Sheer (sheer_panic) wrote,

Free will and state machines

Originally published at Never been one to let the carrier drop. You can comment here or there.

One of the interesting topics that we bandy around from time to time is the question of whether humans really have free will, or there’s just a very persistent illusion that makes it look like we do. Now, I find the idea of us not having free will at all rather sinister, and prefer not to believe that it’s possible that we have none, but I also find the idea that our decisions are simply the product of our minds equally absurd – this especially grates on me insofar as we humans love to punish each other – sometimes for the most abysmal things (I gesture you to Loving vs. Commonwealth Of Virginia for a example of this) that we later come to realize we shouldn’t have been punishing anyone for – but sometimes for things that are clearly suboptimal but still might not be definable as choices that people are making with their free will intact.

Jumping back up to the head topic for a minute, our minds structurally change as we learn new things, or have experiences good or bad. If someone is physically abused, the resulting physical traces in their minds – the wiring in their lion / no lion subnet – will change the decisions they make for the rest of their lives – and even something as simple as learning about a new topic will inform the decisions that we make in the future. So clearly our free will does not exist in a vacuum, and often when we are engaging in suboptimal behavior, you can trace the source back to suboptimal things that were done to us – and you can trace this backwards in time, generation after generation. Some of it is probably legacy all the way back from when ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ was the law of the land and we were extremely violent because we had to be in order to survive.

For all our religions that advocate forgiveness, we are not a particularly forgiving people. In addition, as I’ve talked about in previous articles, when people behave in ways we don’t like, we toss them into a system that is designed to be abusive – thusly breaking them worse. Frequently, when they come out, they behave in even more suboptimal ways, and we blame this on them rather than on ourselves as a society because hey, blaming people is fun, and enables us to feel superior.

But, beyond my dislike of the criminal justice system and indeed every system we have in place for fixing broken people (most of which don’t, and many of which break them worse, suck all the money out of their bank accounts, or both at the same time) I do think the question of how much of us is free will and how much of us is the inevitable, state-machine like responses to stimuli is worth examining, probably even with some hard science. I don’t think that we’ll find that we are entirely state machines, but I also am fairly sure we will not find that we are entirely creatures of free will either. However, we’re such good storytellers that even when we are responding to a series of signals lighting up clusters of subnets in ways that leave us very little choice (because there’s only one really good response path) we can tell ourselves stories that make it look to us like we are acting perfectly inside the world of free will.

Another possibility that I have considered is that in fact time doesn’t work the way we think it does – that while we perceive time as a linear experience, all of the decisions actually happen all at once, at the top of the tape so to speak, and then we experience them being played out in linear time.

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