Do we have free will?

Do we have free will?

So many unexamined assumptions in all of this.

What is freedom?

So many different senses to that word.
What might it mean “to act without constraint”? Must one be free from bondage? What about likes and dislikes (aren’t they constraints)? What about pleasure? Isn’t pleasure just an evolutionarily distilled survival assist – also a constraint? How could our evolutionary past possibly have prepared us for the exponentially changing technical and conceptual environment we find ourselves in?

Is it ever sensible to consider being free from all constraints?
How could we possibly exist without the constraints of gravity, electro-magnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces, etc?

Freedom cannot possibly mean a freedom from all constraints.
It must mean having at least a minimum set of constraints necessary for survival, and as much freedom as possible beyond that about what constraints we impose upon ourselves.

David Snowden has quite a bit to say about the role of constraints in complex systems. Some sorts of constraints are essential, and the exact nature of the most optimal set of constraints is always highly context dependent – and in a very real sense, personal.

As others have explored here, we human beings are very complex entities, composed of billions of complex parallel processing systems, most of which operate subconsciously. We absolutely require all that subconscious processing in order to consciously exist at all.

At the conscious level we can choose to condition our subconscious systems to react in certain ways to certain contexts. We can choose strategies to create contexts, or flows of contexts through space or time.

It seems we can create contexts, and in some sense they are usually some sort of variation on a theme of some sort already familiar to us in some context.

Meditation allows one to create gaps between stimulus and response, where one can insert conscious choice if the context calls for it. There seems no end to the recursion possible with this, and situations can impose time constraints.

At yet another level, it seems that our conscious experience is not of reality directly, but of a model of reality created by our brains. That model is populated by sets of distinctions we make through experience. The model also seems to be slightly predictive in nature, usually by around 200 milliseconds. Very few researchers take this predictive aspect of experience into account.

So yes – free will is an extremely complex and hugely dimensional subject.
The idea of absolute freedom is about as sensible as the idea of hard causality.

Much of our science up to Newton was based in the idea of hard causality, that the universe was some sort of grand rule obeying clockwork. But a lot of theoretical and experimental work by a great many people has shown clearly that in the realm of the very small, things are fundamentally uncertain, and essentially random within certain probability constraints.

By the time we get to things big enough for people to sense unaided by very expensive measuring devices, the things available to our experience are composed of vast collections of those very tiny things, and over vast times by their measure of time. Those huge collections behave in ways that give a very close approximation to hard causality; and yet they do in fact seem to be random events loosely constrained by probability functions.

So it seems that the tools of mathematics and logic are great tools for building models, but do not appear to have any direct correlates in reality. Even such a simple mathematical construct as a circle appears not to exist in reality. Every case I have investigated, when one looks closely enough at the boundary, breaks down into some sort of lumpiness that no longer resembles a circle.

Mathematics and logic are great tools to help us create models, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that reality plays by the hard predictive rules of mathematics or logic – when all the evidence we have from Quantum Mechanics points quite clearly to the contrary.

It seems we must each all start from very simple beginnings, and the simplest distinction possible in any domain is a binary.

Children absolutely have to make distinctions like true and false, it is the simplest possible entry into the infinite realm of possible truth values, into the realm of statistics, probability, uncertainty and confidence – yet many people want to hold on to the simple ideas of true and false in domains where they clearly have no place to be, and if used at all tend to be gross simplifications usually inappropriate.

Similarly in the realm of value judgements – the simplest possible distinction is the binary, right or wrong. Children must start with that, and it is clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that reality is far too complex for any individual to be able to determine the ultimate consequence of actions with much confidence at all. All any of us can do is make the best guess we can, with the information, models, heuristics and value sets we have available. At some level, we are all vastly more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. Infinities have that rather unsettling characteristic.

If freedom has any meaning, it has to involve cutting a little slack for the inevitable mistakes that anyone who does anything must make. And Axlerod indicates that it also imposes a responsibility upon us to ensure that those who cheat, and unduly impose constraints on others, are suitably punished (neither too harshly nor too leniently – the math on that rather narrow boundary is also rather clear).

So freedom seems to be really complex, possibly infinitely so, capable of infinite recursion into newly distinguished domains of possible constraints.

No simple answers.
Only constant vigilance!

[followed by]

Hi Amara

Only memories, to the degrees that memories give reliability, and demonstrate consistency.

Seems clear to me that the evidence suggests we are constantly evolving entities, where every experience, every neuron firing, makes some small change in who and what we are. And sometimes those are significant in some context, and most not.

So no, I don’t think there is any sort of essential me other than what I am when I am it, with the memories I have available in the instant.

And there does seem to be a degree of consistency in certain attributes over time, while others change much more freely 😉

[followed by]

Hi Jaxsonlane

It took me a few decades to get this, but once I saw it, it is quite simple.

If there is hard causality in the universe, then everything was predestined at the big bang, we are all automata playing out our illusions of free will and morality. That doesn’t seem a useful or powerful description at any level, and it is a possible description.

Yet I have this subjective experience of freedom (to the degree that I do).

What seems to be the case, from the explorations of Einstein, Hiesenberg, and many before and since, is that the mathematics that give us the most powerful understanding of what is happening in the realm of the very small describe a stochastic system working within constraints.

Summed over vast collections, such systems give us very close approximations to hard causality, of the type we usually experience, such as when working with jet engines, or radio circuits or computers. Yet at the base of those systems is a complex stochastic system with constraints.

In such a system, nothing is absolutely certain, and some things can be far more probable than others, and those numbers can be very close to hard causality in the sort of contexts normally available to unassisted human cognition.

That in itself doesn’t prove we have free will, but it does provide an environment within which a mix of the lawful and the random could produce systems which are very largely self modifying and self determining, at least in ways that are not entirely predictable to outside agents. (Using the complexity theory definitions of agency and boundaries.)

Freedom is a tricky idea.
It seems to me that it involves an ability, at ever recursive levels, to be the director of one’s own destiny, to wrest that influence from the realm of external influences and to bring it mostly within internal systems.
And there cannot be any hard boundaries in such a system.
There must always be influence all the way in and out, through all boundaries, however abstract and buried and shielded they be.

And when I started thinking like this, I looked for some way I might prove it one way or another.

So I looked at the logical tool of mathematics, which is so successful and so useful in helping us model the world. I looked at geometry, and went looking for one of the simplest constructs in geometry – a circle. I have not been able to find one in reality. Approximations at certain scales certainly, but not a single scale independent example.

I suspect that mathematics is a logical construct, useful in approximating reality. I strongly suspect that reality plays by its own rules, in as much as it follows rules at all.

And I use maths every day – it is one of the best tools I have, it works to within useful approximations most of the time.

And a useful approximation, a useful map, is not the thing itself.

[followed by]
Hi Jax,

Taking the simplest possible case – if everything is constrained by hard causal rules, then by definition everything that has ever happened and will ever happen was destined from the first instant of cosmic existence. That is a possible hypothesis, and it would seem to be a cruel cosmic joke if true (giving us each the illusion of choice and moral responsibility and existence as creative beings).

However, the evidence from enquiry into the nature of the very small, the sub atomic quantum realm, seems to very clearly indicate that at the lowest level, reality does not follow hard causal rules, but is probabilistic in nature.

When one sums vast collections of such probabilistic entities, one gets outcomes that are a very close approximation to hard causality, which is why we have the common sense view that stuff follows rules.

If systems are fundamentally probabilistic in nature, then we can be composed of systems where we do have the ability to alter the probability of outcomes through our choices.
Now that leaves us with the very intricate problem of defining what a choice actually is.

One of the best definitions I have encountered is “a free selection, after, and not based upon, reason or consideration.” In this sense, you have choice if, and only if, you claim it.

That seems to be a fairly close approximation to the nature of the beast.
So most of what we experience is of the “close approximation to hard causality” type of experience, that can be predicted with considerable accuracy, and some of it isn’t.

It does seem to be the case, that we can claim choice, and be cause in the matter of some things.
If we lived in a hard causal universe, that would not be possible.

It does in fact seem to be possible, because we live in a stochastic universe, that very closely approximates hard causality at the levels of normal human perception.


About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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