Free Will – Ted’s version

I’ve been responding to a lot of other people’s definitions of free will lately – here is my own:

In my understanding, free will can be very real, and it is rarely (if ever) absolute.

The understanding I have of free will is not classical.

All of my understandings are probabilistic, and I have to act in reality, and that usually requires that I act on what seems, on balance of considerations, to be most appropriate – and one of those “considerations” is the strength of “intuitions” (feelings in a sense).

As human beings, it seems probable that all of our understandings start from simple ideas, and expand to more complex things.
As an example:
When as children we first start thinking about temperature, it is just in terms of hot and cold.
By the time one gets to university level physics, one is dealing with the Kelvin scale of temperature, and the Quantum mechanical notion of the Plank limit on the lowest possible temperature that reality seems to allow (quantum mechanics seems to impose a prohibition on knowing both the position and momentum of a particle below a certain limit, and while that limit prevents the electrons of atoms collapsing into the nucleus under normal conditions, it also imposes a lowest possible limit of temperature for any particular type of particle – having no movement is not allowed).

In this sense, our brains seem to be very complex things, that come with a lot of behaviours given by the genetics of our bodies, and a lot more that we learn from the culture and experiences of our upbringing, and a few things that we discover and create for ourselves.

One of the ideas common in culture is the idea of causation – that every event is determined by causes.
That is a classical notion, and is a very good approximation to how things work at the normal scale of human perception.

A modern understanding quantum of mechanics modifies that classical notion of causation, and makes it more a matter of influence on the probability of an outcome.
So rather than there being a simple cause and effect relationship, it is much more like everything influencing everything else, with degrees of randomness thrown in, and nothing at all being absolutely 100% certain, even if some things very closely approximate it (99.999999999%) is more than close enough for most people (for an event happening every second, that would mean being confident of not seeing any exceptions to the rule in a thousand years), and some things can be much more certain, and some much less so.

We as human beings contain many complex systems in our biology and our cultures and our ways of thinking about things.
Even someone like me, who has been fascinated by the details of such things for 50 years, finds that the more I know, the more complex it becomes, and the more uncertainty there is at the margins.

And there are some ideas that seem to survive and reappear at every level of evolutionary context.

So I need to say a little about evolution, because it is not well understood generally.
Evolution by natural selection is very simple in a sense.
It requires only three things.
Something that can replicate;
An error rate in the replication process (or if looked at from the other end of that perspective, sufficient accuracy in the replication process);
Differential rates of survival between variants in different contexts.

Given those conditions, evolution happens.
Different things survive better in different contexts.

Where it starts to get really interesting is the sorts of things that happen in different contexts.

If things replicate and survive to the point that the survival of individuals is mostly a function of competition between them and “other individuals more or less like them” for resources, then such competitive environments tend to optimise for the simplest systems that work (simplicity results – usually).

If however the environment is sufficiently hostile that the greatest source of survival risk comes from factors outside the population (on average, over periods of hundreds of generations), then systems of cooperation can emerge, that allow individuals to better survive as groups working together against the external risk.

This idea can apply at any and all levels, from the atomic to the species to entire ecosystems to cultures and beyond.

And such raw cooperative systems are always vulnerable to exploitation from strategies that “cheat” on the cooperative, so there will always evolve a sort of secondary strategic “arms race” between detection and exploitation strategies, which can lead to the emergence of new levels of strategy again, of the sort categorised by Elinor Ostrom and her team, that allow for cheats that have been identified to be rehabilitated and bought back into the cooperative.

And this sort of pattern, of cooperation and cheating and anti-cheating strategies, can repeat at different levels, recursively – over and over again.

When we look at modern human beings, in advanced cooperative cultures, we see about 20 levels of such things, as well as very complex sets of “cheating” (non-cooperative in a universal context) strategies.

So that is one context to hold in mind, evolution having both competitive and cooperative aspects, and all new levels of complexity being based in cooperative systems, and those systems being eternally vulnerable to exploitation, and there being a need for eternal vigilance (all levels, both internal to us each as individuals and in the wider societies {cooperative groups} of which we are part).

Another important context is strategic – the idea of winning games, of competing with others, and the need that all competitors in the evolutionary “war” face, of not just winning the battles, but ultimately winning the war of leaving more offspring than others (be they physical offspring or more intellectual offspring – in the ideas and ways of being that go on to survive and become important in the future of humanity and life more generally – be it in culture, in art, in science, in technology, or any aspect of transmissible information or pattern in action).

In a tournament, a game, it is not just winning a single game that is important, but also the end game, the survival and propagation. In some species once the act of mating takes place, the male is redundant. In some species of insect the female eats the male even as they are copulating. That is a rather extreme end of the spectrum. In most mammals, there are repeated tournaments necessary, and rather less extreme strategies are required. In such “tournament species” there can be very strong selection pressure for individuals not to know ahead of time how far they will go in any particular contest, for if they “knew”, they might betray that information to their opponent in some way, and thus lose the match.
In species where both parents are required to raise the young through an extended childhood, then it is very important that matches do not normally lead to serious injury.
Thus there is strong pressure to evolve complex signaling mechanisms and complex cooperative behaviours that avoid serious injury in most cases.

So the sort of complex animal we are has very strong pressures to cooperate, many levels of cheat detection strategies, many levels of systems evolved to return cheats to cooperative activity, and many levels of motivation within us that are hidden from our conscious awareness.

In such complex systems, ideas like freedom are far from simple.

Any attempts to make an idea like freedom into something simple will very likely lead to far from optimal outcomes.

So what might freedom mean, in highly evolved, very intelligent, cooperative, competitive, social primates like us?

Does it really make any sense for freedom to mean simply a removal of restraints so that we can follow the oldest and least changed of hidden systems within us (our urges, emotions, intuitions, etc)?

Surely that cannot be useful.
And most certainly we need to be conscious of those things, aware of the messages they are conveying to us, and willing to explore new levels at which those messages may have meaning.

So I am not saying we ought to ignore our feelings, and I am saying that freedom cannot mean simply following our feelings.

So what about intellect?
What about the rules of culture, of science etc?

What is the place of those things?

Ancient cultures believed in the truth of declarative judgments.
If a ruler said you were something, then you were that something (guilty, innocent, slave, free, citizen, exile, whatever).

Most modern individuals are skeptical of such claims – all levels.

Early scientists believed that the Truth was knowable, and that wise men knew it.

People like myself, who have spent time exploring evidence for ideas like evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, and have spent a bit of time exploring abstract realms of systems, mathematics, information, strategy, etc; mostly come to an understanding that all of our personal subjective experience is of a subconsciously generated model of reality, and never of reality itself. In this sense, we are, each and every one of us, isolated from objective reality by the machinery of our bodies, brains, minds, cultures, distinctions and abstractions, at exactly the same time as those same mechanisms give us the approximations to reality that we have – our subjective experience.

Once one starts to see that, to see that our realities are a kind of virtual reality created by evolutionary pressures in both physical and cultural contexts, then we can see the need to relax our notions of “Truth” and accept that however useful and reliable our understandings have proven to be, they are most likely only some sort of useful approximation to something far more complex, an approximation that has been useful in the particular contexts of our past, and may not necessarily be so useful in our rapidly changing present and future.

So where does freedom sit in this?

Is freedom a freedom to exist?
Is freedom a freedom of action?
Is freedom a freedom of thought?

How do these different aspects impact each other?

From a systems perspective, all levels of systems require boundaries for existence.
Without such boundaries, everything returns to an even level of chaos (something like the cosmic background radiation).

So freedom cannot be an absence of restraint, for the freedom to exist demands a minimal level of restraints be present.
Without those boundaries, existence itself is at risk.

So how, with all the fundamental uncertainties of understandings, models, quantum mechanics etc, do we make determinations about just what such a minimum set might be, and how might it change over time and context?

Those are two very powerful questions, and both seem to be subject to exponential development across multiple dimensions.

What is freedom of action?

There are two major aspects to this question, that are both fundamentally tied to the notion of free will.

One is the nature of the choices available to us.
The other is the degrees of freedom we have to choose between those options we experience as being available.

Both seem to be related, but before getting too deeply into the relationship, it might be worth looking at each individually for a bit.

No-one expects a newborn infant to be able to drive a car safely.
We all understand that one needs to display levels of distinction, awareness and competency before being given levels of freedom.
Each of us as individuals must start with simple distinctions, simple sets of options, and things get more complex from there as we make ever more distinctions, more subtlety of patterns and get some sort of idea about the sorts of relationships that can and do exist and are important in the contexts.

For some people, the options available to conscious awareness are given by the rules they have learned, for others it is more about the intuitions that their subconscious neural networks make available, and indicate through various levels of “feeling” as being important. For all of us, there are many levels of such subconscious filtering of the options available (whether or not we are consciously aware of them as such).

Where along that spectrum we each strike a balance in any particular context is a matter of personal preference in a sense, and this very idea of freedom is something of an exploration into the many influences that exist upon the sorts of preference we exhibit in any given situation.

And there can be a bit of a “dog chasing its own tail” aspect to the exploration of preference.

To the degree that we allow a little chaos to give us a degree of separation from hard causality, to the degree that we develop a pattern that most certainly had influence from the past, but has no hard causal connection to the past, and to the degree that we use that pattern to create gaps in the otherwise causal patterns of our being, then to that degree we do seem to have the possibility of choice, and the presence of free will.
And there must always be relationship, influence, connectedness – and it need not be of the hard, deterministic, predestined kind.

So to me, free will lives in that boundary zone, neither entirely free, nor entirely deterministically related to the past, and always necessarily related to the past in some sort of probabilistic sense.

And with many layers and levels of systems, with many ways of invoking the purely random when one chooses, then one can act in ways that are entirely novel, and not predictable in any absolute sense, in any sense beyond the probabilistic.

Accepting that, embracing that, seems to be fundamental to freedom.

About Ted Howard NZ

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

  1. Pingback: Do I need to define my purpose? | Ted Howard NZ's Blog

  2. Pingback: Free Will again – Trick thread continues – Updated 30 April 2018 | Ted Howard NZ's Blog

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