Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Free Will of Fruit Flies

I liked this short essay in Nature by Martin Heisenberg on free will (HT). Heisenberg is a neurobiologist (and the son of Werner), and his perspective is shaped by the work he’s done on more primitive organisms – in the essay he talks about bacteria and also the fruit flies (the famous drosophilia) which have been the subject of his own work. In short, the combination of microscopic randomness (ultimately sourced from the quantum realm) and an adaptive self-directedness (primitive intentionality -- see also here) comprise freedom.

In the human case, the discussion is obscured by the focus on the will found via introspective self-consciousness and its relation to our actions. But introspection is an extreme latecomer in evolution. Heisenberg suggests we have a kind of real freedom, shared with many other organisms, irrespective of whether our introspective picture is accurate or flawed. He says: “I maintain that we need not be conscious of our decision-making to be free. What matters is that our actions are self-generated…Why should an action become free from one moment to the next simply because we reflect upon it?”


Allen said...

Of interest (I thought):

Another Step Toward Skynet

Steve said...

Thanks. I thought the Edelman interview was interesting.

Allen said...

Here's an interesting paper by Christopher Langan.


I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. I see a lot of things that sound reasonable, and a few that don't sound so reasonable.

What do you think?

Steve said...

Coincidentally I just read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which had a section on Langan.
I'll take a look (altho it doesn't look like easy reading) -- i'm disappointed that he has associated himself with the dishonent ID folks, though.

Allen said...

Reading a review of Outliers is where I came across Langan also. He got some good publicity out of that book.

I'm guessing his antipathy towards academia has something to do with his association with the ID crowd. Shared resentments. BUT, I'm just guessing.

In some places Langan's view of God seems pretty intellectual and abstract and basically devoid of all the supernatural nonsense. Kind of deist. BUT in other places he sounds a little more traditional on the subject. So I'm not sure where he stands on all that really.

BUT he addresses intelligent design in the paper and it boils down to something like this:

"The CTMU says that by its self-generative, self-selective nature, which follows directly from the analytic requirement of self-containment, reality is its own 'designer'."

Which, as these philosophical theories go, doesn't seem too alarming.

Steve said...

No, there's nothing wrong with that on a philosophical level. And if ID was just a philosophical position, it would be unobjectionable. It's because Dembski et.al. try to mess with K-12 science education that they are persona non grata with me.

Anonymous said...

Free will In my view is an inherently paradoxical notion--
If free will is a fact---and
we have no choice but to act
freely---how is that free?
In other words--if our nature is to act freely and this is not up to us---we have no choices in the matter---then how is that freedom?
Oh, we act outside the deterministic ---unaffected by it
---ok, so if we have to act that way---?
Sorry--don't buy it.
Another tack: if the universe
at every point is operating as the universe does--according to its nature---does it have a choice
not to so operate?
Suppose we are given a choice to act either freely or by necessity
and we freely choose to act out of necessity--are all subsequent acts then done out of free will or out of necessity? Seems you could say free will, necessity or both or neither.
Saying a "self generated" act makes it free---just begs the question: Is it self generated if you have no choice but to self generate? Why would molecular operations mean freedom?
Maybe you could get closer to the issue by looking into just what a "self" might be and who or what makes a decision? And what is it to make a decision? Seems to me there is no process of making a decision---something just comes up that say yay or nay---preliminary raciocination notwithstanding---since it does not guarantee a decision will arise. So, again, who or what makes a decision?

Steve said...

Thanks. Good points, although I think we can explore degrees of freedom where it isn't an all or nothing thing as most of your discussion seems to imply. A limited set of choices may be determined by prior events and context, and a choice could be made from the set. (I guess "choosing not to choose" isn't really an option, though).

Who makes the choice? Good question. Humans are composite creatures. If there is freedom, most of it is probably exercised at a micro-level; then our common sense perception of our will would be at least somewhat illusory.