20 May 2007

Free will and the binary states of General Loan

As I have recently written in a comment to one of Jim Putnam's posts, I love anything which leaves me thinking about it all day. Dr C's latest post in the "information" strand has had me thinking for the week or so since I read it. I should perhaps wait until he works through the implications in his next post; but here I go anyway, a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread.

If we ignore my overwhelmingly large area of agreement with Dr C (where's the discussion potential in agreement?), my thoughts focus around his use of "that picture" by Eddie Adams: South Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan's summary street execution of a suspected Viet Cong member in Saigon's Chinese quarter.

The use of this picture troubles me. Partly because I can identify too closely with it: in a former life, I learned too well that there are many situations within which action precedes thought. Partly because it ties Dr C's argument too closely to such situations.

It is quite believable that, in this particular situation, the decision to squeeze at trigger came down to a spilt second flipflop as Dr C describes, no more a free decision than whether Schrödinger's cat lives or dies in its box. But that (if so) doesn't really, for me, persuade (as I think Dr C is arguing) that free will is a myth.

After all, Loan's action took place during a street skirmish, when his reflexes would be tuned to survival. Furthermore, it was within the larger context of a long and bitter dirty war, when such survival instincts would already be at a high level. Both the firing of Loan's revolver and the firing of Abbot's camera were clearly reflex actions decided well below the conscious cognitive layers of the brain.

Now, it may be that this is just an extreme case, and that all free will is equally flipflop dependent. The well known experiments where ordinary civilised volunteers behave barbarically towards fellow participants when told to do so by the organisers may support this. The more I examine possible counter examples, the more I am compelled to concede that many actions and decisions, even after much thought, can probably be explained in terms of a logic gate tripped by potential in one direction exceeding that in another. But do I accept that this is always so? No, I don't. I confess (rather shame facedly) that I am short of positive supporting evidence for that belief; all I can offer is basis for doubt. Nevertheless, I continue to hold the belief: and in a moment I'll offer a piece of sophistry to excuse it.

If Dr C is right in what he is (I think) suggesting, then we have to include in our definition of action potential some very high order informational entities - in fact. the whole totality of our mentation and cognition. (As a mathematician of a particular type, I would probably describe what is happening not as a simple logic gate switch but as a "catastrophic change of state".)

Take, as an example, slapping a child. This is a direct equivalent of General Loan's street execution, but removed to a level where things unfold more slowly and can be more easily examined.

I believe, very strongly, on both emotional and rational grounds, that to hit a child is always wrong. But perhaps I am a highly stressed mother, doing my best in impossible circumstances, whose child repeatedly hits me; I snap, and slap him. Clearly, I can argue that the stress rose to a level where it overrode the pressure against acting: "I snapped" really means "my logic gate changed state". But how to describe the complex of cognitive processes that kept up the counter pressure, and held the gate, for so long? Does free will (in the usual more complex meaning) not operate throughout the period when I feel like slapping junior, but choose not to do so? I believe that it does; that the complexity and time scale involved (both on cognitive, not reflexive, levels), make it unreasonable to conceptually equate this with the run up to a life or death twitch of General Loan's finger. Both situations end with a binary flipflop of a logic gate, but neither the gate nor the surrounding action potentials are comparable between the two situations.

And what about even lower decision making domains, which never reach a catastrophic change of state but simply a shift in one direction or another? For example, this post. Aware that Dr C has put an immense amount of effort into the writing of all his posts, while I lazily consume them and contribute little, I have spent much time mulling over whether to post this, to email it privately to Dr C, or to try some intermediate level of discussion between Dr C and a small email friendship group whom I trust. Although I have not, as I type this sentence, definitely made up my mind, I shall probably post it. The point here is to ask how far (and how definitely) the digital flipflop interpretation of free will can be applied to my process of arriving at that final decision?

This whole fascinating thread started with my use of the word "instinctive" in an article on pattern recognition and robotics, when I should (as Dr C rightly pointed out) have used "reflexive". Let me tie the present argument back to that for a moment.

I said that a robot built on the anthropoform servitor Asimo model needed to have certain software constructs (such as balance control) built in while others (information about frequent visitors to the home, for example) could afford the slight delay involved in external storage. The first case allows little scope for free will; the second may.

And now, to close, that promised piece of sophistry to excuse my unscientific insistence on maintaining belief in free will while its status remains unproven.

Both Dr C and I frequently and passionately argue for writing of wrongs - for instance, the treatment of Palestinians by the Isra'eli state. But, if all free will is a myth and boils own to flip-flops over which we have no control whatsoever, where is the point in bothering to rail against such things? Right and wrong, under that view, will be equally nonexistent: Isra'eli decision makers will either take or not take the actions, and we will abhor them or not, as an entirely stochastic set of outcomes uninfluenced by what I like to think of as free will. From a game theory viewpoint, this leaves me with an inescapable conclusion. If there is no "free will" in the usual sense, my actions will have no effect one way or the other. If free will in that usual sense does exist, then inaction will leave the wrong unaffected by action which may conceivably help to right it. Therefore, in the absence of certainty one way or the other, the only rational course is to behave as if free will exists until the contrary is proven ... and human beings are frail creatures who, regardless of intellectual stance, only follow a course for any length of time if they believe in it.

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