Thursday, October 28, 2004

Science says we must be robots

The Ancient Greeks were the first to make a serious attempt to kill off our Free Will when they conceived of the existence of ‘atoms’ - the indivisible particles from which everything in the world, including the human brain, is constructed.

Our knowledge of science tells us that the behaviour of any atom or molecule is entirely automatic, dependent only on its physical properties and the laws of physics. So how can it be that when you put a billion entirely automatic atoms together to make a human… you create something that can do what it wants with its life?

It’s a question that has always baffled philosophers and scientists. How do 'we' get control of these automatic atoms of ours, if 'we' are nothing but atoms ourselves? For us to have free will, wouldn’t there have to be a part of us that isn't made of atoms; a part of us that’s free to tell all the atoms how to behave? But if so, then where is it - this non-atomic corner of our brains? And what kind of ‘stuff’ is it made of… if not atoms?

Of course, despite the brutal logic of this argument, free will springs back to vigorous life the moment the philosopher takes a break from his deliberations and has to make the difficult free choice of whether or not to have a Danish pastry with his coffee.

Or as science writer Matt Ridley puts it:

“I am quite capable of jumping in my car and driving to Edinburgh
right now and for no other reason than that I want to....
I am a free agent, equipped with free will.”

- Matt Ridley, Genome

Free will prevails the moment we leave the classroom and step back into the real world.

But then along comes Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, and suddenly free will’s in trouble again: forget the atomic level – it seems we can’t be free at the ‘whole creature’ level either.

"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed
to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

The idea that evolution could create an animal that has the free will to do what it wants is like suggesting that water could run uphill. Even if a ‘free will gene’ could have been created by the chance mutations that created our eyes and ears, this ‘free will gene’ would simply never have been ‘naturally selected’ for. Natural selection, by definition, can only select genes that improve their own survival chances. ‘Doing what you want with your life’ is the evolutionary equivalent of a blind lion triumphing over a sighted one: it’s like being born with an insatiable desire to drink poison and jump in front of freight trains.

“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate”
- Stephen Hawking

So what’s going on?

It makes no sense: how can there be such a gap between our scientific understanding and our personal experience of what our lives are all about? On the one hand, we know that we’ve got free will, while on the other hand we know that every time we exercise this free will of ours, we must be overcoming not only the laws of physics but everything science has taught us about the way that human beings came into existence.

What’s the answer?

Can we reassure ourselves that one day we’ll uncover the gaps in the laws of physics? Or is it time to start thinking the unthinkable about ourselves?

What if we don’t actually have the ability to jump in our cars and go to Edinburgh whenever we want to? What if we don’t really have the freedom to choose whether or not to eat that Danish pastry?

Could it all be just a delusion…?

“Free will is a delusion caused by
our inability to appreciate our true motivations.”
- attributed to Charles Darwin

Could it be that we’ve been fooled into thinking that we’re making our own choices, when in reality we’re just being told what to do by billions of years of natural selection?

Next: How we make a decision

Or, for a summary: The Story of the Conscious Robot

Or go back to the home page to see all the pages

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Atoms make men

Really pre-determined?

Yes, really. Even when you've understood how every choice you make is controlled by part of your brain over which you have no control... it's still not the easiest concept to grasp that everything you do tomorrow is already decided.

So to help with that, start with some things that you would have no trouble accepting are pre-determined.

Your alarm clock. Powered by a battery and a crystal of quartz, I'm quite confident that tomorrow morning my alarm will sound at 7 am. I've set the time and I've set the alarm and in doing so, the atoms inside that clock will continue behavining in an entirely. The action of atoms, once set in motion, will not change unless something causes them to change. In the case of the alarm clock, it's humans that have caused the atoms to behave in a particular way: the manufacturing humans harnessed the atoms inside the clock, condemning them to behave in a way that I expect my alarm clock atoms to behave.

So what's the difference with a human? It's still atoms.

Attack the problem from different angles:
1) How you make a decision
2) The atomic level
3) Compare your life with a computer playing a game of chess.

Think of it at the atomic level.

How is it possible to think of our lives and choices as 'just the automatic movement of automatic atoms'?

The growth of a crystal is automatic, no one would doubt.
'Life' is no different from the crystal - start with a single cell, with a nucleus of DNA. Grow outwards.
Remember the school chemistry lab.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Chess computer

Compare yourself to a chess computer

Imagine you come across a pair of computers playing each other at chess. You've never seen a computer, and you've never played chess. You're allowed to watch 15 minutes of 4 hour game, and during that time you've got to reach some conclusions as to what's going on.

Firstly, the Meaning of Life. What's the purpose of these chess players existence?
Well, clearly during your 15 minutes of observation it's not going to be at all clear that their purpose is to checkmate the king. A well-played game of chess largely ignores the king for the first three quarters of the match: it's all about territory and firepower. How quickly can I bring my pieces out and gain control of the centre of the board? How can I use my guile to exchange a bishop for my opponent's more valuable queen?
Without being able to see the full game, without knowing the rules... how would one know ever know the real aim? It might appear that the purpose was to take as many of the opponents pieces as possible, but how would you know that there was only one piece that actually mattered?

~Indeed, it might not even be obvious that the purpose was some sort of warfare - many games go 10 moves without any pieces being exchanged, the aim of life appearing to be to create beautiful patterns of pieces on the board.

But what if you had access to the computers' programming?

All would immediately be revealed. You'd realise the purpose of all these beautiful patterns werereal meaning of life for these computers: that the pretty patterns and scheming for firepower advantage was just a method of achieving a simple aim - to kill a king.

So how does this compare to being human? The big advanatage that Darwin gave us is access to the programming. We know what we're here to do. And this allows us to see through all the other things we do as humans - things we assume are the purpose, but turn out to be nothing more than a root to the a