March 2009 Reflection

I really really want to believe that we have free will. I want to be able to look at a menu and know that some little part of me could choose what dish I want (usually dishes….rowing takes a lot of calories). I even learned quantum mechanics and about quantum theories of consciousness in a desperate and vain attempt to find mechanisms for consciousness. I’m stuck.

Here’s the problem. To say that an entity has free will, you need two things: multiple possible outcomes, and what’s called “volitional control,” basically choice between them. There’s good evidence that the universe at its smallest scale is purely probabilistic, meaning that the location of any small particle is a probability distribution over a given area, like throwing a set of rainbow colored marbles into a box and asking where the red one is. The brain is really good at stretching and amplifying small changes into big actions, meaning that any given situation could lead to multiple possible outcomes, but we still lack a way to choose between them. This is where cognitive scientists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and others start to get creative linguistically to hide some sort of separate conscious mind in their papers. Mind is a lot like the Renaissance ether gluing the world together: nobody has found evidence that it’s there. Without the discovery of a non-illusory mind, we can’t freely choose.

If we can’t freely choose, then something else must determine what option will be chosen. At the risk of seeming obvious, what seems to happen is that people look for information (usually that which confirms any biases we have), and use that information to make decisions. This means that decisions can only be made when sufficient data have been gathered, and if those data are not sufficient when a decision is forced, we fill in with guesses. But, there are times where we feel unsatisfied with those guesses, either from lack of experience or because we’re making way too many.

Let’s say you’re like me and a 22 year old looking to make decisions to maximize my future utility/health/wealth/love/happiness/whatever. Any of thousands of mutually exclusive choices can be argued for because no good data, or at least not enough, can be gathered today to grade any decision made. We feel adrift and anxious because there is no clear choice (5th grade, college, a promotion, etc.), so we constantly question those decisions. We also constantly search for more choices, thinking that adding options will yield a clear winner, actions that often seem to leave us deeper in paradox than when we started.

Maybe I’m a cynic, but there’s no free will as far as I can tell, and the discrepancy between our illusion of it and our ability to gather the information necessary to satisfy the brain’s decision making system leads to a whole host of problems.

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