Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Free Will and Determinism

Scientific investigations into choice

Somebody recently asked me the following question:

....what about free will, how do you think that plays in, given that neurons and synapses are Newtonian in that they are composed of a set of functions/algorithms that can used by neuroscientists to describe their patterns?

Here is my brief answer:

We all have the first person experience of making choices. But when these choices are examined from a third person perspective they can only be experienced as “external observer” perceptions, perceptions upon which the third person bases his theoretical constructs such as neurons and synapses. The first person “I story” is one of a complex stream of conscious qualia but the third person “You story”, which is the story of “me” when seen from the perspective of “you”, is a story of the dynamics of aggregates of material elementa. (although there is nothing to stop the third person "empathising in" the first person perspective from the "You story")

I’m not at all adverse to the idea that the third person perspective of mind, a perspective that only directly perceives mind as the dynamics of material elementa, may ultimately be accessible to a full description by some version of quantum theory. But even if this is true we must realise that quantum theory is merely a descriptive map; that is, a map composed of formal tokens, a map which is not the “thing-in-itself”, but merely a representation of it. For example we may succeed in constructing a perfect computerised simulation of a car using the formal tokens of 1s and 0s, but the simulation is never the car itself no matter how good it is. Likewise it is conceivable that some version of quantum theory applied to aggregates of particles perfectly describes the mind of man, but it can never be the mind of man itself. Though formal tokens of some conjectured complete theory of mind may have a point by point conformity with human consciousness, those tokens are, when all is said and done, only a representation of reality, not the reality itself, a reality that includes a rich first person story of consciousness composed of such things as a sense of purpose, meaning and choice.

The formal theoretical model, for obvious reasons, is not the thing it depicts, but the formal model does bring out one important lesson. Such complex things as “choice” and “purpose” are not going to be found down at the level of small numbers of material elementa but rather they will be found and defined at the aggregate level; that is in the organisation of large quantities of material elementa in all its complex dynamics. Choice and purpose are features of complex configurations of elementa and therefore an intricate object like “choice” is not defined for individual elementa such as neurons.

Important Caveats
When thinking about this subject it is best not to speak in too confident tones about the ultimate accessibility of the human mind to theoretical description. Several caveats must be borne in mind:
1. Quantum Mechanics, as currently understood, only provides probabilistic description. If this situation persists then in the sense I suggested in this post the mind, like any other dynamic aggregate of elementa, is humanly speaking a system that is indeterministic.
2. Even if the mind is accessible to a complete quantum description, it may nevertheless be such a complex organised aggregate that it is beyond the human mind to self-describe itself.
3. We need to keep an open mind about the apparent completeness of our theories: There is no guarantee that quantum theory provides the complete theoretical tool box for the third person perspective.

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