Some thoughts on complexity and human consciousness

A couple weeks ago, I decided to take out the trash. On the way to the trash can, I thought, “I should clean out the kitty litter.” Started to clean the litterbox, and thought, “No, actually, I should completely change the litter.” Started changing the litter, then realized that the cat had dragged some of it out on the floor. “Ah, I should get out the vacuum,” thought I.

Next thing you know, I’m totally cleaning the apartment, one end to the other.

On my way out to the dumpster, I started thinking about hourglasses. And that’s really what this post is about.


If you have ever watched the sand falling in an hourglass, you know how it goes. The sand in the bottom of the hourglass builds up and up and up, then collapses into a lower, wider pile; then as more sand streams down, it builds up and up and up again until it collapses again.

I don’t think any reasonable person would say that a pile of sand has consciousness or free will. It is a deterministic system; its behavior is not random at all, but is strictly determined by the immutable actions of physical law.

Yet in spite of that, it is not predictable. We can not model the behavior of the sand streaming through the hourglass and predict exactly when each collapse will happen.

This illustrates a very interesting point; even the behavior of a simple system governed by only a few simple rules can be, at least to some extent, unpredictable. We can tell what the sand won’t do–it won’t suddenly start falling up, or invade France–but we can’t predict past a certain limit of resolution what it will do, in spite of the fact that everything it does is deterministic.

The cascading sequence of events that started with “I should take out the trash” and ended with cleaning the apartment felt like a sudden, unexpected collapse of my own internal motivational pile of sand. And that led, as I carried bags of trash out to the dumpster, to thoughts of unpredictable deterministic systems, and human behavior.


The sand pouring through the hourglass is an example of a Lorenz system. Such a system is a chaotic system that’s completely deterministic, yet exhibits very complex behavior that is exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions. If you take just one of the grains of sand out of the pile forming in the bottom of the hourglass, flip it upside down, and put it back where it was, the sand will now have a different pattern of collapses. There’s absolutely no randomness to it, yet we can’t predict it because predicting it requires modeling every single action of every single individual grain, and if you change just one grain of sand just the tiniest bit, the entire system changes.

Now, the human brain is an extraordinarily complex system, much more complex both structurally and organizationally than a pile of sand, and subject to more complex laws. It’s also reflexive; a brain can store information, and its future behavior can be influenced not only by its state and the state of the environment it’s in, but also by the stored memories of past behavior.

So it’s no surprise that human behavior is complex and often unpredictable. But is it deterministic? Do we actually have free will, or is our behavior entirely determined by the operation of immutable natural law, with neither randomness nor deviance from a single path dictated by that immutable natural law.

We really like to believe that we have free will, and our behavior i subject to personal choice. But is it?


In the past, some Protestant denominations believed in pre-ordination, the notion that our lives and our choices were all determined in advance by an omniscient and omnipotent god, who made our decisions for us and then cast us into hell when those decisions were not the right ones. (The Calvinist joy in the notion that some folks were pre-destined to go to hell was somewhat tempered by their belief that some folks were destined to go to heaven, but on the whole they took great delight in the idea of a fiery pit awaiting the bulk of humanity.)

The kind of determinism I’m talking about here is very different. I’m not suggesting that our paths are laid out before us in advance, and certainly not that they are dictated by an outside supernatural agency; rather, what I’m saying is that we may be deterministic state machines. Fearsomely complicated, reflexive deterministic state machines that interact with the outside world and with each other in mind-bogglingly complex ways, and are influenced by the most subtle and tiny of conditions, but deterministic state machines nonetheless. We don’t actually make choices of free will; free will appears to emerge from our behavior because it is so complex and in many ways so unpredictable, but that apparent emergent behavior is not actually the truth.

An uncomfortable idea, and one that many people will no doubt find quite difficult to swallow.

We feel like we have free will. We feel like we make choices. And more than that, we feel as if the central core of ourselves, our stream of consciousness, is not dependent on our physical bodies, but comes from somewhere outside ourselves–a feeling which is all the more seductive because it offers us a way to believe in our own immortality and calm the fear of death. And anything which does that is an attractive idea indeed.

But is it true?


Some folks try to develop a way to believe that our behavior is not deterministic without resorting to the external or the supernatural. Mathematician Roger Penrose, for example, argues that consciousness is inherently dependent on quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics is inherently non-deterministic. (I personally believe that his arguments amount to little more than half-baked handwaving, and that he has utterly failed to make a convincing, or even a plausible, argument in favor of any mechanism whatsoever linking self-awareness to quantum mechanics. To me, his arguments seem to come down to “I really, really, really, really want to believe that human beings are not deterministic, but I don’t believe in souls. See! Look over there! Quantum mechanics! Quantum mechanics! Chewbacca is a Wookie!” But that’s neither here nor there.)

Am I saying that the whole of human behavior is absolutely deterministic? No; there’s not (yet) enough evidence to support such an absolute claim. I am, however, saying that one argument often used to support the existence of free will–the fact that human being sometimes behave in surprising and unexpected ways that are not predictable–is not a valid argument. A system, even a simple system, can behave in surprising and unpredictable ways and still be entirely deterministic.


Ultimately, it does not really matter whether human behavior is deterministic or the result of free will. In many cases, humans seem to be happier, and certainly human society seems to function better, if we take the notion of free will for granted. In fact, and argument can be made that social systems depend for their effectiveness on the premise that human beings have free will; without that premise, ideas of legal accountability don’t make sense. So regardless of whether our behavior is deterministic or not, we need to believe that it is not in order for the legal systems we have made to be effective in influencing our behavior in ways that make our societies operate more smoothly.

But regardless of whether it’s important on a personal or a social level, I think the question is very interesting. And I do tend to believe that all the available evidence does point toward our behavior being deterministic.

And yes, this is the kind of shit that goes on in my head when I take out the trash. In fact, that’s a little taste of what it’s like to live inside my head all the time. I had a similar long chain of musings and introspections when I walked out to my car and saw it covered with pollen, which I will perhaps save for another post.

64 thoughts on “Some thoughts on complexity and human consciousness

  1. A question I was recently asked (I think it was OkCupid):

    If you were given undeniable proof of whether free will exists or not, would you share it with the world?
    a) Yes
    b) No
    c) Only if it said there was no free will
    d) Only if it said there was free will

    It really made me think about how free will, whether it exists or not, permeates our thinking as a society.

    • The question is flawed, or else the answer lies in the question. If free will does not exist, this is not a determination a person can make nor have any control over. For the question to have any meaning, I would have to assume that free will does exist, and although I’d be willing to share it, I’m pretty sure that those who disbelieve in free will would remain mostly unchanged in number, regardless of the nature or comprehensibility of the proof. Those who maintain false beliefs rarely yield them, no matter the circumstances. [insert “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!” joke here] – ZM

    • To some extent, I think that answer “d” lies on the foundation that the comforting lie is preferable to the uncomfortable truth. This same reasoning is occasionally used to justify religious faith as well, and I don’t find it terribly compelling in any case.

  2. A question I was recently asked (I think it was OkCupid):

    If you were given undeniable proof of whether free will exists or not, would you share it with the world?
    a) Yes
    b) No
    c) Only if it said there was no free will
    d) Only if it said there was free will

    It really made me think about how free will, whether it exists or not, permeates our thinking as a society.

  3. I am grateful that your head is as crazy — and thought provoking — as it is.

    Mine is just as crazy, but the jumble doesn’t organize itself nearly so well. Just one of the many reasons I enjoy your posts.

  4. I am grateful that your head is as crazy — and thought provoking — as it is.

    Mine is just as crazy, but the jumble doesn’t organize itself nearly so well. Just one of the many reasons I enjoy your posts.

  5. The question is flawed, or else the answer lies in the question. If free will does not exist, this is not a determination a person can make nor have any control over. For the question to have any meaning, I would have to assume that free will does exist, and although I’d be willing to share it, I’m pretty sure that those who disbelieve in free will would remain mostly unchanged in number, regardless of the nature or comprehensibility of the proof. Those who maintain false beliefs rarely yield them, no matter the circumstances. [insert “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!” joke here] – ZM

  6. The fun thing is this: whether you think it’s deterministic or governed by some undefined “free will” affects the processing of your brain.

    And, from what I’ve seen of cognitive therapy techniques, sometimes you’ll do better to see it one way, and sometimes you’ll do better to see it the other.

    I’ll need to flesh that out and find my sources before I can really make a stand on that, and go look some stuff up. But I like the idea that the view of whether the system is clockwork or not is another gear in the clockwork.

  7. The fun thing is this: whether you think it’s deterministic or governed by some undefined “free will” affects the processing of your brain.

    And, from what I’ve seen of cognitive therapy techniques, sometimes you’ll do better to see it one way, and sometimes you’ll do better to see it the other.

    I’ll need to flesh that out and find my sources before I can really make a stand on that, and go look some stuff up. But I like the idea that the view of whether the system is clockwork or not is another gear in the clockwork.

  8. . (The Calvinist joy in the notion that some folks were pre-destined to go to hell was somewhat tempered by their belief that some folks were destined to go to heaven, but on the whole they took great delight in the idea of a fiery pit awaiting the bulk of humanity.)

    But damn can those people make a lovely picnic potato salad.

  9. . (The Calvinist joy in the notion that some folks were pre-destined to go to hell was somewhat tempered by their belief that some folks were destined to go to heaven, but on the whole they took great delight in the idea of a fiery pit awaiting the bulk of humanity.)

    But damn can those people make a lovely picnic potato salad.

  10. I seem to recall an article of yours from awhile back talking about whether or not human beings count as part of nature, the gist being that they really do when many people assume they don’t. I think there’s a parallel to be made here. But, since my workday is over and I want to go home, I’ll provide the “short” version.

    Ever watch The Thirteenth Floor? Or played Portal? Without spoiling much, both deal with the concept of a confined, controlled experiment whose confines fall apart – and as a direct result, the experimental controls are thrown out the proverbial window. I see no functional difference other than sense of scale that separates the experiments of a scientist from the natural goings-on of the universe, so that coupling holds: I believe that free will and sentience are the same thing. To lack free will is to ultimately have no control over what one does, which implies not having acquired the tools to do so, which implies not properly understanding the complete nature of one’s world – which contains oneself. To be self-aware is not merely to be knowledgeable of one’s status as a jigsaw puzzle piece, or even where in the puzzle it’s presently fitting; it requires knowing how the pieces can be manipulated and how they interlock. [insert clever analogy to artificial intelligence here]

    I believe it makes sense to discuss levels of sentience, and correspondingly, levels of free will! That is to say, there is that which we are fully cognizant of and able to influence, and there is that of which (of a more “fundamental” nature) we are not. This varies, species by species, and (at least for complex species) organism by organism. The endpoint of science is to be able to understand everything in the universe perfectly, at which point we can begin to make our own instances of universes and adjust the variables. This concept – the ability to sit outside of nature, watch it, and manipulate it; the ability to somehow progress beyond these domains with deterministic elements, into a realm where there is ONLY free will – is rather aptly named “transcendence”. Quite possibly, the greatest indicator of how much free will any individual currently has is how capable of transcendence they feel!

    As you are a transhumanist, I can probably sum this up very quickly: since the universe tends towards chaos, how is it that science tends towards order? That’s free will in effect – the net total of all progress achieved by all sentience, steadily encroaching on the deterministic world around us. – ZM

  11. I seem to recall an article of yours from awhile back talking about whether or not human beings count as part of nature, the gist being that they really do when many people assume they don’t. I think there’s a parallel to be made here. But, since my workday is over and I want to go home, I’ll provide the “short” version.

    Ever watch The Thirteenth Floor? Or played Portal? Without spoiling much, both deal with the concept of a confined, controlled experiment whose confines fall apart – and as a direct result, the experimental controls are thrown out the proverbial window. I see no functional difference other than sense of scale that separates the experiments of a scientist from the natural goings-on of the universe, so that coupling holds: I believe that free will and sentience are the same thing. To lack free will is to ultimately have no control over what one does, which implies not having acquired the tools to do so, which implies not properly understanding the complete nature of one’s world – which contains oneself. To be self-aware is not merely to be knowledgeable of one’s status as a jigsaw puzzle piece, or even where in the puzzle it’s presently fitting; it requires knowing how the pieces can be manipulated and how they interlock. [insert clever analogy to artificial intelligence here]

    I believe it makes sense to discuss levels of sentience, and correspondingly, levels of free will! That is to say, there is that which we are fully cognizant of and able to influence, and there is that of which (of a more “fundamental” nature) we are not. This varies, species by species, and (at least for complex species) organism by organism. The endpoint of science is to be able to understand everything in the universe perfectly, at which point we can begin to make our own instances of universes and adjust the variables. This concept – the ability to sit outside of nature, watch it, and manipulate it; the ability to somehow progress beyond these domains with deterministic elements, into a realm where there is ONLY free will – is rather aptly named “transcendence”. Quite possibly, the greatest indicator of how much free will any individual currently has is how capable of transcendence they feel!

    As you are a transhumanist, I can probably sum this up very quickly: since the universe tends towards chaos, how is it that science tends towards order? That’s free will in effect – the net total of all progress achieved by all sentience, steadily encroaching on the deterministic world around us. – ZM

  12. My impression from reading The Emperor’s New Mind wasn’t that he was arguing for free will, but rather he was arguing that intelligence isn’t computable. I don’t believe that computability implies a lack of free will myself, and I’m not sure Penrose believes otherwise.

    Personally, I think his argument sucked. The only change I’d make in your characterization would be s/deterministic/computable/ and s/quantum mechanics/quantum gravity/. The latter mainly because he spends a great deal of time showing that quantum mechanics and general relativity are both computable. QG must not be computable, because intelligence isn’t computable….

    • He really does seem to want to believe that consciousness isn’t computable, in spite of the fact that our brains are computational state machines. I don’t find his invocation of quantum effects compelling at all, not only because he can’t propose a mechanism by which brains rely on quantum effects but also because he seems to believe that computers can’t, which isn’t necessarily true. Obviously, it can be demonstrated that about four pounds of meat can replicate the function of the brain (ahem!), so there’s no reason to suppose that some other physical processes can’t do likewise.

      Of course, a self-aware computing machine will probably have significant architectural differences from the computer sitting on your desk. But that’s just a matter of engineering detail.

  13. My impression from reading The Emperor’s New Mind wasn’t that he was arguing for free will, but rather he was arguing that intelligence isn’t computable. I don’t believe that computability implies a lack of free will myself, and I’m not sure Penrose believes otherwise.

    Personally, I think his argument sucked. The only change I’d make in your characterization would be s/deterministic/computable/ and s/quantum mechanics/quantum gravity/. The latter mainly because he spends a great deal of time showing that quantum mechanics and general relativity are both computable. QG must not be computable, because intelligence isn’t computable….

  14. I tend to suspect that free will and determinism can co-exist, and that my brain just isn’t sophisticated enough to really grasp that complexity.

    It’s one of the reasons I really liked your fractal unhappiness post actually, since the Mandelbrot set is the best analogous representation I can think of for a universe that can contain both free-will and determinism, with its finite area and infinite variety.

    And thank you for an awesome Saturday morning read!

  15. I tend to suspect that free will and determinism can co-exist, and that my brain just isn’t sophisticated enough to really grasp that complexity.

    It’s one of the reasons I really liked your fractal unhappiness post actually, since the Mandelbrot set is the best analogous representation I can think of for a universe that can contain both free-will and determinism, with its finite area and infinite variety.

    And thank you for an awesome Saturday morning read!

  16. I don’t think free will and determinism are mutually exclusive. “Free will,” to me, means “Given a situation, I am capable of making a decision whose motivations are clear and sensible to me.” How else could you define it? “Given a situation, I am capable of making a decision that is not influenced or controlled completely by an outside force.” But then we start walking down the road of the nature vs. nurture debate, and where I end and the space around me begins.

    I believe in the determinism you described. The seeds of the future are sown in the past. I believe that everything that has happened, is happening, or will ever happen, couldn’t possibly happen a different way, because of the configuration of atoms and minuscule whatnot at the beginning of time. However, this has very little bearing on my life, because I still have free will. My actions, while determined completely by the “beginning configuration” long ago, are still a function of my motivations and beliefs.

    This ties into the pride/blame question I posed to you a few months ago. If you’re an excellent human being and I’m harmful social refuse, is it really Your Fault? Is it really My Fault that I’m a terrible person, if we are helplessly following the Grand Scheme determined at the beginning of the time?

    Like you suggested, the scissor to the gordian knot is free will. Once you realize that determinism, whether it exists or not, has no bearing on your ability to change your surroundings, you are responsible for yourself in a way that you weren’t capable before.

  17. I don’t think free will and determinism are mutually exclusive. “Free will,” to me, means “Given a situation, I am capable of making a decision whose motivations are clear and sensible to me.” How else could you define it? “Given a situation, I am capable of making a decision that is not influenced or controlled completely by an outside force.” But then we start walking down the road of the nature vs. nurture debate, and where I end and the space around me begins.

    I believe in the determinism you described. The seeds of the future are sown in the past. I believe that everything that has happened, is happening, or will ever happen, couldn’t possibly happen a different way, because of the configuration of atoms and minuscule whatnot at the beginning of time. However, this has very little bearing on my life, because I still have free will. My actions, while determined completely by the “beginning configuration” long ago, are still a function of my motivations and beliefs.

    This ties into the pride/blame question I posed to you a few months ago. If you’re an excellent human being and I’m harmful social refuse, is it really Your Fault? Is it really My Fault that I’m a terrible person, if we are helplessly following the Grand Scheme determined at the beginning of the time?

    Like you suggested, the scissor to the gordian knot is free will. Once you realize that determinism, whether it exists or not, has no bearing on your ability to change your surroundings, you are responsible for yourself in a way that you weren’t capable before.

  18. It might be clearer to state my opinion like this: You used law as a lens through which to view free will’s effects on our lives. If someone hits the wall of free will, which dictates that we are culpable for our actions, and says, “I didn’t kill that man out of free will–I’m just a cog in the giant deterministic mechanism that is the universe,” that itself is a decision. Our ability to contemplate free will is, itself, proof of free will’s existence. That is, if you understand free will, you possess it. That’s what I think.

    For the sake of thoroughness, the killer in the previous paragraph could conceivably lack a real understanding of free will, and in that sense, it would be true that he was “just a cog” in the universal machine. However, that would be indicative of a deeper neurosis therein.

    • You’ve touched on something that is absolutely true–society, to function, relies on the notion of free will. When one person commits a crime, we don’t say “This person is a broken machine,” we say “This person made harmful and destructive choices,” and react accordingly.

      Thought that doesn’t necessarily bear on the question of free will. A belief in free will does not necessarily determine free will; the belief itself might also be the inevitable outcome of complex deterministic processes. Which is, of course, exactly the point of this entry. πŸ™‚

      • This seems to me to be a point that a society capable of creating a mind via what would now be regarded as an artificial process would have to address.

        Right now, a person whose mind is running on four pounds of intricately organized meat is difficult to repair. There are some statistical links between certain types of brain damage and certain types of criminal behavior. For example, damage to the frontal lobes can affect cognition regarding the consequences of future actions or make it difficult to suppress socially unacceptable actions. Some socially unacceptable actions with future consequences are crimes. This is not, obviously, a complete causative link, nor should it be construed that all criminals are brain damaged, but certain types of damage can affect the person’s choices.

        Since we cannot at this point repair the brain to any really significant or precise degree, and some previous attempts have had consequences verging on atrocious (the rather wide application of frontal lobotomy in the 1950s and 1960s springs immediately to mind (much as I wish it wouldn’t)). However, with a more complete understanding of the brain, the ability to repair this sort of damage with greater precision and delicacy may also increase. At what point can society turn towards a repair/treatment model for crime as opposed to a punishment/deterrent model?

        Further, once the technology is developed to create a mind on a substrate other than meat, how does that affect the difference between a bad choice and a malfunction? No one would argue that a computer is not a machine, so would a mind running on a computer be a machine, of a degree of brokenness related to the functionality of it’s software, rather than the social interpretation of the quality of it’s choices? Saying the computer is a machine but the mind running on it is not sounds remarkably like Cartesian dualism (or Penrosian “Look at my big science hands!”), and verges on claiming that the computer has a soul.

  19. It might be clearer to state my opinion like this: You used law as a lens through which to view free will’s effects on our lives. If someone hits the wall of free will, which dictates that we are culpable for our actions, and says, “I didn’t kill that man out of free will–I’m just a cog in the giant deterministic mechanism that is the universe,” that itself is a decision. Our ability to contemplate free will is, itself, proof of free will’s existence. That is, if you understand free will, you possess it. That’s what I think.

    For the sake of thoroughness, the killer in the previous paragraph could conceivably lack a real understanding of free will, and in that sense, it would be true that he was “just a cog” in the universal machine. However, that would be indicative of a deeper neurosis therein.

  20. When I think about these things, I’m impressed by how much shit gets done in the world without the people involved thinking it all through. Everything from the moon shots to the food supply, built up from people doing only what’s right in front of them.

    It’s certainly true in my own life, that I don’t have the attention span to fully wrap my mind around my career, my love life, my education, or a zillion other things that are important- I mostly just do what’s right in front of me.

    It’s not so hard to see why the world is such a mess, it’s harder to see why the world makes as much sense as it does!

    There’s a whole body of thought that insists that humans are the hottest things going, that we should take credit for all the wonderfulness we’re ever involved in. It’s kind of like us taking credit and charging money for all the work the planet does for us in keeping the air breathable or growing our food.

  21. When I think about these things, I’m impressed by how much shit gets done in the world without the people involved thinking it all through. Everything from the moon shots to the food supply, built up from people doing only what’s right in front of them.

    It’s certainly true in my own life, that I don’t have the attention span to fully wrap my mind around my career, my love life, my education, or a zillion other things that are important- I mostly just do what’s right in front of me.

    It’s not so hard to see why the world is such a mess, it’s harder to see why the world makes as much sense as it does!

    There’s a whole body of thought that insists that humans are the hottest things going, that we should take credit for all the wonderfulness we’re ever involved in. It’s kind of like us taking credit and charging money for all the work the planet does for us in keeping the air breathable or growing our food.

  22. Agency is one of my personal tenets of faith. I believe that I am ultimately responsible for me and all my actions. And that while deterministic forces exist (natural laws, genetic predisposition, etc.) how I respond to these forces are indices of my moral character. Similarly I believe that tides of human behavior and social movements can be thwarted by a single voice exercising their independent action.

    I suppose that the construct of moral character can be considered socialization or deterministic in that way. And I’ve seen too many people hardwired with ‘negative traits’ to think that all people have the capacity for greatness. I’ve also seen potentially ‘great’ people – with a spark of life in childhood – squashed by life forces before they were able to form themselves up well enough to become their potential.

    I decided that whether I was the result of a program, a fictional character in someone else’s dream, prepared by evolution and breeding to behave exactly as I do – that I would engage the world as though I were an independent agent and behave as I felt was morally prudent.

    I also feel that agency is the force that allows me to question the way things are – should this be the way things went down? -should this be what is happening now? -what are my moral responsibilities to enact change? -what are the rational limitations to the way the systems works and is working? ..and, lastly, there is a point I hold dear (which may yet PROVE I am the functional progeny of someone else’s program).. -that I choose not to believe in the limitations obviously present.. there must be another way.

  23. Agency is one of my personal tenets of faith. I believe that I am ultimately responsible for me and all my actions. And that while deterministic forces exist (natural laws, genetic predisposition, etc.) how I respond to these forces are indices of my moral character. Similarly I believe that tides of human behavior and social movements can be thwarted by a single voice exercising their independent action.

    I suppose that the construct of moral character can be considered socialization or deterministic in that way. And I’ve seen too many people hardwired with ‘negative traits’ to think that all people have the capacity for greatness. I’ve also seen potentially ‘great’ people – with a spark of life in childhood – squashed by life forces before they were able to form themselves up well enough to become their potential.

    I decided that whether I was the result of a program, a fictional character in someone else’s dream, prepared by evolution and breeding to behave exactly as I do – that I would engage the world as though I were an independent agent and behave as I felt was morally prudent.

    I also feel that agency is the force that allows me to question the way things are – should this be the way things went down? -should this be what is happening now? -what are my moral responsibilities to enact change? -what are the rational limitations to the way the systems works and is working? ..and, lastly, there is a point I hold dear (which may yet PROVE I am the functional progeny of someone else’s program).. -that I choose not to believe in the limitations obviously present.. there must be another way.

  24. I use to not believe in free will for similar, if not identical reasons. Then I realized it’s a matter of semantics, basically. And read some Dennett. In summary there are two main camps of philosophers where free will and determinism are concerned, the Compatabilists and Incompatabilists (these philosophers are sure wacky with their naming! The compatabilist view basically works as some above have mentioned. Just because our acts are in the end deterministic doesn’t mean that there isn’t an internal process occuring which is changing the outcome. But this is largely semantics. And that gets to your chaos theory example. While we have in all likelyhood deterministic behavior, the complexity of it is such that it is essentially indistinguishable from “free will.”

    Or at least that’s what my response to stimulus compels me to type.

    • That sounds like something of a dodge, to be frank; if that internal process is itself deterministic, then the presence of the internal process does not have any direct bearing on whether or not free will exists.

      • As I mentioned, it is a semantics issue. If you define free will in such a way that it is contrary to determinism, you’re absolutely correct. The Compatabilist response is to define free will such that it is compatible with determinism (shocking, I know). This is primarially important if you want to discuss free will from a metaphysical view versus a physical view. The compatabilists hold that determinism or indeterminism isn’t particularly relevant to the discussion of free will from a metaphysical viewpoint, as what is important is what the individual chooses to do, not whether that choice was deterministic or not, particularly given the extreme complexity of the system involved.

  25. I use to not believe in free will for similar, if not identical reasons. Then I realized it’s a matter of semantics, basically. And read some Dennett. In summary there are two main camps of philosophers where free will and determinism are concerned, the Compatabilists and Incompatabilists (these philosophers are sure wacky with their naming! The compatabilist view basically works as some above have mentioned. Just because our acts are in the end deterministic doesn’t mean that there isn’t an internal process occuring which is changing the outcome. But this is largely semantics. And that gets to your chaos theory example. While we have in all likelyhood deterministic behavior, the complexity of it is such that it is essentially indistinguishable from “free will.”

    Or at least that’s what my response to stimulus compels me to type.

  26. I say this having only skimmed your post in the most cursory manner possible- just enough to know what the general topic is: DAMN YOU!! I’ve had a post about cognition, free will, and determinism percolating in the back of my head and written out in scraps here and there for about a year now. I have every expectation that after reading your post there’ll be no point in bothering. πŸ˜›

    On the other hand, I commend you for doing exactly what any good archnemesis should: inspiring their arch to get off his ass and actually do something instead of just thinking about it!

    • DAMN YOU!! I’ve had a post about cognition, free will, and determinism percolating in the back of my head and written out in scraps here and there for about a year now. I have every expectation that after reading your post there’ll be no point in bothering. πŸ˜›

      Ha! Same here πŸ™‚ I’m getting used to it, though…

      My current informed opinion on free will is that I have no idea what it is. Really. Why randomness (or lack thereof) is so important to this question? Imagine a very simple non-deterministic Turing machine: it has an internal tape of random bits, and all it does is output these bits, one at a time. Suppose that the internal tape is really random — suppose it actually gives some electron a nudge in order to generate the next bit. Anyway, does this Turing machine possess free will? It essentially does nothing more than “flip a coin” and output the result. It is perfectly random, but I wouldn’t say it has any free will.
      So what is free will? Remember Douglas Adams, the philosophical trilogy: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, and Who is This God Person Anyway? To me, the free will debate is going in a similar direction: Why We Have Free Will, Why We Don’t Have Free Will, and What is This Free Will Thing Anyway?

      You think that we don’t have free will. Can you bring an example of something that does have free will? Anything at all, just so you can explain what exactly do you mean by the term? I tried, and couldn’t. (by “you” I refer to anyone here…)

      – Ola

  27. I say this having only skimmed your post in the most cursory manner possible- just enough to know what the general topic is: DAMN YOU!! I’ve had a post about cognition, free will, and determinism percolating in the back of my head and written out in scraps here and there for about a year now. I have every expectation that after reading your post there’ll be no point in bothering. πŸ˜›

    On the other hand, I commend you for doing exactly what any good archnemesis should: inspiring their arch to get off his ass and actually do something instead of just thinking about it!

  28. DAMN YOU!! I’ve had a post about cognition, free will, and determinism percolating in the back of my head and written out in scraps here and there for about a year now. I have every expectation that after reading your post there’ll be no point in bothering. πŸ˜›

    Ha! Same here πŸ™‚ I’m getting used to it, though…

    My current informed opinion on free will is that I have no idea what it is. Really. Why randomness (or lack thereof) is so important to this question? Imagine a very simple non-deterministic Turing machine: it has an internal tape of random bits, and all it does is output these bits, one at a time. Suppose that the internal tape is really random — suppose it actually gives some electron a nudge in order to generate the next bit. Anyway, does this Turing machine possess free will? It essentially does nothing more than “flip a coin” and output the result. It is perfectly random, but I wouldn’t say it has any free will.
    So what is free will? Remember Douglas Adams, the philosophical trilogy: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, and Who is This God Person Anyway? To me, the free will debate is going in a similar direction: Why We Have Free Will, Why We Don’t Have Free Will, and What is This Free Will Thing Anyway?

    You think that we don’t have free will. Can you bring an example of something that does have free will? Anything at all, just so you can explain what exactly do you mean by the term? I tried, and couldn’t. (by “you” I refer to anyone here…)

    – Ola

  29. Have you been reading my mind?

    This is basically the conclusion I came to the other day. I was trying to polish of a theory for creating an artificially intelligent machine with emotions before embarking on writing lots of Verilog to build a small test segment when I came to the conclusion that if everyone is the sum of their experiences then all I needed to do was work out how to build a huge parallel processed database and attach my emotion theory to it and then sit it in front of children’s TV for 3 years and it would (data capacity permitting) learn to behave like a possibly somewhat stupid and rather badly adjusted person. Thinking about what would be going through its head lead me to conclude that the concept of free will in this case would only need to be the rather imperfect processor that had the ability to take any action but to choose the best one based on past experience.

    The logical next step was to wonder if that’s what we humans do at the moment. Well we could punch that guy who annoys us. We could resign, sell our homes and go travelling but the thing that stops up is that we think that that is not the best option based on past experience of the lack thereof or even the past experience the we lack the another experience. etc ad infinitum. so perhaps we do work like this.

    One interesting upshot of this idea is that Law is still applicable even without “free will” according to this theory. It generates the experiences that are needed to force people to evaluate certain actions as non-viable, thus maintaining law and order. It all ends up a bit Pavlov’s Dog and Dr Strangeloves Doomsday machine but in the end we are all happy to do the things that in the long term are apparently the best options.

    This is a bit of an over simplification and there is a whole pile of other psychology to deal with phobias and philanthropy and other things that don’t seam to benifit us directly which just makes the whole thing, as pointed out in the original post, hugely complex. But I won’t go into that here…

    p

  30. Have you been reading my mind?

    This is basically the conclusion I came to the other day. I was trying to polish of a theory for creating an artificially intelligent machine with emotions before embarking on writing lots of Verilog to build a small test segment when I came to the conclusion that if everyone is the sum of their experiences then all I needed to do was work out how to build a huge parallel processed database and attach my emotion theory to it and then sit it in front of children’s TV for 3 years and it would (data capacity permitting) learn to behave like a possibly somewhat stupid and rather badly adjusted person. Thinking about what would be going through its head lead me to conclude that the concept of free will in this case would only need to be the rather imperfect processor that had the ability to take any action but to choose the best one based on past experience.

    The logical next step was to wonder if that’s what we humans do at the moment. Well we could punch that guy who annoys us. We could resign, sell our homes and go travelling but the thing that stops up is that we think that that is not the best option based on past experience of the lack thereof or even the past experience the we lack the another experience. etc ad infinitum. so perhaps we do work like this.

    One interesting upshot of this idea is that Law is still applicable even without “free will” according to this theory. It generates the experiences that are needed to force people to evaluate certain actions as non-viable, thus maintaining law and order. It all ends up a bit Pavlov’s Dog and Dr Strangeloves Doomsday machine but in the end we are all happy to do the things that in the long term are apparently the best options.

    This is a bit of an over simplification and there is a whole pile of other psychology to deal with phobias and philanthropy and other things that don’t seam to benifit us directly which just makes the whole thing, as pointed out in the original post, hugely complex. But I won’t go into that here…

    p

  31. Non-determinism doesn’t necessarily imply that free will exists. There are plenty of non-deterministic systems that show no evidence of consciousness; while the majority of processes we think of as random are actually chaotic but deterministic systems, things like radioactive decay are not.

    For that matter, free will doesn’t necessarily imply non-determinism. The fact is that no one’s yet managed to come up with a rigorous definition of free will that holds up on close examination; arguments that free will is nondeterministic generally boil down to “I don’t want to be deterministic”.

    So, yeah. Good post, but I don’t think you’ve addressed the full scope of the problem.

    • If free will doesn’t imply non-determinism, then that creates quite a pickle; how can a deterministic system embody choice? Without non-determinism, it seems that the concept of “choice” doesn’t even exist; if what we do is the action of immutable natural law, then doesn’t that imply we don’t have choice?

      • I have some trouble wrapping my head around the concept myself, I’ll admit, but several people that I’ve read — Stephen Hawking was one — have explored variations on the idea. The basic idea seems to be that consciousness-directed choice — in other words, free will — may be a property emerging from certain types of chaotic system. Free will does not exist at the molecular level, but it emerges at higher levels of organization in much the same way as the laws of chemistry emerge from the laws of physics.

        This, of course, relies on a somewhat broad definition of free will.

  32. Non-determinism doesn’t necessarily imply that free will exists. There are plenty of non-deterministic systems that show no evidence of consciousness; while the majority of processes we think of as random are actually chaotic but deterministic systems, things like radioactive decay are not.

    For that matter, free will doesn’t necessarily imply non-determinism. The fact is that no one’s yet managed to come up with a rigorous definition of free will that holds up on close examination; arguments that free will is nondeterministic generally boil down to “I don’t want to be deterministic”.

    So, yeah. Good post, but I don’t think you’ve addressed the full scope of the problem.

  33. To some extent, I think that answer “d” lies on the foundation that the comforting lie is preferable to the uncomfortable truth. This same reasoning is occasionally used to justify religious faith as well, and I don’t find it terribly compelling in any case.

  34. If free will doesn’t imply non-determinism, then that creates quite a pickle; how can a deterministic system embody choice? Without non-determinism, it seems that the concept of “choice” doesn’t even exist; if what we do is the action of immutable natural law, then doesn’t that imply we don’t have choice?

  35. I have some trouble wrapping my head around the concept myself, I’ll admit, but several people that I’ve read — Stephen Hawking was one — have explored variations on the idea. The basic idea seems to be that consciousness-directed choice — in other words, free will — may be a property emerging from certain types of chaotic system. Free will does not exist at the molecular level, but it emerges at higher levels of organization in much the same way as the laws of chemistry emerge from the laws of physics.

    This, of course, relies on a somewhat broad definition of free will.

  36. Have you read The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel M. Wegner? Immensely fascinating read. It would seem that the evidence overwhelmingly supports determinism. (One of the things we’ve learned from quantum mechanics is that some concepts, though they may fail our philosophical analysis, and though they are entirely unreasonable, are nonetheless scientifically correct.)

  37. Have you read The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel M. Wegner? Immensely fascinating read. It would seem that the evidence overwhelmingly supports determinism. (One of the things we’ve learned from quantum mechanics is that some concepts, though they may fail our philosophical analysis, and though they are entirely unreasonable, are nonetheless scientifically correct.)

  38. That sounds like something of a dodge, to be frank; if that internal process is itself deterministic, then the presence of the internal process does not have any direct bearing on whether or not free will exists.

  39. Re: Curious Question

    I don’t actually think it would change anything. When I adopt an internal state that assumes I am capable of choice, then my life is happier for it. Even knowing my behavior was deterministic wouldn’t change that, because as a goal-driven system, one of my goals is to be happy. πŸ™‚

  40. Re: Curious Question

    I don’t actually think it would change anything. When I adopt an internal state that assumes I am capable of choice, then my life is happier for it. Even knowing my behavior was deterministic wouldn’t change that, because as a goal-driven system, one of my goals is to be happy. πŸ™‚

  41. You’ve touched on something that is absolutely true–society, to function, relies on the notion of free will. When one person commits a crime, we don’t say “This person is a broken machine,” we say “This person made harmful and destructive choices,” and react accordingly.

    Thought that doesn’t necessarily bear on the question of free will. A belief in free will does not necessarily determine free will; the belief itself might also be the inevitable outcome of complex deterministic processes. Which is, of course, exactly the point of this entry. πŸ™‚

  42. He really does seem to want to believe that consciousness isn’t computable, in spite of the fact that our brains are computational state machines. I don’t find his invocation of quantum effects compelling at all, not only because he can’t propose a mechanism by which brains rely on quantum effects but also because he seems to believe that computers can’t, which isn’t necessarily true. Obviously, it can be demonstrated that about four pounds of meat can replicate the function of the brain (ahem!), so there’s no reason to suppose that some other physical processes can’t do likewise.

    Of course, a self-aware computing machine will probably have significant architectural differences from the computer sitting on your desk. But that’s just a matter of engineering detail.

  43. kinda off subject but I must say that when I stumbled across your journal in the wee hours of the morning I fell into instant fascination. and all this from a single search on figging (i was curious to try it since having heard of it recently and I wanted to know more) and up pops this LJ. lol.

  44. kinda off subject but I must say that when I stumbled across your journal in the wee hours of the morning I fell into instant fascination. and all this from a single search on figging (i was curious to try it since having heard of it recently and I wanted to know more) and up pops this LJ. lol.

  45. As I mentioned, it is a semantics issue. If you define free will in such a way that it is contrary to determinism, you’re absolutely correct. The Compatabilist response is to define free will such that it is compatible with determinism (shocking, I know). This is primarially important if you want to discuss free will from a metaphysical view versus a physical view. The compatabilists hold that determinism or indeterminism isn’t particularly relevant to the discussion of free will from a metaphysical viewpoint, as what is important is what the individual chooses to do, not whether that choice was deterministic or not, particularly given the extreme complexity of the system involved.

  46. This seems to me to be a point that a society capable of creating a mind via what would now be regarded as an artificial process would have to address.

    Right now, a person whose mind is running on four pounds of intricately organized meat is difficult to repair. There are some statistical links between certain types of brain damage and certain types of criminal behavior. For example, damage to the frontal lobes can affect cognition regarding the consequences of future actions or make it difficult to suppress socially unacceptable actions. Some socially unacceptable actions with future consequences are crimes. This is not, obviously, a complete causative link, nor should it be construed that all criminals are brain damaged, but certain types of damage can affect the person’s choices.

    Since we cannot at this point repair the brain to any really significant or precise degree, and some previous attempts have had consequences verging on atrocious (the rather wide application of frontal lobotomy in the 1950s and 1960s springs immediately to mind (much as I wish it wouldn’t)). However, with a more complete understanding of the brain, the ability to repair this sort of damage with greater precision and delicacy may also increase. At what point can society turn towards a repair/treatment model for crime as opposed to a punishment/deterrent model?

    Further, once the technology is developed to create a mind on a substrate other than meat, how does that affect the difference between a bad choice and a malfunction? No one would argue that a computer is not a machine, so would a mind running on a computer be a machine, of a degree of brokenness related to the functionality of it’s software, rather than the social interpretation of the quality of it’s choices? Saying the computer is a machine but the mind running on it is not sounds remarkably like Cartesian dualism (or Penrosian “Look at my big science hands!”), and verges on claiming that the computer has a soul.

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