More Thoughts on Free Will

A couple of weeks ago, I left a comment on Albert Wenger’s excellent blog “Continuations” about Free Will. The comment was rather long, so I reposed it here on my blog. Somewhat amazingly, Albert read my comment and left a thoughtful reply.

I’m not sure of the etiquette of reposting Albert’s comment, but to summarize he said that my argument was off-base because the “information layer” I described is just an abstraction and doesn’t interact with the physical world. No interaction means no influence, and that means that the stimulus->thought->action sequence remains a deterministically closed loop.

I, logorrheic that I am, responded with another rather long comment. This is that comment.

Well, actually this is:

If it’s true that the “information layer is entirely abstract” (i.e. completely non-interacting with the tangible world) then your whole argument is clearly right.

But I’m not sure that premise is true. It seems that the informational world is constantly interacting with the physical world in the form of “physical laws being followed.”

Metaphorically, particles in the world are “data” and the laws of physics (i.e. the information layer) are “source code.” Every particle interaction is (metaphorically) a computation. Now all of our observation to date suggests that the “source code” of the universe is stable and fixed. But any honest physicist will tell you that our (extremely elegant) mathematically descriptions of how objects have behaved in the past tell us nothing about why they behaved that way.

I raised GEB to show that “laws” aren’t necessarily well-behaved in edge cases.[1] And so similarly, the fact that we’ve observed that some parts of the “Ur-program” work one way does NOT demonstrate conclusively that there aren’t other parts of the program that introspectively alter the Ur-program’s source code and lead to measurable, experimentally verifiable physical effects.

You raise one potential “point of strangeness” in your PS – quantum waveform collapse. My knowledge of quantum mechanics and neuroanatomy is limited, but my best understanding is that neural interactions are sensitive enough that quantum effects can make the difference between whether a neuron fires or not. And we know from computers (cf. my Caesar’s cipher example above) that changing one bit in a computation chain can radically alter the downstream result, so any slight (non-random!) bias in the quantum coin-flip could be enough to completely alter behavior. (And as far as I know would not violate the conservation of energy or any other physical laws except our observation that quantum collapse is usually random.)

Could patterns of thought directly alter the wave-form collapse? Well, we already know that the quantum world is altered by observation per se. And conscious introspection is fundamentally self-observation. So it is possible that when the wetware finds itself in physical states that mirror certain “information patterns” (e.g. “contemplating two choices”), the presence of those patterns triggers an alteration in the source code that directly influences the way quantum collapse happens in connected synapses, leading a neuron to fire that otherwise wouldn’t. And from the GEB problem, we might expect the “meta program” to be especially poorly behaved (perhaps even fundamentally indeterminate, i.e. “free”) in this circumstance.

So is this explanation likely? That’s hard to say. It’s neither confirmed nor contradicted by existing data. It’s counter-intuitive, but so is every other part of quantum mechanics.

But best of all, this theory is testable. We just need to carefully measure the statistical in vivo quantum behavior of synapses during decision-making and I can be proven wrong once and for all. 🙂

[1] I admit I’m not sufficiently demonstrating that “logic laws” work the same ways as physical laws but there is certainly a remarkable symmetry. It doesn’t seem at all fundamentally necessary that physical laws should be mathematically expressible and elegant. I’m happy to write more on this point if anyone is curious.

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