My World View – Free Will … A Revisit – Part 1
What follows is an opinion. You can like it or not. If you disagree, I’m open to new ideas or refinement of these. I like to think that this is based on observation and education, something I like to call a hypothesis. There is a lot of stuff in my garage but I seriously doubt that any of it would make a good EEG or fMRI machine so I am limited to thought or trying to test my hypothesis by emulating the system I want to test in software and hardware. That is generally the method I choose. I’m also quite eager to learn more about actual funded scientists doing tests and experiments which may confirm or disprove my hypothesis. That said, here we go…
Full disclosure: I’m not a neuroscientist, but I did sleep at Holiday Inn last night… badda bing! It’s kind of a hobby for me. I want to know how my brain works. Every last electrical pulse and chemical transmission. There are things that seem like they need better explanations in life and I’m betting that many of them are because of how our brains work.
Free Will: This topic is not going to go away anytime soon. Few groups if any can agree on this topic. For the record I believe that Sam Harris has it wrong on this one. I’ll get to the reason a bit later. Others seem to have nondescript opinions such as Lawrence Krauss who seems a naturalist who doesn’t seem to care if life is deterministic or not. He’s just glad to be here. There are others which adhere to some sort of limited free will in as much as we can affect the world which is directly around us but cannot will Jupiter to change its orbit – that is to say that free will only allows us to affect the world within the framework of the laws of nature and has no supernatural implications.
Thinking About Thinking
To my mind the biggest problems of the “free will debate” are that every person talking about how they think of free will seems to be avoiding the fact that the very thing they think has free will is the thing thinking about what free will is. The recursive pitfalls here are many. We are our brains and the emergent ‘mind’ that our brain contains. As Sam Harris explains, we feel like we have free will because it sure feels like we are making decisions and acting without intervention but he then points out that we probably wouldn’t know if we were being controlled. This might be the case if we actually exist in a simulation, which is not so crazy of an idea when you think it through. Even we mere mortal humans have created simulations of ‘beings’ which are used to demonstrate evolution. There is an old one in 8-bit glory with Richard Dawkins doing this very thing. While we might argue that we exist in a simulation we can’t claim to know the purpose of it nor the rules which govern it… at least not yet.
The human brain is an awesome thing. Think about all the things that it does for you that you take for granted. You don’t have to remember how to breathe as you sleep. Where do you go when you sleep? You don’t have to flex every muscle to make your legs move as you are walking in the lunch line thinking about cheeseburger calorie counts. You don’t have to make yourself get aroused. You don’t have to remember to make your heart beat. You don’t have to remember or focus on making sense of the many sounds or sights that you see each day. Sound is sound and we don’t think about how complex a problem it is to sort through the cornucopia of sound that we hear each minute. Vision is even more complex. Much more complex. We know scientifically that our vision systems process sight data in several ways simultaneously. We don’t have to do that by thinking about it, our brains do it for us. Our brains are doing many more things than we are aware of on a moment to moment basis.
The main point here is that you, the part of you that is your consciousness does not exist within the parts that do these other things and so is not aware of the efforts made to do all these things for you. That is to say that your consciousness is not involved in all these other things. If we consider that our brains are made of hundreds of thousands of patter recognition engines, how will we determine when to pay attention to a positive match on any of them? What would it take to organize that outputs from these into a coherent decision about something. Take this as rule then, our brains do more than we are personally aware of or could be aware of. Because of this we tend to operate as a system or hive mind. We are not conscious of every pattern match. That would take immense computational power and even then we would still need an executive program to collate that data into a decision. My proposition here is that the conscious mind of animals is exactly that, nothing more than the executive function of this pattern recognition conglomeration.
Much of what our brains do is recognize patterns. There are hundreds of thousands of pattern recognition engines working together, maybe more. Our brains don’t need to wait for our consciousness to understand an output from one or more of these pattern recognition engines to react. Some call this muscle memory or instinct or just being a great athlete. In the middle of a physical contest athletes rely on the training of their brains to recognize and react to patterns without having to think about it. This takes as much as half a second out of reaction times. If it happens twice in a row it can reduce reaction time by a full second. So when an object flies at your face from the side, you don’t have to think, your brain tells your body to jump out of the way. This is a good thing then that we do function like a hive mind. It’s a really good thing … but it has a couple of problem areas. Lets talk about those.
There are many thing which our brains do which we are unaware of until the action has already started taking place. As we duck from an errant home run ball or jump out of the way of anything our brains have worked out the problem and a course of action before our conscious mind has a chance to think about it. It is then extremely likely that parts of our brains which are not part of the conscious mind activity are always involved in making decisions of any kind. We are merely aware of some of them as the information streams from unconscious parts to the conscious mind sections. We might call this gut reaction or instinct but I would rather think of it as multi-stage reaction or information processing. That is to say that the unconscious parts of our brains always work and our conscious parts, the mind, rehash the data as a kind of veto measure. Lets examine a couple of scenarios where this comes into play in a relatively simplistic fashion.
- You are asked what kind of food you want for lunch. You think for a few seconds before answering. In those seconds many things happen but you are aware of only those things happening in your conscious mind. Outside of that you are analyzing data from pattern recognition engines which tell you if your body needs food, that is to say do you feel hungry? It also is analyzing secondary data about the state of your stomach and intestines and running down a list of probable food types for this meal among other things. That is to say that your conscious mind is analyzing not the actual nerve pulses of your stomach lining, but secondary data derived from those nerves.
- You are sitting in class. Someone walks up and scrapes their fingernails across the chalkboard. About half the class cringes and physically reacts to this sound. None of them thought that they needed to move those muscles involved yet the muscles did engage. Why? That noise is ‘recognized’ as unpleasant and this triggers specific data outputs in the brain which in turn are used as inputs to muscle controls in a manner of speaking – it’s not actually that simple but that works for now, so go with it. Our facial expressions are built on this type of connection. When we are happy, our face ‘smiles’ and when we are angry our faces ‘frown’. We do not consciously form our facial expressions, they simply happen in reaction to patterns recognized in our brains, at least for those of us who are not sociopaths. (sociopaths get a bad rep that they don’t deserve in my opinion)
Hopefully this establishes the idea that the subconscious parts of our brains are always active and a VIP member of the decision making team between our ears. It is the teamwork that allows us to react in split-second time frames. If we had to analyze every pulse of every nerve with our conscious mind it would take minutes to decide to go to the bathroom or turn on a light. Jeff Hawkins has ideas on how to replicate human intelligence based on pattern recognition. We could spend the majority of our lives analyzing data that is not immediately pertinent to what we are doing. If our brains are going to do all this analyzing it will require a bit of help.
Multiple Brains? … or Hive Mind?
I posit that the human brain is just a machine, but is it? I know the definitions get a bit picky and are not defined really well, but lets look at those.
A group mind, hive mind or group ego in science fiction is a single, collective consciousness or intelligence occupying many bodies or entities. Its use in literature goes back at least as far as Olaf Stapledon‘s science fiction novel Last and First Men (1930). A group mind might be formed by telepathy, by adding brain-to-brain communication to ordinary individuals, or by some unspecified means. This term may be used interchangeably with “hive mind”. A hive mind is a group mind with almost complete loss (or lack) of individual identity; most fictional group minds are hives. The concept of the group or hive mind is an intelligent version of real-life superorganisms such as ant or bee nests, and consequently, insectoid aliens such as Zerg often have such a mind.
Note that the individual participants are generally thought of as having no identity. Only the conglomerate has identity. This is how I suggest the human brain is – many parts with no identity working together under a single identity.
Multiprocessing is the use of two or more central processing units (CPUs) within a single computer system. The term also refers to the ability of a system to support more than one processor and/or the ability to allocate tasks between them. There are many variations on this basic theme, and the definition of multiprocessing can vary with context, mostly as a function of how CPUs are defined (multiple cores on one die, multiple dies in one package, multiple packages in one system unit, etc.).
Multiprocessing sometimes refers to the execution of multiple concurrent software processes in a system as opposed to a single process at any one instant. However, the terms multitasking or multiprogramming are more appropriate to describe this concept, which is implemented mostly in software, whereas multiprocessing is more appropriate to describe the use of multiple hardware CPUs. A system can be both multiprocessing and multiprogramming, only one of the two, or neither of the two of them.
Here we run into the computer comparison. The average computer has a main processor, a video processor, a network processor, a memory processor etc. Each of the processors which are not the main processor generally have what is called “firmware” which is the software program that they run so that the main processor can talk to the hardware in a simplified way.
The combination of these two definitions is what I’m going to base my explanation on. I’m trying to keep it simple even though it is a very complex topic that has many people making their living giving their own opinions. Neuroscience is not simple. If understanding the brain was easy we would everyone of us already understand it. This is not the case.
How Do We Put The Two Together?
They work together in much the same way that the US Federal government works. No, really, it does work. We see the president as the executive leader who has veto power and power to influence all the rest of the government. There is the judicial branch which pushes the morals/ethics on the government. Then there is the Senate and House. The last two are full of representatives of the country’s citizens and they work to propose decisions (laws) and pass them to the other body for further ratification. Behind the scenes are thousands of people doing research and helping each representative and senator figure out what to vote for or against. The president never worries too much about the details until everything has been approved. He can get involved but doesn’t have to. So there are lots of little functions, some bigger ones and in the end one final identified person (president).
What I’m suggesting here is that the human consciousness compares favorably to the president in the US Federal government or the software running on the main processor in a computer. These are two real world scenarios where we see an executive function which operates and interacts with other executive level functions but which are not individually identified, or have no individual identity.
This has been a long trek so far. What I hope we have understood here is a basis for understanding the brain as many small systems working together where there is an executive function that we call consciousness. This long post is simply setting the basics for the real story.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below…