For the past few months an image has been itching at the back of my mind, like a piece of grit waiting for a story to accrete around it: a neuron culture in a petri dish, like a rifters head cheese but without any inputs to keep it sparking. We presume that all internal feedback loops have cycled to extinction, and that quantum effects are either suppressed or accounted for. We presume, for the sake of the scenario, that no inputs exceed action potential — that these ultimately reactive cells, capable of relaying signals but not generating them, are starved for any physical stimulus that might provoke them into firing.
We presume that they are firing anyway — and the label etched on the glass in fine-tipped Sharpie reads
Free Will — Sole Confirmed Instance
I originally envisioned this as a short-short for Henry Gee’s “Futures” series in Nature, but I couldn’t come up with a punchline that worked. At this point it’s probably going to end up as a brief scene in the first Sunflowers story — but either way, I seem to have been scooped by reality.
Which is my way of saying I might have to rethink this whole no-Free-Will thing I’ve been pimping since forever.
Of course, Free Will in its purest, Coke Classic form is bullshit pretty much by definition. Neither the deterministic rules of cause-and-effect nor the random fluctuations of quantum uncertainty leave free-will wiggle room for any purely physical entity: all we do and all we are ultimately traces back to external factors over which we have no control, an infinite-regress of buck-passing reaching all the way to the Big Bang. The only way we can be truly autonomous in a physical environment is if some part of us is not physical, if ghosts really do inhabit these machines. Free Will — the pure uncut stuff, upon which societies and legal systems have been based since the dawn of history —is a duallist delusion. It’s not even worth debating.
Which makes me kind of a doofus for debating it all these years.
I’m beginning to think that my endless ridicule of that antiquated concept has blinded me to more useful definitions — less pure in the concept, more restrictive, but perhaps with real functional utility. It’s been argued, for example, that natural selection would give rise to something like free will, since purely deterministic behavior would leave you predictable, and hence vulnerable to predators. It’s easy enough to demolish that argument: You don’t need free will, you just need deterministic processes too complex for the predator to predict, or You could make yourself unpredictable by just throwing in some arbitrary random behaviors, but being slaved to a dice roll nets you no more freedom than being slaved to a flow chart. But that’s the old mind set, that’s Free Will Classic. There comes a point past which deterministic processes grow too complex to predict at any given state of the art, a point at which determinism becomes functionally indistinguishable from free will. Past that point, what difference does it make whether we are driven by algorithm or ectoplasm? It all looks the same; it all interacts the same with the rest of the universe. And nature, as I pointed out with such glee in Blindsight, doesn’t give a damn about motives. It only cares about outcomes. A difference which makes no difference is no difference.
So I’ve been reading some of the claims put out by the FreeWillians: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity for one, written by a cranky ex-geriatrician and neuroscientist named Tallis, out of Manchester. The dude takes a dim view of mechanists in general and “neuromaniacs” in particular. We are not just mammals with big brains, he claims, and Free Will does exist — and as far as I can tell he’s talking about the Coke Classic variety (capitalized here, to distinguish from the more mundane faux “free will” of complex determinism). What’s especially intriguing is that Tallis claims to be staunch atheist with no time for dualism or vitalism or any of the other isms that Free Will seems to hinge on. I have no idea how he’s ultimately going to make his case. I’m only a third of the way in, and so far he’s mostly just characterized modern neurology as phrenology in sheep’s clothing. But he knows the field, and — despite an unhealthy fondness for straw men — he’s managed to anticipate most of the counterpoints someone like me would raise. Apparently he explains consciousness in the last half of the book, which should be a neat trick given that he’s already dismissed both spiritual and mechanical toolboxes.
Then you’ve got the works of Giulio Tononi out of the Neurosciences Institute, who has apparently concluded that consciousness is an intrinsic property of all matter, like charge and mass. I’ve heard this before, and it’s always struck me as way too close to the woo-woo end of the scale, but apparently there’s some mathematical justification for it. Again, I haven’t reached those papers yet; I’m still digging around in Tononi’s publications from the nineties, which muck around mainly with synchronized distributed neural firing as a correlate of consciousness. But again, I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
And then there’s this 2011 paper by Brembs in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: ”Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates.“
Let me just emphasize that.
We’re not just talking about sexy brainy cephalopods, either; Brembs would extend free will even unto cockroaches. He believes it arises from the fact that “animals need to balance the effectiveness and efficiency of their behaviours with just enough variability to spare them from being predictable.” So he starts with the usual dice roll in the cause of predator avoidance— but he ends up in a broader world where exploration of the unknown is better served by initiative than by rote response. He cites other studies — behavioral, neurological — suggesting that while determinism may be fixed and dice rolls may be stochastic, you get something more adaptive than either when you put them together:
“Much like evolution itself, a scientific concept of free will comes to lie between chance and necessity, with mechanisms incorporating both randomness and lawfulness. … Evolution has shaped our brains to implement ‘stochasticity’ in a controlled way, injecting variability ‘at will’.”
Not Free Will, but free will.
Brembs describes ancient studies on fruit flies, in which a constant percentage of the population performed a conditioned response to a stimulus but that percentage consisted of different individuals from trial to trial — as if every fly knew the drill, but would simply decide to “sit this one out” every now and then. He cites Searle and Libet and Koch (Koch — another guy I’ve got to read), argues that a concept of “self” is essential to any force of “will”. He also admits that “Consciousness is not a necessary prerequisite for a scientific concept of free will”. (Whew.) He waxes metaphysical and mechanist and even semantic, addressing the question of why we’d even want to retain the term “free will” when it comes with so much baggage, and the phenomenon he’s pimping is much more circumscribed: wouldn’t “volition” be better? (Short answer: no.)
|But for all the far ranges of Brembs’ discussion, and for all the studies he draws into that net, one sticks in my mind above all others: the nervous system of a leech, cut from its corpus and kept alive in splendid isolation. No inputs; hell, no sensory organs to provide inputs. Just an invariant current in an impoverished sensory void; yet even here that isolated network somehow made decisions, told non-existent muscles to swim or to crawl, depending on—
Well, we don’t know, do we? It’s hard to imagine a biological scenario in which conditions could be more static.
It’s my isolated head cheese in a petri dish. It’s my Free Will — Sole Confirmed Instance. Only it’s real.
For the moment, the only fresh insight I might offer up is one of perspective. If free will really did arise as a way of keeping us safely unpredictable in a hostile universe — and if it is just an adaptive combination of dice and determinism — then it resides outside the organism: not within us, but within the things that watch us. If unpredictability makes us free, then we become slaves to anything that calls our next move. Think of it as a kind of metaphysical Observer Effect. The Plecostomus down in my aquarium may be a free agent now, with naught but the glassy stares of tetras and gouramis to keep him in line; but the moment I’m line-of-sight his autonomy-wave collapses down to automaton.
Of course, given that it’s tough enough to swat a black fly when he’s really on his game, a little unpredictability seems to buy a whole lot of freedom. So I’ll keep working through the mountain, digging through papers by Tononi and tracts by Tallis. I’m not yet convinced these arguments are valid; but then again, I’m not convinced they aren’t.
And what’s so exciting — after spinning my wheels all this time — is that at long last, the argument seems worth having again.
 I would give points to anyone who could ID the source of this formerly-obscure quote, but Google has long since stripped away any challenge from the Human adventure.
 And sincere thanks to whoever pointed me to this and other papers; it was either in an email or a facebook link but I can’t find the fucking source anywhere and it’s driving me crazy.