Sunday, December 2, 2007

Free Will?

by Elaine Walker, December 2, 2007
Current mood: contemplative

A good friend on the East Coast told me about a book called On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins, creator of the Palm Pilot and Treo smart phone, and said that I should read it. Just a few days later I got an email from a local futurist group about a talk that weekend about the same book. So I got myself a copy and attended the talk!

Jeff Hawkins is both a neurobiologist and a computer scientist - one of the rare people who has studied both the biology of the brain and computer neural networks with regards to artificial intelligence. The computer folks hit a brick wall with neural networks sometime in the 1990s, most likely because they did not study actual brains and have relied on computer modeling based on some incorrect assumptions. Biologists have collected more than enough data to show how various parts of the brain are responsible for specific tasks, but have failed to come up with an overall theory of how brains work. 

Hawkins understood the shortcomings of both sides and, focusing mainly on the neocortex, came up with his own theory of how brains work. It makes sense and is intuitive. To learn more about Jeff Hawkin's background and brain theory, watch this video.

The talk I attended was enjoyable. And by the way, I highly recommend the book!

After the talk, several of us hung around, drank beer and discussed brains.

We all clearly understood the premise of the book, which goes beyond neural networks and the usual neurobiology. The premise is that our neocortex, which blankets the brain, differentiates mammals from other vertebrates. It is assumed that the neocortex is responsible for the evolution of intelligence. 

The neocortex has several layers. Input from the outside world gets filtered through these layers and compared with past memories along the way via feedback loops. The memory comparisons become more and more detailed until a specific response is called for. Input that is mundane gets filtered and never enters the conscious realm.

For example, the feeling on the bottom of your feet while walking across a room closely matches many past memories of walking. Most instances of walking don’t call for any feedback response other than to keep walking along the same trajectory. Therefore, you continuously predict that the floor will remain flat and that your legs will keep walking. 

However, if your foot finds a hole in the floor, it gets compared to memories of stepping in holes. This triggers memories of tripping and falling. A response is then triggered to catch your balance. You suddenly become aware of your feet and the floor and your sense of balance so that you can attend to the task at hand.

There is much more to this, and much more to life than walking across rooms, but the point is that the book clearly explains a new theory on how brains work and it seems to cover all the bases. The ideas are very logical and satisfying for us futurists. We like to imagine that our brain functions might someday be fully understood.

All except one thing..

The idea of free will.

I did not imagine it was a topic that would come up in this meeting, nor was I expecting to hear the word soul coming from a group of futurists, but alas, it did. It turned out that I had very different ideas on free will than most of the others did. Jeff Hawkins clearly rejects the idea of mind-body duality, or that we have a "life force". Jeff states that those who believe these things have "fallen into the pit of metaphysical dualism". At least he agrees with me!


I'll admit that the idea of free will seems paradoxical. I've struggled with it for a long time and only recently - after reading On Intelligence - came up with a semi-satisfactory answer. Unfortunately, it was not satisfactory at all to my peers.

The problem lies here. If our brains really do perform a set of logical processes to do our "thinking", and it is scientifically explainable, then where does free will fit in? Even if there is some statistical randomness in our brains caused by quantum fluctuations, I don't believe randomness relates to free will. We can "will" a die to roll a 6 all we want, but it does no good. It's just plain ol' statistics.

Most people agree that they experience what feels like something beyond mere electrochemical reactions and neuron computations taking place when we think and feel - something like a "ghost in the machine" or dare I say "soul" that is the true decision maker. But to the contrary, that experience IS what it feels like to have electrochemical reactions and neuron computations. Or more to the point, those processes are so unfathomably complex that we can’t possibly be aware of every detail, and the ghost in the machine feeling is the residual effect. It has to feel like SOMETHING. Our brain does not have the function of transferring every detailed computation to our conscious level. This feeling of a soul, or ghost, or cloud, or - free will - is the exhaust, called consciousness. 

We can also agree that although we know it is happening, we don't FEEL our neurons firing in our brains. It is obvious that our brains are doing quite a lot that we won't directly feel and don't understand. What we do understand is that brain functions are extremely complex.

I believe that the feeling of having free will is a residual effect of how our brains work. Our own self-awareness has a built in illusion of free will. And stepping up the ladder, I believe self-awareness is an overflow effect of intelligence. The more intelligent a species, the more self-aware they are and the more they have a sense of free will. Ants have very little sense of free will because they are not very aware of themselves to begin with.

I don't want to get off on too much of a tangent with self-awareness, but I have a gut feeling that the idea of free will somehow works hand in hand with self-awareness. To put it simply, I believe the illusion of free will is necessary in order to have self-awareness. It's a package deal.

As a thought exercise, try to imagine a self-aware robot who is programmed to do stuff but has no concept of making decisions on its own. Would it be able to be self-aware? I don't think so. I think that self-awareness necessitates the feeling of free will.

I also have a gut feeling that most people will be appalled at my idea of what causes self-awareness to exist, and even more appalled by my conclusion that free will DOES NOT exist.

Please bear with me here.

Before you decide that I am a robot, I do believe that FEELINGS are real, the idea of LOVE is real, human interaction is entirely meaningful, that we are intimately connected with our environment, as well as most other touchy-feely human things you can imagine.

I think of it this way. As I stated above, our brains process information that comes in through our sensory organs, continually comparing input to past memories, reinforcing or modifying these memories and making predictions. Sometimes predictions call for an action, a decision, or a change in trajectory, the results of which get fed back into our brain and reevaluated. The continual processing of data, whether it surfaces in our conscious mind or subconscious, causes our actions or inactions, new memories, chemical changes in our bodies (feelings), or a combination thereof.

And in doing so, the unimaginably complex processing our brains perform as we make "decisions" certainly FEELS like free will.

But it's not.

Maybe it just feels like free will because it has to feel like SOMETHING and we cannot possibly be aware of the complexity that goes on to make even the tiniest decision.

If it's not free will, is it determined?

Yes, well, sort of. I have been calling my self a determinist, but just like any “ist” one can come to regret adopting that label. It’s complicated, and there are a couple/few things I need to address about so-called determinism.

Firstly, we are most obviously deterministic to an arbitrarily large degree on a macro level, meaning that we experience an extremely reliable cause-and-effect in our daily lives, in scientific experiments, in just about everything except quantum mechanics - the world of the unfathomably small. We also experience an extremely reliable phenomena we call time. It moves in one direction with the future appearing to be open ended, but when we look backwards in time, reverse engineering the universe, we come to the conclusion that time had a beginning. Or something like that. And if we reverse engineer the causal chain, in breaks down at that first moment. Even our language to describe the paradox breaks down. The question, What caused the first cause?, uses past tense. But past tense in our language is time related, and the question is referring to something that happend before time existed (whatever that even means).

but not pre-determined. I don't think the universe "knows" what will happen before it happens. Certainly not if random quantum fluctuations have anything to do with it. I think it is determined as it goes. There is the possibility that at some fundamental level, time has no directionality, but that is beyond the scope of this particular discussion - certainly worth discussing though.

At any given moment we have an infinite number of paths we can take in our lives. We can certainly imagine going back in time and performing much differently in our lives. surely all of us WISH we could. And if it were possible to pop back into an early time and redo things, if we had our current knowledge, we certainly WOULD come to different decisions. But I believe if we popped back without any knowledge of popping back.. if everything were exactly the same in the entire universe as it were the first time, the same outcome would result.

That is, unless quantum fluctuations have a hand in things, but again, that does no more to prove free will exists than the result of a die roll shows any sort of free will (beyond the "decision" to roll the die).

We have no free will, but certainly FEEL like we do, and somehow that is good enough for me.

In fact I think it's pretty darn cool that we are SO incredibly complex that we feel and think the way we do. I am amazed at what I am and feel a sense of pride about it.


Now I must address morality. At this point I bet that most people reading this are wondering how I feel about criminals, about hitler, about capital punishment for folks who according to determinism, have no choice in what they do. That is a tough one to swallow for sure! 

The answer is that we cannot think about it too simply. This is not a thought process for the weak minded. Grab a beer and loosen up those brain gears because they will need to grind a little.

I cannot forgive Hitler or child molesters or serial killers because I naturally am not built with the capacity to do so. Yes, even though I know that on a fundamental level they could not have acted differently.

Morality in our society has been contingent upon the knowledge that if we do something horrible it will most likely cause us to be "punished", meaning any number of things - to have feelings of guilt, regret, disgust, embarassment, to be looked down upon by others, or to literally be punished in some way. 

Positive actions are often rewarded. And over time we have evolved to feel a pleasing internal chemistry when we do a good act - feelings of wholeness, satisfaction, and love. This positive chemical reaction to "good" surely has a lot to do with evolutionary survival.

Because of this, over the millenia we have evolved a natural distaste for evil and a tendancy towards good. It's all relative, of course. We could discuss evolutionary psychology, society and politics, but that is way beyond the scope of this discussion.

The point is, even though our will is not free in the traditional sense, we are capable of learning, predicting outcomes to our actions, feeling emotions, and it all manifests itself into society via countless feedback loops in the form of observation and human interraction. 

Amazingly, the cycle of learning and predicting causes us to tend towards good and not in the other direction. Call me an optimist. My guess is that it boils down to the physical chemistry of love feeling better than hatred, to put it rather simply. 


In addition to all of this, I don't see any reason we should assume that our brains contain ghosts and that they aren't made up of the same stuff that the entire rest of the universe is made of, use the same laws of physics and belong to the same dimensionality. To me, using the term "free will" to explain away how our brains work seems no less of a cop-out than using the term "soul", or even "God" to explain how the universe began.


That said, I should get back to the futurist meeting and what the others thought of my explanation.

They, of all people, thought quite to the contrary - that we do indeed have free will. They explained how this is possible the same way I would expect a Christian to explain how a mystical God created the universe. I was taken aback by these futurists. These kind gentleman explained that they sense a mysterious, ghostly top layer in our brains that does our free willing. They were hesitant to call it a soul, but "ghost in the machine" sufficed.

What bothers me the most is that they didn't even try to define what they mean by "ghost in the machine".

Does God exist? Do we have a soul? Do we have a ghost in the machine?

I got a D in Philosophy class in college, probably as a result of my answer to "Does God exist?" on an exam. My answer was along the lines of, "I don't understand the question."

I don't understand these questions any more than my fellow futurists or religious folk do. The problem is that they don't realize they don't understand the questions. It just feels right so they accept it. The problem with understanding the question obviously lies with our lack of definition of the terms God and Soul.

What IS free will?

Beats me.

We don't have a proper definition of "free will" any more than we can do of "God" or "soul".

As far as I can tell, free will is just a very strange and subtle concept that offers nothing more than a nasty paradox for our gears to grind on.


I should point out that these very same futurists believe the definition of human self-awareness to be "what it feels like to have a human brain". I think our definition of "free will" should be something along those lines too - perhaps "what it feels like to process information in our brain."

As I stated before, "free will" is an illusion. An important and necessary one, but an illusion nonetheless. It's an illusion that is not going to go away any time soon, even if we know it to be true!

Here is an example of another type of illusion - albeit a much simpler one - that we simply cannot get rid of even though we know it to be illusory.

These spirals do not exist. They are really circles! Can you get rid of the illusion, knowing they are really a series of closed circles?

So what does it all mean? Why are we here if we are just computing devices with feelings and self-awareness?

Beats me!

All I can answer is that humanity's long-winded truth-seeking journey certainly FEELS mysterious and exciting, and for now at least, that is good enough for me.

In fact, it's wonderful!


So I asked this small futurist group, barring the idea of a soul, if they would be satisfied with some sort of UNorderly processes in our brains - randomness, quantum fluctuations, etc, that made decisions for us? I asked, "Would that qualify as free will?" Some - not all - answered yes, that if there is randomness, it explains where our free will comes from. 

To me that is nonsensical. But I was at a loss for words to straighten them out. Randomness (ie. indeterministic quantum fluctuations) may or may not take part in our brain processes, but it has nothing to do with free will. 

Admittedly, I have no Earthly clue what free will even means - I personally don't think it means anything at all. But it seems to suggest something comforting and empowering to most people. If you, dear reader, are a "randomness = free will" proponent, then please explain to me what is COMFORTING or FREE about indeterministic quantum fluctuations CONTROLLING your brain functions? 

I then posed a question to those who were opposed to the idea of randomness as free will. "If randomness doesn't suffice, and you're still convinced that free will exists, then what could free will possibly BE?" 

Pixie dust?

I should have reminded them that ideas such as mysticism and magic and god and souls date far back in time as a way to fill in our gaps of knowledge. As science progresses, god and magic get squeezed out. Religious doctrine is rewritten to make sense out of what is left. Those stories eventually have to be rewritten once again as more pixie dust gets squeezed out with the next scientific revolution. The gaps keep narrowing. 

The idea of using god and mysticism as a way to explain things is getting replaced with a newfound excitement in the idea of NOT knowing - having a Great Mystery as I call it, to reach for. Our curiosity is finally allowed to shine!

To take this a step further, while I'm on this tangent, why not go ahead and redefine the term God as The Great Mystery instead of just replacing it. That way, we won't have to bother taking God off our of dollar bills and out of the courtrooms and Pledge of Allegiance. Hey, why not? Christians redefined ancient Pagan holidays as Christian holidays - Winter Solstice became Christmas, Spring Equinox became Easter. Why don't we take it all back? We can do it kindly and gently, simply by using the word God to mean The Great Mystery.. the unknown that we can get closer to through scientific discovery.

Use science and curiosity to get closer to God! What a concept. 

However, the idea of a soul.. Throw that one out. 

For me it is enlightening to understand our surroundings and be liberated from the idea of souls, pixie dust, and even the paradox of free will! For most it is frightening. The fright is understandable since it has been reinforced by millions of years of human evolution. But the reluctance to grind their gears a bit and think things through makes me sad.

It used to be natural to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with mysticism, but it is no longer necessary. It used to be natural to fight and even to kill in our every day lives, and ancient man's lives depended on it! But nowadays, killing is something most of us reject. We have very similar bodies and similar minds as we did then. The reason we are different is because over many generations we have LEARNED.

God is out - The Great Mystery is in. The need for fear and hellfire as a driving force for morality is no longer necessary if we embrace the idea that societal feedback is the only true moral driver. It is driving us to ENJOY THE FEELING of morality and love and kinship more and more as the millennia go by. We are NATURALLY evolving into better creatures. Our Morality level over time is a bumpy curve that still allows war and serial killers, but it is continually tending towards a higher value nonetheless. It is a robust free market moral economy at its finest.

And the most exciting part is that a tendency towards morality is inherently built into our system. Most of us FEEL good when we DO good. Feedback in the form of good feelings causes us to want to do more good in the future. Others observe the person feeling good and may take note of their prior actions. Some may FEEL good when DOING bad, but this feeling is usually temporary and inevitably leads to uncomfortable feelings in the long run. People observe this and it permeates into society. Each individual forms new connections in their brains that reinforce our tendency towards good. Over time, we want to do more and more good. I suppose we have our chemistry to thank for this.

Don't get me wrong. We're not all saints yet. Even this kind of evolution takes multiple millennia. But it doesn't take free will. It CAN'T take free will. Free will doesn't mean anything.


Alas, I did not think of any of these things as we drank our beers and flatly disagreed on the idea of free will after the talk.

One man said he does not want to think that HIS BRAIN is computing HIS input and making HIS decisions for him. I believe this is the wrong way to think about it. There is no "he" that is separate from his "brain and body". "HE" IS his brain patterns. The word "mind" is another strange and subtle concept that is misleading. Your mind IS you, so the common phrase, "my mind is wandering" is cute but not accurate. Your mind IS you, just as your body is you.

That man was uncomfortable only because he does not fully understand and embrace his mind and body and self as being one discrete unit.

I get the sense that people are afraid of what they ARE instead of feeling a sense of pride. People are proud to be mothers and fathers and teachers and astronauts, but are they really proud to be human? We should feel pride in what we are - incredibly complex organisms that can take in the unimaginably dense data around us and make some sort of sense out of it, act upon things and feel love and curiosity as a result. And as hard as it is to see sometimes, we ARE evolving in an upward direction - to the stars, hopefully.

The bottom line is that whether or not we truly have free will in the traditional sense, we certainly feel like we do, so we can go on enjoying every decision we make as usual.

That said - I must clarify the previous sentence. I have said a couple of times here that we feel like we have free will. But the fact is, what was previously thought of as the feeling of free will, turns out to be the what it feels like to NOT have it. 

If I can feel the love and wonder of my life and hold these definitions to be true, then I believe you can too. I am happy and amazed that my brain does what it does to deal with myriads of information and predict the future so that I don't trip over every hole my foot comes across.

Copyright © 2007 by Elaine Walker. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given and author notified.