Wednesday, June 06, 2007

How free are we?

You’ll notice that I have rephrased the question ‘is there a free will?’ from its binary form into an analogous query that forms the title of this post. This question has decidedly created countless debates and zillions of web page discussions among the philosophers and the religious. I, however, will address this question, purely, from a biological point of view which is probably the only legitimate perspective, if you care for truth i.e. Let’s start with definitions; admittedly there are many variants of free will, but in order to avoid getting into a vicious (or virtuous) and circular philosophical arguments- let’s define free will as the ability to choose your future course of action independently.

Any discussion of free will usually has to address two issues; one semantic and another conceptual. The issue I refer to as semantic is the one that deals with our identity; clearly when we say free will, we also have to answer ‘whose’ free will we are referring to. For millenniums, Hindu Philosophers (probably folks from other religion are at it too) grappled with this question ‘Who am I?’ and waxed eloquent about the life-changing implications of inquiry into our identity. The answer, as it turns out, is pretty simple, we are bipedal primates belonging to the mammalian species ‘Homo Sapiens’. The reason why there continues to be a debate in the spiritual circles is the following- ‘I have a leg- therefore I am different from my leg, I have a brain- therefore I am different from my brain, so I must be a soul who has a body’. A little bit of thinking reveals that the problem is purely semantic- the brain refers to itself in the third person to avoid going into circles, that’s all. A robot can be programmed to say ‘I have an onboard computer; therefore I am different from it, etc’; but doesn’t mean anything.

But are we robots then; here we need to address the second issue- the conceptual one. Most people have a polarized view on free will- either they believe in determinism or freedom. Fortunately another perspective is possible, only it’s not an ‘ism’; I refer to the category of things (both living and non-living) that can be ‘programmed’. As somebody who is addicted to playing chess with the computer, I can’t think of a better example than computer chess to illustrate my point. Most people think the reason Deep Blue could beat Kasprov was because it could evaluate 35/40 moves (the entire game) for all combinations; frankly that is impossible. The number of possible ways the first 35/40 moves could be played is larger than the number of atoms in the universe; to evaluate all the possible combination of the first 10 moves itself would take close to 1500 years for the fastest supercomputer today. No, it doesn’t quite work that way, programmers provide heuristics/thumb rules to shorten the decision making process. These rules, by the way, have a small but finite probability of misfiring under specific circumstances- but mostly they work well. Also once the programming is complete, the programmer is not allowed to help the computer during a competitive game. This is probably the closest analogy to how our brains work; our brains are programmed by genes and memes (cultural equivalents of genes). The programming consists of a set of instructions, heuristics, rules of thumbs etc., but once we are born, we are on our ‘own’. No gene would actually whisper instructions into our ears, but the programming creates a statastical bias to behave a certain way- which again gets modified under cultural influences. Now here comes the interesting part- the set of rules is finite, but the range of behaviors possible is practically infinite like the total number of moves possible in chess. Thus the unpredictability of these infinite emergent behaviors arising from a finite set of rules is what that gives rise to the illusion of free will/control over our actions.

But this world-view creates a few sticky problems of its own, chief among which is explaining how we can hold people responsible for their actions if free will was only an illusion. One must appreciate the fact that morality is purely a human affair, and therefore we can’t look to biology or science for answers. But we do know that human behavior responds to incentives and penalties, therefore having a robust legal system may be only way to regulate behavior in absence of free will!

11 Comments:

Blogger salvagepoint said...

I think people's behaviour is the result of a complex interplay of individuality and social structuring.It is extremely difficult to determine where individuality ends and 'social living' begins.
Theories in psychology abound and there have been countless experiments conducted to answer the nature vs nurture question. There are no answers, largely because there is that element of unpredictability and thats what makes us unique.
btw, you mind find this article on Rousseau's 'noble savages' to be interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_savage

10:09 AM  
Blogger Ravi Ivaturi said...

Sure, I am familiar with Nature versus Nurture argument. My point is something else; when you combine programming (by both Nature & environment), a complex brain (the genetic equivalent of a highly advanced on-board computer) & a sufficiently complicated nervous system (biological equivalent of a highly complex LAN) - you get the illusion of free will. Free will defined as the ability to choose your course of action independently probably doesn’t exist; by independently I mean unconstrained by the set of rules that exist in our brain. Choices do exist, but it’s the programming that decides which choices do get chosen. A brain free of programming is only a myth because it needs to have some kind of programming to remain functional.

11:14 AM  
Blogger salvagepoint said...

I dont agree that 'A brain free of programming is only a myth because it needs to have some kind of programming to remain functional'.
A person brought up in isolation - devoid of any kind of social interaction will still have free will to act on his basic impulses. I dont think the brain needs any kind of programming to exert its basic will. Technically, you have the free will to do anything you want. What you are afraid of are the consequences, which prevents you from exerting this free will.
This doesnt mean free will doesn't exist - you can technically do and be anything you want :)

1:58 PM  
Blogger Ravi Ivaturi said...

A person brought up in isolation still has genetic influences to contend with- that empirically explain a large part of the programming content. Sure, behavior responds to incentives and penalties which largely explain why we moderate our behavior. Regarding your technical point about behaving the way we want, I am sure you will agree that mostly happens only in our imagination. People who translate that freedom into real life often end up getting classified as clinically insane.

My point is more subtle than that; consider the case of autistic savants; they have extra-ordinary mental abilities (usually mathematical) and severely underdeveloped social skills. It has been shown empirically, for instance when Savants are asked to select a tie, a suit & shoes from say a large wardrobe; usually they find it impossible to make a decision. That happens because they try to evaluate the situation mathematically which means they will have to look at, say 100! combinations (a very large number)- which is difficult for even a computer. The rest of us, on the other hand, possess some useful short-cuts such as matching the belt & the shoes, shirt color to the occasion etc. These short-cuts like in the example of computer chess help us in decision making; but they are still rules that brain uses to make decisions. They do not arise spontaneously, but emerge out of a complex interplay of genes & environment. Behavior is emergent and hence gives the illusion of being chosen independently.

2:30 PM  
Blogger KishyCool said...

Hi, visited ur blog for the first time. Did not know that u have got such a depth. Very good blog. Ur second name suggests u r a Telugu. R u ? I liked ur answer to S.Pyne, very simple but very intelligent explanation. Just used "also" to ruffle ur feathers. Just ignore it.

6:49 PM  
Blogger KishyCool said...

FYI, forgot to inform u, if u could not identify me, i am The south indian "kishor" on GB's blog.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Ravi Ivaturi said...

@Kishor: Of course I recognized you. Yes sir.. I speak telugu. I took your comment in the 'right' spirit. No worries. Thanks for the compliment sir..

6:55 PM  
Blogger KishyCool said...

Hi, no new posts from u. Seems u blog very rarely. Did u know about Lekhini (a telugu script generator). It is very useful in writing blogs and mails in telugu.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Directionless Wanderer said...

fantastic post - the analogies were indeed very good .... I also consequently read the comments & counter-comments & I have to say that it made for an extremely interesting read .... kept me engrossed completely .... whatever reality maybe, it is an extremely complex issue to comprehend - both scientifically & philosophically

7:59 PM  
Blogger Ravi Ivaturi said...

@ Kishor: Thanks for reminding me, I need to get into a rhythm. I didn’t know about ‘Lekhini’, but unfortunately my Telugu writing skills are practically non-existent

@ Directionless Wanderer: Thanks. The issue is certainly complex to comprehend, but hopefully not outside the realm of discussion for amateurs like us ……

2:51 PM  
Blogger KishyCool said...

Hi, I started my blog in Telugu language. Please have a look at it when u have time.

www.puretelugu.blogspot.com

2:07 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home