Questioning our choices

A unifying concept between neuroscience and physics is how the great questions in each field boldly attempt to unravel the mystery and fundamental nature of reality. Of course the routes follow divergent paths, with physics focusing on the externalities, such as what is time, space, matter and how did it all begin, while neuroscience has internalised the problem. What is free will? What is consciousness? Do they really exist and, if so, how could either arise from a complex, yet conceptually simple interconnection of nerve cells? And similarly in both fields we are still quite a distance from any satisfying answers. To some, these quandaries about our minds may appear academic. Indeed, from our subjective experience, the idea of free will and consciousness are self-evident. How could they not exist? Though these topics are somewhat intertwined, the arguments countering each are worthy of their own discussion. For today, that discussion will be limited to free will.

The laws governing the motions of boids

The laws governing the motions of boids

A cornerstone of our identity as human beings is the concept of free will. While other animals may appear to simply respond to their surroundings on a base, instinctual and unconsidered manner, we are capable of far greater reasoning and insight. We parse an influx of complex information and “choose” what we consider to be the best course of action. While this is our experience, much of our decision making may actually occur at a level removed from us. Phillip Ball’s Critical Mass provides an overarching take on the idea that many behaviours resulting from our decisions can be seen to follow consistent rules, despite any fluctuations on an individual scale. These rules and behaviours can then be interpreted using previously developed models in physics. One useful analogy is to consider the gas laws. It is impossible to track the motion and interactions of trillions of gas molecules in any given volume, yet with statistics we are able to very accurately predict the overall behaviour of the collection of molecules. Now applying the same concept to human behaviour, we have been able to realistically model situations which should be influenced by our will, including traffic flow, the rise of firms in the economy, the growth of city borders and even collective herding behaviour in voting. What does this say about the nature of our capability of choice? At the very least, we can state that, in certain situations, there seems an underlying universality in our minds driving our decisions. Some of the arguments given are in constrained settings, where there is already a set of rules imposed on our choices (such as the effect of road laws on traffic). This might limit what conclusions may be drawn but, nevertheless, it opens the door for discussion and encourages us to probe this question further. Craig Reynolds’ boids algorithm illustrates how complex behaviour can emerge through the application of a few simple rules. Swarms of agents seem to coordinate and flock together, though the basis of this behaviour is underpinned by three guidelines. Each agent’s location and speed are updated to reflect the average position and velocity of those surrounding it. Additionally, agents try to maintain a distance from their neighbours.

The concept of free will is at odds with the efforts of science to describe the unending cascade of cause and effect, rippling outward since the creation of the universe. If the particles of which we are made are equatable to a sequence of falling dominoes, then how can our agency be anything but an illusion? Who are we to think we are not subject to such axioms of reality. This determinism ultimately leads to the viewpoint famously conjectured by Laplace

We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes.

Much has changed since the days of Laplace, most notably is the ever confounding idea of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty which it entails. However, these mechanics can still be condensed into probability density functions which, on average, can speak to the interactions and motions of atoms. Thus, the concept of an omnipotent all-knowing intelligence, calculating the fate of the universe, still carries weight, as does any other argument countering free will. If this is truly so, then the question to naturally arise is why do we think we have free will? Though it defies intuition, it may simply be an illusion created by our minds. Indeed, the world we experience is forever edited and manipulated by our brains to ensure it coincides with our expectations. If you touch your nose and your toe at the same time you will sense this at both locations together. However, the length of time required for the signals to reach your brain from your toe is notably different to that from your nose. Our brain processes the information so that what we consciously perceive falls in line with our knowledge of what we should experience. Synchronicity is also often maintained between our auditory and visual senses, despite their dissimilar processing speeds. Our minds are also capable of filling blanks in the canvas of our reality. A classic example is that of the phi phenomenon, in which the sensation of motion can be induced by a series of still images, and which underpins the theory of film. These examples provide a good foundation to the concept that our conscious experience is not necessarily a faithful reproduction of the real world around us. Professor Donald Hoffman goes further to suggest that more accurate renderings of reality are less likely to endure the selective pressures of evolution. Hoffman, a Professor of Cognitive Science at University of California, explains this through the added computational costs and resources required to interpret a more truthful representation of our world. What we are left with is a system of senses which are simply “good enough”.

It is evident that our minds have the ability to mislead us about us about our surroundings, but can it go a step further to deceive itself? Simply, yes, as demonstrated by Anton–Babinski syndrome. A relatively rare condition, patients afflicted are adamant they are able to see despite being blind. Wrapping one’s head around such an thought can be difficult. What are they seeing if blind? Is this analogous to our determined stance on free will? The delusionary power of the mind is startling. This is further encountered with the concept of the left brain interpreter, a theory initially formed through studies of split brain patients, in which communication between the two hemispheres was severed. In the studies, patients were instructed to perform a task only through their left visual field (correlating to the right hemisphere of the brain), which the left-hemisphere was oblivious to. When enquired about their response, the left-hemisphere was able to construct an explanation as to why the action was taken, despite being unaware of the command given to the right-hemisphere. Such findings have been proven to hold true in the population at large, with brains more or less in tact. Therefore, our perception of free-will may likely be an artefact of this seemingly innate ability of the brain to create a narrative for the automated, unconscious and reflexive responses of our subconscious. Naturally, such a weighty conclusion necessitates more substantial evidence. However, even if this were brought to the fore, with advancing techniques to probe the brain and its circuitry, we would be no closer to fitting such an awkwardly shaped puzzle piece into our delineated architecture of society. What is right and wrong in the face of determinism? Can any individual be held to account for their actions? These questions seem equally complex to the ruminations which led to their arrival. Although, unlike matters in science, where a glimmer of closure can be found in a result, it may be so that these queries have no correct answer.

Callum Lamont