Monday, June 10, 2013

Free Will Versus Instinct

Believing in free will is akin to believing in god, except that I can understand god, while free will eludes me. Where I get lost is at the beginning; I can’t see a difference between free will and any other kind of will. Will meaning “choice,” not, say, the “will to succeed.” But choice. How are there two kinds of choice? Either one has a choice or one doesn’t. If one has a choice, one has the option of making said choice. One is always equally free to choose either of two options. The consequences may be radically different, but one is always free to make the choice. There isn’t, though, room for but one kind of choice; if there’s another, I haven’t run across it yet.

The term “free choice,” though, implies that there are at least two kinds of choice, right? Free and not free. The implication is that there are fundamentally different kinds of choices available, one which one is compelled to make, and another which one is free to choose anyway he or she likes. We tend to think of this latter kind of choice as, if not uniquely human, then confined to the larger animals. Primates, maybe. Don’t know about dolphins. The implication is that this kind of choice appeared somewhere along the evolutionary line; that prior to the appearance of such kind of choice, there was only instinct, which, everyone agrees, is no choice at all. We pride ourselves on not being instinctual, on being able to think for ourselves, to make good and bad decisions.

We are, perhaps, a bit prideful.

The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that it’s unexplained from whence this new manner of thinking comes. And how it works differently from other manners of choice. How there can be two methods of making choices has not been approached by the philosophers, much less by the neuroscientists. It seems mixed up with the notion of consciousness and self-consciousness; the difference between them isn’t clear either.

Fundamentally, the simplest living organism possible has to be able to find food, recognize it as distinct from non-food, and decide to process it. At its most basic level, finding and recognizing food is akin to deciding to process it. Still, the organism has to know how to position its body in order to process the food it has found. It has to have a sense of where its body is and where it isn’t, and it has to have a sense of how to move its body to another place. Conscious or self-conscious? You can call it what you will; regardless, it has to be conscious of itself and its surroundings in order to survive. Every living thing has the same requirement. Every.

So, how does this little, primitive, one-celled critter go about processing the signals it receives from its environment; and how does it communicate within itself? Chemistry and electricity, right? Nothing but. Chemical signals and electric currents transmit all the information the cell needs. What’s more, when two cells decided to get together and become a multi-celled critter, they retained the same methods of communication: chemicals and electricity. In fact, no matter how many cells clump together to make no matter how big a critter—a redwood or a whale—the communication channels never change: chemistry, electricity.

It’s not that these were the best channels available to living things out of which to build communications platforms, it’s that they’re the only channels available. Gravity, for example, doesn’t work well as a communications devise. Yet messages can only be sent using the materials at hand. Chemicals make good triggers; electricity is fast.

But as we noted, once that one-celled critter found something to eat, its triggers said “eat,” and the processing process began. The choice to eat was automatic. But it was a choice; theoretically, the critter could eat or not eat.

How the critter made the choice to eat was because it operated with an algorithm (paradigm/software/criteria) that said when triggers X, Y, and Z fire, swallow that puppy.

As the critters (I call them “critters” to lump together all living things, animal or vegetable) get larger and competition appears and predators appear, the algorithms become more and more complex. They evolve. Yet, the mechanisms of communication between the various cells and the ruling algorithms remain the same: chemistry and electricity. Even when you get to people, the only way the various parts of the body communicate with each other is through chemical signals and electrical charges. There is, fortunately or unfortunately, nothing that Mother Nature can add to the mix.

Needless-to-say, when sex was invented, the algorithms became hopelessly complex. Understandably so, though, given the kinds and complexity of sense and response organs. Choice and decisions, necessarily, must be made virtually instantaneously, especially as mobility and predation increase. The algorithms have to be acted upon sans debate.

In the end, all living things possess the same three things: sensors, output terminals, and CPUs. They can read the environment; they can interact with the environment; and they have a pile of software to work out the details and coordinate things. The bacterium has these. You have these. The bacterium uses those three capacities to find and consume food; we do too. (We also use them to facilitate DNA mixing.) In both the bacterium and us, all the interior communication is done by the same chemical/electrical routes; nothing new has been added to the mix. The signals that make the dog’s mouth move when it barks or our mouths move when we speak, are made and processed the same way. Neither us nor the dog, of course, is aware of the millions of interactions required for every bark, every word. What could awareness of that even be like? (Zen masters and LSD aficionados?)

As you can imagine, this has profound implications as to where another form of choice could come from. So far, we can only envision a mechanical, albeit highly complex, method of functioning. Essentially, we have only instinct at this point in the discussion; there is no place for anything else. Even thought, no matter how complex and self-reflexive it seems, has, at this juncture, only a mechanistic explanation, an instinctual explanation. No other explanation—other than God—has been put forward. Where would thought come from if not from a complex function of our CPUs? How is my song any less instinct that that of the nightingale?

In the end, it appears we don’t even have a definition for “will,” much less “free will.” (We carry this problem with us when we think about computers; we worry about when they’re going to be able to spontaneously write and install their own software without wondering where the computer’s existing software would generate that idea within itself; we think that at some point “will” will arrive as if the computers will be touched by the finger of god and become alive; and that being alive will be a fundamental change for the computer. We speak of the “singularity” as if a magical transformation will appear at a point in the future when machines become “alive.” We have faith that we can create life by software, if not by electro-chemistry.)

Ah, people; we’re so cocksure.

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