you're reading...
evolution, human nature, science

Free Will, Determinism, and Choice


 

Matter moves from instability to stability.  This is a basic physical truth.  Sodium is highly unstable, and when it encounters moisture, it changes states rapidly to form more stable compounds.  Rocks last a long time because their atoms have reached a level of high stability.  Eggs fry because the added heat causes their atoms to be in an unstable state, and they naturally move to a more stable state.  Because of the incredible complexity of matter, there are lots of ways that it can be arranged, and because of the incredibly complex systems of movement in the universe and the incredible amount of energy it contains, it’s going to take a really damn long time before the eventual state of “complete stability” is reached.  (Assuming, of course, that the universe isn’t going to contract again.)

What has this got to do with free will?  Everything.  The first replicator on earth, whatever it was, came to exist because it was following this principle.  The configuration of the first replicator was stable enough that atoms “wanted” to move into it, the same way that salt wants to form cubic crystals.  At each step of evolution, the next level of complexity was reached by the same process.  You can think of it as two laws working together.  The physical law of “survival of the stable” interacted with the mathematical law of “survival of the fittest” which actually ought to be renamed “survival of the best equipped to survive.”  It is so simple as to be perfectly obvious when we say it that way.

Anyway, at some point, replicators developed rudimentary walls to insulate themselves from the environment.  Eventually, cells developed.  Eventually after that, some cells developed the ability to work together with other cells, and the inevitable math of Game Theory was set in motion.  What is crucially important to bear in mind is that all of this happened completely without consciousness.  It was the inevitable result of the interaction of survival of the stable with survival of the best able to survive.

Jump ahead in evolutionary history, and you get to a huge moment, where eukaryotes and prokaryotes split from each other.  After that, plants and animals split.  Here’s where things started to get really interesting.  Plants, for whatever reason, never got around to moving very fast, or being able to perform what we can call “free movement.”  They pretty much just grow.  Animals, on the other hand, discovered the benefit of much faster movement.  The earliest animals (which would have been a lot more like a paramecium than a rat), “learned” how to eat other animals and plants.  Remember, all of this happened without consciousness because matter always moves from instability to stability.  It’s really, really important that you keep this in mind.

Soon, through natural selection, some individuals developed very rudimentary senses.  Perhaps it was the ability to detect a chemical in the water which indicated that potential prey was nearby.  Perhaps it was the ability to react to the intensity of light.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that this was a HUGE advantage.  Through nothing but blind matter interacting with other blind matter, the senses came to exist.  Soon, complexity added to complexity and early versions of what would become nerves developed.  Once animals had muscles and nerves, they were able to perform astounding feats of independent movement.  Their eyes developed into the complex organs they are today.  Their hearts, lungs, and livers all developed in complexity, and one other extremely important organ developed as well — their brain.

At first, brains were very rudimentary, but the engineering advantage of having a central “control station” are undeniable.  Through millions of years, brains grew in size and complexity.  At each step, the animals became better and better adapted to their environment, still following the principles of survival of the stable and survival of the best able to survive.  The way brains work is really astonishing.  Specialized cells called neurons link with other neurons into long chains, through which unbroken chains of reactions can take place.  You can think of it like a row of dominoes.  An outside stimuli (your finger) knocks over the first domino, and without any further influence, the entire row topples, one at a time. This happens because of the laws of physics. So it is in brains. When light enters an eye, the cells in the eye have no option but to do what they naturally do. Light triggers a change in one cell, which triggers a change in another cell, and so on. The matter which makes up an eye must move from instability to instability, and the only way to do this is to react in the way it has been arranged to react.

The earliest brains didn’t produce anything approaching what we call consciousness. They were just control centers made of matter that couldn’t help how it had been arranged. However, through the inevitable laws of matter, increasingly complex brains were bound to develop. If it is beneficial to be able to see prey and chase it, it is more beneficial to be able to see prey, chase it, and make rudimentary predictions about its future actions. Such a leap in brain development may seem huge, and perhaps in terms of time, it was. It isn’t that hard to conceive, though.

Memory is something that happens in very simple animals. Even simple worms can be “trained” to react to certain stimuli. All we need to do to imagine the birth of memory is to imagine an arrangement of matter in an early animal in which repeated occurrences of the same stimulus would create a permanent change in the animal itself, thus altering the way it behaved. No consciousness is necessary, and the exact mechanism is extraneous to this discussion. All we need to be concerned with is the fact that it’s not hard to imagine rudimentary memory coming into existence.

Once memory existed, it is not hard to imagine it becoming more and more complex as brains became larger and more complex. The first predictive behavior, then, is easy to imagine. After chasing several prey animals in exactly the same pattern, a permanent change happened in the hunter such that the next time it chased a similar prey, it “anticipated” the movement, quite automatically.

With memory and prediction came great evolutionary advantage, so it’s not hard to imagine these kinds of creatures proliferating. We can imagine two kinds of creatures, however. The first kind of creature could see its prey, chase it, and predict its movements, and would pursue relentlessly, even to the point of exhaustion or death. The second kind of creature, with the same abilities, also had the tendency to stop chasing its pray when its own energy began running low, but before exhaustion set in. This simple modification to behavior patterns needs no grand explanation. Again, all it takes is imagining a small mutation which produced the behavior once. It requires no consciousness, but it is the beginning of something amazing. From this simple change in behavior, the ability to weigh options developed.

Suppose that a creature encountered two potential meals at the same time. It could only chase one of them. Any creature which had a rudimentary ability to judge the chances of success for each of two chases would have a stunning advantage over those which just randomly chased one or the other. This is a big leap in brain development, but again, it does not bring us to the point of consciousness in the modern philosophical sense. These animals were still what Richard Dawkins has called “survival machines.” They were doing what they did because the matter in their bodies (now arranged in staggeringly complex ways) did what it had to do.

Hopefully, you can see where I’m going with this. Each step of brain development happened through the same process of survival of the stable combining with survival of the best able to survive. The discussion of what exactly constitutes consciousness may seem like a huge concern, but it is not. In the same way that there is no such thing as the single ancestor of humans that was the “first human,” there is also no exact divide between consciousness and unconsciousness, at least from a biological point of view. This may seem controversial, but please make sure you understand precisely what I’m saying, and more importantly, what I’m not saying.

Goldfish have memories, and can recognize individuals of their own species, as well as other species. Their brains transmit impulses through nerves in such a way that they can perform feats of apparent purpose like traversing a maze to get to food. I doubt many people would suggest that they are fully sentient beings. One of the main reasons for this is that even though they show apparent purpose, they do so predictably and mechanically. If they’re hungry, and food is placed at the end of the maze, they will move towards it and eat. Higher animals, however, show a lot more autonomy – that is, ability to take one option over another based on analysis of sensory data. An ape, by all appearances, spends time “deciding” whether or not to attack another ape, and we can only assume that his brain is processing data from the ape’s memory, and is weighing the potential for victory against the potential for defeat, and perhaps even the possibility of personal injury in either case.

While this may be an incredible dilemma for philosophers, it’s not that big of a deal to biologists. Goldfish have less complex brains than cats, which have less complex brains than monkeys, which have less complex brains than dolphins, which have less complex brains than humans. The measure of an animal’s ability to perform predictive analysis is a measure of their brain’s size and complexity. Period. There’s no such thing as a really smart earthworm because earthworms don’t have complex big brains.

Before we can finally address free will, we must perform a couple of mental exercises. First, think about an ant. Do you have any problem thinking of an ant as a creature that simply reacts to its environment based on its genetic programming? I would hope not. Ants simply don’t do things like quit their job or decide to move to another anthill. Ants do what ants do, and nothing else. They do it predictably, and when we do experiments on their genes, we can reprogram them to do other things just as predictably.

Ants have brains that were “designed” just like every other part of their body, as a natural result of the survival of the stable combined with survival of the best able to survive. They are alive, but not sentient, according to every philosopher I can think of. Yet, even these simple creatures show remarkable behaviors that seem “intelligent.” Some varieties of ants engage in “tandem running,” a process by which one ant leads another ant to a food source. It requires many adjustments, and happens methodically, as if each ant “intends” to find food. Still, we can imagine that the ant genes have programmed their carriers to perform this way, and they do so because they have no choice in the matter. They are ants, and their genes, like everything else in their bodies, must obey the law of survival of the stable.

Bees, as most people are now aware, have a system of communication that is virtually unrivaled in the animal world. They do an incredibly complex dance to indicate to their hivemates the distance to food, quantity of food, and exact direction. Still, it is clearly a genetic behavior, for all bees do it the same way, and they do it predictably, without the ability to “decide” to do otherwise. They have genes that dictate their behavior by causing proteins to be built in a particular way, and those proteins, acting entirely according to the law of survival of the stable, react with other proteins in exactly the “correct” way, on up the line of complexity, until the amalgam of all those chemicals, a bee, behaves precisely as it must behave.

At some point, though, we’re going to have to address the philosophical leap that comes with the existence of what we call “sentience.” For our purposes, it won’t matter precisely what sentience is, but it is important to note something of critical importance. Whatever sentience is, it is that way because there are genes within the sentient animal which, according to the law survival of the stable, caused chemicals to interact in completely predictable ways to “build” a being capable of sentient thought.

The last paragraph is staggeringly important. We must realize that whatever a brain allows us to do, it does so because it was built to do so by genes. Every stimulus that a creature encounters causes a series of unavoidable events to occur. When an eye opens, chemicals react with other chemicals to create nerve impulses that must go to the brain, where the brain must render them as images, and the creature must perceive the external world in whatever fashion it has been built. Once that image has been perceived, the same kinds of neural impulses unavoidably travel through the brain in complex patterns, triggering still more reactions, and still more, until the entire organism can be said to have reacted (in whatever way) to the stimulus.

Finally, now, we can address free will. The first thing we must do to address it properly is to define it. This might prove to be much harder than we first imagine. We can say that free will is the ability to make choices, but this is unsatisfactory. When a spider walking across the forest floor encounters a log, it can either turn left, turn right, turn back, or climb up. Alternatively, it could just stay right where it is. It has quite a few “choices” and will make one of them. It cannot avoid making one of them unless it suddenly dies. Because time moves forward, and there are many potential actions for any creature at any given time, we can say that all creatures make choices.

Clearly, we need to work on our definition of choice if free will is to have any meaning. Perhaps it means taking one option over another based on rational choice, rational meaning “conforming to the laws of logic.” This is also unsatisfactory because many animals who are not aware of the laws of logic do precisely that. Apes, when sizing up a potential opponent, very often make the “correct” decision based on the size and strength of the potential opponent and the “chooser’s” memory of previous battles. Yet, most people are unhappy with the conclusion that apes have free will.

Perhaps for free will to exist, the creature must be able to think in the abstract. That is, it must be able to run “simulations” in its brain, and must be able to think of concepts, not just objects or actions. This easily eliminates most creatures from the discussion of free will, although not necessarily all. Dolphins, apes, and even parrots have shown the ability to understand the concept of rational numbers. Dolphins and apes have both demonstrated rudimentary ability to predict the outcome of an action based on abstract thinking, and both have demonstrated the ability to imitate with modification.

In any case, I said that the philosophy behind sentience was irrelevant, and it is. By illustrating the problems with these definitions, I hope to show you that the definitions aren’t really flawed. The concept itself is flawed. If you’ve followed my somewhat tedious tour through evolutionary history, you’ve realized that at every step of brain development, new abilities were added naturally through immutable physical forces. This is in direct opposition to thespirit of any argument for free will, regardless of the exact definition.

When I speak of the spirit of the free will argument, I mean this: humans possess consciousness and sentience, which allow us to control ourselves in any way we desire, and to enforce our “will” upon the universe. What I want you to see is that this kind of thinking is backwards, for it assumes something existing independently of the law of survival of the stable. For us to be conscious, impulses must move through neurons in our brain. These impulses exist before consciousness. They must. The inescapable conclusion is that our brains cause us to be conscious.

Let’s think now about what happens when we humans make a choice. Suppose I am at a restaurant, and am offered the choice of chicken or fish. The waiter asks me which one I want. My ears receive the vibrations caused by the waiter’s mouth and vocal cords. Without any external “will” causing it to happen, the vibrations are translated into nerve impulses which travel, completely on their own – because they are obeying the law of survival of the stable – to the part of my brain which, through no conscious will of its own, processes sound. I cannot help but comprehend the waiter, for my brain is doing what it must do. It is sending neural impulses to and from various parts of my brain, all of them unavoidably doing what they must do because they are matter and they are seeking stability.

Once my brain has translated the vibrations into a concept, I cannot help the reality that follows. My brain is now in a state. Either I desire chicken, or I desire fish, or I desire neither. I cannot change this state, for I am matter, and my brain has done what it had to do, and my preference is now a reality in time. I cannot help but move forward in time, and I must act in one the thousands of ways potentially available to me. If you think about it, there are probably hundreds of thousands of things I could do in the next second after entering the state of being aware of my preference.

I will do something in response to the question. Most likely, I will speak, expressing my desire for one or the other. The important question is this: Did I decide to speak, or did I speak because my brain caused me to do so? Here is where the survival of the stable plays its trump card. We really have two choices here. Either my brain caused me to have a preference, and then caused me to speak, or something else caused me to have a preference and then speak.

To suggest that something else caused me to have a preference is to defy time, for we have already recognized the simple truth that uncontrollable interactions of matter happen in the brain and then a state is reached. To put it another way, a “choice” in the religious or philosophical sense of the word would really involve moving backwards in time! First, a state would have to exist, and then act upon the brain in some way so as to put the brain in the chosen state. However, as we’ve seen, perceptions cause neural impulses which cause brain activity which causes a state.

Perhaps an even bigger problem with the idea of an independent choice is that it violates the law of survival of the stable. If matter is unstable, it must move to stability if that move is available. If several possible stable states are available in the environment, we can predict which one a particular piece of matter will “choose” based on its atomic structure. (For illustration, notice that even though there’s plenty of carbon available from the operation of an internal combustion engine, there has never been an exhaust pipe that randomly spewed diamonds instead of carbon dioxide.)

Some might object that I am being overly reductionist. To this accusation, I would make two responses. First, the accusation of reductionism is not an argument. It’s an objection. There’s no reason that a reductionist viewpoint is inherently wrong. Second, I would say that reductionism need not eliminate broader interpretations of the same phenomena. For example, I can say that a computer program is nothing but ones and zeros, and that is true. This does not mean that I cannot use a computer program to write a book.

The broad point that I’m attempting to make is not that humans do not make choices, or that we are not highly autonomous creatures. I am trying to establish the unavoidable reality that humans do not control brains. Brains control humans. Before I can decide on a course of action, my brain must perceive the situation, and having perceived it, go through the unconscious and uncontrollable series of chemical events that will put me in a state of awareness of the options — and more importantly, awareness of my own preference.  Any decision I make is the result of brain activity, not the cause of it.  Any preference I have is the result of me reaching a state of preference which was entirely out of my control.

If you’d like to prove this concept to yourself, perform a simple thought experiment.  Decide to believe that you have no hands.  If you are truly free-willed, you can exert your will upon the universe and believe that you do not have hands.  Of course, you are not truly free-willed, and you can no more decide that you have no hands than you can decide that you prefer fish when you really prefer chicken.  Similarly, you can decide to opt for fish because you believe it is healthier than chicken, even if you think the chicken would taste better.  That preference would be based on the state you’re already in – that is, believing that choosing fish would be better, despite your taste preference.  No matter how far you extend this, there is no point at which you decide which state of preference you will be in.  You are simply in a state, and your “decision” to act upon your state is the acting out of what you believe — and you simply cannot change what you believe.

It might be helpful at this point to think of the brain as a computer. Just as a computer has a series of ones and zeros that “make it work,” so do our brains, only the brain is built on four letters instead of two numbers. The code for our brain is DNA. Also analogous to a computer, our code is set up in such a way that it causes a series of events in the material universe.

Think of a chess playing computer. The binary code for such a program doesn’t include instructions for every possible chess scenario. This would take an astronomically large code, and it would be so slow that a single game of chess would take as long as the time our solar system has been in existence, even if we imagine a stupendously fast processor. Instead, the program includes general instructions – rules for piece movement and strategic advice, for instance. It might say something like, “In general, pawns are expendable before queens, but if the payoff is high enough, sacrificing the queen is advisable.”

Of course, all of this is rendered in ones and zeros, and it’s not important to explain the exact mechanism by which they translate into a computer program. We all know that this is the way it works, even if we don’t know exactly how. Our brains are very much the same way. We are built with simple sets of instructions: Avoid that which causes pain. Seek that which causes pleasure; Attempt to mate. Seek companionship; When your stomach rumbles, eat food; When your mouth is dry, drink water. Of course, in a human, there are far more complex sets of instructions, and many of the instructions clash from time to time. For instance, if one has to reach into a thornbush to get fruit, the instruction to avoid physical discomfort is in conflict with the instruction to obtain food.

If you’ve ever seen a computer play chess, you know that it can predict its opponent’s moves. In fact, if you could bring someone back to life from a time before computers existed, and show them a screen with a game in progress, they would likely swear on their life that humans were controlling the moves. Chess programs give every outward appearance of being sentient because their programming is sufficiently complex to create those appearances. Here, we can ask a very pointed question: Is there a difference between a game of chess played by two humans and one played by two computers? The answer is that there is not. The mechanics of the game are exactly the same, as is the strategy and the outcome. In fact, we could easily build robots to move physical pieces on an actual chess board, and for the purposes of winning a chess game, there would be absolutely no difference whatsoever. A game of chess is being played. There is either a winner and a loser, or the game is a draw.

Humans are chess playing computers. Our circuitry is much more complex, and we are able to do far more than play chess, but that is the reality of it. Our genes carry instructions for building a human being with a brain that causes consciousness to exist. Our brains operate from a set of instructions given to us by the same genes. A brief examination of all the humans we’ve ever seen will bear out the reality of this. All humans do many things in exactly the same way. All humans feel roughly the same set of emotions, and they feel them as a result of roughly the same kinds of events. All humans come with a complete set of plans for understanding and utilizing language.

To put it succinctly, we are sentient, conscious, highly adaptive animals because our genes made us that way. We cannot be anything else. To extend the computer analogy even further, at any given moment, our brains contain an unalterable set of data. When we make a choice, just as when a computer makes a choice, our brain is processing all the relevant data it can access through an algorithm that has been set by the program (genes and binary, respectively). Once the computation is finished, the brain and CPU put their machine into a state that once again, has been set by the program.  A chess program cannot help but examine the board as it is, and a human cannot help the fact that his brain will process all of its accumulated data as part of the causal process that leads to a state of preference.

Where humans have a distinct advantage over computers is our immense capacity for learning and adapting to our environment. What we must realize, however, is that our adaptability is not limitless. We are still bound by the limits of our programming, and some things cannot be undone. Two sobering examples are sexual abuse and drug use. To put it bluntly, show me a woman who was sexually abused as a child, and I’ll show you a woman who isn’t over it. Just like the simple animals whose bodies physically change because of external stimuli, so to do our complex human bodies. Particularly during the formative years, when new neural connections are still being formed, our environment has a huge impact on us. Some environmental factors, like drugs, exert their effects regardless of the age of the person. Methamphetamine is a perfect example. Regardless of when a person takes it, there will be permanent, irreversible changes to the brain, which will result in permanent changes in the way the person perceives and thinks.

With everything we have learned about human behavior, we must realize that we are at a milestone of human history. The knowledge of evolution has taken us leaps and bounds ahead of where we were two hundred years ago, but we have been violently opposed to accepting the natural and obvious conclusion evolution gives us about human nature. We are not conscious beings who happen to have a body to go with our mind. We are incredibly complex programs that have the ability to perform remarkable feats of mental computation. We are animals that have evolved so much brain power that we can think of ourselves as having “free will.”

In closing this essay, I feel that it is necessary to refute some of the most common objections to this line of reasoning. The one that comes to mind immediately is this: If we really have no free will, than what justification do we have for laws, or punishment, or rewards, or anything like that? The answer ought to be obvious, but I will explain it for the sake of being thorough. Our programs include self interest and the ability to conceive of strategies that will harm others for our own benefit. Like all animals, we tend to do those things that we can get away with when they benefit us. We are also programmed to be intensely social animals. We are smart enough to realize that without disincentives, some people will take advantage of other people. Laws and jails and social stigma are all disincentives, and they often have exactly the desired effect. People avoid doing things that would benefit them and harm others when they know that they are very likely to be punished. The question of free will is irrelevant.

Knowledge of punishment changes behavior, whether that behavior is motivated by free will or programming. Think again of the computer analogy. It would be easy to invent a computer game in which both players have chances to cheat. It would also be easy to invent periodic “referee checks” in which a third player would check the field for evidence of cheating and penalize the cheater accordingly. Even a modestly good programmer could design code to instruct the computer players in the best way to avoid being punished. As the frequency of referee checks increased, cheating would decrease accordingly. Consciousness is not necessary for this simple set of principles to work.

Another common objection I hear is that scientists cannot prove that humans are not different than the animals. Perhaps we do actually have something that has risen above the level of animal consciousness. Maybe we really are different in kind. Of course, this argument commits the same fallacy as the argument that atheists can’t disprove the existence of God. In all cases, the burden of proof is on the claimant, and anyone who claims that human consciousness is different in kind from any other animal has a brobdingnagian task set for himself. Certainly we can do mental tasks that other animals can’t, and our powers of abstraction and conceptualization are unrivaled, but this is no justification for the statement that we are not completely under the control of our genes, just like every other animal. We must remember that any mental ability we have is the direct result of our genes building us this way. If we have the choice to act in illogical ways, or contrary to the dictates of our nature, it is because it is in our nature to be able to do so!

When the previous objections fail, people often say that lack of free will makes life meaningless, since we’re just mindless robots running around doing exactly what our programming tells us to do. This is a good example of finding the nearest pool and taking a belly flop into the deep end. Our programming gives us consciousness, and our consciousness gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. We get up in the morning because we’re programmed to have sleep cycles, but we also get up in the morning because we want to make money at our jobs. We want to make money because we want to have a house and attract a mate and be able to buy status symbols and gadgets to make our lives easier. Purpose comes from living, regardless of what causes us to live.

Finally, I want to address a question rather than an objection. Many people may ask why I am so intent on going through all the trouble of explaining this if in the end, the question of free will is ultimately meaningless. If it doesn’t matter that we are programs, and that our programs give us the sense that we are free willed, why bother refuting the concept of free will?

To answer this, I must first say that the distinction is not meaningless. From religion to politics to economics, people make broad sweeping decisions based on the notion that people really can decide anything they want. Personally, I think the flaws in this thinking are most obvious in politics. Lawmakers often assume (falsely) that humans will change their behavior if only the right law is enacted. Even though history demonstrates repeatedly that this is a false assumption, we continue to see bad policies enacted. The reality is that people do not and will not behave outside of their programming. Laws demanding that people not act like humans are doomed to cause suffering.

At the time of this writing, there is a very good example of this kind of thinking in my own city. Over the past several years, the city council has passed several draconian policies regarding the consumption of alcohol by minors and the selling of alcohol to minors. The feeling is that it’s an awful thing for college students to drink, and that by punishing drinking severely, they can stop the behavior. Unfortunately, the laws are ill-conceived and doomed to failure. Rather than curb the amount of drinking done by college students, they have forced students to drink in private. Unlike in bars, where bartenders can refuse service to anyone who appears too drunk, there is no supervision at all in private homes, and young drinkers are actually drinking more than they did before. Drinks at a bar are more expensive than bottles of liquor from the store, so for the same amount of money, students are drinking more, without any outside influences to try to slow them down if they’re drinking too much.

College students will drink because drinking is fun for humans, and is generally harmless if they don’t drive afterward. Trying to stop them is generally futile, unless extremely drastic measures are taken. Rather than enforce a police state on campus and in the bars, a better solution would be to enact policies that encourage college students to drink responsibly. Perhaps an even better solution would be to look at the rest of the world and see that eighteen year olds are allowed to drink in many places, and civilization has not collapsed because of it.

In religion we see another clear example of this faulty concept in action. Abstinence only education, as I’ve mentioned before, is a monument to the stupidity of trying to get humans to act far outside of their nature. We are designed to have sex, and we’re designed to want it most fervently in the years before most people are getting married these days. Still, Christians insist that premarital sex is wrong and that nobody should ever do it. They insist that if only we teach children how to behave, they will behave that way.

The evidence could not be more clear. Abstinence only education doesn’t stop people from having sex. It only stops them from using condoms. Humans are literally alive to have sex, from a gene’s point of view. That is why humans are obsessed with sex. It’s not because we’re evil, or that society is corrupt, or that we’ve gone “away from our nature.” Of course, this is not to say that humans ought to go out and have orgies with complete strangers every night. That’s not in our nature either. The fact is, regardless of the laws or teaching policies, people do what people are going to do. I’ve addressed this at length in the chapters on human sexuality, so I will not belabor the point here.

This brings up a counter-objection. If we can’t stop humans from being humans, how can we ever expect to make society better? After all, some things that are perfectly natural for humans are also very, very wrong. Humans are capable of committing rape and murder, and these behaviors are just as natural as giving money to the poor and sending baby pictures to the proud grandparents. To answer this question, I will again point out that recognizing that we are programs does not lead to the conclusion that we can only act in one way, or that we don’t have purpose. We do have purpose, and one of the most noble of those purposes is the betterment of society for the good of all citizens. If we decide (because of our programming) that we ought to build a society where everyone has healthcare, then we can do that. The fact that our genes programmed us with the ability to reach such a decision doesn’t make the decision any less valid.

Furthermore, the prohibitions on sex and drinking are not based on empirical reality. They are based on a very old religion. Humans have been drinking and having sex before marriage since the invention of alcohol and marriage. Society has not collapsed, and there’s never been any evidence that either activity damages either individuals or society as a whole in any significant way. In fact, both sex and alcohol have been important parts of rituals that have cemented various societies for thousands of years. Murder and rape are empirically bad. Murder ends a life and rape causes extreme mental trauma and possibly passes on STDs or causes serious physical injury. As I’ve explained in another essay, morality is subjective, but it is not arbitrary. With more scientific understanding of what human nature is, we can use our critical thinking to decide what is right and what is wrong based on the results of the actions, and try to mold society in such a way as to reduce the bad and increase the good as much as possible.

Humans have the capacity for good and for evil. They decide which to do because of genetic programming. The environment is the main factor that determines how the programming will manifest itself, just as a chess machine’s next move is dictated by the current state of the board. Now that we are aware of these facts, we have, for the first time in human history, the chance to use science to help us predict the best ways to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Rather than taking something away from humanity, the knowledge that we are gene survival machines has given us the chance to mold society in exciting new ways. Instead of trying to metaphorically fit a cube into a round hole, we can now think of how to change the shape of the hole so that the cube will fit. We can flip our thinking around and work towards building an environment that triggers our programming in ways that will improve things for everyone. Science can teach us how to improve society. We only have to embrace the previously discomforting thought that we aren’t as free willed as we would like to believe.


 

For the remainder of this paragraph, the word all means “virtually all, excluding those humans with genetic disorders that exclude them from this group.”

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Free Will, Determinism, and Choice

  1. The ‘human brain is a computer’ analogy really is as tired as it is bullshit.

    The biggest flaw with that idea?
    COMPUTERS CANNOT BEHAVE(/think) IRRATIONALLY

    Yet humans can (and often do).

    I’m under no illusions here… humans are (to an extent) very complex biological machines with certain pre-conditioned responses (breathing is a very basic example), but, to call the human mind, a ‘computer and nothing more’… simply defies logic and every tenant of computer programming.

    However, until we manage to successfully create AI (Artificial Intelligence) (or prove that such creation is impossible), neither of us have any conclusive proof.

    If you are correct… then AI should (and will) eventually come about.
    If I am correct… then AI is utterly impossible.

    I don’t buy the ‘God’ argument any more than you do… and the supernatural is a ridiculous supposition, but, for all we know, sentience could be a parasite inhabiting our brains.
    Ridiculous? You bet. Impossible? Nope.

    All I’m trying to say… is that your comparison of the human mind to a computer is both logically and fundamentally flawed.

    A computer cannot say 1+1=3. It’s simply not logical, and a computer can only be logical. Whereas a human being can easily be illogical, should that individual chose.

    Ace

    Posted by Ace | January 18, 2009, 8:05 am
  2. I’m sorry to say, you’ve misunderstood several things about my argument, and you have some real problems with definitions. I’ll see if I can break it down for you:

    The biggest flaw with that idea?
    COMPUTERS CANNOT BEHAVE(/think) IRRATIONALLY

    Yet humans can (and often do).

    Here’s a definition problem. What exactly do you mean by irrational? I’ve seen my computer act very irrationally before. I click the “Print” button and nothing happens. I click it again and nothing happens. I open the print manager and there’s the task and it says it’s printing. I check the printer. It’s on, connected, has paper, and looks as if it ought to be printing.

    The program I’m using was designed to print things, and yet, when I use the instruction that ought to make it print, it does not, even though the computer was designed to do things for me.

    Ok, right now, you’re thinking, “Yes, it seems irrational to you, but in reality, this or that bit of computer code is doing this or that, and maybe you screwed up this or that, or maybe it was locked up, which is something completely logical when you know this or that about computers.” The point is, every good computer person will tell you that computers never do anything they’re not programmed to do. They’re incapable of it.

    The “irrationality” of a computer doing something contrary to my best interests isn’t really irrationality. It makes perfect sense. It is only irrational within my local framework — what I want it to do as opposed to what it is doing. In the language of 1s and 0s, it’s behaving in the only way it can.

    Do you see where this is going? Nothing humans do is irrational, either. Sure, we’re a lot more complex and dynamic than computers. The computer analogy isn’t meant to be perfect. It’s meant to facilitate a change of perspective. That’s all.

    Sure, we do irrational things within a local framework. However, from the perspective of genes making proteins making brains, everything we do is part of our programming. What you’re doing is trying to impose the framework created by the genes onto the genes themselves. In other words, you’re doing it backwards.

    To put it yet another way, computers most certainly can behave irrationally. All we need to do is program them to do so. I have no doubt that the people who program chess computers can program them to lose every game by making logically inexplicable moves and irrationally passing up obvious avenues to victory. For that matter, they could program them to occasionally and without warning inexplicably lose a game while trying to win most of the time.

    From the point of view of winning chess, the computer would play quite irrationally, particularly since it is quite capable of winning virtually every game versus a human — at least as far as its computational capacity goes.

    You would be right to point out that the computer would be playing exactly as programmed, and the same goes for humans. When we are irrational, it is local irrationality. We are still performing exactly as programmed, though.

    but, to call the human mind, a ‘computer and nothing more’… simply defies logic and every tenant of computer programming.

    I’m not sure how many times I’ll have to say this, but I am not saying that the human brain is perfectly analogous to a computer. It is clearly not. An analogy is a useful tool to help people think from a different perspective. It is not meant to be a definition, and that is not the way I’m using it. Didn’t I say that in the main article?

    However, until we manage to successfully create AI (Artificial Intelligence) (or prove that such creation is impossible), neither of us have any conclusive proof.

    If you are correct… then AI should (and will) eventually come about.
    If I am correct… then AI is utterly impossible.

    Nah. This has nothing to do with anything. Whether or not AI is invented in the future is completely irrelevant to the discussion. And what’s this nonsense about “conclusive proof”? Didn’t you read my article on science?

    I don’t buy the ‘God’ argument any more than you do… and the supernatural is a ridiculous supposition, but, for all we know, sentience could be a parasite inhabiting our brains.
    Ridiculous? You bet. Impossible? Nope.

    Puh-lease.

    Are you really trying to pull of an argument from ignorance? Really?

    All I’m trying to say… is that your comparison of the human mind to a computer is both logically and fundamentally flawed.

    A computer cannot say 1+1=3. It’s simply not logical, and a computer can only be logical. Whereas a human being can easily be illogical, should that individual chose.

    Sure it can. Just program it to do so.

    See the point? It’s right in front of you. Computers can do anything they’re programmed to do, including do things that defy human logic. Quit trying to impose human goals and logic onto genes. By doing so, you’re making the same mistake as someone who sees a computer “intentionally” lose a game of chess and thinks the computer is being illogical.

    Posted by Hambydammit | January 19, 2009, 6:07 pm
  3. First, I did not see a refutation of Feynman. While you may not personally like the argument, I think you need to respond to it.

    Second:
    “Did I decide to speak, or did I speak because my brain caused me to do so?” “I am trying to establish the unavoidable reality that humans do not control brains.”

    Here you draw a distinction between the entity and the brain where none exists. Consciousness is a manifestation of reactions occurring in the brain, not something separate from it. When we say that an entity has free will, what that means is that the entity has the capacity to effect which of the infinite possible futures actually occurs. That an entity’s decisions are products of a universal tendency toward simplicity (i.e. stability) is true but irrelevant.

    Third, I am curious how your “realization” that you have no free will has effected your decisions.

    Fourth, you deny that laws change behavior (something empirically false), but you ignore that when an entity becomes aware of a law, that law is processed as new information and alters the entity’s incentives and behavior. Using your rhetoric, humans are “programmed” to change their behavior when laws change even if their new behaviors are just a ways to circumvent enforcement of the law.

    Side note:
    “If we decide (because of our programming) that we ought to build a society where everyone has healthcare, then we can do that.”
    I really hope this isn’t an endorsement of a government universal health care system just after two arguments regarding unintended consequences of policies. You did not explicitly endorse a policy. So, I will give you the benefit of the doubt.

    Fifth, your metaphysical analysis is contradictory. You can’t say that alcohol consumption and sex are good because societies have existed with them and not collapsed and then turn around and say that rape and murder are bad even though societies have existed with them and not collapsed. Rape and murder are just as much products of evolution as alcohol consumption and sex. Any metaphysical framework must at least be consistent to be taken seriously.

    If you advocate using critical thinking in order to determine morality, I would like to point you in the direction of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. I’m not an Objectivist, but basing morality on critical thought is the stated purpose of Objecivism.

    Posted by Paul R. Dorasil | April 6, 2009, 4:09 am
  4. Heh… you complained of the length of this post, and now you’re chiding me for not refuting all other models? I’m glad you like Feynman’s model, but I’m afraid I can’t guess at which model each of my readers would like me to address.

    I am not drawing a distinction between the entity and the brain. On the contrary, I’m stating that there is no distinction, and because of this fact, the only possible explanation of our concept of “choice” is that it can only be the acting out of a previously reached state of belief. We cannot know what we want to do unless we are in a state of wanting to do something. To reach this state, our brains — the control centers for our nervous systems — have necessarily put us in that state. Since our feeling of consciousness is certainly the result of physical processes in our body, the physical processes must happen before consciousness.

    Your definition of free will is so broad as to be meaningless. Spiders have the ability to effect which of the infinite possible futures actually occurs. That an entity’s decisions are the result of physical processes in time is true and crucial to understanding why our perception of self-determination is essentially illusionary.

    I tried to explain how the lack of free will affects our lives. We are products of our environments — our decisions are based on what we have experienced filtered through our brain algorythms. This leads to the obvious conclusion: If we want people to change their behaviors, we must begin by changing their environments, not by some misguided belief that people can choose to believe or behave differently than they believe they should behave. We know this with other animals, but we believe it’s not true with humans.

    It also has a lot of impact on our public policies with regard to crime, poverty, and other important issues. It’s clear evidence that people don’t “choose” to remain poor, or to resort to a life of crime. Rather, their decisions have been the result of their unavoidable beliefs, which came to exist because of their perceptions of their own environments. Change the environment, change the perceptions, change the beliefs. This is in direct contradiction to many political beliefs, which encourage us to change our beliefs, which will change our perceptions, which will lead us to change the environment.

    I see that you could think I was saying laws can’t change behavior. I need to rework that part. This is not my claim. Instead, I claim that laws work for the same reason that negative reinforcement works in training dogs. Free will isn’t an issue. What I was claiming (to extend the dog analogy) is that laws cannot make people change human nature. According to the spirit of free will, laws ought to be able to mold human society into anything we can imagine, but the reality is that some laws simply won’t work. You cannot train a dog not to try to find its place in the pecking order when other dogs are introduced, and you can’t make a law strong enough to keep people from having sex whenever they can get away with it. In essence, I’m saying that lawmakers should take human nature into consideration, and realize that some things are beyond the capability of humans to choose to do.

    As to your side note, no, I’m not arguing for universal healthcare. I’m giving an example. Whatever example I give, somebody’s not going to like it, but I had to choose something.

    I’m not saying that sex and alcohol are “good.” I’m saying that they are essentially ubiquitous elements of human society. (Not alcohol specifically, but using mind-altering substances.) Since these behaviors are essentially ubiquitous, we must realize that we are dealing with a deeply ingrained part of our programming. In evaluating whether or not they should be outlawed or regulated, we need to realize that IF people can do them without society breaking down significantly, they will, and excess regulations will not change these behaviors significantly — they will only breed dissent and dissatisfaction.

    Murder and rape, while also ubiquitous, do cause significant breakdown in society. They are also not behaviors practiced by the majority of humans, as are sex and the consumption of mind altering substances. (Before you get your knickers in a twist, remember that caffeine and nicotine are mind altering substances.) Murder is not a deeply rooted drive. It is a response to external stimuli. If you remove the external circumstances that motivate men to murder, virtually nobody will want to murder. Sex is a deeply rooted drive, and will be practiced by damn near everybody barring extraordinary external stimuli. You cannot remove the motivation to have sex. At the very least, the use of mind altering substances is something nearly everyone does if given the chance. I don’t think you can remove the motivation to consume mind altering substances from humans, but I wouldn’t argue this point too vehemently.

    I’ve already written a lot, and like I said, I’m not going to refute every other position out there, but I’m not a fan of Rand, and I don’t suggest that morality is based on critical thought. On the contrary, morality is largely pre-programmed in us, and most of us will be good most of the time without any critical thought. Critical thought only becomes necessary when our moral instincts become unsuited to a complicated dilemma which could not have been anticipated by our evolutionary development.

    Posted by hambydammit | April 6, 2009, 5:07 am
  5. Hi, I found this page from reddit. It is not something I would normally read, but I loved your spin on it. Thanks for making a blog post worth reading!

    Posted by Lisbeth Kahrs | May 16, 2011, 2:30 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Conspicuous Consumption « Life Without a Net - January 21, 2009

  2. Pingback: Grandparents, Parents, and Favoritism « Life Without a Net - February 17, 2009

  3. Pingback: Kin Selection and Favoritism | End Hereditary Religion - February 17, 2009

  4. Pingback: The “Mystery” of Love « Life Without a Net - February 24, 2009

  5. Pingback: Evolution and Suffering « Life Without a Net - March 16, 2009

  6. Pingback: Brief Update « Life Without a Net - March 30, 2009

  7. Pingback: A Brief Revisit of Free Will « Life Without a Net - May 7, 2009

  8. Pingback: Dating, Mating, Sex, and Reproduction: Part 1 « Life Without a Net - July 26, 2009

  9. Pingback: Free Will and Christian Theology « Life Without a Net - November 12, 2009

  10. Pingback: Suffering and Evolution « Life Without a Net - October 28, 2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 113 other followers

%d bloggers like this: