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Archive for February, 2008

The Illusion of Free Will

Published by under Uncategorized on February 19, 2008

When speaking about the mechanistic nature of the universe to a friend I commented on the illusion of free will and he responded with: 

“I know I can’t imagine this world not having free will in humans; or, at least, free will in myself. (As for others, well, you all look like you have free will, so I’m prepared to assume that you do; it certainly makes more sense of people’s actions that assuming that they don’t.)”

To which I responded: 
Yeah, I gave up the sacred ground of free will long ago. For one thing the idea of free will fosters thoughts of superiority and inferiority. It’s fosters the naive belief that people get what they deserve. “The poor are poor because they didn’t work hard enough. The rich are rich because they are better.”
One thing that I share with religious and non religious people is this. Is there a future? Do you know that future? Of the myriad of seeming possibilities, only one will come true therefore proving all the others to never to have been possibilities. It’s just a small and fallible demonstration of immutable past and future. Have I mentioned the movie 12 monkeys?
The real reason to give up the idea of free will is chaos theory and the butterfly effect. You can see it everywhere you go and in everything on the planet. You believe you have the simple choice to go to work or not but that choice is only an expectation, not truly a choice. Your prediction of the event does not make it actually possible. Your prediction and intent could be utterly thwarted by a butterfly in Brazil 2 weeks ago. It flapped it’s wing suddenly which caused a frog to go for it, which caused a snake to strike the frog, which spooked a cow walking past, which started a herd running, which kicked up a dust cloud, which added to the precipitation value of a cloud which gathered water and energy and more clouds on it’s trip over the ocean, which started a torrential downpour in home town, which caused another driver not to see a puddle that caused him to hydroplane and slam into your careful driving and kill you. Your life was in the hands of that butterfly… or the chain of events that went even further back that led to the butterfly.
Every moment of your life has a history that is intricately tied to the rest of the universe in billions of ways.
If you think you brain some generator of magic then you can believe in free will. If you believe your brain is only a complex machine then you know that it works on principles and reactions. Inputs lead to outputs. Your life experiences as a child were not of your making yet they made you who you are and gave you the opinions you have. Without that information could you make the same decisions? Is your life really all that different as an adult than you were as a child or do you simply believe yourself more in control? Brains are simply a mixing pool for events. Like a stone in a river, you are moved and shaped by the river and you are part of the river itself and effect the motion of the individual particles nearby. Without the stones to guide it, it wouldn’t be a river. Without the force of the river to dig up the stones, they wouldn’t have been there to guide it. Random numbers clump. In the real world they become a feedback loop and therefore an accretion engine.
Where did the river begin? When the first two drops came together? No, they had to have somewhere to go. What made that “somewhere to go”? The addition of all the events in the universe is the only and eventual answer. The beginning of the universe was the start of the river.
There is no such thing as random. Random is another word for magic. There is only complexities nested in complexities surrounded by complexities. That which seems random is only random to us because we cannot know the billions of interacting events spider-webbing out across eons that contributed to the final product.
If you have done programming then you know that a random number generator is actually not random. It is simply a complex equation with an input and an output. If you know the input and the formula you can perfectly predict the output. Even if you have 80 billion random number generators starting at random times seeding off each other… the output is never ever truly random.
 Therefore, you must forgive others and yourself for wrong-doing. You must not take too much credit for your achievements and you need not believe others better than you because they have achieved more. They had different starting conditions and different advantages and disadvantages. Did you know there is a gene that causes a person to experience less pleasure than normal and causes their brain to start out in a condition that normal people would only reach after damage from drugs? Did you know this causes them to seek out drugs? Did you know they literally can feel more pain and less pleasure from exactly the same stimuli as others? Did you know that a few small changes to your brain chemistry can cause you to feel a more excruciating torment than you can imagine? Did you know people who abuse drugs are in a cycle of living hell. They don’t use drugs to feel good, they use them to feel normal. They always did.
 It begs a question of why even try. But since we do not know the outcome we do not know if we might be successful. If we sit in a corner and chant “I give up” then it was your destiny to fail. If you try hard and succeed then it was your destiny to succeed. It was your destiny to try. Simply because it seems we have no choice from an outside view, it doesn’t mean that trying isn’t valuable from our perspective. All we can do is try and never stop trying. Never seeing past failures as anything more than a random number generator failing to pay out instead of some personal fault or some proof that trying doesn’t work. The purpose of trying is simply making yourself available to fate. Being there for the payout. We must never believe that past failures truly predict future ones. We must give up our supposition of control over the world and simply do our best knowing that we are only making ourselves available and that it is simply the nature of the universe that thing go wrong and things go right. You suffering or triumph really has little to do with you. Give up guilt and shame, vanity and hubris, they are all false assumptions.
The starving children don’t deserve to starve and the rich CEO doesn’t deserve to thrive. All we can do is focus in finding the good and happiness in the lives and the things we have and if we have the strength to try to shoulder the burden a little for those less fortunate. We should not give more than we need nor take more. We should always strive to need less to be happy and by doing so we automatically help shoulder the burden because we can begin to produce more than we consume and do so easily.
You can see the infinite in the finite and the inverse. Those who assume free will become incensed at the assumed intent of harm. If dog they have trained usually doesn’t disturb food but jumps up and eats the thanksgiving turkey. That dog was purposely being bad and deserves a good beating in their mind. A child may see a leaf blowing in the wind and think the leaf is purposely evading it. If one of today’s robots weld a perfect line, we can think of it as intending to do so, though we still know there is no intent. Recently a specialist in AI who is also a science magazine author chatted with what he thought was a human occasionally for 2 months before figuring out it was a very complex chatter program. He was no different than the child with the leaf. Ever noticed that children under 8 have all the same sayings and gestures as their parents?
In the end, if you believe in free will you must also believe that your brain is magic. You must disregard the fact that we know how memories are made. You must disregard that chemicals can utterly alter your perception and your experience of life. You must disregard that we know so much about the brain that a chip can now be placed in a human’s head that can control a cursor on a screen via thought alone. You must believe that your experiences did not shape and create you. That your neurons cannot be numbered. That your decisions are not based on experience. You must believe in some spark of magic.
Magical thinking is the enemy of truth and the seed of all that which is evil in the world. Ignorance.

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