Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Free will

A while back I wrote two posts called Magical Me and MagicalYou. These were deliberately provocative in denying any non-causal aspect to that inner homunculus we think of as “me”. As a development of my general principle of trying to hold at least two incompatible theories, I’d like to revisit this idea from the basis that there is indeed a Magical Me and a Magical You.

To my mind this is where complexity steps in.

If we say all our actions, thoughts and sayings are determined by our history and outside contingencies, then that is a philosophical and not a scientific position. Obviously – because we can’t possibly prove it experimentally. But suppose we accept this and still insist that we are rigidly determined because we live in a rigidly deterministic universe, what then? Isn’t this philosophical viewpoint rather compelling?

Not necessarily.

We know from chaos theory that even simple non-linear equations may generate results of enormous complexity where tiny differences in the starting parameters have a huge impact on the result. It’s sometimes called the butterfly effect. A non-linear process in this sense is one where state B depends on state A and state C depends on state B and so on.

Tiny uncertainties in State A can be magnified enormously by the time state Z comes along. Uncertainty can be such that even in principle state Z can never be predicted from state A. For example, a prediction of state Z may require a nonsensically accurate understanding of state A.  

Imagine applying this to human actions. If the deterministic linkage between stimulus and response is non-linear, which one might assume is very likely, and the stimulus is also non-linear, then we may have a situation which is rigidly deterministic but predictable only within certain boundaries, which themselves may be unpredictable.

In other words, it is rarely possible to say that a particular stimulus will definitely produce a particular response. So the cause of the response isn’t nature, nurture, the outside world and nothing else. There is something more – a unique, complex, unpredictable, causally inexplicable something else.

Why? Because we can't say the causally inexplicable bit is causally explicable in principle, or some other fudge. It's causally inexplicable - live with it. 

So the cause of the response is nature, nurture, outside world and X, where X is something within us, yet forever beyond the reach of scientific prediction.

X is Magical Me and Magical You, the soul or whatever else you wish to call it. Looping back to yesterday's post on Skinner’s quote about literature, maybe there is something within us which in Skinner's words is beyond the methods of science.


James Higham said...

which one might assume is very likely

Why would you assume so? ;-)

Anonymous said...

The brain, assuming that is where the 'mind' lives, does at least for now seem well beyond any mechanistic understanding. But then our mathematical friends (who inhabit a different universe) declare there are problems insoluble and problems undecidable and they seem quite content so why should not we be content as well.

Whether studying pigeons, grey slop or sums there is no need for magic and it seems to offend Occam, or at least his razor, to bring in 'outside influences'. Perhaps Skinner was simply saying 'too hard'.

I sometimes wish there were magic, but I suppose if magic existed then it would not be magic any more.

Demetrius said...

The something within us may be closely akin to madness. It is the only thing that keeps us sane.

A K Haart said...

JH - in this sense non-linear just means each successive state depends on the previous state - like most of the natural world.

Roger - I think Skinner may have been saying "too hard", but I'm not convinced that's different to "beyond the reach of science".

D - chilling, but I tend to agree. We must peer over the edge to check where it is.