Category Archives: Free Will

The Perception Question

As we know, philosophically, if a tree falls in the woods and it falls on the only person who was there to hear it, the tree wouldn’t have made a noise when it killed them – presumably because it would be trying to sneak up on the blighter.

Or something. Welcome to the wonderful world of perception. At an evolutionary level we humans tend to think of ourselves as pretty special. And yet from what we know about perception that isn’t true in all ways.

Take birds for example. Many birds “know” which way is North. They don’t have to think about it. They don’t have to take out their compass or whatever, they just know. The same way you know which way is down or the same way you know when it’s dark or light. You don’t have to think “oh, it’s dark”, you just know. That’s perception.

Now in this example we’re pretty sure that we agree with birds where North is. And so it doesn’t feel that weird knowing they can sense it.

But what about hummingbirds? They can see infra-red as a colour. Now, in theory we can see infra-red too. But of course infra-red isn’t red in just the same way that green isn’t red. It’s another colour and we can’t see it and they can. They don’t turn on their infra-red vision to see it, they just see it. And we never will. Because to make it visible to us we have to turn off the other colours and substitute something else (red).

So we can see that the world isn’t necessarily as we perceive it. The world isn’t the way a human sees it where the other animals are getting it wrong. The world has never truly been seen by anything. We just happen to see it and sense it in one way.

Back to the hummingbird. The hummingbird also perceives the world more slowly than we do. If you were jogging along, the bird would perceive you as moving slowly compared to everything else. That’s why birds seem to move out of the way of cars far too late. Even time is not constantly perceived. We know that we can measure its progress, but what does it mean if we know we aren’t perceiving it at the same speed as anything else on our planet?* To birds we are lumbering slow moving things, like elephants seem to us.

So why are we so sure of ourselves? Unless you’re really thinking about the issue people find it very difficult to think that the world might not be as they are perceiving. The answer is, of course, evolution. People who were constantly questioning what they perceived have been deselected. If you approach a lion wondering if it really is a lion you might not live long enough to have so many children.

We’ve been hearing a lot in the last few years about scientists attacking religion (Richard Dawkins, for example) and while I’m not religious, I really think science is being badly misrepresented. The best way to make people question their devout beliefs is to show them things like this. Now you might have read this and seen it as a confirmation of God’s splendor and mysterious ways. But I like to think that subjects like this remind us that you shouldn’t really believe received wisdom, especially not the received wisdom of your own brain or upbringing. Go and find out for yourself.

Just quickly, I’d like to tie this back to the subject of Free Will I discussed last year. Hopefully you can see why many scientists and philosophers believe that free will is an illusion of a similar kind to time and vision. It is useful to believe that we are consciously in charge of what we’re doing, but we might not be. And if that doesn’t make you question what’s going on in the world, then I don’t know what will.

*surely there’s a low chance those aliens we meet in sci-fi are actually all going to perceive time at the same rate as us – but I imagine it would make conversation a bit difficult.

Hey don’t blame me, it’s not like I chose to write it in two parts

On Monday I started an article about Free Will called I feel like I just had to write this article. You may want to check that out before continuing here.

The problem of a lack of Free Will is one that happens in society. If we don’t believe in Free Will then how can we blame people for the things that they do?

The biggest problem with the theory of Free Will is everyone has the everyday experience of making decisions and being able to rationalise them. Now Scientists have proven that people will much of the times rationalise their behaviour after they have done something. It’s most likely that you’ve even seen direct evidence of this. One of the most interesting parts of a hypnosis demonstration is that they will sometimes ask somebody who is no longer under hypnosis why they were doing the things that they were doing. The answer is never “because you were telling me” to because they don’t remember that they come up with incredibly contorted rationalisations to prove that they had a perfectly good reason to do what they were doing. And apparently we do that all of the time even when we’re not under hypnosis.

So in reality we feel like we’re in control, which means that people feel like they are able to blame others for their actions. So how does society cope with this situation? It simply pretends that Free Will exists.

Right around the point that people think of determinism people usually recreate in their minds the idea of Laplace’s Demon. Pierre Simon Laplace believed in determinism and thought that if you took it to it’s logical extension there could be a demon who could work out exactly where every atom in the universe was and use that information to determine the future. Now there are two problems with the demon (other than the fact that it doesn’t exist).

The demon can’t know itself because to remember something it has to store it somewhere and the memory must take at least as many atoms as the thing it is remembering and to know if its atoms are affecting any other atoms it would have to remember the position of all of the atoms in its own mind which would require more atoms up until infinity.

Also it would need to know everything and calculate what everything was going to do next faster than the time it takes for anything to happen. Which because of the fact that something has to happen for it to be able to work out what is going to happen next means that things out in the universe would have been happening as well so it must be too late.

For added measure even if it could work out what everything was going to do it would be impossible for it to do anything about it faster than in the space of time where everything would have changed.

The point of mentioning this is that Laplace’s Demon teaches something important locally. It shows us that we can never know why we are making a choice. Because we never have all of the information.

Okay so what does all of this mean for ethics? How do we say to somebody that they need to be locked up for having done something wrong, when they can reply that they didn’t choose to do it?

The answer is that we have justice the wrong way round too. It’s a hangover from the ideas of Free Will that people have to be punished for the things that they have done. The correct way of thinking of this surely is that if somebody is a murderer the best way of stopping them from murdering somebody else is to put them in prison. It’s much harder for them to murder people from in there.

The biggest failing of the current system is the idea of diminished responsibility. Why is it right for somebody to be able to get a reduced sentence by claiming that they were temporarily unable to control their actions. I don’t mind losing this legal loophole. Because as far as I’m concerned I don’t understand why under the current system every murderer doesn’t claim temporary insanity. When the judge asks on what grounds surely they could simply say “well how often do you kill someone”? Frankly the only reason people don’t claim this all of the time is because they either think they can get off or they know they didn’t do it. In either of these situations they don’t want to have to say they did it, which is what you have to do if you want to claim temporary insanity. Sometimes people do admit guilt and don’t use the temporary insanity clause but those are the people who are actually truly insane.

The question you have to ask yourself at the end of all of this is the one I was attempting to answer in my first article, <a href="
“>Free Willy, which is how much difference does all of this make?

In the end it comes down to a question of symantics. Understanding the issues around Free Will doesn’t allow you to act any differently (other than perhaps allowing you to use the word “demon” at a party without sounding like you’re into science fiction – although I’d probably advise you to avoid parties where describing questions of Free Will are likely to come up: “Why worry about having killed that hooker while high on drugs it’s not like you choose to do it”).

Essentially what’s the difference between being able to say that you chose to do something and the alternative which is knowing that you didn’t make the choice yourself but that nobody will be able to ever predict what choice you will make. A lack of choice does reduce us to the level of robots on the one hand but it doesn’t matter because. When we look at a robot we can know exactly what they are going to do next because we can find out all of the information that they evaluate and predict what’s going to happen next. But we can’t do that with humans because we would have to evaluate more information than we could understand fast enough to do anything about it and we would have to store it somewhere larger than all of the space we have for in our own brains. And we would have to do something about in less time than we have time to do anything. So what difference does knowing that Free Will doesn’t exist make? I think absolutely none, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.

I feel like I just had to write this article

Nick pointed out in a comment to Wednesday’s post Philtrum Filtering that Free Will could be an illusion simply because we make our judgments on the back of all of the conditioning that we have been receiving since we were brought up.

When I was writing about free will (in Free Willy) I was kind of skipping over to that bit to get to the next question which is that while patently free will technically doesn’t exist what do we do about the fact that we as a society have to pretend that free will does exist all of the time.

So lets prove that free will doesn’t exist first. To do this I will use the words of Douglas Adams:

Anything that happens, happens. Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen. Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, causes itself to happen again.

Basically we can probably say that everything that happens happens for a reason. This may be disputed because things might be truly random. You will have to decide for yourself if you think that things are random (heh see what I did there) but it seems likely that things happen because other things caused them to happen. And that everything simply leads backwards to the big bang.

Just as a confusing aside it’s important to realise that nothing caused the big bang to happen. Religious people believe that they were made by God but that nothing made God. Scientists believe that they were made by the big bang (evolution is a local version of that because what made the first life-form?) but that nothing made the big bang.

Here’s a story that Steven Hawking told in his book A Brief History of Time:

“A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
“At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
“The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”*

But religions tend to believe that God is the creator but nothing needs to create him, that he was always just there. Which is kind of cheating. Because if things could always exist why couldn’t we be like that too? Why did we need to be created?

In science it seems like they suffer from the same problem. The universe just kind of begins and everything flows from there. So what caused the universe? Well nothing. Science has a handy trick of spotting it’s own flaws and kind of paving over them. Only at the point of the big bang does time begin. And because if you want to use the word “cause” you need to have something that happens before something then to use the word “cause” you need time. And time doesn’t start until the point the universe starts. So nothing can “cause” the universe because something would have had to have happened before the universe and there isn’t any time for all of that – still following me? So basically they’re saying nothing created the universe it just happened which sounds similar and lets face it probably is. Except if you think that things in the future can cause things to happen in the past in which case well we have a whole load of other problems on our hands.

So armed with the idea that after the big bang everything that has happened has been caused by that we have to decide if there is any chance of intervention in the process. Can we actually choose a thing. If we “decide” to have toast rather than cereal for breakfast is it because we have actually chosen to have one rather than the other or is it that we have no choice? Since the whole history of the universe has lead us to the situation of preferring toast. The weird thing is that it’s probably the second one. Because the second one is the easier to explain. People even do it themselves, “I like toast rather than cereal because I sometimes feel queasy if I have too much milk”. And the alternative requires you to have something more in your body than a series of cells. Because there would have to be some kind of thing (a soul perhaps) which science has never seen or been able to find which makes you able to ignore all of the history of the universe and have something else for breakfast. It’s the fact that we don’t know or have ever seen it which leads us to believe that Free Will doesn’t exist.

For what this means for us you’ll have to check back on Wednesday.

* This is why in Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books the earth is sitting on a turtle. He always felt peeved at this story because surely the woman should answer “don’t be a fool turtles don’t need to stand on anything they swim”.

Free Willy

Does Free Will exist?

Free Will doesn’t exist and does exist at the same time because it is a definition of a thing we don’t really have words for yet. Let me go all tangential for a moment and come back.

How do you know when I see something green and you see the same thing that we aren’t looking at different colors? If you’ve been told your whole life that red is green because that’s the color you see when you see things that the world calls green then how do you know the difference? And does it make a difference at a traffic light? Of course not because you are looking for the color that you associate with the label that you associate with stopping or going.

People’s view of the world is always colored (can I get away with that) by a wide variety of assumptions and rationalisations similar to this one which make no difference to the outcome of their actions. To take it to the next step people might think the sun rises every morning because they pray that it does. It would be such a terribly risky thing to not pray for the sun to rise that nobody would test the alternative. And if by some chance they missed their praying slot because they had been locked in a bunker by a crazed no-free-will proving person they would rationalise the situation by saying that their god had made the sun rise anyway to torture their captor.

So back to free will. You may think that you are responsible for your actions and that you control your own destiny but how do you know that? What is your outside proof? How can you prove that the color you see is the same color others see? The feeling you have that you are controlling your own actions is a biased piece of information as it comes from the place that you are trying to test. This means any attempt in yourself to prove that free-will exists is a flawed scientific experiment because you are attempting to decide if you are right by asking yourself. And you can’t ask anyone else either because you set up the same problem (you are asking them to decide if they have free will).

Essentially the problem is that you can’t really prove that Free Will exists. And therefore for all scientific purposes it must therefore not exist. But the assumption ingrained in people is that what we are perceiving is free will is so strong that free will is how the world operates and I will be punished if I do something wrong.

And this brings me back to my original point which is that Free Will as a concept is useless scientifically because it cannot be proved, and is useless to society because it cannot be disproved. So asking “is their free will” is a nonsense question similar to asking “is green green”? The answer is always simultaneously yes, no and it depends.