Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Today I wanted to talk about the concept of Free Will. I've had this discussion with multiple friends recently and I thought I'd bring it to the blag. Hopefully we can get a discussion going.... (lazy readers). Well there's a lot to talk about, but where to start....

Generally speaking, humans are predisposed to believing in Dualism. To put it briefly, Dualism is the theory that at least some mental processes are non-physical. It's easy to see why we'd think this. It's hard to grasp the concept of the mind and how we think.

The Dualism theory begins to lose credibility when you examine cases where the brain is damaged or altered. There have been many instance where someone takes a blow to the head and has loss of mental function. It is pretty clear that decision making and other brain functions are the result of neurons firing or not firing.

Neural Networks could really be its own fascinating subject, but I'll try to review it quickly here (I'm not an expert, however). Basically, your brain is a collection of neurons that make up many paths through your brain. Sensory inputs trigger these neurons to fire, which in turn triggers the next neuron to fire (if the strength of the previous neuron is large enough). The more a certain path of neurons is used, the easier it is for that path to fire. This is how motor skills are developed, as well as how other skills are learned. Of course it's really much more complicated, but that's the general theory. Some AI systems are modeled this way. It's surprising to see how similarly we operate when compared with computers.

Now I sort of want to switch topics to Randomness. I'll start with a favorite quote of mine:

"Occurrences in this domain are beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack of order in nature."
~Albert Einstein

What Einstein is basically saying here (and what I am inclined to believe) is that there really is no such thing as random. Events happen as a reaction to some prior event. It's as simple as that. We perceive things as random when something happens we do not expect, or when we can't see the pattern. Just like how there is no true randomness in computers, there is no true randomness in nature. I assert that if you knew every variable in operation, you could predict any future event.

You might say, "what about human influence?" Well humans are just another variable in the equation, with brains made of matter that are subject to the same laws of cause and effect. The human brain is a function, with inputs and outputs. It's a complicated function, and one that changes constantly, but it is predictable.

Now what does all this have to do with Free Will? Well if minds are subject to the physical laws of matter and there really is no such thing as randomness in nature, what are we left with? Predestination comes to mind, although I hate the sound of the word. I'm saying that since the mind is simply a function with inputs and outputs, we never actually make a choice. The choice is already made what we're eating for lunch tomorrow. I think we don't realize it because we are not aware of all the processes going on in our brain.

So what does this mean for life as we know it? Nothing really... We will always feel like we're making the choices. I also doubt we will ever have the technology or the intelligence to accurately predict future events (I'm not talking about trivial things like predicting an eclipse).

There are some issues I haven't covered yet in regards to this theory of mine. Humans are self-aware and have the ability to imagine possible outcomes and weigh them. Self-awareness is the tricky one. Why exactly are we aware of our thought processes is unknown to me. My best guess would be that it is a side effect of our ability to imagine.

Imagination is undoubtedly a major strength in terms of survivability. We can imagine possible outcomes based on previous information stored in our memory (memory is located in a physical part of our brain). Using this information we can weigh outcomes and make what we perceive to be a choice. However, these presented outcomes are the output of some process in the brain. The imagined outcomes then become the inputs to our "decision making" function. No choice is actually made however, because the decision making function has a predetermined output based on our imagined input.

So maybe our "thoughts" are just an interpretation of the inner imagination process going on in our brains. Just like the visual system makes an interpretation of the physical world that's useful to us in terms of survivability. (Did you know that objects we can see are mostly empty space? Since we can't actually pass through these objects we perceive them as solid).

So, there are my thoughts on Free Will. Hopefully I didn't ramble too much. I welcome your questions and comments. An opinion is worthless until someone has tried to prove it wrong.


  1. hard to prove your opinion wrong because you wrote about so much, lol. i believe that self awareness is another lovely side effect of evolution, and i believe other animals have self awareness, they just don't have the intelligence/motor skills to really show it. i agree with you about our brain being a giant computer, because in essence, it is - but i also think there are factors on an atomic level going on that we aren't even aware of. now, i definitely do not think we could predict the future if we could figure out the brain - to do that you'd have to figure out your reaction to a certain event, and the reaction that cause that event, and the reaction that cause the reaction to that event... it's impossible because you'd have to trace everythign back to the big bang. know what i mean?

    here, wrap your brain around this one:

    this theory has been used to describe literally everything - from the idea of "feeling god present" to some people being able to (supposedly - i'm still skeptical of this being possible) read minds. i saw something on this discovery channel about this theory, and about little strands of energy that literally link EVERYTHING down to the atomic level. crazy stuff :) i've got more but i have to go

  2. I definitely agree with you that it would be too difficult for us to actually predict the future, but I would hesitate to say impossible. I disagree with what you say about needing to knew every previous event however. All you would need to know is the current state of the world and how things interact. From there you could predict any future event. Compare this with computers. You only need to know the current state the computer is in to be able to predict its next action.

    Basically, it doesn't matter what the previous events are, because they have already made their impact on the world and have brought it to its current state.

  3. I think it's an interesting topic. It's not hard to believe that events are triggered or happen due to a past event. We have always learned in science that for every action, there is a reaction. It is difficult to think though, of what actions cause what reactions. I bit my mail today and spit it on the floor. Was that the start of World War 3? I ate peanut butter and jelly today, did I just cause a flood in India? How would we judge what actions cause what reactions? Those were my first thoughts.

  4. Well, you're sort of thinking on too large of a scale I think. Think of existence as being a bunch of atoms bouncing around and behaving as the laws of physics dictate. If you break it down like that it becomes a little easier to imagine. Although, that's not how we'd normally picture the world.

    You make a valid point though. How would we really know? I guess that's why life remains interesting to us. It's the suspense.

  5. Wrap your brain around this, you mention self awareness, and you guess that it is a side effect of our ability to imagine. What if self awareness is a step towards predicting the future. I don't wanna throw around the term evolving, but what if we are "evolving to a point where we can make decisions based on future outcomes." We sort of are doing that now. I won't rob this man because I will go to jail, I won't touch this because it is hot, etc.

  6. It's hard for me to really wrap my brain around this because you're combining two entirely unrelated concepts in chemical synapses and cause-and-effect... Which makes this tricky to really sum all up.
    An interest topic for you to read on (although the scientific community hasn't really jumped on it yet) is the "Quantum Brain Theory" which states that our brain is just a gigantic quantum computer... deals with a LOT of what you are saying. I'm sure wikipedia has an entry.

  7. see, i think you would need to know every previous event, because 'the general state of the world' has nothing to do with why i chose to wear blue today. you can't really compare it with computers, because computers have only been around for a short time. although, if you could somehow input all of my life experiences and memories and my genetic make-up into a computer, then you may be able to determine my future decisions. but then you're talking the future in relation to a single human being, not the future on a grander scale.

    ever think about how much the brain has evolved since the dawn of time and how much more it will evolve in a few millennia? we've evolved to think 'i won't touch this because it is hot' because that is a survival tool - people who could think of their future outcomes were more apt to survive. i also think the advent of spoken language had a lot to do with development of our thought processes and "imagination". to save a lot of rambling i think self awareness is not some spiritual gift given only to humans by god, but an evolutional phenomenon that allowed humans to thrive. who knows what a couple more millenia of evolution will do to human brains

  8. You're still missing my point a bit I think. You seem to think our past experiences is something continuous and intangible. But if you think about it, the only way our past experience effect us is through memories. Memories are stored in the physical brain. They aren't some floating intangible concept. They are there in the brain. So the brain has a state at any given moment. You can quantify someone's entire existence in that moment by the state of their brain.

    So yes, the current state of the world (the state of your brain included) has everything to do with why you wear blue shoes today. You're past experiences are all condensed in your brain as memories. And I'm no expert, but it wouldn't be hard to imagine that the brain's ability to store memory is no different than a hard drive or RAM. We have long term and short term memory, just like computers.