Monday, 15 March 2010

Free Will, 1

The other week BS engaged me in a further discussion of free will, but we came unstuck largely because my descriptions of my viewpoint are opaque and/or incomplete. So I'm going to try to outline them more fully here so that we can have another go.

First, though, I should just clear up why I'm interested in this at all. It certainly has no obvious connection to my professional interest in things planktonic. Instead, it just boils down to a desire to know what's right (= maximally accurate; I'm a scientist after all) about the most immediate of our impressions of the world. I don't actually care if I'm wrong in my views below, but I would like to know what the right (cf. clarification immediately above) answer is. As it happens, I don't expect a right answer to appear in my lifetime, but it would still be useful to know if (or where) my reasoning is completely off the mark.

Anyway, it actually might be best if I first characterise (potentially mischaracterise) what I understand of the mainstream alternative view. Essentially, this boils down to machines such as ourselves (and I'm happy to see us as machines) being the sum of stochastic and/or deterministic processes and nothing else. So, any appearance of freedom in our actions is actually the outcome of nothing more than vast numbers of atoms interacting according to the boring rules of classical physics or the random whims of QM. Of course, a purely deterministic system with no random elements (which, ironically, I believe the universe to be) can be sufficiently complex to prevent prediction, but such chaos is still fundamentally dull determinism. Essentially, a pachinko machine, however complex, is still a pachinko machine.

In this view, the currently known laws of physics are taken at face value, and since there is nothing in them to allow other influences on the material universe, that means there really is nothing out there that permits popular conceptions of free will. Of course, I would further argue that said currently known laws also have nothing in them to in any way explain my subjective experiences, free or otherwise. By this I mean that the qualia that I experience as an everyday fact of life are (as far as I understand) not included in any current model of physics. Of course, it's possible that we just don't yet see how they fall out of conventional physics, but they seem of such a different quality to other phenomena that I don't much rate this line of argument.

Instead, I interpret these latter points to mean that our knowledge is seriously incomplete, and that there are aspects of physics of which we are still ignorant (possibly even unknown unknowns). For instance, the existence of hypothetical "materials", such as the exotically-titled dark matter and dark energy, and our near-complete ignorance of their nature, is strongly suggestive of such gaps. Not, of course, that I would ascribe our subjective experiences to these alien properties (cf. His Dark Materials), since that's far too "god-of-the-gaps" for me to countenance. My argument here is instead that these are simply illustrative of the incompleteness of current physics, which, I'd add, is still stubbornly incomplete (and un-unified) even on the ostensibly well-understood topics of QM and GR.

So, by way of summary, I would caricature the mainstream interpretation of the world as follows:

  • At root, all processes are either stochastic (QM) or deterministic (classical) in origin
  • These uninfluenceable origins are then filtered up through, or compounded by, a long series of largely deterministic (classical) processes to give an extremely diverse set of outcomes (the richness of the universe)
  • One of these outcomes are the suite of qualia that we each subjectively experience, these are essentially emergent phenomena from underlying physical processes
  • Our (whatever "our" actually means here) relationship with these qualia is one of complete passiveness, with an influence similar to that of a cinema goer on the film being shown
  • However, one of these qualia is the perception that, unlike the cinema goer, we are free to influence events, but this is merely another facet of the emergent property that we each experience and label as consciousness

Anyway, this is all just background to soften up the territory for my resplendent arguments to wash over and conquer. Obviously.

While I naturally accept almost all of the above, my view is that a number of features of our subjective experience are glossed over in this treatment. I don't, for even a second, have any underlying explanation for these features, and I completely accept that I'm arguing from a position of theoretical weakness. In this regard, my position is not one that easily survives the application of Occam's razor. Worse, it evokes the spectre of dualism, and effectively puts me into compromising positions with a number of other dubious propositions. But I'm getting ahead of myself, or possibly just presenting my caveats ahead of time such that my main arguments are the last things read.

My stance is primarily a biological one, grounded in a handful of features that I find hard to ascribe to an utterly passive emergent phenomenon. First of all, and I've already made this point, I don't think that we should dismiss out of hand the difficulty of squeezing subjective experience into mainstream scientific understanding. This stands regardless of whether the rest of my argument does, though I'd cheerfully agree that my view has as much trouble with this as the mainstream does.

Secondly, our perception of possessing free will is an odd thing. Many (if not most) people take free will at completely face value, to the extent that this whole article will seem absurd (second only, perhaps, to the mainstream view of complete denial). Now, my point here is that one of our qualia is a highly developed sense of being in control. If we really aren't in control, then this is a singularly strange conviction. Particularly so when one considers how it might have evolved. If I absolutely cannot influence the world, then why on Earth has my mind been shaped so that an emergent property of it is the distinct impression that I can? Simply put, I clearly don't need this perception if I really can't control things. What's the worst I can do? Have a pointless metaphysical sulk?

Thirdly, there are a number of further aspects of our perception that exist to channel our behaviour in very particular directions, and which are clearly evolved. For example, we have qualia of pain and pleasure which strongly impose themselves on the rest of our perception, and encourage us to do things that, biologically speaking, are sensible. Pain obliges us to avoid situations that compromise our survival, while pleasure rewards us in situations that are beneficial, if not for us, then at least for the genes which built us. Again, the absence of any actual free will to control events would make these very strange adaptations.

By way of summary, it seems improbable to me that evolution should shape our subjective experience to include these sorts of features if they then play no role in subsequent events (beyond some sort of cinema experience for an ill-defined "self"). If consciousness truly were an entirely passive emergent phenomenon, it seems extremely unlikely to me that it would be such a faithful representation of the world, one which included carrots and sticks, and one which explicitly conveys the feeling of control. These bells and whistles would simply be utterly superfluous, so not something evolution would be able to finesse.

Of course, it could perhaps be argued that all of these aspects of consciousness could still be a by-product of the unconscious activity of deterministic processes in our brains. By firing in response to particular stimuli, neurons coincidentally create an emergent property which feels to us like consciousness (and, of course, actually is us). However, as before, I'd argue that, if anything, such a coincidental phenomenon would be unlikely.

Anyway, I'll pause here rather than drag this super-long post out much further. As I noted right at the start, my primary interest here is in being right. Not in the sense of the particular ideas expressed here being right per se, but more in ensuring that I'm not labouring under some misapprehension when the truth (well, a closer approximation to it) is already to hand. I'm not so wedded to the the thoughts above that I won't throw them over for a more complete explanation of our subjective experiences, but my understanding of "the opposition" is that it, too, lacks some key pieces of the puzzle. Unless I'm misunderstanding it, in which case I hope that someone will put me right.

1 comment:

APM said...

A more thoroughly pondered reply may follow but thought I'd send a few quick thoughts.

First your question of why the feeling of free will should arise through evolution. Can we rule out the fact that our apparent 'free will' is a bonus from a more important evolutionary adaptation. I seem to remember discussing this with you at the end of a long pub visit some time ago. Speaking as a totally ignorant non-biologist, I could suggest that a key aid in survival is imagination, the ability to realise that rubbing the sticks together produces something more useful than splinters and that a sharpened stick is useful for both catching fish and despatching a competitor. Might it be that what we perceive as free will is actually just a consequence of a sophisticated ability to assess the environs and work through potential dangers, benefits and solutions. It might be argued that the broader ranging, or free-er the calulations the better benefit.

This leads on to another of your points, regarding why we might have developed pain and pleasure sensations. This seems to be assuming that our conscious is outside our biological entity. If our consciousness is just a rather sophisticated computer then it is no surprise that we are aware of our senses relaying important information to it as it has clearly been developed to take a longer view than a simple reflex action.

Finally, just to clarify something, I'm uneasy with the argument that we don't know all of physics yet so there might be another explanation for free will as it seems to dodge the question. Your comment on it being extremely unlikely to have arisen by coincidence sails a little too close to concerns over the evolution of the eye too perhaps?