Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Level With Me Again

This post is a continuation of the previous post, and is part of my series on free will.

 Now suppose instead of a rover, we are talking about an animal - say, a bear. The bear has to decide whether to go left or right around the rock. It has various goals in mind: eat, find a mate, find a safe place to sleep. And it has memories of places it has found food or mates before, and some sort of mental map that relates those places to the choice to go left or right. The bear, we could say, is "running a survival program" that makes decisions on the basis of its goals and memories. (Again, I am not suggesting that the bear's brain works like a computer. I am using the computer program as an analogy to gain understanding of the levels of description.) Does the flow of electrons and neurotransmitters determine the bear's behavior, or does the bear's "survival program" determine the flow of electrons and neurotransmitters? What does your intuition say?

In the case of the rover, the program and the computer architecture were clearly designed to produce the particular decision-making behavior that we see. But in the bear's case, the hardware and software were designed, too: by the processes of evolution. Moreover, they were specifically designed to allow the bear to realize its long-term goals of survival and reproduction.

A human has these abilities to an even greater extent: a human can imagine different possible futures and make a choice between them. This, it seems to me, is the essence of free will. And it doesn't really matter whether the underlying micro-physics that runs the decision-making "program" is deterministic or indeterministic. Either way, it is me - my goals, desires, memories, plans - that (probabilistically or not) enact the choice.

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