Friday, July 08, 2011

some more about free will

The question that once haunted my being has been answered. The future is not fixed, and my choices are my own. And yet how ironic...for I now find that I have no choice at all. (Dinobot in "Code of Hero", Beast Wars: Transformers)
I mentioned in the previous entry on "god tests" that the religious can explain the gods' failing score as a manifestation of godly free will. Mystifying privileged knowledge, not included in the test, led to an apparent not genuine failure. In essence, the test was flawed, not the god(s).

Of course, this alternative interpretation hinges on the concept of free will. Humans have free will; why not the god(s)? Coincidentally, the opening quote suggests that the same is true for transforming fighting robots. The speaker, Dinobot (not the most creative of names), had been shaken by the possession of a future object containing historical information. Does a history already-written imply that individual actions aren't free at all? Not too many episodes later, Dinobot finds out two things: the future is indeed mutable, and the villain of the story plans to exploit the information in the "future history" to efficiently commit genocide through the murder of ancestors. Ergo Dinobot comments that although he believes in personal freedom again, only one path is in fact morally allowable: stopping the villain by any means necessary.

As Dinobot discovered, a free will is both more and less complicated than simple unpredictability; roulette wheels, shuffled cards, and dice rolls are poor models of free will. Free will is more complicated because the decision depends on numerous factors and constraints. Free will is less complicated because the tendency is toward very few options. Due to the latter, a single flip of a coin is sufficient to resolve a moral dilemma, but due to the former, deciding by coin flip is called insane precisely because the coin is independent of the dilemma's facts. A "hypothetical" Dinobot whose "decision processor" is a randomly-moving switch based on emissions of a radioactive isotope would on average opt for inaction half the time. The "actual" Dinobot opts to intervene with zero uncertainty.

Therefore, the idea of free will is shaky. Before a decision-maker executes the decision, multiple mutually-exclusive possibilities lie ahead. After, only one could happen. More possibilities beforehand correspond to a greater impression of free will. Then the key question is, who's listing the possibilities? A disinterested observer, with a vague mental model of the decision-maker, could build an unassuming list. A socially-invested observer, with a broad and proven mental model of the decision-maker, could imagine a differing list. Finally, the decision-maker could report a surprisingly lengthy list. All three of these lists are flawed since all contain excess, unrealized, misleading items. This experience of modeling error is "free will".

Regardless of the errors, humans attempt to model behavior because they live in complex groups. Some of the attempts work fine. Especially in a common culture, individuals have sufficient resemblances to the rest. They can use themselves as rough templates for their counterparts. They learn which differences to expect and which presumptions to accept. With the aid of language they further develop an advanced "third-person" viewpoint in which an abstract human, or more specifically a "mind", interacts with its environment in accordance with the found examples of others and self.

It's unsurprising that humans have difficulty calculating the actions of their companions, because they aren't able to analyze external brains' activity moment by moment. They cope somewhat through instinctual comprehension of facial expression and body language. The more telling contributor to the construction of "free will" is the purely subjective piece. Based on introspection, indeterminism in free will is supposedly more profound than an incomplete awareness of external "minds". For not even extremely intimate details of the self's "mind" are enough to absolutely foresee the eventual outcome when the time to act arrives. Meditative attention to the ongoing maelstrom often reveals an assortment of proposals in play. A decision is when one wins out and the losers are cut loose (the metaphorical origin of the word "decide" is from cutting). Free will is the result of the brain's unsurpassed parallelism! Ambivalence, or to be "of two minds", is a coarse description of competing firing patterns in one brain. Moreover, experiments have illustrated that the well-known battle between short-term/emotive/impulsive and long-term/logical/judgmental decision-making is a battle between brain regions. And the temporary suppression of either region, e.g. via alcohol, produces different behavior.

However, like most dichotomies it's a simplification. Evenly-divided plans, the sort that ethical and political philosophers study, tend to each have facets which appeal to emotion and reason. Principled compromise is symptomatic of creativity not indecisiveness. Synthesis is arguably a more impressive feat than unbending commitments that purposely disregard situational distinctions. "Free will" is a highly unhelpful construct when applied to a human who refuses to attack problems in dull fashion. "You have the free will to select A or B." "But I select Q because A and B are inadequate."

Thus, from a variety of angles, the essential connecting thread underlying free will is the ignorance of the observer, not inherent unpredictability of the actor. Brains certainly reach motivated and nonrandom decisions ("halfhearted" decisions may naturally cause a creature to move in fits and starts or trip over itself). To know free will is simply to not know the full contents and workings of others' brains or of one's own brain.

From this viewpoint, the prospect of applying free will to any god raises suitable questions. How similar is the god to the "mind"? Which motivations does it share? Does it experience something akin to pride? Envy? Lust? Love? Anger? Anxiety? What is its thought and decision-making process? Does it hesitate? Is it capricious? How many courses of action does it contemplate? If it's an "embodiment" of a particular set of abstract characteristics, then can it act contrary? Which factors does it seek to maximize by its decisions? Which constraints does it honor? There might not be complete answers to all these questions, but available data pertaining to the god should shed at least a little light.

Once the god's precise similarity to "mind" is established, no matter how tenuous, the boundaries of the god's free will should be clearer. And in a limited sense the god should be predictable and - here is the upshot - testable. Given a specific slate of choices, the god can be expected to fulfill the one within those identified bounds of free will.

Is this not a reasonable test? If the god doesn't pass, then there are two categorical opinions: 1) the god failed, 2) the god used free will to be unpredictable. Opinions in category 1 imply that the god's qualities are different than previously available data indicated. Opinions in category 2 imply that the range of the god's free will is wider than previously available data indicated. But the domain of action that's included in free will is itself restrained by the god's qualities. Either category leads to the conclusion that the god cannot be consistent with the assumptions behind the "test". An accurate follow-up assessment of the failed test is that nobody really knows for sure what the god is like, i.e. how to compare it to "mind".

Examples are easier, so back to Dinobot. If Dinobot is a hero, then when Dinobot is put to the test, Dinobot acts heroically. Otherwise, Dinobot isn't a hero, or Dinobot is a "hero" who just freely chose not to act heroically. The latter implies that Dinobot is a "hero" by a definition that, bizarrely, doesn't encompass choosing to act heroically. There's a third rather metaphysical avenue related to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: the figure of Dinobot is perfectly synonymous with "hero" and perceived conflicts are the observer's fault for trying to think of heroism apart from the single exemplar, Dinobot.

Free will is a self-defeating escape hatch from failing god tests. To say that a god has quality X is equivalent to saying that a god chooses ("free" or not) to act or abstain in ways that match quality X. To say that a god has quality X, and also that a god can and does choose to act or abstain in ways that contradict quality X, throws doubt on either the god or quality X. The religious may concede that they don't know for certain that god has quality X. Or they may concede that they don't know for certain what exactly quality X is, i.e. how a god with quality X would act. Ultimately, their likely response is faith, which is invincible immunity from evidence.

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