Free will and chaotic brains

My personal take on free will is that it’s an illusion, as is consciousness.

The impression of free-will is very believable though as the brain probably exhibits chaotic dynamics[1]. From any given state the brain is in, a slight change, however minute, could give rise to a very different outcome later on. This means that for any system with a model that’s external to an individual brain (e.g. a brain simulation if such a thing is possible), it is impossible for that model to completely predict the behaviour of the brain… eventually the brain’s state will diverge from the model. The important point is, this can happen even if the brain is completely deterministic. So even if the rules governing our cognition are unwavering instructions, which I think is unlikely, there is still the inability for a system outside of the brain to predict it’s behaviour[2].

In addition, I believe that consciousness is due to a recursive model that represents ourselves (ala Douglas Hofstadter’s book – I am a Strange Loop). As this is a model of the epiphenomenon of our “self”, it also has incomplete knowledge of the rest of the brain – this gives our conscious minds the illusion of free will as it can’t completely predict what it/we will do next. We think we are weighing up choices based on our knowledge and then making a “decision”, but that’s because we (our conscious minds) don’t have complete knowledge of the brain’s underlying hardware which ultimately leads us to that choice. This lack of knowledge in our conscious minds is what we call “free will”.

[1] Or at least I’d expect it to, I don’t have references I’ve read over, but this looks promising.

[2] That is, assuming we exclude the almost impossible ideal of having perfect knowledge of the brain’s state which would include all neurochemistry as well as structure.

This post is taken from a comment I made to Leo Parker Dirac’s post on “Free Will and Turing-completeness of the Brain”. Turns out I think it’s a relatively succinct description of what the concept of free will actually is so I thought I’d repost it here…


#1   mundens on 08.19.10 at 11:09 am

I agree with you, but I thought I’d point out that this is just a special case of the universe being completely deterministic but effectively unpredictable in detail

#2   Joel on 08.19.10 at 11:12 am

I actually believe that the universe is indeterminate and based on a collapsing of particle wave functions… meaning there are infinite possible worlds, but some are more (much) likely than others.

How those worlds interact with our conscious perception of them is another matter.

#3   Simon J Stuart on 08.26.10 at 9:41 am

“My personal take on free will is that it’s an illusion, as is consciousness.”

If I may just point out the irony of expressing an opinion born of consciousness to denonce the presence of consciousness…

Still, you raise a few interesting points, I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but in an absense of consciousness, I have no opinions to speak of!

Sorry for my foolish attempts at humor there!

#4   Joel on 08.26.10 at 9:48 am

Well, it of course depends on your definition of consciousness. Some people still believe in it being analogous to the soul and beyond science… or that we’ll find some magical part of the brain which explains or experience of being conscious.

But I think it’s more likely that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of recursive self-representation. Of course, if you just define consciousness as being that… then consciousness does exist ;-)

#5   Samantha Atkins on 09.04.10 at 6:12 am

I think discussions of this often confused free will as the absence of either determinism or predictability. If you had perfect knowledge of how the brain works, and of human psychology and so on then you could modulo chaotic and other unruly systems theory predict what a person would do in some circumstance. In practice, this is impossible. So prediction is out the window.
Some mean by free will somehow chosen in the absence of any defined or knowable process of choosing. The idea being that if the process is knowable then the choice was somehow predetermined. But, since any existing mind must use some process to choose, even if it is throwing yarrow sticks, among alternatives this effectively says there can be no such thing as choosing with no means of choosing which is a mere truism.

The entire argument smack of church men classic philosophy where only some mystical god being can possibly have true absolute knowledge or be truly free. The Calvinist debate over determinism and salvation for instance.

To sum up the entire question is meaningless. Intelligence requires choosing among alternatives. That is enough “free will” for all practical purposes.

#6   Joel on 09.04.10 at 11:32 am

Yup, your view Samantha seems to essentially match mine.

#7   Dude on 06.04.11 at 3:00 pm

c.f. Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves. He investigates what you’re talking about deeply.

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