Free Will again – updated 21 Dec

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

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

Hi Trick,

Call me a “Soft Free Will” advocate.

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

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

So QM seems to deal to hard determinism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sentence you used in you post above is interesting:

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

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

“Of coruse taht wuold not be vrey hlepful. ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our connectedness must be understood and acknowledged.

And something very new – unprecedented – is emerging.

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

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

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

Had a long discussion of this topic on my blog recently:
https://tedhowardnz.wordpress.com/2017/10/31/jbp-free-will

[followed by]

Hi Trick – Yes – saw that after pressing [Submit Comment] and getting the explicit 500 Char limit rejection.

I don’t know how anyone can make a “Deterministic” interpretation of QM – it gives only probabilities, and is capable of instantiating stuff from nothing as a result.
Hard to make that “Deterministic”.

I completed my undergrad biochem studies 43 years ago, and got interested in computers about the same time.

Have been fascinated by systems and relationships ever since.

If you have uncertainty in boundary conditions, then degrees of influence between systems can vary substantially with context.
Once one realises that, then one can manage levels of context (to the degree such is possible).

One is always subject to degrees of influence, and one can develop degrees of freedom.
Delicate balance.

[followed by]

I assume little.
I observe.
I understand evolution.
I understand many of our tendencies to simplify.
Evolution only needs to be “close enough”.
Reality seems like it is very probably similar.
QM seems to support that proposition.
It allows for observed degrees of freedom.
Why let deterministic assumptions rule?

[followed by]

It is difficult to call a claim like “Reality seems like it is very probably similar” “dogmatic” 😉

[followed by]

I am very confident that 100% prediction is not an option.
A degree of reliability – that I can accept.
100% – nope – that seem extremely improbable.

[followed by Tricks thought experiment of a computer that could predict with 100% accuracy]

Hi Trick,

If such a computer were possible, then free will (of any sort) is pure illusion, of that I am confident beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

I am almost as confident that such a computer is not possible, and that the question is one of argument from absurd premises (classical premises). It is in violation of quantum mechanical principles.

[followed by]

Hi Trick,

Nope.
By the definition I have consistently used, if a computer is able to make a fully deterministic prediction, then the sort of free will that seems to me to exist cannot exist – it is a logically impossible proposition.
The sort of free will that seems to me to exist requires two different sets of conditions, degrees of indeterminism, and degrees of influence. That is what quantum mechanics seems to indicate is the sort of reality we live in.

[followed by]

Have you stopped beating your grandmother yet Trick? Simple yes or no answer please!

Sometimes the assumption sets of one paradigm have no simple translation to another paradigm.

All language is pointers to complex structures.
Common culture can mean common structures, but not always, in this case not much.

QM seems to be telling us that some things are not allowed, and everything else is a matter of probability (many of those so small as to be unlikely to occur in this universe, ever).

[followed by]

It’s hard to haggle in 500 Chars.

The thing that really gets me about QM, is that the arrangement of electrons around atoms, and all the chemical properties that follow, can be derived from an information principle, which says that it is not allowed to know both position and momentum beyond certain limits.

When you spend a few thousand hours contemplating that from a systems perspective, it can fundamentally alter one’s relation to ideas like classical causality.

[followed by Trick’s claim – (500 char keeps things conversational, one point at a time, rather than allowing large blocks of unreadable texts and unwieldy tangents – this is better in the long run (trust me) unless one is looking to obfuscate).]

In 500 characters I cannot constantly restate, on every occasion, that all of my understandings are probabilistic.

Hard to back up a claim like The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) is causally deterministic in a short space. That seems a very hard position.

Hard to make a soft argument when the other person rejects anything that is not hard – it becomes somewhat tautological.

The strongest claim I will make is one based on balance of probabilities – given my experience set.

[followed by Trick linked to http://breakingthefreewillillusion.com/ontic-probability-doesnt-exist/%5D

Hi Trick,

Your proposition fails.

Consider sequence:

total chaos;
filter;
Outcome.

A mix of the ontic random and the causal.

Twin slit – fourier transform of square filter delivers outcome.

Real randomness, plus a filter, can give the outcome.

Ontic randomness can exist.

Asserting it cannot is a failure of imagination, not a logical necessity.

I assert that it seems very probable that this universe is based upon such a mix.
It does allow for real degrees of freedom.

[followed by 21 Dec]

Hi Marvin,

Almost yes.

I agree that beyond a certain limit, ontic indeterminism degrades complex systems.

I am also saying that to deliver real freedom, there must exist ontic indeterminism to some degree. And it is all about the degree, and the context.

Yes it does seem that what we can do is alter the filters in some contexts, and over time accumulate degrees of independence.
And it isn’t clean, it is messy. Very different from Dennett’s hidden lottery.

[followed by]

You got the last bit right Trick.

I don’t have beliefs.
I observe.
I contemplate.
I develop hypotheses.
I test.
I iterate and recurs this process.

I have all the work of many who have gone before to elevate my starting point.

Most of my understanding is based in the logic and strategy of evolutionary biology.

I have working hypotheses that have not yet been falsified.
And a reasonable working knowledge of systems, both from biochemistry and 40 years of working with computers.

Trick’s last comment, before his comments went “down for maintenance”, was close to something, but too hard on the deterministic side to see what was present.

And I get it is hard, it is subtle, it is complex.

Trick is right in several senses, yet missed the recursive depth of the uncertainty and influence present.
And it isn’t clean and neat.
It is messy, deeply, fundamentally, messy.

And in those depths lurks a degree of responsibility that terrifies most who glimpse it.
It lies in the choice, to be responsible, or not.

And what that looks like, for each of us, can be something different.
And provided it shares two basic qualities, of respect for life, and respect for liberty, with all the implicit responsibilities in social and ecological contexts that come with that, then it seems clear to me it can work.

And that seems to be one if too far for Trick.

And yes – in a sense, there are degrees of determinism present, that is evolution, that is survival in contexts, that is all the many levels of messy interconnected systems that is an embodied human being. That is the many different ways in which evolution has harnessed this mix of the determined and the random to give us the degrees of freedom, the degrees of choice, that we have.
And certainly aspects of it are bounded, determined in a sense, complexity demands that, cannot exist without it.

And it is a different form of determinism from the hard form Trick Champions.

It seems clear to me, beyond reasonable doubt, that both exist.
We need both.

It isn’t simple.
It isn’t neat.
It isn’t certain.

It is profoundly, infinitely, recursively, complex and uncertain, even though we can build computers and jet engines.

[to one side in an earlier Sub-thread]

In most contexts, I don’t think retributive morality is appropriate, as the sort of free will involved probably doesn’t justify it, and other more effective alternatives exist, and in an evolutionary context, I can understand its emergence.

And to me, that has little to do with free will.

For me, free will is something one can create, in terms of degrees of influence, not anything absolute.
And in anything other than extremis of passion, there is little excuse for intentional murder.

[latest updates above this last post]

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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23 Responses to Free Will again – updated 21 Dec

  1. lettersquash says:

    Hi Ted, just a quick proofreader’s note (you’re so right on that point!) – there are sections of this that have got repeated [Ted’s note – yes there were, and I edited them out – so John was correct at the time of writing]. Interesting points – I wonder what ‘Trick makes of them. I haven’t read that page on his blog yet, so look forward to that too. Thanks for the link.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lettersquash says:

    I’m not sure if you’re inviting ‘Trick to respond here or on his blog, but I hope you don’t mind me interjecting in the meantime.

    You agree that ‘Reality seems to be a balance between the lawful and the random,’ and that this ‘does not give us free will’. In our previous discussion, I thought you argued that it was from quantum randomness that free will emerged. Perhaps you’ve changed your mind on that, or perhaps I misunderstood.

    Then, you say, ‘every new level of system requires a boundary of sorts to both instantiate it, and to give it some degree of independence from the level of system from which it emerged. It is the nature of those boundaries that is critical to the sorts of behaviours and the sorts of independence that can emerge.’

    I agree that it is the nature of those boundaries that is critical to the subject. I think you too easily evoke ‘some degree of independence from the level of system from which it emerged’. As far as I can tell, the nature of these higher levels and their boundaries is that they are abstract, i.e. no more than a compilation of lower entities behaving lawfully (or randomly), to which we attach a label and consider a separate phenomenon, but that these could in principle be reduced to those events at the lower level. Can you give any example of a system where the higher level obtains power to ‘influence’ the lower levels in ways that clearly cannot be ascribed to the lower level behaviour? I can’t think of any. Or can you detail more carefully how that happens?

    It seems to me that if this emergence of ‘independence’ were real, it might be more easily identifiable in analogues in the world, but they seem absent. For instance, I know of no computer program in which the apparent high-level functions obtain independence from the lower (even though programs can alter their own code). I know of no biology where the actions of cells, say, are no longer dependent entirely on the chemistry of their proteins and other constituent parts (although they can change bits of DNA or destroy cells).

    One might posit consciousness as the game changer, but current neuro-science suggests that there is likely to be no state of consciousness that is independent of the firing of neurons. So I can’t see where free will enters the picture.

    Like

    • I am having a conversation with Trick on his site – but with a 500 character limit, that is unlikely to go anywhere significant anytime soon – and I am giving it my best shot.

      Happy to have you here John, and happy to respond.

      This is a bit tricky, and I will try to make it as explicitly clear as I can.
      I do argue that free will emerges from quantum randomness, as it seems does everything else we observe, from quarks to atoms to suns to cells to cultures.
      And I am also clear that just having quantum randomness isn’t sufficient.
      It is a necessary precondition for free will and it is not all that is required.
      One cannot just say – quantum uncertainty = consciousness – that isn’t how it works.
      The relationships are extremely complex, many levels of complex boundaries instantiating and encapsulating sets of complex systems.

      In respect of boundaries you make the claim “As far as I can tell, the nature of these higher levels and their boundaries is that they are abstract, i.e. no more than a compilation of lower entities behaving lawfully (or randomly), to which we attach a label and consider a separate phenomenon, but that these could in principle be reduced to those events at the lower level”
      Kind of yes – and not quite as simple as that can be read to suggest.

      And I can easily see this spiraling off into infinite regress.

      And when one is dealing with groups, behaviours can emerge that are not easily seen from looking at individuals.

      And there is a sense in which you must be correct – to a degree.
      And when one is dealing with a collection of constrained randomness, that at the higher level of the collection has very predictable outcomes, it can be difficult to accept that each of the constituent parts is actually random (within certain constraints), and one tends to infer hard causality backwards, which isn’t actually required (or, perhaps, even allowed).
      It gets very interesting when the operation of the higher order system actually changes the behaviour of the lower order system. The nature of the probability relationships over time and context can get really complex.

      And of course they are in a very real sense all part of the same system, all related in the ways that they are, with the probabilities present, one does need to hold on to that notion, but if one holds it too tight, then one cannot see what lies beyond (like looking at the little coloured dots on a TV screen, unable to see the picture present). And even that notion seems capable of infinite regress and recursion.

      And when you can see that randomness within constraints can deliver reliability at the next level, and that reliability can be used to instantiate a new level of systems, with new levels of reliability within certain contexts, then it can be very difficult to hold onto the uncertainty present in the relationships, and the modes of modulation of those uncertainty relationships.

      Believe me, I really get that it is difficult to see what I am pointing at.
      It comes and goes for me too, and I’ve been working with it for over 40 years.

      And then there is the entirely separate notion of being able to compute anything with 100% accuracy.
      Not only do we have errors of measurement to contend with, there is Heisenberg uncertainty, and then there are the irrational numbers.
      Irrational numbers may not be computed with 100% accuracy, ever, by definition. So anywhere that Pi or e or any other irrational number occurs in a computation, there is automatically uncertainty present at some level.

      So when we deal with simple math, with simple integer arithmetic, we tend to get the idea that things may be known with 100% certainty – one pear or one apple present (absent any magicians or other slight of hand experts). But that notion cannot survive very long once one starts delving into mathematics more generally.
      We can develop complex math, and that can be used to give useful approximations in some contexts, and that is all it can ever really be.

      So I am not 100% confident of anything.
      I accept that I am the embodiment of sets of evolutionary heuristics, at many levels of chemistry, biology, culture and abstraction, and all the uncertainties that must be present in that.

      And it really does seem that I do actually have some choice in what I do, however minimal that may be at times.
      And it really does seem to me that the influence of such choice, at whatever level any of us manage to instantiate it, is both real and important.

      Downgrading the role of choice, of freedom, of responsibility, seems to be an easy way out for those who deep down know the dangers of the deceptions they are embodying for some level of “short term” gain.

      I very strongly suspect that our survival as a species rests on us being able to comprehend the profound role of cooperation in the emergence and maintenance of complexity, and the necessary secondary sets of strategies required to prevent simple cooperation being overwhelmed by cheating strategies.
      One can now make a strong case that our entire economic, political and legal systems have been overwhelmed by many levels of embedded cheating strategies.

      For the sake of everyone, that must change.
      The cheats must have such advantage as they have gained from cheating removed, and be welcomed back into the cooperative when they can demonstrate cooperative behaviour.

      Like

  3. lettersquash says:

    ‘Believe me, I really get that it is difficult to see what I am pointing at.
    It comes and goes for me too, and I’ve been working with it for over 40 years.’

    Okay. I kinda wonder why you’re writing about it, then, Ted. By writing critiques on a subject, you give the impression that you know what you’re talking about, and yet when challenged to fill in the blanks, you haven’t really got much, if you don’t mind me speaking bluntly. If you have some good reasons, that’s fine, but I’m concerned that this could distract people from learning something from someone who has a clearer view of the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do know what I am talking about (mostly – or at least that seems to me to probably be the case).
      I don’t know how to give anyone else that knowledge in any sort of reasonable time.

      We seem to be operating from very different paradigms much of the time.

      Like

    • I can handle blunt.
      I think I have some idea why it looks that way to you.

      Consider the nature of us as conscious entities.

      We seem to be entities of some 4 billion years of evolution by natural selection, and so is everything else alive – from bacteria and viruses to plants, fish, birds etc.
      Everything alive has been evolving for the same length of time, but differences in contexts, differences in selection pressures, have delivered all the diversity of life we see.

      As conscious entities, we come to awareness in these bodies, these “gene machines”.
      As we become aware, we find we already contain vast complexity, feelings, habits, reactions, stories, beliefs, tendencies, and these amazingly complex bodies.

      Some of us just accept the stories we are born into.
      Some of us question.
      Some of us find we have multiple ways of understanding things, some of which we can easily explain, some of which are not at all obvious how they work.

      I am clear that mathematics gives us the best modeling tools we have.
      I am not clear exactly what it is that those tools are modeling.

      I am aware that the numbers given by quantum mechanics have in many cases been checked to accuracies that are far beyond anything given by classical mechanics or physics.

      The simple principle, that one cannot know both position and momentum beyond a certain limit defines the size of electron shells, around atoms. That notion is so weird to classical modes of thinking.

      The idea that the physical structure of matter can be derived from a information exclusion principle.
      Just how strange is that???

      Evolution is a selection system, that simply selects what works in particular environments.

      We seem to be the result of many levels of cooperation.
      It seems that all new levels of complexity are the result of new levels of cooperation.
      Competition leads to reduction in complexity – not increases.
      Only cooperation allows for exploration of new domains of complexity.

      And raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation.
      At every level of cooperation, there must be secondary strategies present, to detect and remove invasive (cheating) strategies.

      So that is one line of thought – recursed to about 20 levels in each of us as individual human beings.

      We are also a semi tournament species – we show sexual dimorphism.
      Games theory and theory of moves is fascinating in the sorts of strategies that emerge and gain some sort of stability, and there is a strong pressure for tournament species not to know when they will “give in”, because knowing that they might unintentionally signal it to a competitor.
      So we each have hidden strategic depths that are unknown even to ourselves.

      These are just two of thousands of influences that exist in each of us.
      All of those things are present.
      All selected by evolution at some level.
      All essentially heuristic hacks at some level – things that work well enough in the contexts of our past.

      When I am in my design mode, I can keep a couple of thousand variable in my awareness with reasonable reliability.
      I don’t know how many approximations to facts are present within me, I suspect the number goes well into the millions.

      My ability to output information is a tiny fraction of my ability to generate and process it.

      Slowing down enough to write anything is difficult enough, slowing down enough to write out every detail of every connection in any of the non trivial things in my awareness is hard – really hard. I build a really complex set of relationships, then before I have explained even 1% of them, most have faded away in the effort to explain even the tiny bit I have explained.

      To go back, rebuild the structures, restart the narrative, is both physically and emotionally exhausting.

      From my perspective, you are asking me to explain things that would take me years to write, and you months to read; and it isn’t that interesting to me.

      I am confident, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the notion of free will is a good enough approximation to something to be a useful tool; and that the simple alternative contains existential level risk that is immediate.

      I am confident that we need to move to a new level of cooperation, with all the necessities of many levels of attendant strategies involved in that process; and I am confident that distributed trust networks and distributed digital information storage offer the ability to extend Dunbars number (the limit of the size of stable human social networks) well beyond any population this solar system can support.

      Can I explain all of that?
      No – I can’t, at least not in the short number of years we have available to get this sorted out.

      Why do I keep writing?
      So that if I fail, some AGI might get enough clues from what I have written to avoid the dangers rapidly approaching.

      Trying to communicate with another real, specific individual (like you John), is the best way I can think of, of doing that.

      I may be wrong.
      I deeply hope I am.
      But I am very afraid that I am not.

      Like

      • lettersquash says:

        Hi Ted, I’m glad my bluntness was okay. My bluntness came mostly from irritation, I have to admit, but also from a concern for you, and the source of both is, as you say, that we seem to be operating from different paradigms. Or maybe with very different methods, and towards very different purposes. I’ll just riff on these two and see where it takes us: method and purpose.

        I experience your method as being problematic for making progress in understanding something (in this case free will, but it will apply to other things as well), because it is unnecessarily inclusive. You seem to be dissatisfied with your intellectual process unless it reaches out to grasp a lot of concepts and tries to bring them all together. This synthetic process is, of course, useful in some circumstances, but counter-productive in others. It seems to me that human knowledge has come from both processes, but that it depends on being analytical, removing all extraneous information, reducing a question down to its simplest forms and elements.

        You seem unwilling or unable to do this in response to my request for you to refine your statements about how randomness and determinism (even given the necessary complexity of system levels, and perhaps also requiring some discussion of brain function or consciousness) give rise to free will or ‘independence’. It is ironic that in trying to respond to this you include many facts that were only discovered by someone being rigorous and focused and analytical. It is also irritating, because a great deal of my effort is expended presenting you with what I consider a focused, rigorous analysis of the relevant material to consider, and, rather than stick within these bounds, or carefully introduce one or two other concepts, saying clearly why my analysis was too simple, you introduce whole rafts of information, most of which I take as granted (evolution, for instance) and which I consider – unless given specific reasons to think otherwise – irrelevant to the conversation. From my discussion, I would expect you to have grasped my general level of competence in this area to know that an overview of the emergence of mamalian capacities or social patterns is unnecessary and therefore risks being seen as rather patronising…or risks being seen as mere distraction because you actually cannot provide rational basis for your hypothesis. The water gets so muddied, indeed, that I have to wonder again what your hypothesis is and must check! – that we have free will, I believe?

        I also see that your purpose as you approach this issue is very different from mine, and again I feel it is problematic. I think every one of your comments and posts on this subject has featured your serious political concerns, which you elucidate here: ‘I am confident, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the notion of free will is a good enough approximation to something to be a useful tool; and that the simple alternative contains existential level risk that is immediate.’

        In passing, I note that the first part of this begins with a grand statement of high confidence, but peters out into an ‘approximation to something’, as though you dare not say ‘…that free will is real’. But it is the second part that relates to my concern about your purpose, as it suggests that you may not be applying the principle of impartiality sufficiently. Of course, the answer to the question will have all manner of moral and political implications, but, to my mind, they are irrelevant or secondary to a discussion of what is, and dwelling on them at this stage in a discussion can skew our thinking. You will be familiar with people making similar arguments about the necessity of a deity for the dire moral implications were it to be untrue.

        I always try to put truth above convenience or desirability of an answer, not just out of personal preference, but because in many instances knowing a difficult truth and being able to accommodate it is better than living with a comfortable illusion, when any disadvantage from it will not be foreseen or escaped.

        Having said that, there are at least some positive implications of a lack of free will. It is much easier to empathise, or forgive, when we believe that a chain of causality outside of a person’s control led to their behaviour. It is easier to be humble considering our achievements, and forgiving of ourselves for our failures, to see our advantageous position as our good luck, or our blamelessness for our disadvantages. As an ex-therapist, I know the power of these to enable change.

        I sense that a negative result, or a strong indication we should be sceptical about free will, might impact badly on a number of issues that you have written passionately about. It is clear that being free to choose a particular political outcome and avoid another is extremely important to you. I would encourage you to put these hopes to one side while assessing ontological matters of any kind. Or, if you cannot, consider that knowledge of a lack of free will might help, rather than hinder, the equanimity and perspective you desire to see in the world. It should be noted, at least, that if we have free will or not, there exists still the possibility that tyrants will fall or can be brought down.

        I have only just begun to conceptualize my free-will scepticism clearly (thanks to ‘Trick), although I have increasingly suspected that free will does not stand up to scrutiny, nor align with my personal experience or recent neurological evidence. I have to say that imagining how to describe such things as the future possibility that we establish a better society is difficult, and I sense that this is at least partly due to my habituation to the contrary position, as well as our cultural habituation to it. If true, if there is no free will, it would seem that either we will reach some goal or not. However, it would not mean that our efforts in that direction were in vain (see ‘Trick’s pieces on the difference between determinism and fatalism), only that our efforts are also part of an inevitable process.

        You write eloquently on the co-operation that instigates higher orders of organisation. Perhaps, if these are natural processes active at every level in the universe, we can relax and expect co-operation to outstrip our competition, and the higher order emerge. What is true will be true in any case. If your hypothesis is true, I will be very grateful if you can manage to help me see it, but I am concerned about your exhaustion.

        I wonder if, instead of trying ‘to write out every detail of every connection in any of the non trivial things’ in ‘a really complex set of relationships’, there is any other approach that might suit you that isn’t so ‘physically and emotionally exhausting.’ Is it possible to simplify, to abstract general principles by which you think free will emerges from causal-and-random events in systemic ‘layers’? Is every connection really non-trivial? Phenomena like sexual dimorphism or games theory, etc. – are they not all subject to simple laws of causation, and therefore can we not discuss the whole issue in terms of what kinds of events have the capacity to cause what other kinds?

        Since you say you have been working on some of this for a long time, have you found resources you can link to, even if they don’t fit precisely with your view. There is a growing body of work on system dynamics, and a growing suggestion that there is something called ‘downward causation’, for instance. I don’t know if you know of it. This is where I find I’m at odds with many of the authors (although many are with me), in that I believe the term ‘causation’ in the name is misleading. It would seem this might be a point where our views differ.

        It is, however, a complex issue. Maybe you can’t find a way to simplify it. Please don’t worry about it on my account, but I still would suggest that blog posts about something that you can’t really elucidate without extreme effort and little gain might not be the best way to spend your time. Maybe you feel you are getting somewhere. Maybe it’s just me being dim.

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  4. HI John,

    That you are here, that you are reading and writing, gives me reasonable probability that I am getting somewhere.

    There is without doubt much in what you say.

    The simplest bits to question are where you say:
    “I always try to put truth above convenience or desirability”.
    In a very real sense, so do I, but my enquiries into the nature of understanding have lead me the seriously question the very nature of truth, of epistemology, of ontology (but I will only skim the surface of those enquiries here).

    So in it’s simplest forms, it could be considered to come down to 3 questions:
    What do we mean by “truth”?
    What do we mean by “free”?
    What do we mean by “will”?

    It is true in a sense to say the sun rises in the east. As I write this the sun has just risen out of the pacific ocean, and summer sunlight is flooding into my house.
    That is obviously true in a sense.
    It is what anyone who looks sees.
    Yet I know it as an illusion.
    The sun is not rising, the ball of rock I am sitting on is spinning on two major axes, and orbiting the huge ball of gas we call our sun.
    That is a better approximation to something – a Newtonian idea. Useful at more scales, but not useful enough to make a GPS system work.
    Flat earth with sun rising will allow me to build a house. It is a useful approximation for people who live their lives within a 50 mile radius of some point (and many still do).

    To build a functioning Global Positioning System, an approximation with far greater accuracy is required. Using the heuristics of Lorentz transformations of general relativity, along with the technological wizardry available from Quantum Mechanics with devices like transistors, Josephson Junctions, and a bunch of other gadgets that come from a system of thought that does not have hard cause and effect, and can be thought of in one sense as coming from an information exclusion principle, isn’t something that many people have thought deeply about.

    So what is the “Truth” of a GPS system.
    It is true that it will tell you with great accuracy most of the time where you are, in ways in that no classical system can.
    It is true that most of the technology is based in a mathematical system that is probabilistic, and actually contains an explicit principle that nothing may be known beyond a particular limit, and that that principle actually seems to be responsible for most of the “form” that we see in our human world of perception.

    So the higher form of “meta” truth would seem most probably to be that nothing may be known with absolute certainty.

    But how can one hold such a notion with integrity when one got to it and justifies it on the basis of assumptions that things can be known with absolute certainty – that there can be “truth” in the most simple of forms.

    The higher form of truth seems to dismantle the simpler form that we used to build the “ladder” that got us to the higher level.
    Many philosophers have noted such things by analogy.

    So what of “freedom”?
    What might “free” mean?

    And this is a very difficult notion.
    In classical thought Plato gave us the notion of “form”.
    He looked for “truth” in the purely “abstract” in a sense.

    But even there problems exist.
    Look at the simplest of mathematical constructs, like a circle, and there you find Pi.
    Pi is the relationship of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.
    We now have several ways of calculating this pure number, but we can prove in logic that it may not be calculated with absolute precision. Any attempt to do so will continue indefinitely in any integer numeric base. The number is irrational. It cannot be expressed in any relationship of integers.

    Pi as a number is foundational to much mathematical understanding.
    What can it mean to say that mathematics is “true” is such a simple thing as Pi cannot even be known in any absolute sense?
    We get comfort by giving it a symbol, then forgetting the fact that the symbol stands for something that cannot ever be known, and may only ever be approximated to some degree of utility in particular contexts.

    So most of mathematics, even when we write our fancy equations, has this fundamental uncertainty built into it. And that is only the simplest of many levels of uncertainty – Goedel explored others.

    So what does that have to do with freedom?

    To consider what freedom might be, it can be helpful to consider what the opposite might be.
    What might is mean to say that something is necessarily caused?

    One might say that it obeys some mathematical law.
    Yet we have already seen that the presence of irrational numbers mean that mathematical laws that involve them (and all significant ones do) cannot be computed with absolute accuracy.

    So the idea that even this abstract form of truth may actually be known has already been falsified.

    But let’s for a while just pretend that we could actually work out real numbers that were accurate.
    To be bound, something would have to follow some mathematical law with absolute precision, invariably.
    To be free must then be not that.

    Thus we could say that freedom is in some form an escape from inevitability.

    Have we any evidence that such a thing might exist.

    Actually – yes.
    Actually, quantum mechanics is based in such a notion of freedom.
    QM is based in the idea that nothing may be known with absolute certainty – that freedom is fundamental.
    And yet there are probabilistic boundaries on this idea of freedom.

    Such probabilistic boundaries can be seen at every level of organisation emergent above the level of quantum.

    Looked at from the other end of that structure of complexity, Jordan Peterson does a great job of explaining the mythological significance of the dragon of chaos, and the necessity of going into chaos, and of the dangers of doing so. His book Maps of Meaning is worth reading, and he has hundreds of hours of lectures online. I mention him specifically because you mentioned your role as therapist.

    Taking a systems perspective, all systems have boundary conditions necessary for their instantiation and maintenance. They can get very complex. Understanding that in an evolutionary context has shown the need for flexibility (uncertainty) to deal with the unknown.

    So what might freedom be?
    It might be considered some level of chaos in order, some degree of the breaking of the hard bounds of causal relationships.

    Do we have evidence that such things might exist?
    Yes, built into the foundations of the very systems of mathematics and logic that are supposedly the bastion of lawfulness and certainty.

    So freedom in this sense seems to be very real, in any and every domain that one does any serious enquiry.

    So what about “will”?
    What might that be?

    Looked at from an evolutionary and systems perspective, it seems to be a suite of heuristic hacks that have survived sets of contexts of our past.
    The systems are multi layered.
    Each system seems able to both influence and be influenced by, the systems arrayed at the same level, and the systems above and below in the hierarchies of systems present.
    And there is no simplifying that complexity.
    There is no substitute for practical interaction with biology, with chemistry, biochemistry, ecology.
    It is profoundly complex, profoundly beautiful, and nothing at all like the simplistic notion of evolution being all about competition that is present in popular culture (and even in most of the scientific world in a different sense).

    So will seems to be this massively complex sets of impulses to action that contains elements that are “lawful” and elements that are “random”.

    That seems to fit the definition of free will – something not entirely causal or deterministic.

    Now the precise details of the degrees of influence of particular systems in particular contexts, that is a fascinating set of explorations, and from my personal journey of some 50 years of active intellectual exploration, seems to contain nested infinities of possible systems, alongside many sources of chaos.

    What seems to be really interesting is the degrees of influence we as individuals choose to cultivate at any and all levels of systems.

    For me, there is no shadow of reasonable doubt that free will exists.

    And for me also, there remains no shadow of reasonable doubt that the classical notion of “Truth” is pure illusion, but that it does approximate something in many common contexts.

    And I suspect that my notion of free will is very different from what most others have in many essential aspects.

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  5. lettersquash says:

    ‘That you are here, that you are reading and writing, gives me reasonable probability that I am getting somewhere.’

    Yes, maybe you are. You’ve given extensive statements again on a fairly wide range of topics, but you have, as it were, analysed the statement ‘free will is true’ by taking it apart. Thank you.

    That truth ultimately may be unknowable is fine. We can just use it as a shorthand for a measure of how confident we are of a statement. You end by saying that you have high confidence in free will, so the fact that you have a low confidence in the ‘classical’ idea of truth is (apparently) irrelevant to that judgement.

    I’ll skip ‘free’ for now. Let’s take ‘will’. You say that will might be ‘a suite of heuristic hacks that have survived sets of contexts of our past’. I’m not completely clear what that means, but it sounds like evolved strategic behaviours, and I’m fine with it – we seem to be in the same ball park. You then get to what I consider the meat of the issue: ‘Each system seems able to both influence and be influenced by, the systems arrayed at the same level, and the systems above and below in the hierarchies of systems present.’ Here is the crucial point. I agree with that only in the ‘weak emergence’ sense. By this I mean that any apparent ‘influence’ (causation) in a downward direction is in theory reducible to the elements of the higher level function, not some new ability that has arisen. To put it graphically, I could theoretically perform brain surgery on myself, but the ‘I’ that would be doing the surgery is the brain that is being operated on. In this sense, higher orders cannot influence lower ones except by the causative process in the other direction.

    I would suggest that cause and effect is one-way. If A is the cause of B, B is not the cause of A. Would you agree?

    Then, if a system made up of elements at a lower level is the cause of an emergent behaviour, which we might identify as a higher level phenomenon, the emergent behaviour does not cause the behaviour of the lower elements. For instance, we identify the higher level, ‘bicep’ and its behaviour, ‘flexing’, and attribute it to the cause of the contraction of individual muscle cells, each of those activated by a nerve impulse. Would you agree? Do you agree that, in this case, the causation is in one direction only? Muscles do not, at a gross level in some way, cause the contraction of individual cells?

    While we’re at it, the nervous activation provides what we might consider systems that are at the same level (one not emerging from the other, but parallel and interacting), yet again here we see that nerves activate muscle cells, not the other way round. Even if it were true in some instance that movements of a muscle cell caused a nerve cell to fire (I don’t know), it would be exceptional for anyone to claim that both conditions were simultaneous, one the cause of the other while that was the cause of the first. Mutual causation is philosophically unsound. Would you agree?

    ‘And there is no simplifying that complexity.’
    Yes, there is. Biologists do it all the time. I’ve just gone through a simplification process, reducing the apparent complexity of a bunch of evolved levels of action by considering whether they must conform to physical laws of cause and effect in one direction only, and from lower to higher level. Of course, you don’t have to agree, but it’s now simpler and approachable as two principles we can attempt to support with evidence or refute.

    ‘There is no substitute for practical interaction with biology, with chemistry, biochemistry, ecology.’
    I really have no idea why you think that. All human knowledge and technology has come out of abstracting relationships between things, generalising from instances and testing those inductions for their validity. There is interaction with the subject, of course, but the complex MUST be simplified for us to know anything, and it HAS BEEN simplified to great effect. I point out again that you keep referring to facts that are precisely that, simple general rules induced from observations of complex systems.

    Also, can you tell me why this irreducible-complexity objection to my free-will scepticism would not apply equally to your free-will confidence, since you would presumably have to abstract that conclusion from exactly the same messy reality?

    Perhaps all this is taking us a little closer to the question, though. It is whether our intuitive sense that we can ‘will’ something to happen, like buy a car or blink or calculate pi to 1000 decimal places, is actually our free choice, or some kind of illusion while actually determined or random. This is what interests me.

    You locate the will in this ‘suite of heuristic hacks’ from our evolutionary past. Maybe we can approach this by asking who you think ‘we’ are. The idea of free will implies the idea of a self, the willer, I would suggest, and that this self has the attribute of agency, of willing. Can you shed any light on this? Is this agent located in a specific level, or set of levels, the part of our brain that is responsible for our thoughts, perhaps? Or is it the whole? If the latter, what whole, the individual person? Does the will imply a willer, to you? If not, why not?

    My understanding is that higher levels are effects of lower levels. Indeed, ‘effects’ applies in another of its senses, since all these ‘levels’ are abstractions that we induce from observation and classification. We do not know the ultimate causes of anything (since it is at the extremely low level of quantum mechanics, or, who knows, below). The causal process, however, seems to be reliably upwards. Evidence? Well, this upward causation parallels the very development of the ‘levels’, since all higher ones came after and from lower ones. It would be silly to imagine that animals are the cause of their cells, when cells preceded animals by hundreds of millions of years. Similarly, cells are effects of chemistry, the complex of proteins, lipids and fats that constitute them, on down through simpler molecules and atoms to who knows where.

    While this leaves room for the possibility that higher levels develop independence of some kind to ‘influence’ lower levels, this seems unlikely to me, for the reason I’ve touched on. Whatever behaviour is currently happening at the ‘higher level’, which we often identify as a thing in its own right, is NO MORE THAN the action of its parts. Physically, I can see no mechanism by which a collection of things can actually become something else (‘more than the sum of its parts’ is a nice little saying, but scientifically and philosophically problematic). Its identity is an abstraction, remember, a label we attach to a somewhat reliable cloud of happenings. The muscle is a mere idea in our heads, and no more than its elementary particles. What else could it ever be?

    The question this raises of how far this reduction process can go, and whether anything is real, is interesting, but not essential to the argument. There may be real somethings at the bottom, or it may be abstractions all the way down. The important issue, I believe, is whether ‘levels’ can actually develop ‘independence’ from their constituents and ‘influence’ other sub-systems, particularly those below them, i.e., whether thoughts have independence from the behaviour of the brain processes that give rise to/are them, or whether every thought-leading-to-action is theoretically traceable to a causal chain down through synapses to molecules and atoms and particles, and back through time, a cumulative, one-way ‘suite of heuristic hacks’. In short, it depends on whether higher level properties of systems supervene on lower ones and are reducible to them. I think I’m right in saying that the scientific consensus is with me on this matter.

    I think your position requires that these higher things, thoughts, could somehow reach down into the nature that forms them and change them, even change the probability distributions of some process or other, but I do not see any necessity to conclude that, and I am beginning to doubt it strongly. However I look at that, I end up having to invoke something untenable. Strong emergence requires nature to suddenly have something new appear, independent of what came before, so an ‘uncaused’ ontological feature of reality (as free will, an uncaused cause, like God). It seems too much like a miracle to posit that. As Mark Bedau puts it, ‘Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic. How does an irreducible but supervenient downward causal power arise, since by definition it cannot be due to the aggregation of the micro-level potentialities? Such causal powers would be quite unlike anything within our scientific ken. This not only indicates how they will discomfort reasonable forms of materialism. Their mysteriousness will only heighten the traditional worry that emergence entails illegitimately getting something from nothing.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence

    Thanks for reading.

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  6. Hi John,

    You state “That truth ultimately may be unknowable is fine. We can just use it as a shorthand for a measure of how confident we are of a statement.”
    Given that I am usually writing for a mixed audience, I like to be as explicit as is reasonably possible (and there are always uncertainties in that test). Since many (perhaps most) people use the word truth in a more absolute sense, I try and avoid using it, and try and be explicitly clear on all occasions that what I am talking about is probabilities in all cases. So I can accept you using the term truth in the weak sense of an approximation to something, and I will try and avoid using the terms in that sense because of the confusion that often results.

    The equating of my term “heuristic hacks” with ” evolved strategic behaviours” does capture an element of the meaning I was trying to encapsulate with my choice of terminology, but misses an important aspect. The sense that seems to be missing is that evolution simply selects what works “best” (summed over all the many factors involved of energy, time, mate attraction, reproductive success, etc) and that there can be connections (influences) involved in that process that are not at all obvious, and make no sense at all from an intentional “strategic” approach, yet they have happened to work in practice well enough to survive. The idea of “sufficiently useful approximation to something” is one that occurs frequently in biology (and in my understanding of it). That notion is, for me, encapsulated in the term “heuristic”.

    A key statement you make is:
    “I would suggest that cause and effect is one-way. If A is the cause of B, B is not the cause of A. Would you agree?”

    And the short answer to that is – No, and sometimes a yes may be approximated.
    The essence lies in the word “If”.
    In one sense, the statement is tautological – yes of course, if A cause B B cannot cause A.
    The real question is, does A ever really cause B?
    Quantum Mechanics seems to work on the principle that all things influence all others – mostly with that influence spreading at the speed of light – entanglement being a possible point of departure from that principle.
    So the idea of systems influencing each other simultaneously seems to be deeply embedded in the structure of reality.

    And this sort of “fuzziness” is fundamental to my understanding of “free will”.
    It is all about degrees of influence between systems in specific contexts.
    There are times when I have no conscious control over what my body does (every night I sleep as one set of examples).
    There are other contexts where the degree of control can be substantial (as in reviewing what I just typed to the screen).

    Your example of a biceps muscle flexing is interesting.
    Consider the example of a bicep where a tendon of the muscle has crossed an inhibitory nerve, and the action of flexing then shuts off the inhibition and flexing continues to spasm.
    Where exactly lies cause in that system.
    In that case, there would seem to be degrees of influence, and that past some threshold value, the system goes out of control.
    Such sorts of linkages are surprisingly common, particularly in the details of brain chemistry.

    If one takes the stance of hard causation, then certainly “Mutual causation is philosophically unsound. Would you agree?”
    But my challenge to that notion is one of the fundamental ideas I am trying to convey in all that I write.
    QM seems to say that all things influence all other things, simultaneously.
    That is what the math does – some approximation to a sum over all possible life histories.

    This illusion of linear causation is very closely approximated in many larger scale systems; but it doesn’t appear to be what is actually going on – at some sort of fundamental level.

    It’s kind of like flat earth – works fine if you spend your whole life within 50 miles of your birth place, and the most technically complex thing you ever want to do is build a house. Flat earth works, perfectly well, in that context.
    Travel wider, you need to go to some approximation of a round earth, or your navigation is going to fail.
    Want to get high tech – computers and GPS, then you need both QM and general relativity.

    Classic ideas of space, time and causation, all fail.

    Something else is required.
    I am way beyond the valley of my birth.
    I am seeking technological and strategic systems that can sustain human level (and beyond) awareness indefinitely with as much security and freedom as possible.
    Classical causation fails in that context.
    Degrees of influence between systems is as strong as it gets.

    And at many times, in many contexts, they are a close approximation to classical causation, and not always. And those exceptions are really important.

    In a limited sense, I agree with you about the need to simplify, to abstract.
    And be very careful to understand why that is.
    We do that not because reality is simple, or necessarily follows any particular rule in all contexts, but rather because our brains cannot deal with the complexity present in reality in the way it is present.
    We have to make simplifications.
    And to most people, someone saying that the equations of Quantum Mechanics are “simple” would be treated with some mix of incredulity, incomprehension, humour, disgust, anguish, and resentment. Only a very tiny minority of the population generally have access to any sort of meaning at all from those symbols.
    Reality seems to be both complex and unknowable, and yet we can approximate things with very good reliability in some contexts.

    The really important idea to hold on tightly to, is that our very best models are only context sensitive approximations to something. And most of those are utterly incomprehensible to the vast majority of humanity.

    And sure, we all need operational confidence.
    And there are real dangers in being over confident, just as there are dangers in not being confident enough (shades of the old Greek virtue of the mean).

    Sure we both have to abstract, we both have to act in reality, we both need some sort of model or map to do that.
    Our maps are very similar in many aspects.
    I am just very clear that my map is at every level some sort of useful approximation to something, and that it can fail in contexts not reasonably well explored,

    I am very clear, that many of the maps that served our ancestors well, are now a direct danger to us – perhaps greatest among them the idea of markets and money; and there are a few other close contenders, like the notion of “Truth” and “law”.

    Yes our reality is messy, complex, uncertain at the boundaries.

    Certainly, exploration of those boundaries will test, and sometimes break, well established and trusted notions.

    And the notion of freedom that I champion is not an absence of influence, but rather an ability to become one influence among many, and to be able to bring that influence to focus at particular instants, particular contexts, to create something.

    Of course every system has the systemic influence that it has.
    As the number of identified systems gets well past a thousand, finding the intersection points in the probability landscapes where maximum impact can be achieved will always be something of an art form, however much one applies various forms of finite element analysis.

    You seem very clearly to be strongly attached to the idea encapsulated in “The muscle is a mere idea in our heads, and no more than its elementary particles. What else could it ever be?”
    What else indeed?
    That is what I am trying to point to, and having (metaphorically) climbed to a new place, one has to see the ladder for what it is – just a tool, a construct for changing levels.

    If there are only elementary particles, what was that thought you had?

    It seems to me that there are systems – stuff within some sort of boundary, and that those systems are capable of arrangements that allow for the instantiation of new levels of boundaries and systems. And while there are linkages and influences, they go both ways. That does seem to be clearly what the evidence from CERN and elsewhere is telling us.

    As to self, will, agency, who we are, there is no escaping the complexity of that answer.
    And of course there are some simplifications, some principles, which can be useful guides within a probabilistic context. As you correctly note, all of our understanding must be composed of such things.

    So how might impulse have become will?
    Evolution does seem able to account for that.

    Many levels of systems that each contribute to survival through action in reality in specific contexts.
    The emergence of complex brains, capable of recalling complex social interactions over many years, capable of recognising complex levels of strategic threat (without conscious understanding of the notion of strategy).
    The emergence of predictive models of reality in complex brains, to allow ever more complex levels of planning and execution.

    The emergence of symbolic language in those complex brains.
    The emergence of software patterns in language in those brains.
    The expression of a declarative judgement upon one’s own inadequacy in some specific situation forming a new level of pattern in language in that brain.

    Each new level instantiates in the presence of all the previous levels, and coopts such aspects as it can to such purposes as work in a survival sense in the specific situation of that individual and the breeding population of which the individual is part.

    In terms of language and ideas, the breeding population for any concept includes any individual that a concept or idea is transmitted to (at whatever level of fidelity it survives the transmission).

    There are many levels to thoughts, to actions, to impulses to thought, action, etc – thousands, millions of systems, each influenced by many levels of interaction over time and space and context, all contributing to the probabilities of action or will in any particular sense.
    In the sense that you have awareness of your own existence (presuming that you do in fact have such a thing, based on the fact of my subjective experience of such a thing), then it seems that will is part of the ability that the software that is aware of itself has that allows it to influence the course of its own thoughts and the actions of the body it inhabits.
    Such influence is, of course, limited, as there are many things that must be done at subconscious levels in real time in order to survive, that no consciousness can manage simultaneously, and many levels of systemic influence from biology and culture that is context dependent. Learning to recognise and manage context is perhaps the most powerful skill.

    As to causality – I have already touched on that.
    You stated “The causal process, however, seems to be reliably upwards. Evidence? Well, this upward causation parallels the very development of the ‘levels’, since all higher ones came after and from lower ones. It would be silly to imagine that animals are the cause of their cells, when cells preceded animals by hundreds of millions of years.”
    This is one place where the simple notion of causality you are using fails. As mentioned above – it has good utility in many ordinary contexts (as a useful simplification of something), but at this level, it isn’t up to what is happening.

    Let’s look at the example of cells and bodies in some depth.
    In the very simplest case, a body could simply be two cells. Two identical cells together can be different in some aspects of behaviour from two cells separate, but not many.
    The big advance came with repeated doubling of chromosomal numbers, redundancy of controls, and the evolution of specialisation in cell lines in bodies to particular roles.
    Thus a body that has photosensitive cells electrically connected to other cells can do things that cells without such specialisation can.
    It is this emergence of new properties from new arrangements of collections that add influence.
    And in the quantum world, everything influences everything else, but the degrees of influence vary with time, space, context etc. And there is also almost always a component of randomness present in the mix.
    So the simple idea of one way causation has to give way to vectors of influence from every sort of pattern present, and some sorts of patterns can have very special properties.

    And yes – there is sequence involved.
    One must have cells before multicellular bodies, and it is really difficult to look at an E coli and infer Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yes Einstein was a collection of cells all related to E coli cells, but the patterns selected by accident and history ended up being very different.

    You go on to say “Whatever behaviour is currently happening at the ‘higher level’, which we often identify as a thing in its own right, is NO MORE THAN the action of its parts.”

    Particular patterns of stuff can and do exhibit properties that are not present in other arrangements.
    Sometimes those patterns are very complex.
    You could say that the CPU of this computer is just silicon with a few impurities – just beach sand.
    Yet the probability of finding beach sand capable of exhibiting the properties of the beach sand in this CPU is so small as to be a good approximation to zero (many hundreds of zeros before the first digit).
    The arrangement of stuff can be very influential on its behaviour.
    New arrangements can exhibit behaviours that have never before existed.
    Darwin’s great insight was seeing how differential survival of variants could create order from chaos through this simple mechanism.
    He had no concepts of the quantum mechanical processes involved in DNA/RNA replication, protein synthesis, catalysis, etc but he did understand that if something could replicate with some level of fidelity/infidelity, then complexity and diversity could result in certain contexts. New patterns could emerge and have influence on other patterns,
    When specific patterns emerge, then behaviours can happen that influence the state of that pattern. A simple example being an enzyme with a site on it that when the concentration of the thing it produces reaches a certain level, then the probability of that thing binding with that site and disabling the catalytic function of the enzyme increases. This produces a sort of “thermostat” or “governor” for a process. Our cells contain hundreds of such things, some with very subtle action over very long periods.

    You state ” The important issue, I believe, is whether ‘levels’ can actually develop ‘independence’ from their constituents and ‘influence’ other sub-systems, particularly those below them, i.e., whether thoughts have independence from the behaviour of the brain processes that give rise to/are them, or whether every thought-leading-to-action is theoretically traceable to a causal chain down through synapses to molecules and atoms and particles, and back through time, a cumulative, one-way ‘suite of heuristic hacks’.”

    The evidence from QM seems to me beyond reasonable doubt that there is uncertainty at every level, as well as influence.
    At our macro level we are used to thinking about it as a one way thing,
    At the micro level it is clear that every level of pattern present influences every other level of pattern present.
    What is interesting is the degrees of influence in particular contexts.

    I am not saying that one can have thoughts without a brain.
    I am saying that one can have influence over the nature of the thoughts one thinks, and that such influence results in physical changes within the brain. It is one aspect of neuroplasticity in one sense, and at another level it is little more than memory.

    New arrangements of matter do allow new things to emerge.
    That is what radio transmitters are, or internal combustion engines, or LASERs, or computers, or societies.
    New sets of boundaries allow for new sorts of action in reality.
    That is real.
    That is stellar nucleosynthesis, planets, cells, life, technology, art, literature.
    How can you not see the emergence of these things as being fundamentally new patterns in stuff?

    Yes – sure, their emergence requires stuff that was around before, but not structured in ways that allowed for the emergence of these things.
    And that structure, that order, that pattern, is fundamental.
    And while the possibility of every pattern may exist, the actual instantiation and maintenance of particular patterns can be very low probability events.

    It is all so obviously clear to me, that it is really hard for me to see how it is not obvious to many others – but clearly it isn’t.

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    • lettersquash says:

      Hi Ted, thanks, I do feel that we’re making some progress.

      On the use of the word ‘truth’, I understand your concern. I took it as read that both of us have fundamentally sceptical (or probabilistic) views. On the other hand, there is an absolute truth about many questions, and many things we can be so sure of that the approximation becomes pedantic. Either the Moon is made of green cheese or it is not, for instance, an ontological binary truth/untruth, and we know it isn’t with pretty good confidence. Life is too short to say “beyond all reasonable doubt” or give some estimated percentage confidence level every time I talk about a hypothesis. I was also making the point about personal values and possible unconscious motivations in approaching assessments of the truth value of ontological statements, which I note you ignored, in favour of dissecting ‘Truth’. How interesting!

      I’m pleased you clarified your use of the term, “heuristic hacks”. You criticised my use of the word ‘strategic’, saying evolutionary processes ‘make no sense at all from an intentional “strategic” approach, yet they have happened to work in practice well enough to survive.’

      Indeed. I was using the term ‘strategic’ in a mechanistic sense, not implying intentionality. I thought that would be obvious from my position regarding free will, which would act through intention, but it was maybe a poor choice of word. To my mind, intention is part of that complex of psychological conditions I am trying to elucidate, which, while they may be causes, are also (in this view) inevitable effects of prior causes. I may ‘intend’ to type this comment, but that intention may arise inevitably from all the causes of that intention, and hence not actually be willed freely. It could also involve random processes, which would also not be willed.

      Intention may be a label applied retrospectively, since we habitually rationalise our behaviours with post hoc explanations. There is vast evidence on this, as I expect you know. It is quite shocking how little we know about our ‘intentions’. When discussing evolution more generally, rather than concerning human cognition, the idea is even less applicable. I am well aware that many teleological phrases are used in descriptions of biological processes, and that these are just short-hand versions, because to describe the physical processes would be too burdensome or impossible. It is precisely this kind of mechanistic reductionism that I’m suggesting might apply to what we imagine to be ‘free will’.

      You distinguish between unconscious processes like sleeping and, ‘other contexts where the degree of control can be substantial (as in reviewing what I just typed to the screen)’. Sure, it seems natural to suppose that you, of your own free will, intended and decided to review what you typed. However, in order to refine our confidence in the reality of free will, we should consider the possibility that you did not. We should consider the possibility that your so-called ‘decision’ might have followed inexorably from the conditions in which you found yourself, being the kind of person you are, having had the experiences you have had, with the phenotype that you are. You have not, as far as I am aware, spoken to this issue at all, other than to present the alternative, consisting of levels of systems having actual influence on others, somehow (unstated) allowing actual ‘free will’.

      I must say that I do understand the idea that sub-systems and emergent phenomena might theoretically possess the capacity to influence others, and that one of these might be dubbed ‘free will’. The idea is so intuitive – we’ve all grown up with it – that I don’t require examples of different systems and how they develop. I can also imagine, with more effort of intellect (less intuitively) yet clearly, a reality in which these emergent processes might be no more than the sum of their parts, merely subjectively abstracted, in the same way I know that a table, despite being a table, is no more than the sum of its atoms, and I’m fairly sure that my consciousness, despite being my consciousness, is no more than some activity of my central nervous system.

      You say ‘It is all so obviously clear to me, that it is really hard for me to see how it is not obvious to many others – but clearly it isn’t.’ But no, that’s precisely the point! It’s not that the independent power of emerged phenomena like consciousness or free will are not obvious. They are taken for granted! I do not imagine that you or anyone else has failed to see it, but to see through it! When I apply more intellectual effort to analysing my intuition of free will, it becomes harder to sustain. It was always perfectly ‘obvious’!

      You say that my view of causality fails in complexity, giving this example: ‘Thus a body that has photosensitive cells electrically connected to other cells can do things that cells without such specialisation can. It is this emergence of new properties from new arrangements of collections that add influence.’

      Let us analyse a simple cognitive system with those photosensitive cells for input, some mental computation, and output of an action. There is no point in the detection of photons without some computation (even if merely reflexive) and some use made of that information, and there may be many cells. So, photons arrive at the cell(s) and activate them in some pattern or other, sending signals to some kind of a brain, which does a simple calculation and responds via motor neurons. Cause – effect, fairly clear.

      In a simple reflexive system, there could be a hard-wired system (computationally simple even if complex physically) that then reacts with an output, simple phototropism by rotating a flagellum, say. Cause – effect.

      Now, after the development of more sophisticated brains, what happens? Photos cause information to arrive at the brain, but reflex action is not the only result. As well, patterns of information are stored there for later use, and currently arriving patterns are compared there against earlier ‘data’, now constituting a model of some kind of useful features of the environment, and from this, the brain makes a computation that results in a more nuanced, time-dependent response, still via motor neurons. Cause and effect are still fairly clear, just with a few more bells and whistles.

      In higher animals, further abstractions formed, models of self and others situated in the environment. These models include predictive schemes by which future scenarios can be played in imagination, so that action can be computed that is likely to be advantageous to the organism. In humans, these conceptual abstractions continued to build, to include linguistic forms and concepts, philosophies, religions, political forms, etc. And by now, I take it, you conceive of some functional aparatus that has made the causal process different from what preceded it, such that it is no longer deterministic, but can involve free will.

      I’m struggling to conceive of what that is. We can say, of course, that there is more than just the causal chain starting with photons at the retina, although this chain still exists, exciting parts of the brain that do more complex versions of what the first light-sensitive bodies did. We can also consider functions of the CNS that have become temporally extended, perhaps including stated or imaged intentions, preferences, desires, fears, etc.

      Rather than a simple pattern of photons, we might now imagine that the ‘input’ has developed into a complex of qualities or quantities making up a model of our current self and situation, and that it is this that is computed with reference to the longer-term ‘personality’ structures. And it seems that out of that computation emerges impulses to act. So far, I see no fundamentally new causal process in this. The longer-term structures are all caused normally, as far as I can tell, formed by experience modifying the data in the neural net. This is in essence how AIs work that we have now, but we do not consider them to have free will. We know that everything is happening according to the laws of physics and the law of causation, even when the program demonstrates ‘choices’ or ‘intention’. We know that these are results of the architecture, input and learning, no more. Why imagine humans are not essentially the same?

      So how will I proceed? What if I posit a hypothetical functional entity that embodies free will? Maybe I can work out how it causes a new causal chain, or, using your more subtle idea, ‘influences’ other…what?…outputs?…

      I am taking it as read that any functional entity, whatever that might be, is ’embodied’. I think you are also a materialist. The significant feature of this entity is that it acts contrary to deterministic causation (I’ll come to indeterminism shortly). Free will, as I am defining it, requires real choice to be made between options according to a process that is not determined inevitably by prior causes.

      And I can’t get from the one (the physical manifestation of this free-will function, which is a set of neurons firing, presumably) to the other, ‘outputs’ that lie outside of the deterministic chain of events, which in every other case describes biological actions. You say that some patterns have ‘very special properties’, but I find this little more than hand-waving.

      Another way you suggest this gap is closed is thus: ‘And in the quantum world, everything influences everything else, but the degrees of influence vary with time, space, context etc. And there is also almost always a component of randomness present in the mix.’

      Now, I’m not very hot on QM, so unfortunately I can’t easily critique the first idea, that ‘everything influences everything else’, but it also seems to be inadequate explanation, or excessively explanatory, maybe. ‘Everything influences everything else’ is a neat formula proving almost anything you want, psychic abilities, for instance. I’m sorry, but you would have to explain why you believe ‘everything influences everything else’ and how that grants a biological computer free will. We are biological computers.

      I don’t see randomness helping either, because it should simply add noise, not self-directed choice. I’m aware that quantum effects have been identified, or at least hypothesised, to exist in biological systems, such as quantum tunneling as part of photosynthesis, or in bird navigation. Even so, the sorts of effects I’ve read about, although intuitively weird, don’t suggest themselves as having the capacity I think we need for this free-will effect. Again, if you know it as clearly as you say, you will have to give many more details of how that happens.

      The peculiar thing about free will is it reminds me of the hard problem of consciousness, or all the ways people try to fit spirit into matter, or God into the world. We’re looking for something that isn’t caused. Really, that’s what it means. Actions born of free will cannot be caused.

      Emergent properties, we say, are ‘new’, but they only emerge because they are caused. Hence, if free will emerged, it would be the effect of prior causes, and thus not free will. We can’t escape this argument, I think, by considering it as some probability or generalisation (which many biological emergent properties are), imagining that this has the power to feed back to the inputs (a tantalizing idea). Whenever that happens, the function is lawfully computed by the system, and thus subject to the same causal processes that, frankly, everything is.

      There is one other possibility that you might be hinting at, that the system state is like the wave function, so not in any fixed state, and that the act of will is something like collapsing the wave function. But I imagine you’d have said that already if that’s what you meant.

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  7. Hi John,

    At the simplest possible level I can think to put it, it goes like this.
    Causality does not seem to be hard – it seems to have probabilistic boundaries in most situations.

    The experience we get at the level of normal perceptions of hard causality being normal is like the idea of flat earth – a good enough approximation to something in a certain set of contexts.

    But if the equations of QM are real, and they do seem to work remarkably well, then they point to everything having both uncertainty and influence.

    The nature of the boundary conditions on systems does in large measure determine the degrees of influence between systems.
    Shift an atom or two of silicon in a CPU and it is unlikely to have any significant effect on the operation of the CPU as a system, but shift a couple of dozen atoms in the same general region of some critical gate, and the thing will stop working.

    Neural networks are more resilient in one sense, and more noisy in another.

    The sorts of software that runs on neural networks is quite different from that which runs on the CPU of this machine, and Turing demonstrated that any computational system can be modeled in any other computational system, but not necessarily in any usefully short time.

    Freedom in the sense that I am using it, is not a freedom from influence, but a freedom to create influence.
    Yes, certainly, all of our biology, our genetic ancestry, the specifics of our individual existences, our cultures, all have influences upon us.
    And it seems clear to me that we are the sort of software that can develop degrees of independence from those influences, and develop ways of influencing our own development.

    When I use the term “free will”, I do not mean that we are ever entirely free of the influences of our past.
    And I do mean that we can develop within ourselves an ability to choose in the face of no agreement, and to act upon those choices, and to have influence as a result.

    I have some very real practical experience of that.
    One of the more recent and significant ones is my cancer. Most people faced with being told they have terminal cancer accept it, and die. Most of those that try to do something about it don’t have will power to forgo all the things that they want, that probability suggests they ought not to have, and to do that consistently, without fail, without error, for thousands of days, consecutively.
    I have done that.
    I can attest to it not being easy.
    Learning to free dive below 100ft was child’s play in comparison.
    I have been almost 7 years free of tumours.

    That independence, that freedom to make my own assessments of very complex sets of information, and to take consistent and disciplined action as a result, is what I call freedom.
    And certainly there is a lot of influences in that, a lot of information, thousands of pages of reading, assessments, consideration, relationships, etc.

    And there is a sense in which a choice (if deserving of that name) must always come after, and not based upon, reason or consideration. The reason and consideration is a very useful step most of the time, and choice is something else.
    Its an odd thing.

    And the whole of my post was on the subject of the truth value of ontological statements (in the weaker – probabilistic sense of “truth” – being some reasonable approximation that has utility in the context being considered – given that reality seems to be so complex that we have no other option but to make sets of such simplifying approximations).

    And I get, that from within the dogma of causation, what I am writing about, if visible at all, will seem like nonsense.
    It isn’t.
    It is a different model of reality.
    It seems to be closer, and have greater utility in our current context.
    I make no claim any stronger than that.

    You accept determinism as fact.
    I see it as a simplistic approximation to something vastly more complex and interesting, but often a useful approximation in many contexts (just as flat earth is a useful approximation in many contexts).
    We haven’t got past that first stumbling block yet.
    That is but step one on a complex path.

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  8. lettersquash says:

    Hi Ted,

    Thank you for that overview of your fundamental ontological scheme. I judge this (again) as arguing for a ‘free will of the gaps’. I have asked for more detailed description of how a central nervous system acts independently (with free will), and I expect that if your view had merit, there would be some kind of empirical evidence of the neuro-biology of it in action. Neither is forthcoming, so I am left with the gap and not much of a bridge.

    The scheme seems to say, simply, that all causation is fuzzy, probabilistic. While this might appear to establish a ‘gap’ from the quantum level upwards, if this is adequate to grant free will or not is still difficult to assess without more details (I cannot see how it could). I feel it is incumbent upon us to delve into this fuzziness, to see where free will might reside or how it introduces itself.

    So I try. So far, I have imagined ‘probabilistic’ causation (or any causation) to consist of some combination of deterministic and indeterministic processes, and, as I have explained, neither introduces the kind of free will I am talking about (and which you seem to be talking about, too, although I don’t know that, since you say very little about its definition). Determinism gives effects following inevitably from causes, and indeterminism (like the fundamental randomness you say exists in QM) is, well, random, so can’t grant free will either.

    However, your view seems to suggest a fundamental connectedness between things (‘influence’). Like entanglement? Is that what you mean? (See how I have to guess every step?…) This also seems a very unlikely candidate for granting free will (…and critique it in case it is what you mean). Entanglement suggests a restriction of freedom, a greater embeddedness in other parts of the world. Free will would be characterised by a disconnected quality, yet with functional capacity. Besides, the effect has been shown only in very small parts of matter, and, like other weird quantum phenomena, are ‘averaged out’ at the macro level.

    I am disappointed that after all this discussion your hypothesis has hardly any more flesh on the bones than when you started, and you describe in this last reply ‘the simplest possible level I can think to put it’. We simply need to leave it if you cannot give more reasoning or evidence for free will. I understand you may ‘see’ this in your head and not be able to describe it, but that condition and simply having no more than vague feelings about what you know can only look the same to me. My hunch is that you don’t see it at all.

    I am concerned by your evaluation of your cancer treatment and cure, as well as what seems to be the presentation of this as evidence for free will. The problem of free will, the reason why it has been doing the rounds for thousands of years, is because we can easily give examples of what we think of as our exercising of our free will, while rigorous logical considerations have cast grave doubt upon that possibility (this difference between the intuitive and the actual in many other areas having been established through philosophy and science, to the point where we now should have a solid critical scepticism about all those things we think are true because they seem so).

    This applies very cogently to health and our beliefs about causes and cures. The history of medicine is full of intuitive principles and personal anecdotes that empirical science has shown to be without reality, from placebo effects to spontaneous remissions, correlations without cause and misattributed causes (when other real causes have cured an illness). This is why science establishes causal relationships only by proper studies, not anecdotes. And I’m pretty damn sure you’d have covered this in your biology course!

    These points, as they relate to your point, are independent: i.e., your therapeutic choice may actually work whilst this says nothing about your freedom to choose that line of enquiry.

    This lack of consideration of the alternative makes me wonder if you really understand what a deterministic world could feel like. We could believe that we make choices, while we don’t. It is absolutely that simple. An ability (in your case to find the cure for your illness) could be a result of prior causes, many of them coming under broad headings like personality type and learning. Virtually everybody FEELS like they have free will. But neither evidence nor reason support that intuition.

    The consequences of not having free will, also, are massively counter-intuitive. But nobody will ever know this unless they bother to question an intuition that we’ve all had since before we could verbalise, deeply embedded in the whole of human culture. Being open-minded about it, even, is an emotional challenge for most of us.

    Unless we’re prepared to really delve into the issue, unpick it, we just retain whatever hunch we began with. Again, as I’ve said before, your reluctance, or inability, or ‘exhaustion’ put me in a weird position where I feel I’m dragging this out, despite your saying that you’re glad to discuss it. All I seem to get is a repeat of an overview each time, with vague assertions that I’m a flat-earther and you’re in 3D. I’m starting to feel that it’s a bit rude, this hand-waving and insult. You should, I think, either support assertions you’ve made in more detail, or have more humility. I could write a great deal of detail about why I think free will is an illusion (and compared to your text, I have), but I don’t want to force it on you, or on your blog, since I have my own. So I think it’s probably time to leave this. All the best.

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  9. HI John,

    Consider, that if you only accept information that has clear causal connections, and you dismiss evidence of a lack of causal connection as simply being causal connections not yet understood, then the only conclusion you can possibly reach is a causal one – one without any degrees of freedom.

    You keep asking for simplicity, but in complex biology (and we are complex biology) simplicity is not an option.

    And I do understand that there is a necessary degree to which we must simplify complex systems to gain any degree of understanding at all. And it pays to be clear about that process, and the loss of information and uncertainties necessarily present.

    The empirical evidence of neurobiology in action is the fact of this conversation in a very real sense.
    In another sense, the evidence is there in the quantum mechanics of the synapse.

    In quantum mechanics, nothing is certain.
    Quantum mechanics delivers probabilities – nothing more.
    The equations of QM seem to indicate that there is both fundamental uncertainty present, and that every possible path, every possible interaction, influences the probabilities.

    That is not a hard causal system.

    Now if those probabilities are constrained, then in large aggregate they can very closely approximate hard causal systems – which does seem to be the reality we find ourselves in.

    That does in fact seem to be the evidence from neurobiology.
    QM does give us the best models we have of how biology works.
    It’s just that not many people look.

    I cannot speak for you.
    I can only speak (write) for me.

    I was reasonably passionate about biochemistry back in 1973 when I started second year biochem at Waikato university.
    By the end of 1974 I had a rough idea of how consciousness works.
    I didn’t know much about QM at that time, hadn’t really gotten into the details much at all. By many measures, I still haven’t. I don’t particularly enjoy doing the sorts of mathematics required, the sort of stuff Feynmann loved doing, and I have done enough to get a feel for some of the general classes of things present.
    But while I didn’t understand QM very well at that stage, I was starting to understand a little of probability, and could see many levels of probabilistic systems in biology.

    Evolution fascinated me.
    The recursive nature of the algorithm.
    The fact that it is always messy embodied systems in reality that interact, not abstract simplified models.
    The vast degrees of uncertainties, and the populations that result, the degrees of separation required.
    Lions and tigers can interbreed, but they don’t normally, for a lot of different reasons, so we have them as distinctly different ideas – but they aren’t neatly different.
    So much of biology is like that.
    So often the most unlikely of things (from a human perspective) actually have major influence.

    Two very different things are important in building an understanding of this sort.

    One is taking the time to observe.
    Observe self.
    Observe others.
    Observe nature.

    The other contemplation.
    Do our abstractions actually hold up to observation?
    Not other people’s observations alone, but our own as well.
    Try out all the paradigms, which one fits best when, and why?

    If I watch myself in action, then I am clear that I don’t have nearly as much influence in reality as I used to imagine I did.
    My body does what it does, and that isn’t always what I want it to do (particularly on the golf course).
    And what seems to work, at every level, is to develop the vision of an intention, and then hand over control to subconscious processes to deliver on that intention.
    Practicing the skills increases the probability of delivery.
    At every level, that does seem to be what I observe happening.

    So I did not start writing this with a clear conscious knowledge of what words I would use.
    I sat for a while, and considered thoughts like:
    John is clearly intelligent, and yet he simply hasn’t gotten anything that I have written about in respect of the nature of freedom.
    Are his criticisms of me valid?
    Yes, certainly, from the perspective he is using, what he says is perfectly reasonable; and that is precisely the problem.
    I am not using that perspective.
    None of the analogies I have used have worked at enabling him to consider the possibility of a different perspective.
    To him it seems that every such attempt has been interpreted as waffle.
    He wrote “So I try. So far, I have imagined ‘probabilistic’ causation (or any causation) to consist of some combination of deterministic and indeterministic processes, and, as I have explained, neither introduces the kind of free will I am talking about (and which you seem to be talking about, too, although I don’t know that, since you say very little about its definition). Determinism gives effects following inevitably from causes, and indeterminism (like the fundamental randomness you say exists in QM) is, well, random, so can’t grant free will either.”

    And that is entirely understandable in a sense – valid in a sense, yet misses something entirely.

    Determinism is – B follows from A always and necessarily.
    Random is – B for a bit, then Z for some while, then something else – no known or knowable relationship predictable ahead of time or understandable after.
    Influence is – B C D and E can all occur with distinct probabilities, but which one happens in any particular instance cannot be determined ahead of time; though over large collections the probabilities are very consistent.

    QM seems to be telling us that everything influences the probabilities of everything else, and the degrees of influence can be quite small, and often cancel each other out, and can be ignored in practice, and they are never zero.

    That sort of way of thinking about things is very different from B follows A, always.
    It is much more of a B follows A usually, sufficiently reliable in this particular context for me to bet my life on it – like driving a well maintained machine at high speed.

    All levels of systems seem to require boundaries, and the properties of the boundaries are important in the type of systems that can develop.
    Hard boundaries tend to become brittle and break in certain contexts.
    In complex adaptive systems, that isn’t normally a desirable attribute.

    Biology rarely does hard boundaries, there are usually holes present, where interaction can happen.
    And things like hedgehogs and armadillos do exist in nature, that have hard outer shells that they present to threats.

    I can see how the way of thinking I am championing is a threat to the neat, orderly certainty of hard causality.

    Yet the evidence is hard to refute.

    And our consciousness is not simple, not at any level.

    It is not a singular thing.
    It has many parts and each level of parts contributes important aspects to the whole.

    And I have had bits of my body surgically removed (most of the muscles from the left side of my face, neck and shoulder), so I don’t quite function like I used to, and I still have a certain consistency that is sufficient to let others recognise me as Ted. And someone who hadn’t seen me for 40 years might have difficulty recognising me.

    So in all this messy biology of levels of systems influencing each other, what is freedom?

    It seems to me to be the ability of an entity that is capable of modeling itself, and the reality around it to make choices.
    So what might choice mean in this context?
    If choice is just a selection based on reason or consideration, then it isn’t free, It is determined by those reasons and considerations.
    If a choice is entirely random, with no relationship to anything previous, it could be said to be free in a purely mathematical sense, but is it likely to be useful? Probably not. Such mechanisms will most likely result in death.

    Is there anything else possible?
    Yes.
    There can be degrees of influence between levels of systems that all influence probabilities.

    Why would such a thing evolve?

    In a tournament species, if the individuals competing know how far they will go before backing down, then there is a strong selection pressure to detect the limits of the other party, and to go just beyond them to win the tournament. The most effective counter strategy to that is to have those limits completely hidden.
    Thus the evolution of such “hidden variables” can be strongly selected for.
    We seem to contain several levels of such things.

    So we can influence the settings of such things, but never know exactly what they will deliver in any specific interaction.

    This seems to be a large part of what it is to be human. To never quite know how far one will go in any particular context.

    So it seems that our conscious experience is a software entity inhabiting a software model of reality that exists in the squishy hardware of a human brain, and that hardware has many levels of systems that all contribute to the system state overall.
    Every level of connection has fundamental uncertainties.
    Every synapse has electrical and chemical modulators that each have time variant functions.
    The subtlety and complexity present is really hard to get and maintain any realistic sort of appreciation for.

    And both my abstract understanding, and my personal experience, indicate to me that there are degrees of freedom present, and the more one claims them and practices them, the greater they become.

    And it doesn’t come from following any sort of rule, and it is important to understand the rules and the influences that do seem to actually be present.

    Simple is not an option.
    It is complex – any which way one looks at it.

    Placebo effects are very real.
    They are fascinating.
    Benedetti et al have one particularly interesting paper “How Placebos Change the Patient’s Brain”. There is a vast literature, some of which I have read in depth, and I have read many of the abstracts. I have also watch some lectures, and listened to many interviews on the subject (as I have on most subjects – most often when driving or traveling I am listening to a lecture on some subject or other, or an interview).
    Placebos work. That modern medical practitioners are not allowed to use them is little short of criminal. Our modern medical system seems to be much more about making money for a select group than it is about delivering health outcomes to people generally – unfortunately – and of course there are many great individuals in the system who are exceptions to that general tendency.

    You make the statement “Virtually everybody FEELS like they have free will. But neither evidence nor reason support that intuition.” And I say that claim is simply false. Evidence, from QM, from vast evidence sets, says that there exists fundamental uncertainty, and that necessarily delivers degrees of freedom.
    It is not a matter of there simply being hard causality or total randomness.
    Yes those two are possible organisational schema, and there exist infinite gradations between those, like the mathematical world of influence and probability described by QM.

    I will end with the very explicit claim, that if you continue to hold on tightly to a requirement for hard causation, for hard rules, then that is what you will see.

    Consider that our experiential reality is our own subconscious model of reality.
    That construct is a construct of the systems we use. Some of those systems are delivered by biology, some by culture, some by experience, some by choice.
    It is only ever a map of the thing it models (an approximation to some level).
    Our only possible experience is of the map.
    Of course our experiential reality is consistent with whatever schema we subconsciously accept – it cannot be any other way.

    Faced with such a reality, one actually has to try out multiple schema, and see which works most effectively.
    After trying out a few different schema, one starts to appreciate the sorts of dangers and benefits present in different modalities.

    That isn’t easy.
    Not many manage it.

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    • lettersquash says:

      Ted, if I implied I wanted ‘simplicity’ from you, that’s not quite what I meant. I meant that you write a lot of mostly irrelevant stuff instead of clearly analysing the origin of cognitive processes to demonstrate how ‘free will’ can be possible. I agree with a great deal of the points in your essays, so going over all of that isn’t helping us discuss the issue. Several of your replies have given no more truly relevant information than you presented previously, which comes down to the presence of QM indeterminacy, ‘influence’ (yet to be analysed), with heuristic rules at higher levels of system *somehow* giving freedom from the causal/acausal processes of biology. Being conscious, and conscious of ‘options’ to ‘choose’ between, doesn’t help free will if consciousness is entirely epiphenomenal, so you need to follow the computational process by which an emergent heuristic rule (formed by causal-acausal functions at a lower level) rips itself out of that flow and actually changes probability functions that were part of its genesis. You don’t seem to have spoken to this fundamental paradox.

      Imagining a system – a computational system, which is all a human being is – that rearranges its parts is utterly trivial. Imagining one that can freely choose how to arrange itself is a philosophical problem that I haven’t seen solved. Of course (we have to keep reminding ourselves), it is easy to imagine that this is what we do all the time. It is easy to imagine that human beings demonstrate this ability when we meddle with genomes or decide how many roads to build. However, the philosophical argument and neuro-scientific evidence don’t support that, they support the idea that consciousness, and thus free will, are epiphenomenal.

      Since most of humanity has been happy for all history to believe that the ostensible ‘free will’ is true (by failing to consider the alternative sufficiently), your grand announcement that it is a new paradigm fighting against the ‘dogma’ of determinism is ironic.

      ‘Influence is – B C D and E can all occur with distinct probabilities, but which one happens in any particular instance cannot be determined ahead of time; though over large collections the probabilities are very consistent.’

      If the outcome can’t be predicted on one occasion, that’s indeterminacy (‘random’ in colloquial terms), and won’t give you free will. Willing can’t be random or it would just be like playing dice.

      If the outcomes ‘over large collections are very consistent’, that’s nearer to a determined outcome, but may still have some ‘noise’. That doesn’t immediately imply free will either. It’s a die that comes up relatively consistently B, C, D or E (almost every time, in other words), but with some chance it produces a different outcome, one of the other letters.

      So I guess the next step is this – how does the loading come about, and how does that give us free will?

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  10. Hi John

    We do seem to be getting closer.

    The thing to get is the distinction of influence, as being a half way house between the deterministic and the random.
    It isn’t entirely deterministic, as one still cannot predict any particular event, but it does change the probability distribution, and thus changes the system over time.

    This is the distinction that you still seem to be putting into the random category, but it doesn’t entirely live there – there is a difference, and in that difference lies the key.

    I have tried to express it many times, in many different ways, but as yet it hasn’t landed with you in a way that your neural network can identify it as what I intend. That is perfectly normal – it is part of any such process.

    When you look at complex systems, subtle changes in the probabilities of boundary conditions can have important influences. The software changes the hardware, and some aspects of it are unpredictable, and some are influenced and some are essentially predictable for all practical purposes – all three are true to varying degrees across varying contexts.

    Thus there is a sense in which claiming free will is the first step in creating it.
    The intention, expressed as such, alters the system.
    And it most certainly isn’t perfect freedom.
    No system can exist without constraints, boundaries, call them what you will.
    We each need biology and culture – they are necessary precursors – each immensely complex.

    In a sense, the instantiation of that software declaration creates an occasional gap, between impulse and action, wherein choice can occur.
    And it seems capable of potentially infinite recursion, though low integer numbers are normal for most people most of the time.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time studying the electrochemistry of synapses, and has spent many days inside Faraday cages measuring electrical activity at the synapse level, and while not entirely current, keeps an eye on abstracts from time to time; I don’t know how the claim can be made that consciousness is entirely epiphenomenal.
    Yes – sure, there has to be a complex suite of substructures to support higher level function.
    That is a given.
    And software can influence hardware.
    And evolution works in some very subtle and strange ways.

    And it really does seem to be true, that if you say you have free will, or you say you don’t, in either case you are correct (to a substantial degree).
    And no system is ever entirely free, unless it is entirely random.

    So no one really wants total freedom. That is chaos, no system can survive it.
    What we want, what we can have, is a freedom within sets of constraints – biological, social, physical, cosmological, etc.

    How it works is through the ability to influence outcomes.
    And, of course, there isn’t any freedom (other than the purely random sort) to start with.
    Developing the intention to alter the distribution of that randomness is something that one does (or not).
    And of course there are influences from many levels in the development of that intention.
    And influence is not hard causation – and that subtle distinction is essential in understanding how it works, and how real free will can be instantiated and nurtured (at least to the degree that it is).

    This morning has been fairly special, with the alarm going off shortly after 3am, and going up the coast for the official reopening of State Highway 1, 13 months after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that destroyed all our roads, and isolated our town. So I have been to 2 events so far, and checked my trap line, recovered my trailcams, and haven’t cooked my breakfast yet.
    Just to give a context for how this conversation with you sits in my day. A major milestone in the largest engineering project ever undertaken in this country, and in the economic recovery of this district (and I sit on the project governance board as appointee of the Kaikoura Marine Guardians).
    Many congratulations on my part to the politicians, engineers and workers that actually made this day the reality that it is.

    Like

    • lettersquash says:

      You imagine that my neural network hasn’t comprehended your point yet, but I contend that is because you describe it only with vague analogies (which, I suspect, is because it is unsupportable and hardly thought out at all). Even now, with another reply, your ‘influence’ has been given no more solidity that some half-way house between determinism and indeterminism, and the assertion that ‘software changes the hardware’.

      To be honest, I have been struggling to put the proper terms and constructs around my side of the story. This very impressive article helps, so I’ll save my typing this time. https://philosophynow.org/issues/81/Epiphenomenalism_Explained

      Even if one doesn’t believe it, I submit that nothing breaks this philosophy. Even such delicious temptations as the placebo effect fit right in. I’ve been kicking it around for ages.

      Like

      • Hi John

        Axiom 2 is where the issue lies.
        What are the “laws of nature”?

        Quantum mechanics seems to clearly state that everything influences everything else in a probabilistic sense.

        So the laws of nature do not seem to be the classical conception of hard causality.

        Patterns can emerge that impact the other patterns present.

        It is kind of causal in a sense, but not a hard causality (though it closely approximates hard causality in most macroscopic contexts).

        So yes – we are made of atoms, as is this computer I am working on.
        And the software on this computer makes the hardware do some interesting things.

        Both the software and the hardware in our brains are very different and much more interesting.
        So yes – certainly there is an aspect where the system that is our self awareness has to instantiate from sets of lower level systems, and it does actually need those systems.
        And there is a definite causal relationship present, and it appears quite clear to me that it isn’t anywhere near as hard as Dan Dennett (and many others) claim, and much as I like and admire many aspects of Dan’s thinking, he seems to have missed something really important here.

        I am not making a claim for a soul independent of matter.
        I am making a claim for software capable of modifying both its own code and the hardware it runs on, in a probabilistic fashion. So not hard determinism, but a softer determinism with degrees of freedom between systems in certain contexts.

        I can understand why that notion is difficult to see, as it violates classical hard causality.
        And it does seem to be an aspect of quantum reality.

        Of course I use analogy – what else could I possibly do?
        I cannot use classical hard causality – because this is not that.

        Like

      • Hi Again John,

        I have been through that epiphenonenalism article again, and I will try a different perspective – and yes it will involve analogy, as it must.

        And I state clearly, and openly – if you ask me am I 100% certain of what I write, then I answer no. I am confident, and of course there is uncertainty.
        Do I wonder if my interpretation is wrong – yes – sure I do.
        I have doubts about everything, frequently.

        And that is particularly so when I know so many people who clearly know so much more than me about the specifics of particular realms.
        I am a generalist. I understand a little about a lot. I am very open about that.

        And being such a generalist allows me to make connections between things that are not available to most, because they are too focused on their particular specialty. And that is fine, required even in our sort of social and technological system.

        First though, I ask “can you give a classical explanation for atomic structure or the function of a transistor?”
        I know of none that work.

        The solar system model of the atom does not explain why electrons don’t crash into the nucleus, or why only fixed integer numbers of electrons are found at particular energy/space ranges. To do that, quantum mechanics is required, and quantum mechanics does not work on hard classical causality, it works on a probabilistic principle where everything has an influence on everything else. It is a much softer form of determinism, and when aggregated into larger collections, or observed over large numbers of quantum time units, such systems have a degree of predictability in many contexts that does very closely approximate classical causality (many, but not all).

        An analogy for this is the idea of the earth being at the center of the universe.
        When we look up, we do see everything revolving around us.
        It is the simple interpretation.
        We do seem to be at the center.
        When building a house, or crossing a valley, the idea that the earth is generally flat(ish) with a few lumps and bumps here and there, does work in practice.

        But when one can take a larger perspective, and consider the notion that we live on one of several balls of rock that are spinning and revolving around a star, that is just one star among many in a collection revolving around this galaxy, which is just one galaxy of many in multiple levels of clusters of galaxies, then one can see that to any entity, on any revolving rock, anywhere, it will seem as if the rest of the universe is revolving around them, and they are the center.

        That view comes simply out of the spin of the body they are resident upon.

        By similar analogy, we each have to start our investigations into the nature of ourselves and the reality within which we find ourselves, by making certain assumptions.

        We must all start with simple assumptions.
        We have no other option.
        Causality, the idea that one thing necessarily follows from another, is a simple assumption that works very well in some contexts (just like the idea of flat earth or being at the center of the universe does).

        But the more closely one look, the less well it works.

        Quantum mechanics seems very clearly to be telling us that reality does not work that way at the base. Whatever interpretation one thinks most likely, they are all very different from classical assumptions, and all involve probability and relatedness in non-classical ways.

        Do I think that quantum mechanics is necessarily the last word in how the world works?

        No – I don’t think that.
        I think it is most probably just a useful approximation at certain scales.
        It seems clear to me that all knowledge, all understanding, is simply some sort of useful approximation to something vastly more complex if one looks closely.

        It seems very likely to me that should I live for the rest of eternity, with exponentially expanding computational ability for all that time, that I would still be uncertain about the fundamental nature of reality. The mathematics and logic does seem to allow for such degrees of complexity to exist.

        Am I making a claim for dualism – for a soul separate from the body?
        No – I am not doing that.
        I am very confident that our awareness is closely coupled to the structure of our bodies, to the structure of our language and culture, and to our individual life histories and the choices we make. All of those things influencing all of the others, simultaneously, across all dimensions that have actually instantiated in any particular individual, and between all individuals. And the further apart individuals are, the smaller the degree of influence.
        And sure, for many practical purposes one can effectively ignore such things as they usually tend to cancel out, and quantum mechanics seems to be telling us that they are never actually zero.

        So I am saying yes, there is a degree to which consciousness is an epiphenomenon, and that degree is not ever 100%, and in some individuals the degrees of freedom developed can be quite significant, and they are never 100% either.

        So I am not making the claim that free will is ever entirely free, and I am saying that in some instances (in some individuals and some specific times), it can very closely approximate it.

        And we are talking about very complex systems here, with very complex boundaries, and very many subtle influences.

        The quantum functions that allow transistors to work reliably do so within quite narrow limits of voltage, temperature and current. Exceed those limits and the systems fail – sometimes through permanent rearrangement of the atoms involved, such that they never work again.
        Same seems to be true of us, at many levels.

        It seems that very many people become so critically coupled to the classical notion of causality, that they cannot seriously consider an alternative without feeling a sense of anxiety so terrifying that it diverts conscious attention.
        That too seems to be part of our evolved survival mechanisms.

        The sorts of events required to push someone through that barrier do not seem to be very common.

        Like

  11. lettersquash says:

    Hi Ted,

    I appreciate the generalist’s perspective, and I consider myself one too. Making connections between different disciplines can be useful at times. Even having fresher eyes than the experts can reveal new things…occasionally.

    However, I have reassessed the importance of this over recent years, and learned that I have often used it as an excuse to justify over-confidence, even arrogant pronouncements, on issues that I haven’t understood sufficiently. Knowing a little about a lot can increase our tendency towards exhibiting the less appealing end of the Dunning-Kruger effect. (From the other end, it’s infuriating too, as I’m sure you know, when arguing with the clueless on an issue you know about, and sometimes they say that your expertise has blinded you to the obvious.)

    I, too, profess only a leaning towards a conclusion about free will rather than 100% confidence – and that naturally changes as I read something new. But the more I learn, the more I realise that there is a specific expertise involved here, in a range of subjects (physics, philosophy and biology), and the generalist is in grave danger of missing opportunities to follow (or try to follow) the arguments the experts are having about free will, and learning a bit more about the relevant details.

    I get the impression that even the experts find this a very difficult subject, and attempted solutions explode in a wide range of directions. It seems this issue gets people questioning the fundamental nature of reality, multiple universes, whether mathematics is a unique realm of existence, whether the answer might reside in the idea that the universe is ultimately an undivided whole, what ‘causality’ means if time might not be linear, the nature of randomness, etc., etc. Many conclude that the answer is unknowable.

    Here, for instance, is one post by Hossenfelder http://backreaction.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/free-will-function.html which illustrates what I’m talking about, both in the text and the comments. Unfortunately for me, mathematicians and physicists delve into the problem so deeply that I have little chance of following it. Sometimes we ‘generalists’ have to watch the show and judge by other criteria who seems to be making the most sense. This article also suggests to me that your position is one of ‘strong emergence’. It’s useful to learn the lingo.

    Incidentally, as I pointed out a while ago, you seem to have the wrong idea about Dennett. He is a compatibilist. He believes we have free will, as the titles “Elbow Room” and “Freedom Evolves” suggest. As far as I can tell, his argument is at least similar to yours (although I don’t think he makes as much of QM) – stuff gets complicated, levels of systems, that kind of area. I assume he’s done some good work to earn his reputation, but I have been very disappointed (I haven’t read those two, but have read others) and his work is peppered with the most elementary mistakes.

    Hossenfelder’s article illustrates the potential problem with your approach, I think – not that it couldn’t be correct and QM give us free will – but that whether it could or not might depend on the very fine details of the interpretation of QM, which, as a simple matter of fact, is currently equivocal.

    However, just declaring my approach to be based on ‘classical’ views of causality or the laws of physics does not vindicate your view (and is factually incorrect anyway). My intuition is that all the weirdness in the world won’t make free will true, but my consideration of the laws of physics or causality has always encompassed the non-classical – indeed, I am open to the most abstruse philosophical postulates one can imagine. They then have to earn their keep.

    There is – as far as I am aware – no analogue of strong emergence (and it’s likely that if there were, Hossenfelder and colleagues would know about it). This does not mean one could not exist, but having an analogue would give precedent. Where this applies to free will, I believe, Bacrac’s Axiom 1 is apropos: Every conscious state is determined by a simultaneous brain state.

    I consider an act of will as a ‘conscious state’, and therefore that this cannot be ‘free’ in the sense that should be used here, free of physical causes. Unless one can provide details of the biology that show otherwise, it doesn’t matter to me how complicated the nested levels of brain functions are, the ‘software’ cannot ‘change the hardware’ (as you put it). As far as I am aware, this is undeniably true for computation in electronics, including in quantum computing. Software in computing is a mathematical construct, like information, which is why it can be written in (arbitrarily) many languages.

    I presume that you don’t imagine ‘software’ in this sense to be running on human ‘hardware’ (wet-ware, it’s often called), but what precisely you think ‘software’ is in the brain, I am unsure. If it refers to our higher brain functions, our attitudes, our rules of thumb, our personality traits, or our abstract decision-making process, all these are no more than the physical brain state at that point in time (or changing through time). If it refers to consciousness generally, the same applies, I feel.

    You reiterate that you aren’t positing dualism, at least not of ‘soul’, but perhaps ‘software’ is intended to indicate mind, the subjective, the contents of consciousness. If you are suggesting that consciousness changes brain function, this is attributing causal power to the mind, potentially overturning physical monism. You appear to inhabit a strange philosophical position, if I have understood it, that you’re a physical monist, but do not subscribe to Axiom 1, since you consider there to be conscious states that are not determined by a simultaneous brain state, but are the cause of brain states. That seems to be a fair definition of free will, now I write it. To let me consciously instigate the movement of a limb, the state of consciousness must cause the first brain state, at least, leading to the firing of the motor neurons.

    Whether causal agency of mind constitutes dualism is perhaps a moot point, but either way it seems dubious in the extreme. In addition to Libet and later experiments trying to time conscious decision-making, there’s all the weight of circumstantial evidence that we can physically change brain states (with probes or electromagnetic fields, or through the impact of tumors) and produce all manner of states of consciousness, apparently with few limits on the specificity or combination of qualities.

    It is a common mistake, one I hope you’re not making, to imagine that the opposite is demonstrated when we ask someone to imagine eating ice-cream or patting a dog and find that brain states are produced. This COULD be what’s happening, but it could also be that the verbal instruction (arriving physically) is processed physically, inducing whatever brain states represent the intended imagery, which are the cause of the subjective experience.

    We can get very subtle and postulate that the person might not be asked to imagine anything or think anything – we’re doing this “of our own free will” all the time – and this kind of idea leads to the very common mistake of assuming that our thoughts arise actually out of our free will, rather than causally-acausally. The fact that we can’t have our thoughts before we have them, so we can’t in any sense choose them, puts them outside our will and our freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John

      We are starting to get to the key issues of misunderstandings – I think.

      A couple of things are really obviously different definitions.

      I don’t think that conscious states are caused by brain states, I think it very likely they are brain states.

      My definition of freedom isn’t about consciousness having no basis is reality, it is about being able to develop degrees of freedom from necessary prior causes. Having probabilities rather than hard causal certainty can do that. For me, software is patterns of something, electricity, electrochemical, etc, in some physical matrix that can be changed by the presence of that pattern.

      The question is about the degrees of freedom between systems, or put another way, the balance between random, influential and causal aspects.

      You do misunderstand me.
      My position is not that conscious states are not caused by physical states.
      My position is, that the physical states that are consciousness are not entirely, deterministically caused by prior physical states, but contain probabilistic elements, and that the probabilities of those probabilistic elements can be influenced by prior brain states.

      So there can be a real sense in which the operating consciousness can, at times, be free from direct causal influence of prior states.

      To the degree that one develops awareness of the many levels of impulse to action, and to the degree that one develops the ability to insert a gap between impulse and action, within which one can make a choice, then to that degree, one can have will that has a degree of freedom.

      And of course there will be influence, from all the many levels of biology, genetics, cosmology, culture, etc.
      And that influence does not appear to be entirely deterministic.
      Influential, certainly – necessarily so.

      So yes – you have part of it, in that it seems clear to me (as someone with 40 years of programming computers) that the pattern that is “will” can develop degrees of freedom from prior causes that allow it to be something not entirely predictable, not entirely following causal certainty, and something able to be some degree of cause in the state of existence, and not simply be caused by that existence.

      I am not proposing dualism.
      I am definitely proposing that hard causality – state n+1 always and only following from state n (without variance, ever) doesn’t seem to be how this universe actually works.
      It seems to be far more subtle and elegant than that, far more deeply, recursively, uncertain.

      It seems very clear to me that we can have causal thoughts – they do seem to be most common.
      It also seems very clear to me that we can have acausal thoughts, essentially random noise. They seem to happen also, though with lower frequency.
      And it does also seem possible that we can have thoughts that are strongly influenced by a degree of will that can become (over time, with practice) decoupled to a very significant degree from any sort of hard causal pattern, and can be said to have freedom (of a meaningful kind).

      We cannot have our thoughts before we have them, and we do seem able to develop degrees of influence over the nature of those thoughts.

      And it is a very complex set of systems – very subtle. It may have an instantaneous instantiation, and it has very little influence in the first instance (not nearly as much as it imagines). And over time, with repeated exercise, it does seem able to develop degrees of independence that are significant.

      Like

      • lettersquash says:

        ‘We are starting to get to the key issues of misunderstandings – I think.’
        – Yes. This is potentially good, but probably unfruitful.

        ‘I don’t think that conscious states are caused by brain states, I think it very likely they are brain states.’
        – Yes. This is an interesting point. I have said both before, that brain states cause and are conscious states. I think the issue is likely to be a semantic difference, rather than a fundamental difference between us, but of course I cannot know what you think. I use ’cause’ to imply that mental states do not have their own fundamental existence independent of physical states of the brain. It indicates the subjective quality of consciousness, where equating physical and mental states ignores the point that we are trying to explain. The same relationship is suggested (with differences) by the idea of ’emergence’ and ‘epiphenomenon’, and by common phrases like ‘the mind arises from the action of the brain’.

        I felt we were both on the same page here. However, your descriptions seem self-contradictory (perhaps just through a similar semantic flexibility). Below, for instance, you say, ‘My position is not that conscious states are not caused by physical states.’ It was a moment earlier. No wonder there are misunderstandings!

        ‘My definition of freedom isn’t about consciousness having no basis is reality, it is about being able to develop degrees of freedom from necessary prior causes. Having probabilities rather than hard causal certainty can do that.’

        – So you keep asserting, although I have no evidence of this yet. It seems at least unlikely that probabilities alter the causal-acausal dichotomy (something is, after all, caused or uncaused, by application of basic logic). I do not believe in your half-way house of influence. Influence may occur, of course, but its effects can only take the form of making something that was not going to happen happen, or something that was going to happen not happen.

        ‘For me, software is patterns of something, electricity, electrochemical, etc, in some physical matrix that can be changed by the presence of that pattern.’

        – This suggests that the physical matrix is separate from the ‘pattern’ of electricity, etc., and that the physical matrix is changed by the pattern. It would be good to clarify whether you mean this, or that the pattern of electricity is changed by the pattern of electricity. I’m guessing you mean the latter. I have been a programmer for 27 years, and not yet discovered software that re-configures the underlying hardware it is running on.

        This is where it is essential to tease out our meanings, because ‘software’ does not normally refer to anything physical, not electricity or chemicals. It normally refers to the pattern (as you say), which is why I described it as ‘mathematics’ and ‘information’ and pointed out that it was independent of the substrate. Of course, it may be reasonable to say that information or software cannot exist without being instantiated in a physical matrix, but the point of software is that the nature of the physical matrix is arbitrary – it can be moved, transcribed, translated into various languages, electricity, chemistry, marks with a crayon, holes in a card.

        I fear that however much we describe what we each thinks is hardware (or wetware) and what is software, you will invoke a process by which the one, software, changes hardware. And indeed I do not disagree with this, after all this analysis. My contention is merely that whatever ‘software’ might be, its existence and function are products of underlying systems, including whatever might be considered ‘hardware’, and thus whatever changes take place must follow the same causal-acausal processes. To add yet more complication, I doubt very much that it is very meaningful to separate brain function into software and hardware at all, and that the reality is probably much more fluid. This will, however, depend on how the terms are used. Since free will presumably depends upon conscious thought, this is what made me think you were referring to that as software, and its ability to change the hardware of the physical brain would have been a neat solution.

        I see brain function as completely physical, but presumably with some hierarchies of functions. Since any level in this hierarchy is of the same fundamental type – physical, and a function of prior states – it makes little difference to the nature of any feedback loops or downward causality between them, which I imagine probably takes place. I think this is an area of my thinking that you misunderstand. Computer programs can generate similar systems that feed back from subroutine to subroutine, changing the flow of the program, but none do so other than causally (or, theoretically at least, acausally). My x64 version of Windows 7 isn’t going to decide it would quite like to switch to 32 bits or upgrade to Windows 10.

        You also misunderstand me on this issue of acausal processes – I am happy to include them, so your repeated criticism of ‘hard causality’ is as irrelevant as they are to giving free will.

        ‘You do misunderstand me.
        My position is not that conscious states are not caused by physical states.’

        – As I pointed out, you said the opposite above.

        ‘My position is, that the physical states that are consciousness are not entirely, deterministically caused by prior physical states, but contain probabilistic elements, and that the probabilities of those probabilistic elements can be influenced by prior brain states.’

        – Indeed. Prior brain states. That is entirely what they are produced by, whether deterministically or otherwise. If there is some probabilistic element in there, that does not make them freely willed.

        ‘So there can be a real sense in which the operating consciousness can, at times, be free from direct causal influence of prior states.’

        – But you have in no way shown that. The use of the conjunction, ‘so’, is unwarranted, since the sentence does not follow from the previous one at all. If we are drilling down into your argument, this is where we’ve got to – somehow, you seem to imagine that probabilities create freedom from prior brain states in the formation of new brain states. You’re welcome.

        ‘To the degree that one develops awareness of the many levels of impulse to action, and to the degree that one develops the ability to insert a gap between impulse and action, within which one can make a choice, then to that degree, one can have will that has a degree of freedom.’

        – Or, since the above has not been supported by any proper argument or evidence yet, any ‘degree that one develops awareness’, etc., may be entirely governed by deterministic causality and/or pure chance (random functions, probability, call it what you will). People endlessly make these kinds of ignorant claim regarding free will – “I can suddenly just stop what I’m doing”; “I can change my mind”; “I can learn” – and they do so with the ill-conceived idea that these observations are evidence of actual free will rather than their habitual illusion of it that they’ve carried around with them from birth.

        ‘So yes – you have part of it, in that it seems clear to me (as someone with 40 years of programming computers) that the pattern that is “will” can develop degrees of freedom from prior causes that allow it to be something not entirely predictable, not entirely following causal certainty, and something able to be some degree of cause in the state of existence, and not simply be caused by that existence.’

        – You have now clearly invoked a brain pattern, evidently, as “will”. After weeks of discussing this, having never presented this belief, you spring it on me. Odd that. The rest then just asserts that it has the abilities it would need to be what you claim it is.

        Incidentally, not being predictable is also irrelevant. Completely deterministic systems can be unpredictable.

        ‘I am not proposing dualism.’

        – No, we’re past that. We’d have been done in a couple of replies if you were.

        ‘I am definitely proposing that hard causality – state n+1 always and only following from state n (without variance, ever) doesn’t seem to be how this universe actually works.’

        – And I thought we were past that. Have you been reading my replies at all? I’m sick to the back teeth of this straw man.

        ‘It seems to be far more subtle and elegant than that, far more deeply, recursively, uncertain.’

        – Recursive uncertainty is uncertainty, not free will.

        ‘It seems very clear to me that we can have causal thoughts – they do seem to be most common.
        It also seems very clear to me that we can have acausal thoughts, essentially random noise. They seem to happen also, though with lower frequency.’

        – And noise is noise, not free will.

        ‘And it does also seem possible that we can have thoughts that are strongly influenced by a degree of will that can become (over time, with practice) decoupled to a very significant degree from any sort of hard causal pattern, and can be said to have freedom (of a meaningful kind).’

        – Yes, ‘it seems’, ‘it seems’, ‘it seems’.

        ‘We cannot have our thoughts before we have them, and it we do seem able to develop degrees of influence over the nature of those thoughts.’

        – It seems you are unable to imagine that what you think is your development of influence over your thoughts may be causal-acausal, and not your free choice.

        ‘And it is a very complex set of systems – very subtle. It may have an instantaneous instantiation, and it has very little influence in the first instance (not nearly as much as it imagines). And over time, with repeated exercise, it does seem able to develop degrees of independence that are significant.’

        – Further insinuation that what seems to be so is, with an utter lack of evidence, and precious little development of an argument to support it.

        Like

  12. Hi John,

    My bad, changing semantics re brain states.
    I think we are fairly much in agreement that consciousness is in brain, not in anything outside of it.
    That was what I was trying to say with my poorly worded double negative.

    I thought we were getting somewhere, now we seem to have lost coherence.

    What does the word free mean to you?

    For me, free means not controlled by prior events.

    Now, to a degree, there must be some sort of influence of past events for any system to retain coherence, Full freedom in this sense leads to complete disorder.

    So freedom has to be limited, to allow complex systems like ourselves to exist.

    In terms of the biological significance (in evolutionary terms) of “will”, it can serve multiple functions, all very probably related to survival in some (perhaps round about) way.
    In terms of being engaged in a tournament, it is important that the will to quit is deeply hidden, and emerges only when it does, with no prior warning.
    In terms of a will to find food, it will tend to increase as some function of distance from last meal, size of last meal, recent expenditure of energy, expected likelihood of future famine, etc.
    Evolution can strongly select for many different kinds of context sensitive “will”, and seems to have done that in the case of human beings.

    So will is not a singular entity, but a very complex set of systems that have very different context sensitivities.

    In terms of the development of human awareness, it seems to be something that can go through multiple levels; with many different sorts of distinctions and abstraction. There does not seem to be any logical limit on the degrees of recursion possible – though in most people single digit integers are usually involved.

    Each level requires a certain minimum level of structure before the next level can be instantiated.

    Instantiating new levels does not remove the ones that were there previously.

    At these new levels of systems, all the old systems still exist, but their influence is no longer as strong as it was.

    And there is something of a delicate balance between allowing in the noise. the chaos, the novelty that can contain the new and potentially valuable, and having so much chaos that the system as a whole suffers and fails.

    Having a degree of chaos delivers a degree of freedom.
    Being able to have contextual control over the degree of randomness one invites in is important.
    That is a degree of influence, without being totally causal.

    Successive iterations of that process can create systems that while largely causal in themselves, do not have a strong predictable causal link to the past.

    Such systems have degrees of freedom.

    Do we still have genetics, with all their predispositions – yep – certainly – still present.
    Do we still have influences from culture – yep – them too.
    Do we still have influences from reality via our many sensory systems – yep – they’re there too.

    Can we develop internal systems that have degrees of freedom from any and all external causes?
    Yep – we can have them too.
    How do they manifest?
    As brain states.

    And the degrees of influence can be very context sensitive, as is common with many biological systems.

    I was a biochemist before I became a computer programmer.
    About the closest we come in silicon to software reprogramming hardware is in Field Programmable Gate Arrays. And silicon is hard crystals, carbon compounds (what biology uses) are much softer and more flexible and easier to move around (actually much harder to get to stay where you want them). So having software change hardware in biology is much easier that in silicon. Electric currents, electric fields, can and do alter the probabilities of chemical reactions.

    Freedom – the degree to which one is willing and able to explore the range of possibilities available and to modify the probabilities of selection, does seem to be a very complex suite of biological properties including hidden systems and randomness.

    Finding a balance in the recursive application of those systems is something of an art, and carries the necessary dangers involved in the exploration of any novelty.

    And one cannot be entirely free, as we all require the constraints necessary for us to maintain the levels of form that we have.

    It is not simple.
    It seems that it does involve complex largely causal systems, and it also has levels of uncertainty and unknowability – both can and must be present to deliver the sorts of entities we seem to be.

    So there is always a degree to which our past experience is part of our choices.
    And there is a degree to which we can use “noise” to disconnect that from hard causal predictability.
    And there does seem to be a degree to which we can, through a process of continual questioning, continual re-evaluation of probabilities, continual use of all the many levels of biological systems embodied within us, develop what is, by any reasonable measure, degrees of freedom of choice, even as those choices are embodied in the states of brain in the specific instants that they are.

    Yes it is a complex and messy set of systems – welcome to biology 😉

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