Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why we think we have free will

Simple answer: Because we can't completely model our own mind. Interesting conclusion that flows from that: We as individuals will always think we have free will, but to something that comes along that's smarter than us, which can completely model our minds, we will appear to be nothing more than fancy robots. Automatons.

Think about the things we say are "deterministic" or "don't have a choice". We say this because we know what the inputs and outputs will be. When you push a button, you know a computer is going to do a certain thing, consistently. Or... well, sometimes when you push a button, the computer crashes. Sometimes it crashes for no readily apparent reason at all, without you doing anything, and you get angry at Microsoft. But you do this because you assume someone, somewhere, made it so there's a reason this computer should crash, and that someone is an idiot because they just caused you to lose your spreadsheet. So since you think there's an understandable reason for everything a computer does, it doesn't have free will.

The systems we attribute choice to are the ones where the inputs and outputs are beyond our understanding. It used to be that a lot of the inputs and outputs to nature, and how they were processed, were very confusing to us. We didn't even have enough information to attempt to model them. So we said that God brought the seasons, and God made the sun come up and go down, and God, with His free will, decided who would live and who would die, who would get the black plague or be destroyed by earthquakes or volcanoes.

Now we're starting to understand a lot more about these systems, and build systems we know are deterministic in how they operate, but they seem to magically do things and we don't understand how. So it becomes a lot more plausible that the natural world has no "free will". That there are no free moral agents intervening in nature on our behalf. That there is no God, or that God is a deist God who doesn't fool around down here. But us? We're still free. Ask me why someone did something, and I can't give you a complete answer, but that's not a big deal because I can make assumptions and they are reasonably accurate. Except... those assumptions are never enough, people keep doing things that are so friggin' unexpected, that don't fit within my simplified model of how people think. Every time we try to explain human thinking in a deterministic manner, we fail, so there must be free will involved. Right? Right?

I think expecting us to be able to model ourselves, to fully understand the inputs and outputs to our own mind, is a logical impossibility. A model is a simplification. We can hold in our head a picture or an explanation of why we do what we do, but in order to encompass ALL of the inputs and outputs in our model, in order to fully explain ourselves, we would have to have a brain that holds everything in our brain and then some, which can't happen.

Since our model of ourselves (the one in our own head, anyway) will always be incomplete, it will always appear (to us) that we have a certain degree of freedom. But there will come a point where our model of ourselves in a book is close enough to complete that it will be most plausible to say we don't have free will. Because we'll be able to say "Ok, these were the starting circumstances, and this was the end result. Was that what our model expected?" And we look it up in a book, and the answer is always yes. Or we get two or more psychologists together, who together have the mental capacity to encompass the full model, and they can give us an answer as to why we did what we did, because together they have all of the pieces. Or a computer model, without our limitations of memory and processing speed, gives us consistent answers. This is the slightly scary one to me, because whoever owns that model will be able to make people do whatever they want, within the limitations of the things they can control, and the people will not have the capacity to understand how it's done. And away goes the idea of free will. The corporation that owns that model will know how to make you buy whatever it wants you to buy (or will know it can't make you buy it, at which point it will not bother trying to sell it to you). We're already seeing marketing approaches that have more knowledge of human psychology than most humans do, that know which "buttons" to "push" to make people buy despite their intentions not to... and those models will only get better. Our decisions will become less and less a matter of our free choices, and more and more a matter of influences deliberately imposed upon us by people (or computer models under the control of people) who understand how we work.

Does anyone have a reason why this can't happen, other than that you believe by faith in a book that says it can't? In other words, can you point out a flaw in my reasoning about why we think some things have free will and others don't, and why we think we have free will at this time, and the direction in which this debate is heading?


Myron said...

And yes, I know, on thinking about this further, I'm assuming it is possible to completely model the human mind, which is circular since I'm assuming what I'm trying to demonstrate.

But still, the evidence is mounting that more and more of what we do and how we think is predictable or understandable...

Also, if something I do is by free will, then by definition it doesn't have a physical explanation. But our chemical motivation system is fairly well understood (and there are drugs available to fool with it). So what we want to happen is already explainable by a physical process within our brains - opiates are released, which is our body's way of reinforcing some things as "good". If we can do that not just with behaviours, but with concepts that run through our heads (which I think we probably can - it feels pretty good to suddenly realize you've got a cool idea, for example, even though this only involves something that's going on in your head, and we have emotional responses to thinking about doing things in the future or having done things in the past, as well as actually doing them) then what we want (what determines our intentions) is already explainable physically.

paladin said...

He's alive! Woo-hoo! :)

I'll give your post some thought, and get back to you ASAP. BTW: thanks again for consuming so many of your blog's electrons in posting my "proof"; I've finally broken down, started my own blog, and saved my main "blabbering" for over there. Mind you, I'll still "haunt" your blog as frequently as I can! :)

In Christ,

Myron said...

Hi Brian!

Yeah, I'm alive. I've actually spent all day discussing this post on the forum I frequent. Some intelligent guys over there (I like Vynn and particularly Mooby). If you'd like to check it out, it's here. (You can view it as a guest without creating an account or anything).

I've learned that the argument I'm making here is a modified version of Laplace's demon, and spent some time discussing how stochastic ideas about the universe affect the concepts I've presented (and the idea of free will). I'm such a geek...

Michael Dowd said...


I like your line of thought, however, there is also another way to think about 'free will'. Here's how I talk about it briefly, on page 151 of my book, Thank God for Evolution (Viking: 2008):

Our neocortex, or new mammalian brain (highly developed in primates and dolphins; meagerly expressed in rabbits and tree sloths)...provides two powerful functional advantages over the reptilian and paleomammalian parts of our brain.

First, there is the scenario-building function. “If I do X, then Y might happen.” Scenario building and imaginative testing make it possible for actions to be “selected” within the brain. Thus actions can be tested safely within the mind before one actually makes a choice that is tested (and selected) by the world at large. As philosopher Karl Popper noted, “Ideas die in our stead.” Scenario building has obvious advantages, but the downside is that the process can be emotionally draining—that is, when we remain in a state of indecisiveness. And even after we make a decision and take action, so long as we keep wondering whether we may have made the wrong choice, scenario building is no comfort. Thus, a by-product of evolutionary advance is that the new mammalian brain generates an internal source of stress capable of magnifying the external stresses that the world sends our way.

Second, one has to choose between competing drives. As Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria hypothesize in their 2002 book, Driven, the imperative of having to choose between multiple, independent drives is what gives birth to free will. An understanding of evolutionary brain science thus demonstrates, far more compellingly than can any philosophical treatise of the past, that free will is real--very real. Big-brained mammals have the capacity to consider alternatives and thus choose among the oft en-competing reptilian and paleomammalian drives. For example, imagine that you are an elk or an antelope. Do you choose to go down to that succulent patch of grass near the thicket, or do you stay in the open where you can easily spot approaching predators but where the food is less appealing? (Competing reptilian drives: sustenance versus safety) Do you try to sneak a copulation with a female in the herd, even though that would put you at risk of injury by the big-antlered male who has claimed all the females for himself? (Competing reptilian drives: sex versus safety). Social mammals have additional drives that complicate their choices.

Imagine you are a monkey and that you are a member of a large monkey troop. Exploring on your own, you come upon a luscious patch of ripe fruit. Do you call out to your comrades to join in the feast, or do you decide to eat your fill in silence—and risk being caught as a defector? (Competing reptilian and mammalian drives: sustenance versus status)

Humans living in a world co-created by symbolic language face additional dilemmas unique to our species: Do I keep my sexual infidelity a secret and thus risk being found out and living in fear of being found out, or do I confess to my spouse and risk being shamed, shunned, or divorced?


~ Michael





Myron said...

Well now that's pretty freakin' cool! List a guy's book on the right hand side of your screen, and get him to drop by your blog. Who'd 'a thunk it? I think Thank God for Evolution is now moving to the top of my list... :)

The question I have, though, is whether our will is truly free, or just appears to be so for all practical intents and purposes within our daily lives. If our mind works like a machine, and physics works like a machine (so the inputs to our mind are predetermined) then the choices we will have available and the scenarios we will run in our heads, the drives that compete for supremacy and the strength of each of those drives at any given time, and ultimately which choice we will make, is predetermined as well.

I can only speculate about the existence or non-existence of "true" free will, and I agree we have apparent free will for all intents and purposes. What I wonder, though, is about how that integrates with the idea that "God has a plan for us all" and "everything happens for a reason", which some people seem to hold in addition to a belief in free will. To me, it seems like it has to be one or the other. Either we have free will, and so can mess with the plan of any God (unless of course that God is willing to intervene constantly and probably visibly to keep things on track, effectively taking away our free will by divine intervention) or God has a grand divine plan of which we are all a part.

Personally, if I had to choose, I'd like to hope that God has a plan. Because I'm rather ignorant, and I'd think if we as human beings have the ability to screw things up as we see fit, we're very likely to mess everything up quite spectacularly.

Hey Michael, if you come back and read this, aside from Thank God for Evolution, which books have you found particularly informative, and/or which ones have helped to form your current viewpoint the most? I'm the sort who is interested in the results of science and the implications for our world, and I think the idea of a God and the results of science are in principle compatible and complimentary (which is why your book is on my list), but I don't have a science background, so I often find myself wishing I had a deeper understanding of the topics I read about. Any recommendations?

Thanks again for posting!

paladin said...

Phooey... all the good posts get out up when I don't have any time!

I'm currently drowning in preparations for finals week (my students are likewise drowning, I'm sure), but one quick comment:

There's a difference between physical "causes" creating an "impulse" or "inclination" in us, versus those "causes" being direct *explanations* for this-or-that action. I think of some of the research into hypnosis (I don't have the citation handy--sorry!), where people who were given post-hypnotic suggestions certainly felt the *impulse* to do the suggested action, but some resisted the impulse (while others performed it). As such, the end result really couldn't be explained fully by the observable factors that were "poured into the mix"... since the same starting conditions yielded different results.

It'd be accurate to say that there is a very high apparent correlation between thus-and-so brain activity (or other chemical phenomenon) and a human thought, decision, action, etc.; but--as the old statistics saying goes--correlation does not imply causality. If an immaterial soul were acting within that body and triggering such biochemical phenomena as *effects*, there's be no easy way to verify or deny that. (And re: predictability, I think back to Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series, where such prediction could only be done reliably with arbitrarily *large* populations; I don't exactly know about *that*, but it certainly does seem more likely to predict the movement of a "herd" than to predict how a given person will react to this-or-thus stimulus...)