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On Consciousness

The Illusion of Free Will

FreeWillName a song from your music collection.

Got one?

Whatever you chose, I’m sure you’ll agree that your choice was a free one. No-one told you what to pick. I chose Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, but I could equally have picked Dido’s “Northern Skies” or Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Clearly, we made our choices by exercising our free will.

Or did we?

Think about it for a minute. Why did you choose the song you did? Did you run through a list of every song in your collection in your head, then choose one at random? I didn’t.

I’m not sure where “Dark Side of the Moon” came from, but I remember that last weekend, when I went for a run, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” came on my headphones. It made me think that I hadn’t listened to “The Wall” for a long time, and that I should do so the next time I was putting on some music. That made me think of my university days, when I first heard “The Wall”. In turn, I thought of the first time I heard any Pink Floyd, which was when a song from the album “Dark Side of the Moon” came on the jukebox at the pub I my friends and I went to during our last years at school.

I can’t be sure that that’s why, when I typed the first sentence of this post, I thought of that song. But I know I didn’t consciously choose it from a list of every possible alternative. It was just the first song that occurred to me.

Sam Harris makes a similar argument against the existence of free will in Free Will. Reflecting on a recent decision to drink a glass of water, he asks:

“Why didn’t I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not…

[Some people] insist that freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that one could have thought or acted differently. However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever I in fact did.”

We may be “free” to act in accordance with our desires, but

“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”

In other words, while we act according to our desires, our desires are not freely chosen. They have been programmed into us by the sum of our life experiences up to that point.

Harris is unconcerned by the argument that even if free will is an illusion, it might be best not to point that out to people, lest it degrade their morality. While acknowledging that some studies have found an increase in cheating and aggression after people were presented with arguments against the existence of free will, Harris suggests that others may experience the opposite effect:

“Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.”

I have observed the same change in my own thinking. As with any input, it seems clear that the effect produced in a given individual will depend on how that individual has been programmed. Someone with a well-developed sense of integrity is unlikely to suddenly become amoral by being persuaded that free will does not exist.

For the same reason, I do not believe that the argument about free will is, as one of my friends recently suggested, just a “philosophical parlour game”. The way you view life will inevitably be different whether you believe in free will or not.

Harris also says that a lack of belief in free will has not made him more fatalistic. The absence of free will does not imply that people cannot change, only that how they will change in response to a given stimulus is determined by their programming:

“Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically transform one’s life.”

Free Will is a short but fascinating read, with the power to fundamentally change the way you view the world. Highly recommended.


Gödel, Escher, Bach

GodelDouglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is a fascinating exploration of how consciousness can arise from inanimate matter. It's an intellectual tour-de-force, covering a fantastically diverse range of subjects, including mathematics, art, music, molecular biology, neuroscience, Zen Buddhism, extraterrestrial life, computer science, and artificial intelligence.

At the core of Hofstadter’s beliefs about consciousness lies the idea of a “Strange Loop”:

“The "Strange Loop" phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”

Hofstadter cites the Epimenedes Paradox - the statement “this statement is false” – as an example of a one-step Strange Loop. He spends a large part of the book discussing Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which can be thought of as the translation of the Epimenedes Paradox into mathematical terms.

“Gödel says that no sufficiently powerful formal system can be perfect, in the sense of reproducing every single true statement as a theorem... The fact that truth transcends theoremhood, in any given formal system, is called "incompleteness" of that system.”

A “formal system” is a system that has a set of axioms and can generate statements by following a set of rules. A “theorem” is just a statement made by the system (including the axioms). “Sufficiently powerful” means a system that has the ability to make statements about itself.

While Gödel’s Theorem is about mathematical systems, an analogy can be drawn with the English language. This can be thought of as a system with a set of axioms (words) and a set of rules (grammar) for combining those words into sentences. Sentences can be constructed that are true (“the sky is blue”) or false (“ice is hot”). Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is analogous to saying it is impossible to create a book that contains every true statement that could be made in English, regardless of how large that book is.

The gist of the proof is as follows. Consider the sentence, “This sentence is not in this book”. Would that sentence be found in our hypothetical book, or not?

Suppose it was in the book. In that case, the sentence is untrue. But since we have said that the book only contains true statements, this is impossible. Therefore, the sentence must not be in the book. But in that case, the book must be incomplete, since we know the sentence is true, yet is not contained within it!

Hofstadter also notes that whether a statement is true or false is not inherent in the statement itself – it depends entirely on the interpretation we choose for the symbols. For example, consider, “the sky is blue”. This is only true if we interpret “the sky” as “the sky on planet Earth”. Were we to interpret “the sky” as “the sky on Mars”, the statement would be false. This mapping between the symbol “sky” and the concept of the thing above our heads is called an “isomorphism”. Indeed, the only thing that gives the inherently meaningless squiggles S-K-Y meaning is our recognition that they refer to the thing above our heads. As Hofstadter puts it, “Meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism”.

Whether a system is internally consistent also depends on the interpretation chosen for it. For example, consider a system with “1p1q2” as an axiom. We might choose to interpret p as “plus” and q as “equals”. Now suppose we decided to create a new system by adding the axiom “1p1q4”. Isn’t this new system inherently inconsistent? We might think so, since not only is 1+1 not equal to 4, we now seem to have two axioms that disagree with each other. However, we only have a problem because we have retained the same interpretation for the symbols p and q. Reinterpret the symbols appropriately (for example, by reinterpreting q as “less than or equal to”), and our system is consistent and meaningful once more.

Later in the book, Hofstadter offers a great visualisation of a multi-level Strange Loop:

“Think of chess. Clearly the rules stay the same, just the board position changes on each move. But let's invent a variation in which, on your turn, you can either make a move or change the rules [according to some constraints]...

Now we have two layers of rules: those which tell you how to move pieces, and those which tell how to change the rules... You could even express rules and metarules as positions on auxiliary chess boards...

Now we can have any number of adjacent chess boards: one for the game, one for rules, one for metarules, one for metametarules, and so on, as far as you care to carry it. On your turn, you may make a move on any one of the chess boards except the top-level one, using the rules which apply (they come from the next chess board up in the hierarchy). Undoubtedly both players would get quite disoriented by the fact that almost anything - though not everything! - can change...

Now it is possible to go considerably further in removing the pillars by which orientation is achieved. One step at a time... We begin by collapsing the whole array of boards into a single board. What is meant by this? There will be two ways of interpreting the board: (1) as pieces to be moved; (2) as rules for moving the pieces. On your turn, you move pieces - and perforce, you change rules!... The distinction between game, rules, metarules, metametarules, has been lost. What was once a nice clean hierarchical setup has become a Strange Loop... There are still different levels, but the distinction between "lower" and "higher" has been wiped out.”

Hofstadter argues that consciousness arises from a similar tangling of different levels in the brain:

“My belief is that the explanations of "emergent" phenomena in our brains - for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will - are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing "resonance" between different levels... The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.”