Free Will and Consciousness — Key Questions

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

Over the past few months, I’ve added a fairly rigorous discussion of Free Will and a two-part rant on Consciousness to Medium. During the process, I made a point of reading what others had posted on the topics, adding Claps and trading comments with a variety of interesting folks.

I did notice a certain muddiness in some of the discussions…not surprising when words like Free and Consciousness are involved.

Asking questions of other writers and, even more so, being asked questions led me to isolate a series of ‘pivot point questions’ that seem to distinguish the different stances. I’m offering them here in hopes of making a contribution to clearer thinking about it all.

I’ll editorialize with my own conclusions but I think the questions are useful even if you break the other way on them.

Pivot Points

But first, what am I talking about here? Conscious Free Will?

I’m going to ground it like this:

My lab rat, or thought-experiment core, is the conscious consideration of at least two options and a conscious choice between them.

Pivot Point 1: Does what is experienced have agency?

There’s a view that choices happen ‘off-stage’ and what we experience as ‘free choice’ is epiphenomenal, or color commentary, or even some sort of post hoc tale we tell ourself so as not to appear inexplicable to ourself.

The commonality is a belief that agency lies somewhere outside the experience itself.

My view: in many cases agency is precisely where it presents itself to be.

Discussion: There can, of course, be unconscious contributing factors but… notwithstanding the braid of physical, cultural, conscious, and unconscious processes that set up a decision point…a conscious decision is made. Sometimes it’s proceeded by weeks of research filling out a checklist. Sometimes it’s making a list of 6 options and rolling a dice. Regardless, a decision is made — and the thing that causes the results of the decision is precisely consciously making the decision.

That seems like a pretty clear statement but I’ve found that it isn’t. A mental image may help. Folks would tell me, “oh yeah, I agree but the real decision has already been made, right?”

When I was in middle school and a Boy Scout, we specialized in construction: towers, bridges, that sort of thing. We made our own rope out of bailing twine. The twine was of varying thicknesses with fibers sticking out in all directions. We used it because the twine was cheap and, although the appearance of the end result was bristly and funky, it was a very sturdy rope.

Here’s how I imagine the intertwined and overlapping systems that make up our mental and behavioral processes.

Processes in the human nervous system considered as a tangle of conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious processes

Imagine 12 strands of the twine woven together into a bristly rope and dyed splotchily on a continuum from dark grey to bright white. The strands are intertwined paths of causality. The bright white is when that causality proceeds via a conscious process; the various greys are processes outside of consciousness to varying degrees. Consciousness is not an observer of a non-conscious process. It is a process.

Pivot Point 2: Is what is experienced a completely material and, hence, predictable process?

Some, of course, believe it is not.

My View: I’m with the materialists.

Discussion: Descartes split the human experience into two components: the body and higher abilities, the two connected through the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature here is the classic Ghost in the Machine

Note that this is fundamentally a religious perspective. There are things outside the world…God, angels, souls…and we participate in that transcendent plane.

That Ghost still hovers over this discussion and, even when unacknowledged, has left an unrehabilitated bit of religious sensibility…an unconscious assumption that if Free Will and Consciousness aren’t somehow immaterial and unpredictable then they aren’t really what they present themselves to be. (My workout on the topic is here.)

To sharpen this up, I’d like to propose a ‘Turning test’ for conscious experience:

If we materially recreate all the processes leading into a conscious moment then the output will be precisely what we experience.

To rephrase, if consciousness and choice are fully material processes, what could prevent their replication? To return to the rope metaphor, current fMRI research should let us tease out all the threads — all the systems activated — and model them in some material substrate that isn’t an actual human nervous system.

That should totally recreate our experience. If it can’t, then something else is going on and I’ll happily back up and take the other fork:-) And, either way, this will move us into serious sci-fi territory!

Of course, given the architecture and number of connections in a human nervous system, there will be some significant challenges getting to this point.

Pivot Point 3: What do we mean by consciousness?

This is the tricky one with roughly three continually evolving schools of thought.

My view: heck if I know precisely. However, I don’t find it useful to approach the question in the abstract, ie primarily by thinking more and harder. This is a topic to approach empirically.

Discussion: Evolutionary biology, broadly defined, provides a better path in.

We are not simply embodied consciousness. We are part of an evolutionary history and connected to a web of species. Each species is the current exemplar of a different branching at some point over the last three billion years.

On the paths from bacteria to complex animals, there are points where decisions are clearly all instinct — another somewhat muddy term but let’s use bugs as an example.

At some point, Sapiens, and most likely a few other species, developed ‘planning depth’ best conceptualized in game terms as the ability to think some number of moves ahead. (In the case of Homo Sapiens, we have developed sophisticated tools to add complexity and reach to our planning depth but our starting base depth is just a few moves ahead of what’s observed in our closest Chimp relatives.)

Our consciousness is so intertwined with rehearsing the next few steps or replaying the last few, that it’s hard to separate basic awareness from the ongoing planning chatter. Sorting out the threads in all this will be difficult but essential to eventually grasping what consciousness is. Perhaps transcranial magnetic stimulation or brain lesion research can give some clues. Perhaps cross-species comparisons of fMRI scans can as well.

I’d like to note that Carl Jung and members of his school believe that myth, e.g. Prometheus’ story, encodes and even channels the emergence of ego-centered consciousness.Myths, to them, aren’t merely a chronicle of changes in human culture and consciousness but are the vehicle for those changes. What is described in many of our myths is the wresting of deployable energy from the type of unconscious impulse that directs most behavior. ‘Conscious free will’ is an accomplishment, still tenuous. There’s a chance that some of the tools out there in Carl Jung / Joseph Campell land may prove helpful. I think so, but I’ll save more discussion on all that for another story.

The rope of darkened threads is a mythic tangle

Pivot Point 4: How can we tell if anyone else shares what we experience as consciousness?

My view: Technically we can’t but cmon!

Discussion: First, there’s the above: our evolutionary history. We are members of a species and an evolutionary lineage and share most of our genotype and most all of our morphology with the other Sapiens present and past and, in fact, a couple of our chimp cousins to boot.

Second, taking that as a given, the argument for any individual’s uniqueness is weak. What exactly would make you different from any other member of our species in this respect or, in fact, different than a number of other fellow inhabitants of our wonderful but imperiled biosphere?

In point of fact, I may not be able to tell if we’re seeing the same red but I can test to see if you’re color blind. I’m not privy to your decision-making process but we can experimentally determine the impact of a wide variety of cognitive biases. I don’t think it’s all that opaque. Frankly, I hear shards of the Ghost’s sheets flapping around this question and assume it will join Xeno’s Paradox in the annals of temporarily useful but ultimately irrelevant questions.

Pivot Point 5: Without truly ‘free’ conscious choice is there any basis for morality?

I’m going to leave this one alone. Not that it’s irrelevant, but it’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about beyond a simple heuristic that specifies that one’s responsibility extends to the range of one’s awareness of the impact of one’s actions.

If this is your jam, there’s a good look at free will and normative behavior by Ray Hubbard here: Can Compatibilism Save Free-Will? Reconciling a scientific worldview with free-will.

Thanks for reading.

If you like this sort of thing check out The Philosopher’s Stone on Medium or, in it’s trippiest form, on Brendan’s Podcast

 

The Story of Story #1

[This article is, also, available on Medium. If you read there, I would appreciate some Claps. Thanks.]

There’s a lot of focus on stories now. Ads or pitches must tell a story…or so the story goes.

I’m uninterested in the story Pepsi tells you or in learning how to craft such stories.

I am interested in the stories that your grandmother told you.

I’m interested in the stories you choose to tell to friends and family because, without understanding exactly why, they feel important.

This is the first in a series of posts that aim to tell the Story of these Stories. I begin with the genesis of my love of storytelling. Continue reading The Story of Story #1

Free Will Considered As Three Lunches (V2)

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

[This article is, also, available on Medium. If you read there, I would appreciate some Claps. Thanks.]

I frequently come across statements on Free Will, dressed up as science or philosophy, that are religion in drag.

Based on this unfirm foundation, the analysis goes sideways.

A thought experiment can help tidy things up.

Continue reading Free Will Considered As Three Lunches (V2)

Welcome to DarwinianInterlude.org

“Three billion years ago, life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.

Evolution was a communal affair.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share.

The Darwinian interlude had begun.

Now, after three billion years,

the Darwinian interlude is over.

— Freeman Dyson

Privacy is Doomed

[This article is, also, available on Medium. If you read there, I would appreciate some Claps. Thanks.]

Here’s a story about the future

– Technology is increasingly empowering the individual.
– 30 or so years out, some Columbine Killers wannabes will be able to use a virus or dirty bomb.
– The only real solution is the surveillance state. 
– There won’t be good individual counter-measures: trying to block surveillance will only make you stand out.
– One path to that solution is panic and partial collapse of our democratic standards similar to the dynamic of post-9/11 legislation.
– It would be nice to do better than that.

Continue reading Privacy is Doomed

good tribe / bad tribe — nerdcore mix

Theories of Human Evolution

Reading Dawkins

Dawkins’ Selfish Gene carries a lot of weight.

I discovered that back in 1975 when I first threw it across the room.

This happened right after the opening paragraph where he dismisses all philosophy written before Darwin. I hadn’t even gotten to the ‘lumbering robots’ part twenty pages in.

That was another toss.

Continue reading good tribe / bad tribe — nerdcore mix

Dissolving Empathy

Increasingly, disvalues appear as the principal output of the economy, and the production of goods and services as the means to prevent being injured by these disvalues.

Ivan Illich, Whole Earth Review 73 (Winter 1991)

“How Much a Dollar Really Cost”

Kendrick Lamar

1) Money is a substitute where human connection fails.

I’ve been tracking research on wealth and bad behavior for years…it confirms a bias of mine (more on that below)…but there’s a matching flip side. Something that surprised me.

An aside in a marketing course pointed me to research: folks that feel socially isolated will pursue a riskier investment strategy. The working hypothesis is that the accumulation of money is being used to compensate for a lack of community and connection.

Continue reading Dissolving Empathy

Coop Games – History and Suggestions

Up until very recently coop games sucked. They were generally aimed at grade school kids with a theory about provided a way to play games that wasn’t competitive. That negative objective (not being competitive) didn’t really do much for game design and even grade school kids tended to find them boring.

This started to change when one of the first wave of rock start German game designers, Dr Reiner Knizia, built out a Lord of the Rings board game into a successful coop game in 2000. (Knizia was a contemporary of Tueber of Settlers of Catan fame. For reference, Catan was published in 1995 and became the first Eurogame that remains an international hit.) Continue reading Coop Games – History and Suggestions

Privacy and Data Protection Lobbying

Premise – We Need to See What They Think They Have On Us

The intersection of innovations in data collection, tracking, and online advertising has created a novel situation in which the public is vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous advertisers and hostile foreign actors. In order for we as citizens to understand and take appropriate action, we need to start with an understanding of what information is being collected about us and how it is being used. From there it will be possible to tell what, if any, further regulation might be necessary. I, personally, think that this step should be all that’s needed.

We need a regulation paralleling the Fair Credit Reporting Act that allows us to discover 1) what data has been compiled on us and 2) who is using it and when.

This is particularly true for political advertising.

The companies that sell access to us including Facebook and Twitter, but, also, the Agencies that track our browsing history via cookies or feeds from our (now unregulated) Internet Providers need to make available information on what they are tracking about us and how it is being used. Continue reading Privacy and Data Protection Lobbying

Considering Science as Truth using Climate Change as an Example

We rely daily on science and it’s models to guide everything from what we eat, to the medicines we take, to the construction of the machines we use to get to work and back.

But are the models 100% certain?  Are they True with a capital T?

That question misunderstands how science works.

  • There are all sorts of stories about how the world works.
  • If your story is going to be science you need to be able to use it to generate bets.
  • The bets need to be bets you can settle using something observable.
  • The outcome has to be defined clearly enough that all parties agree it settles the bet and are willing to pay up. Even folks that do not like your story have to admit you won the bet.
  • If your story productively generates enough bets and then wins those bets,  your story is considered a ‘robust’ explanation of how things work.
  • Scientific Theories are the stories. They need to be able to generate Testable Hypothesis: the bets. Experiments test the hypothesis and declare the winner. Some theories win a lot.
  • We call the robust big winners ‘true’…but it’s more complicated.

Newton’s theories were incredibly robust until they got reframed by Einstein. Now they’re consider ‘true within limits.’ Big components, eg gravity itself, mean something very different to Einstein than to Newton.

Einstein’s Theories of Relativity are considered incredibly robust. And, along with most of physics (the most precise science we’ve got) there’s evidence that they’ll be reframed again within the next decade or three.

Net net, Newtonian mechanics aren’t ‘100% certain’…just true within the limits of our current understanding…but you bet your life on them every time you get in a car.

Science: being 25 years past my pre-science life expectancy, I’m a big fan!

The theory that we’re seeing potentially catastrophic human-caused climate change is, unfortunately, extremely robust at this point.

The models, also, point to ways we can mitigate that if we act in time.

Theories about climate change are contained in big models with precise mathematical relationships between the working parts. Globally there are 26 different research groups building competing climate models.

The models are in broad agreement on the big picture and are battling the fine points.  On that front, they’re duking it out in peer reviewed journals for glory and funding. Yes, scientists do want glory and need funding.  They are competing for attention and get glory and funding by winning bets, ie making accurate predictions. There’s an argument that this is harmful to the overall progress of science but, for now, winners win and losers lose.

It’s easier to shrug off the scientific evidence for climate change if you don’t dig into the modeling. This article from Bloomsberg Business Week, “What’s Really Warming the World?”, shows the detail and complexity being modeled better than anything else I’ve read. I think it makes the evidence much more compelling.

A final observation: if you do not have a model that’s winning bets against the others then you haven’t made table stakes. I don’t care if you’re some yahoo on talk radio or Freeman Dyson, one of my heroes.