Free Willie

Taken from my old blog, dated 17 january, 2012


A few days back, I attended a [highly entertaining] talk, by Susan Blackmore about the link between Conciousness and the Brain. There were a number of interesting questions she raised, and that lead to some [not much!] introspection on my part.
Her talk ranged from “what is conciousness?” to Out of Body Experiences [OBE], to meditation to free will and lots of other things. She is quite a remarkable person who had a dramatic OBE when a young student, which lead her to reject grad studies and pursue a career in parapsychology. After 20 years of unfruitful work, she finally called it quits and turned to psychology and the problems of the mind. She is now a popular person on the Psych circuit, giving talks and writing books. She is the kind of person who has done it all, thus having a different take on many things.
She says that we need to reject our concept of free will. Her thoughts on conciousness and its definition are too complicated to be explained via text alone, so I will leave those alone. Free will, she says, doesnt exist at all. There is no one place, one ME where all your sensory inputs converge, to decide to do things, to have free will. It is all parallel processing, where all your cells do their things, and a big picture emerges.

Emergent behavior has permeated even popular literature. It is the phenomenon that some small and independent modules, with simple instructions, can join up to give rise to properties that are not just a sum of the individual elements, but something more.  This has many examples. Worker ants, each with simple motives and drives, give rise to spectacularly complex colonies. In computation, they use the same concept, that of parallel processing, where many small independent modules come together to solve a problem.

In another talk I attended a few days later, [the topic was History and Philosophy of Science] an interesting issue raised by some physicists [I intend to write about physicists and their biology at a later date 🙂 ]. The talk was about how biology progressed from a observational science, to a descriptive, mechanistic science over the years. The [whats the right word, Talker?] person giving the talk ended with a hint that we were returning to the concept of Vitalism, an unknown force, that makes us living things. The physics people then tried to link the rise of vitalism to similar trends in physics, where mechanistic explanation failed and there was a return to energy and field and those kinds of directions.

The point of saying that was, that we see a trend towards people using various analogies to explain emergent behavior, using terms like Vitalism and energy and force field [and Quantum mechanics!] which have slightly different connotations, and lead us astray from the actual point. As this post is now meandering away from our original point, Consciousness. The point is, that many independent modules working together can give rise to emergent properties, that defy explanation at first, but could be understood in the context of a coordinated, interacting model, a sort of a societal structure. Another case in point would be human society. The fact that it still stands [especially in countries like India, rife with mismanagement] despite so many failures, is for me, virtually un-explainable just as a sum of all the abilities of one human being seven billion times.

As she said, there is no central ME where all your senses converge, to have free will. The body does what it does, and thats that. In my opinion, this is just a difference in how people define free will. Now in western culture, the concept of free will is embedded in their major religion, so there is much more discourse on it, and people are more aware of the implications. Not so in our culture, in fact, it is only recently that we started thinking about free thoughts, let alone free will. Anyway, what I mean is, that if the body does what it does, then isnt that free will too? There is no ME to decide what to do and what not to do, but the body is doing that, isnt it? Think about this for a moment.

Disclaimer: You may or may not experience the moment described in this photo…

Another point that is usually raised by the people who are for free will, is that without it, our society will collapse. As Dr Blackmore correctly argues, in fact our judiciary will be strengthened if we discard the free will concept of “responsibility of an act” and make our laws along the lines of having deterrents to actions that harm people, and the punishment should be according to how useful it will be [ put people in jail if they steal, as it will prevent more thievery, but dont punish juveniles much, as that wont do any good, as they dont understand things as well. ]

To conclude this mishmash of random thoughts, for all practical purposes, we can do what we want, and there is a free will, that follows the spirit, if not the letter of the definition. For most of our lives, we dont [and mostly dont need to] think about how it will affect us, and our actions, but for the times it does, we need to take the many exceptions to freedom of action in that particular context.


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