Thursday, 16 December 2010

Free will reprise

It's Christmas again. And among the regular festive highlights is our annual Biomodellers Christmas Lunch, a tradition that got off to a start in 2003. Anyway, it's normal at these events for alcohol-fuelled discussion to take a turn for the philosophical, and a regular topic for myself, APM and BS is that of (so-called) free will. By way of (biased) summary: they say "illusion"; I say "real, but I can be persuaded otherwise". Anyway, unless I'm bone-headedly mistaken, we're still in the phase of taking pot-shots at one another's ideas. However, one of the problems with our discussion is that it flares up only once or twice a year, such that the meat of it becomes attenuated and forgotten between skirmishes. To get around this, I present here some summary points to facilitate the return to (slightly) drunken hostilities next week.
  1. Stepping back from free will per se, the subjective component of consciousness itself remains singularly unexplained by current empirical science; what, for instance, is my subjectivity made from or projected onto? matter and energy alone don't obviously provide a substrate from which to weave it, at least as we currently understand them; this is, of course, as much a problem for me as for APM and BS, though I would claim it as evidence of "hidden variables"
  2. If subjective experience is simply a one-way phenomenon that is a functionally unnecessary bi-product of physico-chemical processes in our heads (i.e. akin to a real-time graph of the output of an underway computer simulation), then:
    • why is it so well-realised and coherent? (i.e. why not just a jumble of subjective phenomena);
    • why does it include features such as emotions that appear designed to channel behaviour in particular ways? (i.e. why is this necessary if things are one-way);
    • why does it include an overwhelming and well-developed sense of being "in control"? (i.e. what possible process can this sensation be an emergent property of)
  3. To try to tease BS's chain of thought out some more, regardless of whether one judges quantum systems as stochastic or cryptically deterministic (= "hidden variables"), if one subscribes to the "illusion" school of thought (ISOT), conscious decisions are either the necessary outcomes of a chain of molecular events, or random (with a dose of determinism) outcomes of the same; does this in any way square with the subjective experience of decision-making?
  4. Just to avoid any accusations of dualism (or, heaven forfend, mysticism), whatever it is I'm looking for, I expect it to be subject to physical investigation; I don't believe that this is currently true, since I'm arguing for "hidden variables", but I believe that one day this will come to pass
These are all much better (or, at least, more completely) covered elsewhere, but I hope this brief summary will allow us to short circuit the usual, time-consuming scene-setting and the misunderstandings that stem, doubtless, from my imprecise use of language. Still, I can hardly be blamed for this since, obviously, I'm merely a pachinko machine, albeit a somewhat complicated one ...

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