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Lorraine Ford: on 1/18/14 at 1:09am UTC, wrote Stephen, I'm glad you mentioned "purpose". I think that some sort of...

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April 26, 2017

CATEGORY: Blog [back]
TOPIC: FQXi'ers Debate the Deep Questions of Free Will [refresh]
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Blogger George Musser wrote on Jan. 10, 2014 @ 23:05 GMT
VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO—Some years ago, while visiting South Africa, I was astounded by the number of languages my friends spoke. It’s not just they knew Xhosa, Zulu, SeSotho, English, and Afrikaans, but that they moved freely among languages to suit their meaning or mood. I once counted all five in a single sentence. Conversations about free will are like that. People freely move among neuroscience, quantum physics, computational complexity, artificial life, and Buddhism. What other subject ranges so widely? And what other subject gives you such a rush of wrestling with deep questions? Not just deep ones: pressing ones. Whether we are agents of our actions is no academic matter for a parent, or a juror, or an addict.

Yet when I hear the words “free will,” I also feel myself tense up. Conversations about it can be as frustrating as they are fun. They have an unfortunate tendency to turn in circles or fall into well-carved channels of thought. So I had some trepidation when the organizers of this year's FQXi conference asked me to chair a session on free will. Would we really get anywhere?

I'm happy to report that I think we did. In the panel and other discussions at the conference, I've been struck by four ideas about free will which drive research today.

Free will is not a single concept, but an umbrella term. Neuroscientist Christof Koch described the variety of phenomena that fall under the rubric of free will. Broken down, free will inspires concrete experiments. For instance, how do we develop our sense of volition? Neurosurgeons have found that, by directly stimulating the brain, they can cause people to feel they want to do something. Koch also regaled us with new versions of the famous Libet experiment showing that our brains make decisions before we become consciously aware of them.

Such studies further the broader aim of understanding consciousness. Giulio Tononi and Federico Faggin said they see free will as an important aspect of consciousness. Others such as computer scientist Seth Lloyd disagree, but this is a question that researchers can realistically aspire to answer. Ultimately, neuroscience might find ways to empower people who want to quit smoking or stick to a diet, but just can’t. Goodness knows that society's traditional response—treating lack of willpower as a moral failing—merely compounds the pain.

Free will may have some evolutionary advantage. Our brains develop complex models of the world, and this capacity presumably evolved because such models have some benefit to us. Physicist Susanne Still argued that an efficient model—one that reproduces the environment with minimal overhead—lightens the metabolic load on an organism. Although her work so far is theoretical (using nonequilibrium thermodynamics), she told me she plans to see whether living organisms follow this rule.

Physicist Chris Adami studies evolution using computer simulations of virtual robots. His bots evolve models of their environment, enabling them to learn their surroundings and plan their actions rather than merely react. These models include memory, which Adami considers the defining feature of free will. “It’s your entire personal history that shapes your decisions,” he said. Without memory, we are puppets. Patients who lose their short-term memory, trapping them in the present moment, repeat the same decisions over and over again.

The environment in Adami’s simulations includes other virtual robots, so it behooves the bots to evolve an ability to predict one another. He speculated that, in gaining an awareness of other robots, a robot also gains an awareness of itself. Might our own consciousness be a byproduct of a capacity to predict our fellow humans?

Free will reflects our ignorance of ourselves. Lloyd argued that free will is meaningful because our own decisions are unknown to us until we make them. Like all great theorems in computer science, his argument appeals to the paradoxes of recursion. When you think about yourself, you think about thinking about yourself, and you enter an endless loop. “Any system that can ask itself what it will be doing in five minutes’ time cannot always answer it,” he told me. Or as he put it in a paper last fall: “It is less efficient to simulate yourself than it is simply to be yourself.”

Philosopher Jenann Ismael has made much the same case. Indeed, physicist Carlo Rovelli has traced it all the way back to Spinoza, although Ismael and Lloyd have gone further by showing that our self-knowledge is incomplete not because of practical limitations, but fundamental ones.

If you ever yell at your computer as if it had malevolent volition, Lloyd thinks you’re justified. The recursion in computer software makes it inherently unpredictable. It has free will in the same sense we humans do. “The instability of computer programs in general, and operating systems in particular, comes out of these Gödelian questions,” he told me.

Free will is quite compatible with determinism. Philosopher Jeremy Butterfield argued that deterministic microphysics can beget indeterministic macrophysics. And he doesn’t mean deterministic chaos—a practical limitation on prediction—but honest-to-God indeterminism. The reasoning, which he laid out in a paper three years ago, is straightforward. A macroscopic state corresponds to multiple possible microstates. Two of those microstates can evolve deterministically to two different macrostates, meaning that the laws governing the macroscopic structure are unable to decide among those outcomes.

Human brains are macroscopic structures. Our desires and values are higher-level concepts existing nowhere in the microphysics. The decisions we make can be objectively free no matter what the underlying physics is. “This macroindeterminism riding on microdeterminism may secure free will,” Butterfield told me.

Toward the end of the meeting, the organizers took a poll on free will, among other issues. Of 45 respondents, 23 said they had free will, 19 said they at least had a subjective sense of free will, and three wretched souls said they didn’t have free will at all.

Whether we are masters of our fate is too big and too personal an issue to be settled by any one argument. But so what? It’s still productive to think about. As physicist Marcelo Gleiser put it: “Not every question has to be answerable to be interesting.”

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Robert H McEachern wrote on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 00:18 GMT
Deterministic laws are not sufficient to enable deterministic outcomes. Knowledge of such laws, by themselves, cannot enable events to be predicted (determined) before the events actually occur. One also needs to know the initial conditions. The impossibility (even as a matter of principle, rather than merely in practice) of ever knowing all the relevant initial conditions, is what guarantees that most events are, in fact, non-determinable, even when they are governed by deterministic laws. Hence, Free Will exists. By focusing entirely on the role of the laws, rather than the role of the initial conditions, physicists have thrown the baby out with the bath-water.

Rob McEachern

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 03:00 GMT
Isn't the term an oxymoron? Our conscious executive function is to make decisions, to determine. We decide the outcome of the input. After distinguishing between good and bad choices, we don't then just pick one or the other. We help to create the outcome we are part of. Feedback loops.

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Eckard Blumschein wrote on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 07:31 GMT
M. Luther blamed God for being responsible for the bad too because he denied the free will of men. Someone argued that this position was not agreeable with the tenets of catholic church while Tetzel was not the fundamental problem.

Maybe, there is no analog reason behind a war between sunnites and shiites that resembles the 30years lasting one. If “not every question has to be answerable to be interesting” then I ask myself what makes nonsensical questions interesting.

I don't hide that I tend to put views of physicists like Wheeler, Penrose, and Einstein in the drawer of religion rather than science if they conjecture an anthropic principle, a conscious soul, a creation of the world in a BB, an a priori given spacetime, etc.

As does Robert McEachern, I don't deny my "free" will because it is impossible to know and calculate all influences that represent myself, and I feel responsible for my decisions.


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Eckard Blumschein replied on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 10:18 GMT
I wrote influences, not initial conditions because initial conditions are only reasonable with the model of negative elapsed time, e.g. with the unilateral Laplace transformation.

Of course, religious models imagine(d) a moment of creation, a first couple Adam and Eve, a first couple of all animals from Noah's arch, and the BB. Meanwhile it is obvious that it is anthropic and not consistent with science to ascribe such initial points t=0 to the past, and no soul jumps into the Himmel (heaven/sky) as soon as the money is in Tetzel's box of indulgence. The anthropic view is a teleological i.e. a primitive theological one.

That's why I don't consider the debate on free will a deep one if deep is understood as a measure of scientific qualification rather than as dumb feeling.


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Eckard Blumschein replied on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 15:52 GMT
When I wrote 'I don't deny my "free" will' I used that notion in the same sense as does Daniel Dennet although I am avoiding the notion determinism because I am not sure how different people understand determinism. While I dislike the naive idea that anything can be precomputed provided one has iota bytes or more at hands, I firmly trust in causality.

I asked Max Tegmark to comment on G. Cantor's statement:

"The essence of mathematics is its freedom".

His answer so far was to simply not reply.

Otherwise he had perhaps to choose between either declaring Cantor wrong, what is certainly not wrong by taboo, or to abandon his own claim that the world is a computer, which I consider worth a lot of copies of his book bought by impressed readers. In contrast to Lorraine I tend to avoid the reproach "nonsense".

Needless to say that I often agree with John M.

I don't consider the question '"free of what?" one of the favourite nonsense phrases'.


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Lorraine Ford wrote on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 15:34 GMT
Free will is the ability to make a choice of physical outcome for one's one own body/brain for the "next moment in time", presumably taking into account information about one's past and one's current situation. Free will is only possible if "laws of nature" allow more than one possible physical configuration for one's body/brain for each next moment in time AND secondly, if "laws of nature" allow...

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Robert H McEachern replied on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 18:18 GMT
"In a deterministic universe, the laws allow only ONE possible outcome for each next moment in time for everything in the universe"

That may be true, but is of no relevance, since we do not live in such a universe. In our universe, if you change an initial condition, such as the position or velocity of a planet, then the laws not only allow, but almost inevitably DO produce a DIFFERENT outcome. Hence, deterministic laws, alone, do not determine the outcome.

Consequently, if it is possible to ever have even a single "bit error" in a single, deterministic, sensory input measurement, that is then used as an index to look-up a response to that input, a "choice" has been been.

Unless we live in a universe in which such measurement errors are impossible, such choices will always exist. We do not live in such a universe, free from all measurement errors.

Rob McEachern

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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 19:24 GMT

The laws of nature might be entirely deterministic, but 'initial conditions' is a very large assumption. Consider this:

"Among other cosmic parameters, says White, the BOSS analysis "also provides one of the best-ever determinations of the curvature of space. The answer is, it's not curved much."

Calling a three-dimensional universe "flat" means its shape is well described by the Euclidean geometry familiar from high school: straight lines are parallel and triangles add up to 180 degrees. Extraordinary flatness means the universe experienced relatively prolonged inflation, up to a decillionth of a second or more, immediately after the big bang.

"One of the reasons we care is that a flat universe has implications for whether the universe is infinite," says Schlegel. "That means – while we can't say with certainty that it will never come to an end – it's likely the universe extends forever in space and will go on forever in time. Our results are consistent with an infinite universe."

The problem is there is no way to determine input, so the information only arrives at the point of the event and it's effectively an infinite universe, no matter what grand theorizing presumes otherwise.

So yes, the past is determined, but the future is probabilistic. Time is not so much a vector from past to future, but changing configurations turning future into past. Prior to the race, there are ten potential winners, but after it actually occurs, there is only one actual winner. Probability precedes actuality.


John M

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Thomas Howard Ray replied on Jan. 11, 2014 @ 21:50 GMT
"We do not live in such a universe, free from all measurement errors."

For which we can be thankful, for it may be that very effect that ensures metastability through deterministic chaos.

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 03:13 GMT
A measurement is an event. We can say after the fact that the result is fully determined by the input and thus it must be a deterministic outcome. The issue is that it is only the occurrence of the event which can fully measure all input into it.

It doesn't matter if one measure sets limits on the potential outcome of another measure, in controlled circumstances, because the subsequent test still must be preformed, or the result will remain a prediction, not a reality.

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Lorraine Ford wrote on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 12:18 GMT
Hi Rob and John,

I contend that we DO have free will, and that we live in a universe where "laws of nature" allow the 2 components of free will!!

I have edited my original post to clarify my position on free will. Sorry if I have mislead you - I certainly do NOT believe we live in a deterministic universe, but seemingly many people ARE determinists.



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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 13:19 GMT

I'm not questioning that you are arguing for free will, but that the premise seems overly binary. Is it a yes/no question? What are we free of? Obviously our will exists as a component and so affects the context, as the context affects our situation, so there is a feedback loop there. The other issue is whether reality is overall deterministic, that all input, including our will, results in there only being one possible course of action. Now once events have occurred, this seems a given, but prior to their occurrence, the coming together of all input into the creation of events does seem elementally probabilistic, since it requires the occurrence of the event to compute its outcome. This then goes to the nature of time itself. When we view it as a progression from past to future, how to go from a determined past into a probabilistic future seems to result in multiworlds, as all possible results branch out, or an observer generated reality, where the outcome is a function of how it appears to us. I keep pointing out that what creates time is the basic changing configuration of what is, that turns future into past, ie. the dynamic physical energy we experience as the present. That since we exist as particular points in this dynamic, we experience it as a sequence of particular events, which physics further reduces to measurements of duration.

It is a bit like how we experience the sun moving across the sky, rather than the earth turning.

Probability precedes actuality.


John M

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Lorraine Ford replied on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 14:52 GMT

yes, it is a binary question: either you have free will/choice/genuine creativity or you don't. And by the way, "free will" doesn't mean freedom to contravene the laws of nature - you can't choose to suddenly turn into a bird and fly away.

While some would say that every law-of-nature lawful possibility gets converted into multiverses, I would contend that these possibilities get resolved by choice on the part of subjects, and that choice is related to the unfolding of time. As physicist Lee Smolin said: "The activity of time is the process which generates the future out of the present".

There is a load of nonsense talked about free will: "free of what?" is one of the favourite nonsense phrases. In the past (I'm not sure what he's up to in the present) determinist Daniel Dennett has tried to redefine the meaning of the term free will, and then tried to claim that he believed in "free will" - his own personal deterministic version of "free will" of course!

But, as I tried to indicate in my original post, free will is totally incompatible with determinism.

I'm sure we basically agree about many of these issues.



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John Brodix Merryman replied on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 15:12 GMT

We are likely on the same page, but reconsider Smolin's comment;

"The activity of time is the process which generates the future out of the present".

Actually what is being generated is the past. Those events and forms that quickly recede are what are created. The future is at best a probability distribution.


John M

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on Jan. 12, 2014 @ 19:16 GMT
Nautilus is doing a Time theme this month. Zeeya has an intro article and Tegmark has the feature piece. Also note a Buddhist themed essay, which is naturally presentist and therefore implicitly in contradiction to Tegmark's math based version. Be interesting to see if they take it anywhere over the month, or just keep it scattershot.

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Lorraine Ford wrote on Jan. 13, 2014 @ 00:00 GMT
Hi James

Re your post of Jan. 12, 2014 @ 16:01 GMT "How do you see the 'laws of nature' acting to support your view? What is the process for '...a continual injection of newly created information ("choice")'? ":

Physicist Seth Lloyd said "quantum mechanics, via decoherence, is constantly injecting new bits of information into the world"* I am saying that there are "laws" that allow this in the sense that these injections of information are lawful occurrences in the universe. But obviously these particular "laws" cannot be represented as a mathematical equation.

I take a wider view of "laws of nature" here, and I take this particular "law" to be a general principle about the nature of reality: that free will/choice/creativity is a NECESSARY part of the way "nature" works. Note that the "choices" made by particles are seemingly choices made without the ability to learn from stored representations of past reality. See also my 2013 FQXi essay.



* The Computational Universe by Seth Lloyd, Pages 98 to 100, Information and the Nature of Reality, Edited by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen, Cambridge University Press, 2010

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James A Putnam replied on Jan. 13, 2014 @ 01:27 GMT

Thank you.

James Putnam

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Steve Agnew wrote on Jan. 17, 2014 @ 21:10 GMT
We each choose a purpose for our lives and that choice has many complex factors. In a very real sense, our choice of purpose is a primal free choice and defines us as adults. One can argue endlessly about why this choice is impossible to predict, especially since most people really don't even know why they really chose the purposes that they chose.

In one view of reality, our destiny is predetermined by fate and therefore we choose a purpose consistent with that karma or qi. By another view of reality, we choose our purpose to reach a desirable future, a destiny that we have imagined and chosen, but still know that we will never exactly reach that future.

In the end, the endless discourse over free will simply engenders more discourse over free will. We can never resolve the axioms of existence, like purpose and the free will and free choice that purpose engenders, because purpose is an axiom of life in which we simply believe. However, we can and do engage in very pleasant and endless recursive discourses about the nature of our axioms.

And we never seem to recognize very well, though, what are the axioms of existence.

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Lorraine Ford replied on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 01:09 GMT

I'm glad you mentioned "purpose". I think that some sort of pointer/ template/vision/ guide (you call it "purpose") is required to influence the individual choices of subjects. Seemingly otherwise choice would be entirely random. I think this "vision" relates to the very complex network information environment of subjects, even the environment of particles (which I contend are subjects).

We live in a non-deterministic universe where (within limitations) more than one physical outcome is possible each next "moment in time". There is no deterministic process that can "pick" a single outcome from these possibilities, unless you want to go for the over-the-top excesses of a multiverse where every moment-by-moment possibility for every object in the universe is physically instantiated.

As I try to explain above to James Putnam, I contend that this free will/choice/genuine creativity is seemingly a NECESSARY part of the way "nature" works.



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