Tag Archives: Freewill

Consciousness Versus Momentum

Like the moment when the brakes lock
And you slide towards the big truck
Pink Floyd

This morning I fell down some stairs.

I was carrying a recycling tub overflowing with plastic bottles,  a small sack of cans mixed with bottles and cans perched  on top. The bag spilled, sending some of its contents cascading down the stairs. Oh, great, I thought, and started to resume walking when I tripped, taking me and the recycling tub tumbling down the stairs, banging into the door at the bottom that leads to the outside world.

I was more shaken up than hurt, though it could have easily been  the reverse.

During the fall, it felt like I had no control. And maybe I didn’t. Time feels weird during such episodes. I was aware of falling, or at last of knowing the fall was imminent.

No, that’s not quite right. Imminent seems to imply a time right before, offering a temporal window, albeit a narrow one, where a decision could be made. I think my awareness was when the fall actually began, the process already in motion. Regardless, where did it go during the whole fall? For being conscious seems to not only imply awareness to me, but some kind of agency as well. Yet, during the fall itself I was aware (or maybe half-aware?) of  the fall but unable to consciously do anything except let the momentum play out.

This does not mean necessarily that I did nothing. We have reflexes and instincts that kick in. Those two things can operate a lot more quickly than our consciousness, which is comparatively slow. In fact, so slow it might be a safety feature of our brain to rely on our training rather than our thinking in cases of potential bodily harm.

Think quick is a nice thought and part of our idiomatic vault when we throw an object to someone, but is thinking really involved in such cases. Or is that another example of reflexes kicking in based on how our bodies have been primed?

It certainly felt like there was nothing consciously that I could do during the fall. I was a passenger in my amusement park ride body. Presumably if it had been a longer fall, that would change. That my brain just needed more time to process things in order to generate a sufficient agency response.

Or would it have just been a longer ride?

The Flapping Wings of my Personal Butterfly

My last post was inspired in part by the well-documented and somewhat self-evident Butterfly Effect.

Indeed, most of my thinking is in response, one way or another, to this concept. For when I reflect on my actions, I am concerned first and foremost with their effect. Underneath that focus there is an assumption of some level of  agent efficacy that may or may not exist.

The things we quibble and quarrel about, like Good and Evil, Accountability and Blame,  Morality and Righteousness, God and Country, are shallow and somewhat vacuous intellectual romps compared to the really hard and far more fundamental question of just how much a flapping butterfly wing matters.

On the one hand, proof of mattering is all around us.

That may not seem so obvious when we describe the Butterfly Effect as the flap of butterfly wings on one side of the  globe causing a Tsunami on the other side. It may even sound absurd. But it becomes less so when we call it the more technical sounding Chaos Theory and look at it instead as simply saying that a small change can have huge effects down the road.

And it becomes immediately personal when viewed in terms of us existing at all.

“Us” in the plural sense, certainly, when you realize how many extinctions have occurred, but here I am meaning “us” in the singular sense: you, me,  and other would-be agents of change.

For when I reflect on my own existence, I can’t help being awestruck at how amazing it is that I am here at all. My presence might not seem like a particularly grand effect when viewed by someone other than me, but from the biased perspective of JD Fox, it is an inconceivably huge effect

But  the other hand is present, too:

Effects can be easily wiped out. One vote makes a difference. But an opposite vote cancels it. The flapping of wings can have an effect. But  the flapping of other wings can negate it. I am here, but I could have easily never been.

Such things in no way disprove the butterfly effect, of course, since those negations are also reliant on the small changes of long ago and act instead as further proof.  But they humble me, as I not only look at myself, but I look at the systems and processes involved.

The further out we move our lens, the more the effects, however huge,  get negated.  Trump’s insane tantrum-tweets, Kim Jong-un’s childish missile-waving, and all the other imbecilic, get-out-of-my-sandbox acts that spin us into hysterics are to the universe like a drop of water clinging to the edge of a pail.

That’s been left out in the hot sun.

Determining Freewill and Freewheeling Determinism

I love the cartoon above, even though I think it is wrong. Or, maybe more accurately, misleading, which is often worse than wrong. The caption is especially problematic, as it forces the otherwise brilliantly provocative cartoon into an unnecessarily limiting conceptual box.

It preys on fears of determinism by drawing our attention to the inevitable “end result” rather than the choices made along the way. In doing so, It trivializes the details of that along the way in a fashion similar to how believing the ends justify the means diminishes the moral content of a given action.

Indeed, we could rewrite that latter ethical claim into an agency claim of the “ends neutralize the means.” But by doing so, we are apt to miss three interrelated points:

    1. Freewill can never be absolute (or what freewill is not)
    2. Freewill requires determinism to exist (or what freewill we have)
    3. Freewill in any meaningful conception of the word exists only in the along the way (or what freewill we need)

One of the problems with language is that we sometimes  put words together to form a conceptual picture that seems viable to us, but isn’t. We will even stand our ground by saying that we can conceive of it being the case, so it must be a valid concept,  when really we can conceive of no such beast. Instead, we are just deluding ourselves, confusing our masterful ability to  conceive of conceiving with that of the conception itself.

Here’s a couple of examples to flex our thinking around this issue:

  • I want to study the pure forest. So can you please cut down all those trees so they don’t get in the way of my thinking.
  • I want to see what pure blue looks like. So can you please take all that color away so it doesn’t distract me.

Absurd, huh?

Yet we often assign such absurdity to things involving thinking, saying nonsensical yet specious phrases like “pure thought” or “I think, therefore I am,” where both think and thought are imagined to be capable of being  parceled out from the environment  and viable on their own.

THINKING IS ALWAYS ABOUT SOMETHING

It can be about objects, about other thoughts, or about itself. But it has to be anchored in some way for it to even exist. For if it isn’t, what exactly is thinking doing? How is operating? What is happening?

The same goes for freewill.  Absolute freewill sounds nifty, don’t it? The supposed ability to do whatever you will. But what exactly are you doing when invoking such a power? How is it operating? What is happening? The very moment freewill is exercised, it is at the same time necessarily being limited – determined – by the thing under its will.

Consider it this way:

You want to build a house. You might choose straw or wood or brick. But that choice will then limit what other choices there are and so on. The original choice might be expanded to include stone or 1001 other different kinds of materials, but the limit would still be in play. Sure, you can change your mind, which would be another example of exercising freewill, but that would just mean the limit changes form, and not that there is no limit in play.

The limit, of course, is a form of determinism.  For it determines what the outcome can and cannot be, like whether or not the wolf’s huffing and puffing can blow your house down. Our body itself is a limit, as, for example, we can’t breathe underwater, making living underwater difficult and problematic.

You might think, oh, but that’s not a conceptual limit, for I can imagine a being that can breathe underwater as well as air. But so what? That changes nothing. For if you live underwater, the living underwater limits apply instead of the living on the land limits. For if they didn’t,  what exactly are you doing when you exercise the will?

DETERMINISM IS NOT SOMETHING BAD

In fact, we rely on determinism to do anything — to will anything — at all. For If things set in motion didn’t behave a certain way, or at least were likely to behave a certain way, our will would actually be meaningless. It would be just a hope, a pray to the Gods, and not a will of any kind.

Yet determinism gets a bad rap because we don’t like the idea of our fate being dictated to us. So much so, we look at the cartoon and say poor ignorant cow, he doesn’t realize whatever choice he makes he will end up being turned into hamburger. Well, last I checked, all of us will eventually die, so at least that much is already determined for us.

And that’s a pretty big determined. So are we just ignorant cows. Maybe.

But what if we take death out of the equation? I don’t mean imagine a case where we don’t die. Rather, I mean not having death be the ultimate marker of the vitality of our choices or as the litmus test for freewill.

I’ve been playing around with inventing  models that I think might  best illustrate the  coexistence of choice and fate, of freewill and determinism. I’ve been trying to understand not only how they relate to each other, but how we can find meaning in that relationship.

THE TUBE:

Instead of focusing on the gruesome end of us and cows, let us travel along the walls. Round off the ceiling  and floor. Tilt the room. it is no longer a room, but a tube.  Imagine a ball thrown hard into the tube and it banging from side to side as it travels along its downward path. It’s going to end up wherever the tube leads, whether  to death or assorted stops along the way like a new job or boyfriend.  However, the route of its sideways travel itself is less predictable. That’s close to where our freewill lies.

THE BOILING POT:

We boil a pot of water to cook our pasta. Some of the molecules will be vaporized right away. Some will do so over the course of the cooking. And some not at all, unless we keep the pot on and at a high enough temperature. Regardless, while it is easy to predict that the water will boil, it’s far more difficult to predict which specific molecules will vaporize and when. That’s where our freewill lies.

Now with both scenarios, one could argue that individual route and individual vaporization, although difficult to predict, would not prove impossible to do so, if we had access to all the information. So isn’t every part of along the way just as much determined as the end of the tube?

That could be the case. And if it is, I might have to agree with Spinoza’s necessitarian assessment. There would not only no meaningful choice that we could make, but there would be no real choice at all. Such choice at all levels would only be illusion.

But my gut tells me there is something else going on that is at the heart of the freewill we need. Something that presides over the strange yet necessarily required interrelationship of freewill and determinism.  And no, I’m not talking about God, as that would simply take us back to Spinoza. Instead, I am meaning something far more sacred and profound:

RANDOMNESS!

Random Thoughts on Randomness – Part 1

“The most beautiful order is a pile of things poured out at random”
–Heraclitus
(Appropriated from Professor Metcalf’s Facebook Page)

Random Thought being a redundant phrase, of course, since all thoughts are necessarily random. For if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to think what you think you think.

But before I self-involvedly put out there my thoughts about that, I thought I might self-indulgently talk about this quintessential quandary:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Now, we can take a look at a question like that and try to answer it as one or the other. Or declare it a circular reference without a determinate answer. Or push the answer back before  chickens or eggs onto other questions that would have to be answered first. Or we could just say “God only knows,” and mean it either literally or snarkily.

We could have debates, hold prayer meetings, and take to twitter with our views, being champions of this or that or Him.  Maybe make some Pro-Egg flyers or Believe in the Chicken posters. It would be kind of cool to see candidates trying to appease both sides, or The Trump signing an executive order declaring both eggs and chicken are fried, so there!

Yet, any such factious (or fractious) thinking would already be moving away from the most important, the most philosophically interesting, thing: The question itself.

For answers are never that interesting. They are boring in fact. And don’t even exist, for that matter, unless maybe you’re a blind faithy, fox-news-only kind of person. But then again, if that is so, you don’t so much have an answer as have simply delegated the question to someone above you (literally and snarkily).

So let’s move back from the egg-chicken details and think about what kind of question it is. Although it is phrased as “which came first”, I hear it first and foremost as a causal question rather than a temporal one. Who made who would probably be a more accurate representation of it, but so goes the idiom.

In causality questions, what’s at stake? Why does it matter? That is, why does it matter to us? Well, for starters, the stakes are a lot higher than chickens or eggs. When we assign causality, aren’t we really assigning independence to one thing and dependence to the other?

Is the chicken dependent on the egg  or is it the other way around? Independence and dependence both shade Will. I will leave out Free from that Will for now, as that four-letter word typically adds a whole level of nonsense to these kind of discussions. Right now we can think of Will as just like it sounds: the ability to make things happen, put things into motion.

By the question, are we assigning Will to one thing, and mere obedience to the other? Is hatching the willful act and the chicken coming out just obeying what was set in motion? Or is the laying where the will resides and the egg just following orders.

We see that the chicken and egg question really is about that common but oh so vacuous term freewill.

You might argue that eggs and chickens don’t have will, or that they might have will but not freewill and/or hatching and laying are instinctual not intentional or something else in a similar putting-our-bag-of-bones into some sort of privileged position where we act and do things consciously (yet another, like freewill, somewhat vacuous and frequently unhelpful term).

But such arguments take swipe at the wrong thing. The right thing is our very conception of action and reaction, of which the chicken and egg are mere props for our thinking. But if chicken and egg are too low on the food chain for consideration, we can simply replace them with Mother and Child. Or even better, how about God and humankind? Or physics and humankind?

For that’s really to where we want to roll back, isn’t it? What, if anything, came before God? What, if anything, came before the Big Bang? Like with the original chicken and egg question, the answer itself isn’t as important as what’s at stake.

And that stake of course is the meaning of life: The mattering of it all, or of any of it. We think, perhaps, that if we push things back to some assumed unmoved mover or uncaused cause we can then bring such duly clarified meaning forward. The meaning, however, hardly needs to make such a journey. Indeed, trying to do so would be a fool’s errand.

Instead, the meaning of our lives derives neither from the divine nor natural order, but in the inherent randomness each of us possesses at any given moment.

—–

Other possible Parts as I work through my thoughts on this:

Spinoza’s God and the Necessitarianism Obstacle

Reconceptualizing Randomness

Ball in Tube Analogy

Molecule of Water in Heated Pot Analogy

Abolishing Absolutes and other Phantasms

Limited Randomness: As Free as Will ever gets

The 3 F’s

When one comes to the end of one’s good fortune, no strategy whatsoever avails.

Three F’s dominate our life: Free will, Fate, and Fortune.

The importance of this triad, particularly the significance of fortune, occurred to me as I flipped through Pokémon: Discover Nimbasa City! By Simcha Whitehill. I recently had my first “Power Lunch” over at Union Elementary. My reading partner there expressed interest in Pokémon, so I was looking for corresponding material to bring to our next lunchtime meeting.

This particular book is a Pick Your Own Path story. Different publishers call such stories by different names, such as: Choose your Destiny; Choose your Own Adventure; and so on. The general format by whatever name is the same: You read a few pages, then are given a choice between two or more options. Your decision determines what pages are read next; how the story plays out.

Such decision-making seems illustrative of what we generally mean by free will: you freely and willfully make a choice. Sure, there is gray here as to what degree real choices can be made – how much free will can be possessed — by an organism constrained by laws of chemistry, biology and physics, but that’s a whole other discussion. Here it is enough that free will feels like free will.

Yet there is fate here, too. The writer has already conceived the outcomes and no conclusion exists outside of it. We assume there are “right” decisions that will lead to favorable outcomes; however, being omnipotent, the writer could have all story threads converge to the same endpoint regardless of their freewheeling meandering.

But that would be mean, wouldn’t it? So let’s assume here a benevolent writer who allows for some variance in his authored fate; enough of it to give free will some meaning. Let’s even go so far as to assume the plot lines are written such that if one determines the proper course of action, they will be rewarded. Is such a model illustrative of real life?

Fortune, the wild card in such matters, would say no, not at all.

For bad things can certainly happen to “good” people who do “good” acts. Likewise, “bad” people can coast into and through favorable circumstances not by their own efforts but by sheer dumb “luck.”

Even more perversely, if measured by outcomes, sometimes the “wrong” decision is the right one or vice-versa.

Deciding to blow your child support on Powerball tickets instead of food seems like a bad idea. But eventually someone somewhere does end up with the winning numbers…

Stretching your household dollars by buying ground beef instead of caviar seems reasonable. But maybe there’s a soon-to-be-announced meat recall that won’t happen soon enough to do your family any good…

I think if I were to write these kinds of books, I would write at least two outcomes for every point of decision. Then I would package the book with dice.

Make your decision, then roll the bones to determine the next pages as you ponder the fundamental question:

Do I feel lucky?

Kindling

My Kindle has been unpredictable of late, so I thought I’d write about that.

Which of course means I’m writing only partly about my capricious Kindle. For anything worth writing about should have lots of parts. So many parts that, if you are lucky or brilliant or both, readers will stuff their pockets full of them and share them with their neighbors.

But I’m neither brilliant nor lucky, so I’m not expecting much and you shouldn’t either. Still, maybe together we can beat expectations.

I reckon, though, before I continue, I should say something about the neither above, which is partly untrue. The lucky part I mean.

I feel lucky to have a Kindle, as I know lots of people don’t have one and some of that lots might be jealous. If it makes any of those lots of people feel any better, what I don’t have anymore are: my Dungeons and Dragons collection, CD collection, and most of my books. If it doesn’t make anyone feel any better, I can’t say that I blame them, as I can’t say it makes me feel any better either.

But it is what it is, or close enough, and at this time the is is that I have a Kindle that sometimes doesn’t connect to Wi-Fi. Instead, during that sometimes, I’ll get an inexplicable Authentication Failed error. Which is highly annoying in part because I know darn well it has connected — authenticated — before.

The other annoying part is hearing my husband say as he peers over his own kindle, “Hmm. Mine’s connecting just fine.”

So I did some research and found, despite my husband’s carefree experience, I wasn’t alone.

Which only made me feel a little better. It would have made me feel a lot better if that wasn’t alone had been accompanied by a fix. Instead, there were assorted halfhearted suggestions of which the general consensus was that they may or may not work, which really doesn’t require a consensus, does it?

Still, I did one of the first suggestions I came across and de-registered my kindle. That just left me unregistered as well as unconnected and now of course with no ability to re-register. Some of the suggestions went technically over my head while others made me hesitant to try as my PC was still connecting okay and I didn’t want to do something that would screw that up.

I especially didn’t want to make some kind of router reconfiguration code change that might not work and even worse could lead to my husband saying, “What the [expletive] did you do?” as his carefree shifted considerably towards new found caring.

So, after also doing a shut down and a reset, both before and after de-registering, I decided to take another lukewarm suggestion and do a factory restore. But I couldn’t do one at that precise moment because Kindle has to have an over 40% charge to do so and at that exact moment in time it didn’t.

Sometime during the wait for it to get above the magical 40%, it started magically connecting again. It’s failed again since then. And also connected again since then.

I did some more peace of mind research and found that a) Kindles sometimes have this kind of problem b) Amazon currently has no universal fix and, c) Kindles sometimes fix the problem on their own.

The sometimes of both a) and b) has no rhyme or reason to it, which make things difficult for someone like me, who is very fond of both rhyme and reason (as well as sound and sense). For it means it will likely happen — or not happen — regardless of what I do.

That is, I must conclude that doing nothing would likely get the same results as doing something.

But I I’m not wired that way and find no serenity to be had in being granted such wisdom. Instead, It just makes me feel all the more helpless and even more so the fool.