Thursday, December 19, 2002

Couldn't free will have evolved?

Couldn’t evolution, or something in the evolutionary process, have given us free will?

Only if your definition of free will means 'doing precisely what I can to maximise the survival chances of my genes'. This explains the only free will worth having.

Evolution is a two-stage process:

- firstly, there are random changes
- chance mutations in the DNA that create absolutely random and unplanned changes in the genes, and hence in the way that animals either look or behave. Some of these changes make no difference at all, and some of them are so disastrous that the animal doesn't even get born... but, very occasionally, something happens that actually improves an individual's chances of surviving in the world.

- secondly, there is 'natural selection'
- this is the point at which all those random changes get judged to see if they're any good or not. If any of them turn out to be improvements, then those new, ‘improved’, genes get passed on to the next generation.

Now, lets say it would have been possible for 'free will' to have appeared by random chance -

....but for it to then have been selected doesn't make any sense at all:

"Free will" is just about the last thing that would ever have been selected by natural selection:

The world is a ruthless place. A baby antelope born with the free will to do 'whatever it likes' isn't going to last very long out there under the gaze of a pride of hungry lions. If you want to survive, if you want to live long enough to have children of your own, you've got to be doing precisely what evolution tells you to do in order to survive - no more, no less. Not a moment, not a single unit of energy to be wasted 'doing your own thing'.

But what if free will arose by chance...
- and it was never enough of a cost to be selected out...

Let's say free will arose by chance and then didn't get selected out because it was of insufficient burden to the individual - in other words, we humans were so successful that the cost of doing what we want was insufficient to affect the survival chances of our genes.

Compare 'survival' to 'running a business':
Businesses when they are starting out tend to be lean and mean: not a penny wasted, everything working with maximum efficiency.
Then, if the business gets to be successful, it starts to get a bit inefficient - the more staff, the more difficult it becomes for the owner to keep everyone motivated, the more the procedures become rigid and inflexible. But as long as the business is basically strong and successful, it can carry these small inefficiencies without going bust.

But 'free will' is not a small cost.

Free will is a devastation. (If you use it, of course.) Doing what you want all day isn’t like carrying round the remnants of an appendix.. it’s like your staff coming in a playing cards all day when they should be packing parcels and phoning customers.

And there's another problem:

The idea that Free will could arise by chance is a lot more complicated than it seems:

- if we do things that we like doing, and they aren't things that evolution has decided we should like doing... then how did our brains get wired up so that we would actually like doing these things? Free will isn't just 'doing things at random'... it's actually wanting something. Something specific. So how did our brains get wired up to want all these things that we like doing in the 21st Century? How do you program a machine to have free will? It’s a lot harder than it sounds.

How do you write a computer program to have free will?

It's a common plot component of science fiction films: the robot is created by humans to do what humans want it to... and then it becomes 'self aware' like Frankenstein or the computers in the Terminator films, and starts to do what it wants to do rather than what its programmers want it to do.

But how does it decide for itself what it likes?

Let's say you were trying on purpose to build a robot that did what it wanted, that had free will.

is capable of wandering around the world looking for good food.

You can't say to your robot 'Get out there and do things - see if you like them'. How would it know what it liked, if you didn't tell it what felt good? It would need some criteria to judge what 'felt good' and what 'felt bad'. It's impossible. It can’t want anything that you haven’t told it to want. It can’t create its own criteria for what is good and what is bad, for what it ‘likes’ and it doesn’t like.

The closest you could get would be to give it some sort of randomness device. “Go and find anything.” Then it would go out and look very busy until its power run out.

But that's not what we humans do. We're not random. We’re extremely specific about what we want.

You can’t program a computer - or a human brain - to decide for itself the criteria by which it decides whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

This problem of ‘how do you create free will’ brings us neatly back to our Ancient Greeks and the determinism problem: if we are comprised entirely of ‘automatic’ atoms, all

The criteria we have for what we like, must have come from some where, following automatically from what came before. And this is precisely what evolution is. EVolution is simply a very complicated serious of chemical reactions, each determined by the previous and by the circumstances of the environment... and the circumstances of the environment like the temperature of the sun and the direction of the wind themselves determined by what happened previously... right back the big bang. Evolution is simply determinism physics in action just like the light waves reaching us from distant stars are determinism in action.

Determinism must exist because free will could never have been programmed, never created. You always need criteria to judge a decision: and those criteria must always be dependent on something that has come before. The only way to take the criteria out of the problem is to introduce randomness: but randomness is no more freedom than following someone else’s criteria.

What we've done by understanding our feelings is to understand how our perception of our lives and our perception that we are choosing fits into this deterministic viewof the world.

Evolution is the laws of physics in action in the wet, sticky world of amino acids and DNA. 'Life' and our perception of 'free will' are nothing more than the movement of molecules.

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