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The Nonlinear Origins of Free Will

piero scaruffi


piero scaruffi


http://www.scaruffi.com/phi/syn114.html

May 16, 2012

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.

* 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.

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