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The Nonlinear Origins of Free Will
piero scaruffi   May 16, 2012   piero scaruffi  

paolo scaruffi is the author of The Nature of Consciousness: The Structure of Life and the Meaning of Matter, and A Brief History of Knowledge.

* Creativity is a property of life. No insect nor worm moves in a predictable manner, and no insect nor worm follows the same trajectory again if moved to the exact same starting position.

* Memory is reconstructive: you never remember anything as it was. If you tell the same story over and over again, you will use different words all the time (it comes as an unnatural effort to memorize one particular sequence of words). Gestures and sentences are always improvised. If you perform the same action a thousand times, in exactly the same position under the exact same conditions, you will always perform a different sequence of movements.

* The reason (or at least one reason) that we cannot repeat ourselves is not that the initial conditions change but that “we” change all the time: we are never the same again.

* It is impossible to put “you” in the exact same initial conditions because “you” are the one element that is different even if everything else in the universe remains the same. Ditto for the ant, ditto for the worm. Anything that is alive changes all the time, therefore will never repeat itself.

* If i knew the equations that govern your brain, i might indeed be able to calculate the trajectory that you will follow to go from here to there; but your brain will change the moment you start moving (in fact, every time you breathe and every time you absorb sunlight), which means that the equations change as you go.

* You are creative and unpredictable because your brain is governed by a nonlinear equation.

* Whether this can be called “free will” or not depends on definitions: it is unpredictable what “you” will do next.

* The reason why the movement of insects seems to be so erratic (and therefore driven by free will) is that a tiny change makes a big difference on their nervous system, and, just like us, these organisms change with every particle of oxygen they breathe, with every photon that hits their eyes, with every food they digest.

* Robots do not exhibit “free will” because their actions can be predicted, and they simply repeat the same action if the conditions are the same. The reason they behave in a repetitive manner is that they don’t change while they exist. They are designed to remain the same, except for updating their knowledge of the state of the world. Their “nervous system” (their “self”) does not change with every electrical impulse that they receive and with every photon that hits their sensors. They do not change most of the cells of their body during a year: they only change the components that fail, and even those get replaced with identical copies. Given the same conditions (the same state of the world) a robot’s arm will indeed follow the exact same trajectory to grab an object and a robot’s “mouth” will utter the exact same words to tell a story.

* The problem of free will is framed incorrectly. The “I” that is supposed to have free will does not exist: it is something that changes all the time, because at every instant countless cells of the body change including countless cells of the brain.

* Hence the “I” that is supposed to have free will is actually defined by that “free will”: it is the sequence of unpredictable actions generated by a nonlinear system.

* You yourself cannot predict what your free will will make you do and think in a few seconds, let alone a few years from now.

* Free will exists, but the “I” does not exist.

piero scaruffi is an author, cultural historian and blogger who has written extensively about a wealth of topics, ranging from cognitive science to music.


The statements are interesting, and somehow stimulating - but, what a mess! So many amphibologies packed together!

“Creativity is a property of life. No insect nor worm moves in a predictable manner…” Does this mean that any unpredictable system must also be creative? Nonsense. The weather is highly unpredictable, especially after a week or two. Does this mean that the weather is also creative? Are clouds and winds somehow alive? The author seems to argue that life is creative by definition, and therefore unpredictable. Bergson considered life as an inherently creative phenomenon, for example. But, hey, he needed to build a whole arbitrary metaphysical, religious castle to justify this. Is the author really trying to say that living organisms create something (what? movements? structures?) out of thin air, ex nihilo? I hope not.

“You are creative and unpredictable because your brain is governed by a nonlinear equation.” So a double pendulum is also creative and unpredictable. I might agree on the unpredictability. But - do pendula have free will? Please.

“Hence the “I” that is supposed to have free will is actually defined by that “free will”: it is the sequence of unpredictable actions generated by a nonlinear system.” Wrong again. A low-friction pool table with enough balls is a nonlinear system. We, literally, cannot predict the position of those balls after enough time. I am not talking about quantum mechanics. Just trivial, old Newtonian physics. So, let us see who dares to say that a pool table behaves as an individual because WE cannot predict how the balls will move after two minutes.

The author seems to mix too many concepts - creativity, unpredictability, non-linearity. They are not synonyms. And - which is even worse - he does not even bother to identify the structural features of living beings. Why are they so unpredictable? Only because they are nonlinear? Or is it because they are alive?
He does not even pay attention to the gigantic, pink elephant in the room - the living man, the observer. In other words, the fundamental concept of “predictability” requires, to make sense, at least one (rational) subject who can (or cannot) predict the phenomena around him. Someone alive. A prediction in not merely a calculation, it is not the mere product of an algorithm. Algorithms are tools that organisms use to make better predictions, to fulfill their desires. Machines cannot predict a thing. They can give us the result of their calculations. And we can interpret these results as predictions. Some, strange, seemingly illusory, individual identity must already be there, to spot nonlinearity and indulge in the sophisticated pleasure of de-constructing itself.

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