Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

A Scientific Breakthrough on Free Will

A scientific breakthrough on free will
Roy F. Baumeister
This post is a response to Do the Laws of Physics Permit Any Exceptions? by Roy F. Baumeister

"The conviction persists - though history shows it to be a hallucination - that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them."
John Dewey in The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy

Tell me, are you a Homoousian or a Homoiousian?

Don't know the terms? In the second century heads rolled over the difference between these two camps. Intellectual culture was all steamed up about whether Jesus was made of the same substance as God or a different one, and the two factions, violent in their conviction went by these two names whose near-indistinguishability reflect the kind of "same difference" indifference most of us have about the question today. Intellectual culture has, as Dewey suggested, gotten over the question of whether Jesus and God are made of the same substance.

Since I'm asking you questions, here's another: How long ago did you stop feeding your pet kangaroo moon rocks?

Intellectual culture gets stuck on questions that contain false assumptions so hidden it takes us a while to even notice that we're making them. We get over these questions when the false assumptions become as glaring as mine that you have both a pet kangaroo and access to a sufficient quantity of moon rocks to feed him.

It can take years, centuries or even millennia to spot the false assumptions. When there's a question we churn over for a very long time without headway, searching for hidden false assumptions is a good bet for how to get over the stalemate.

Intellectual culture has been stuck for millennia on the question of whether we have Free Will or are deterministically constrained to behave the way we do. We go back and forth on it, factions emphatic in their arguments pro and con but gaining no ground. I won't recount the whole debate here. I'll refresh your mind though, with this cute, pro-determinism limerick:

There was a young man who said "damn."
For it certainly seems that I am
A creature that moves
In immutable grooves
I'm not even a bus; I'm a tram.

A new field of scientific research called "emergent dynamics" has exposed our hidden false assumptions about Free Will, which I'll try to distill for you here.

We assume that Free Will is exercised by a little guy, an agent, a homunculus, a soul, an independent, invisible action-figure who operates the physical world's heavy equipment, exerting acts of entirely unconstrained "Will" that move matter, sometimes even mountains.

Our image of this free agent is basically, God's mini-me. God, we intuit is an independent, invisible and indivisible agent who can move mountains, independent of the mountains moving Him. God is not a tram; he's a bus, free to steer where He pleases. The Free Will question is about whether we are like that, exerting independent, un-constrained "Will" on the world. The implicit metaphor for both God or Free Will's source is really a soul, an independent point of origin for "Willed" behavior.

When we think about a point of origin for willed behavior, especially an invisible one like God or a soul, we think of it as a point really, not necessarily tiny, but certainly indivisible and solid with no parts and nothing moving around inside it. The Greek word for such things is "atom." Like the one-dimensional points you learned about in geometry, atoms are useful fictions, but they're decidedly fictions. Physicists gave up on atoms a while ago. Even in the physical sciences, we don't fine anything solid, not comprised of parts in dynamical (meaning moving) relationship with each other. It's not that quarks are the new indivisible atoms. They too are comprised of parts in dynamical relationship.

Emergent dynamics is the scientific field in which we attempt to understand how the peculiar dynamics of conscious selves like you and me emerge from life's peculiar dynamics, which emerge from chemistry's dynamics.

Emergent dynamic's breakthrough on free will is this: As we go from chemistry to consciousness, constraint plays an ever-greater role. It's counter-intuitive, but conscious selves like you and me are free because we're constrained.

People, the supposed agents of Free Will, have lots of moving parts that interact intricately to precise exacting standards. I mean just take a look at yourself. If you were designed and engineered, which you were not, you would be a very fancy machine indeed.

Take your hand. Versatile, innovating, clearly instrumental in your freedom to act upon the world, and clearly free to do so much because of its tight constraints, the precision with which the joints articulate and interact, the tension and tensile strength of its tendons, all of that exquisite neurological detail.

Take a roulette wheel, which, unlike you, is designed and engineered. Great care goes into giving that ball bearing total freedom to fall where it might. Again that freedom depends on tight tolerances and precision, the way that the slots are machined to the same height, width and depth so that the wheel isn't biased and the ball has equal potential to fall into any slot.

"Equipotentiality," the equal potential to go this way or that doesn't come easy, and yet evolution, which yields selves like you, capable of, for example, choosing to design and engineer roulette wheels, somehow accumulates tight constraints that make increasing amounts of equipotentiality possible.

These days I'm using speech-to-text technology to write these essays. It took software engineers decades of precision work to provide me with this new and freeing technology for conveying my ideas. It took far longer for humans to evolve a capacity for language in the first place and the precision with which your language works. Language, you'll remember was a bit of a fuss to learn, but worth it for the way it frees you up to express anything you might want to convey. And language is fussy to use also. This week for example, I'm trying to constrain out the ambiguity in the word "will." I want to constrain your interpretation, so when, for example, you read the words "the free will debate" you don't have equal potential to think I'm referring to the free people who will debate. I want to corner you with a particular idea that I think might free us from the millennia old stalemate.

Because the dancehall is a safe, tightly controlled environment, you feel free to dance wildly. Because the pianist is playing such a tightly crafted instrument, she is free to explore and create. Because the scientist is working in such a beautifully controlled facility, she can really kick out the jams, discovering the unforeseen. Because the computer programmer is working with stable hardware and software he can generate the new killer app that frees me from the constraints of typing.

The hidden assumptions worth getting over are these:

  1. The question is whether there are Atoms of Will: False. The things that show signs of will are organisms, and they aren't and can't be homogenous, indivisible solid atoms.
  2. All action is either externally imposed or internally generated: False. With life, internal and external constraints accumulate toward the tight tolerances that make for new equipotentiality and therefore freedom.
  3. Free Will is self-exertion that moves mountains: False. Because of tight tolerances on some things you have equal potential on others, a choice to go this way or that which is less about exertion than equipotential.

The emergent dynamics approach to Free Will focuses on the new kinds of constraint that emerge at the origins of evolution. Life has an open-endedness about it, a capacity to accumulate novel adaptations, new intricacies that free organisms to proliferate, and to generate vast ecologies, intricate networks of constraint and possibility. Chemistry is determined but life isn't. There's some phase shift in the dynamical relationships of living systems that makes Kangaroos different from moon rocks. And no, it's not that we are somehow seeded with magical invisible Atoms of Will. We're still chemistry but under new constraints that emergent dynamic theory is beginning to uncover.

Once we stop thinking of Free Will as the exertion of some entirely unfettered disembodied agent and see it as a product of ever-evolving equipotentiality through accumulating constraint, we get over the wrong questions and on to the right ones. How does evolution begin? What shifted with life that generated the capacity to accumulate adaptive constraints, the tightenings that have loosened things up for life? How does life's freed-up meaningful behavior, differ from deterministic physical behavior? How do consciousness's peculiar constraints emerge from life's?

This article has been much more about freedom than will. In a follow up article I'll report on the emergent dynamics by which sentient selves emerge. Selves are dynamical systems, not those mythically solid, indivisible "Atoms of Will" we need to get over, but selves nonetheless, the loci of assertion that we know ourselves to be, capable of acting on the world, swimming upstream against the flow.

 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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