratch what a human brain achieves.

We spend all our waking ours putting five sensory inputs into working memory and then spend eight (or so) sorting them out - compressing them if you will, and storing them on a hard disk (long-term memory).

I'm interested to know if our brains process a continuous stream of data or as information deltas (the bits that change from moment to moment). The information we receive through our eyes and ears does not change much over short periods so it makes sense that's the way it might work.


I've also noticed that some of us (all of us, perhaps) seem to pre-guess information in a predictive way. (Have you ever noticed those annoying people who try to finish your spoken sentences? They are just vocalising something that we all do.) Prediction saves work - in a way similar to that of a computer systems predicatively caching data. In our case, prediction allows us to concentrate on other things (sensory input) and simply monitor to make sure our predictions are accurate.

I agree with you that the brain has a very many factors that it is dealing with at any one time, but I disagree that it would be called randomness.  It is all caused.  It may be complex, but it is fully caused.  Unless of course there is some quantum element to it - because I know very little about quantum physics I couldn't comment on how this randomness may occure.


It sounds as though you feel happy about the level of possibility due to the complexity of our brain function.  It certainly is very complex with many causal factors present.


I don't think randomness can occur. Quantum mechanics, although cool and very useful for very fine measurements, can properly say nothing about the laws of identity and causality. One cannot use logic, reason and science, which presuppose and are dependent on causality and identity, to have knowledge of a thing that is independent of causality. True randomness is a contradiction. Contradictions don't exist. If something appears random, I suggest that this is simply a demonstration that we have a limit to our perception. This limit is well described as the uncertainty principle. The only part of, say, a basketball that acts as random is it's very very small particles when you try and measure them. The basketball itself is strictly dependent on causality as is the brain and thought.

It interesting that you say that Michael, because when I was first introduced to the idea of quantum mechanics by way of having the double slit experiment explained to me, I was very sceptical.  I was only 12 or so at the time, and I naturally believed that the world should make logical sense.  So it makes a lot of sense to me when I hear you say that true randomness can’t exist and it must be more about the limit to our perception and not a matter of randomness at all.  I have heard of the uncertainty principle, but didn’t know it’s meaning or implications.  I’m wondering if I might just see the world as fully caused then, until quantum science comes up with some concrete answers regarding randomness or other.


I think that for the purpose of communication, technology, science, politics, ethics and more we can and should 'see' the world as fully caused. When trying to pinpoint the accuracy of something to perfection or 100%, we can be said to be limited. This, I believe, is a symptom of being distinct singular portions of reality with necessarily subjective views in addition to the uncertainty principle being a limit of our perception. And while our view is subjective and relative, it is of an objective reality. We can apply reason and logic to this causal realm to have objective knowledge. Maybe not perfect, but valid and true. When we discuss laws and such we should speak literally with knowledge that integrates without contradiction and definitions that only entail essentials. Metaphor should be used for induction and art.

Sounds reasonable to me.  I'm all for some sureity of thought.  If I can base my thinking squarely in the fully caused realm, without too much concern for other factors, I would feel more confident to interpret the world around me, and make basic judgements about how things have happened and what needs to happen next - as well as the implications that has for moral behaviour, social systems and so on. :)


I disagree with your reasoning Michael, but not so much with your conclusions.

According to quantum mechanics, only the probabilities of possible events can be known beforehand. All attempts to give causal explanations for the quantum probabilities have failed (Bell's theorem.) This gets tested every day for instance in quantum computing experiments, so it's actually a pretty well established piece of knowledge. Against this background I find it hard to believe that randomness would have been shown to lead to a contradiction.

Not that any of this would make any real difference for the brain.


From your above statement, I do not see where you disagree with me. By determinism, I do not mean, and I strongly reject the idea of, predeterminism. Things are determined when they are, not before. Beforehand, like you said, all we know or have knowledge of, is probabilities. I can only properly say that the sun will 'come up' this morning (it's now here 00:20 on Thursday) with a very very high probability, but it is not 100%. And I don't need quantum mechanics to show me that. I agree that all causal explanations of quantum phenomenon have come up short, but, imo, this, in no way, entails randomness at the macroscopic level or even makes randomness at quantum levels fact. I understand that our instruments give us apparently random values and demonstrate the appearance of quantum coupling and simultaneity, but it is causality and identity that give us the ability to reason, to create the scientific method and rely on it. If randomness existed, basic epistemology would fail and it comes before science which comes after reason and logic, which comes after the implicit recognition that existence exists and must have causal identity for a consciousness to perceive it. However seemingly random something may seem, it is that way because it must be, based on what came before it. You also seem to equate complexity and randomness. No matter how many factors go into which way a pencil will fall off its point, it will still always fall in a direction determined by the cumulation or influence of all forces. Our brains cannot calculate the factors that cause minor gusts of wind, but our inability to conceptualize billions of micro-forces does not preclude causality. Nothing can. The ability for QM to predict outcomes and measure things with unprecedented accuracy is great and impressive, but this does not mean things are, in and of themselves, random, that cannot exist. We simply do not understand the cause. Calling our new knowledge of the super microscopic realm random for the purpose of creating mathematical models for measurements and predictions, great! However, you cannot properly use them to negate the epistemological foundations of thought that presuppose and are necessary for the execution of reason and logic which makes possible the interpretation of all sciences as well as advanced physics.


Michael wrote: "If randomness existed, basic epistemology would fail..."

I would say it doesn't fail too much because we are practically always dealing with stable systems, whose average properties change only little when there's a small perturbation. I'm personally comfortable to think that when we go beyond this realm, we have true randomness and that the causation in the strict sense of the word doesn't extend to extremely long time scales. In the pencil example, when a specialist would have balanced out all the other known influences, this "quantum factor" would boil down to some random asymmetry in the incoming or outgoing photons.


Michael wrote: "You also seem to equate complexity and randomness."

It's true that I wasn't very precise with what I meant by randomness.

I was thinking that most of the time the brain operation is based on memory and sensory input and all the other factors can be labelled as randomness. These other factors probably vary over time in a way that can't be relied on in the decision making process and which probably don't play any role unless the memory and the sensory input are not enough to yield a decision. So in the end I pretty much agree with you - practically speaking all these factors are causal from the physics perspective and even if they weren't, it wouldn't really make much difference.


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