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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.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 22nd, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
Wow. Well done, sir.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
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.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 09:42 pm (UTC)
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
(no subject) - tacit - Aug. 25th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 22nd, 2008 08:28 pm (UTC)
I must say, I'm quite impressed with the shit that goes on in your head.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC)
Chewbacca defense! How have I missed this!?! Clearly, I need to be watching South Park.


Aug. 22nd, 2008 10:04 pm (UTC)
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.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
. (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.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 10:37 pm (UTC)
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
Aug. 22nd, 2008 11:43 pm (UTC)
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....

Aug. 29th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
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.
Aug. 23rd, 2008 12:54 am (UTC)
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!

Edited at 2008-08-23 12:55 am (UTC)
Aug. 23rd, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
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.
Aug. 23rd, 2008 02:39 am (UTC)
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.
Aug. 29th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
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. :)
(no subject) - ab3nd - Sep. 7th, 2008 01:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 29th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
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. :)
Aug. 23rd, 2008 04:43 am (UTC)
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.
Aug. 23rd, 2008 04:45 am (UTC)
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.

Edited at 2008-08-23 04:47 am (UTC)
Aug. 24th, 2008 01:59 am (UTC)
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.
Aug. 29th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
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.
(no subject) - nihilus - Sep. 2nd, 2008 04:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
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