Sunday, November 12, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will II

I am moving along more slowly than usual, because, besides Sapolsky's writing style, this is not an easy book to read and encompasses the subjects of neuroscience, biology, physics and philosophy. One chapter is devoted to chaos theory, which some have used as a basis for saying that free will exists. Sapolsky concludes that "chaoticism shows just the opposite of chaos, the fact that there's less randomness than often assumed and, instead, unexpected structure and determinism...." He then moves on to a chapter on the subject of emergent complexity. Here again, some have thought that this phenomenon is a proof of indeterminism in nature, something akin to magic. I found this chapter highly informative, because it explains how the development and behavior of organisms emerges from "simple constituent parts having simple local interactions, all without centralized authority....These systems have characteristics that exist only at the emergent level—a single neuron cannot have traits related to circuitry—and whose behavior can be predicted without having to resort to reductive knowledge about the component parts....Not only does this explain emergent complexity in our brains, but our nervous systems use some of the same tricks used by the likes of individual proteins, ant colonies, and slime molds. All without magic." In this area, Sapolsky is especially insightful, because he understands how biological systems actually work – and this is not at all the way that most people think about them. He concludes that both chaos theory and emergent systems are consistent with a deterministic world.

These chapters are followed by the chapter "Does Your Free Will Just Emerge." Sapolsky concludes that free will does not emerge for the following reasons:

a. Because of the lessons of chaoticism—you can't just follow convention and say that two things are the same, when they are different, and in a way that matters, regardless of how seemingly miniscule that difference; unpredictable doesn't mean undetermined.

b. Even if a system is emergent, that doesn't mean it can choose to do whatever it wants; it is still made up of and constrained by its own constituent parts, with all their mortal limits and foibles.

c. Emergent systems can't make the bricks that built them stop being brick-ish.

In Chapters 9 and 10, the subject changes to quantum indeterminacy. This is the same topic discussed by Sabine Hossenfelder in Existential Physics. Physics is one of Sapolsky's weaker areas, but he also makes a compelling argument that random events at the subatomic level have nothing to do with free will, which is similar to Hossenfelder's view. He concludes:

Quantum indeterminacy is beyond strange, and in the legendary words of physics god Richard Feynman, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

It is perfectly plausible, maybe even inevitable, that there will be quantum effects on how things like ions interact with the likes of ion channels or receptors in the nervous system.

However, there is no evidence that those sorts of quantum effects bubble up enough to alter behavior, and most experts think that it is actually impossible—quantum strangeness is not that strange, and the quantum effects are washed away amid the decohering warm, wet noise of the brain as one scales up.

Even if quantum indeterminacy did bubble up all the way to behavior, there is the fatal problem that all it would produce is randomness. Do you really want to claim that the free will for which you deserve punishment or reward is based on randomness?

The supposed ways by which we can harness, filter, stir up, or mess with the randomness enough to produce free will seem pretty unconvincing. If determined indeterminism is a valid building block for free will, then taking an improv acting class is a valid building block for, à la Sartre, believing that we are condemned to be free.

I still have several chapters to go and should finish up on my next post. Of what I've read so far, I am most impressed by the concept of emergence, with which I was not very familiar previously. In the biological world, this is a far more useful perspective than that of physics. Emergence in nature is something that one can easily pick up intuitively simply by spending time outdoors – which is exactly how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution through natural selection. Emergence is also a good way to understand Vinod Goel's model of the human brain as discussed in Reason and Less. That model takes into consideration the fact that our brains evolved over millions of years and still contain elements from the distant past which are incompatible with reason, because they came into existence long before rationality became a feature of our species.

In some ways, I am coming to see arguments for free will as an unnecessary nuisance. I think that free will is nothing more than a necessary illusion that we maintain in order to believe in the validity of our thinking processes. You might say that we have evolved to believe that we have free will even though we don't. Thus, informed thinkers such as Sapolsky and Hossenfelder are forced to address spurious arguments that unconvincingly link free will to randomness in nature. The idea of free will is probably linked to the idea of rational agency, which is also under attack now. At the moment, both neuroscience and behavioral economics are telling us that we are hardly rational, and to confirm that these days, one need only follow the news.

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