Returning to Free Will

In a prior recent discussion on free will, I had proposed an “experimental” instead of purely philosophical or theoretical notion of free will to replace the less well defined ones more commonly used. My definition was that a being possessed free will, if:

  1. It was under no measureable constraints forcing its choices.
  2. Its results of choices could not be predicted, and
  3. It “weakly” satisfied the Turing test, in that it could explain a rational for its choice.

In the following discussion two main objections arose, one in which questions whether this excludes things we would normally not think have free will, say AI programs running on a PC or PCs and whether deterministic beings, i.e., beings whose function is driven by deterministic physical laws, can have free will. By my definitions, the first is excluded in that a “listing” of the program and careful examination of code, data, and inputs of the program should be able to allow one to violate #2, i.e., one could predict the response. In that way, the “deterministic” nature of the being means it is constrained too highly by the simplicity (?) of its design to be free. 

Determinism however in and of itself does not constrain behavior of a dynamical system as highly as might be expected. Any non-trivial many body dynamical system exhibits a complicated enough phase space that it is in practice unpredictable. Add non-linear interactions and the phase space likely becomes dense (not bound to rational solutions) … I have no proof at hand for that, it’s more something of a conjecture but I think it is right. What is meant by this? Take a simple two body system with an inverse square law interaction. The solution is linear and solveable. Given initial conditions the positions and velocities of the two bodies will be known to be constrained to be found on particular elliptical curve. The error of your prediction will be bound by an error function which is polynomial and likely linear. Take a slightly more complicated, still linear, system and the much higher dimensional phase space will more likely be, although rational, a space filling curve bound by the energy of the initial system. The error of prediction will not be such a kind function as the linear case. Thus given a random time ahead in the future, one will need infinite accuracy specifying the initial conditions to establish the outcome.

Take a even more complicated system, such as the human brain, with billions of interaction and non-linear terms involved and all bets are off regarding any hope of prediction. A simple non-linear one variable iterative formula at certain tuning values can act as a simple “shift” function, stripping off with each iteration the highest order digit. There is no hope of specifing anything with complete certainty, even without resorting to quantum mechanics which tells us it is really impossible, so non-linearity as in the weather defeats prediction without resorting to the quantum randomness inherent at small scales. And it really is a different sort of randomness I think. Quantum randomness needs short distances, high energies, to tap. Classical chaos gets its randomness by a different road.

One question that comes to (my) mind is the following. It seems to me that a source of randomness, quantum or deterministic, can alone in concert with system which can yeild aesthetic judgement might yeild creative results. Let me restate that. If one could develop a deterministic (rule based for instance) algorithm, network, or other system which can evaluate an aesthetic, i.e., judge a thing on its artistic worth or for lack of another term … judge beauty. Can you develop a system to judge by a set criteria, whether music played or a score is beautiful? Because if that were the case, then determinism might be compatible with creative genius. A finite pool of monkeys will not rewrite Hamlet (or the unwritten unthought sequel) unless the monkeys (or the judge) can filter the good from the bad.  But if you learn to see beauty in a system, like music or maths, and tap into randomness in a productive way, it can drive new thoughts onto the board unconsidered by anyone, but which pass the aesthetic judge. And from thence, one might get the little Mozart-like comic operatic ditty transformed, as Shostokovitch did in his magnificent 7th, into a multi-faceted representation of the Nazi war machine.

On the “simple” system and it’s exclusion, Anne had written:

Here’s what fails with the “like a duck” definition: there are computer programs now (e.g. story-generators) that, from the outside, walk like a duck and talk like a duck, and when confronted with those you want to get inside the box and know initial states and step-by-step debugging: you want access to information you cannot have for a human being.

My answer is the following. The human is a fundamentally different dynamical system. You cannot get inside the box, know its initial states and do step by step debugging. The computer running the AI program is akin, in a fundamental way, to the two body problem. It is completely defined and constrained by its initial conditions. The human is too comples, likely non-linear and chaotic. It’s “inital states” cannot, fundamentally, be known. They are a source, not of pseudo-randomness, but real actuall randomness.

Creativity, to my mind, cannot exist without free will. If one is faced with a choice or a problem a constrained system, i.e., unfree, will be constrained to choose a result pre-ordained. What a constrained being cannot do, is think or create ideas which are new, unconsidered by the constraint. A will must I think, by defnition be free to think a thought unthought by anyone before.

She also asks a kicker of a question:

But lack of knowledge (of constraints) is not the same as knowledge of lack of constraints, like with the limited knowledge of the prisoner in the two guards dilemma. 9 times out of 10 you’re an ontologist not a functionalist; why are you a functionalist now?

Ontology is a new game for me. 😀   You (Ann) was trained in phychology and have been a programmer for 2 decades. I was trained in Physics and have also been a progammer for 2 decades.  The functional definitions, the positivist approach to theory and experiment was hammered in for a decade before I knew ontology was a word that meant anything. It is an interesting question of why JA and I have traded hats though, why has he donned the ontological hat and I the positivistic one? But of course the more interesting question might be is whether the positivistic definition of free will connects at all with an ontic one.

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34 comments

  1. It is an interesting question of why JA and I have traded hats though, why has he donned the ontological hat and I the positivistic one?

    I haven’t donned an ontological hat. I just object to what I see as misdirection — using a red herring (predictability) to negate something already stipulated (determinism.) And I’m not a strict positivist, for the record. I just happen to trust science a whole lot more than, e.g., reports of individual witnesses to supernatural events.

  2. Mark says:

    JA,
    But your objection that a deterministic thing can’t have free will is not based on observation but an ontological claim that determinism excludes free will.

  3. Well, yeah. Just as my objection that a circle can’t be square is ontological rather than observational. “Free will” is an ontological thing, not an observed thing, just as (geometric) circles and squares are.

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    But the property that a circle can’t be a square is not the same a the argument that a deterministic thing can’t have free will. The first are apples to apples, i.e., comparing direct consequences of things. The second is apples and oranges.

    Your claim that a deterministic object is constrained by its initial conditions is not salient because the initial conditions are something you cannot specify or determine. So the constraint is fundamentally meaningless.

  5. I disagree. I think it’s apples to apples. You have two ontological concepts which fundamentally contradict each other. Squares cannot be circles and free will can not be deterministic.

    One of us is seriously missing something here. I’m completely mystified as to how you can argue that something can be both free and deterministic. To me that’s an oxymoron. It brings to mind Henry Ford’s famous statement that you could have a Ford in any color you want, “as long as it’s black.”

    If you have a reason as to why the question of whether we can specify or determine the initial conditions is relevant, I have not yet understood it.

  6. Mark says:

    JA,
    If I said you don’t have free will demons control your every action. You would reply, aha! You can’t measure or detect those demons.

    You can’t measure or determine initial conditions either … so the fact that the time evolution is governed by known laws (which may are likely non-linear) means just as much as those demons to the freedom of will.

  7. But, unlike free will demons, we’re stipulating that initial condition exist! You don’t need to be able to measure something if all you need to know is that it exists and you’ve already stipulated its existence.

  8. In other words, if you and I agreed that free will demons exist, I wouldn’t demand that I be able to measure them as well!

  9. Kornhuber’s experiment in 1964 and Libet’s in 1983 challenge the idea that the conscious mind controls what we do.

    In fact areas of the brain are initiating activity long before we experience the sensation of “willing it”.

    If the conscious mind is not the location of our will, is there free will?

  10. Mark says:

    JA,
    Uhm, what does “exist” mean for a think thing which is unmeasurable. They exist only in a theoretical sense … just like the demons.

    egs,

    If the conscious mind is not the location of our will, is there free will?

    Not to me, or at least my slightly positivist formulation of free will above.

    Anyhow I’d argue that unless you identify “yourself” as only your conscious mind, then the answer is no. I’d identify myself as my whole self, body, brain (which would be conscious, unconscious, emotions, hormones … the whole shebang). That is the “self” that I propose has free will.

  11. Uhm, what does “exist” mean for a think thing which is unmeasurable. They exist only in a theoretical sense … just like the demons.

    Are you one of those people who thinks the universe disappears when you close your eyes? I really don’t understand this reasoning.

    Anyhow I’d argue that unless you identify “yourself” as only your conscious mind, then the answer is no. I’d identify myself as my whole self, body, brain (which would be conscious, unconscious, emotions, hormones … the whole shebang).

    It doesn’t matter how broadly you define yourself, unless there is something in there that is neither deterministic nor probabilistic nor random, I can’t see how it can have “free will.” I might as well say that a river has free will.

  12. Mark says:

    JA,

    Are you one of those people who thinks the universe disappears when you close your eyes? I really don’t understand this reasoning.

    I’m one of those people who think that “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it” is not a valid question. This is a fundamental insight in Quantum physics. It is not solipsism. It is our best understanding of our physical universe.

    Of course I can say a river doesn’t have free will because it doesn’t meet my criteria.

    Deterministic does not exclude random. You insist that it excludes free will too. Both, I think, are wrong. Quantum physics is deterministic and explicitly contains random elements. Classical physics is deterministic and can also exhibit true, not pseudo-random, behavior. The point is deterministic isn’t as restrictive as you think it is.

    And the remarks of how I identify “self” were to the conscious mind vs unconscious elements of self from the other commenter.

  13. This is a fundamental insight in Quantum physics.

    Quantum physics teaches us that we cannot measure both the direction and velocity of a particle at the same time. It doesn’t say that the particle does not have a direction and velocity!

  14. Mark says:

    JA,
    You happen to be wrong. Quantum mechanics is something I do know something about as it was what I studied for quite some time.

    Basically, position and momentum are expectations values, and you are right, uncertainty tells us we cannot specify both to arbitrary accuracy. BTW it is not direction and velocity, direction + velocity is a velocity vector. Momentum is the product of that and mass. Position and momentum are the conjugate quantities to which uncertainty applies.

    Quantum mechanics also says that “things” are “really” wave functions. Position and momentum are real values, expectation values. You cannot form an expectation value without an experiment, i.e., a measurement. That is the tree/noise/observer part. Things unmeasured are still complex amplitudes, i.e., wave functions. They don’t have a position or momentum at all in the classical sense, just a complex distribution.

  15. Yeah, I don’t know quantum mechanics. Still, I don’t see how that resolves the determinism-freedom paradox.

  16. Anne says:

    Mark, I’m trying to figure out exactly what you’re arguing here. Are you saying that humans are deterministic but still have “free will” (Mark’s Dictionary) because there are so many variables that we’re unpredictable? Or am I missing your point? Are you arguing for “unconstrained will” or for “unpredictable will”?

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF

  17. Mark says:

    Anne,
    I’m saying two things, alas, probably confusing and mixing them.

    First, I think what I’m saying is that given true randomness not pseudo-randomness coupled (internally) with a (possibly deterministic or even rule based) method of determining beauty via aesthetic that one can arrive a true creative response, which is therefore free.

    That is one’s random “pool” can internally provide possibilities which are then evaluated. Because the pool of “suggestions” is truly random and internally I’m judging them for fitness my response cannot be predicted (which is why unpredictable comes in). If my choice is found by such mechanisms (and indeed my judgement that it is good enough as well) then why is that not “free”?

    The second thing I’m wondering is what are the consequences of using this criteria to identify ontological free will. JA (and perhaps yourself) are unconvinced it is adequate. But, then, what goes wrong if it is used?

    JA,
    See the above, it resolves the paradox because deterministic systems can provide true, not pseudo, randomness.

  18. Mark:

    But isn’t it still inevitable, given a random input, that you “choose” a certain response? If the only freedom involved is randomness, I can’t see how you can call that “will.”

  19. Mark says:

    JA,
    I’m confused on how, “given random inputs” you can say a certain choice will be chosen? The randomness isn’t an input. It’s internal. That is the randomness is part of “self”, it is not an “input”.

    It is will because the self, including its random elements, chose it.

  20. It is will because the self, including its random elements, chose it.

    So if we developed a true random number generator for a complex computer program that incorporated them into a decision-making process, would that program have free will?

  21. Mark says:

    JA,
    I guess I’m saying it could if “done right”.

  22. So I guess how I’m still having trouble seeing how a system made up exclusively of random and mechanistic parts could add up to free will. The random part is not will and the mechanistic part is not free.

  23. Mark says:

    JA,
    Because it’s recursive and self-modifying in part. The “rules” for determining aesthetics are modified and subject to the randomness/rule combination itself.

    But more importantly, the parts are not separable. Randomness is not will and mechanism is not free, but the gestalt can be. It’s like you saying I’m not human because my hand, my head, and my heart taken individually do not a human make.

  24. Mark says:

    JA,
    What can a free willed being do that the system we’re talking about not do?

  25. Randomness is not will and mechanism is not free, but the gestalt can be.

    How? You’re arguing that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That requires some justification.

    What can a free willed being do that the system we’re talking about not do?

    I’m starting to think that free will is a fundamentally incoherent concept. As I argued earlier, I do not have free will because there is no “I.” There is a large colony of cells that we can call “I,” but the “I” part is just an emergent phenomenon of that system. That’s what I was getting at with my river analogy. I think it’s quite likely that a river has as much free will as we do — any randomness in our brains is at least matched by randomness in the sub-molecular interactions of a river with the earth, and the “rules” it follows are no more mechanistic.

  26. And it’s at least as unpredictable, too!

  27. Mark says:

    JA,

    How? You’re arguing that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That requires some justification.

    Why? I don’t have to justify the notion that I’m human because my parts taken individual are not.

    As I argued earlier, I do not have free will because there is no “I.” There is a large colony of cells that we can call “I,” but the “I” part is just an emergent phenomenon of that system.

    What’s wrong with an emergent phenomena? Why is it problematic?

    A river fails the “weak” Turing test, as far as my criteria.

    Concepts which get confusing under close examination, “what is I” and “free will” doesn’t necessarily mean that they are meaningless or fundamentally incoherent.

    As I’ve said a few times, I think creativity implies free will. I can’t imagine the former in the absence of the latter. Do you have a counterexample for that?

  28. Why? I don’t have to justify the notion that I’m human because my parts taken individual are not.

    No, but you have to justify the notion that throwing together randomness with mechanistic processes can lead to free will.

    What’s wrong with an emergent phenomena? Why is it problematic?

    It’s problematic because there’s no there there. Look beneath the surface and it’s just a meaningless pattern.

    As I’ve said a few times, I think creativity implies free will. I can’t imagine the former in the absence of the latter. Do you have a counterexample for that?

    Well, as an atheist, I’d say that all of “creation” is an example of “creativity” without will, free or otherwise.

  29. Mark says:

    JA,

    No, but you have to justify the notion that throwing together randomness with mechanistic processes can lead to free will.

    I thought I did, that is to sketch a picture of how such a thing would look. What aren’t you following about it? Do I need to expand that to a full post?

    It’s problematic because there’s no there there. Look beneath the surface and it’s just a meaningless pattern.

    Take you. There is a there there … if you don’t look below the surface. Take you. You insist if you look “beneath the surface” there is no there there. But there is, if you don’t. You are certainly there, a definable thing. You can be identified as a logical, legal, moral, and physical entity.

    Well, as an atheist, I’d say that all of “creation” is an example of “creativity” without will, free or otherwise.

    But actually, if I read you rightly, you’re arguing that Creation is the only source of creativity. That nothing else in it has the same. I’m disagreeing that the Big bang and the initial conditions set up there implied Beethoven’s ninth. If you think the classical mechanical idea that the initial conditions of the Universe predetermined everything to follow … well, that’s neither physically understood today to be true, based to quote you, on the “consensus of scientists.” That’s one I happen to agree with. If you think that it’s just emergent meaningless patterns, perhaps I’ve chosen a bad example, because for me (and most listeners) it has symbolic and artistic content. It isn’t meaningless. In fact it is beautiful as well as containing meaning.

    This discussion we’re having, is it also devoid of meaning, just “meaningless emergent behavior”, because I’d argue that’s well, silly.

  30. I thought I did, that is to sketch a picture of how such a thing would look. What aren’t you following about it? Do I need to expand that to a full post?

    I get how it would look. It’s just that it looks to me like a system that only appears to have free will, because when you look under the hood, there’s no there there.

    Take you. There is a there there … if you don’t look below the surface. Take you. You insist if you look “beneath the surface” there is no there there. But there is, if you don’t. You are certainly there, a definable thing. You can be identified as a logical, legal, moral, and physical entity.

    Well this is definitely entering ontological territory. I’d argue that there is a there there for some purposes — like the legal, moral, and physical ones you mention. But there is no homunculus, no soul, no will. It’s all just an illusion.

    But actually, if I read you rightly, you’re arguing that Creation is the only source of creativity. That nothing else in it has the same.

    Well, Creation includes everything within it. Birdsong, the painted desert, nebulae, etc.

    . I’m disagreeing that the Big bang and the initial conditions set up there implied Beethoven’s ninth. If you think the classical mechanical idea that the initial conditions of the Universe predetermined everything to follow … well, that’s neither physically understood today to be true, based to quote you, on the “consensus of scientists.”

    Sure, of course I recognize that. What I’m arguing is that the new, updated physics, where some things are literally random (or probabilistic or what have you) don’t leave any more room for will. Beethoven’s Ninth then is a result of the initial state of the universe (itself probably random) followed by a long sequence of mechanistic and random events.

    I freely admit this defies all intuition, but I just can’t figure out how free will fits in there.

    In fact it is beautiful as well as containing meaning.

    Does it? Does it mean anything outside of our heads (and Beethoven’s?)

    This discussion we’re having, is it also devoid of meaning, just “meaningless emergent behavior”, because I’d argue that’s well, silly.

    Yeah, arguing against free will is quite absurd, I know. I just can’t help it.

  31. Mark says:

    JA,

    I get how it would look. It’s just that it looks to me like a system that only appears to have free will, because when you look under the hood, there’s no there there.

    Why is it necessary to “look under the hood” to determine if a thing is free willed? It seems to me you should be able to define some test/criteria to determine if a thing is free willed without disassembly.

    But there is no homunculus, no soul, no will. It’s all just an illusion.

    “No will”? Please that can’t be. I certainly can decide to do a thing and follow through. Isn’t that will? Volition? We (including you) certainly possess that.

    In fact it is beautiful as well as containing meaning.

    Does it? Does it mean anything outside of our heads (and Beethoven’s?)

    Beauty only has meaning in the context of the observer, specifically a (free willed?) creative intelligent observer. And … it has one. 😀

  32. Why is it necessary to “look under the hood” to determine if a thing is free willed? It seems to me you should be able to define some test/criteria to determine if a thing is free willed without disassembly.

    But disassembly would give us a more correct answer, no? It lets us tell the difference between something that looks like something and something that is something.

    “No will”? Please that can’t be. I certainly can decide to do a thing and follow through. Isn’t that will? Volition? We (including you) certainly possess that.

    I’m saying that you and I cannot “decide” to do a thing and follow through, depending on the definition of “decide.” If “decide” includes the equivalent of being bound to flip a coin and being bound by the result, I can’t see how that involves free will.

    Beauty only has meaning in the context of the observer, specifically a (free willed?) creative intelligent observer. And … it has one. 😀

    So I think that we (and Beethoven) give the Ninth meaning — so it’s not surprising that we find it meaningful.

  33. Mark says:

    JA,

    But disassembly would give us a more correct answer, no? It lets us tell the difference between something that looks like something and something that is something.

    Not necessarily. Disassembly only gives us a more correct answer if you both ask the right questions and understand what you see.

    So I think that we (and Beethoven) give the Ninth meaning — so it’s not surprising that we find it meaningful.

    The point isn’t that we find it meaningful, its that we find it beautiful and is (was) completely new and original. That is important … and a thing I don’t think can be done absent free will.

  34. Mark says:

    Jim,
    Sorry about the troubles in posting you had. I’m hoping to rework the layout and revisit plugins and so on in the near future … perhaps Memorial Day weekend? If I get time.

    I’m intrigued that you mention Rene Thom that takes me back a bit. When I started my graduate school career in 1985 I had intended to go into non-linear mechanics or solid state theory. I was sitting in with them, when the catastrophe “idea” got hot … it didn’t make much impression on the non-linear dynamics crowd, as they considered it a fairly a simple idea pushed too hard.

    Anyhow, strange attractors, chaos and other non-linear dynamical ideas did (and perhaps reading your comment) are used a lot to derive by explanations for behavioral models. Such as your example of chaotic “hot” network collapsing to a local point of stability as explaining choice.

    I brought up QM with JA because he doesn’t see how classical dynamics can give rise to randomness. Whether QM indeterminacy solves his objection or not, is not an issue which keeps me up at night because I think classically randomness can occur without requiring any mechanisms.

    My idea for metrics was somewhat simpler. If you had a rule based “expert” type system for determining if a musical composition (or bird song in your example) was beautiful. Then if you set it to testing random waveforms it might be able to pick up and “compose” new music which is original and beautiful. If a system has a notion of aesthetics and choices, a random noise source as input can give unpredictable but explicable choices. If that same system also turned on itself (i.e., an aesthetic random seeded rule based engine looking at the aesthetics of its own rules) then is that enough for creativity and free will?