Free will and hard materialistic determinism are polar opposite views on the very nature of our existence as conscious beings. In one camp we have personal responsibility, the importance of good life choices, and the hope that comes with “making” your life better. In the other camp we have a deconstruction of the framework for judgement, shame, and guilt, a recognition of cause and effect influencing every aspect of our lives, and a celebration of the desire to see behind the curtain at the very gears of reality which our brains interpret for action and ideas.
When I studied computer science engineering at UPENN, one of things we touched on briefly was how neural networks function. To put it simply, imagine a switch which may or may not turn on depending on the input given to it and the current weight setting of the switch. Each switch impacts the input to other connected switches and so on. Neural networks can be trained by a dataset so each switch gets an initial weight setting. Each run through the system after that may adjust that setting for the next run, impacting future decisions made by the network. When dealing with probabilities and dynamic systems striving to obtain optimal performance for survival, it’s valuable to introduce some chance so it won’t get stuck in a loop where every single run looks exactly like the one before it with zero chance for improvement in the future. In this way, a decision gate weighted with a 50% / 50% chance of going either way can break the deadlock and “choose” one randomly to keep the system going.
What if what we call “choice” is more like a 50/50 decision?
As a programmer, my entire professional life is based off of the result of cause and effect. In the world of code, everything happens for a reason. It would be absurd to think my computer would suddenly start acting differently without there being a root cause. The more I study the brain and physical systems in nature, the more I see that same stimulus/response mechanisms at work. Every input we consume from the books we read, the movies/documentaries/TV shows we watch, the online debates we engage in, the podcasts we listen to, the conversations we have, etc…they are all inputs to the neural network system of our brain. One input changes how the next input will be interpreted. If we consider any decision in our lives, we can most likely, with enough thought, come up with a number of previous inputs which impacted that “decision” and how, if those inputs had been different, we would have “chosen” a different path.
So back to the 50/50 choice idea. Sometimes when I’m looking for something to watch on YouTube, I don’t have strong feelings either way. I might narrow it down to a few possibilities, or I might trust Google’s algorithmic choice and go with what’s recommended. If I watch a mindless movie on Netflix, I’ll get the relaxation I’m looking for and enjoy it. If I watch a debate or documentary on the morality of artificial intelligence, it might more dramatically impact my neural network weighting system, further changing my desires and responses to future inputs. Even though the “choice” really didn’t matter to me at the time, the resulting change in my consciousness did matter. It wouldn’t surprise me if, someday, we understand the brain well enough to find a version of the random weighting processor which helps us through those 50/50 “meh?” decisions we don’t seem to care about.
What I find interesting is how those “decisions” end up shaping our lives. How many times has a “random choice” to watch one movie or another deeply impacted your thinking and future movie choices? What about vacationing in one spot over another? What about the people you randomly meet which turn into valuable relationships or future job positions? It’s reasonable to me to see the brain acting as a natural deterministic process which leads to decisions given all the inputs up to that point. When we narrow down our “choices” to essentially equally weighted options on the neural network, our random processor kicks in and bumps one answer to the top which keeps the cycle from gridlock.
To go a bit deeper, consider someone on death row for a terrible crime. If you were replaced, atom for atom, with that person, including all of the same childhood experiences, abusive parents, dangerous neighborhood, etc, etc... Would you also be on death row? Would you have made the same "decisions"? Are we the product of our genes and our life experiences with the only thing to guide us being the next input we receive? To some, this view sounds scary. To others, it brings a level of compassion, empathy, and understanding our justice system desperately needs. It highlights the importance of education, training, and mentoring. It honors the inputs.
If we someday find we are in fact biological computers, deterministically running through our input/output program, we may still hold on to the idea that we have choice to improve our next input or the input we give to others. Choice may be an illusion, but it's also a powerfully effective one.