An essay in Nature about free will

May 14, 2009. There’s an essay in Nature by Martin Heisenberg about free will entitled “Is free will an illusion?”. I’ve written what I think about the concept of free will before: There’s no such thing as free will.

The main point Heisenberg’s essay seems to make is that quantum randomness allows enough wiggle room that pure determinism doesn’t hold.

What he doesn’t mention is that while randomness does banish determinism, it doesn’t get you free will — it just gets you unpredictability.

Here’s a quote from the article:

For example, my lab has demonstrated that fruit flies, in situations they have never encountered, can modify their expectations about the consequences of their actions. They can solve problems that no individual fly in the evolutionary history of the species has solved before. Our experiments show that they actively initiate behaviour

To me this indicates a lack of understanding of stochastic processes. It is trivially easy to write a computer program which, given a good source of random numbers, will output unpredictable grammatically correct English sentences which have never before been written or uttered, and which will likely never again be output by that very same computer program. In the early 1980s a computer was programmed to do just this, and a book consisting of some choice bits of its output was produced, called The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Consructed (and look at those prices!). Likewise, by using random data to drive stochastic processes, computer programs can use evolutionary algorithms to design robot control circuits, or new highly efficient antenna designs, never before seen or contemplated. But nobody would argue these programs have free will., as pre-recorded random data coupled with a checkpoint restart capability can convert these programs into deterministic equivalents. This is pretty much John Searle’s Chinese Room argument against artificial intelligence turned against biological free will. John Searle’s argument against machine intelligence fails for precisely the same reason this same argument turned against biological free will succeeds — that is, biological organisms are a kind of machine — biological organisms can be intelligent, and since they are a kind of machine, machines can be intelligent. Machines can’t have free will, and since biological organisms are a kind of machine, biological organisms can’t have free will.

Randomness and unpredictability are not what most people mean when they say they “have free will.” The free will that most people think that they have is not merely unpredictable-even-in-theory actions, as opposed to deterministic actions, which, in theory, given perfect knowledge of initial conditions, would be predictable.

To me this essay in Nature either redefines free will into something most people wouldn’t recognize in order to preserve it, or else fails to recognize that a defense of unpredictability is not a defense of free will. One of the two.

~ by scaryreasoner on May 15, 2009.

2 Responses to “An essay in Nature about free will”

  1. Very interesting. Before making comment, I always want to share with the author how I came across the website so that you know I am NO less intelligent than any one mentioned above.

    After taking my son and his classmates visiting NJ Battleship, on the way back, I want to show his classmates who has not visit the wonderful brand new Peter Lewis Library at Princeton University. So while my son giving them a tour, I came to 2nd floor as usual to read some journals.

    I always use my Berkeley CS Algorithm professor Manuel Blum’s way of reading. He taught us at his first lecture the fantasy that he learned from his graduate student on how to read a book. He said, just open and read, and read as far as want to read and can understand, or just close the book, and open randomly again to read something else.

    So, I extended that random algorithm a little bit here and just randomly pick a journal and read about it, and continue reading till I can not continue and randomly pick another one. It is amazingly applicable in this piles of all brand new journals sorted alphabetically, and seemed to be newer than books in Barns and Noble where new books seemed always have many readers already browsed.

    Anyway, I go this “Journal of Neurogenetics”, the special issue: Drosophila Neurogenetics -The Heisenberg Impact. After randomly reading some articles and the great pictures seemed to build up in my mind just like when I got lost, I just randomly driving around, and a new map would be formed in mind.

    The problem is that I do not know the word “drosophila”, after I saw it over 100 times and seemed memorize this English word, I decided to come to look it up the meaning. Then I used the on line Chinese dictionary that Berkeley Asian Library suggested me to check, I found it is “fruit fly”. Funny? A Berkeley graduate with 100 point in Circuit Theory while 2nd highest only 60 in that hundreds of student class, I do not know this word. Not so, I was rejected by Berkeley 5 times, and that because my TOEFL never pass their standard, but they finally let me in because I esclated to the highest decision maker that I will continue applying if they continue rejecting me.

    Anyway, I start google this magic new word “drosophia” and the more I google, the more I read and the more fantasy I saw. So, I decided, I should find out who “Martin Heisenberg” is.

    Then, I saw this wonderful blog from YOU and read about it, and of course, I totally agree with you, at least, as you can guess I totally understand what you are talking about.

    And, the book I was reading last night called “Predictable Irrationality” by Dan Areily, Behavior Economics Professor at Duke, may be a good book for both you and Martin Heisenberg.

    The problems researchers have these days are often, Biologiest knows little or nothing about Computer Science, and Molicular Biology professor, like the one at Princeton University, knows nothing about Chinese acupuncture, …etc. So, many NEW discovery is in fact an old news in other people’s eye.

    Oh! I forgot to tell you how I get to know this NY Times Best Seller book. I randomly walk in Barnes and Nobel after this wonderful concert at Sommerville NJ and apply Manual Blum’s wonderful algorithm, and pick up Harvard Business Review, and randomly open to read an article written by Dan Areily, then found it is “out dated” to my research since his discovery seemed to be what I have been doing for many years. Anyway, I just pass to my son who got admitted to Berkeley also want to obtain Nobel Economics Prize so chose Rutgers Univ instead to follow Milton Friedman, Rutgers 32″, Nobel Economics Prize 1976, whose NIT is the solution to current economic situation.

    Anyway, my son pass this “Predictable Irrational” to me. Try to see if you and Martin Heisenberg can put all these together and make sense out of it.

  2. Thanks for the comment (I’m not completely sure what to make of it, but that’s ok. 🙂

    I think I have seen this book, Predictably Irrational while wandering around in Barnes and Noble before, but I guess it didn’t pique my interest enough to pick it up. Maybe I’ll give it another look next time I’m there.

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