FTR: Free Will

At one point I had the idea that I was going write a bunch of For The Record posts — position papers that attempt to be final words on a topic (at least until new considerations came into play). Other one about guns (back in 2015), I never really followed through.

In a sense, all posts, are final words (until further consideration), so all posts can be seen as FTR. The question is whether it makes any sense to mark an expressed opinion as more official or duly considered rather than off the cuff or casual. That was my thought, anyway.

So, seven years later, FTR take two: Free Will

Perhaps, as with the guns post, what justifies labeling this as FTR is the sense in my mind of the resolution of a question I’ve been pondering for a long time.

With guns, for instance, my upbringing tended towards “who needs them” semi-neutrality or focusing on the social negatives (which certainly exist). But my personal interests (fueled by friends) led me towards positive views. The upshot was years sitting on the fence thinking about it. After duly considering the matter, I picked a lane.

The issue of free will is another topic that I’ve spent years pondering (and posting about), although in this case it wasn’t trying to decide between pro or con but trying to reconcile notions of causal determination with our abiding sense of free will. If one is to take the latter seriously, one must provide a sensible mechanism for it. Or else explain that sense.

And that’s what’s FTR here. Fixing on a putative mechanism.

To be clear, it’s just a story I’ve made up, but it’s one that tries to fit physical fact, requires nothing new, and explains how we might legitimately have free will (as it certainly feels we do).

§

I define free will as the ability to make a genuinely arbitrary choice given all past information — to pick between possible futures. If we could rewind reality to some decision point, physics would allow a different choice. There is nothing inevitable about human choices.

The question I’ve pondered for years is: How? What is the mechanism of choice?

If brains are not deterministic, how do they escape it?

§

A computer presented with a given set of inputs always makes the same choices. Those choices, based on its software, can be predicted in advance. (They were predicted in advance by the software designer.) The computer has no free will.

When it comes to the human brain, people ask whether sufficiently complex software wouldn’t behave as if it had the same kind of apparent free will humans demonstrate. Can complex enough software appear to select among options based on subtle factors? Yes, absolutely, but, as far as I know, the behavior of such remains fully deterministic. Given the same inputs, we get the same outputs. The implication, of course, is that brains are the same.

So, mind models based on computers don’t seem to offer a path to free will. The perception that the brain is a computer leads to the perception that our minds must be deterministic.

But the brain obviously isn’t a computer in any traditional sense. We’d be much better at math and logic if it was. (Seeing neurons as individual computers makes some sense, though.) Brains don’t function in the stored-program-and-CPU way of computers but as vast massively parallel real-time networks. In fact, that we’re bad with math might be an important clue.

[One thing software seems missing is understanding. Some of the most recent networks are very powerful (yet often fragile). They appear capable of not just recognizing but creating images and text. But so far nothing seems to contain a hint of understanding or context about the choices or creations. They are still the “Chinese Rooms” Searle spoke of.]

§

From a physics point of view, either reality is fully deterministic (and therefore has no surprises in the future — our abiding sense of free will is an illusion) or it has quantum randomness (and the future is based on probabilities).

Random choices aren’t what we mean by free will, so it’s hard to see how quantum randomness helps. It’s certainly possible to amplify a quantum result, a spin measurement, for instance, and to use it to determine our actions, but that’s the same as flipping a coin — it’s not free will. (Free will would be flipping the coin and then choosing to ignore it.)

An appeal to chaos amplifying quantum randomness to classical levels still requires an explanation for how that allows us to choose among options.

That’s the question I’ve chewed on many times deciding what to have for dinner. What mechanism (free or not) is behind the choice I make? Many of our choices are driven by imperatives that constrain us, but what to have for dinner seems far less restricted. Especially when I’ve decided soup the choice of which kind seems without consequence — about as free a choice as one could make.

Yet it doesn’t feel random. I wouldn’t want to blindfold myself and pick a can randomly; I want to choose which soup to eat. There is an active life-charting process involved, but what’s the mechanism?

§ §

Well, here’s the story I’ve decided on. It works for me and (until further considerations) I’m done thinking about it.

§

Firstly, I accept that reality at the quantum level is random. Regardless of preferred interpretation of quantum mechanics, we experimentally live in a reality that follows the Born rule. At the fundamental level, interactions are not deterministic.

[Back in April I posted five articles exploring the quantum conundrum of measurement — how a quantum system on its own evolves deterministically but when interacting with another system experiences probabilistic “collapse” of the wavefunction. The point here is that these interactions occur constantly.]

Secondly, chemistry is quantum. That’s easy to forget because chemistry seems so normal to us, but atoms are quantum objects and their electrons, which are the basis of most of their interactions, especially so. Modern chemistry fully embraces its quantum nature.

Yet chemistry is generally viewed as deterministic — do the same thing, get the same result. I suspect, however, that’s more a statistical truth than an atomic one. Similar to thermodynamics and entropy, which are the statistics of gazillions of particles, chemistry is the statistics of gazillions of atoms.

I further suspect the complex chemistry of biology magnifies quantum randomness (through chaos) and is even more subject to only a statistical type of determinism, one true only in virtue of sheer numbers. The world of particles might be deterministic (except that it isn’t), but I’m dubious about complex chemistry, and I have serious doubts about biology.

Thirdly, brains depend on complex biological chemistry, and by now we’re many levels of organization above the quantum level. So much so it might seem to have averaged out any quantum effects. The brain seems to be a classical device operating according to classical physics. We’re not currently aware of any special quantum magic happening in the brain (it isn’t a quantum computer).

But the brain is an incredibly complicated classical device, both in terms of numbers (of neurons) and in terms of weighted relationships (synapses) between its numbers. No other object, natural or human-made, comes close.

All systems are subject to noise, and reality tends to be especially noisy. Low-level noise can be amplified by chaos if it isn’t damped by averaging over or some form of hysteresis. Tiny effects can “tip” a system that has energy and is poised in a metastable balance point. Such systems can react strongly to gentle nudges. Imagine a plate balanced on the edge of table so needs only a tiny shake of the table to overbalance and fall.

Brains appear to operate in a metastable equilibrium space between chaotic noise and clocklike regularity. They’re extremely active devices — very busy all the time — and small nudges can have large results. Consider how a scent, a song, or a suggestion, can send your mind to strong past memories or imagined fancies.

Fourthly, the symbols brains process are ideas, thoughts, notions, feelings, qualia. Minds are noisy at this level — thoughts relevant and irrelevant constantly sleet through them. We may focus on a task, a book, a conversation, but other thoughts always bubble up.

[There are activities, meditation or playing music for instance, when it’s possible to either completely blank the mind or to be “in the zone” — a mental state that transcends thoughts.]

Our minds also build models of reality, including and very importantly, models of future reality. We’re able to vividly imagine possible futures.

§

Putting it all together, minds are noisy at all levels. As a result, they are constantly roiling with thoughts. When we consider a choice, we invoke and focus on possible options and results. And all the noise and linked associations that go with them.

It’s as if we balance these possible futures like plates along the edge of the table, all poised to tip off. Or in this case, poised to be selected. We jostle the table until one falls.

The noise of our mind introduces a bit of randomness or uncertainty within the parameters of that choice. The closer the options of the choice, the more noise might affect the outcome. Yet, even when a choice seems pretty clear, we’re capable of being capricious and choosing on a whim. We might think of that as a noise spike.

Rational people typically make rational choices among possible options (except for noise spikes), but sometimes all options are reasonable, and we’re left to decide what we prefer. For instance, having picked soup, picking which type of soup. There are the various influences: What haven’t I had in a while (I like variety); What kind of day is it (cold or warm); How hungry am I; and so on. But ultimately the choice seems whimsical, and I think that’s where the mental noise is a factor.

And that noise isn’t exactly random — it’s my noise. It’s noise that arises from my mental network, and it’s heavily flavored by my gestalt. So, while there may be some degree of randomness (whimsy) here, it’s strongly biased by the mind it occurs in. Our choices always reflect us.

§ §

If one doesn’t believe reality is fully determined, then it follows that brains aren’t. If the value of brains is allowing their owner to successfully navigate unpredictable reality, then it makes sense brains would evolve to handle that with creative responses.

Evolution adds an element of surprise through mutation, and it may have stumbled on a mechanism that allows true originality in living beings. The very notion of a “random mutation” might describe original thinking. Our minds are creative because they’re noisy, sloppy, and capable of error. We’re bad at math but great at imagining new stuff. That’s the astonishing wonder of being human.

Stay noisy, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

36 responses to “FTR: Free Will

  • Anonymole

    Read it all and, miraculously, followed it all as well.

    We are Agents of Chaos and our belief in free-will is us assuaging ourselves that we have some semblance of Control over our destiny. We think we can Get Smarter by fooling ourselves. But 99% of the time, it’s the Universe’s, the Chief’s phone booth and us thinking to dial triple zero, that is driving our choices, unbeknownst to us.

  • Philosopher Eric

    As a causal determinist (yes even regarding quantum mechanics), I think that I have a reasonable way to consider our perceptions of freewill. It’s that it doesn’t exist ultimately, but rather merely seems to exist, and specifically as a function of our ignorance.

    For example, consider someone who seems to choose to do something utterly horrible. From my limited perspective I could then refer to this person as “evil”, and specifically because they seemed to freely chose to do something horrible. But I also realize that that couldn’t be the case in the end under the premise of determinism — there must be causal mechanisms which force the person to “choose” to do what they do such that it becomes a non-choice. So the person should not be evil in an ultimate sense, but rather only from my limited perspective. Thus the more educated I become about the person’s circumstances, the more that I should see my perception of choice evaporate. Here my perception of “freewill and evil” should moderate back to “fixed function and bad”.

    It surprises me that I haven’t noticed anyone famous in academia display this reasoning. Doesn’t it make sense?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It sounds to me like a form of compatibilism. Let me ask three questions:

      What’s the difference between “evil” and “bad”?

      If quantum mechanics is determined, how do you account for our experience of the Born rule?

      As a causal determinist, do you look both ways before crossing the street? 😉

      • Philosopher Eric

        The position is definitely compatiblist Wyrd.

        From my perspective “bad”would be negative value in a phenomenal sense for something. If something feels bad to me then in that capacity it is bad for me, and even if it makes existence feel better to me in the end. In that case it would be good for me in the larger sense though not the smaller that felt bad. I’m referring to positive and negative qualia to entirely constitute good/bad existence for anything anywhere. Otherwise events should simply occur, though would not be good/bad for anything. Here there’s a famous “hard problem” to circumvent that I suspect involves the right kind of electromagnetic radiation, as produced by neurons in my brain for example.

        Good/evil is similar except that freewill will be required and so an agent that’s ultimately beyond causal forces. Thus either the term can be used in a limited physical capacity compatiblistically as I’m suggesting through causally, or in a true capacity for something beyond causality such as a god. Thus theists have a problem of evil given the horrible circumstances that their presumed free gods seems to permit.

        I account for our experience of the Born rule by means of ignorance. This is to say that we don’t grasp what’s going on well enough to see an underlying fixed causality.

        Yes I do look both ways before crossing the street, and in the US left first. It’s a heuristic that has damn near gotten me killed when I’ve automatically done so on the streets of London!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If I follow, under determinism, a specific action (say, robbing a bank) is deemed “bad” but if free will exists the same act is labeled as “evil”? What is the difference from the bank robber’s point of view? Should we abolish notions of crime and punishment?

        Are you asserting QM is wrong? Where does the ignorance involving it reside? Is it, as in the deBroglie-Bohm formulation, an ignorance of exact starting conditions or is ignorance in our theories? What do you make of experimental results that seem to rule out “hidden variable” theories (hidden variables being a form of ignorance)?

      • Philosopher Eric

        From my position bank robbery is not evil or even bad in itself. Here value is constituted by something that a brain (for example) produces, sometimes referred to as qualia. The more of this that some subject has in a positive sense, the better existence will be for it, with the opposite being the opposite. From the bank robber’s perspective this will be good over a given period of time to the extent that it makes him/her feel more happy for that period. The good of a bank robber will naturally be different from the good of the people that are being robbed from. Even the bank robber has an interest in a functional society however, and even if personally countering that stability happens to be in his/her interest at a given point.

        On QM, no I’m not asserting that it’s wrong. It’s been experimentally demonstrated quite well to not be wrong. I’m just saying that either the uncertainty that we perceive happens to be magical, or it’s not and thus it’s causal. I personally don’t believe in magic and so I’m left with the second of the two. This doesn’t mean that I’m right about that however.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        So, in your view “bad” and “good” are strictly personal? A violent mugging is “good” for the mugger but “bad” for the victim? What about the passerby who witnesses it but isn’t directly affected? Good, bad, or neutral?

        More on point here, can the mugger, at the last moment, change his mind and decide to forego the crime? In general, can a thief reform and become an honest man? Can an honest man suddenly turn to a life of crime? Or more trivially, why do I pick the soup I pick? (Why did I pick soup in the first place?) What’s going on when we decide stuff? Are we just robots acting out a script?

        (The funny thing about these discussions is that, if we do live in a strictly determined world, and we are just acting out an inevitable script, then every aspect of this discussion is also determined and foreordained.)

        “I’m just saying that either the uncertainty that we perceive happens to be magical, or it’s not and thus it’s causal.”

        Is it possible for natural reality to be causal yet in some ways indeterminate? In contrast with classical physics, QM asserts that we can only know half the information about a system. Is it possible that, at a low-level, reality has a fuzziness that allows either this or that but never both? That notion is a cornerstone of QM, so if you agree with it, then you’ll have to accept the indeterminacy, but if you don’t, then you’re asserting QM is incorrect.

        John Wheeler came up with a version of the Twenty Questions game that illustrates the idea. Imagine the group does not pick a secret item for the guesser to ask questions about. Instead, they agree to a protocol. The questions are to be answered randomly (yes or no) but answers must allow for at least one object that satisfies all answers so far. So, the first question (say “Is it an animal?”) gets a completely random answer (“Yes.”). But the second answer is constrained by whatever the first is, so if the question is “Is it blue?” then a “yes” answer is allowed only if a blue animal exists (which, of course, a few do). The answer to any third question is constrained to blue animals, and so on.

        Wheeler’s metaphor is implying that reality might act the same way. Indeterminate — fuzzy — until we ask it specific questions and get back specific answers. This does seem how QM works. Can you expand your ontology to include a fuzzy reality, or are you committed to strict causal Laplacian determinism?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Let me offer another example that I rather like: Imagine a song.

        We can view the song over time in its entirety, in which case it’s simple to answer the question, “What’s the melody?” But in this view of the whole song, there is no answer to the question, “What’s the note?” The question is incoherent in this view of the song.

        Alternately, we can view a precise moment of the song. Now it’s easy to answer the “What’s the note?” question, but in this one-note view, the question “What’s the melody?” is incoherent and cannot be answered.

        So, the questions we can sensibly ask can depend on the view we take of a system, and they can be mutually exclusive. This is the fundamental cornerstone that makes quantum mechanics different from classical mechanics.

  • Lee Roetcisoender

    For me, Reality/Appearance Metaphysics (RAM) provides the framework from which I can assess free-will and determinism; and that framework is “context”. The metaphor I like to use to illustrate context is a railroad track that a train runs on. The deterministic track and train provide a “context” for the passengers who are riding on the train to interact with their environment. For human passengers, the “context” of a deterministic track and train provides ample freedom for those humans riding the train to express themselves even though the overall context of the track, train and human beings is deterministic.

    So, even though taken as a whole (context) our universe may be deterministic and the unique boundaries of each physical system that make up that universe may also be deterministic (context), there is a limited degree of self-determination build into that architecture; the more complex the system, the greater degree of self-determination is built into that system where a choreography of dance takes place in a relational dynamic (RQM) which ultimately leads to the novelty and complexity we observe.

    So the overriding answer to the question of free-will verses determinism ultimately reduces back to one of “context”; which means that both determinism and free-will are equally true where the “context” of that question becomes the arbiter.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You’re saying that you see reality as approximately determined, but not precisely determined?

      Does a complex system capable of self-determination require some level of consciousness? Are brains required?

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        I think your first statement is one way (context) of looking at it. We don’t argue about what is true or false per se, we get lost in the context of a given subject matter, which results in talking past each other.

        To restate my position: globally, I think reality is deterministic just like the two steel rails that make up the railroad track upon which the train runs is deterministic.

        According to the RAM architecture, “all systems” regardless of complexity have a limited degree of self-determination; the more complex the system the greater degree of self-determination.

        The brain is the most complex classical system in the known universe and what we recognize as consciousness and/or mind is an emergent property of that brain; so yes, brains are required for any degree of consciousness. The phenomena of consciousness is a mental representation of a fundamental reality which makes it an indirect experience in contrast to the direct experience of a positive (+) or negative (-) charge of electromagnetism.

        The phenomena of mind is very, very, very complex system; as a system, the mind is so complex that it defies what we know about classical systems in general. This complexity is another reason to posit that mind is a quantum system.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Okay, train tracks, fine — you also mentioned the freedom riders have. What is the dividing point between the predictable track and the unpredictable riders?

        What is the source and nature of the self-determination “all systems” have? For instance, the tree outside my house, the car inside my garage, or the chair I’m sitting in?

        I wasn’t asking whether brains were necessary for consciousness, but whether brains were necessary for self-determination. I take it that if “all systems […] have a limited degree” then the answer is no? Is there a significant dividing line between the “limited degree” systems other than brains have versus the degree brains have? We’re on the same page regarding brains being the most complex classical systems and the only known platform for consciousness.

        I don’t understand your point about consciousness and electric charge. My experience of consciousness is direct, immediate, and incorrigible. My experience of electric charge is the one that seems indirect. I can sometimes feel the effects of it, as with static charge, but I can’t sense it directly.

        I agree the complexity of the mind is far beyond any classical system we know, but that is an engineering problem. Nature creates some 350,000 new units (human brains) per day, so it can’t be all that hard. The engineering techniques required are orders of magnitude beyond our current abilities, but nothing in principle says we can’t eventually construct (or simulate) something of that complexity and structure. However, that complexity is not itself an argument for quantum. If anything, the sheer number of parts involved argues for a classical mechanism of such high complexity that new behaviors (consciousness) emerge from it. Quantum systems tend to be singular and simple — described by a single wavefunction.

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        “What is the dividing point between the predictable track and the unpredictable riders?”

        In agreement with Penrose, I would posit that the dividing point is the line of demarcation which separates the classical world from the quantum realm.

        “What is the source and nature of the self-determination “all systems” have?”

        I would posit that life is both the source and nature of all systems, living systems which are underwritten by the substrate of sentience.

        “Is there a significant dividing line between the “limited degree” systems other than brains have versus the degree brains have?”

        Complexity…… The brain is the substrate of mind but essentially the brain is not the mind, the mind a separate system which emerges from that substrate, albeit quantum in nature.

        “My experience of consciousness is direct, immediate, and incorrigible.”

        No question about that fact however, our experience of consciousness is a “conceptual” representation of a fundamental reality whereas other system’s experiences are “non-conceptual” representations of that same fundamental reality. The so-called four forces of nature describe that non-conceptual experience which systems other than minds experience. In those objective systems no cognition and/or information processing is required for motion resulting in form because it is a “direct” experience that is not subjective in nature.

        I agree that complexity itself is not an argument for quantum systems. Penrose cites Gödel’s incompleteness theorem as an argument for mind being quantum, a position that I agree with. There are many other reasons also such as; is it possible for a system to be both objective and subjective at the same time? The brain from which mind emerges is an objective system and yet, the system of mind is subjective. That irreconcilable dichotomy is a question that begs to be answered.

        Finally; we know absolutely nothing about the quantum realm other than we can know either the location of a particle or its momentum but not both. Other than those two bullet points, the rest is conjecture including the notion of a wave function. Understanding the physics of mind is our best avenue for understanding the quantum world.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I would posit that the dividing point [between predictable and unpredictable] is the line of demarcation which separates the classical world from the quantum realm.”

        Sometimes referred to as the “Heisenberg cut” — but which side of the cut is predictable, and which is unpredictable? Other than for noise, CM is entirely determined (in the abstract, although I question the messy reality). QM is formulated as fully determined for isolated systems, but interactions are probabilistic. Does the freedom of the riders depend on the Born rule for quantum interactions?

        “I would posit that life is both the source and nature of all systems, living systems which are underwritten by the substrate of sentience.”

        So “all systems” means sentient systems? And not the car, tree, or chair? It is brains (and so far brains alone) that grant self-determination? (If so, I’d agree. My point in this post is that how brains work might make them the one non-deterministic system nature has ever devised.)

        “In those objective systems no cognition and/or information processing is required for motion resulting in form because it is a ‘direct’ experience that is not subjective in nature.”

        Ah, okay, I think I see the distinction you’re making. It touches on what I see as an unfortunate double-meaning in what it means to “experience” something. Sentient brains experience qualia, the richness of which depending on the complexity of the brain. A sentient mind experiences the color red. Higher up the scale, a sapient mind experiences ideas and thoughts.

        On the other hand, we also say systems not mediated by brains “experience” environmental effects — light, cold, magnetism, etc. I think this leads to conflating the two and is the basis of (micro) panpsychism. A particle’s “experience” of a magnetic field is a completely different class of phenomena than my “experience” of a baseball game. I think it’s a class error to conflate them.

        As you say, a huge part of the difference is complexity. But structure, also. It’s the (massively parallel, massively interconnected) structure of the brain that gives rise to subjectivity and thought.

        “Penrose cites Gödel’s incompleteness theorem as an argument for mind being quantum,…”

        I’ve read The Emperor’s New Mind (his book arguing against computationalism). It’s Penrose, so the argument is a lot more complicated than that (a whole very dense book worth). He cites Gödel (and a number of other elements) as arguments against the brain being computational. Given all the evidence he sees that mind is somehow transcendental to computational functions, he asks what other natural system might work. In the book he speculates about quantum effects. After it was published, he hooked up with Stuart Hameroff (the anesthesiologist) who had that theory about microtubules in the brain. I’ve only ever looked briefly into their theory, but it’s not as crazy as some make it out to be.

        [As an aside, recall that Gödel’s theorems are a specific result about arithmetic systems. When applied outside that domain they’re metaphorical at best and entirely misused at worst. Penrose uses them as a counterexample to the supposed “computer” brain because computational systems are arithmetic systems, and Gödel would apply. But the mental experiences we have seem to transcend the math-mechanical process of deriving theorems from axioms — we have intuition, leaps of faith, and we invent things. This seems to rule out a (merely) computational brain. Exactly as Chalmers and many others have said, something more seems required.]

        As I suggested in the post, there different ways brains could be seen as quantum. Firstly, if everything is ultimately quantum then obviously brains must be. Secondly, chemistry is directly quantum, and brains are biochemical. Thirdly, Hameroff-Penrose might be on to something, and there might be sub-structures in the brain that leverage quantum effects as part of the low-level processing.

        There is a fourth view that the brain is a quantum computer, which is an extension of the notion that the brain is a (classical) computer. The latter, I’d say, is well debunked, and I’m not sure many take the former seriously.

        “Finally; we know absolutely nothing about the quantum realm other than we can know either the location of a particle or its momentum but not both.”

        Heh. It’s both better and worse than that. The faith in quantum mechanics includes the Uncertainty Principle, so if the faith proves largely false, then that principle could go down with the ship. On the other hand, experimental data tells us much more than you suggest — the Uncertainty Principle is derived from the formulation of the mechanics which, in turn, was formulated to explain puzzling experimental data (like why stoves don’t suck up energy and become infinitely hot).

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        “On the other hand, we also say systems not mediated by brains “experience” environmental effects — light, cold, magnetism, etc. I think this leads to conflating the two and is the basis of (micro) panpsychism. A particle’s “experience” of a magnetic field is a completely different class of phenomena than my “experience” of a baseball game.”

        A agree with your assessment that a particle’s “experience” of a magnetic field is completely different class of phenomena and that’s the point I’m trying to make. It is different because it’s a direct, objective, and immediate experience of a fundamental reality that requires no mediation from any type of information processing system for motion which results in form. The only question that remains open is what is responsible for this motion other than the so-called laws of physics. A cogent explanation other than a description provided by the physical sciences would be that sentience itself is the substrate of matter.

        Micro-panpsychism is systemically flawed because it has a “psyche” built into its architecture. A psyche implies a sense of self or what philosophers refer to as a subject. Any resistance one might have to a novel idea such as pansentientism is an artifact of the micro-panpsychism model. In direct contrast to panpsychism, pansentientism doesn’t conflate a sentient brain’s experience with a sentient particle’s experience because they are fundamentally different.

        It would be fair to ask if “awareness” is required for a sentient particle to engage in a relational dynamic with another sentient particle? My answer would be that if the substrate of that particle is sentience, then the answer is no; it is not aware because what feels good verses what feels bad to any given system is intrinsic to its fundamental nature. “Awareness” is only a feature of sentient minds, a system that is responsible for our own experience of consciousness.

        One final note; Chalmers hard problem is a direct consequence of postulating that mind is a computational system whereas, if minds are not computational and merely a highly complex sentient system, then the hard problem does not exist.

        Thanks for sharing your time with me Wyrd……

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The only question that remains open is what is responsible for this motion other than the so-called laws of physics.”

        Why is that a question if the laws of physics suffice?

        “Micro-panpsychism is systemically flawed because it has a ‘psyche’ built into its architecture.”

        Heh, to me that would be another reason. I see it as flawed (broken) because of the combination problem. And because I see sentience (let alone sapience) as an emergent property of certain complex systems with a certain structure (brains, in the only actual case we know). It only exists in the aggregate. No part of it is found in the pieces.

        Thus,…

        “My answer would be that if the substrate of that particle is sentience,…”

        I don’t see how that would be possible if sentience is an emergent property of a complex system. Particles are tiny-beyond-belief simple systems with only a handful of basic properties (mass, charge, spin, etc). There doesn’t seem to be any room for something as involved as sentience. Particles don’t have sufficient degrees of freedom.

        “Chalmers hard problem is a direct consequence of postulating that mind is a computational system whereas, if minds are not computational and merely a highly complex sentient system, then the hard problem does not exist.”

        Why not? The Hard Problem comes from our lack of a physical theory to account for why a “highly complex sentient system” should have subjective experience to the point of creating language, art, and music. The class of our subjective experience is in a class of its own.

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        “Why is that a question if the laws of physics suffice?”

        Because the laws of physics are a description and not an explanation. I’m onboard with Sabine Hossenfelder’s notion that when it comes to “understanding”, an explanation trumps a description every time.

        “I don’t see how that would be possible if sentience is an emergent property of a complex system.”

        A truth within its own context that’s for sure and yet, that truth is contingent upon that great big qualifier; “IF”.

        Do you remember that old Hewlett Packard commercial where this dude is cruising down the road in his nostalgic corvette and suddenly pulls over to a phone both to make a call and says to the individual on the other end of the line: “What if….”. Innovation requires asking “what if…”; and when it comes to the theory of mind “what if…” is not explored enough let alone even entertained; it’s the same old bullshit argument that’s been going on for thousands of years. 😒

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “What if…” is a great beginning! To science or to fiction (or to science fiction).

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I don’t think we have freedom of will at the physics level. As you noted, quantum randomness doesn’t provide it. Anyone tempted to think it does, should consider how they’d feel if, while trying to act in a moral manner, a random quantum event caused them to make an immoral choice.

    But as a compatibilist, I think as reasonably competent adults, we can forecast the possible and probable results of our actions and make decisions with that in mind. For me, that’s enough for the concept of social responsibility to remain coherent and useful.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I don’t see how it’s possible at the physics level. Minds are so many emergent layers above the physics, and so complex, my sense here is that brains (and therefore minds) might not be limited by determinism. I’m very dubious such complex systems are predictable. In trying to answer the age-old question, “If brain function is deterministic, why does it feel like we choose things?” I’ve decided to accept the premise that we do, in fact, choose things and tried to figure out how that works.

      What’s really going on when we “forecast the possible and probable results of our actions and make decisions”? If our path is fully determined, what’s going on there? It would seem we’re just acting out a pre-written script.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        In many ways, discussions of free will do often overlook the issue of our feeling of free will. Anil Seth, in his book, actually explores that feeling, which he describes as a form of “self-related perception”. Recall that for him, all perception is a form of prediction. From what I recall, his take is that we have the feeling because it flags which actions we should monitor the consequences of, all as part of an overall self monitoring system.

        On whether we’re just playing out a deterministic script, as you noted, brains are noisy systems. It mitigates the effects of that noise with thicker axons for vital circuits, redundant connections, and repetitive signaling. So I’d say it’s a mostly deterministic system, but only to the degree that determinism is adaptive, that it’s worth the energy investment, which allows in stochasticity, particularly when the next choice isn’t a clear one.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Right, exactly. Even if physical reality is fully determined (though I’m not sure it is), chaos makes it unpredictable, so it makes sense a species might evolve a massively energy-hungry system capable of dealing with novelty. Which would include creating novelty, from tools to songs.

        I’m sure you’re correct that the structure of the brain averages over low-level noise. I’m focusing on noise at a higher level, at the level of ideas and thoughts. All the semi-related and unrelated things that pass through our minds, even when we’re focused on something. Per my which soup example, I’m imagining futures with me eating the available kinds, and those are noisy images — all the associated thoughts, past memories, etc. And there’s the filter of my mood and state of mind and all the mental noise that goes with that.

    • Lee Roetcisoender

      Mike said:

      “I don’t think we have freedom of will at the physics level.”

      This is where functionalists like yourself don’t see the big picture because functionalism itself is micro-analysis of the reality in which we live; it takes a slice of that reality and posits that slice as a whole.

      In a global model such as pansentientism where sentience is the substrate of matter, even the most elementary particles will have a limited degree of self-determination within an otherwise deterministic system. Consequently, as the complexity of a system increases over time, the degree of self-determination also increases exponentially until the process reaches the apex of complexity found in the system we know as mind. Even with this exponential freedom that a mind has, it is still limited and equally so; that mind like the entirety of the individual systems that make up our universe at large, this system of mind is still a metaphorical passenger of the train that is still running on the two deterministic rails of that railroad track.

      Take for example the random decay of a radioactive isotope. That randomness is a real example of a limited degree of self-determination for that isotope which itself is a deterministic system because eventually that isotope will reach equilibrium.

      There is a reasonably viable explanation for motion resulting in for, we do not have to be forever imprisoned by the mystical architecture of religion or the equally imaginary so-called laws of physics.

      So in closing; determinism and free-will are both equally true, but that “true-ness” is a context. Context is everything if one is truly interested in achieving understanding……

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Lee,
        I know you see pansentientism as separate from panpsychism, but it seems like it suffers from similar issues. What difference does it make for our understanding of reality if it’s true, vs it being false? If I simply deny it, what evidence or logical contradiction will I run into?

        You note the random decay of an isotope, but while whether an individual particle will decay in any specific time period is random, the pattern of decay from a population will always obey the statistics in the Born Rule and Schrodinger’s equation (or its relativistic equivalent). In other words, we never see a population of particles electing to do something different. (There’s always an infinitesimal probability it will either all decay or not decay, but it’s so profoundly low that it seems unlikely to happen before the heat death of the universe.) Their collective action seems deterministic, even if their individual actions aren’t.

        And as I indicated above, how would we feel if a random quantum event actually caused us to make a different decision than the one we were planning? What freedom does that provide?

        I’m a compatibilist, so I agree that free will exists with the laws of physics. And I’m definitely interested in achieving understanding. But for that, I need the logic or evidence driving a particular proposition.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Mike-

        No disagreement here, just an overly pedantic aside. The radioactive decay of atomic nuclei is more of nuclear physics than of quantum physics. The half-life period, fixed and specific for any given isotope, is a simpler proposition than the Born rule (which no doubt does lurk at the quantum level). And it doesn’t suffer the “measurement” problem; heavy atoms and particles decay or don’t all on their own.

        To amplify what you said about collective behavior, the larger the sample, the closer the decay rate is to exactly 50% after one half-life period. It’s exactly the same as with flipping a coin (and for the same reason). With only 10 flips, we wouldn’t be surprised at a 3/7 distribution, but 3,000/7,000 would have us questioning the coin (or the flipping process). A gram of U-238 has about 2.5×10²¹ atoms, so the half-life statistics are right on the money.

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        Mike,

        It’s not my purpose nor intent to give an exhaustive overview of pansentientism on an internet blog, nor is it my intent to convince anyone that my vision is correct; but you can rest assured that pansentientism does not have any of the paradoxes that panpsychism is confronted with. First and foremost, it’s a new model that is unknown to the general populace and second, it has not been explored let alone entertained by anyone in academia; so you will not find any information on the internet.

        If your primary assumption is that human beings are nothing more than the apex predator on this planet then no, it won’t make a difference for you because we already have what we need to demonstrate that fact. We are more than capable of exploiting this planet and all of the creatures that live here, especially our fellow human beings.

        I appreciate individuals like yourself and Wyrd who host blog sites like this because it gives me the opportunity to refine my theory because the both of you ask really good questions. At the end of the day I’m not any kind of messiah, just a tired old hippie who has always sought understanding for my own purposes.

        You mentioned logic; logical consistency is an elusive commodity for both mysticism and the physical sciences. As a species, we have not evolved to the point where we know how to reason correctly, this is because our primary purpose is self-preservation. It isn’t until we overcome the primordial need for self-preservation that reasoning will be used for the greater good. I think reasoning itself is up to the task, but the psychical core of what and who we are as a physical system has a long way to go.

        You have a good day my internet friend……

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Lee-

        My question, then, would be where and why there is a sense of self-determination in how, for example, every sample of U-238 (or C-14 or whatever) decays exactly according to its half-life period. It would seem every sample is determined to act the same way according to a simple half-life law.

        And I would ask how “pansentientism” escapes the paradox of assigning high-level emergent properties to a low-level system that lacks the degrees of freedom to support them.

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        Wyrd,

        At a fundamental level, the notion of self-determination as I see it is best expressed in a system’s ability to resist change and preserve itself. Any given system will not change unless other forces are at play in relational mechanics that compel change to take place. That’s basic physics right? Furthermore, the properties of any given system will determine it’s ability to resist that change.

        This I think, is what we see with the decay of a radioactive isotope; and since equilibrium is the deterministic outcome, it is inevitable change will take place. According to this rationale, it is reasonable to expect the same rate of decay in a half-life of radioactive isotopes that share the same properties without the necessity of adding a mysterious layer such as a law.

        I’m not quite sure I understand your second question because pansentientism does not assign high-level emergent properties to a low-level system. Unless you mean to say that sentience itself is a high-level emergent property and is not a fundamental property of all systems; I think that is your position right? If so, your question has no relevance to the theory.

        What pansentientism says is that sentience is the substrate of matter and therefore universal; and since sentience is universal, sentience becomes fundamental in explaining motion resulting in form.

        In our current landscape we have only two models of reality from which to choose; an Immortal God who thought shit into existence and is responsible for motion resulting in form or, this stuff we can matter that “just happened to always be here” and the Immortal Laws of Physics that are responsible for the same motion resulting in form. This entire notion that an Immortal Law of any kind is bogus, it’s the quintessential example of superstition.

        From previous conversations, I know that you have strong deistic leanings which technically makes you an idealist, albeit it an objective idealist. It is not my intent to persuade you to forsake your personal beliefs for the negation of logic. But I have to say; I could not have hammered out my theory of pansentiensim without engaging with people like you as well as the hard-core idealists that I have met online.

        Thanks for your courtesy and patience…..

      • Wyrd Smythe

        How do you reconcile the notion of resisting change and self-preservation with how radioactive isotopes decay into different atoms (which decay into yet other atoms if also unstable)? Ultimately such isotopes reach stable configurations that don’t decay on their own but can be split or fused. Decay is based on seeking lower energy levels, not terribly unlike how water seeks the lowest possible level. The law we form is derived from our observations of the mechanical (that is to say, law-like) consistency of the behavior. I’m just not seeing the sentience.

        As we normally define sentience, it is mediated by a nervous system and is an emergent property of that system. You seem to be also defining it as a fundamental something, much akin to panpsychism. I think it does suffer from the same issue of combination. Why does the form of sentience we normally label as such only manifest as an emergent property of nervous systems but different, mechanistic, sentience is pervasive in everything down to a particle level? It seems to conflate two very different classes of phenomena.

        If particles have sentience, do atoms have their own sentience? Molecules, cells, and so on, does each level of organization have its own sentience? Why does it blossom the way it does when the organized structure is a nervous system?

        “This entire notion that an Immortal Law of any kind is bogus, it’s the quintessential example of superstition.”

        But isn’t the notion that “sentience is the substrate of matter and therefore universal” just such a law?

        “From previous conversations, I know that you have strong deistic leanings which technically makes you an idealist, albeit it an objective idealist.”

        News to me. An “objective idealist” sounds like an oxymoron. As I’ve asserted many times, I’m a realist. My deistic leaning makes me a dualist. My sense of deism is generally close to Spinoza’s (but perhaps with more intentionality towards The Good).

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        “How do you reconcile the notion of resisting change and self-preservation with how radioactive isotopes decay into different atoms (which decay into yet other atoms if also unstable)?

        It’s the same answer that I gave you in my last post concerning relational mechanics; I don’t have to reconcile your point about systems seeking equilibrium or changing into different emergent systems because pansentientism is compatible with what we already know about physics. I’ve merely identified the so-called four forces of nature as sensations.

        “As we normally define sentience, it is mediated by a nervous system and is an emergent property of that system.”

        Again; this is a truth that cannot be denied but, that “truth” is a context. And that context is…….. “how we normally define sentience”. Should you, I or anybody else for that matter be constrained from leaving the comfort of a circle of mutual definition and agreement if that circle is riddled with contradictions and ultimately reduces to one form of absurdity or another? And if so why?

        “If particles have sentience, do atoms have their own sentience?”

        I think your missing the point. If sentience is a substrate, then what is responsible for motion resulting in form is a relational mechanics based on sensations that gives rise to the more complex systems. These higher level systems don’t have their own unique sentience because as a substrate, sentience as sentience is everywhere the same. It is the properties of these emergent systems that are different not the substrate. This is basic physics once more…

        Being influenced by Spinoza, you see everything in the context of God and law being one and same. I get your position because I was there myself once, so your ideology is not a mystery to me.

        I make my intellectual living exploring the landscape outside of our current and cultural circle of mutual definition and agreement. It is a wild and untamed wilderness that is not for everybody; one has to be genetically predisposed in order to take that path. It is the path that all heretics past and present have taken.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I’ve merely identified the so-called four forces of nature as sensations.”

        To what end? Why conflate a high-level concept, one defined on nervous systems, with a completely different class of physical behavior? This strikes me an a form of animism, ascribing biological traits to the inanimate.

        “…the comfort of a circle of mutual definition and agreement if that circle is riddled with contradictions…”

        Definitions are membership functions for ontological classes and handles for discussion and analysis. They’re a common language. You’ve haven’t made any argument I’m aware of that the definition of sentience, an emergent property of nervous systems, is problematic. The notion seems useful and well grounded in reality.

        “It is the path that all heretics past and present have taken.”

        All the half-baked crackpots, as well. Sometimes it takes history to sort them out.

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        All of your rebuttals to my novel, original and revolutionary theory are repetitive and are based in and have their origins in the status quo. We can cordially agree to disagree, it doesn’t have to be a problem.

        I must ask however; do you personally have any ideas concerning the true nature of reality that are novel and original enough that you can claim them as your own, or are all of those ideas inherited from someone else?

        It’s funny, a hardcore Zen Buddhist idealist once told me that there isn’t even a possibility of an original or novel idea about the true nature of reality because someone else has already thought of them. It’s bizarre that one who claimed to be as “enlightened” as he was would make such a shallow and narrow minded statement. But to his credit I must add; he did acknowledge that my theory was “as valid” as his own metaphysical position of universal consciousness. Looking back, I know that simple acknowledgement on his part was a painfully brutal concession for him to make.

        It’s like our old buddy Arthur Schopenhauer used to say:

        “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “We can cordially agree to disagree, it doesn’t have to be a problem.”

        Indeed. I think we should be clear, though, that my disagreement is based on my analysis, not concerns about the status quo.

        “[D]o you personally have any ideas concerning the true nature of reality that are novel and original enough that you can claim them as your own, or are all of those ideas inherited from someone else?”

        Have you actually read this blog? 😀 😀 😀 I just published a five-post series exploring what I think might be happening with the “measurement problem.” If I’m anything in life, I’m an outlier, in both self and preference.

        But I agree with your Zen friend. Genuinely original thoughts are rare, if not non-existent. Nearly all our “original” ideas are a synthesis of other ideas. There’s an old joke about the philosophy professor who complains, “Every time I think I’ve had an original thought, I find out some damned Greek had it first.” I’ve found that to be funny because it’s true.

        The thing about what Schopenhauer said is that it applies to truths. As they say about nitroglycerine custard, the poof is in the pudding. To reach the third stage, an idea must be true.

  • Lee Roetcisoender

    One final thought here before I gracefully exit your blog. I don’t know if you’ve watched the limited series on PBS called “Hacking your mind”. It’s informative and well worth the investment.

    A while back we discussed that rationality is a discrete binary system. This is how that system works; the documentary briefly touches upon this dynamic as well.

    Whenever we are confronted with information, we contrast that information against our own metaphysical assumptions. If that information does not conform or correspond with that original assumption, it is immediately rejected for that reason and that reason alone. So, being a dualist yourself, you will reject any other metaphysical model that does not correspond to your metaphysical position of dualism without giving that information any real consideration. The consideration that is given is merely window dressing, lip service or an opportunity to defend one’s original assumption.

    This assessment is not my idea, it’s a well documented dynamic of human behavior; because just like any other system in the universe, a fundamental aspect of self-determination is self-preservation which equates to a ferocious resistance to change. It’s like I commented to Mike, unless or until we are willing to use the power of reasoning for a purpose other than self-preservation nothing will change for us.

    This is your site Wyrd, so you have the last word as I will no longer be contributing. Take care my internet acquaintance, be at peace and I wish you all the best…….

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Whenever we are confronted with information, we contrast that information against our own metaphysical assumptions. If that information does not conform or correspond with that original assumption, it is immediately rejected for that reason and that reason alone.”

      I agree up to the last clause, which I see as a common complaint from those floating questionable ideas (and I mean questionable in the literal sense — they raise questions). It is not a matter of immediate rejection, but of wanting cogent answers to what seem obvious questions. The opposite certainly shouldn’t be the case, that new ideas are casually embraced. We don’t want to be so open-minded that our brains fall out.

      Complaining about rejection deflects the burden of proof from the new idea, but that’s where it belongs. It is fundamental that new ideas must earn the right to be taken seriously. Almost anyone can write science fiction. Science has a much higher bar.

      FWIW, as a science-minded person, my metaphysical commitments and my view of physical theory are forever contingent on new information. After all, the former is just opinion, and the latter is a convergent process.

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