JBP – Free Will

JBP – Free Will

Philosophical question.
Background: I listened to a podcast of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. As we know – Sam Harris says that free will doesn’t exist and Jordan Peterson is in opposition to that. I was thinking about it.
Does existence of free will matter at all? Can we, bounded by our human bodies really tell if we have free will? Will existence or lack of it really change anything?

This is to me the most fundamental question of life.
I think Sam and Dan make several logical errors, that are very common in philosophy, and physics/mathematics.
Put most simply, if there is hard determinism, then there is no choice, everything that has happened, will happen, ever, was already there in the first instant of existence. In such a universe, morality and choice are illusion.
That is a possible mode of existence, and it seems to have been invalidated by the balance of evidence – but Sam and Dan and many others are so attached to the notion that they cannot see past it.

What seems to actually be the case is that this universe we find ourselves in is a balance of the lawful and the random. It seems that at all levels there exists constrained uncertainty (randomness within bounds of probability).
This seems to be what quantum mechanics is telling us about existence.
When you look at such systems over long enough times, or large enough collections (both of which involve large populations of instances) then the probability distributions become so well populated that they deliver very predictable outcomes in aggregate (even as they are unpredictable in the individual cases).

It now seems clear, that only in a world that is such a constrained balance of the random and the lawful can we have both sufficient predictability to have such things as engineering and computers and biochemistry leading to all the levels of complexity we see instantiated around us, and also have the possibility of free will.
And the sort of freedom that can exist in such systems is extremely interesting.
It is not a freedom from all influence, but rather a freedom to create influence.
By default, everything follows from the influences of the past, and in every distribution of pattern, at every level (both within individuals and within populations), there will exist outliers and relationships that are finely balanced at some boundary.
It is at those boundaries, in those balances, that our real choice lives.

To me, as a skeptic, as a trained scientist, as a geek who started a software business 31 years ago that I am still running, as someone who has been looking into existential risk at every level I can discover (and effective mitigation strategies), I find Jordan to have the best understanding I have encountered in another of the evolutionary significance, and mythological understanding of the importance of this ever evolving boundary between order and chaos.

I see in our modern society a tendency to order, to systems, to law, that is a fundamental existential level risk to us all, as it completely hides and masks the very real uncertainties and risk present in that failure of balance at many levels.

When I read Dawkins’ 1976 classic (Selfish Gene) in 1978, it was the most profound work I had encountered, as it was the first clear exposition of the evolution of cooperation I had encountered.

I am now clear from a strategic systems perspective how evolution works, and that the emergence of new levels of complexity is predicated upon new levels of cooperation and creativity, and that competition always tends to reduce complexity and drive systems to simplicity. And naive cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by “cheating” strategies, and so at every level there emerges a complex evolutionary strategic “arms race” of secondary systems required to detect cheating, expose it, and return the cheats to the cooperative. And that latter aspect of returning those individuals using cheating strategies to using fundamentally cooperative strategies is something that is absolutely required for long term stability, and something that is captured in the essence of Christianity in many readings. So in that sense, I see enormous power in Jordan’s expression of the power of the unknown and the “divine” within each of us to give us profound insight into what is required in reality.

Our modern systems of money and law are now taking us into profoundly risky territory (in their imposed order, and lack of acceptance of chaos and novelty), and need to be balanced by a profound respect for individual life and individual freedom, which must be expressed in the universal provision of opportunities of life (water, food, shelter, education, communication, transport, medical support, security, freedom); and those must be balanced by individual responsibility in both social and ecological contexts, both of which are profound and eternal explorations of uncertain territories.

So I see in Jordan’s understandings and explanations one of the best possible simple explanations of the profound uncertainties and responsibilities and opportunities in existence, that to me are evident from explorations of evolutionary biology, cosmology, geology, complexity, information theory, and the nature of infinities.

An essential part of that was, for me, seeing that mathematics was a system for creating models and maps of this territory we call reality, and they are the best maps we can have, and they are not necessarily the territory itself. Even with the most profound knowledge of mathematics and logic possible, there can remain eternal uncertainty. Wolfram’s NKS is a clear pointer in that direction.

So I love Jordan’s mix, of respect for the past, for the deep lessons of culture, mixed with the explorations of the possibilities of the present, mixed with an acceptance of the eternal need for outliers that create the new paths to safety. And there must exist risk and uncertainty, particularly at those boundaries that are so distant from the common understanding of our social groups.

[followed by]

Steve Russell
Hi Steve,
Actually, what you said makes no sense, in maths or logic or reality.
What we find is that “laws” are approximations to something, that work at certain scales.
The idea that the earth is flat is close enough if you are building a house with lumber.
The idea that the earth is round and the stars are fixed is close enough if you are sailing around the planet using a sextant for navigation.
The idea of Newtonian gravitation is close enough to predict the orbits of earth and moon and planets to within a few meters over a few centuries – which is close enough for most purposes.
To get a constellation of GPS satellites to give us accuracy at centimeter level we need relativistic space time.
Each level of successive approximation is useful in its context – so in that sense they remain “laws”, and each has limits of utility.

It seems clear that all of our laws are useful approximations to something at certain scales and in certain contexts.

And at some scales and some contexts they can be very useful indeed – as evidenced by the systems that make this communication between us possible. The layers of systems present that reduce the probability of error in transmission and display of these symbols, and the meaning encoded within them are indeed amazing- few people have much idea just how complex they are, how contextually sensitive and constrained their reliability, the narrow ranges of temperature, voltage, frequency, etc, required to sustain them. So many levels of systems and constraints and checks required.

So yes – in a sense, our laws work in the contexts that they do, and to the degrees that they do in those contexts. They are very useful and valuable tools, and it is a deep mistake to go beyond that.

[followed by]

Hi Steve,
To my understanding, QM seems to be telling us that at the base level, one cannot know pairs of quantities, like position and momentum. The more you constrain one, the more dispersed (randomised) becomes the other. And there seem to be fundamental limits to the degrees that things may be known.
It really does seem to be more than simple “approximation”.
QM seems to be saying that there is fundamental randomness, fundamental uncertainty, present.
And within those constraints, given large samples, one can derive some aspects of collections over time with very high confidence.
That seems to be the nature of this reality we find ourselves in.

If some of the mathematicians are right, and there really are infinities within the finites we can sample, then there must be a real sense of randomness present in such things.

[followed by]

Of course QM applies.
Electronics, transistors, rely upon quantum tunneling.
Many macroscopic devices rely upon quantum effects – all life in fact – many of our biochemical systems rely upon quantum processes.
The notion of free will can only make sense if there is the possibility of cause and effect not always having the same relationship, if there are in fact probabilities, rather than hard necessities, in relationships.
It is only in such systems that the notion of freedom has any real meaning.
If hard causal rules always apply, then there is only necessity.

That does not seem to be the case in our reality.

It does in fact seem to be the case that there is a fundamental probabilistic aspect to all relationships.
We do in fact seem to have the power of choice, if we claim it.
Morality does in fact seem to be something real.
Our choices, or lack thereof, do in fact seem to have real impacts in existence.
It matters what we choose to do.

A little over 7 years ago I made a choice to do what I could to change the probabilities of my survival. I had not planned on having an oncologist send me home “palliative care only”, after being told I could be dead in 6 weeks, and there was nothing known to medical science that could alter that.
I challenged that.
I read a lot.
I tried a lot.
I am still here, 6.5 years free of tumours.
That took a lot of persistent choices, a lot of overriding the defaults of my likes and dislikes in respect of food.
For me it worked.

Few have the discipline not to cheat, even once, for thousands of days.

That was (is) a choice.

[followed by]

Steve Russell
Hi Steve,
Completely agree with you about the pseudo-science of mind over matter being nonsense – that is not what I am talking about.

What interests me is the effect of systems on probabilities, how software can influence hardware, and the degrees of independence that can occur in very complex systems.

That is what free will looks like to me.

As someone who started with a passion for biology, and delved deeply into the connections between atoms and behaviour, then got into computers, complexity, chaos, complex adaptive systems, far from equilibrium systems, etc, the often very subtle ways in which systems interact and influence each other, across all levels, started to fascinate me. I grew up on farms, learned to hunt early, so had some practical understanding of animal and plant behaviour before getting into the theories available.

It is a really complex set of topics, with really complex sets of relationships and interactions, and after 50 years of immersion in the topics, it is very clear to me that those boundary regions, the regions where the illusion of hard determinacy clearly breaks down, are fundamental to many aspects of being. All creativity, all choice, can only come from delving into those regions. And there are real dangers there, real chaos, they are, by definition, beyond prediction. And we need them.
Look at the history of the transformation of understandings we see in just the last few thousand years of human understanding, then the last few hundred, then the last few decades, then the last few years, the last few months.
None of those transformations were possible by sticking strictly to the previous paradigms.
Each required going beyond what was known and accepted as “Truth”.
Each was, by definition, heretical.

Not all claims that are beyond the bounds of the known are valid – most are not, and some are.

Being prepared to look, to test, to look carefully at the results of those tests, is important.

Most people seem to prefer certainty to existence.
In the last 7 years, since I managed to cure myself of “terminal cancer”, it has amazed me how many people would rather die than change their diet consistently, no exceptions.
The sort of discipline required to do that, and the will to execute it, in the face of no agreement from those in authority, seems quite rare.
And to me, who has never known anything else, that seems strange.

I am me, not anyone else.

I cannot give another my experiences, my intuitions, my abstractions.
I can only point in the direction of those things.
I can never have the experience of being other than me, and being married is about as close as I can get to that.

So I can say things, suggest to people that they do what it takes to read and understand Einstein, Goedel, Feynman, Darwin, Dawkins, David Snowden, Wolfram, etc; but I cannot make people read those things in the way I did, going over and over until I was confident that I had all the relevant concepts and understood what was being written about; then integrating them all, and developing further levels of abstraction. I don’t have the time to write all that out, too much that needs doing.

And I can leave conversations like this, as a sort of “trail of breadcrumbs”, for anyone who is interested to follow (human or non-human, biological or non-biological).

For me, JBP added something to the puzzle, something not at all easy to explain, deeply metaphorical.

And part of it is in the notion of freedom, and part of it in the notion of responsibility that must come with freedom if it is to survive very long in this reality we seem to find ourselves in.

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 www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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83 Responses to JBP – Free Will

  1. I was a teenager in the public library, reading about the determinism “versus” free will paradox. The idea that everything I did was inevitable bothered me, until I ran across this thought experiment:

    Suppose I have a choice between A and B. I feel myself leaning heavily toward A. So, just to spite inevitability, I’ll choose B instead! Seems too easy. But then I realize that my desire to spite inevitability just made B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A to avoid the inevitable. But wait, now A is inevitable again … it’s an endless loop!

    No matter what I choose, inevitability always switches to match my choice!

    Hmm. So, who or what is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?

    Like

    • As I tried to explain above, to me freedom is not a absence of the influences of the past, but the creation of an ability to influence.

      Some of it is captured in the old Cherokee story of the two wolves within:
      http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TwoWolves-Cherokee.html

      So the answer to your question seems to be both: both and neither.
      To the degree that you have practiced choice, to the degree that you cultivate something other than the influences of the past, then to that degree, one creates freedom.

      And we are very complex entities – about twenty levels of complex systems – writing as a systems geek.

      Like

      • Sorry, Ted, I wasn’t trying to ask a question, just providing a simpler answer. What we inevitably will do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. Thus, causal inevitability is not a meaningful constraint. It is nothing we can or need to be “free of”. In fact, without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all. So the illusion is not free will, but rather the illusion is that causation is a some thing controlling us.

        Our mental error is the human tendency to reify concepts, to imagine them as things that exist in reality, when they are actually only descriptive of the relationships and interactions of the objects and forces that do all the causing.

        We, for example, exist as objects in the real world, as living organisms, and as intelligent species. As such we participate in three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. When we decide for ourselves what we “will” do, when “free” of coercion or other undue influence, we call it a “freely chosen will”, or simply “free will”.

        In every choice we make of our own free will, two things are simultaneously true:
        (A) Because our choice was made according to our own purpose and our own reasons, it is of our own free will.
        (B) Because our choice was made according to our own purpose and our own reasons, it is causally determined.
        The concepts of free will and determinism are thus compatible, when both are properly defined.

        It is only when we mistakenly define determinism as “the absence of free will” or mistakenly define free will as “the absence of determinism” that we create the incompatibility.

        Like

  2. Hi Marvin,
    I’m something of a systems geek.
    As long as I can recall I have asked “why?”, and tried to work out relationships, to fix things that are not working. I have clear memories of doing that for over 55 years, and if my dad’s stories are true I have been doing it for about 60 years.

    As a kid I was good at math and science, and useless at English.
    I studied lots of things, biochemistry, computing, physics, philosophy, evolution.

    I could see in philosophy a tendency to dualism, causal matter, and free spirit as two independent domains.
    From my understanding of evolution, that didn’t seem likely.

    Thus one of my quests in life has been trying to understand how we can have both sufficient causality to build and operate computers and jet engines and all the rest of engineering, and also have the real freedom to choose important aspects of being.

    If all relationships are hard causal, then the idea of free will is pure illusion. That is what Dan Dennett and Sam Harris and many others believe. And much as I respect Dan and Sam I am confident, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that they are wrong.

    What actually seems to be the case is that the rules of this universe we find ourselves in are a very close approximation to causal, but not quite.
    At base, they seem to be constrained randomness.
    At the tiniest levels we can examine, the measurements we make, and the mathematics that seems to best fit the observations, seems to indicate that reality can only be defined to certain limits, and beyond those limits, if you constrain one aspect, then another aspect gets randomised. There seems to be a fundamental unknowability to things, but it is constrained, so that in aggregate things become very predictable indeed, so long as they are held within certain constraints (of things like ranges of temperature, voltage, pressure, electric field, magnetic field, etc). Operating within those limits we can create machines that work indefinitely. Go beyond them, chaos results.

    So my quest has been to understand how it can be that we have degrees of freedom of choice, and computers that work without error for years (I had an example of that in a company I was doing work for about 20 years ago, when their mail system stopped working, and no one could find the computer that it was running on. Eventually we found it in a broom closet, on old 386 box running red hat linux, it had been running for 8 years without an error, and no one in the tech side of the company had worked there that long.).

    Now I am confident that I see how the advanced software that is our self aware consciousness, running on the hardware of our brains, within the operating system that for each of us begins as culture, can in fact create levels of influence that can have real freedom from the choice side, if not from the consequence side.

    So it is a far from simple idea.
    It is one of the most profoundly complex ideas I have encountered, and involves some 20 levels of systems (abstractions).
    And all I can hope to do in a communication like this is to create confidence that I do have such an understanding, not to actually replicate that understanding in another.

    I hope that makes more sense.
    The answer I have given is the simplest I can think of that doesn’t lose something essential in translation.

    Like

    • Ted, I find it’s simpler if we start by presuming perfectly reliable cause and effect, at every level of causation, and then use pragmatism to point out the operation we are actually referring to by the term “free will”.

      Rather than 20 levels, I find 3 levels to be meaningful. There is physical causation, which accounts for the behavior of inanimate objects. There is purposeful or goal-directed causation which emerges with the first biological organisms as a biological drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Finally there is rational causation, a calculated choice as to the best means to achieve our purpose.

      There is both bottom-up and top-down causation. In an intelligent species certain matters are bumped upstairs to the brain where it figures out an adaptive response to assure internal needs are met within the current social and physical environment. Lots of other functions are autonomic, but species with computing power can create adaptations that other living organisms cannot.

      We imagine many possible ways to solve a problem, apply some relevant criteria for evaluating them, and choose the one that best suits our purpose and our reasons and our feelings. These mental processes are running on the hardware of our neurology.

      Our reasoning is deterministic. One of our options seems to be better than the others, so we choose that one. Since we have calculated that it is the best option, there is no reason to choose any other.

      This reasoning however is not being performed by physics. It is being performed using a physical structure. The computer can run any number of different processes. And the processes can be run on any number of different computers. Without the hardware the process cannot run. Without the process the hardware has nothing to do.

      But back to free will. It is never about being free from causation. Freedom from causation is an “oxymoron”, a self-contradiction, because without reliable cause and effect we cannot reliably cause any effect, and thus would not be free to do anything at all.

      Free will is about who or what is controlling the choice. Free will is when we decide for ourselves, when free of coercion or undue influence. Someone holding a gun to your head and telling you what to do is coercion. He is subjecting your will to his, and thus your will is not freely chosen, but rather he is doing all the choosing.

      Reliable causation is not a meaningful constraint. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to what we would have done anyway.

      Like

  3. Hi Marvin
    The problem is actually the notion of “perfectly reliable cause and effect”.
    I see a huge distinction between reliable cause and effect, and “perfectly reliable”.

    It is that difference that is what I am pointing to.

    I don’t see three sets of causation.
    I can see how evolution selects systems that are ever more capable of survival. Thus we go from simple molecules, to replicating molecules, to complex life.

    The problem is, that if “cause and effect” are perfect in all cases, then there can be no choice, as every thing that would happen was present in the first instant of the big bang, and it simply required time to unfold.
    That is the notion of hard cause and effect.

    What I am talking about is something different.
    It is something that is a very close approximation to cause and effect at many scales, but has constrained chaos- within probability constraints – so that cause and effect works in most situations, and it isn’t always “perfect”.

    It is my contention that this is the sort of reality that Quantum Mechanics points to, and it is consistent with the evidence we have.

    So yes – we need cause and effect that is reliable in most contexts, and we have to have contexts in which the reliability of cause and effect is relaxed – and we do have genuine chaos.

    And yes – complex life does appear to have a drive to survive, and that “drive” is composed of sets of systems selected from variants over the last 4 billion years, though the process of evolution by natural selection. It doesn’t require anything more complicated than that.

    And some forms of life have evolved brains capable of modeling reality at some resolution, and modeling alternative possibilities, and selecting actions consistent with achieving that possibility with some probability that is better than random.

    And one form of life (us) has evolved a language and culture capable of dealing with abstract notions, and extremely complex models of reality, and extremely complex systems.

    One of the things that had intrigued me, and which I have now resolved, to my own satisfaction, and is the subject of the original post, is how we can have both choice, and computers and jet engines.
    How is it that one reality can deliver all of these things?
    Can we conceived of systems that can do that without invoking any sort of dual (or higher) sort of nature (matter and spirit).

    I say we can.
    I say I have.
    I say that (in broad brush terms) I understand how we got from the big bang to us, and how we can get from here to indefinite life extension and individual security and empowerment beyond anything ever approximated in history.

    That was why I wrote what I did.

    Just to say that it is possible to get get from quarks to us, by invoking only evolution and quantum uncertainty at the Planck level.

    And we are exceptionally complex systems – about 20 levels of systems.
    One does need to get a handle on that to get some idea of just what we are capable of – and getting some idea of that will be very important in determining what happens to us over the next few decades.

    Like

    • Ted, It will sound odd to you at first, but I believe these two common assumptions are both incorrect:
      (a) If cause and effect are perfect in all cases, then there can be no choice.
      (b) If cause and effect are perfect in all cases, then every thing that would happen was present in the first instant of the big bang.

      The first is mistaken because, regardless of the reliability of cause and effect, we can empirically observe choosing as an actual event happening in the real world. “Choosing” is what we call a process in which multiple options are input, some relevant criteria is applied for comparative evaluation, and a single “choice” is output.

      For example, we empirically observe a woman going into a restaurant, sitting at a table, perusing the menu, and then, based upon her purpose (to eat) and her reasoning (her dietary goals) choosing a meal and giving that choice to the waiter.

      Whether her choice was predetermined from the Big Bang, or some combination of random causation mixed with reliable causes, it remains true that it was the woman herself that performed the choosing operation, and that it was a product of her own purpose and her own reasons.

      The second assumption, that the entirety of future events effectively happened during the Big Bang, is, well, that’s just a bit of silliness on Einstein’s part. No event can logically happen until all prior causes of the event have play out. While it is fair to say that all events are causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity, we cannot logically say that they have already been “caused” by that prior state, because nothing can be said to be fully caused before its last prior cause is complete.

      The last prior cause of the woman’s choice, of what to have for lunch, was the choosing event that took place in her own brain. And this too remains empirically true, regardless of whether this choice could have been predicted based upon how things were at the instant of the Big Bang.

      Free will is not “freedom from causation”. Free will is what we humans call the empirical event where a person decides for themselves what they will do, when free of coercion or undue influence. And reliable causation is neither coercive nor an undue influence. It is what we all rely upon to implement our choices.

      The correct logical opposite to reliable cause and effect (causal determinism) would be unreliable cause and effect (causal indeterminism). Causal determinism means that when I pick an apple from the apple tree, I’ll have an apple in my hand. Causal indeterminism means that when I pick an apple from the apple tree, there is no telling what will happen. Perhaps gravity will reverse.

      Like

  4. Hi Marvin,

    As someone who has been programming computers for over 40 years, I am very clear that if cause and effect are perfect in all cases, then there can be no choice, only necessity. Choice in such a system is entirely illusory (as Dan and Sam are so fond of pointing out – in many books and lectures and debates).

    I understand that there is a common sense experiential view that is different, and it is that experience that has been a large part of the driver in me to look sufficiently deeply for a substructural matrix that can deliver both the sort of reliability of determinism that we see and need, and the sort of possibility of freedom that actually allows for free choice in some types of systems.

    That is what I am trying to point to, and the problem is very real in the deepest of philosophical and logical and mathematical senses.

    It is not at all silliness on Einstein’s part.
    The logic is inescapable.
    If every event is in every case always and only the result of deterministic prior events, THEN there can be no break in the chain of causality, and there is a very real sense in which these characters appearing on your screen was there in the instant of the big bang, and no other outcome was possible.

    Such a system of being is a possible system of being, and it does not in fact seem to be the one we are in.

    We can observe lots of things, but few people understand all the layers of systems involved in the things we observe.
    Few people understand that our conscious act of observing is never an observation of reality itself, but is rather always an observation of a subconsciously generated software model of reality, that is composed of distinctions generated by our neural networks that are partly the result of current stimuli, partly the result of past stimuli, partly the result of distinctions and abstractions and choice, partly the result of systems encoded over deep time by biochemical evolution, partly the result of software systems encoded over deep time by cultural evolution, etc.
    As experiential beings we are so deeply embedded in systems that we are, for the most part, completely unaware of, and we think of them as the reality of our existence.

    It is certainly our experiential reality, but the relationship of that to “objective reality” is far less reliable outside of the realm of the sorts of experiences readily available to evolutionary pressures (macroscopic things for the most part).

    For there to be any sense in which a person can be said to “decide for themselves” rather than to be merely the result of prior causes, then there must exist some level of freedom from absolute causality.
    Fortunately, that does in fact seem to be the case.
    It does seem to be the case that at the Planck scale, determinism break down to a balance between order and chaos. And that balance seems to be real at other levels also.
    I don’t think Jordan has made all the connections, but he is certainly very conscious of the presence of that balance in mythology and religion, and its connection to evolution.

    I make the strong claim that the imposition of order that some (like Dan and Sam and many others) are attached to is dangerous. I make the strong claim that such order imposes existential level risk to humanity and to sapience generally.

    And it is a very delicate balance that we must achieve to survive.
    We must each be able to act responsibly in both social and ecological contexts, and the heuristics we use to define what responsibility looks like must be able to change as contexts change (and the contexts are changing on double exponential curves right now).

    So at the surface level – I kind of agree with you, and at the deepest of levels, we seem to be worlds apart.
    And at those deeper levels, the differences are critical to the sorts of systems we create over the next few years that will allow us to survive, or not.

    The more people who are able to get some sort of feel for the levels of risk present, and the levels of systemic response required, the better off we will all be.

    Like

    • Ted, I’ve had plenty of computer experience as well. I taught myself Basic on a paper tape machine, and Cobol where programs were keypunched onto those orange cards. We had a Burroughs medium system, which was cool because they were built to run Cobol, and when you printed a dump the addresses were all in decimal (but the data was EBCDIC). It was a great learning experience especially when Burroughs came out with Disk Forte, a database creation language that generated Cobol code. Same for their Network Definition Language, but it had portions that used Enter Symbolic to revert to assembler for certain routines. We developed an Admissions system for the Hospital (UVA) and I wrote the room transfer code. The bad news was that our DBA didn’t think we needed a test database! So I ended up writing code to simulate the Disk Forte routines that we could copy into our programs for testing. Also wrote some screen decompression routines because our Burroughs tech guy had written compression logic using screen addressing. I was able to run tests of my logic while printing off screen images of the user interface and list the contents of the “database” before and after the test.

      But I’ve never done any scientific programming. All of this was basic record-keeping and reporting.

      And then came Y2K … but that’s a story for another day. But back to our free will problem:

      Ted: “I am very clear that if cause and effect are perfect in all cases, then there can be no choice, only necessity.”

      Marvin: Choice is a matter of necessity. Your purpose and your reasons necessitate your choice. Choosing is a deterministic process. Always has been. Always will be.

      Ted: “there can be no break in the chain of causality”

      Marvin: And there IS NO BREAK in the chain of causality. There is strict determinism before you. There is strict determinism within you. And there is strict determinism following you.

      Ted: “there is a very real sense in which these characters appearing on your screen was there in the instant of the big bang, and no other outcome was possible.”

      Marvin: Everything that happens is always causally inevitable. However, there were no future states in existence at the time of the Big Bang. All future states came about by the natural and totally reliable interaction of objects and forces over time. One can only say that it is AS IF all future states were present in the Big Bang. And it is the AS IF that gets lost and leads to mental fallacies.

      Ted: “Few people understand that our conscious act of observing is never an observation of reality itself, but is rather always an observation of a subconsciously generated software model … ”

      Marvin: The transformations of raw sensory data to meaningful informational models is a staged process performed by many areas of the brain, long before it becomes a matter of conscious awareness. And we only become consciously aware of it when it is something that needs our attention.

      But here’s the key, Ted. A model of reality, being the only way that we can experience reality, is called “real” when it is sufficiently accurate to be of practical use. It is only called “illusion” when it is inaccurate and misleading in some practical fashion. For example, if I reach for a real apple on the table, I can pick it up and take a bite. But if I reach for a holographic image of an apple, my hand will pass right through it. This is how we distinguish accurate models of reality from illusions.

      So, getting back to the woman in the restaurant, I observe her really making a choice, in the same way that I observe a real apple on the table. And if we want to actually get inside her head, we can do a functional MRI, and the neuroscientist can point to the monitor and say, “There, she’s doing it right now”. Choosing is an empirical event that actually happens in reality.

      Ted: “I make the strong claim that such order imposes existential level risk to humanity and to sapience generally.”

      Marvin: I don’t understand. Are you speaking of global warming?

      Like

  5. Hi Marvin

    Yeah – I started in an IBM1130 – paper tape boot loader then the operating system from punch cards.

    Quantum mechanics is very clear – that causality is mostly a matter of probability, not hard causal certainty.

    We are not communicating – our words must mean different things to each of us.
    For me, the idea of choice only makes sense if one has the freedom to choose, if not it cannot be a choice.
    Having that freedom demands a degree of independence – a freedom from causal rules.
    If that isn’t the case, then it isn’t a choice, only a predestined action.

    But quantum mechanics is founded on the notion that pairs of properties cannot be known beyond a certain limit. It is that simple fact that gives atoms the form that they have, the arrangement of electron shells, etc.
    But QM is not at all like the world of our macroscopic experience, yet our world of macroscopic experience does seem to be based in QM.

    QM is 100% clear – there is not and nor can there be strict determinism.
    Holding on to the notion that there can be is to reject all that we know that comes from QM – which is chemistry, electronics, etc.

    It is much deeper than the “AS IF”.

    The idea you express of models – ‘here’s the key, Ted. A model of reality, being the only way that we can experience reality, is called “real” when it is sufficiently accurate to be of practical use’ is odd.
    The idea of something being “sufficiently accurate to be of practical use” is a very long way from hard causality.
    I agree in a very practical sense – yes – that is how it works, we all use heuristic based models that are good enough to work most of the time in the contexts we work in.
    The idea of causality, is one such model, that works most of the time at the macroscopic scale of normal human experience.
    It doesn’t work anywhere near as well at the scale of atoms or below.
    At that scale, we need very different sets of heuristics.

    For me, the term choice means much more than simply a selection.
    I can program a computer to select something, and I would not say that it is choosing, because it has no freedom in its selection.
    We are not entirely free of influence, and we can attain degrees of independence, the more aware and practiced we are the greater the degrees of independence we can achieve.

    Re risk – no, nothing at all to do with global warming.
    Global warming is a technically trivial problem to solve, though in the current technological climate it has very complex political dimensions.

    The risk I see is much deeper, systemic, in the intersection of exponential trends in technology with rigid rule sets in our legal and financial institutions in particular, and more widely in the cultural constructs present for most people, and the chaos that must happen unless we have significant systemic change soon.

    And I am not all doom and gloom – I am actually more confident of humanity surviving than at any time in the last 50 years, and the risks are still significant – I estimate about a 40% probability of an event that results in the death of the majority of humanity in the next 30 years.
    On the flip side – the 60% chance is that we survive the transition to post scarcity abundance and every person gets to live in a cooperative society with very high levels of individual freedom and individual security and resourcing to do whatever one responsibly chooses. And responsibility includes both social and ecological contexts – so a lot of limits on freedoms we once had, and still a lot of amazing options for us to explore.

    Like

    • Ted, One of the issues we face with determinism is the distinction between causation and prediction. I think that “randomness” and “chaos” are issues of prediction rather than issues of causation.

      When we flip a coin we do not know which side will show up. We only know that sometimes it will be heads and other times it will be tails. So we call it “random”. However, it should be physically possible to build a machine that will successfully turn up heads on every flip, like a skilled knife thrower who must control the number of rotations precisely to assure the tip rather than the hilt hits the target.

      With “chaos” we also have strict physical causation, however the complexity quickly multiplies to where the outcome becomes unpredictable, even though every effect is reliably caused.

      My view of QM is that it too is most likely a matter of unpredictability rather than the lack of reliable causation. One could just as easily call gravity a “spooky motion at a distance” if it were not for the fact that it is so familiar to us that we take it for granted.

      So I do not presume that QM will provide us with any escape from reliable causation. And I believe we must find our freedom within a world where the causes of an event will be some combination of physical, purposeful, and rational causation. (We could add QM as another level below physical, but keep in mind that reductionism is theoretically unlimited, we’ll always have to deal with “the smallest part of the smallest part”).

      And we do in fact find our freedom in purposeful and rational causation. No one expects to be free of our biological selves to decide for ourselves what we will eat. Eating is not something that we are not free to live without. Yet we have a broad selection of foods to choose from.

      When mother says to Johnny, “No, you may not eat your dessert until after you finish your vegetables”, Johnny is compelled against his will to eat his vegetables. His mother is controlling what Johnny will eat. When John is a man it will be his own choice, one that he is free to make for himself, without undue influence from his mother. And we call this “free will”.

      The events in both cases, young Johnny and John as an adult, are perfectly causally inevitable, but that inevitability does not prevent us from distinguishing. In one case it was causally inevitable that he would be coerced by his mother’s authority to eat his vegetables. In the other case it was causally inevitable that he would choose what he would eat of his own free will.

      My problem with traditional determinism is that it goes up against the wrong target. The correct opposite of determinism is indeterminism, or “freedom from causation”, NOT “free will”. And when so-called “hard” determinists attack “free will” they end up attacking moral and legal responsibility, with unintended consequences (see for example, http://eddynahmias.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Neuroethics-Response-to-Baumeister.pdf ).

      Any version of determinism that fails to recognize purpose and reason as causes, and fails to view human beings as physical objects with purposeful causal agency, is simply inaccurate, and untruthful. Determinism minus free will is fatalism. And that’s the problem with the traditional view.

      Like

  6. Hi Marvin,

    Have you ever delved into quantum mechanics?

    I am not an adept at it (or anything else), I am a generalist; but I try to build sufficient understanding in all fields to be able to communicate meaningfully with most specialists.

    Feynman’s lectures are a great introduction.

    There are two major classes of chaos – deterministic and non-deterministic, with perhaps infinite subclasses within each of those classes.
    Sure, there are classes of things that are deterministic and not predictable.
    And there do also seem to be classes that are neither deterministic or predictable, other than in a purely statistical sense.

    At root of all the matter we see, it seems that the very structure of atoms is given by a combination of the Planck constant and this purely random (within statistical bounds) aspect.

    It really does seem to be the case, that at root, there really is a fundamental balance between the lawful and the chaotic.

    Reality at this level seems, on the basis of vast amounts of evidence, to be not causal in any hard sense, only in the soft sense of statistical relationships over populations of samples.

    I have no problem with this.
    Having that softer “statistical” sense of causal relationship does allow for relationships between things to have real unpredictability of outcome; does actually allow for “choice” as I have defined it above to be a real thing; rather than simply being some form of Dan Dennett’s hidden lottery. I think Dan (and most other philosophers and logicians in history) have made a fundamental error in taking the stance that they have, rather than relying on evidence (all of the evidence).

    It really does seem that hard causality is simply a heuristic that works most of the time at the level of things that are normally available to our unaided human senses, and is not a property of reality generally.
    Some people who understand quantum mechanics seem to understand some of the ramifications of that.
    Few people seem to have taken those implications deeply in the strategic territory delivered by evolution at all the levels embedded and embodied in entities like ourselves.

    We agree that “Determinism minus free will is fatalism”, yet you seem reluctant to accept that free will is only possible in a reality with soft (probabilistic) determinism.
    That is the sort of universe that Quantum Mechanics seems to saying we exist in.

    To me, the logic is clear – hard determinism = fatalism – and the destruction of morality – there is no escape – and the end of that path is not pretty.

    Accepting that one must give up hard determinism is the hardest part of beginning to understand quantum mechanics.
    Avoiding the trap of falling into post modern nihilism in the next hard bit. As it takes quite a bit of work in probability spaces to be clear that there is a world of difference between saying all things contain uncertainty and all things are equally uncertain (the fundamental error of most postmodernists). The degrees of uncertainty present are really important to understand, and vary hugely with context. And most of them do seem to fall out of the Planck uncertainty relationship – which does seem to be fundamental to both atoms and the possibility of free will, but in profoundly different ways.

    Accepting quantum uncertainty, actually allows us to also claim choice, and to accept the moral responsibility, in both social and ecological realms (and all of their derivatives – including technological) that come with that.

    It does actually take quite a bit of work in strategic and probability spaces to be clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that our survival as both individuals and as a species is predicated upon acceptance of those responsibilities.

    Like

    • Ted, I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Donovan’s song “There is a Mountain”, but it is about this story told by a Zen monk, which I’ve copied from the Wikipedia article and will paste here:

      “Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.” (Wikipedia references Buddhism & Science: A Guide for the Perplexed Donald S. Lopez, P. 227)

      Sometimes the free will “versus” determinism debate looks like a koan, a riddle given by the Zen master to the Zen student to solve (as in “What is the sound of one hand clapping”).

      I’m happy that I saw through this riddle when I was in the library, just by the simple thought experiment that I gave you in my first comment. It was one of those “But the Emperor has no clothes!” moments. It didn’t require anything but pushing through to the other side, and perhaps a little William James’ Pragmatism.

      So, to answer your question, No, I haven’t studied quantum mechanics. I’ve been exposed to some of it, as you have. But I don’t expect to find the answer to free will in any form of indeterminism, supernaturalism, or any crippled form of determinism.

      Instead, I find free will to exist within perfectly reliable and wholly predictable cause and effect. My determinism is not “hard”, it is simple, and perfect. I presume that reliable cause and effect will hold true for physical, biological, and rational causation.

      I view myself as a physical object, as a biological organism, and as an intelligent species. I am one of those objects in the physical universe that goes about causing stuff to happen. I am physical, which means I can physically affect other objects, as when I swing a bat to hit a baseball. I am biological, which means I am animated to satisfy my real needs for survival. When I breathe, I cause changes to the air, replacing oxygen with carbon dioxide which the plants breathe. The Big Bang is not breathing. It is just me, doing my thing, causing changes in my physical environment.

      As an intelligent species, I can imagine different ways of satisfying my needs for food, water, clothing, shelter, sex, and so on. The Big Bang has no interest, nor ever had any interest, in anything that I choose to do.

      Everything that I do is also causally inevitable. But the most meaningful, direct, and relevant causes are integral parts of who and what I am. They are not external to me, but are in fact me.

      And it is by this simple insight that causal inevitability loses all of its boogeyman characteristics that the “hard” determinist wishes to give it. The hard determinist attempts to separate me from my parts, putting me on one side of the room and all my parts on the other side. My brain, my DNA, my thoughts and feelings, my beliefs and values, and all the other parts that make me uniquely me, are cast as “external” agents, forcing me to do what I do.

      What he fails to see is that there is nothing left on the other side of the room. All of those parts that are supposedly forcing their will upon me and controlling my choice, are just me choosing.

      And there can be no mistaking what is actually happening here in empirical reality. That which is me is identical to that which is choosing.

      And that is all that free will ever was or ever needs to be.

      Like

  7. lettersquash says:

    Hi Ted (and Marvin),

    Ted, I don’t understand:- how does a bit of chaos change the existence of free will? If events are deterministic, we have that unbroken chain back to the Big Bang, as you say. If the perfect link between causes and an effect takes a side-swipe from a QM lottery, some other effect may follow from the same causes. It seems to me that in order to change the logic of free will through this randomness, free will would have to be empowered by it, and all I can imagine is that somehow our free will has a hand in running the casino. If I go down that route, however, I merely abuse the definition of randomness or chaos and have also jumped to some weird metaphysics into the bargain.

    “To me, the logic is clear – hard determinism = fatalism – and the destruction of morality – there is no escape – and the end of that path is not pretty.”

    It may not be pretty. That would not make it untrue.

    “Accepting that one must give up hard determinism is the hardest part of beginning to understand quantum mechanics.”

    QM tells us some crazy stuff. I think the lack of hard determinism is a fairly easy bit.

    “Avoiding the trap of falling into post modern nihilism in the next hard bit.”

    You seem to have run from physics to politics, and all these issues of what is hard to imagine are predicated on the idea that we have a choice in the matter. That’s begging the question. “Post-modern nihilism” could, for all you know, be the pinacle of human philosophical achievement, if that means understanding what is true. If you’re considering what is good and putting that above reality, I’d suggest stopping doing it. However, you go on….

    “As it takes quite a bit of work in probability spaces to be clear that there is a world of difference between saying all things contain uncertainty and all things are equally uncertain (the fundamental error of most postmodernists). The degrees of uncertainty present are really important to understand, and vary hugely with context. And most of them do seem to fall out of the Planck uncertainty relationship – which does seem to be fundamental to both atoms and the possibility of free will, but in profoundly different ways.”

    So, this is where you lose me. If you’re not just arguing from the emotional desire for P-m to be false and thus rescue “morality” (what is that, by the way?) then you’d have to unpack that a bit. What does it matter if there’s a little dusting of randomness mixed in with a deterministic non-choice, or a completely random non-choice? Why are any of them not non-choices?

    “Accepting quantum uncertainty, actually allows us to also claim choice, and to accept the moral responsibility, in both social and ecological realms (and all of their derivatives – including technological) that come with that.”

    How come?

    “It does actually take quite a bit of work in strategic and probability spaces to be clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that our survival as both individuals and as a species is predicated upon acceptance of those responsibilities.”

    Being clear about such matters, IMHO, depends on avoiding the temptations of what we think would be good for us. Let’s imagine someone devised an experiment (at CERN, say, or in a psych lab) that could give a clear answer, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, ran it, and found that no, there is no free will. Imagine how scary that might be to the few lab technicians involved. Imagine them sitting around in the cafe worrying about whether to publish it. What about people stopping caring about anything? There’ll be carnage!

    But if there’s no free will, the intelligent ones amongst them will stop worrying pretty soon. Either someone will leak the news or they won’t. Either the world will go to hell in a handcart or people will cope somehow with the news. Whatever will be will be.

    I don’t know. I just know I haven’t yet found any reasonable evidence for free will, only things that easily pass for the convincing illusions of it. And that includes your heroic and very welcome survival after a bad diagnosis.

    Like

    • Hi John,

      Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. Ethics is about the rules. Moral judgment applies the criteria “best good and least harm for everyone” to judging between different rules and actions. To the degree that we can say what is objectively good or harmful for us, moral judgment is objective.

      Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we “will” do, when “free” from coercion or other undue influence. Thus, it is an empirical event that we observe in the real world, and thus we know objectively that it is real.

      Determinism asserts that objects and forces in the physical universe behave in a rational and reliable way. By “rational” we simply mean that there is always an answer to the questions, “Why did this happen?”, even if we never discover that answer.

      When properly defined, free will and determinism are simultaneously true as in:
      (A) I made this choice according to my own purpose and my own reasons, therefore it is authentically of my own free will.
      (B) I made this choice according to my own purpose and my own reasons, therefore it is authentically causally determined.

      And you might want to sign your name, John, when you post so people don’t have to run around looking you up on your About page. 🙂

      Like

      • lettersquash says:

        Hi Marvin,

        An alternative to requiring that I sign my name would be for you to address me by the nickname I “chose” to post under.

        Anyway, thanks for those rough and ready definitions – I gathered that from your earlier posts.

        Like Ted, I don’t understand your view that determinism = free will. I believe the error is your inaccurate definitions of these. It helps if we conform a certain degree to usual terminology.

        I think you already acknowledged that determinism implies an unbroken chain of cause and effect back to the Big Bang, when Ted pushed this point more. You escape the consequences of “determinism = fatalism”, it seems to me, by introducing “I”, the self, like the woman who chooses in a restaurant, almost as a dualist might.

        To my mind, the point of determinism, within a naturalist-physicalist-reductionist view (which is the usual one of science) is that the self, like everything else, is merely an arrangement of matter, its processes all entirely caused by prior causes and leading inexorably to particular future effects. When the woman “chooses” her order, as you seem to indicate you understand deeply elsewhere in this conversation, she could (perhaps) do no other thing. When you began your commentary, I thought you’d got it, but you escaped by inventing the person and excusing them from the logic of the rest of your thought process.

        The bit of this that most people don’t realise, and seems the most important of all to me, is that our consciousness is apparently a higher-level (and thus later-in-time) abstraction that our brain creates. So “I”, or “she”, are forever catching up with what our bodies and brains have already decided to do, popping little rationalizations up to the level where they do their explanatory stuff. (The unimaginably vast majority of it just contributes to us doing things without us having the faintest idea of its existence.)

        We can, of course, imagine different scenarios and “choose” (i.e. think we chose) the best one, or the worst one, or a “random” one, but nothing convinces me that we’re not just stepping into that trap you described so eloquently at the start. To put this more clearly – it is entirely possible that however much we try to outwit “fate” (for want of a better word), and choose what we weren’t going to choose until we chose it, the whole of this deliberation is just us – our body-brain-system – acting out what it was going to act out anyway, all of it predicated on vastly complicated but utterly deterministic prior causes.

        I challenge anyone to set themselves a simple test: make it between two things for simplicity. Find a way to decide which of the pair of choices would be your natural choice and then choose the other. You’ll just go round in circles. You already know this, you described it. Even if you make it super-easy: I will now eat either some ice-cream or a raw onion – my natural choice is obvious, but that automatically makes my natural choice (in the challenge to outwit “determinism”) the other one: I would obviously have choosen the onion to avoid being a mere p-zombie, but I’ve caught myself at it now, so I’ll have the ice-cream! No, that’s where I came in!

        Maybe there’s a level of nesting that each of us can be bothered to go to before we give up (and make toast)…which, like everything else, may be a function of previous nature and nurture, or – as I was saying to Ted – accident.

        Like

      • Hello LetterSquash,

        When you said, “Like Ted, I don’t understand your view that determinism = free will”, you misrepresented me. I never said that they were the same thing. They are two very different things. Determinism is the belief in the reliability of the behavior of the objects and forces that make up our physical universe. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, when free of coercion or undue influence. Clearly they are describing entirely different things. All I’ve said is that they can both be applied to the same event, and be simultaneously true.

        Ironically, it turns out that the “hard” determinist is the dualist. For example, when you say, a “person” is “forever catching up with what our bodies and brains have already decided to do”. What part of “our bodies and brains” are not also included with the “person”?

        A “person” is as real as an “apple”. Both are physical objects that actually exist in the real world. Both are modeled within the brain. Neither can be called an “illusion”.

        “Causation”, “determinism”, and “inevitability” on the other hand, are not objects that actually exists. They are concepts used to describe the behavior of the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe. But they are not themselves actors in the real world. They cannot do anything. They cannot cause anything to happen.

        But me, I’m a physical object that exists. And I’m also a living organism, which means I am animated by biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Plus, I’m an intelligent species, which means I can imagine more than one way to accomplish my purpose, apply a comparative evaluation of my options, and then choose the one that best suits my purpose and my reasons at that moment.

        When I am allowed to decide for myself what I will do, free of coercion or other undue influence, we humans call that “free will”. And that is the definition you’ll find in first place in most dictionaries, because that is what people normally mean when they use the term “free will”.

        Unfortunately, there is a second definition of “free will” that is used by some philosophers and gullible scientists, that equates to “freedom from causation”. This concept is an “oxymoron”, a self-contradiction, because without reliable cause and effect we could not reliably cause any effect and would have no freedom to do anything at all.

        Another oxymoron is the statement, “the self is an illusion”, because it begs the question, “Then who is having the illusion???”

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  8. Hi Guys,
    Thanks for both of your sets of responses.

    This isn’t working.
    I get it is really difficult.

    Quantum mechanics, which allows us to understand atoms, and chemistry and most of what makes computers work as well as they do, seems to be telling us very clearly that the classical formulation of all things having necessary cause and effect is wrong.

    It is easy to demonstrate that is not how atoms work.

    So to get some sort of handle on QM, we must accept that causes and effects come with probability distributions.
    We also have to get use to the idea that this universe does not let us know anything with absolute precision.

    Those are two very different sorts of ideas, and have two very different sorts of impacts on us.

    The first one, the probability of influence one, gives degrees of uncertainty.
    Now for most objects big enough for humans to see, those uncertainties are very tiny – hence we have the common sense notion of cause and effect. It works, in practice, most of the time, except when Murphy pays a visit.

    I’ve been thinking about the evolution of intelligence, and consciousness, for a very long time.
    I had a major breakthrough in 1974, that allowed me to understand the basic principles of consciousness, as a software entity resident in a predictive model of reality, as one part of a very complex biological system.
    So I didn’t consciously write these words. I consciously created a context, and the words flowed from my fingers.
    I don’t know all the details of how that works, and I think I do have most of the principles well understood, though the details are far too numerous and complex for my slow consciousness to work out explicitly, I need to use subconscious shortcuts – fortunately that is something this brain does very well (its heavily on the autistic spectrum in that regard).

    The conscious I is only a very small part of the totality that is the embodied me.

    And the totality has some interesting properties – but another time for that subject, and back to free will more specifically.

    When I am programming computers, I must get into a very strictly logical frame of mind – which I can do, and have done twice today – having coded tested and released two updates to the major package I designed and maintain today.
    In that mode, strict causality is the rule.
    But the way in which I create those strict causal systems is not at all strict or logical in the conception, though it certainly is in the implementation.

    Building an understanding of evolution, of the process of getting from quarks to consciousness, has been part of what I have been up to.
    Given what seems to be the QM uncertainty present, that give rise to atoms, and us; it does seem that there is a fundamental level of uncertainty, randomness, chaos, call it what you will, built into the structure of this reality.
    At that fundamental level, hard determinism fails.
    We need to use its softer cousin.

    From that base, it is clear that we can can develop quite close approximations to hard determinism – as we see in computers and a host of modern technological devices, and all of them get their very close approximation to hard determinism by using large populations of “objects” with much softer deterministic properties. Even at 10^10Hz, a single clock cycle is 10^34 Planck time units – that is a large population, that behaves with the sort of regularity that large populations of things tend to display.

    However, at base the determinism is soft, and because of that, nothing is absolutely certain or inevitable, and some things are much more likely than others.

    Having such fundamental uncertainty available is essential.
    It is a fundamental part of creativity, of being able to break with the chains of causation that are most often present and create something entirely new.
    It seems clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the clockwork universe view of Newton was fundamentally wrong, in many very different ways.

    So here we are.
    Mostly the result of causal processes, seasoned with a touch of chaos.
    Mostly predictable, except when we’re not.

    And having existence, if one desires to retain existence, then such and end demands certain things from us – which seems to be where all of our morality comes from at some level.

    Who gets to exist and how much freedom they have are part of a much deeper question set.

    It seems clear to me, that anyone who wants a significant probability of survival must accept that competitive systems are high risk (tending to unity as technology increases our power) and distributed cooperative systems offer the greatest probability of survival and freedom for any and all.
    And that is a massively complex subject area.

    Which is one more trip around the Maypole of trying to get some glimmerings of an understanding of what is clear to me across to someone else.
    I’m not holding my breath.
    I’m not that skilled a communicator.
    I know I will probably fail – as I have thousands of times before, and I am nothing if not persistent.

    Like

    • Ted, To me the fact that we can predict the dispersion statistically implies an underlying determinism. It means there is some reason for the dispersion reliably falling into that shape again and again. So, I’ll stick to the viewpoint that causal determinism is still correct and that our problem is that we either don’t yet know the causes in play (e.g., QM), or we know the causes but the complexity escalates so quickly that we are unable to predict them (e.g., the weather or three cosmic objects orbiting each other).

      The reason that I can have both perfect determinism, and also free will, is because the most relevant and meaningful causes of what I decide to do are all within me and an integral part of who and what I am.

      Determinism is not an external force controlling me. I am the actual physical object within the universe that is performing the choosing process in my head (and whether I do this in the conscious or unconscious parts of my brain is irrelevant, because both are me). The mental process of deliberation and choosing is the final responsible prior cause of my deliberate actions. And my deliberate actions are the prior cause of what happens next in the causal chain.

      This is seeing clearly through the problem to the other side. It’s like Donovan’s songs but with a different “mountain”. First there is free will, then there is no free will, then there is.

      And I hope that others are able to see what I saw as a teenager in the public library. ‘Cause the paradox is a hoax that philosopher’s have played upon themselves.

      Like

    • lettersquash says:

      Thanks for the further descriptions of your positions, guys. Sorry for misinterpreting your position, Marvin. Similarly, perhaps you misunderstood me, since you asked what I mean by a ‘person’. I’m a physical monist, so the person is matter. However, I think I may have used the word as a short-hand at one point for the ‘self’, by which I meant the putative ‘subject’ common to much philosophy, a conscious ‘internal’ entity – specifically, centrally, a free, conscious actor in the world. I don’t think I believe in such a thing (although we create the self as a cognitive model), and I was challenging you on the idea that, although events can all be traced back to prior causes, you also imagined that people have free will. I find your two statements labelled A and B confusing and illogical, almost meaningless. Rather than ‘philosophers’ having confused themselves with a wrong definition of free will, I think that one is absolutely correct. Never mind human coercion, for a moment, free will fundamentally requires freedom from causation by a stream of causes that can’t be overturned, i.e. determinism. It is quite a simple concept. We can, for example, imagine the world as a machine (ignore QM for now and honour Newton). It is then the question of whether we are automata working according to lawful progression of cause and effect, like a robot, or not. Finding a rational description of how the ‘not’ position would work has so far eluded me, unless by some kind of dualism. It seems to have eluded you, too, or I haven’t understood yours.

      Ted, could I ask again my original question? I must say that you describe a world view that is close to my own, you do it very well, and I agree with almost all of it, so I’m not asking for the background to the argument again: I take it as highly plausible. It is specifically the problem of how the “fundamental level of uncertainty, randomness, chaos, call it what you will, built into the structure of this reality” changes the picture of free will. I agree that it undermines or overthrows completely hard determinism, but what it adds into the picture doesn’t indicate to me that it restores any willful choice to human cognition.

      I appreciate that you feel “this isn’t working”, but would ask you to indulge my curiosity. Consider me a student of your ideas at this point. A good and traditional way for a student to understand more of a teacher is to ask questions about the bits they don’t get.

      One reason I’m interested is that I believe far too many people are told that QM is some kind of solution to the hard problem of consciousness (which depends on duality, of course), and here you could be interpreted as hand-waving towards QM as a solution to the problem of free will. If you can’t specifically describe how randomness or probability distributions give us free will, that’s also fine – maybe it’s something you’re still working on. Thanks.

      Like

      • LetterSquash, It is unnecessary to be free “from causation by a stream of causes that can’t be overturned, i.e. determinism” when I am solidly embedded in that stream as a material object that inevitably diverts the stream in one direction or in another through an automatic and thoroughly deterministic process that occurs within my brain.

        There is perfect determinism preceding me, there is perfect determinism within me, and there is perfect determinism following me.

        I am a totally material object. But it happens that material objects behave differently according to how they are organized. If you put matter that is arranged as a round ball on a slope, it will inevitably roll downhill. But if you put matter that is arranged as a squirrel on the same slope, it will inevitably go uphill, downhill, left, or right depending upon where it expects to find the next acorn.

        Although the squirrel is influenced by gravity, it is influenced more by its own internal drives to find food. And the location of these drives lead us to the obvious conclusion that it was the squirrel, and not the Big Bang, that just buried another acorn.

        Like

      • Hi Lettersquash (it feels wrong writing that, I would much rather write a name that felt like a human – though I strongly suspect you are human – though if a sapient AI I would treat you no differently in this environment),

        I am writing this after responding to Marvin below, so please read that first, to prevent duplication (and a certain amount of duplication is inevitable).

        I look at it this way.
        If it is hard causality that is the illusion, and everything real only has soft causality, but in many context that “softness” is below our ability as unaided humans to distinguish, then the nature of systems interaction is different.
        Rather than hard binaries, what we seem to be dealing with is probability distributions, that we can influence.
        Now in many instances they are so skewed that they approximate binaries, but not all.

        If we have the ability to influence those distributions through our computational systems (which we do seem to have), then we can have real freedom.

        And it is not a freedom that is an absence of influence, all of the other influences are still there, still “doing their thing”.
        And it does seem to be systemically possible that we can instantiate systems that do, with repeated action, over time, fundamentally alter the distributions of probable outcomes.

        It is a type of causality, and it is a softer form of causality, a form of influence, a space in which the repeated application of will to action can make a difference in reality.

        And it is a vastly complex web of probabilities – much more like alpha go zero than a Z80 processor.

        And it is not free of risk, nothing ever can be in such a universe.

        And we can take reasonable steps to limit risk – some of which must involve the exploration of new territory, which is always a risky business, we cannot know what we don’t know that we don’t know.

        After 50 years of explorations in highly abstract realms, it is an idea that I can see in my minds eye, and it makes sense, but trying to translate it into a set of symbols that have any reasonable probability of being interpreted by another is almost impossible.

        Like

  9. Hi Marvin

    That’s not what I am trying to point to.
    Your assumption of determinism being necessary is not logically valid.

    And maybe I just need to accept what is for now.
    This sort of argument has been happening for the best part of a century now, with no resolution.

    Like

    • Ted, From my perspective, I resolved the paradox half a century ago, and now I’m just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. But, please, enjoy your mystery. And I’m sorry if I gave away the ending.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Looks like we both have the same feeling.
        Neither of us convinced the other has seen anything we haven’t seen long ago.
        I still think I may have dug a bit deeper into this mess, and without doubt, it is messy.

        Like

      • A lot of philosophical problems are linked to the definitions we choose. Did you ever read William James’s “Pragmatism”? It’s a series of lectures he did. In Lecture 2 he describes coming across a group of students outdoors who were arguing loudly about a very deep issue (my terminology 🙂). It involves a squirrel on a tree. The squirrel cautiously avoids turning his back on anyone watching him. As you approach the tree he is backing his way around to the other side to keep his distance. You walk a circle around the tree, but you never see anything but his face. So the question is, having gone all the way around the tree, have you also gone around the squirrel?

        James points out that the answer depends entirely upon how you define “gone around”. And he says this:

        “The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? — fated or free? — material or spiritual? — here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.” James, William. Pragmatism (Dover Thrift Editions) (pp. 16-17). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

        The practical use of “free will” is found in cases like what happened after the Boston Marathon bombing. The Tsarnaev brothers hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist them in escaping to New York, where they planned to explode the rest of their home-made bombs. The driver was able to escape when they stopped for gas, while one brother was in the store and the other was concentrating on his gps. The driver was never charged with “aiding and abetting” the bombers escape because he was not acting of his own free will. The brother who survived the police hunt was found guilty of his crimes because he deliberately chose to commit them, even though his lawyer argued he might have been under the sway of his older brother who was killed in the chase.

        The term “free will” makes the distinction between a deliberate choice and a choice forced upon you by a literal or figurative “gun-to-the-head”. But this is only true when you use the first definition found in the dictionaries, rather than the “philosophical” definition.

        Under the philosophical definition, one must supposedly be free of reliable cause and effect in order to be held responsible for his actions. And many popular “hard” determinists will argue that the Tsarnaev brothers ought not to be held responsible for their acts because nobody ever has freedom from reliable causation. Under the philosophical definition, everyone is equally blameless, because no one could have done otherwise.

        Under the wrong definition, we loose the distinction required to properly employ the “no free will” exception in practical matters of moral or legal responsibility, because it insanely makes the exception universal.

        Like

  10. Hi Marvin,

    I have always been a pragmatist, I have just pushed it a lot further and faster than most others.

    If you push pragmatism down to finding an explanation that works in practice for how is it that we have atoms and chemistry and why does it work as it does, then the simplest answer seems to be – because there is a fundamental limit (Planck limit), to how tightly this reality can be defined.

    The mathematical consequences of that, allow us to construct all of chemistry and biology.
    That simple principle explains how electrons arrange themselves in space around nuclei.
    It gives us quantum tunneling, and transistors, and all of modern electronics.
    It gives us stellar neucleosynthesis, cosmology, etc.

    Sure, dig deeper you find more stuff.
    I suspect that process may be indefinite.
    If the mathematicians are correct in their conjectures, then any finite might contain infinite sets of infinities.
    There is no logical possibility of hard certainty in such things, only ever softer probabilities, which in some cases can so closely approximate hard certainty that we cannot easily distinguish the difference.

    And it is really important to ask deeply what does one mean by freedom.
    Can it possibly mean freedom from influence?
    What might that look like?
    That is quite easy – it looks like amorphous uniformity – without distinction.
    That’s not what we want.
    So what might be a useful definition of freedom?
    One has to be pragmatic, and start from where we are!

    Where is that?
    We are complex biological entities housing many levels of complex computational systems, all interacting in many subtle and not so subtle ways.
    We are embodied cognition, complex far beyond our limited cognitive abilities understand in anything other than the broadest of broad brush stroke sketches. That much is abundantly clear from a simple review of the numbers involved in our structure and function – the sort of thing any first year student of biochemistry and neurophysiology ought to be able to do for themselves in seconds (I did, but can’t quite comprehend why others did not).

    Complexity requires boundaries at every level, but those boundaries need to be of a similar order of complexity to the complexity they contain. As one example, cell walls need to be semi permeable, and many have other complex properties involving movement, electrical and chemical transmission etc.

    So, having started there, and then started delving into relativity, QM, philosophical history, complexity, computation, strategy, politics, psychology, AI, evolution and existential risk – then over 50 years I get to where I am.

    I am clear, from a systems perspective, that the sort of complexity that we are, the sort of freedom that we seem to both exhibit and require, can only exist in a space that has complex boundary conditions, that are a fine balance of the lawful and the random. And that seems to be an infinitely recursive concept. It seems to have held up through multiple levels of exploration in my case.

    I am completely clear that such a conclusion does not in any way warrant the sort of post modernist nihilism that many in academia exhibit. To me, such a response is simply a sign of intellectual laziness – an unwillingness to actually go deep enough and wide enough that ones intuition becomes sufficiently familiar with the strangeness to allow one to sort things out.

    So I am really pragmatically clear, that every level of system requires boundaries for existence.
    I am really pragmatically clear that the more complex the system, the more complex the boundary conditions required.

    I am really pragmatically clear that freedom, if it is to have long term existence, must exist within the required minimum set of boundary conditions; and is self destructive if it goes beyond them.

    It seems that the definition of such boundary conditions might be an infinitely recursive exploratory process.

    I am also clear, from both the theory and practice of evolution, that competitive systems lead to simplicity, not complexity.
    I am clear that every new level of complexity we see in biology, from atomic on up through cultural, is the result of cooperative systems.
    I am clear that raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by “cheating strategies”, and there must exist complex sets of attendant strategies to stabilise complex cooperatives.
    That too appears to be a potentially infinitely recursive process.

    So exactly where and how and when one instantiates boundary conditions must always be at least as much art as science.

    It seems to me that there is general consensus in the AI community that we are rapidly (exponentially) approaching new sets of boundary requirements.

    The fact that we are not surrounded by hoards of friendly aliens offering to guide us through this process would seem to confirm the conjecture that it is an issue of non-trivial complexity (perhaps the great filter itself).

    So that is why this issue is fundamentally important to me.
    It is my survival.
    It is the survival of sapient life on this planet.
    It is the pragmatic understanding of the extremely fine balance between freedom and creativity/destruction.

    It matters.
    Responsibility matters.
    Cooperation matters.
    Getting some sort of handle on the degrees of reliance and degrees of impact we have on each other and our environment matters.
    Understanding which boundaries are necessary and which are not, matters.

    In the presence of fully automated production, free markets become the greatest danger we face.
    We need to develop alternative methods of doing the things that markets once did so well, in terms of distributed decision making, communication, and cooperation. Those aspects we absolutely require.
    But the scarcity aspect of market generated values delivers existential level risk in the presence of fully automated systems.

    So that is where I am.
    I am a pragmatist, interested in my own survival and my own freedom, and confident beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that the only reasonable likelihood I have of either is if I deliver both universally.
    And that is a non-trivial problem in today’s economic and political reality.

    One conversation at a time!

    Like

  11. lettersquash says:

    Marvin, all I can do is point out what I think are your errors.

    “I am solidly embedded in that stream as a material object that inevitably diverts the stream in one direction or in another through an automatic and thoroughly deterministic process that occurs within my brain.”

    So you state that we have free will, yet you describe this as happening “through an automatic and thoroughly deterministic process”. If it is automatic and deterministic, then which direction the stream is directed would be “fixed” by the conditions at the time (the deterministic causes). I can see how it is possible to argue, as you seem to, that this is not the same as that process being out of your control, either consciously or unconsciously, but this seems to be only by ignoring the question of control altogether. You insist that because you are you, the deterministic process doing whatever it does is a part of you, and it is from this that you seem to impute “free will” to yourself.

    This, as I said to start with, just seems like an unusual and unreasonable use of the term “free will”. Another thought experiment would be to imagine being God and setting the conditions of the universe at that moment, repeatedly. By any reasonable definition of “free will”, I would suggest, “you” would be able, through *free* exercise of your *will*, cause different effects, i.e. make a different choice, and this, by any reasonable understanding of determinism (including, apparently, your own) is not “automatic and thoroughly deterministic”. Doing exactly the same thing again given the same starting conditions, having no choice in the matter, denies free will. What is free will if you would only do what you do. We might as well invent a whole raft of arbitrary terms and decide that we have them if they make no difference whatever!

    “I am a totally material object. But it happens that material objects behave differently according to how they are organized. If you put matter that is arranged as a round ball on a slope, it will inevitably roll downhill. But if you put matter that is arranged as a squirrel on the same slope, it will inevitably go uphill, downhill, left, or right depending upon where it expects to find the next acorn.

    “Although the squirrel is influenced by gravity, it is influenced more by its own internal drives to find food. And the location of these drives lead us to the obvious conclusion that it was the squirrel, and not the Big Bang, that just buried another acorn.”

    Of course different objects behave differently, and evolved creatures have “drives”. Of course, at the colloquial level, the squirrel buried the acorn. None of this undermines my point. My point is that you’ve given me nothing, neither scientific evidence nor intelligible argument, to prove or strongly support the idea that any particular squirrel could have possibly done anything other than what it did at every turn, due to the stream of prior causes going back to the Big Bang. In that sense, to all practical purposes, it is reasonable also to say that the Big Bang buried the acorn: it is the acorn and everything else. The sentences we construct to put over ideas depend on all manner of related definitions with their many nuances, but the difference is pretty easy to imagine: squirrel could or could not make a different choice (to go up or down the branch, say) given exactly the same circumstances within and outside itself. If it could, squirrel has free will; if not, it has not, and is merely subject to its drives and other circumstances (and, as you point out, is also part of those circumstances itself).

    In the no-free-will view, the choice made is predicated on drives, the drives are predicated on genotype and phenotype, those on billions of years of evolution. It is also predicated on every minute detail of the environment, which is also predicated on all those complex causes. Just because it’s mind-bogglingly complicated and acts in different ways at different levels of organisation doesn’t make it not clockwork, or not clockwork-plus-chance. And all I’m saying is that nobody’s given me anything to doubt that it’s exactly that. Not only that, my personal meditation and experimentation suggests that I don’t have (at least the kind of) free will (I thought I had). Indeed, like many other thinkers in this field, the more I consider free will, the more tenuous the idea seems. There is the common objection, for instance, (a little simplistic, but not without merit) that for me to have free will, I would have to be able to have my thoughts before I have them, in order to decide whether to have them. Thoughts happen to me, I don’t decide what to think. This is simplistic merely because it doesn’t mean there are no behaviours over which I might have free will. But it does MAKE you stop and think.

    However, if I haven’t made any inroads into persuading you that determinism means there isn’t any free will, I suggest we should probably leave it there. It appears to be only a semantic difference, and ‘free will’ means something utterly different to you than it does to me.

    My main reason for commenting was to understand Ted’s view of QM and how it affects the question.

    All the best,
    John

    Like

    • LetterSquash,

      You say that, “If it is automatic and deterministic, then which direction the stream is directed would be “fixed” by the conditions at the time (the deterministic causes)”

      Suppose I am alone in a room with a bowl full of apples. I’m feeling hungry, so I pick up an apple and eat it, and toss the core in the trash bin. Would I not be one of the “conditions at the time” that controlled this event?

      The only object in the room capable of eating the apple and tossing the core was me. Therefore, unless you can name another object that was feeling hungry and ate the apple, it must have been that object that I affectionately refer to as “me”.

      Now, we can certainly trace back through prior events to account for the fact that I was there in the room and feeling peckish. But it would be an obvious denial of reality to exclude “that which is me” from the causal chain. I was the last prior cause of the “apple-eating event”.

      Concepts like “determinism”, “causation”, and “inevitability” do not eat apples. Only living organisms eat apples. When you try to reverse this, and attribute causal power to concepts, you commit the fallacy of reification, making an idea into a concrete thing in reality.

      I am a concrete thing in reality. My behavior is reliably caused, and thus 100% predictable in theory, by a combination of physical, biological, and rational causation.

      Rational causation is the generation of options, the evaluation of those options, and the choosing of the option that best suits my purpose and my reasons at the time. Thus, even rational causation is fully deterministic.

      Now, such a choice, when I am free to decide for myself, and not subject to coercion or other undue influence (hypnosis, brain tumor, authoritative command, etc.) is called “a freely chosen will”, or simply “free will”. The “free” refers to freedom from undue influence.

      It cannot possibly refer to “freedom from causation”, because if it did you would have to remove the word “free” from the dictionary. There would no longer be “freedom of speech”, because every word we say is causally inevitable. There would no longer be “free candy” at Halloween, because it would be inevitable that the candy would be placed in the bag.

      If we assume, as I do, and I think you do as well, that every event is causally inevitable, then it would be irrational to require ANY use of the word “free” to imply such a thing.

      Since it cannot, it does not.

      To be meaningful at all, the word “free” must reference some meaningful constraint. For example, a bird is set free (of his cage), a slave is set free (of his master), we enjoy freedom of speech (free from political censorship), and so on.

      And our choices can be free when they are not constrained by coercion or other undue influence.

      As to causal inevitability, it is NOT a meaningful constraint. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

      So, people only went looking for freedom from causal inevitability when it was presented as a boogeyman by the “hard” determinist, something that removed any and all control from us over our own destiny. And that is a mental delusion, where a concept is transformed into a force of nature.

      Like

  12. lettersquash says:

    Hi Ted,

    “Hi Lettersquash (it feels wrong writing that, I would much rather write a name that felt like a human – though I strongly suspect you are human – though if a sapient AI I would treat you no differently in this environment),”
    How odd. The internet is full of people writing under a pseudonym. Does it feel wrong writing their nicknames every time, or was it something particular this time? I am a human. Marvin, of course, is the android. 😉

    “I look at it this way.”
    I think it would benefit you to stop writing so much from your perspective, and try more “listening skills” (or reading comprehension), responding to other people’s ideas, criticising them if you like, but also trying to answer their questions. I don’t mean any offence, but I feel quite ignored, after the invitation, “Comment and critique welcome”. You don’t seem to have tried to address my question in the slightest. Instead, you expound your views, underlined with what appear to be quite boastful facts about your learning, and repeated assurances about how “clear” you are (you mean “sure”, I think). You seem to be obfuscating to defend a position you’ve decided on, the opposite of being sceptical and open-minded or inquisitive.

    “Rather than hard binaries, what we seem to be dealing with is probability distributions, that we can influence.”
    Evidence, or at least some reasoning, please? Just repeating this won’t make it any more persuasive. The “that we can influence” bit.

    “If we have the ability to influence those distributions through our computational systems (which we do seem to have), then we can have real freedom.”
    Which we “do seem” to have? Oh yes, I can agree with that. We do SEEM to have all sorts of powers. Do you have any evidence that our “computational systems” can influence the deterministic stream of cause and effect you described, with or without quantum chaos/probabilities?

    “And it does seem to be systemically possible that we can instantiate systems that do, with repeated action, over time, fundamentally alter the distributions of probable outcomes.”
    SEEM, yes. Evidence that this is not our hubris in the face of a deterministic-chaotic universe?

    “It is a type of causality, and it is a softer form of causality, a form of influence, a space in which the repeated application of will to action can make a difference in reality.”
    Sorry, this is going down the route of poetic rhetoric. Still not a scrap of evidence, no link to any other work or scientific findings. Are you just some kind of seer?

    “After 50 years of explorations in highly abstract realms, it is an idea that I can see in my minds eye, and it makes sense, but trying to translate it into a set of symbols that have any reasonable probability of being interpreted by another is almost impossible.”
    Well so much for pragmatism, then. So much for all that work, 50 years of explorations in “highly abstract realms”. What a waste of time and energy if you can’t answer a simple question about it!

    Like

  13. Hi John
    Yep – the internet is full of people writing under pseudonyms, and for the most part I don’t find that useful.
    And of course, even my name is a nickname, and it is the one I have been called most of my life, not the name on my birth certificate, but the name my parents used from my earliest memories.

    I’ve been Ted Howard all my conscious existence.

    What appears as simple, will depend very much on the context one is using.
    A simple response from a QM context appears as nonsense from a classical Newtonian context.

    Believe it or not, I was doing my best to give such a simple response.

    I am doing my very best to read, to understand (at least as much as I can) what others are saying. And I often see many possible interpretations, and cannot choose one from the many.

    I use words like “seem to” because once you start using QM as a framework, then all outcomes are probabilistic. All numbers, even uncertainty constraints, come with uncertainties. Those uncertainties may be many digits down a chain of decimals, and they will exist.
    Exactly where and when they make their greatest influence is a very context sensitive thing.

    I have a file on my computer that contains the first billion digits of Pi. The first 50 digits are enough to define the spatial resolution of an electron on the other side of the observable universe, but that in itself is a meaningless idea, given the local nature of time, and the ripples in the curvature of space. Pi is an interesting number to investigate – not at all real in the sense of physical reality, or knowable in terms of strictly definable, yet fundamental to most calculations involving reality. Just another of the ways in which all knowledge is an approximation to something.

    As to how can we influence probabilities – many ways.
    We have lots of subsystems that work automously to some degree.
    We can learn how to influence those subsystems, and hence influence the context of our own systems.
    There is fundamental uncertainty (noise) in many aspects of our being, and we can become aware of as many of those as possible, and learn when such things can aid us.
    If stuff is “randomly happening” – as a result of some Quantum process, something without any reliable cause just happened, like the decay of a nucleus releasing a charge that fired a neuron that lead to a new kind of thought (though most would be very different sorts of processes), then there isn’t any hard causal link to what went before, cause only occurs after the decay, not before it in that instance.
    The firing of neurons at synaptic interfaces appears to have quantum effects. The result is digital, but exactly how all those various weighted influences of other electrical and electrochemical modulators work, does appear to be influenced by the software running on the hardware. Most of the influences have decay curves over time, so precise timing is important to brain function – state of mind.
    And there are preemptive older systems that can completely take consciousness out of the control loop in certain contexts, and just leave it as an observer without significant influence, if they are given the chance.

    As stated earlier – the evidence for uncertainty is there in QM. The simple statement that position and momentum cannot be known beyond a certain limit (Planck’s constant).
    All atomic structure comes from that.
    That determines the nature of atomic orbitals, thermodynamics, chemistry, biology.

    That means fundamental limits to causality. Fundamental uncertainties.

    And sure, pattern can become very fixed in some contexts.

    One of the weirdest things for me, over the last 7 years since I cured myself of terminal cancer, is having people come to me, say they want to live, ask me what I did, and then say something like – they would rather die than change their diet and their likes. And then proceed to die.
    To me, while I can kind of understand the systems, it is just incomprehensible to me that someone would be such a slave to habit, that changing habit would be too difficult, and they would rather die than try.
    And I have tried to document key parts of that evidence set on my blog, but so few people take the time to examine evidence, and question assumptions, for themselves.

    Part of what makes communication so difficult for me, is that I have questioned (and found wanting) so many assumptions over the last 50 years, that there is very little left that is in common use.

    I am prepare to go anywhere a question leads, and to do that with you, and I will need you to get very specific about things that you may not have considered as being questionable matters, if the process is to have any likelihood of completion.

    One of the things that is present in most of my writing the last 10 years, is a concern for what AGI coming to sapience will make of humanity. So that concern, that one day an AGI will read this, and make some sort of sense of it, is ever present. And I guess that can make it hard for humans to follow.
    Human’s are, for the most part, not an existential level risk. A juvenile AGI is. Bringing such an AGI to a sufficient level of awareness that it is not a direct threat to itself and us is something that keeps me awake some nights.

    So I write a lot, often leaving hints that only an AGI could realistically follow, and I guess that is very confusing for the humans involved.

    So that is part by way of apology, and part by way of explanation.
    And if you still want to write to me, I will do my best to reply to you alone.
    And I may ask questions that seem insane to you, and they will be very specific questions aimed at assumptions that I no longer consider appropriate.

    And of course, everything I think and do has uncertainties attached. In respect of how I understand things, I sometimes use the analogy of building a house in a swamp made from bamboo poles lashed together. Too much weight on any single pole will push it out of sight in the mud, but the whole structure, with hundreds of poles in the mud sharing the load, and hundreds more as cross bracing, forms a very stable structure indeed.
    A different analogy from a different domain, is that of an amoeba of understanding growing by sending out pseudopoda, but not just in three dimensions, but in an indefinitely expanding set of dimensions, where each distinction made adds a new dimension to the map available.

    Like

    • lettersquash says:

      Hi Ted,

      “What appears as simple, will depend very much on the context one is using.
      A simple response from a QM context appears as nonsense from a classical Newtonian context. Believe it or not, I was doing my best to give such a simple response.”

      I do find that hard to believe, or I have to adjust my understanding of what your best is like. If what you are trying to convey is difficult or complicated, I would expect you to focus on it and describe it as precisely as possible, or to find metaphors to represent it. I have got the gist of a number of difficult and complicated ideas that way, including in QM, Relativity, etc., etc.. I haven’t been enlightened about quantum entanglement or curved spacetime by people telling me they cured themselves of cancer, bits of number theory, the file they keep of the digits of pi, building stable bamboo structures on mud or that they’re leaving clues in their explanatons for future robots to read. Those just look like distractions and showing off how clever you think you are…or worrying psychological issues perhaps.

      “I am doing my very best to read, to understand (at least as much as I can) what others are saying. And I often see many possible interpretations, and cannot choose one from the many.”

      I’m not sure how much your mental process makes comprehension difficult for you. Is that what you’re referring to, being on the autistic spectrum or something? We all have to interpret other people’s words and may struggle to choose between different interpretations. What helps is asking for clarification of the bits you’re not sure of (which is what I did with you), but you don’t invest in actual conversation between you and someone else, you just talk at them, in your unfocused scatter-gun and proselytising fashion.

      After several attempts to get you to explain why you think determinism plus quantum chaos supports the idea of free will, you have once again waffled, before finally getting to the point, for which I thank you (and then I’m ignoring the waffle that follows):

      “As to how can we influence probabilities – many ways.
      We have lots of subsystems that work automously to some degree.
      We can learn how to influence those subsystems, and hence influence the context of our own systems.
      There is fundamental uncertainty (noise) in many aspects of our being, and we can become aware of as many of those as possible, and learn when such things can aid us.
      If stuff is “randomly happening” – as a result of some Quantum process, something without any reliable cause just happened, like the decay of a nucleus releasing a charge that fired a neuron that lead to a new kind of thought (though most would be very different sorts of processes), then there isn’t any hard causal link to what went before, cause only occurs after the decay, not before it in that instance.
      The firing of neurons at synaptic interfaces appears to have quantum effects. The result is digital, but exactly how all those various weighted influences of other electrical and electrochemical modulators work, does appear to be influenced by the software running on the hardware. Most of the influences have decay curves over time, so precise timing is important to brain function – state of mind.
      And there are preemptive older systems that can completely take consciousness out of the control loop in certain contexts, and just leave it as an observer without significant influence, if they are given the chance.”

      Now, it would be useful to clarify what you mean by “we” above. What is the agent in those relationships that “influences subsystems”? Crucially, you need to explain why you think (or ideally, give evidence to show that) this agent is not dependent upon and formed by prior causes and/or randomness. Let me presume that you mean our consciousness, our conscious thoughts, our “will”. In the normal view of determinism, this, like all other systems, is an effect, traceable to purely mechanistic deterministic causes. As I have accepted, QM introduces chaos, random happenings, probability distributions, weird shit, but there is little here other than your authoritative voice claiming that, by some process you haven’t elaborated on, “we” can escape that normal condition of inevitability and take control, devise causes that have effects at lower levels.

      Within that passage, I also feel that this is important: “exactly how all those various weighted influences of other electrical and electrochemical modulators work, does appear to be influenced by the software running on the hardware”. Again, this hints at the idea that the consciousness, the mind, the “software” can influence the working of the brain, the “hardware”. Yes? However, once again, we have “does appear”, and I’m not sure quite what is being suggested. Appearances, as you are at pains to point out, can be deceiving. Colloquially, it seems that I can decide to change my brain just by eating something or trying to learn Spanish or shooting myself in the head – is that the sort of evidence you mean when you say, “it appears”? Or do you have anything more fundamental? If it were as simple as that, I’m pretty sure philosophers wouldn’t have been debating the issue of free will quite so long and hard!

      So, having cut out all the extraneous information, you seem to be saying in answer to my question, “How does chaos change anything?”, “Mind influences matter”, or “We influence the things that cause us”, perhaps. I could have this all wrong, but that’s what I take from it. Simplifying realy isn’t difficult. If it loses nuances, don’t worry, you can always re-complicate.

      Like

  14. John
    You asked me for analogies, I gave them, you insulted.
    I wrote as it is for me, and again you turned it into insult.
    Not a lot of point in continuing conversation at this point.

    Like

  15. lettersquash says:

    No problem, Ted. If I’m right, I had to insult you, and you’re unable to discuss it. I can’t help but feel sorry. All’s as well with the world as can be expected.

    Like

  16. Ted, keep in mind that with WordPress you can delete comments. I routinely clear comments from my blog after they’ve been out there for a while, to reopen the topic for any new people who might come along and have something to say. There is no need to tolerate anyone’s insults. Especially from those who write anonymously to avoid responsibility.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the thought Marvin.
      And I really do most of my writing with the express intention of it being read by some juvenile AGI coming to awareness. And thus there is a real sense in which the interactions I have with other humans are important to preserve in context in some cases. This may be such a case, I still have significant uncertainties.
      My wife is getting used to the fact that some things I find almost impossible, because I have no simple way of localising to one among the many options I see. Hit that problem a couple of times yesterday at a meeting I was in at Lincoln University on water management processes and issue.

      Like

    • lettersquash says:

      Marvin, I don’t write anonymously to avoid responsibility. When deciding to write my blog, I felt that using my own name for it might seem rather self-important, so if anything it was out of humility. I tried to think of a name for it (which by default becomes the author’s nickname too on wordpress) that expressed its content, but found it difficult, and I wasn’t very sure what the content would turn out to be. In the end I chose ‘lettersquash’ as a sort of covert joke – What do you get out of a word-press? I’ve regretted it pretty much since, but also kind of grown to like it. No-one has ever raised an objection or expressed dislike of my use of a pseudonym. I’ve spent a lot of my time on forums where using a real name was a very rare occurrence, so it seems quite normal to me. Besides, you clicked on my avatar and found my name – hardly ‘anonymous’, let alone trying to avoid responsibility. I wanted to put the record straight, because I take my conversations with people very seriously, and accept responsibility for my part in them. I also have friends I trust deeply, but only know by a different name from their given name. We develop trust, and earn it, through behaviour, through demonstration of trustworthiness. One of them deliberately chose to be completely anonymous, not revealing his ‘true’ identity to anyone (almost certainly using VPN, etc.), because it is by being anonymous that he can exercise his full responsibility, taking journalistic risks that would be difficult or suicidal otherwise.

      Do you really clear comments off your blog? Ah, well, each to their own. I hope you warn commentators that their texts will be ‘routinely cleared’. They might take their conversations quite seriously and put effort into them, imagining that they’ll last and educate.

      All the best,
      lettersquash

      Like

  17. John
    I am not entirely confident of this interpretation, and it does seem that your intent was to insult, and not to enquire or inform.

    If that was the case, as seems probable at this point, then further conversation has no point.
    If you are simply honestly mistaken, and you believe me to be saying something with the intention to deceive, then all I can do is assure you that is not the case.

    When I read something, I usually do a quick set of mental calculations to confirm if claims are within reasonable bounds – just roughly +- 10% is usually enough.
    I also usually check out claims of relationship:
    Do they match with the evidence sets I have?
    Does the paradigm offered solve or create any significant issues?
    Is it logically equivalent to anything else in my experience set?
    Are there any contradictory or invalidated assumptions present? etc

    If I’m reading something technical, I can do several such calculations per minute – they only take me a fraction of a second to do, but they can take a very long time to explain to someone else.

    I simply do not have any simple way of explaining.
    I tried two metaphors, and your response was “I’m ignoring the waffle that follows”.

    I use terms that are “soft” like “it seems” quite deliberately in an attempt to explicitly convey the notion that it seems clear to me, on balance of evidence, and balance of probabilities, that all knowledge contains uncertainties.
    I know that I can write computer systems that will, if the computer is working correctly, do exactly what I intend with great reliability, but the computers don’t always work correctly, for a vast array of reasons.

    Evolution doesn’t require of systems that they work perfectly.
    It does have strong payoffs for working quickly, and working with least possible energy, and working at least as well as the alternatives across all the contexts encountered (probabilities summed across life histories across generations).
    Thus the constructs that we come with by default, are likely to be heuristics tuned to our biological and cultural ancestral and life path, at many levels and dimensions.

    You seem to be demanding of me that I provide a set of constructs into a paradigm that does not support the constructs I am trying to point to.
    It’s like demanding that I give a classical interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    I fully understand that you find my explanations inadequate.
    I get that.
    I don’t have an issue with that.
    What I do have an issue with is your claim “I’m not sure how much your mental process makes comprehension difficult for you. Is that what you’re referring to, being on the autistic spectrum or something? We all have to interpret other people’s words and may struggle to choose between different interpretations. What helps is asking for clarification of the bits you’re not sure of (which is what I did with you), but you don’t invest in actual conversation between you and someone else, you just talk at them, in your unfocused scatter-gun and proselytising fashion.”

    Consider the possibility that I may be very focused, but just not using a paradigm that has any direct translation into the system of understanding that you are using.
    And I cannot at present see any simple way of bridging that gap.

    I can simply explain the path I used to get to where I am. Which I did. Read a lot, in many fields, question everything, check everything, and like Bruce Lee, keep only that which you find works for you in practice, and practice it, diligently.
    Read Doug Hofstadter’s Goedel Escher Bach.
    Read Einstein’s book on relativity, and if, like me, you can’t do the math, then go back to those he used, like I did, until you are confident it makes sense.

    I fully get that a flat earth model of the world is what we all use to build houses – at that scale it works.
    I fully get that classical mechanics works at a certain scale, but when you get down to atoms it fails.
    Quantum mechanics is weird.
    If quantum mechanics has a single founding assumption, then it can perhaps best be characterised as, the universe does not allow certain knowledge of anything to exist below the Planck scale. Our best experiments seem to confirm that “stuff” does not exist in the regions where that statement would be violated.
    In a very real sense, all of matter, all chemistry, life, us, falls out of that fundamental demand for uncertainty in existence.

    The idea of hard causation would seem to be illusion, however useful it may be as a heuristic at some scales.
    What seems to be a fundamental reality of this “Reality” we find ourselves in is:
    Cause does not always precede effect, and effect does not always follow from cause; but within certain probability functions, they seem to.

    Certainly, our systems are predicated on a sufficient degree of order and consistency in relationship, and they are also founded on fundamental uncertainty and that uncertainty is important in how we get to be what we are.
    That quantum weirdness is fundamental to how our enzymes deliver metabolism and switches and amplifiers and triggers and gates and all the many layers of computational systems embedded within us.

    Hard causality seems, on balance of probabilities, to be an illusion, but one that is often a useful approximation to something in many common contexts.

    You seem to be expecting me to deliver to you an explanation framed in hard causal terms.
    I cannot do that, and be in integrity with myself.

    Like

    • lettersquash says:

      “You seem to be expecting me to deliver to you an explanation framed in hard causal terms.
      I cannot do that, and be in integrity with myself.”

      Fine. You could have saved a lot of time if you’d just said you can’t explain it, like maybe after I said, “If you can’t specifically describe how randomness or probability distributions give us free will, that’s also fine – maybe it’s something you’re still working on.”

      This is the reason I lost my temper with you a bit – this kind of thing. I think it’s probably because you are autistic. There’s no blame attached to that remark, or insult intended. And I didn’t quite take it on board at first, or I’d have given you more slack. Sorry.

      But, for the record, if you can’t explain something, it’s generally understood by other people that you don’t know it. Knowing something is usually synonymous with being able to describe it fairly well. You might know how determinism + chaos = free will. You might have some fuzzy picture of it. You might have a deep, multi-dimensional picture of it. Or you might just not know it, as far as I can tell. This discussion was unfruitful because not being able to express an idea isn’t any good in discussions, and causes great frustration if people are asking you to explain. If you genuinely have an answer to that question, it’s a pity you can’t express it “in hard causal terms”, because the world would like to know.

      Forgive me, but I also have complex webs of possibilities that I weigh up, and on balance I suspect you don’t have the answer. The hints that you’ve given don’t indicate to me that you have this knowledge. You failed again to confirm or deny when I paraphrased your nearest approach to an answer, as, “Mind influences matter”. Even if the details are complicated, you could say, “No, that’s not it at all!”, or “Yes, kind of…but it’s more complicated….”, and the conversation could continue. It’s partly just frustrating because if you could flow in a conversation more, without all the repetition and insinuation that other people are idiots in the shadow of your mighty genius, I’m sure you’d be a fascinating interlocutor.

      So I perhaps mistook your inability to give the answer as obfuscation, and your stuff about how fast your brain works, etc., as boasting, and your advice on which books I should read as putting me down. Or maybe this is what you do when you don’t know something, obfuscate, boast, repeat things you do know, and insult the other person’s intelligence. I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s much better to say, “I don’t know”, or “I think I know, but I can’t put it into words”. I’d have been out of here with a cheery goodbye much earlier, and not insulted you at all.

      Like

      • John
        The thing I would like you to consider, is that I have explained it, but not in a way that you have understood.
        I understand it, in a way that is very difficult to communicate, because there does not exist any commonly agreed referents for the concepts involved, because they are not common concepts.
        I have tried consistently to get you to look at this from a probabilistic approach, but to you it occurs as “waffle” – which is kind of understandable.
        When you don’t understand something it can seem like waffle, but that does not mean it is “waffle” in any objective sense, however subjectively it may occur as such.
        I’m not trying to insinuate that other people are idiots.
        I understand that we each have our domains of competency, and those form very complex shapes in the space of all possible knowledge.

        Of course mind influencing matter is a part of it, but that isn’t a very close approximation to what I am trying to point to, in fact by most interpretations it probably hides more than it clarifies.

        Let me try once more to approach it from a different perspective.
        Of course systems require boundaries.
        Boundaries are what allow for distinction.
        Without boundaries, everything is the same amorphous goo.
        Every level of structure requires some form of boundary set to create that structure.
        The more complex the structure, then typically the more complex the boundary.

        Quantum mechanics seems to be a boundary that says at the Planck level, one cannot know both position and momentum beyond a certain level of uncertainty. That simple boundary condition seems to allow for all of the common properties of matter, and light.
        Between that level of the atomic scale and us are some 20 levels of cooperative systems, each building upon the lower levels, each with its own necessary and more complex set of boundary conditions and resulting systemic properties.
        Systems and processes that are simply the result of large collections of stuff (like rocks and water) tend to have properties that are very close to hard causality, because the probability distributions of QM are so small in relation to other properties, that those large collections function with very close approximations to hard causality (within the measurement errors of our best instruments in most cases).
        And in complex systems, like ourselves, we can have processes that are so complex that they are significantly influenced by quantum level uncertainty (events without hard deterministic cause, but approximating causality within some probability function).
        It does seem that systems that can model themselves and their environment and possible futures, that operate close enough to that boundary for long enough, can become sufficiently causally separated from the very necessary approximations to causal influences that gave them the boundaries that allowed their form to instantiate; that there is a very real sense in which they can be said to have “free will”.
        The sense in which that will is free is not a sense in which it is free from all influence, such a thing would make no systemic sense.
        The sense of freedom involved here is rather a degree of freedom from necessary external cause, in which internal aspects of that very complex software can have influences that cannot be reliably predicted by any external agent, yet retain a level of coherence in system that is far greater than the level of quantum chaos at the boundaries.
        And of course, any software system has to run on hardware, and can only be reliable on that hardware, to the degree that it is, to the degree that the hardware supports the systemic sets of influence that are the software. When thinking about such things we tend to decouple software from the hardware it is running on, but in reality no such decoupling exists (it is only a convenient modeling tool we use).
        So it is a very delicate balance, to have sufficient reliability to be able to sustain a pattern, and to have sufficient decoupling from hard causality for there to be something real in degrees of freedom.

        It is not trivial.
        It is not simple.
        It contains far more complex concepts than this simple sketch implies.
        It is about as far from simple as this universe seems to have currently instantiated.
        It is something I see in my “mind’s eye”, in the way that I coopt visual and spatial memory for processing complex problems.
        And as with all my understandings about reality, it is probabilistic.

        Liked by 1 person

  18. lettersquash says:

    Hi Ted,

    Thanks. I found that “different perspective” a lot easier to understand. I’m not sure if there’s anywhere much to go from here, though.

    You have stated very clearly, “I understand it, in a way that is very difficult to communicate, because there does not exist any commonly agreed referents for the concepts involved, because they are not common concepts.”

    As I say, putting that more clearly to start with would have been really helpful (assuming I didn’t miss it), but no matter, we’re there now.

    There were no commonly agreed referents for any concept in human language until someone described their vision. Maybe you’ll do that.

    Anyway, without those shared concepts in this case, the answer that I seek must remain undiscoverable. Perhaps we’ve taken this as far as we can, at least for now. That’s a pity. I am tempted to put my view forward, but mine is more equivocal, and there’s little point.

    I think you’re probably wrong about Dennett. In his book, Freedom Evolves, he tries to bridge the gap between hard causation and free will, and claims to have succeeded, although he doesn’t invoke quantum strangeness, as far as I’m aware. I think he says that free will is an evolutionary adaptation and – rather similarly to your position, perhaps – puts this ability down to the higher and more complex level of memetic and cultural evolution. I’ve only read synopses and reviews, however.

    All the best,
    John

    Like

    • Well, if all else fails, John, you could read my blog. But mostly its based on the simple insight that we are the part of determinism that is actually making our choices. Our physical act of choosing actually determines what happens next. And as long as it is authentically satisfying our own purpose and our own reasons, then it is called a “freely chosen will” or simply “free will”. But, if you’re heavily vested in the traditional error of confusing free will with “freedom from causation”, which is something we both agree is a nonsensical concept, then enjoy your paradox. 🙂

      Like

      • lettersquash says:

        Marvin,

        ‘But, if you’re heavily vested in the traditional error of confusing free will with “freedom from causation”, which is something we both agree is a nonsensical concept, then enjoy your paradox.’

        As I may have already said, Marvin, it’s a matter of how we define things. One common and useful method of assessing the reality of something is to consider whether it is a ‘nonsensical concept’, and if it is, to dismiss it as very unlikely to exist. It could be a flawed judgement, but it is often a good guide. Now, since I do equate ‘free will’ with ‘freedom from causation’ (although this definition would need more fleshing out to avoid any confusion at all), and the latter appears to be nonsensical, it’s a good bet that ‘free will’ is nonsensical too. This, I submit, is a reasonable and commonly understood definition of ‘free will’.

        I concede happily that if you define it as you have, it exists. I fancy that I’m pondering on a more subtle proposition. Depending on how they defined the idea of solid matter, one person will be happy to bang their head against a wall and declare the matter closed, while another discovers the thing has holes. I might have a look at your blog, but I find your views unhelpful, so it would mostly be out of curiosity.

        For instance, the passage on here where you say free will exists because you’re in a room and eat an apple and there’s nothing else that could have done that – this appears to trivialise the question, and you conclude with this:

        ‘Concepts like “determinism”, “causation”, and “inevitability” do not eat apples. Only living organisms eat apples. When you try to reverse this, and attribute causal power to concepts, you commit the fallacy of reification, making an idea into a concrete thing in reality.’

        To imagine (or assert) that what I’m describing attributes causal power to concepts demonstrates either a difficulty thinking or deliberate obtuseness, as does your inability to recognise the possibility that the agent you postulate, ‘me’, as having ‘free will’ could in reality not choose whether to eat the apple or not, even if it imagines that it has that freedom. You seem to be appealing only to intuitive levels of judgement.

        You’re pointing to a quality that might be best described as ‘free-will-or-the-illusion-thereof’, the duality undiscriminated in any meaningful way. This, it appears to have escaped you, is where the world generally has arrived. As I said before, you’ve given me nothing that distinguishes between them. I’m not saying this is a worse position to arrive at than I have, only that I’m aware that I haven’t solved the mystery, while you claim you have. (I have reasons to lean towards it being an illusion, but we’ve been so busy footling about with concepts, we haven’t even mentioned the hard evidence from neurology that our conscious choices may actually be illusory.)

        Indeed, when you claim that ‘me’ is different from the automatic causes you describe elsewhere under ‘determinism’ (appearing to imply that these lead to its existence and function), you’re the one ascribing causation to a concept – ‘me’ – abstracted from that line of causation. I am the one trying to follow the real events in space and time and understand their causal relationships, as reductionist principles have been used since the invention of the scientific method. To one person, ‘walls hurt foreheads’ is an acceptable conclusion, to another, there are complex collisions of atoms in relatively vast regions of space, reacting to electromagnetic forces….or even more weird shit down below that level.

        Really, I think, the problem is language, first and foremost. Things presumably are and do what they are and do, and we’re perhaps just arguing over our preferred abstractions. One could object to what I’ve written above by saying that in that case ‘humans’ don’t exist, ‘walls’ aren’t real, etc. Nevertheless, I sense that there is a real difference between tracing actual causes and understanding actual relationships between ‘things’ (or their ideas), on which our scientific ability to predict the outcome of experiments depends, and imputing powers to systems that they may not have. The wonderfully complex patterns produced by John Conway’s Game of Life remind us of animals and could easily be thought by an innocent mind to have agency, but they don’t.

        Humans and other animals have evolved to impute agency to all manner of mechanical systems, which science has since shown not to have it. This alone should give us cause to doubt our own, or define it very carefully indeed. Why is it, pray tell, that when a person decides to eat an apple, they are not aware of having made the choice to do so until a period – sometimes, whole seconds – after their brain and body have made preparations to do so? Why is it better to label that ‘free will’ (because nobody else was there to eat it) than ‘the illusion of free will’?

        Like

      • Because there is a distinction to be made between a model of reality and an illusion. Our only access to reality is the collection of models in our heads. I experience an apple’s appearance through visual sensations that go through several layers of conversion from the raw detection of light waves to the production of properties such as color, glossiness, relative location to the bowl on the table in the room. These are associated with memories of other properties of apples, such as how they feel, how they taste and smell, their crunchiness, the fact that if dropped they will roll, and so on.

        If this is model is correct, then I say that the apple is “real”. On the other hand, if I pick up the apple and it feels light, and I tap it and it sounds hollow, and I discover on inspection that this is also true of the other apples in the bowl, then I know that I have been fooled by a bowl of artificial fruit placed in a bowl on the table, to give the “illusion” of apples.

        That’s the difference between what is real and what is an illusion. However, scientists often get this distinction wrong. In describing how this works, the scientist may suggest that since the apple does not actually exist inside your head, that what you’re having is an “illusion” of an apple, because it is merely a collection of data about an apple.

        But if we misuse “illusion” in that context, then how do we refer to the distinction between a real apple and the illusion of an apple?

        Our model of the apple is “real” if it provides us with accurate enough information to allow us to deal with it effectively in the “real” world. Our model of the apple is an “illusion” when it leads us to try to bite into a piece of artificial fruit.

        So, we can apply this same analysis to our model of the “self”. My “self” is a model of me that helps me deal with the real object that is me in the real world. I locate myself in the same room as the bowl of apples. I have real internal feelings that I recognize as my own hunger. I have real arms that I’ve learned to coordinate with my vision to place my hand on one of the apples in the bowl. I pick up the apple and it feels right, smells right, crunches right when I bite it with my teeth and chew it, and swallow it. And it reduces the internal feeling of my hunger.

        The self is not an “illusion” when it provides accurate information that allows me to deal with myself effectively in the real world. It is “real” in precisely the same way that the apple is “real”.

        On the other hand, if I’m asleep and having a dream, then I’m actually having an “illusion” about myself and I may even have a dream about eating an apple.

        To summarize, it is incorrect to call the self an illusion when it is providing an accurate model. When the model is accurate, it is as real as anything in the real world is “real”.

        Like

      • lettersquash says:

        Hi Marvin,

        ‘Because there is a distinction to be made between a model of reality and an illusion.’

        That seems to set up a false dichotomy. Isn’t there also a distinction to be made between a model of reality and reality? Anyway, I’m not sure that either consideration really answers the question. I’m quite aware of the basic functioning of perception and putative ‘models’ of reality. The question to address is whether the specific model that people habitually form, involving our free agency, is factually true (the one you seem to favour), or whether it is factually false, and a better ‘model’ is that the person (squirrel, etc.) only thinks it has free choice, whilst being moved by forces of which it is unconscious, and which it is unable to influence.

        ‘If this is model is correct, then I say that the apple is “real”. On the other hand, if I pick up the apple and it feels light, and I tap it and it sounds hollow, and I discover on inspection that this is also true of the other apples in the bowl, then I know that I have been fooled by a bowl of artificial fruit placed in a bowl on the table, to give the “illusion” of apples.’

        Sure, but neither real apples nor fake ones are the models in your head.

        ‘That’s the difference between what is real and what is an illusion.’

        Not really. It’s the difference between an incorrect model and a correct one, as you began defining it. You’re as foxy as a Dennett.

        ‘However, scientists often get this distinction wrong. In describing how this works, the scientist may suggest that since the apple does not actually exist inside your head, that what you’re having is an “illusion” of an apple, because it is merely a collection of data about an apple.’

        Dumb-ass scientists, maybe. The model isn’t an illusion, it’s real. When electromagnetic stuff hits the sensory system, the brain alters its physical composition, mapping external physics to internal physics, as far as we’re aware, in a 1:1, inevitable relationship. We call this a model, but it’s only ‘a collection of data’ in a much more approximate sense. We’re used to abstracting computation like that. As I said, words are tricky.

        However, the mapped physics inside the brain is not the external physics of the apple or fake apple.

        ‘But if we misuse “illusion” in that context, then how do we refer to the distinction between a real apple and the illusion of an apple?’

        You just did.

        ‘Our model of the apple is “real” if it provides us with accurate enough information to allow us to deal with it effectively in the “real” world. Our model of the apple is an “illusion” when it leads us to try to bite into a piece of artificial fruit.’

        A correct model is not “real” in the sense you seem to be implying, nor an incorrect model “unreal”! Both models have exactly the same degree of existence in the real world; one involves a correct identification of the object, the other not, that’s all.

        ‘So, we can apply this same analysis to our model of the “self”.’

        Yes, and with the same conclusion.

        ‘The self is not an “illusion” when it provides accurate information that allows me to deal with myself effectively in the real world. It is “real” in precisely the same way that the apple is “real”.’

        No. The self is a model of the person. The model of the apple is a model of the apple. They are ‘real’ models (physical arrangements of matter in the CNS), but neither is the same as the object they model (otherwise you’d not have introduced the idea of the model at all). The question this leaves is whether a model of the physical person (which is a physical system momentarily existing within that person’s brain) can make choices, when you appear to accept that the person can’t.

        Maybe I confused the issue – if I objected that the ‘self’ isn’t ‘real’, this was shorthand for the above. If one subscribes to the idea of it being ‘data’, it should be even harder to get confused. The point I was making is that if the physical body of a person is wholly and completely subject to the ‘automatic’ and ‘inevitable’ processes you talked about, I don’t buy what you then did – suggest that some other abstraction, which you called, ‘me’, and we’re now discussing as the ‘self’ can have any more claim to freedom from inevitability.

        ‘On the other hand, if I’m asleep and having a dream, then I’m actually having an “illusion” about myself and I may even have a dream about eating an apple.’

        Yes, that’s a more reasonable use of the word. Interestingly, though, often in a dream you don’t know that you’re dreaming. Similarly, when you momentarily reach up to protect yourself from what turns out to be a harmless reflection of some kind, you have an illusion. If you think you have a homunculus inside your head moving levers…etc. You’re really no nearer to establishing whether your belief that you have free will is true or not, as these examples might help you to grokk.

        ‘To summarize, it is incorrect to call the self an illusion when it is providing an accurate model.’

        In the sense I clarified, that’s true, but the self is still not an illusion when it is providing an inaccurate model, just as is true of the model of a fake and a real apple: all are physical arrangements of the nervous system. You may have not noticed, but you’ve introduced the idea of an accurate model of the person, which I imagine is an impossibility. Given that the human brain is more complicated than anything we know, it’d be hard pressed to represent itself accurately down to even the cellular level, and we know there’s a long way to go after that.

        ‘When the model is accurate, it is as real as anything in the real world is “real”.’

        But it is still just a model. You now have to show that a model can change ‘automatic determinism’ into free choice. Personally, where the self-model is concerned, I think its accuracy is irrelevant to the question (we’d make or not make less informed choices is all), and almost impossible objectively to quantify.

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      • John, You asked, “Isn’t there also a distinction to be made between a model of reality and reality?”

        Actually, no. We literally have no access to reality outside of the model we build based upon our sensory input. That means we are updating our model of our current reality constantly, with new input, but the model is the only way we can “know” anything.

        I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of “solipsism”. It is the proposition that I alone exist, and everything else is a dream I’m having. There is no way to prove this is not the case! But there is the pragmatic solution that it really would make no difference at all, because I would still have to act as if the dream were real. Since the dream would be excess baggage, we carve it away with Occam’s razor, and presume reality is pretty much as we experience it, unless we’re dreaming, of course, but the body actually has mechanisms that shut down our movements when we are dreaming, except in sleepwalkers who have broken mechanisms.

        Our experience of making decisions is real. We need not rely upon subjective evidence for this. Just walk up to a kid with a couple of ice cream cones and say, “Which do you want, the chocolate or the vanilla?” We observe him choosing. Thus it is a fact of objective reality.

        The forces in play here are not mysterious. The boy has had previous experience with both chocolate and vanilla ice cream. He may even remember his last experience, if it was recent. In any case, his prior experiences are part of who and what he is right now. So, either consciously or unconsciously, his brain calculates the choice that he feels he will enjoy most this time, he becomes aware of that feeling, and he verbalizes his choice.

        Now, the hard determinist suggests that the Big Bang made that choice, and the boy’s preferences had nothing to do with it. Or perhaps the hard determinist will claim that his preferences have nothing to do with him, putting him on one side of the room while putting his preferences on the other side, and then claiming that his preferences made the choice by themselves, external to the boy, who just watched. But that’s not an accurate model of reality. That would be an illusion, because the boy’s preferences are integral to who and what he is.

        Another thing that is integral to who and what the boy is, is causality itself. Without reliable cause and effect he could not possibly exist as a person. His heart pumps blood to feed his cells. His muscles accept the chocolate cone from your hand to his. The reliable electro-chemical connections and the energy within his brain which produces all of his models of reality, is also dependent upon reliable causation. And all of this stuff of which he is made, ordered and organized naturally into a person, is what he is.

        When all this stuff decides to have the chocolate cone, rather than the vanilla, we say that “he has decided for himself which cone he wants”.

        Unless, of course, his little sister, who almost always asks for vanilla, decides her brother must know something she does not, so she pipes up, “No! I want the chocolate this time!”. And his mother gives her the chocolate, and he must settle for the vanilla, because his mother has authoritative command in these matters, which overrides his free will.

        So, when you suggest, “a better ‘model’ is that the person (squirrel, etc.) only thinks it has free choice, whilst being moved by forces of which it is unconscious, and which it is unable to influence”, I must ask you in return, “Which of those forces is not a part of who and what he is? Which of them is actually external?”.

        You are correct to say that a model is only “a collection of data”. It is a very rich collection made up of sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, and so forth, much more than a mere collection of verbal facts. But it is all data, and the brain is a data processing machine. In fact, in Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain”, he depicts conscious awareness as a model of attention, where awareness itself is data.

        You say, “words are tricky”. Yes, they are. That’s what Pragmatism is for. William James suggested that, when defining words, we should look for their practical meaning, how they actually operate in reality. For example, free will makes the distinction between a choice we make for ourselves and a choice imposed upon us by someone or something else.

        You say this, “I don’t buy what you then did – suggest that some other abstraction, which you called, ‘me’, and we’re now discussing as the ‘self’ can have any more claim to freedom from inevitability.”

        And, I’ll repeat again, a little louder in case you didn’t catch it the first time I said it and the times that I repeated it, EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IS ALWAYS CAUSALLY INEVITABLE, WITHOUT ANY EXCEPTION OR UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!!

        Therefore, it follows that the word “free” never has, nor ever could, imply “freedom from causation”. And, a little louder this time, BECAUSE IT CANNOT, IT DOES NOT!!

        So, free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, when free of external coercion or other undue influence.

        It can NEVER imply “freedom from causation”, “freedom from oneself”, or “freedom from reality”. Those are all impossible, and yet people seem to think they have something to do with free will. They don’t.

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      • So, John, this is my second response since I spent the first response explaining the technical difference between a model of “reality” and an “illusion” (not sure which comment will appear first).

        The idea that reliable causation is some coercion that is forcing us to do things that we would not otherwise do is a philosophical “illusion”. One’s self, on the other hand, exists as a real object in the real world, and thus it is “not an illusion”.

        If we open our eyes to the prior causes of an event that happens to involve us, then we should be able to see that at least some of those prior causes that necessitated the event fall within “that which is us”. For example, the hunger for the apple was internal to me. The thoughts as to whether to have an apple now or later were also my own thoughts. The final choice to eat the apple now was a mental process occurring within my own head. Any dietary suggestion by my parents or my doctor, who were not in the room with me, had to first become part of me before they could have any real influence upon my choice.

        So, while it was true that everything that happened was the result of prior causes, it is also true that the most meaningful and relevant prior causes of my eating the apple ware all internal to “who and what I was” at that moment. No abstract theory of causation came into the room and ate the apple. The only real thing that could have eaten the real apple was me.

        You correctly point out that neuroscience can make the distinction between mental functions that we are consciously aware of versus those that are carried out below conscious awareness. And, in the Libet experiments, certain unconscious activity indicated that the choice as to when to squeeze the hand or when to record conscious awareness of choice (or whatever the particular minimal response was involved in that particular experiment) had been made prior to conscious awareness of the choice.

        There are several reasons why we shouldn’t get carried away with that fact. First, we already know that the brain is composed of hundreds of specialty areas that work together to carry out a mental process. If you’ve ever taken a “how to study” course in college they’ll tell you about a test-taking technique called “prime and wait”. When you run into a question that you feel you ought to know, but the answer just won’t come, think about it a little more (prime), and then go on to the other questions (wait). When you come back to it later, often the answer will just pop into your head (or rather pop from your unconscious memory to your conscious awareness). And we’ve all also heard the advice for handling complex problems, “sleep on it”, again giving our unconscious functions time to work it out for us overnight. So, we’re all aware that conscious awareness is a special function within a brain that contains many other functions.

        Second, the experimenter must first explain to one’s conscious mind what you are expected to do, such as “squeeze your hand randomly 40 times within the next 2 minutes”. The conscious mind sets the purpose for the unconscious mind to fulfill. And the conscious mind is updated later by the unconscious mind of the result. So, we’re not really bypassing conscious awareness.

        Third, whenever I hear of the Libet experiments proving the absence of free will, I like to ask this question: “Were the subjects in the experiment required to participate for class credit, or, were they allowed to choose to participate of their own free will?” The question has nothing to do with the actual experiment. It simply demonstrates that we all understand the normal meaning of the term “free will”.

        Each person who was asked if they’d like to participate would have considered whether they had the time and interest to do so, or whether they had other things that they’d rather be doing. Different people, each for their own reasons, would have made their own choices.

        There is no suggestion of any lack of causation for these choices. There is no suggestion of any supernatural intervention. Each living object performed its own calculation to weigh the benefits and costs of participating, and made its own choice according to its own purpose and its own reasons.

        Thus, each choice qualified as being completely deterministic while at the same time being a choice of their own free will.

        Okay, I think I’ve covered your questions John, but if I’ve missed something, please let me know.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Marvin, in reply to your second part, I’ll try to be brief. You have given very good reasons why it is possible that conscious free will is real. You have not given any reason why it is impossible that conscious free will is an illusion.

        I could take every step of the process you describe one by one and make the point, but I’m limited for time here. It’s kind of frustrating that you can’t understand it or refuse to accept it – THE POSSIBILITY – that when a student contemplates long and hard on whether they will or will not take part in an experiment, for example, every single moment of their thought process could be due to prior causes, and thus not, in the sense you seem to have been implying, a free choice. It’s really not rocket science, just using your imagination.

        Oddly, you then ignore the logical premise you’re arguing from at that point, accept that everything happens by determinism, and somehow still want your cake after you’ve eaten it.

        You try to refute THE POSSIBILITY that there is no free choice in anything by suggesting that I am invoking an invisible agent, “determinism” or whatever, forcing us to do things, implying that this is a ridiculous spook. In your words:

        ‘The idea that reliable causation is some coercion that is forcing us to do things that we would not otherwise do is a philosophical “illusion”.’

        You’re really clutching at straws here, or when you watch a crystal form you might have to deny it – is the same goblin-of-inevitability making it happen? Do the planets orbit by a ‘philosophical “illusion”‘?

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      • Free will is when a person decides for himself what he will do, when free of coercion or undue influence. Every choice we make of our own free will is also causally inevitable. Either it was inevitable that we would control the choice ourselves, or it was inevitable that a guy would hold a gun to our head and force his choice upon us.

        Now, the interesting thing here is that causal inevitability makes itself irrelevant by its ubiquity. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without ever affecting the result.

        Thus: “Either it was inevitable that we would control the choice ourselves, or it was inevitable that a guy would hold a gun to our head and force his choice upon us.” takes the much simpler form: “Either we would control the choice ourselves, or a guy would hold a gun to our head and force his choice upon us.”

        Like any other constant, it remains in the background, and nobody brings it up except the hard determinists, presumably to get attention by stirring things up. But it is only a “tempest in a teapot”.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Good grief, Marvin! Your capacity for managing cognitive dissonance astounds me! You will, on one occasion, describe external reality and our modeling of it in the brain, the next dodge having to think about the difference by appealing to solipsism (yes, I’ve heard of it, for goodness sake) – which I notice you then retreat from again. You don’t actually defend solipsism, just say it is possible, then return to talking about the real world and models.

        And your shouting your determinist position isn’t really fair: similarly, I only contradict it when I follow the logic of the other half of your compatibilism to its logical conclusion, because you fail to do so yourself. I’m trying to wake you up to the incompatible consequences of two views you like to hold simultaneously! I’m getting bloody fed up of you hiding behind one when I criticise the other! Learn to think!

        ‘Every choice we make of our own free will is also causally inevitable.’

        I’m afraid that is simply self-contradictory nonsense. Seriously, listen to yourself sometime. Every event, you say, is causally inevitable. Every event is caused by prior causes. Every free choice is an event that is caused by prior causes. Yet you refuse to give the universe and its causes the credit and want to have it yourself! If event E happened because of prior causes, which happened because of prior causes, which happened because of prior causes….the Big Bang did it. Be grateful it made some little units of consciousness pop into existence to watch the show (although, by this reckoning, you can’t choose to be grateful, you either will or won’t). 😀

        Saying that the part of reality that was the last in the line of causes is the person, the agent, and therefore free choice was somehow demonstrated, is pure sophistry. If every part and every event in the behaviour of that person is caused by prior causes, there is no free will.

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      • Like I said. Choose your definition. With my definition I get both perfect determinism as well as meaningful free will. With your definition you get paradox. It’s not my problem, it’s yours.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Marvin, you say

        ‘Like I said. Choose your definition. With my definition I get both perfect determinism as well as meaningful free will. With your definition you get paradox. It’s not my problem, it’s yours.’

        But I don’t think that’s right at all. I get ‘paradox’ when I explore the consequences of YOUR definitions. That’s what I just expressed, with a detailed, rational explanation. You avoid paradox, it seems to me, by dealing with only one of your premises at a time, never trying to marry them competently. Working out how the world works is more than just choosing the definitions you like.

        On the contrary, when I contemplate pure determinism, i.e. inevitability, and even when I add randomness, there is no paradox. Tell me what the paradox is? The only difficulty there is in this view is that it is somewhat counter-intuitive, because we feel that we have free will.

        We seem to be perhaps coming to an impasse, but I’m ready to hear what you think is my paradox.

        I wonder what you’ve read on these issues – if not much, I’d suggest you start with the wikipedia entry on compatibilism. And note under ‘Criticisms’ that I’m not the only one to feel this frustration: ‘William James accused [people who use your sort of definition] of creating a “quagmire of evasion” by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism. Immanuel Kant called it a “wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery”.’ Daniel Dennett is still at it, and faces severe criticism for it.

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      • The paradox is that you do not exist. Somehow, this conversation is a mulling over of things by the Big Bang itself. Incoherently, you insist that all prior causes are real while ignoring the most recent prior cause right in front of you: you. You have no freedoms at all, since “true” freedom, by your definition, requires disassociation from reliable causation. And yet you keep going around causing stuff, acting upon what you considered to be nothing more than an “illusion”.

        And, I hesitate to point this out to you, but your dictionary is shrinking. All you have is an abstraction called “prior causes”, which do not include things like a “self”, which eliminates the thing called a “person”, and after all the people are gone, you might as well throw away the rest of the dictionary, because all of the words in it were created to serve the needs of those people you consider to be illusions.

        My dictionary, on the other hand, is packed full of concepts like “free will”, “responsibility”, “self”, “autonomy”, and all the other concepts we humans have created to serve our purpose. (In fact, it’s been full for over 4 hours now and I think that means I should call a doctor).

        I have no paradox between perfect determinism and free will, because my determinism attributes causation to the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe, and I happen to be one of those actual objects which is capable of exerting force upon other objects, like typing on this keyboard. And I do not delude myself into believing that the abstract concept of “causation” is doing anything other than describing what I am currently doing. The concept of causation cannot cause anything. Only real stuff can do real stuff. And I happen to be real stuff.

        My definition of free will does not require disassociating myself from causation. I am “that which is causing stuff”. And I am “free” to “choose” what I “will” do, from several options, which results in a “freely chosen” “will”. This is not a freedom from determinism, but simply a “freedom from anyone or anything else forcing their will upon me”.

        Everything I do is inevitable. But there can be no question as to who is doing the doing. It is I.

        If you wish to keep pretending it is something other than me, then you need to explain how it happens when I am the only object in the room that is initiating physical force to carry out my will.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Marvin,

        To understand the postulate that free will might be an illusion, or any relatively subtle, difficult idea, one must avoid taking descriptions too literally – as we agreed, words are tricky – so your assertion that this view leaves nothing, no humans, just the Big Bang, is unhelpful and misleading (of course, it’s one I stepped into myself, but hoped readers would have the imagination to see as a rough sketch of an idea). The idea that a person is a ‘person’, an identifiable object in the world, is perfectly sound, just as a wall is a wall. In addition, we can analyse a person in all manner of ways, and one way is to see it as a causal process, a physical cascade of events, even a ‘machine’. Since words, in my view and apparently yours when it suits you, are human constructs attached to patterns in the world, heuristically abstracted and relatively arbitrary, we must not be hoodwinked by them. So, I’m not saying that a person does not exist and only the Big Bang. The only paradox here is a general one that applies everywhere. We attach the term ‘Big Bang’ as reasonably and unreasonably as ‘person’. If you want to take this discussion down to the final analysis of what may or may not actually exist and what is just a label humans attach to a pattern of behaviour of matter in the universe, we’ll both have a difficult time trying to make a case.

        Hence, it is unfair to pronounce that I am at fault by denying the reality of a person. The discussion is trying to shed light on free will, and in this sense I am objecting to your casual faith in ‘person-as-agent’ arbitrarily cut from the flow of events. Sure, you can ignore all prior causes at every moment of choice, focus just on the buzzing field of energy you slap that label on, and casually declare it has free will because…what?…you have a word for it in the dictionary, apparently! That essentially seems all your scheme comes down to. You vaguely identify yourself as an agent and, rather than declaring that you are an uncaused cause, you ignore your own causes for the sake of argument (ending it at a happy place), you freeze the flow of events at this ‘you’, and declare that this is an adequate definition of ‘free will’. You’re perfectly entitled to this view; I’m just trying to point out its problems. The problems you’re point out in ‘mine’ seem, to me, artificially constructed, since if I tried to explain to you the atomic behaviour of a wall and claim that it sheds more light on certain qualities of it, I’d not expect you to ridicule the idea.

        You ignore the paradoxical problem of your scheme that, were the universe to rewind to exactly that point again, you’d do exactly the same (as far as you’ve given indication), and whether this Groundhog-Day view of free will is a sensible one. Perhaps you’d like to take up this challenge: tell me what would happen differently in the world if there were no free will. If you can’t, you should consider whether the idea is philosophically reasonable. But I already know – I know you well enough by now – you’ll declare, as you’ve said before, nothing would happen differently, but your magical ‘free will’ just remains because you’re a person, and ‘person’ is in your dictionary, as is ‘free will’.

        If free will were an illusion, then working out how to describe the world without resorting immediately to the dictionary and being satisfied with its suggestions is a difficult road. I’m hardly prepared for it myself (and certainly not in a comment space as a guest on someone else’s blog – sorry about all this, Ted). Similarly, it’s pretty difficult to talk about QM, or even GR without literalists raising fatuous objections. This doesn’t make the world full of little billiard balls bouncing around under Newton’s laws of motion.

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      • LettersQuash, You ask, “Perhaps you’d like to take up this challenge: tell me what would happen differently in the world if there were no free will.” That is easy to answer. In such a world you would have to do whatever I say. And whatever any other adult told you to do. We experience such a world when we are children. However, if we have good parents, they will quickly allow us to take on more personal responsibility as we develop and mature, so that we might grow up to be adults capable of deciding for ourselves what we will do. After we are adults, we will surrender certain choices to those with legitimate authority, like our employers at work, or a policeman pulling us over for a traffic violation, or our superior officer if we’re in the military, etc.

        Now, that is with the correct definition of free will. It makes a meaningful distinction in the real world regarding who is controlling our choices, us or someone or something other than us.

        With your definition of free will as “freedom from causation”, there would be no free will because reliable cause and effect are required if we are to reliably cause any effect, that is, if we are to be free to do anything at all.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Hi Marvin,

        ‘LettersQuash, You ask, “Perhaps you’d like to take up this challenge: tell me what would happen differently in the world if there were no free will.” That is easy to answer. In such a world you would have to do whatever I say. And whatever any other adult told you to do. We experience such a world when we are children. However, if we have good parents, they will quickly allow us to take on more personal responsibility as we develop and mature, so that we might grow up to be adults capable of deciding for ourselves what we will do. After we are adults, we will surrender certain choices to those with legitimate authority, like our employers at work, or a policeman pulling us over for a traffic violation, or our superior officer if we’re in the military, etc.’

        As I noted at the beginning, it’s quite a problem when you use uncommon definitions. This is what’s usually called ‘autonomy’. The world has been discussing another idea, ‘free will’.

        Now, that is with the correct definition of free will. It makes a meaningful distinction in the real world regarding who is controlling our choices, us or someone or something other than us.’

        Unless the ‘something else’ controlling us is the flow of cause and effect since the Big Bang, so that we aren’t in control, but neither is another person. People have long since identified that distinct possibility, and ‘free will’ (or the lack of) is the usual label used.

        But never mind, you have no need to consider it. You have, in fact, decided it. The universe dictates every event, but that doesn’t influence the matter of ‘free will’ at all, simply because of your esoteric definition. Simultaneously, I can choose freely what I want (when free will exists), or am forced to do someone else’s will, (when it doesn’t). This forces upon my mind a paradox, or at least a question to sort out. You have both the inanimate, inevitable, inescapable flow of events in the universe as being in control, as well as a person. I know you’re happy to allow both, but that doesn’t satisfy my desire to know who or what is really in control. Maybe you think it’s a co-operative!

        ‘With your definition of free will as “freedom from causation”, there would be no free will because reliable cause and effect are required if we are to reliably cause any effect, that is, if we are to be free to do anything at all.’

        Did I define free will as ‘freedom from causation’? I don’t think so. Besides, even if I did, your statement doesn’t seem to be true. It is perfectly imaginable that free will might exist without reliable causation. Why would it have to be ‘reliable’? When you exercise your ‘free will’, do you cause effects reliably? Our will might cause the desired effect 50% of the time and still exist as a phenomenon. But, more pertinently, our will might be an uncaused cause, having reliable or unreliable effects independent of the general stream of cause and effect in the physical world. The literature from hundreds of years is full of possibilities.

        Your problem is that I’m not defining free will as freedom from causation in that general sense, only in the specific case of the exercising of free will. It would be closer to define it as causal generation. If you want to involve freedom in the definition, it would be better as freedom from inevitability.

        An analogy might help. The free will argument that the world is having could be framed a little like the argument for miracles. Religion has had to accept that stuff happens according to the laws of physics, but allows for those to be suspended while a miracle happens. Free will – the concept that the world has been discussing by that name – is similar. The question is whether everything happens according to the laws of nature only (inevitably), or there’s some other power of agency that people can exercise (choosing).

        However, I think your statement is pointing in the general direction of a truth, and one that is a problem for believers in miracles and believers in free-will-as-indeterminacy, but I’m too tired to tease it out any further just now, and it’s a moot point; we probably agree on it; both of us seem to be determinists (although I’m less confident than you, perhaps). It’s good we agree on something.

        You appear to have been using the words ‘free will’, but talking only about ‘autonomy’, and, in the sense that the rest of the world means it, indeterminacy of some events (what Dennett calls ‘evitability’), you don’t believe in it – every event is inevitable. Would that be a fair summary?

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      • LQ: “. This is what’s usually called ‘autonomy’. The world has been discussing another idea, ‘free will’.”

        Marvin: Well, if the world includes the people that the writers of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary surveyed, then you’ll find these definitions for “autonomy”:
        1 The right or condition of self-government (freq. only in specified matters) of a state, community, institution, etc.
        2 Freedom of the will.
        3 gen. Independence, freedom from external control or influence; personal liberty.

        Freedom of the will is synonymous with autonomy. And this is what “the world” means by the term free will.

        And if you think they don’t, then please see the following survey conducted by Dr. Eddy Nahmias, et al: http://www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrary/nahmias.pdf

        LQ: “Unless the ‘something else’ controlling us is the flow of cause and effect since the Big Bang, so that we aren’t in control, but neither is another person. ”

        Marvin: And, I’ll repeat again that reliable cause and effect is NOT A MEANINGFUL CONSTRAINT. It is exactly identical to us being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

        By reifying “cause and effect” as some kind of force acting upon objects, philosophers have created a boogeyman “puppet master”, leading everyone scurrying to escape by any means, whether through supernatural intervention or quantum uncertainty.

        The boogeyman does not exist. But we do. What reliable cause and effect are “doing” is actually “us doing stuff”.

        Causal inevitability is not an inevitability that is “beyond our control”, but rather incorporates us, our choices, and our actions in the overall scheme of causation. It DOES NOT REPLACE US. It IS US.

        And that’s something that you may never get. Because you are hung up on the metaphor. For example:

        LQ: “The universe dictates every event”.

        Marvin: The universe has no interest in any event. I, on the other hand, am hungry and I’m going to go get an apple now. Why? Because it suits my purpose and my reasons. Now, if you like, we can trace the causes of my having that purpose and those reasons at this moment, and we can demonstrate that it was indeed causally inevitable that I would get up and get an apple. But we cannot blame this event on the universe, because it is an inanimate object which doesn’t really give a damn what I do. So, the most meaningful and relevant cause of my getting the apple is all about me, my hunger, my choices, and my actions.

        LQ: “simply because of your esoteric definition”

        Marvin: Really? My definition is practical, meaningful, universally understood and correctly applied by everyone in nearly all practical situations (see Nahmias article above). It is your definition which is esoteric. And since you seem unclear as to its meaning, here’s the SOED definition: “1 (Of a philosophical doctrine, mode of speech, etc.) designed for or appropriate to an inner circle of advanced or privileged disciples; communicated or intelligible only to the initiated; (of a person) initiated into or belonging to an inner circle.”

        LQ: “The free will argument that the world is having could be framed a little like the argument for miracles.”

        Marvin: But that’s a rather dumb thing to argue about, don’t you agree? Like I told my little sister recently (she’s 68 now) who’s fond of that book “The Course in Miracles”, if she believes in miracle healing then she has a moral obligation to head down to the hospital and start emptying it. But she started making excuses, of course. So, there is no need for the world to be arguing over miracles, all you need to do is tell them to show you one. And, if you can’t call one up at will, the question is moot.

        The definition of free will that everyone understands does not involve any miracles and is certainly not causeless in any way. If someone else is making your choices for you, then you’re not acting of your own free will.

        The traditional philosophical error with this is that mistake of treating “reliable cause and effect” as an entity or force of nature. It is not. It is not an actor in the real world. It only describes the reliability of the behavior of the objects and forces that actually exist. Determinism is an assertion of the reliable behavior of the things that do exist. It is not itself a thing. It is at best merely a comment about things.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Hi Marvin.

        OK, I’m going to have to try a different tack. Criticising your definitions wasn’t helpful, especially when I chose the wrong word myself. The words aren’t the reality, like the map is not the territory.

        I’m interested in understanding your point of view (OK, I’m interested in being right too, but I try to keep that in check). So, here’s a simplification I thought might help. (I’ve also been reading your blog, which has helped me understand where our differences lie.) I read this:

        ‘Marvin: And, I’ll repeat again that reliable cause and effect is NOT A MEANINGFUL CONSTRAINT. It is exactly identical to us being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.’

        …and I think you would be just as happy to replace ‘reliable cause’ with ‘inevitability’. (Again, trying not to rely on single words with definitions, I think it’s pointing to that idea of the stream of causal relationships, the deterministic ‘boogeyman’, if you please.)

        This, you say, is ‘exactly identical to us choosing what we choose’.

        Now, I think I have understood that we simply exit from this equation differently. You very clearly give the first the attribute of being meaningless – ‘not a meaningful constraint’, at least – which suggests that it’s not real in some sense, or can be ignored. The other side, our choice, you take as empirically evident.

        Can you recognise that there is another way to exit from this point? The other way to continue from this is to imagine that our choices, however intuitively persuasive, might be illusory, and reliable cause a very meaningful constraint indeed.

        I am not demanding that you support this movement from the equation, only to recognise that it might just possibly be valid, taken at face value.

        We might also note that if we equate two things, it’s pretty odd to then denounce one of them as irrelevant and claim the other real. I would not, in fact. This is what I described as the paradox that arises for me, earlier: I tend to think that either ‘reliable causation’ or ‘choice’ must be true (and equating them I find intuitively irritating).

        Further elucidation might come from considering your position on the physics-biology-psychology issue. As you note, part of the support for – I hardly know what to dare to call it now – no-free-will view is that it’s all physics. You deny this. I’ve just read this bit on your blog (I’ll combine two paragraphs for clarity):

        ‘The notion that “everything is physics” is misguided. Physics can explain why the apple fell on Newton’s head, but not why it ended up in Johnny’s lunch box fifty miles from the tree. For that you need the life sciences and the social sciences. Each science deduces its laws from the behavior of the class of objects that it observes. It is not that any laws of physics are ever broken. It’s just that the laws of physics do not cover everything. For example, a driver comes to a stop at a red light. Physics cannot explain why this happened, because the laws governing that action are decided by society, and published by the Department of Motor Vehicles, not the physics department.’

        These are mere assertions, and rather confused. The notion that we might not have free will, as you intuit, partly arises from, and has been deepened by, the scientific principle of reduction. I know several biologists who would balk at the above passage, because they know beyond a shadow of doubt that biology does not have any laws of its own, it is a pattern of behaviour of chemistry, which is also a pattern of behaviour of physics, and NOTHING happens at a biological level that is not physics. Even if you reject this as certain, perhaps you might acknowledge the possibility.

        Similarly, a growing number of neurologists and psychologists are of the same persuasion where the activity of the mind is concerned. It is a function of (and functionally identical to) the activity of the brain, which is biological chemistry and physics. Again, psychology does not have laws in anything like the sense that physics has them. For the most part, all that pass for laws in psychology are trends; as you say yourself, the laws of physics are never broken.

        Of course, physics may not be as useful to explain why someone stopped at a red light as the road traffic laws, but handy explanations at the human scale are not the touchstone of valid ultimate explanations. I’m glad to read on your blog that you’re interested in truth.

        I’ve studied emergent properties a bit, and of course higher levels of self-organisation can produce effects of a very different character from those below them, but I think the argument needs more than intuitions and generalisations from anecdotes to allow us to definitively imbue biology or psychology with its own independence of law or powers of agency.

        For all the fancy philosophical musings, this is where I get stuck, actually trying to imagine at what point and in what manner in the expansion and condensation of matter in the universe, the inevitability of the processes of the laws of physics became ‘meaningless constraint’ whilst never being broken. Explaining it is even harder to one who readily and casually relies on what their senses and common sense tells them from their human perspective.

        For these reasons, I think it was unfair to choose only the second definition in the dictionary and say, ‘Freedom of the will is synonymous with autonomy. And this is what “the world” means by the term free will.’ I’m pretty sure you know what I meant. If not, I was referring to the interminable argument about the stuff you write eloquently about, and while you state your conclusion, it cannot have escaped you that some are not as sure of the reality. The answer isn’t in philosophical word games, but multi-dimensional physics. You say, ‘the laws of physics do not cover everything’. I think you’ll find that a hard opinion to convince many of in the hard sciences.

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      • John: “You say, ‘the laws of physics do not cover everything’. I think you’ll find that a hard opinion to convince many of in the hard sciences.”

        Marvin: Actually, no. While they will cling to the notion that everything reduces to physics, when you ask them to explain a macro event, like stopping at a red light, they concede that the complexity of doing that in terms of particle physics alone would be impractical.

        For example, how would you go about explaining the macro event of a car stopping at a red light, when you know that a key component of that causation is a social law that people created? Physics has no clue as to what a “person” or a “society” is!

        So we use macro level concepts to explain what happened. The driver saw the red light and knew that, if he failed to stop, he could either be hit by another car or be arrested for a traffic violation. So, he decided to stop, rather than risk either of those events. Explanation done! And we know that it was causally inevitable, not because of physics, but because of what we know about people driving cars.

        Now, since physics never can, and never will, know anything about people and the laws they create for themselves, it would seem unlikely that any explanation based solely on particle physics will ever be able to explain this simple event.

        John: “You very clearly give the first the attribute of being meaningless – ‘not a meaningful constraint’, at least – which suggests that it’s not real in some sense, or can be ignored.”

        Marvin: It is a “logical truth” that, given reliable cause and effect, every event is causally inevitable. By saying this is “meaningless” I mean that there is nothing practical that you can do with that fact. All of the practical benefits of causal determinism come not from that single fact, but rather from the specific facts of specific causes that produce specific effects.

        For example, medical knowledge as to which bacteria and which viruses are causing this or that disease can be used to develop ways to avoid, treat, and cure these diseases. That is useful information.

        But the fact that everything that happens is always causally inevitable is not useful. It cannot, for example, aid us in making any decision. All it can tell us is that whatever we decide will have been inevitable. Useless. Thus, it is never relevant or meaningful to bring it up. And yet the “hard” determinist will bring it up inappropriately in all kinds of ways.

        John: “The other way to continue from this is to imagine that our choices, however intuitively persuasive, might be illusory, and reliable cause a very meaningful constraint indeed.”

        Marvin: But that is a fallacy. The fact that everything that happens is causally inevitable does not cancel out the fact of choosing. Choosing is also a fact. That’s what we call the physical event that occurs within our brains. (1) Multiple options are input. (2) Some comparative evaluation criteria are applied. (3) The option with the “best score” is chosen and called our “choice”. And since this is actually happening in physical reality, we cannot validly call it an “illusion”.

        The fact is that we are real, our brains are real, and our choices are real. And we were an essential part of the “causal chain” that made this choice causally inevitable.

        John: “The notion that we might not have free will, as you intuit, partly arises from, and has been deepened by, the scientific principle of reduction.”

        Marvin: Reduction is only valuable as a means of explaining how and why something behaves as it does. But it would be a fallacy to suggest that you can “explain it away”. In the case of free will, for example, neuroscience can show us which areas of the brain are activated during the mental process of making a decision, but they will never tell you that a decision is not being made.

        John: “Similarly, a growing number of neurologists and psychologists are of the same persuasion where the activity of the mind is concerned. It is a function of (and functionally identical to) the activity of the brain, which is biological chemistry and physics.”

        Marvin: The brain is me. So whatever the brain is made of, and however it works, it is still me. This fact has not changed since 400 BC, when Hippocrates noticed the behavior changes brought about by head injuries. We know where it is happening and today’s neuroscience tells us more details as to how it happens, but none of these details change the fact that the brain is us.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Once again:

        John: “The other way to continue from this is to imagine that our choices, however intuitively persuasive, might be illusory, and reliable cause a very meaningful constraint indeed.”

        Marvin: But that is a fallacy. The fact that everything that happens is causally inevitable does not cancel out the fact of choosing.

        It’s not a fallacy, it’s your lack of imagination. Just try the sentence, “The fact that we choose things doesn’t cancel out the fact that it happens inevitably”. I’m run ragged trying to get you to see this, just as a philosophical possibility. There is no particular reason other than your INTUITION that persuades you that ‘choosing’ is a ‘fact’. That is the whole point of this ancient thought experiment. It looks like a fact, it smells like a fact. Walls look solid.

        However, you have stated absolutely that inevitability is certain. I’m sorry, Marvin, but anyone who insists that inevitability is not a meaningful constraint just hasn’t got their head round philosophy 101. Maybe imagine standing in front of a firing squad for some help. It’s laughable that the reason you so blithely dismiss inevitability as meaningless is because it’s not pragmatic to use it in human-scale explanations (of red lights, for example). This is just subjugating truth to convenience. It’s a ‘fact’ to you if you can use it and do something with it. If it just is, it’s declared ‘meaningless’. Science, save us from philosophers!

        Marvin: ‘Reduction is only valuable as a means of explaining how and why something behaves as it does.’

        Finally. Yes. Only? That’s all I asked of it. There is nothing else. Actually, reduction is demonstrably incomparable as a means of explaining how and why something behaves as it does. Q.E.D.

        Of course, human-scale explanations are fine for us at the human level, and don’t disappear because we have deeper knowledge one way or the other. To present the idea that I’m suggesting everything should be dealt with by nuclear physics is just more sophistry. And to dismiss the investigation because the equations would be impossible is willful ignorance, if you’ll pardon the irony. We have a perfectly good explanation called evolution through natural selection. It’s true and valid, beyond reasonable doubt, despite the impossibility of describing fully a tiny fraction of the processes involved in a miniscule example of ‘natural selection’.

        I just thought today – would you similarly dismiss the new philosophical idea on the block, that we might be living in a virtual reality? It makes no practical difference, so presumably it’s irrelevant to you. You still have to decide whether to stop at red lights, even if it’s just the aliens’ programming.

        Ted – thanks for stopping by. 😉 I have, of course, ignored the issue of determinism probably not being complete for now, and accept that randomness comes into it. I like the idea of the balance between the two, as I remember reading is important in mutation frequency.

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      • John: “I’m run ragged trying to get you to see this, just as a philosophical possibility.”

        Marvin: It was inevitable that I would have multiple options to choose from and that my purpose and my reasons would lead to one and only one choice. I don’t know how to convince you that this is the indeed the case. So I must ask you to provide some proof that it is not the case. Both facts are clearly true, both the inevitability and choosing. Prove that one of them is false.

        John: “There is no particular reason other than your INTUITION that persuades you that ‘choosing’ is a ‘fact’.”

        Marvin: Intuition has nothing to do with it. We know for a fact that the choosing event took place, because there were multiple options at the beginning of the process, a comparative evaluation occurred, and there was a single choice at the end. This operation is called “choosing”. This is an empirical fact. We also know for a fact that the choice was causally inevitable, because it was caused by my own purpose and my own reasons, and they were caused by my earlier life experiences, and those were caused by events in a chain going all the way back to the Big Bang (or any arbitrary prior point in eternity). So, this too would be an empirical fact.

        If your intuition is telling you differently, then it is clearly incorrect. It has probably been drummed into your head that the two facts cannot both be true by a long tradition of making the same stupid mistake over and over (the mistake of viewing reliable cause and effect as something that doesn’t involve us, when we’re right here in the thick of it, raising our planet’s temperature).

        John: “Of course, human-scale explanations are fine for us at the human level, and don’t disappear because we have deeper knowledge one way or the other. ”

        Marvin: The fact that the table is made up of mostly empty space does not contradict the fact that it is solid enough to hold my cup of coffee. Both are equally true. The fact that my brain is a data processor running on the neural connections that store my memories and other parts of my personality does not contradict the fact that my brain is also me.

        Reductionism can only help to explain how things work, but it cannot explain anything away. Thus, my free will is still the inevitable result of deciding for myself what I will do, free of coercion or undue influence, even though this thought process is occurring on a totally physical platform, and cannot occur without it.

        John: “I just thought today – would you similarly dismiss the new philosophical idea on the block, that we might be living in a virtual reality?”

        Marvin: We’ve covered that. In ALL cases where the only access we have to our reality is the model of it in our brain, then that IS reality for all practical purposes (solipsism, brain in a vat, Sim-City, etc. )

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      • lettersquash says:

        Are you sitting comfortably?

        ‘Marvin: It was inevitable that I would have multiple options to choose from and that my purpose and my reasons would lead to one and only one choice. I don’t know how to convince you that this is the indeed the case. So I must ask you to provide some proof that it is not the case. Both facts are clearly true, both the inevitability and choosing. Prove that one of them is false.’

        I have not claimed clarity on either matter, so the onus of proof is not mine. You are the one who says ‘both facts are clearly true’. Your expectation is therefore unreasonable. You say both facts are clearly true, yet you don’t know how to convince me that this is the case. I submit that that is not due to my incapacity, but my ability to see an alternative – a plausible possibility – that you repeatedly deny, labelling it ‘boogeyman’ and ‘delusion’.

        In order to dismiss the capacity of ‘determinism’ or ‘inevitability’ to remove any reasonable claim of meaningfulness from the idea of free choice, you pretend that our delusion is to ascribe agency to a concept – determinism can’t do anything, you proclaim. But it is your mistake to imagine that in order to make us do one thing and one thing only (therefore, in most people’s eyes, removing our free will, rendering us as puppets), it must be reified in this manner. To most people, I feel fairly confident, these are the same thing, being unable to do other than one thing (inevitability) and lacking freedom to choose. The fact that you can identify hypothetical other choices does not render them within your capability to choose, and thus they are in no sense real choices.

        I am utterly incapable of warping the laws of physics and maths in order to reliably beat the house in a well-run casino, but it’s not delusion to say that ‘probability’ is the reason, and perfectly reasonable to insist that I have no choice in the matter. For all intents and purposes, we can reasonably say that we are made un-free by ‘probability’, or by our ‘genotype’, and a sophist can equally call these facts ‘delusion’ because nobody has ever met a probability in the street and passed the time of day with it.

        Why you cannot imagine the simple metaphor of being a puppet on the string of causation, even as a possibility, without running off to complain of boogeymen, I have no idea. Except I concede that the idea can be frightening. You seem to have been somewhat disturbed by it, and relieved when you (thought you) found a rational escape.

        Marvin: ‘Intuition has nothing to do with it. We know for a fact that the choosing event took place, because there were multiple options at the beginning of the process, a comparative evaluation occurred, and there was a single choice at the end. This operation is called “choosing”. This is an empirical fact.’

        We could make the same statement about a computer circuit, but calling the reliable, predictable, inevitable operation of a logic gate a ‘choice’ would begin to stretch definitions. As far as we can tell, human choice is just complicated logic gates flip-flopping outside of our awareness (and our awareness is probably also just that). Traditionally, there is a tendency in these kinds of discussions to begin to slide ‘choice’ as an existentially meaningful concept into view in between silicon and wet-ware, without providing adequate defence. I’m not convinced that you’re not just continuing that tradition.

        ‘We also know for a fact that the choice was causally inevitable, because it was caused by my own purpose and my own reasons, and they were caused by my earlier life experiences, and those were caused by events in a chain going all the way back to the Big Bang (or any arbitrary prior point in eternity). So, this too would be an empirical fact.’

        Ignoring other complications, for the sake of argument, yes. It is upon the above that my hypothetical refutation of free will is built. Similarly, it would be on the empirical fact (more easily established) of the workings of a roulette wheel that I would build the refutation of my freedom to win all the money in Las Vegas. This is why I cannot accept <> as meaningful, unparadoxical.

        The statement is an oxymoron. And the fact that you can’t even read my explanation and acknowledge that you see what it means, even if you don’t agree with it, is perplexing in the extreme. I could take it as more evidence that you have no free will at all. I can tell myself to stop writing about this, yet can’t apparently step away from the conversation yet! Your inability to just imagine (or admit that you can imagine) being a puppet on a string-of-causal-inevitability, instead of claiming you still have free choice, when you describe perfectly well your intuition that whatever you choose is whatever you choose through a series of causes going back arbitrarily far, is quite staggering to me, but quite possibly unavoidable!

        ‘It has probably been drummed into your head that the two facts cannot both be true by a long tradition of making the same stupid mistake over and over (the mistake of viewing reliable cause and effect as something that doesn’t involve us, when we’re right here in the thick of it, raising our planet’s temperature).’

        I am not unable to imagine that we’re free. It’s therefore not due to my indoctrination that I’m able to consider the alternative as well. Indeed, I grew up assuming the fact of free will! What I can do, which you appear incapable of, is also imagine that we only think we have arrived at global warming through actual, real, human choices, while in reality we have just been a big buzz of inevitable physics. I can imagine that even our deliberations about whether we have free will or not could be part of that inevitable process. I can imagine that if I were some kind of external perceptor, like a God, whether humanity gets through this or not is, in a sense – already decided. As I’ve been trying to point out, while you’ve been intent on tripping me up with a dictionary, THIS is the argument the world has been having for millennia, and you are, I believe, premature to claim you have solved it. I submit that if an answer is even discoverable, which many dispute, it will be through some very deep scientific experimentation. Of course, if you wish to re-define free will as ‘being you’ and doing whatever you were going to do anyway, you’ll continue to believe you have it.

        Marvin: ‘The fact that the table is made up of mostly empty space does not contradict the fact that it is solid enough to hold my cup of coffee. Both are equally true. The fact that my brain is a data processor running on the neural connections that store my memories and other parts of my personality does not contradict the fact that my brain is also me.’

        That’s fine. Similarly, I could assert that the fact that a deterministic program on my computer makes exactly the same ‘choices’ doesn’t contradict that it makes ‘real choices’ and has ‘free will’ to choose those outcomes. It just kinda sounds like I’ve lost the plot.

        ‘Reductionism can only help to explain how things work, but it cannot explain anything away. Thus, my free will is still the inevitable result of deciding for myself what I will do, free of coercion or undue influence, even though this thought process is occurring on a totally physical platform, and cannot occur without it.’

        On the contrary, reductionism can indeed ‘explain away’ a great many things: the need for a deity, teleological descriptions of evolution, the convincing temporary illusion that there are people doing things inside my television rather than coordinated energising of fixed pixels…on and on…vast numbers of wrong beliefs.

        The onslaught in biology on teleological fantasies is of particular importance here. The fact that the instinct to survive, or reproduce, or build a complicated bower if you’re a bower-bird, or show off on a skateboard if you’re a human male teenager, can be better understood when reduced to blind genetic chemistry should cast reasonable doubt on the idea of real free choice. As I said before, of course, ‘better’ here indicates a deeper, more fundamental understanding, pragmatism aside. Biologists must reluctantly acquiesce to the pragmatic need to use teleological language, because to explain every example of a tropism, instinct or speciation in terms of detailed material causes would be ridiculously unwieldy.

        And the difference between cause and purpose is important in the question of free will. If all our supposed purposes were to reduce to material causes, it would be hard to maintain that in reality you choose to do something ‘because…’. That ‘because’ would more truthfully look backwards, up the puppeteer’s strings, so to speak, in exactly the same way that there is a more truthful explanation for why a bower-bird builds its nest than ‘because it wants to attract a mate’. It probably has no concept of mating whatever. Very pertinently similar is our attraction to people for reasons of which we are completely unaware until science analyses the material causes: their face indicates a blend of genetic compatibility and diversity, we detect pheromones, the match conforms with culturally evolved mores that are also predicated on prior evolutionary demands. The computations we make have been honed by generations of DNA to arrive at a judgement we call falling in love. It’s perfectly possible that even those elements of the computation that emerge into consciousness follow from the unconscious process as post-hoc rationalizations, an idea that is at least compatible with current research findings.

        Marvin: ‘We’ve covered that. In ALL cases where the only access we have to our reality is the model of it in our brain, then that IS reality for all practical purposes (solipsism, brain in a vat, Sim-City, etc.)’

        I’m not sure you have quite grasped the idea of ‘reality’, Marvin, since you seem to equate it with ‘reality for all practical purposes’ deficient of relevant facts. The goldfish in its bowl, thinking there’s no other possible water on Earth, would have a ‘real’ conception, simply because it’s no wiser? The captive in Aristotle’s cave, seeing only shadows on the wall, is seeing ‘reality for all practical purposes’, yes, but is it reasonable to call this ‘reality’ – if so, what possible meaning is there to inside and outside the cave? Are you saying there are never any differences between our perception and reality? Are you actually arguing for solipsism now? If so, it explains some of my frustration. As Winston Churchill commented on solipsism: ‘These amusing mental acrobatics are all right to play with […] The metaphysicians will have the last word and defy you to disprove their absurd propositions.’

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      • John: “You say both facts are clearly true, yet you don’t know how to convince me that this is the case.”

        Marvin: All I can do is provide you with the proof. I cannot “convince” you of anything which you will not or cannot hear.

        (A) Proof that choosing is not an illusion: I have three options, to fix breakfast, to answer you, or to run the treadmill. Since I’m here right now and I’ve already provided this proof before, it shouldn’t take long, so I’ll get it out of the way first. As you can see before your eyes, multiple options were input, a comparative evaluation was applied, and a single choice was output. This mental operation that I’ve just demonstrated for you is called “choosing”. And you just witnessed it. No external force compelled this choice. It was compelled only by my own purpose and my own reasoning. Therefore it is of my own free will, by the ordinary definition of free will.

        (B) Proof that the choice was causally inevitable: because my reasoning led me to one choice only, and would not lead me to the other two choices, it was causally necessary that I would choose to write the response now. I could go on about how past experiences inevitably led me to this current experience, but that should be unnecessary since you already know how those arguments go.

        And it’s time for breakfast. While I’m eating, you’re going to think to yourself that it was only by my definition of free will that this proof is valid, but not by the “philosophical” definition of free will which irrationally requires an impossible “freedom from reliable causation”.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Oh look, the puppet-master made me press ‘Reply’ again!

        Marvin: ‘(A) Proof that choosing is not an illusion: I have three options, to fix breakfast, to answer you, or to run the treadmill. As you can see before your eyes, multiple options were input, a comparative evaluation was applied, and a single choice was output. This mental operation that I’ve just demonstrated for you is called “choosing”. And you just witnessed it. No external force compelled this choice. It was compelled only by my own purpose and my own reasoning. Therefore it is of my own free will, by the ordinary definition of free will.’

        I think ‘proof’ is a big stretch there. Let me test it.

        Would you say that a fixed computational algorithm running on a computer that outputs, “Hello world!” with 100% reliability chooses to do so? Say it has two possible outputs, “Hello world!” and “I’m a robot!” in data, in that order. The code is designed simply to output the first piece of data. Does it make a choice?

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      • John, a correct analogy would be if the computer program included logic with an “IF” statement as in: IF DAYOFWEEK(TODAY()) = 0 PRINT ‘SUNDAY’; and so on for 1 – 6 (Monday-Saturday). This would be a programmed choice. And yes, computers make choices for us all the time. That’s one of the reasons we invented them, to do work for us. That is also how we distinguish a machine from a person. Machines are tools that do our will. They have no will of there own. When a computer makes choices, and they make plenty of them all the time, even when they are idle, they are not making them “for their own purpose and their own reasons”.

        The logic compels the choice for the computer, just like the logic of my reasoning compels my choice. This is what I have been calling “rational causation”. Biological drives are what I have been calling “purposeful causation”. The transfer of force from one physical object to another through physical action, as when I kick a football, is physics (“physical causation”).

        But anyway, we know that a choice happened in the real world by definition: (1) there were multiple possibilities (print ‘SUNDAY’ or ‘MONDAY’ or ‘TUESDAY’ …), (2) an evaluation criteria was applied (when the DAYOFWEEK function is applied to today’s date, what number is returned in the result?), and (3) a single choice was output.

        Choosing, by definition, is an event that actually occurs in the real world, whether in my head or in my computer. When that choice satisfies my own purpose and my own reasons, and is not externally coerced by someone or something else, then it is a choice of my own free will, whether in my head or in my computer.

        Questions?

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      • lettersquash says:

        Cheers, Marvin, I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks for the discussion.

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      • You too. Happy Holidays!

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      • Hi Marvin and John

        As it is my blog, I will “but in” on this conversation.

        Marvin
        I understand and agree that our conscious existence requires “reliable causation”, where we seem to disagree is on the degree of reliability.
        You seem to make the assumption that the reliability needs to be 100%.
        Me, as both an evolutionary biologist by training, and a computer geek, am very clear that reliability can be a lot less than 100%, and still give a working system.

        Quantum Mechanics and the vast evidence sets that support it, seem to be telling us that at base this universe is a constrained and balanced mix of the lawful and the random. And that some of the resulting contexts give a very close approximation to hard causality, while others give degrees of freedom, and yet others a much closer approximation to randomness. Thus the world we seem to find ourselves in does largely display systems that are very close to being hard cause and effect (within the errors of measurement of our best instruments in many cases), and it does seem to have some system that can display behaviours that are not tightly causally coupled to what has gone before – but only link through probabilities.

        Causality does not need to be “hard” to deliver what we experience, in fact, when you look closely at the systems, it is only the “softer” form of causality delivered by QM that does actually allow for both reliable technology (like jet engines and computers) and free will.

        It is that balance, of constrained randomness, randomness within probability distributions, that actually allows both to exist, in the forms and to the degrees, that they do.

        Yes there must be pattern and constraint to give form, and that does require reliable causality, and the reliability doesn’t need to be 100%.

        Looked at from a systems perspective, I see ideas and genes as being very much the same thing, just instantiated in different contexts. And the fundamental substructure within which both sets of systems are instantiated does not behave anything like the macroscopic world in which we evolved, and to which our brains and senses and cultures are finely tuned by evolution. So it is not at all surprising that most people find it very difficult to make any sort of sense of it at all. And none of that changes what it is in any way.

        The situation is much more complex than that simple overview implies, because even the modeling tools we use of mathematics and logic seem to have a very complex and uncertain relationship to reality – and that is an idea that many mathematicians and logicians have extreme difficulty with.

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      • Ted, My goal is establish free will in a perfectly deterministic universe. If I find it there, then if you have a need for some measure of randomness from QM, then you can view that as a bonus.

        Determinism is a faith. That’s what the little “-ism” at the end implies. Scientists embrace this faith because it gives them hope that their inquiries into the causes of things might eventually be rewarded. Mankind embraces science because it empowers us to cure disease, predict weather, grow abundant crops, and play a little golf on the Moon.

        So, does determinism “enslave” us ,or does it “empower” us? Does it remove from us all control over our own destiny, or does it put in our hands the tools we need to shape that destiny?

        It should not bother us that there will be only one future, so long as we know that our choices will play a key role in determining what that future will be.

        If I take a magnifying glass and examine the causal chain, I see one link that is actively choosing which words it will type into this comment. But if I back away from the chain, or if I view it as an abstract concept, then I am likely to overlook what is actually happening down there in the real world.

        In the real world there are real objects actively pursuing real goals, goals that you will not find in any physical particles. You will only find them in those special physical objects that calculate what they will do next, according to a purpose that exists uniquely in each living organism and species: to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And which cannot be found in any inanimate objects in the universe.

        These people feel constrained when others force them to do what they themselves do not choose to do. They resent this constraint. They resist this constraint. And, when the constraint is removed, they feel real freedom.

        However, these people never feel constrained by reliable cause and effect. They take that for granted. The only time they feel constrained by it is when they are talked into it by a “hard” determinist, who creates a false picture of causality as a boogeyman that steals their control over their own destiny.

        Things actually do make sense. They are in fact doing the choosing and their choices are in fact causally necessary. Once we recognize that purpose and reasons are causes, and that one’s own purpose and one’s own reasons are the causes of one’s own choices, then the boogeyman is gone.

        There is no need, in my opinion, to run from the boogeyman and into complexity in order to find free will. It is right there in plain sight, for anyone who can achieve the simple insight that I experienced as a teenager in the public library.

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    • Hi John

      Maybe I’ve been “describing my vision” for 40+ years.

      43 years ago I was in the first undergraduate class on the planet to be taught the theory of plate tectonics. Only 62 years after Wegener proposed it, and 44 years after he died .

      Most people still don’t understand evolution, let alone general relativity or quantum mechanics.

      Most people still believe in the simple idea of hard causality, haven’t yet accepted the fundamental uncertainty present in QM. In a sense it is as obvious as the fact that the earth is flat and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, yet while that view is adequate to build a house, or travel to the next valley, it doesn’t work in understanding our place in the universe.

      Most people still believe in gods.
      Very few people accept the house on the swamp definition of epistemology, where the initial poles are provided by evolutionary selected heuristics across both genetic and cultural domains.

      Very few challenge all of the simple assumptions that we must make to instantiate this thing we call consciousness – including the very notion of truth itself.

      A few years of taking that route puts one well outside the realm of social agreement.

      The further one pushes, the more interesting it gets, and the more difficult it is to communicate anything of deep significance, because so few words retain any commonality of meaning. Sharing the conclusions is not difficult, but sharing the path of discovery is much more challenging.

      Once you start to understand that every distinction adds a new (and usually infinite) dimension to the space of knowledge (which is a form of power) and at the same instant forms a “track” that can hide things that are different in subtle ways (which is a form of trap) – nothing comes without cost.

      If any of those notions are not intuitively obvious, then the likelihood of easy communication of the deeper levels of what I consider significant is low. That isn’t a judgement on anyone, just a reality as real as gravity or oxygen.

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      • lettersquash says:

        Hi Ted,

        That’s very interesting. I’m sure you have been describing your vision for a long time. I think I do understand those notions you describe to some extent, but of course for me it’s different, as it is for all of us. I’m well aware how backward the bulk of the planet’s population is on most issues, and on the application of cognitive abilities leading to their conclusions. Something like 90% of the world, I’m given to understand, is religious, and probably a good deal of the rest aren’t for the wrong reasons! There are just genuinely different thinking styles, too, that lead some people to feel that understanding quantum entanglement or singularities is important and others that learning how to help disabled people access services without feeling patronised, or bringing up kids, is more what life’s about, and we’re probably all guilty of thinking our style is better than others’.

        I don’t quite grokk your endlessly expanding dimensions of exploration, and I don’t feel that my inner comprehension has run greatly beyond what I’m able to express reasonably clearly. It sounds pretty isolating. I haven’t followed your blog, only dipped a long time ago when we had a conversation about the self-replicating humanity-serving-robot future that I gather has been a big part of your work. I quizzed you on some of the technical details, and learned a lot, and found no reason to doubt their plausibility, but we couldn’t find common ground, IIRC, on the practicality of it in political terms, persuading enough people that it would be safe and useful to invest the enormous collective resources.

        I see that you’re driven by a powerful sense of responsibility, beyond what I think is reasonable to expect of oneself, and you may occasionally weight what ought to be more highly than what is. If you have really worked out the answer to this (notwithstanding your ‘probabilistic’ statement), that’s fine, but I did feel that you veered in this discussion from the actuality of free will to the need for it, or we’re all doomed! Of course, if its existence is established as a balance, as you described, somehow we need to do everything we can to engage it and use it well politically. I tend to think we probably are doomed, but might limp on for a few millennia yet, and the variables are so numerous, interwoven in such complexity, and so susceptible to the slightest chaotic seed (a butterfly, perhaps), that it’s a practical waste of time to look too far into the future, and better to focus on the here and now and make the best decision we can at any moment. (If this seem like I’m granting free will, I’m not: it’s perfectly possible that I might only think I’m making any of these decisions.)

        I am much less invested in my social responsibility, although I do spend quite a bit of time “arguing with idiots”, as my friend calls it, trying to enlighten the kind of people you talk about above, lost in their little world of superstition, and I hope it has some small effect. My experience is that it has rather little, which is depressing, but I know it’s not none. I was lost in a little world of superstition until someone “argued with an idiot” and woke me up. But many just dig their mental trenches deeper.

        What with global warming, wars all over the place, education decimated-squared, oligarchies owning most of the planet and building private armies of militarised robots (probably), the end of capitalism, and a complete moron as the leader of the so-called free world, I’m not too hopeful, but there are also good changes afoot, and sometimes these dynamics hit a limit and bounce. Evolution has shaped us for cooperation as well as competition, and it is, after all, only the beginning of the Information Age.

        If free will actually didn’t exist, the knowledge would be curiously freeing, as well as frightening and mind-boggling. I wonder what difference it would make. And then I remember the answer.

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  19. Hi John

    For me, religion is kind of analogous to the flat earth model, it works in certain contexts that were evolutionarily common, and fails beyond that in the sort of territory we are moving into.
    And I have had some very interesting arguments with theologians, particularly with Jesuits, but also other branches of that conjectural tree. And there is a sense in which we are all heuristic at base.

    Perhaps this conclusion will help give a feel for what I am pointing to “if you believe you have free will, or you believe you don’t, in either case you are correct”.

    One can then disappear down a series of rabbit holes arguing about the degrees of freedom available in different domain spaces, and that set of conjectures appears to be both infinite and unbounded in complexity.

    I would actually like to live for the rest of eternity, to see plate tectonics in action for myself, to observe the galaxy evolving, to evolve myself far beyond what I am now, as unimaginable to me now as me now was to me 60 years ago. That has been my clearly and openly stated objective for 43 years. Of course I have to live now, and do. And we can all choose a purpose, and I have.

    The only path I see that offers any significant probability of my achieving my objective is one that offers the same to every other entity that wants it. Universal cooperation between all entities committed to individual life and individual freedom.

    And such freedom must acknowledge the necessary boundary conditions required to maintain the sorts of complexity that we are (and become) – so it isn’t a freedom to follow whim alone, but comes with demands for responsibility (in both social and ecological contexts).

    I have only words, and networks of relationship.
    I am in plain sight.
    I am no threat to any who is not a direct threat to anyone else.

    We are rapidly approaching the technical ability to harness a significant fraction of the power of our sun (with all the abundance present in that). That delivers two major modal probability distributions, cooperation and security or destruction.

    Absolute certainty is not an option, and I am cautiously optimistic for the former, though there remain significant and ongoing risks. Risk seems to be an eternal part of existence. Life without it would be kind of boring.

    Any form of central control poses unacceptable risk – to all – both from single point of capture and single point of failure. Risk mitigation demands distributed diversity and redundancy (all levels). So it is likely to remain a very interesting world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lettersquash says:

      Hi Ted,

      It’s great that people like you have such extraordinary and uncompromising ambitions.

      Given that the technological problems are almost certainly surmountable, I wonder how you deal with the socio-political dimension. I think that’s the biggest hurdle – our biological programming. The suffering in the world (that which is avoidable) is largely caused by our wealth inequality, yet it is our desire to flee from our own suffering that causes the inequality – we flee towards wealth without limits as insurance against poverty. Riches beget riches, and power corrupts.

      History seems to be the repeated building and collapsing of these power pyramids within particular cultures, each revolution just a prequel to a new elite’s emergence. Even when we learn the danger that selfishness represents to the whole and our security within it, human nature seems unable very often to respond differently, so I am pessimistic about educating ourselves out of it, especially from such a beginning, but not entirely without hope, as I said.

      One hope might come from the advent of vast energy production, and another with AI. If there is genuine abundance, and robots are doing most of the jobs, it’s a place humans have never been before, and we might learn to live equitably together. Suddenly universal basic income is on the agenda, and the world is certainly beginning to wake up to the global oligarchy we live under.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. We are very very close.
    I draw a distinction between fully automated systems (which are not self aware), and AGI (which is), and both seem to be necessary for very different reasons.
    It is, as you say, entirely novel strategic territory.

    Every human civilisation prior (including our one) has relied on a series of “slave” classes – however well disguised they might be to some – with all the instabilities present in that strategy. This is the first opportunity for a basis for cooperation that empowers all. And it only requires a lower limit (of what each individual considers necessary abundance and freedom), and does not impose any hard upper limit – one can always go and find your own sun, or black hole, if the share of this sun’s output is insufficient for one’s purposes.

    Like

  21. lettersquash says:

    Eratum: for the sake of completeness, where I appear to have written ” above, some text was redacted by the web scripts on here. I wrote the text in double-less-than … double-greater-than symbols. I can’t remember the words, but it was something indicating the duality of inevitability and free choice, and the brackets were meant to hold the two ideas together. I then suggested that the concept was an oxymoron. It’s rather fitting that the script output these as less-than-more-than.

    Like

  22. lettersquash says:

    Marvin: ‘Determinism is a faith. That’s what the little “-ism” at the end implies.’

    ‘Compatibilism’ has a little ‘ism’ at the end too. 🙂

    Like

    • lettersquash says:

      …and you have faith in both.

      Like

      • Of course. When determinism is correctly defined, I have no problem believing in it, because it poses no threat to my control or my choices. My control and my choices are included in the overall scheme of causation. Determinism incorporates my control and my choices. It does not replace them with anything that is external to who and what I am.

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