A Bright, Vibrant Blue Diamond
A Bright, Vibrant Blue Diamond
John Æonid, Reflections in a Personal Web Site
John Æonid, Reflections in a Personal Web Site

Evolution of Free Will And Physical Reality

December 26, 2016, John Æonid

These are some general notes that will eventually end up addressing in separate longer articles.  TODO: Add hyperlinks

I've already mapped out, in another article, a notion of the mind as a virtual reality in which scenarios involving thinking actors are worked out.  This is a notion of the mind as a product of evolution with specific neurological faculties, wired in early development, to support both survival in a physical world and social collaboration.  To say that Evolution produced a faculty to make choices is ultimately to say that physical reality has produced Free Will—or something that looks very much like it.  And, I feel that there is a neurological basis for this that bears further examination.

Lucid Dreaming

My personal experiences and at least one other account of lucid dreaming suggests that the actors and the physical object and environments in dreams are relatively immutable to our wills.  Dreaming has been shown to have benefits to learning, and I feel it also allows us to continue to work on scenarios that interest us.  But, the dream is the virtual reality of the mind, and this is primarily a tool for being conscious in physical reality.  It therefore needs to provide relatively accurate representations of physical reality, even in dreams.

So, I find that while I can fly in lucid dreams as well as defy social convention, I cannot make other actors do things outside their character or against what I imagine would be against their will.  And since I think dreams are a place where we practice who we want to be, I don't think we should attempt to force anything that is outside our moral boundaries, as that would make us something that we don't want to become.  Also, I'm not able to manifest physical objects in lucid dreams, nor can I reconfigure buildings or such.

I also notice that any converstation I have in a dream is always with only one individual—even if I percieve that individual as a member of a group.  Any other members of the group are really not involved and appear much less animated then the one with whom I'm interacting. I have no idea if this is a common experience, but I do wonder how common it is.

I've heard one account that a lucid dreamer once tried to tell the people in his dream that he was dreaming them.  Reportedly, no amount of insistence produced a reaction that indicated any manner of acknowledgment that they were being dreamed.  This is what I take as suggesting that our evolved minds become neurologically wired to model reality.  (I have no ideal what neuroplasticity would mean for this mental faculty.)

The key point here is that the virtual reality of our dreams, vivid or otherwise, is created in a space outside of our conscious control, and the vivid detail we see is then generated in a brain space that is separate from that in which we make conscious decisions.

The scant evidence I claim to have in arguing for Free Will, is that these faculties evolved out of physical reality for a functional purpose of adaptation and a more dynamic capacity for survival—one that necessarily does so by way of making choices regarding scenarios worked out in the virtual reality of consciousness.

Science is Biased Toward Causal Determinism

There are two opposing view points on the Free Will question that argue that specific thinking on the subject is an illusion.  The more familiar viewpoint is that Free Will is an illusion because the faculties involved, generally the self, is also an illusion.  Opposing this view is a claim that our sense that anything is caused comes from our ability to cause things, by way of a Free Will, and the expectation that all things have a cause comes from this—and the belief that all things have an external cause is, therefore, also an illusion.  Without a something more, this is a bit of a stalemate.

Science starts from a premise that external things are known best by way of the senses.  Thinking is not an external thing.  It seems odd that Science has been performing experiments on the question of whether or not we have Free Will.  To study what is clearly an internal thing, any experiments would have to fall into the fields of Neurology and Psychology.  The key thing to keep in mind with this is that all experimental design must be set up up with the specific conditions in which the events under examination will occur.  Regardless of the degree to which the some indeterminism is measured, there will always be the conditions in which they were measured.  I think indeterminism is always viewed in Physics as just some kind of randomness.  Experimental results that show indeterminism will always be left with the question of what kind of Physical thing causes that randomness.  Ultimately, Science is biased toward causal determinism, and Free Will has the burden of extraordinary proof.

As such, virtually every Scientific exepriment involving Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self starts from the premise that these things are illusions until proven otherwise.  Without extraordinary proof, Scientists will very rarely refer to these things as anything other than illusions.  In one sense this is proper and I don't want Science to change this.  However, I do want the question of Free Will to be keenly aware that there is an unavoidable bias anytime Science participates in the question.  There are some ultimate goals in this pursuit, ones that go beyond just the questions of Consciousness, and the view that only the Scientific perspective is the best implies that other perspectives should be marginalized or even abandoned.

Functionalism in Science

The question of a functional purpose for mind is both a difficult and intriguing proposition.  The branch of Psychology known as Behaviorism is know for it's insistence that Mind is not a thing to examine, because it cannot be examined externally—as is the case for all things in Physics.  And, it seems quite clear that all of Physics and the disciplines therein should faithfully conforms to the principals of Behaviorism.  However, there are now a number of well-established branches of Psychology, and they do examine the mind (depending to a great deal on statistics to remain properly scientific).

In examining the mind, there is also some degree of attributing functional purpose to various aspects of mind.  It seems we might also say the same about Biology in general.  But, I approach this with caution.  A concept of functional purpose needs to be expressed as relative to some perspective.  For Biology, the functional purpose of a thing, say an organ, is primarily relative an organism's continued life—making this more the behavior of how an organism lives.  In branches of Psychology outside of Behaviorism, however, functional purpose is more associated with mental objectives—often the choices made by people or animals.  And, with Evolutionary Psychology we see mental activity as adapted to survival strategies—some of which are conscious.

Still, taking the nature of Evolution and its findings in Psychology as evidence of Free Will is not easy.  It seems I must be very specific about the applicability of functional purpose and very careful about its limitations.  And even if justifiable, this still doesn't address the final problem in the Mind-Body problem as it pertains to Free Will.  There still isn't a description of a mechanism in physical reality to support it.  All in Physics is either random or causally determined.

Update, May 20, 2018, Free-floating Rationale:

I believe that my points above relate to, and may be better addressed by Daniel Dennet in what he calls free-floating rationales or reasons.  TODO: but I will have to study this more deeply to see if I can invoke this principal for my own objectives, which is to address the question of free will; i.e. that our sense that we can choose evolved for a reason that arose in the physical world, and therefor there is a physical justification for that belief, which includes a physical mechanism to support such choice—the the alternative possibility.

The Quantum Multi-verse is Deterministic

I'm a bit unhappy about the concept of the Quantum Multi-verse.  First, within the discipline of Physics, I don't see anything that suggests that quantum effects are anything other than a kind of random behavior.  I know there are those that want to tie these to more Spiritual things, but I have to agree that such speculation belongs either outside of Physics, or at least on the fringes.  Quantum effects are primarily random until further discoveries change the model, and I think Science—being biased towards Causal Determinism (and justifiably so), and a non-random modification of quantum theory will likely be something deterministic.  So the Quantum Multi-verse is really just a random branching of reality.  Any branching in which a particular set of quantum events is associated with a conscious decision (to whatever extent such a thing might be possible, if any) is simply all the branchings that are possible with that set of quantum events.  All of those possible branches are determined by the random nature of those quantum events.  So, I don't see it as a any kind of argument—at least under the discipline of Physics—to regard the Quantum Multi-verse as getting past Causal Determinism.

Also, to any extent that we can associate choices with branchings in the Quantum Multi-verse, there is a version of you and one of myself that has made all of the worst decisions you could have ever made—all the way back to birth.  And, I find this disturbing—very disturbing.  There is then also one that has made all of the best possible choices.  There is even a parallel Universe where all beings everywhere have made all of the best possible choices! I don't particularly care to meet any of those goody-two-shoes—as I'm one that feels the most trustworthy people are those that have learned from their mistakes.

Another curious thing, as a final side point, about the Quantum Multi-verse is the question of an Omiscient God.  Of course, this  becomes a problem for claims that God gave us Free Will, but my observation here doesn't address that problem—because I claim that the Quantum Multi-verse is just another kind of determinism.  But, if God is both Omiscient and has created a Quantum Muli-verse, then God knows all the quantum branches.  So, such a God then created and knows all the worst versions of every being in existence.  And, that God ultimately knew that this would be the case.  What does that say about the usual questions about why God created Hell.

Update (some intermediate date, unrecorded): One convenient thing about the branching of the Quantum Multi-verse relates to the grandfather paradox (TODO: insert ref,.) and other time loop problems.  It ensures that a concept of going back in time must end up on some already determined branch of the Quantum Multi-verse.  There's no loop, you are just, conveniently on a different branch of the Quantum Multi-verse.

Update (2017-01-04): There are two possiblities that I want to add to this.  First, that the branching might not be a tree but a DAG (Directed Acyclic Graph), where two branches with suitably matching conditions might merge back to a single branch.  Second, and this is a question, what would it mean for there to be some manner of quantum loop--that allows branches to go back and merge with an earlier point in its past? 

The Gap Is In Physics

So, for conventional notions of Free Will and Science, there is still a gap.  And, the one I want solved—though it clearly won't be in my lifetime (without Divine intervention)—is the one that identifies a mechanism of physical reality that allows for Free Will.  This would have to describe how there is something in reality that is just on the verge of becoming a physical thing—a set of possible outcomes, and it would have to be something that could be tied to Mind.  This would be such that when a decision is made one of the physical possibilities would become manifest, and any others would remain as only possibilities—to whatever extent they have not been precluded from remaining possibilities.  I have already written about alternative possibilities in another article, and I won't go much further here.

But clearly, asking the discipline of Physics to explore a concept of someting pre-physical is not something that I expect can be easily recieved.  It's almost as if this is asking for a “non-behaviorist” or “functional” branch of Physics.  I know full well that many will prefer that this remain a kind of Metaphysics, which in Philosopy is outside Natural Philosophy (essentially, the precurser of Science).  But, to whatever extent we are justified in pursuing the question of whether Free Will is a product of Evolution, the exploration of this particular question is unavoidable.

Entropy And Persistence

The notion of entropy, Brownian motion, and such raises questions of how things in the Universe have managed to clump together.  These are mostly issues for Physicists to address, which they do and continue to explore.  But, what I find in Evolution, along with how it seems that it created what we interpret as Free Will, has me wondering about the way it seems that the Universe has the capacity to self-organize into what our consciousness regards as a relatively ordered Universe (emphasis on the relatively).  That is, our choices tend toward creating order—or so we hope.  Evolution has produced it's own kind kind of order—or at least in the way we interpret it.  So, while Physics is addressing the physical question of how there comes to be this order, I find myself wondering about this on a more Metaphysical level (the philosophical Metaphysics).

Many of the adaptations that Evolution has produced seem to carry on in the hereditary chain quite a ways.  Certainly, the gene sequences that produce the common amino acids must go back quite a ways.  Other traits seem to come and go—sometimes repeated on different hereditary branches in different ways.  And, some traits seem very short lived in the tree of life.  I find myself toying with the word “persistence” as if it's a trait that is carried forward.  Mind you, I want to tip-toe very quietly around any Kantian thinkers when using this wording.  But, I have to wonder if the mechanisms of physical reality—the ones that seem to impart a degree of order—somehow enmesh some mechanism of persistence—one that gets tied into the nature of Evolution.  Or, as I think many would suggest, should I limit this to some kind of emergent quality?  I don't take this one question much further in this discussion, but this question is always on the outskirts when thinking about this subject.  And yet, it may well be nothing more than the way we think about things.

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