Stemming from some observations in the Growlery about robots sending back data to a central processor, we embarked on a long journey on how visual data made it from the eye to the brain. Based on the electrochemical processes involved in this journey, we finally made some observations about human thinking, particularly with respect to the concept of "free will." Most people would say that this is an example of reductionism carried to the extreme.
For those interested in these posts I refer you to a recent post that has the appropriate links. At this point I would like to offer observations, as poor as they may be, on the comments.
Let me start with those of the Growlery. (The erudition there embarrasses me.) If you are interested in this, it is essential that you read the whole post. It offers a large number of points, topics, questions on which one could chew for quite some time.
Growlery (hereafter G): Any intellectually honest atheist (amongst whom I hope I can claim a place) has to admit that, while there is no scientifically assessable evidence that a god or gods exist, there is no evidence of nonexistence either, so the room for honest manoeuvre and plurality of view is there.
Dr.C.: This is a good point but, as our friend over at Pharyngla points out, there really is no intersection between science and religion for exactly this reason. However, while science makes no statements about religion per se, religion is forced to make many about science, e.g. contention that God created an entire world that looks like it evolved, but it really didn’t. Many of the religious bent feel that free will is a religious belief. I tried to show in the thread that it was actually, in the final analysis, a scientific question based in electrochemistry (but not, interestingly, in molecular biology.) But this brings up many, many questions not the least of which is the basis of ethics as the Growlery goes on to explore.
G: We always come to a point where at least one assumption has to be made if anything is to be built at all. Such basic assumptions are, in formal geometry, called "axioms", and I shall use the word here.
Dr. C: I may be getting into a double bind here, but I think that it is possible that the axiom that is at the basis of science is that a thing can neither be and not be at the same time (except strange quarks, of course). Or, another way of putting this is that no two things that have mass can be in the same place at the same time. (not Einstein time, of course).
G: In mathematics, this finds expression in Gödel's incompleteness theorem. I can't, strictly speaking, apply Gödel to philosophising in general nor to morality in particular. But this is a fireside conversation, not a philosophy exam, so for the moment I'll use him as a short hand for the general thesis which, for my purposes, I'll paraphrase as "no system can be fully described from inside that system".
DrC: This certainly applies to mathematics. Does it apply to describing the workings of the brain, some of which are in the process of describing their own workings? I have come to the conclusion that it does not apply. That within the range of what we talked about in the thread we were describing an electrochemical system just like any other electrochemical system, only a little more complex.
G: Most societies stop at that point and accept as axiomatic two assumptions: first, that within society each member has the right to life and second, that society itself (and therefore all members) collectively suffers if members go around killing each other.
DrC: I would say that this is an evolutionary given. One might say that you can’t have a society without some rules such as this. While other social animals do kill their own kind, I don’t think that it is wholesale slaughter such as World War I (see McDivitt’s “The Engines of God” for a deus ex machina that lopes off intelligent society because it poses a threat to the natural order; this being such an old theme, e.g. Prometheus.)
G: But ... but ... life and death is one thing (though even there, so many exceptions rear their ugly heads), but when you get down to subtleties like whether or not it's OK to eat too much when the next guy is hungry ... at that level, we rely on something called "conscience".
Dr.C: Is conscience free will? I think most people would say so, that is, most people think Hitler had a conscience but didn’t follow it. I’m not so sure. I believe in Jimminy Cricket!
G: Most developed societies have the concept of an offender doing "wrong" not because they are bad or wish to cause harm but because they are in some way malfunctioning. The conscience is not functional, or fear of consequence fails to convert into feedback which constrains action, and the penal code is modified to take account of this.
Dr.C: I’m not so sure about this. There is a very strong streak of blame and guilt that runs through Western European culture, particularly anything that has to do with Christianity. The fact that it is generalized guilt (i.e. Adam and Eve’s sin) is interesting. The magic of Christianity is that it takes this generalized guilt and makes it personal. One has to be “saved.” But in the Catholic Confessional, one can do whatever he/she wants and as long as one confesses the sin, one can be forgiven. This is such an interesting concept that whole populations swallow it lock, stock and barrel!
G: But how to deal with the idea that a whole inherited line of citizens who, it is alleged, cannot avoid "wrong" behaviour in perpetuity?
Dr.C: Is there a criminal genotype? Or is it just that criminals are born into bad situations? There are arguments both ways. I will hope to argue for the nurture vs the nature side on this issue.
G: Both conscience and fear of reprisal depend on the axiomatic assumption that we can choose how we act (or how we do not act). If that assumption is false then so, finally, is almost everything we have built upon it. Not just systems of morality, but the very idea of morality itself. In fact, the idea that we can build anything at all is illusory. Ideas themselves may still exist, and even come into being, but we can never be agents in their genesis.
Dr. C: This is the meat of the discussion. It was reached with reasoning alone and with no preconceived ideas, I think. We must see where it leads.
G: This is not the same thing a predestination, nor determinism, though it shares with them some implications: what we are placing where our illusion of free will used to be are systems, structures and flows of chreostochasticity.
The action potential threshold which Dr C describes is repeated across the components of our body, and across the bodies of those with whom we interact. Each of us is a huge chaotic but chreostochastic system of such potential thresholds, composed of chaotic but chreostochastic subsystems (eye, brain, liver...) and also part of the larger chaotic but chreostochastic system which is interaction between multiple individuals (human or otherwise) and their environment.
G: What decides whether General Loan's trigger finger twitches or doesn't twitch? Not just an action potential flipflop in his brain, responding to a signal along the optic nerve, but an uncountably large number of flipflops in the optic, auditory, olfactory systems, within the brain itself. The complex sensory responses are in turn decided by unimaginably complex interactions in the surroundings, encompassing human activity and such things as the drift of the breeze with smells of cordite and perfume, the pheromones of fear and rage, the sounds of life and death. Shifting potentials within his brain are shaped by holographic storage of past memory. Whether a suspected Vietcong sympathiser lives or dies in Saigon depends not just on the binary states of General Loan but on whether or not a butterfly flaps its wings in Argentina.
Dr. C: Yes, I agree. But in the end, after all of these variables are taken into account, because the electrochemical action of the brain is linear and sequential, we are still reduced to the decision being the result of a single ion of sodium somewhere in a membrane triggering a single action potential for the simple reason that the result could or could not happen.
G: So, this is not predestination. Because nobody, however all seeing, could predict years in advance whether that man in Saigon will live or die. He is like Schrödinger's Cat, but in an infinitely more complex lottery: whether he lives or dies depends on how an ungraspably (and unmodelably) complex web of chance factors play out.
Dr.C: Here I must humbly disagree. If one were able to know all the reactions, even in their almost infinite complexity, one could predict the fact that that one sodium ion breached the threshold in that one neuron and caused the finger to squeeze the trigger. However, I grant you that one could try and apply Godel’s theorem here, I just don’t know how.
G: Is there, anywhere in that huge chaotic but chreostochastic universe, which allows for General Loan to influence aspects of how the potentials flow? Perhaps so (we cannot fully describe our system from within) but it's impossible to tell, and I have not one scrap of evidence to support a legitimate assertion that it is so. Eddington and others suggested that quantum theory opens up again the possibility of free will, but that is not a straw at which I can, in good conscience, grasp.
Dr.C: I would go to the mat arguing that the electrochemical processes of the brain, and the muscles and the retina, for that matter, are not described in any way that is whatsoever meaningful by quantum mechanics.
G: So, everything I (or you, or General Loan) do was going to happen regardless of us: because that is how the cascade of action potentials fell.
Dr. C: Yes. Of course they fell that way because of the genetics of General Loan, but more importantly, the early experience of General Loan and then his experience up to the incident.
G: We can't choose what we believe. We either believe or we don't. I don't believe that there is a god; there have been times in my life (usually moments of personal peril, or of threat to someone close to me) when I would have dearly loved to believe ... but it can't be done, any more that a believer can voluntarily decide to disbelieve. I know, intellectually, that the arguments advanced to effectively and clearly by Dr C make it likely that free will is a myth ... but ultimately, at my deepest level, I am unable to believe it.
Dr. C: Enter the limbic system. This evolutionary ancient collection of neurons are responsible for emotion (including what we "feel" about things like sex). It goes way back to the dinosaurs (there is a book I'll have to resurrect about this) and its interaction with the "rational" brain, particularly in the current discussion, bears examining.
So, now the Growlery has outlined the heart of the discussion. He leaves us with things up in the air. Perhaps that is inevitable, but we should push forward the discussion into all those areas he mentioned.
Next I would like to comment on Mr. Putnam's excellent post which really serves as a counterweight to the above.
Mr. Putnam (hereafter P): Stated outright, I believe that free will does exist. And after reading Dr C's series and Felix's responses, mixed less elegantly by some of my own, I believe I can say that almost entirely from independent thought rather than the religious instruction mentioned above. I say almost because one cannot easily remove all environmental effects (emphasis added).
Dr. C: Important in setting up the argument.
P: I lived on Lake Erie. It was at that time a vibrant lake, with a large commercial fishing industry, and heavily used beaches for swimming and water sports. Surrounding the lake large industrial entities poured pollution into the lake, so that in a very short time, relatively, the lake began to die. It was unsafe to swim in it.
For a variety of reasons, the populations around the lake began to want change. They chose to turn the dying lake around. And it worked. The lake is returning, people freely use it, and commercial fishing is beginning to return.
Dr. C: This is complex because I suspect the argument is that each individual practiced free will but it was a group response.
P: Individuals, person by person, changed their acceptance of an outside being. Their collective efforts changed the direction of the lake. It is highly unlikely that any one individual caused the necessary changes. It required a complex interaction of many people, even to the point of a world beginning to recognize the dangers of pollution.
Dr. C: Thank you, thank you Mr. Putnam. This is exactly the argument I made about the neurons. The decision was a collective one but, at some point, the difference between changing the state of the lake and not changing that state was one person. In the language of the final information post, one neuron.
On the other hand I am not sure that I would agree that this is an example of free will. I'm reading on.
P: Dr. C's thought process followed one small set of impulses to its end. That is a view that doesn't take into account the various other factions that entered the decision of General Loan to pull that trigger. A subset of the multitude of mental events occurring within the General's mind were dominant at that time, and he decided, yes decided, this was the action he desired, and pulled the trigger.
Dr. C: Here I would say that there was still a point where, no matter how complex, there was a state when the impulse to fire the trigger had not been made and a state where it had been made and the difference between those two states was a single ion of sodium. It is difficult to believe that there was something transcendental here governing that transition.
P: It seems to me that reducing the actions of individuals to act to a level of enzymes and such would mean that genetic makeup is not conclusive, and extending the metaphor, we cannot say that the individual's actions are formed toward a predestined end.
Dr.C: Predestination is very Calvinistic and they appear not to believe in free will. (Calvinisim also had a doctrine of total depravity, and that certainly needs to be looked into, though not germane to the thread.) In terms of predestination, it certainly would be a strange God who picked some people over others. Not your Christian ethic at all (which is ultimately democratic, I have always felt.)
I think I understand where Mr. Putnam is coming from. It is hard for an individual, including myself, to try and function without the overriding concept of free will. Maybe it is because we have been brought up, as Mr. Putnam alludes to, in an American environment where we think we are what we make of ourselves.
This leads to lots of new avenues to pursue.
Finally, I would like to mention a comment on the last information post by R.L
Comment by RL:
For the last several months, I've been thinking a lot about free will, and also the concept of self-awareness (or consciousness). I have concluded, from what I consider a very fundamental and simple scientific fact, that free will must exist. I am desperately looking for someone who can intelligently give me feedback on my reason for believing this, and after reading your article, I am hoping that you can do this, as you seem to be knowledgeable on the subject.
Dr. C: As you can see from all of the above, much more elegantly argued by the Growlery than me, that I think that there is scientific evidence that we don’t practice free will. However, we hope to define this thing in the future into a more approachable format.
I've been extremely frustrated searching the internet for answers to my very specific observation, as I have not found a single article addressing it. Please tell me what the flaw is in my claim, if you do believe it is flawed.I believe that there are exactly 4 forces in the universe (ignoring that they may all have arisen from a single force). Gravity, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. When it comes to the signaling of neurons, I think it is safe to say that we are dealing exclusively with the electromagnetic force (which applies to both the signal travelling down the axon, and to the chemical neurotransmitters).
Dr.C: I agree wholeheartedly. As we have pointed out in the information thread, we do not believe anything below simple electrochemical reactions (e.g. quantum mechanics and certainly not nuclear forces) come into play. This is straightforward chemistry.
Now, I can read on hundreds of web sites about the mechanics of the triggering of a neuron, and the action potential, and the synapse, etc. These mechanisms are fairly well understood. However, if I try to find anything written about, for example, the path involved in someone deciding to lift (or not lift) a finger, then the starting point is always something like "the brain sends a message to ...". I can't anything that addresses the key point, which is "what causes the first neuron(s) to fire".
Dr.C: We focused not so much on the initial neuron firing, since that would be triggered in turn by an external stimulus, but on the fact that the firings are sequential (one can always divide time down so any collection of actions is sequential) and that at some point, as I explained above, there is a yes/no state where the decision is a single sodium ion. See the Growlery’s discussion of General Long.
Ok, here is the point that I just can't get past, no matter how long or hard I ponder. Let's say I am making a choice between lifting my left hand or my right hand. I think we would all agree that depending on my choice, my left hand will rise or my right hand will rise. And isn't it true, that in the 2 cases, different neurons will "fire". Now isn't it also true that the first neuron(s) to fire in these 2 different cases will be different? And for the first neuron(s) to be triggered, does this not require some movement (no matter how tiny) of one or more charged particles (some ions or electrons, for example). That is, when someone says "the brain sends a message to the hand", doesn't this absolutely imply that at some point, the original neuron (or neurons) that are at the origin of the signal to the hand, MUST have some chemical action applied to it? My understanding is that all neural activity occurs due to electromagnetic forces (via movement of various ions, and chemical reactions).
Dr.C: I would say electrochemical states rather than electromagnetic forces, but that is probably quibbling. We are talking about separation of ions here that, true, create electromagnetic forces. But it is quantized in the sense that it boils down to one individual ion either in or out of the neuron that triggers the action potential
Am I missing something here? Almost certainly, gravity and the two nuclear forces play no part. And I believe it is probably safe to say that the ions and/or electrons near the originating neuron don't decide to move on their own free will.
Dr. C: I certainly agree with this. What we would add here, based in turn on thinking about isolation chambers, is that the initial impetus for the first neuron to move comes from outside the body. That initiation of action is always the result of an external stimuli (thought it is one hell of a complicated circuit).
And I have to assume that when I move one of my hands, there HAS TO BE some change in theelectromagnetic field (to move the electrons or ions) that will trigger the originating neuron(s). How could it possibley be otherwise? Can anyone give me a coherent rebuttal to this most simple observation? Electromagnetic fields don't just change by themselves (other than quantum effects).
Dr.C: The electromagnetic field is the result of an electrochemical state. This does not change on its own. I feel strongly that the brain is not an independent originator of anything but that all of our actions (and thoughts) are the result of outside stimuli. As an aside, why would evolution pick a brain that was originating anything? It doesn't enhance survival the way reaction does. When things mutate, we have novel reaction. (How the mutation happens and the brain evolves is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.)
So please, someone, give me a scientific explanation on how my desire to move some muscle in my body can possibly cause a change in the electromagnetic field, which is ultimately required for an electron or ion to change it's motion as compared to what it's motion would have been due to purely quantum mechanical random effects. And please don't tell me that some hormone or chemical reaction is causing this, as I am asking about the specific link between the "free will" desire to move some muscle, and the actual firing of the first neuron that otherwise would not have fired if I didn't will the muscle to move in the first place. I truly don't think there is a materialistic answer to this question. Maybe I will be surprised.
Dr. C: I think that using the concept of “desire” or any other similar concept throws a spanner into the works. These concepts arise in the limbic system which encompasses emotions. It is as if we have two brains. We have the materialistic, mechanical, electrochemical brain which with its 100 billion neurons is the most complex machine in the universe, and we have the limbic system which is an ancient system that gave higher animals the ability to react to external stimuli in favor of survival. Coupled with the rational brain (an all animals have rational brains of one sort or another; it is the definition of a brain) it produces complex behavior. Trying to break it down as you are doing is exactly what you should be doing. Its just that you need to make sure of your assumptions. The Growlery points this out in a very elegant way.
Whew!!! Now I'm going to join the fray!