Determining Determinism

in #philosophy4 years ago

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.


I love the topic of free will.

Free will seems to be dependent on whether our universe is created of merely 4 dimensions (3 Spatial + 1 Time), or 10 dimensions (3 Spatial + 1 Time x Infinity).

I tend to be of the camp which accepts the idea that eternity is one giant 4D object that extends from the birth of the universe to its death, all of which would exist simultaneously in 4D space, just as the top of an object in 3D space exists simultaneously with the bottom. As 3D beings ourselves, our brains are only able to perceive one slice of the great 4D object at a time as we slide along it in our bubble of immediacy that we call "the Present". Otherwise, to experience the 4th Dimension in the way it truly exists (if indeed it is a solid object as mentioned) means you would experience your entire life from birth to death all in the same instant.
I had a friend once who said that our experience of time is like the universe giving itself an MRI, which sounds accurate, but seems to be a bit more crude and less poetic way to put it. I like to think that it's like playing a record on a turntable. The entire album exists all at once on the record, but the music doesn't play until you add a "present moment" which moves forward along the groove - the needle. Poetically, in that metaphor I like to think of all of eternity existing at once to be like the record, our physical bodies to be like the needle, and our lives as we experience them to be the music.

I really like the needle/record analogy.

Thank you. I think it's just because I was a DJ for about 10 years. LOL

Poetically, in that metaphor I like to think of all of eternity existing at once to be like the record, our physical bodies to be like the needle, and our lives as we experience them to be the music.

That's beautiful. Thank you. :)

Yeah, I haven't learned much about string theory with all it's various dimensions other than what some friends have shared with me. I often think about a 2D being told to just "look up" and how absurd that would sound to them. I wonder which direction "in" we need to look to truly see.

This also gets me thinking about the holographic universe theory along with (of course) the simulation theory. Isn't it funny how we might be living in the one century out of millions of years where super intelligence might be birthed? A power so great it could end not only our species, but continue to populate the entire universe, given enough time and resources? Wouldn't that be a good century to devote your simulation resources on to play things out a few trillion times to see what works and what doesn't? Certainly makes me go "Hmm..." Elon Musk might be right after all. If so, I hope we live interesting enough lives to keep the simulators running our simulation. :)

I saw that Elon Musk interview, actually, where he talks about how there could be billions of universe simulations going on simultaneously, so how can we possibly determine that ours is the real one?

See, this is the kind of discussion I could never get on Facebook. THIS is why I don't go there anymore.

Is there room for a 10th dimensional "god"?

My thoughts on God (or maybe, more accurately, God of religion) are fleshed out in my Losing Eternity blog post. One thing I haven't mentioned there is the idea that what we call "God" might actually be the one running the simulation we all exist in. The Master Programmer. He/She/It might have tweaked a variable here or there through history in such a way as to alter people's understanding of reality to such a great degree that whole religions were formed around those experiences. Or... it could all just be some stories we created because our little primitive brains like to make meaning out of things, even if no meaning exists there.

I think that might depend on what one accepts as a definition of "god". From what I can tell, if there is a god, I tend to like the idea that it IS eternity and all it's possibilities, not something that lords over it. This would mean that all of us, everything we see and experience, as well as all that which is unknown to us as of yet are all part of it.
And if that's the case, Buddha was right.
"God" would simply be a process by which all possibilities are expressed in all versions of eternity, and would encompass all dimensions.
As Robert Anton Wilson used to say, "You are the master who makes the grass green."

Love me some Robert Anton Wilson. Here's a fun recording of him just hanging out which I enjoyed watching a while back:

I'm kind of surprised this post isn't getting more votes.
Maybe not enough bewbs?

BEWBS! Heheh.

I've noticed the philosophy category doesn't always do very well on Steemit. That's completely understandable as the most exciting thing going on right now is Steemit itself. Why would we want to talk about anything else? I still wanted to put this out there to see what discussion it might trigger and so far I'm really enjoying it. Thanks for contributing. :)

Meh, I've come to think of the function of steemit simply to be a means by which people are given an incentive not to be ugly to one another. It's perfect, actually. I've been able to see intelligent conversations like this, as well as actually witnessing civil debates (not arguments) on the internet. The latter still blows my mind. lol

Speaking of civil debates, this reply by masteryoda made my morning. Among all that craziness, civility wins!

Ha! I actually saw that earlier this morning. It's cool to see that he didn't rage quit. I was worried about that too. There's no reason to quit. Just change the method.

Google published a paper today which may change your view on programming:

Switches will not be simple one and zeros at the quantum level. There is a place for fuzzy neural nets and statistical modelling which allows variance of an outcome even for the smallest elements of the world.

I am still a determinatist though; you just have to go into higher dimensionality.

We use a programmable array of superconducting qubits to compute the energy surface of molecular hydrogen using two distinct quantum algorithms.

Now if that doesn't sound like something Q from Star Trek would do, I don't know what does.

That looks like a really interesting. Yes, quantum computing is coming, no doubt. To me, it just means we're getting closer to how our brains actually function as well. From what little I understand, neurons aren't simply on/off switches either. They're are so many complicated interactions going on, both chemical and electrical... the strength of the neuron pulse, whether or not the connection stays strong over time, etc, etc. All really exciting stuff. Quantum computing may meet human augmentation right as we're figuring out whole brain emulation and super intelligent A.I. It's an exciting time to be alive. It's either the dawn of a new reality, or the destruction of everything we've come to understand so far.

Free will relegates nearly all human activity to the realm of miracles. It's the God of the gaps on a personal scale. I find it unsatisfying...

"We don't understand how something works."
"Let's create a word to describe it and call it a thing."
- Humans

There are problems with all three solutions (free will, determinism, compatibilism) that render each unsatisfying.
Determinism has had criticisms from the very beginning. Democritus and Leucippus (the guys who created the theory of the atoms, and argued that all things that exist are nothing but atoms bumping into each other) recognized that their theory of hard materialistic determinism directly implied that no one could have knowledge of anything besides solipsism. Here is the argument, modernized for your convenience:
Knowledge requires 1)beliefs that are 2)true and 3)justified. (It requires more than this, but all D and L needed to run the argument are these three concepts- beliefs, truth, and justification.) If you don't have a belief, you don't have knowledge. If your belief isn't true, then it isn't knowledge. (In this case we say that someone thought the knew something, but they didn't.) Lastly, if you don't have a reason to believe that your belief is true then you don't have knowledge. That reason is the justification for your belief. Determinism makes it impossible to possess justification.
Here is an example to try to make the definition of knowledge clear before moving to the argument:
Jim sees candy on a table in a store. As a result of his sense perceptions Jim then forms a belief (let's call it B) that candy is on the table in front of him. He leaves the store (or wherever the candy is) and then bumps into Carla. Carla asks Jim what he is thinking about. Jim says 'The candy on the table in the store.' (Naturally. Who wouldn't be?) Carla asks 'How do you know there is candy on the table in the store?' Obviously, Jim's reply is 'Because I saw it.'
Jim's reply is the reason (justification) that makes belief B knowledge. If he had no justification for B he could not hold that belief as knowledge. (Imagine Jim just wanted there to be candy on the table, and didn't check it out. We would blame him if he told people there was candy just because he felt like it.)
Justification is a necessary process each belief must go through in order to be knowledge. But this is vague. 'A necessary process' is about as helpful as 'that mysterious thing in the box I can't open.' If justification is so important we should be clear about what it is. To clarify justification, consider an example that is mildly sci-fi. Suppose a mad scientist procures a child, and then performs a surgery implanting a chip in the child's head to make the child form beliefs. (Dystopian novels sometimes consider examples like this. You can see why. There are nefarious, power-hungry governments that would have wet dreams about control this powerful.) As that child grows, suppose the mad scientist wants to educate the child quickly. So the mad scientist programs the chip to 'teach' the child mathematics very quickly. Imagine the child growing up. Someone, when the child is old enough to understand words, asks 'what is 156 plus 215?' The chip induces the child to believe the answer is 371 before the child has actually reasoned it through for his or her self. So the child answers '371'. They cannot even think otherwise. Suppose every mathematical belief the child possessed was formed this way. Would you say the child is justified in holding these beliefs? I assume you will agree there is a problem here. The child lacks a proper reason for the belief.
And it is here that the question gets complex. I want to say that the child should be able to weigh, reason, measure, think etc. through the problem freely in order to be justified in believing something. It seems to me that free will is required for knowledge. If we are programmed then we lack justification for our beliefs. We cannot have knowledge.
One way people try to avoid this conclusion is be examining what processes cause our beliefs. Evolutionary processes, some say, might help us protect beliefs from this sweeping skeptical argument. But evolution doesn't help either. It is pretty easy to see why. If our beliefs are formed by natural selection then they are subject to the same forces as everything else that evolves are too. Our beliefs, if merely a process of evolution, help us survive and pass on our genes. That's it. Our beliefs might or might not be true. Their actual purpose is reproduction. So my belief that there is a snake and I should avoid it might or might not be true, but it is useful for helping me avoid snakes. Thus if my belief has a ton of false positives (sticks, garden hoses, shadows, thin people, etc) as long as it functions to keep me alive and able to pass on my genes that is what matters. Truth is not selected for.

Thus we get this rather pleasant problem- free will is a mystery. How can we interact with the world, with our bodies, when those things appear to be determined? Determinism implies we cannot have knowledge, including whether or not we are determined. We are cut off from the world.
Which poison do you want?

Great article on an interesting subject.

I have always been confused by the presentation of free will and determinism as mutually exclusive. Here is how I think about it:

A group of people makes a decision. This decision is 100% determined by the votes of each member. It is therefore totally deterministic. But does the group also have free will? Of course it does, because the group is its members and can choose as it collectively wishes.

I think you're talking about the emergent properties of large groups of autonomous actors. That's definitely an interesting perspective. Does a cell "choose" to function as it does? Does a neuron "choose" to fire? And yet, what we call consciousness is just an emergent property of various aspects of our brain. When we better understanding the brain, I think we'll better understand consciousness and ourselves.

This goes back to my explanation of what I tend to believe the 4th dimension is - which is the simultaneous existence in 4D space of all events that occur in 3D space from the birth to the death of the universe. If in fact that IS how it is, then all events have already been determined. We simply haven't gotten to the end yet. Very much like watching a movie for the first time - the end of the movie is already there on the reel. We just need to wait for it.

The tesseract confuses me because it doesn't resemble what my mind envisions the 4th dimension to look like. A geometric shape doesn't seem to do the concept justice or portray it in a way which us mere mortals can understand it.
In fact, I think photographs are capable of encapsulating it better, if not imperfectly.
These traffic lights are an example:

Having said that, if the dimensions stop at 4, then we have no free will.
For free will to exist, we need more dimensions, which would provide more "movie reels", each one with a different ending.
Terence McKenna used to talk about this thing when referring to chaos, which is that out of all possible occurrences, only one in each situation will happen, undergoing what he called "the formality of actually occurring". When we look at the future, all possibilities for any given scenario lie ahead on all the "movie reels" (possible realities). But when an outcome is chosen (by free will), that is the one that gets solidified in stone (the past). In other words, the future looks like a tree with each branch representing possible outcomes, while the past looks like the tree's trunk - a single stream of events that underwent the formality of occurring.

You talking multiverse theory now?

And yes, I agree about the tesseract but I figured this comment thread needed a kickass animation. :)

No reply button for you. I think after nesting replies more than 5 times it disappears.

Yes, multi-verse theory. Except that in contrast to the idea that the universe simply exists in a bubble that is adjacent to other bubbles with their own universe inside them, the future would simply be a combination of all of those universes existing on top of one another, and is funneled down to one determined outcome when that present moment arrives to make it happen before it becomes a permanent fixture in what would be called the past. This is partly why I don't think time travel can ever be possible if reality is constructed this way. The past is the past - it can't be changed. It's in stone, essentially. And the future - well...if the future contains all possible outcomes, where are you going to travel to? Any future you go to, you can't really say anything about it when you come back to the present to tell anyone because there's no guarantee that where you went is going to be where we actually end up. In fact, the simple fact that you traveled to the future could be what determines which future you arrive at. So it's fruitless.

I just wrote a short story that's sort of about this multi-verse topic

Sorry to kick this back up to the top, but I gotta say....
This is probably my favorite post on Steemit right now, just because it really seems to highlight the level of philosophical intelligence here. THESE are the conversations I couldn't get on Facebook or any place like that. Everything there turns into finger pointing politics or religion discussion as one might expect.
Thank you for letting me join in. :)

Awesome! Thanks @winstonwolfe. It's funny, I've been fortunate enough to connect with a few really awesome people on Facebook, so I often get some cool discussions going. Some of my other friends are like, "Man, I don't always comment on the discussions I see on your wall, but I really enjoy them." That, to me, is so cool! So many conversations on social media are about cats, food, and whatever. There's certainly a place for that, and I'm not knocking the things that make us happy, I just think there's a growing number of people who want a little more substance to their online discussions. I'm really excited about those people finding each other on Steemit! Thanks again for the compliment, it's greatly appreciated.

This is the definition of Mastery! Great share!!!

The topic of freewill has taken up a lot of my thinking recently, IMO determinism seems the only logical output of a rational and measured analysis of the physical systems we are made up of and directed by. So therefore I have no idea what experience or input has caused me to read and respond to your post and how I got here. However i'm glad i did thanks. Good book i just read julian baggini freedom regained

"So therefore I have no idea what experience or input has caused me to read and respond to your post and how I got here."

Occam's Razor: The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
Therefore, the simplest reason I can think of is just, things are the way they are because they were the way they were. :)

What role does our brain play in the construction of free will, and how much scientific evidence is there for the existence of it? What exactly are we talking about when we talk about 'freedom' anyway?

That sounds like a really interesting book indeed. Might have to add that to my list.

I'm glad you found yourself here as well. Praise the inputs.

Exactly, agreeing what we mean when we say 'freedom' is primary to understanding if we have it or not. One strong qualifier put forward in his book is that we "could have acted otherwise" in any given situation. A strong case is put forward that we can, and this is driven by our values, beliefs, temperament and conditioning, which can be defined as a degree of freedom.

However I still can't get away from the thought that all of this is dependant on what has gone before.
"Consciousness is just the noise made by the firing of neurons”

Nature, Nurture and Luck... they have their roles in this game called LIFE.
We didn't choose who are parents should be, where we wanna be born and so on.
Maybe, we are objects of a simulated reality.

This is one of the reasons I get so confused about nationalism. Why do people take pride in something they had zero impact on?

I think Louis CK had something to say about this. Talking about how it's silly to have national pride because it's basically just an accident of birth, and about how being Irish isn't a skill, it's a genetic accident.

Also, this...

great topic, thought provoking... looking forward to your next post

Wow, thank you, before reading this I didn't know of the term 'determinism' but I totally agree, all our decision we choose are done with reason, and that reason is determined by a previous decision.

It's some interesting stuff to think about, to be sure. Even if everything is determined, we all seem to benefit by pretending we do have choice so we can impact the future to our benefit and the benefit of others.

I'd normally consider downvoting you for spamming my comments with your own, unrelated post... but machine guns are just too friggen awesome! Well played, sir, well played. You got away with it... this time.

And no, you probably don't have free will, but it's helpful to think you do. ;)

How do I not have free will? I can choose to do something over another option. The next time that situation arises I can choose to do what I chose not to do the time before.

By what mechanism do you "choose"? How does that come about? Do you believe in dualism, that your being is made up of physical material combined with some other non-physical material that provides external input to the physical system of your body? Are there any other examples in nature of natural systems which are not deterministic? As you said, you can "choose" to do something different, but isn't that choice a result of neurons firing in your brain based on inputs up to that point (including the choice you made the previous time and what impact that had on your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those you care about)?

To me, these are the fun questions worth talking about.

I have the free will to reply to comments on my posts. Sometimes while reading them I will engage comments left for me to see. Seconds later I will choose not to engage with a similar comment. I may not want to reply to your next comment.

Imagine I enjoy drinking Coke and Pepsi the same, but I can only drink one or the other at dinner. I choose to drink Coke because I had to choose something to drink, did I make a free will decision?

@steve-mcclair your Coke/Pepsi example sounds a lot like the 50/50 idea I mentioned in the original post. Incredible seemingly chaotic complexity and/or randomness may effectively be the same as non-choice. What I'm trying to tease out is where the "choice" comes from. There is some process in the brain that happens, specific neurons fire (or don't) which result in a "decision" which then leads to an action. The more we learn about these processes, the more accurately we'll be able to understand what we mean by "choice."

Have you read, or heard of, Frank J. Tiplers thoughts on the matter?

No, I haven't. Can you link me to something on YouTube?

You told me to read this - I don't know why, it has nothing to do with what I said in my comment - its a fact that we can't make choices about certain things that really matter like getting run over by a car, or getting a brain tumor. So you can watch what you want on Netflix? - Good for you!

The questions you asked (which in a different comment you now say were rhetorical), seemed to imply you were trying to convince me of determinism. That's why I referenced this post.

Well if you think "did you choose to be born?" etc. is an open ended question - where someone could answer "yes I did" then that's fine. But they could never be anything other than rhetorical questions. I would now like to ask: Does a bear shit in the woods?

What was the point of asking the questions if not to demonstrate determinism? My reply was to say, "Yes, I get you."

I don't know why you keep mentioning determinism but hey.

Great post. Sorry I missed it earlier..

My personal belief is that all biological systems incorporate a degree of randomness or chaos into their normal operation.

This by it's very nature is not desired and is eliminated (as far as possible) in modern electronic devices where reliability is required.

A lot of this is still speculation though because we can only observe handfuls of functional neurones interacting in laboratory conditions. The technology needed to examine a living, functioning brain on a cellular or deeper level is still just a dream. The complexity is beyond anything we can envisage and it may well be (if some modern neuroscience papers are to be believed) that quantum effects might well be at play. In which case we would need to look at some things on the sub atomic level to truly understand what is going on.

Either way, one this is clear: We are really ignorant. :)

That's why I like reading people like Nick Bostrom and Ray Kurzweil. They at least help me hope something amazing is about to happen in the next few decades.

Yes we are only really starting to take the first steps in understanding the brain.
Not familiar with Bostrom but am a big fan of Ray Kurzweil. I don't necessarily accept his views on how quickly the singularity will occur but who knows really?

I recently finished Nick Bostrom's book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. I highly recommend it. If you don't buy Kurzeil's predictions, check out Bostrom's survey of all the experts in the field, which I mentioned here. Exponential growth is something we're really bad at because we didn't encounter it in nature in order to evolve hardware to handle it. We might all be surprised with how quickly things happen. Kurzweil's prediction accuracy over multiple decades up to this point is, IMO, astounding.

Yes I think we generally don't predict these things things very well but Kurzweil has a good record. I will check out Bostrom's book. Thanks for the recommendation:)

The 50/50 thing doesn't seem too bad at first, but gets more disconcerting as you go on. This reminds me of the Ted talks about choice and cause and effect by Barry Schwarz, Ruth Chang, and others, but your post is more scientific.

Are those any good? Worth watching at all?

Some of my favorite books on brain stuff so far include:
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Predictably Irrational
I haven't tackled any on the philosophy of free will and determinism yet, but I have listened to a lecture by Sam Harris which was basically a summary of his book on the topic.

Meh, they're ok. I watched them a while ago and remember them making the point that you can't always qualitatively compare two situations, and showing examples of studies where people's choices were easily manipulated. It wouldn't take more than 30 minutes to watch them all, so maybe it's worth it.

I haven't read those or seen Sam Harris, but now I'm interested! I was going to try to read The Conscious Mind by Chalmers soon.

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