Free Will – once again – a problem with Trick’s postulate

Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)

Hi Trick,

If the universe were deterministic in the hard sense, then you would be correct in your deductions.

But that does not appear to be the case.

The universe seems to approximate causality in a softer sense, of being at base something quite different – being random within probability distributions.

In large aggregations (of time or “particles”) such systems can be very predictable, but at the level of individual events, they are not predictable in anything other than a statistical sense. Even pilot wave QM has that same characteristic, just in a different form. There is no escaping the quantum weirdness in a sense, it is and must be non-classical, but may not be Copenhagen interpretation. Uncertainty is fundamental to QM.

So QM seems to be clearly telling us that our universe is not hard deterministic, but only approximates determinism at certain levels.

QM also seems to be telling us that all things influence (in a probabilistic sense, though not in the sense of hard determinism) all other things.

In such a world of probabilistic influence, the nature of the boundaries between the systems is the greatest influence on the degrees of freedom that may develop between systems.

And there is no hard causal way of getting there.
One has to be willing to relax boundaries and experiment with the new paradigm, then make one’s own choice about the appropriateness of paradigms.

I agree with you in the sense that the hard blame form of morality is not appropriate, and one needs a more relaxed form of morality, that allows for degrees of influence, and accepts diversity, and acknowledges the need to bring asocial individuals back to being basically cooperative members of society, or to constrain them until they do; which does seem to be the basic Christian sort of message. And I write as a functional atheist (in the probabilistic sense of always retaining some degree of uncertainty about all things even as reality demands action instant by instant) myself, as someone committed to indefinite life extension, and to creating systems that minimise risk to individual life and maximise the degrees of freedom available to individuals within that, acknowledging that we all exist within social and ecological contexts which demand of us minimum levels of responsibility (so freedom is not a freedom to follow whim, but demands of us certain levels of consideration of reality, systems, ecology, and social structures before exploring our whims).

It seems to me, as someone with over 50 years of interest in the nature of consciousness, and having explored it from the directions of biochemistry, ontology, epistemology, systems, games, evolution – it is far from simple, and does in fact seem to be sufficiently complex that should we live for the rest of eternity, with exponentially expanding computational capacities, our maps will never quite be the territory – the dragons of chaos and uncertainty will remain on the charts if one looks closely enough at the detail. That sort of fractal nature does in fact seem to be part of this reality.

So in essence, I reject your prime postulate – of us existing in a hard deterministic universe, and make the strong claim that if one looks closely enough at broad enough sets of evidence, the evidence sets actually strongly support (in the probabilistic sense) the proposition that we live in a universe that only approximates causality at certain scales, and is probabilistic at base. Infinities seem to have that unsettling characteristic.

[followed by Trick linked to his post –]

Thank you for that – clarifies a little.

Without the substantive arguments – the statement “It means that both possibilities, determinism and indeterminism, are equally ‘incompatible’ with free will” still occurs as a statement of faith – rather than one based upon evidence and consideration.

My objection to the logic of this post remains. The statement is only coherent in the case of hard determinism.

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Unabashed Optimist

Unabashedly Optimistic

Optimist or pessimist – which side of the coin do you fall on?

Hi Laurie,

I’d say I’m on the optimistic end of the spectrum most of the time, and that doesn’t mean that I ignore any of the many and significant levels of risk, rather it means I have the confidence to seek them out, explore them, and find effective mitigation strategies.

Risk is an eternal part of life, and life has existed for at least 3 billion years on this planet (and perhaps closer to 4 billion), so while lots of individuals may have died, life has shown an ability to stick around. That gives me a degree of confidence (though not over confidence).

I see many levels of very real risk for us as a species in our very near future, and I am cautiously optimistic that we will survive them, and flourish in a way never before possible.

And that is going to take something, from each and every one of us – a new level of responsibility, a commitment to ongoing exploration of what the idea of responsibility might look like; then being that, consistently.
That will involve diversity, acceptance, respect. tolerance, in ways few have much experience of at present.

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Evonomics – von Hayek

How Hayek’s Evolutionary Theory Disproves His Politics

While I agree that Hayek had some profound insights, and that the information aspect is important, and the complex adaptive systems aspects are important, and that Fred raises two good points, I still see major omissions.

Two fundamental and critical concepts are not mentioned:
1 the cooperative aspect of evolution; and
2 the impact of fully automated production on markets.

Both contain aspects critical to understanding the incentives to systemic failure, and how to avoid them.

Viewing evolution simply as competition is faulty.
All complex systems contain both competitive and cooperative elements.
In the most simple form, if the risks to individuals comes mostly from other individuals like self, then competitive systems will emerge and dominate, and the systemic incentive is to drive to simplicity.
If the risk to individuals comes largely from factors external to the population, then new levels of cooperative systems can emerge, and complexity can increase.

It is a reasonable first order approximation to say that all major advances in complexity of living systems has resulted from the emergence of new levels of cooperative systems. And of course it gets complex quickly, as raw cooperation is vulnerable to exploitation, and thus evolves an evolutionary arms race between detection strategies and cheating strategies that rapidly becomes a complex ecosystem in itself (at all levels).

Markets are founded in scarcity.
If you don’t need anything, you don’t go to the market.
In most places there is no market for air, yet it is arguably the most valuable commodity for any of us.
When most things were genuinely scarce, markets and the concept of money as a general metric of exchange value were great tools that performed many valuable roles in distributing goods, information and governance.

We are now in an age of exponentially expanding automation.
We can now produce a large and exponentially expanding set of goods and services in universal abundance but there can never be any economic incentive to do so universally.

Thus the sort of value that markets and money measure (exchange value, scarcity value) is undermined by fully automated technology.

What most people want is a reasonable abundance of the things they need.

We are rapidly approaching the time when we will have the technology to deliver that – universally, yet the modes of thinking engendered by market measures of value directly work against such universality.

Markets and full automation are anathema to each other.

How we manage transition from scarcity based thinking (money and markets) to abundance based thinking, while preserving distributed systems of information, trust, production, distribution and governance are the critical questions that we have very few years left to get something workable trialed, operational, and ready for universal distribution.

[followed by]

Very similar Fred.
I’ve played with a few toys in my youth, pushed cars, motorcycles, boats, aircraft to limits not many approach. Pushed my body and mind towards a few too.

And even there, going there didn’t actually require a lot of resources (not in the big scheme of things).

Yeah – sure – our rational(ish) consciousness is just the driver of an elephant, and provided the elephant stays calm(ish) the driver can get it do some amazing stuff – particularly if the elephant develops a liking for what the driver wants it to do.

The numbers do seem to be achievable, and there are some provisos.
Diet needs to be largely plant based (but that is required for health anyway).
Large scale engineering (and we need quite a bit of that) needs to be done off planet by fully automated systems (which isn’t actually that much of a technical challenge once full automation is achieved).
We need to be much smarter about how we manage our interaction with the biological systems we are part of on this planet (which is entirely doable, with minimal interference to freedoms, with sufficient appropriate technology – see above).
We need effective working models of distributed trust networks and distributed governance – and again, that seems doable.

So yeah – challenges, and achievable,
And it does need to be done, and soon.

It is creating the various levels of collective will that is becoming rather urgent.
We have less than a decade to make significant progress (like achieve full automation, and have a first workable approximation to global cooperation).

Can be done, and needs significant effort applied sooner (next couple of tens of months) rather than later.

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Free Will – Trick’s Graphic

Free Will Continued

A response to Trick’s graphic

If you have read much of my writing, you will know that it seems very likely to me that we live in a universe that has both lawful and random aspects, and is so complex that it is beyond the capacity of any human being to understand it in detail.

Yet here we are in it, and we have to make our existence within it, so we have to create useful approximations to it that allow us to function in the particular contexts we are interested in.

So if you live in a village somewhere, and never in your life plan to travel more than 50 miles from that village, and never do anything more technically demanding that build a house out of locally sourced lumber, then the idea that the earth is flat will work for you.

If however, you want to make electronic equipment like this laptop I am using to create this message, and want to travel around this globe and know where you are using GPS (Global Positioning System), then it will require an understanding of both general relativity and quantum mechanics to build the equipment (though not to use it) to allow such things.

Those are two different sorts of approximations to how this universe we find ourselves in seems to operate.
Each is useful in its particular context.

Trick’s description of Hard and Soft morality linked to above seems to me to be a very simple approximation to something, that in our modern age actually misses much that is extremely important.

To me, the logic is simple in a sense, and yet the systems are extremely complex.

In the simplest form:
If there is hard causality, if every sequence of events has one and one only outcome, always; no chance ever of anything ever being different – then everything that has ever happened was alway going to happen, and nothing could ever have been any different. From the first instant of the big bang, the fact that I would write these words was inevitable, and I had no choice in anything.

That is a possible sort of world.
It doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of world we actually live in.

The sort of world we live in seems to be much more complex and subtle and interesting than that, and it does seem to very closely approximate the causal at many different scales and in many different contexts.

The vast bulk of my understanding is probability based.

The Idea of Hard morality seems to be a vast oversimplification.
On that Trick and I agree.
And it does seem to approximate something in some contexts.

The degree to which we can manage our many lower levels of impulses to action, the degree to which we can delay gratification, make a sacrifice for our common future, seems to be important, and seems to be a fundamental part of various levels of morality.

It seems to me that there does exist degrees of moral praiseworthiness and blame, and they are not any sort of absolute.
And in all cases I am all for taking such actions as one reasonably can in the circumstances to encourage any transgressor to rejoin the cooperative that is humanity.

And it is far from simple, because we are far from simple, and we come from many different cultures and contexts, with many different levels of understanding and compassion – most of which are very context sensitive in each of us.

I am largely in agreement with Trick in the sense that it is weak as he defines it, that our moral responsibility is rarely if ever absolute, and it is normally but one factor among many. And to me that does not make it any less important, if anything it only makes it more important.

By Trick’s definition I am definitely in the “other free will camp”, but not in the Hard free will camp.
I can relate to aspects of all the camps defined.
I can see contexts where each is an appropriate response.
I am very confident that none of us have total freedom.
Systems cannot exist without boundaries and relationships, and it is the nature of those that defines the degrees of freedom possible in any specific set of systems.

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First Principles

First Principles

‘It cannot be when the root is neglected that what should spring from it will be well ordered.’ Bruce Lee

The vast majority of the game of life is played internally. This can be perceived quite easily if one answers the following 2 questions:

1) Is it possible for someone to have all the riches, wealth, power and external pleasures that the world can provide, and yet still be an unhappy, lonely, and morally bankrupt person?

2) Is it possible for a person to possess very little, yet be truly happy, rich in spirit, abundant in friendship, and a great human being?

Hi James,

There is a minimum physical requirement of wealth that allows for the physical existence of the body and the consciousness it contains.
Having that minimum is essential for all else.

Beyond that all is optional to a degree.

I have no problem with some having Lear Jets if all are well nourished.
I do have issues with a system that promotes market measures of wealth for wealth’s sake, while the vast majority of humanity struggles for basic nourishment, sanitation, healthcare and education.

I agree with you in the sense that once the basic needs of existence are met, then the building of self is primary, and one’s ability to build is very much a function of having the essentials of food, water, sanitation, health, security present, so that one has the time and energy and tools to develop oneself.
And the “tools” in this sense are mostly found in the teachings of others, books, audio, video, etc.
And to become a part of self, the tools must be used, in practice, daily.

And part of that is recognising how our many levels of choices impact all the many levels of systems we are part of – biological, social, cultural, ecological, geological, cosmological.

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Free Will again

A Response to a Blog: This Atheist Believes in Free Will

Trick Slattery’s Blog has a 500 char limit that I only encountered after writing 10,600 characters – so my response is here, and only a link to it there

Hi Trick,

Call me a “Soft Free Will” advocate.

It seems clear to me that a Quantum understanding of reality rejects the notion of hard determinism, and replaces it with one of “constrained chaos”.
The complex numbers of QM vectors deliver a probability of an event when squared.

The smallest time unit that a human can experience is more than 10^30 of these “quantum” time units, so in the world of our normal experience, these probability distributions are populated by vast numbers of instances, and appear as very solid and predictable things most of the time.

So QM seems to deal to hard determinism.

Reality seems to be a balance between the lawful and the random, at many different levels.

That in and of itself, as you accurately point out, does not give us free will.

I am also an advocate of “soft” free will. Free will in the sense of being able to develop degrees of influence.

Certainly, we have many levels of subconscious processes that allow for the emergence of conscious awareness, and for the most part we have little or no knowledge or influence over those.

And when you think about systems, every new level of system requires a boundary of sorts to both instantiate it, and to give it some degree of independence from the level of system from which it emerged.
It is the nature of those boundaries that is critical to the sorts of behaviours and the sorts of independence that can emerge.

Boundaries need to vary in permeability to different classes of “stuff”, and vary in response (flexibility, rigidity, elasticity, etc) to different sorts of influences.
In the average human we have about 20 levels of such systems, from the atomic to molecular to larger scale structures eventually getting to cellular, multicellular, organs, populations, and levels of behavioural/cultural systems.

By the time we get to the emergence of a software entity existent in a software model of reality within a complex biological brain with all of its many lower levels of chemical, emotional and behavioural systems, the degrees of influences at uncertain boundaries can be very interesting.

The sentence you used in you post above is interesting:

“Of couPrWQse th@t woQSuFld notT be vQSDVery heF1lp9ful.”

and I am sure all of us could read it with a little effort.
And I am sure this version could be read almost instantly:

“Of coruse taht wuold not be vrey hlepful. ”

Our brains are very used to dealing with errors and uncertainty.
To a very large degree, we see what we expect to see.

Sometimes we do it so well that we cannot see errors (as anyone who has tried proof reading their own work will know only too well).

The point here is that humans are not rational or deterministic.
What we are is survival machines.
We are highly evolved to exist in complex and changing and uncertain environments.
We have evolved very complex sets of models and understandings.
We have evolved very complex cooperative systems.

I am very clear that the hard determinism that Dan Dennett and Sam Harris champion is not in accord with our best scientific understandings.

I am also clear, that most of the time, at normal scales of human perception, the world does operate in ways that do very closely approximate determinism – for the reasons outlined above.

And having uncertainty in boundary conditions allows systems to tune and regulate the degrees of influence that exist between levels of systems.

So for me, that leaves the sort of free will that one can develop by active choice, and in the absence of such choice, then what happens will very closely approximate deterministic systems.

This sort of free will is a freedom to develop influence, and if it is to survive, then it needs to acknowledge all the levels of systems that must exist for it to exist – and so must exhibit ecological and cultural responsibility. Anything less than that is freedom to manifest extinction.

I am saying that individual life and individual liberty need to be our highest values, and I am also saying that part of any individual living in reality demands of us responsible action in social and environmental contexts.

None of us lives entirely independently.
We all rely on others for many things.
We are all the inheritors of the work of intellectual giants.

This amazingly complex language and science and art and technology and culture that we have, is the result of vast amounts of work by billions of people.

Our connectedness must be understood and acknowledged.

And something very new – unprecedented – is emerging.

Fully automated systems allow us to do much more with less, and to free individuals to spend most of their time doing whatever they responsibly choose.
And that is something that has never in the past been generally available.

Our current economic systems, of using markets to measure value, fail in the presence of the sort of universal abundance possible from fully automated systems.
So we need to develop other mechanisms of trust and distributed coordination and cognition and governance that were once the domain of free markets, and now need to move to other systems.

We live in very complex times, and understanding the nature of the free will that we very definitely do have, if we choose it, is a big part of us surviving the coming singularities.

Had a long discussion of this topic on my blog recently:

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Tragedy of Man



Yes – to a degree, and without reference to the sickness of the social structures within which they exist there is a lack of balance.
Yes – we can all take responsibility for who we are, and there is a degree where taking such responsibility demands of us action to change those aspects of our social systems that are not working as well as they might.

We need to acknowledge the reality of our evolutionary history, and the range of dispositions and probabilities contained in our genetic and cultural makeup – at the same time as we claim our creative heritage to make choices and be responsible for our existence. Both things are real.
Both have influence.

It’s not all one or the other.
It is a very messy and uncertain and varying with space, time and context sort of mix.

It requires acceptance, compassion and a willingness to make hard choices and take difficult actions.
Much of the sickness in our society is structural to the systems present.
We can change that.
We must change that, if we are to have and real chance of long term survival.

Every choice we make as individuals is important.
The more awareness we create, the better.

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