Whence 'Free Will'?
Sapolsky's new book, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will, re-Kindled (so to speak) conversation with a friend (I'm looking at you, Gary) on Free Will. I'm often misunderstood on the subject I'll say again: it's not so much that i reject the idea of Free Will as I utterly don't understand where it comes from.
Of course I concede it feels lIke I'm free to choose vanilla vs chocolate, I'm just confused about how that choice is actually made. So, here I'll try to elaborate what i see as the core problem.
The Mind Problem
I think we can all agree there is such a thing as Mind. It's a "I think therefore I am" thing. The Mind exists, thinks, is concious, sometimes self-aware, makes choices. I don't want to get too caught up in a semantics discussion here so I won't elaborate a further definition of Mind. And I'll grant that many, if not most, seem to believe the Mind somehow transcends the brain it's embedded in. How else could there be any sort of afterlife that persists long after the body expires?
I reject that notion out of hand myself. It seems quite obvious to me the Mind originates in the brain. Of course, I could be wrong, but I'm not here today to elaborate on that point either.
Today I want only to consider the idea that the Mind runs on the brain, as a working hypothesis. Every cell membrane, every neuron, every sensory cell, every synapse, every component of the brain works cinsistent with the laws of Quantum Mechanic plus thermodynamics, statiatical mechanics, relativity and such lIke. For brevity I'll call this "QM+", sort of the standard model.
In this picture the brain is merely a kind of elaborat electromechanical machine. Enormously complex, of course, but still a mechanism. It's key to emphasize this machine is not classically determined: it will not produce the exact same result each time you run it, even if the initial state is identical.
What Is "Determinism"?
Sapolsky put "determined" in his title, which personally I'd avoid because he clearly is not speaking of classical, Newtonian determinism as most people wilI understand the word. I haven't read his book but he's on many podcasts lately and I'm pretty sure all he's saying is that there's no magic happening in the brain, nothing beyond QM+. The brain is "determined" by the usual laws of nature in the same way that every thing is.
Take the simple double slit experiment where one photon approaches two closely spaced slits. QM+ cannot, even in principle, tell you which slit the photon passes through or where on the screen behind the slits the photon will land.
But we don't think of the photon as having Free Will or choosing which slit to go through. No, it just happens. We can say, with incredible precision, the distribution of possible results by using QM+. Run photon after photon through the double slit mechanism and we can predict with astonishing precision the actual result: that beautiful interference pattern. In this very narrow sense the outcome is "determined" by the initial conditions and QM+. The use of the word in this way does not appeal to me because it creates a knee jerk reaction against common usage. Perhaps that's intentional by Sapolsky (or his publisher) to sell books, who knows. But most people think of classical, Newtonian determinism, which is not at all what Sapolsky means.
The core problem remains unresolved. The brain is incredibly more complex than the double slit machine but it's still a QM+ machine. The outcome may not be predictable but is nevertheless utterly constrained by QM+. Where the heck does anything like Free Will come from if you're just a machine following the rules of QM+?
Something lIke this problem first occured to me when I was turning 16. Maybe the mistake is thinking we are special. Maybe that photon in the double slit maching really has some rudimentary sort of Free Will after all and we are just manifesting a complexity of behaviour already embedded in all things. QM+ has all sorts of counterintuitive aspects, why not one more.
That's just to say Mind emerges from the brain somehow as one more "emergent phenomenea." I'm also not a fan of the phrase "emergent phenomena" because it just feels lIke a sloopy, hand waving way of explaining without really explaining anything. But I don't have anything better, really.
The other possibility is that the Mind is simply not consistent with QM+ and some new physics quite beyond QM+ is needed to understand the Mind. Roger Penrose is perhaps the most prominent advocate of this point of view.
For the sake of completness, let me say the afterlife crowd who hold that the Mind is something entirely apart from the physical universe also fall in this non-QM+ camp. It's a big camp. This afterlife point of view has the virtue of being entirely devoid of evidence and logical consistency (and as such is also entirely consistent with human history), but holds nothing for me.
So in the end I'm an agnostic on Free Will. I don't know from whence it comes or even what exactly it is. I admit I'm quite sympathic to the idea it's some kind of elaborate illusion arising from the complexity of the brain, even if I'm utterly mystified how it arises. But maybe it is entirely new physics, which of course would be quite exciting and Mind blowing.
If it is an illusion, i don't much mind. LIke the guy eating fake steak in The Matrix, illusion or not it is still tasty.