The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

Judea Pearl uses soccer as an analogy to demonstrate the usefulness of freewill, even if it is only an illusion, in The Book of Why. Pearl argues that believing we have free will, even if it doesn’t exist as we believe it does, has been helpful for humans throughout our evolutionary history. He argues that being able to communicate about our intentions, desires, and actions through a lens of free will has helped us develop agency to improve our existence as a species and survive.
Pearl also views the illusion of free will as a two tiered system that helps our species survive through agency by attributing responsibility to individuals. He communicates this idea through the language of computers by writing, “when we start to adjust our own software, that is when we begin to take moral responsibility for our actions. This responsibility may be an illusion at the level of neural activation but not at the level of the self-awareness software.”
Pearl is arguing that our consciousness (software) is different from our neural activity (the computer hardware equivalent of the brain). In this sense, Pearl is viewing consciousness and free will as a dualist. There is the electrical activity of the brain, and the software (our thinking and self-awareness) running on top of that electrical activity. While we might not be able to directly change the neural activity and while it may be automatic and deterministic, the software packages it runs are not, they are in a way revisable, and we are responsible for those revisions. That is the view that Pearl is advancing in this argument.
I think this idea is wrong. I understand the dualist view of consciousness and use that model most of the time when thinking about my thinking, but I don’t think it reflects reality. Additionally, throughout human history we have used technological analogies to explain the brain. Always equating the brain and thinking to the best technologies of the day, we have viewed the brain as having some sort of duality about it. The brain was once viewed as hydraulic pumps and levers, and today it is compared to computerized hardware and software.
I don’t have a full rebuttal for Pearl. I recognize that our experience feels as though it is not deterministic, that there seems to be some role for free will and individual agency, but I can’t go as far as Pearl and actually assign revision responsibility to our consciousness. I agree with him that the illusion can be and has been useful, but I can’t help but feel that it is a mistake to equate the brain to a computer. I don’t truly feel that even within the illusion of free will we are entirely revision responsible for our consciousness (the software/operating system). I think that comparing us to a computer is misleading and gives people the wrong impression about the mind, and I’m sure that in the future we will replace the hardware/software distinction and thoughts with different and more complex technologies in our analogies.
Objective Reality, Rationality, & Shared Worlds - Joe Abittan

Objective Reality, Rationality, & Shared Worlds

The idea of an objective reality has been under attack for a while, and I have even been part of the team attacking that objective reality. We know that we have a limited ability to sense and experience the world around us. We know that bats, sharks, and bees experience phenomena that we are blind to. We can’t know that the color red that I experience is exactly like the color red that you experience. Given our lack of sense, the fact that physical stimuli are translated into electrical brain impulses, and that there appears to be plenty of subjectivity in how we experience the same thing, an objective reality doesn’t really seem possible. We seemingly all live within a world created by many subjective measures within our own brains.
But is this idea really accurate? I recently completed Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now in which he argues that reason depends on objectivity and that our efforts toward rationality and reason demonstrate that there is some form of objectivity toward which we are continually working. The very act of attempting to think rationally about our world and how we understand the universe demonstrates that we are striving to understand some sort of objective commonality. A quote from The Book of Why by Judea Pearl seems to support Pinker’s assertion. Pearl writes:
“We experience the same world and share the same mental model of its causal structure. … Our shared mental models bind us together into communities. We can therefore judge closeness not by some metaphysical notion of similarity but by how much we must take apart and perturb our shared model before it satisfies a given hypothetical condition that is contrary to fact.”
Pearl wrote this paragraph while discussing the human ability to imagine alternative possibilities (specifically writing about the sentence Joe’s headache would have gone away if he had taken aspirin). The sentence acknowledges a reality (Joe has a headache) and proposes a different reality that doesn’t actually exist (Joe no longer has a headache because he took aspirin). It is this ability to envision different worlds which forms the basis of our causal interpretations of the world, but it also reveals a shared world in which we live and from which we can imagine different possible worlds. It hints at an objective reality shared among individuals and distinct from unreal and imagined, plausible worlds.
Reason and rationality demonstrate that there seems to be an objective reality in which we are situated and in which we experience the world. There are undoubtedly subjective aspects of that world, but we nevertheless are able to share a world in which we can imagine other possible worlds and consider those alternative worlds as closer or further from the world in which we live. Doing this over and over again, among billions of people, helps us define the actual objective reality which constitutes the world we share and from which we have subjective experiences. It is from this world that we can discuss what is subjective, what causes one phenomenon or another, and from which we can imagine alternative realities based on certain interventions. If there was no objective reality for us to all share, then we would never be able to distinguish alternative worlds and compare them as more or less close to the world we share and exist within.
Experiencing Versus Remembering

Experiencing Versus Remembering

My last two posts have been about the difference in how we experience life and how we remember what happens in our life. This is an important idea in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman explains the ways in which our minds make predictable errors when thinking statistically, when trying to remember the past, and when making judgements about reality. Kahneman describes our mind as having two selves. He writes,

 

“The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: Does it hurt now? The remembering self is the one that answers the question: How was it on the whole? Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”

 

In my post about the Peak-End Rule I highlighted findings from Kahneman that show that the remembering self isn’t very good at making accurate judgments about a whole experience. It more or less averages out the best (or worst) part of an experience with the ending of the experience. The ups and downs throughout, the actual average quality overall, isn’t that relevant to the way we think back on an experience.

 

Duration Neglect also demonstrates how the remembering self misjudges our experiences. A long monotonous experience with a positive ending can be remembered much more fondly than a generally positive short experience with a bad ending.

 

When I think about the experiencing and remembering self, I try to remember that my remembering self is not able to perfectly recall the reality of my experiences. I try to remember that my experiencing self is only alive in the present moment, and when I am experiencing something great, I try hard to focus on that moment, rather than try to focus on something I want to remember (this is the difference between sitting and watching a beautiful sunset versus trying to capture the perfect picture of the sunset for social media). Keeping in mind the distinctions between the experiencing and remembering self is helpful for avoiding the frustration, guilt, and pressure that the remembering self heaps on you when you don’t feel as though you have done enough or accomplished enough. The remembering self is only one part of you, and its revisionist view of your history isn’t real. There is real value in finding a balance between living for the experiencing self and living with the knowledge of what fuels the remembering self. Tilting too far either way can make us feel frustrated and overwhelmed, or unaccomplished, and we all want to be somewhere between the two extremes, giving up a little to prop up the other in different ways at different times of our lives.
Duration Neglect

Duration Neglect

My last post was about the Peak-End Rule, the way our brains remember events where we subjectively rate them based on an average between the peak moment and the end. A great experience can be ruined by a poor ending, while a poor experience can be remember more positively if it ends on a high note. Duration Neglect goes along with the Peak-End Rule to shape the way we subjectively remember an experience that doesn’t necessarily align with our actual experience of the event in the moment.

 

Regarding an experiment with individuals rating painful colonoscopies, Kahneman writes, “the duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.”

 

Again, what mattered for individuals is the peak level of pain and the pain they experienced at the end of the procedure. Patients who had a short colonoscopy with a painful ending rated the entire experience as more painful than individuals who had an equal peak in pain, but overall had a longer colonoscopy that ended on a less painful note. If two patients experience the same peak of pain, but one experiences it early rather than at the end, the subjective pain ratings will be skewed, even if the person who had the peak at the end had less total pain because their procedure was shorter.

 

What this means for gastroenterologists is that it is better for the procedure to go long than to be painful. We can tolerate pain as long as it is spaced out and as long as the ending is relatively better than the peak. A procedure that lasts 20 minutes with an average pain level of 4 is better than a 5 minute procedure with an average pain level of 6. The mind doesn’t remember how long the pain lasted, it only remembers how bad the pain was at the peak.

 

We can translate this into our daily lives as well. If we know there is going to be something unpleasant, then we can try to space it out and frontload the unpleasantness, knowing that the ending will lift the overall subjective feeling if it is relatively better. And, if we have something that is really positive, we can see that it is truly is better to leave on a high note. Once we reach a peak in terms of positivity, any additional goodness will only diminish the overall rating of people’s experience. Adding more positive notes that don’t quite match the peak doesn’t actually help improve the overall level that people will ascribe to the event when they think back on it.
Experienced Utility - Joe Abittan

Experienced Utility

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents an interesting situation. Imagine you need to receive a series of injections, and the pain for each injection each time is always the same. Suppose in one situation, the series of injections is 20 shots, and in another situation the series is 6 shots. If you were to imagine that you were in each series, would you pay the same amount to have the total number of shots for the series reduced by 2? In one situation you would go from 20 to 18, and in the other from 6 to 4.

 

Kahneman found that people were more likely to pay more to reduce the injection load if the total number of shots for their series was 6 rather than 18. In Kahneman’s eyes, this thinking process is an error. He writes, “at least in some cases, experienced utility is the criterion by which a decision should be assessed. A decision maker who pays different amounts to achieve the same gain of experienced utility (or be spared the same loss) is making a mistake.”

 

Experienced utility is the overall happiness, usefulness, or enjoyment (more or less) that we get out of life, a product, or an experience. In the situation I described above, each injection is equally as painful. The first shot is not any worse than the second, the sixth, or the 15th. So whether you are getting 6 shots or 20 shots, you are still having a similar reduction in the overall amount of pain that you are avoiding when you get two fewer shots. In pure experienced utility, there is no difference between reducing the shot count from 20 to 18 or from 6 to 4. It is two fewer shots, the same reduction in pain, in both instances.

 

But when we imagine ourselves in each situation, it is the low total shot count where we decide we would spend more to reduce the overall level of pain we experience. We are violating the terms of equal experienced utility and instead making a relative comparison. Two is 1/3rd of six, and reducing our pain by 1/3rd is relatively much better than reducing our pain by 1/10th which is what we would do when we moved from 20 to 18.

 

This problem reminds me of sitting first class on an airplane. Sitting on your own couch is much more enjoyable than sitting first class on an airplane. You have a larger TV to enjoy, you don’t have to pay extra for WiFi, and you have an entire kitchen and pantry of snacks available to you. But if someone asked you how much you would pay on any given day for the privilege of enjoying your living room you would look at them and laugh.

 

But we are all willing to pay huge amounts for smaller and less comfy chairs, to have to turn our phones off, and for overpriced alcoholic beverages in first class on an airplane. We are making a similar mistake in terms of experienced utility by making relative comparisons. First class is substantially better than coach, but much worse than our own living room. When we fail to recognize our experienced utility, and instead open ourselves up to paying for relative utility, then we risk making inconsistent decisions and paying far more in some situations than we would dream to pay in others. The relative frame of reference that we adopt could be manipulated by actors for their own ends, to convince us to pay more for things than what we would in another frame of reference.
The Environment of the Moment

The Environment of the Moment

“The main moral of priming research is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Many people find the priming results unbelievable, because they do not correspond to subjective experience. Many others find the results upsetting, because they threaten the subjective sense of agency and autonomy.”

 

Daniel Kahneman includes the above quote in his book Thinking Fast and Slow when recapping his chapter about anchoring effects. The quote highlights the surprising and conflicting reality of research on priming and anchoring effects. The research shows that our minds are not always honest with us, or at least are not capable of consciously recognizing everything taking place within them. Seemingly meaningless cues in our environment can influence a great deal of what takes place within our brains. We can become more defensive, likely to donate more to charity, and more prone to think certain thoughts by symbols, ideas, and concepts present in our environment.

 

We all accept that when we are hungry, when our allergies are overwhelming, and when we are frustrated from being cut-off on the freeway that our behaviors will be changed. We know these situations will make us less patient, more likely to glare at someone who didn’t mean to offend us, and more likely to grab a donut for breakfast because we are not in the mood for flavor-lacking oatmeal. But somehow, even though we know external events are influencing our internal thinking and decision-making, this still seems to be in our conscious control in one way or another. A hearty breakfast, a few allergy pills, and a few deep breaths to calm us down are all we need to get back to normal and be in control of our minds and behavior.

 

It is harder to accept that our minds, moods, generosity, behavior towards others, and stated beliefs could be impacted just as easily by factors that we don’t even notice. We see some type of split between being short with someone because we are hungry, and being short with someone because an advertisement on our way to work primed us to be more selfish. We don’t believe that we will donate more to charity when the charity asks for a $500 dollar donation rather than a $50 dollar donation. In each of these situations our conscious and rational brain produces an explanation for our behavior that is based on observations the conscious mind can make. We are not aware of the primes and anchors impacting our behavior, so consciously we don’t believe they have any impact on us at all.

 

Nevertheless, research shows that our minds are not as independent and controllable as we subjectively believe. Kahneman’s quote shows that traditional understandings of free-will fall down when faced by research on priming and anchoring effects. We don’t like to admit that random and seemingly innocuous cues in the environment of the moment shape us because doing so threatens the narratives and stories we want to believe about who we are, why we do the things we do, and how our society is built. It is scary, possibly upsetting, and violates basic understandings of who we are, but it is accurate and important to accept if we want to behave and perform better in our lives.
The Mental Scaffolding for Religious Belief

The Mental Scaffolding of Religious Belief

Yesterday’s post was about our mental structure for seeing causality in the world where there is none. We attribute agency to inanimate objects, imbue them with emotions, attribute intentions, and ascribe goals to objects that don’t appear to have any capacity for conscious thought or awareness. From a young age, our minds are built to see causality in the world, and we attribute causal actions linked to preferred outcomes to people, animals, plants, cars, basketballs, hurricanes, computers, and more. This post takes an additional step, looking at how our mind that intuitively perceives causal actions all around us plunges us into a framework for religious beliefs. There are structures in the mind that act as mental scaffolding for the construction of religious beliefs, and understanding these structures helps shed light on what is taking place inside the human mind.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following:

 

“The psychologists Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic in 2005, presented the provocative claim that our inborn readiness to separate physical and intentional causality explains the near universality of religious beliefs. He observes that we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. The two models of causation that we are set to perceive make it natural for us to accept the two central beliefs of many religions: an immaterial divinity is the ultimate cause of the physical world, and immortal souls temporarily control our bodies while we live and leave them behind as we die.”

 

From the time that we are small children, we experience a desire for a change in the physical state around us. When we are tiny, we have no control over the world around us, but as we grow we develop the capacity to change the physical world to align with our desires. Infants who cannot directly change their environment express some type of discomfort by crying, and (hopefully) receiving loving attention. From a small age, we begin to understand that expressing some sort of discomfort brings change and comfort from a being that is larger and more powerful than we are.

 

This is an idea I heard years ago on a podcast. I don’t remember what show it was, but the argument that the guest presented was that humans have a capacity for imaging a higher being with greater power than what we have because that is literally the case when we are born. From the time we are in the womb to when we are first born, we experience larger individuals who provide for us, feed us, protect us, and literally talk down to us as if from above. In the womb we literally are within a protective world that nourishes our bodies and is ever present and ever powerful. We have an innate sense that there is something more than us, because we develop within another person, literally experiencing that we are part of something bigger. And when we are tiny and have no control over our world, someone else is there to protect and take care of us, and all we need to do to summon help is to cry out to the sky as we lay on our backs.

 

As we age, we learn to control our physical bodies with our mental thoughts and learn to use language to communicate our desired to other people. We don’t experience the build up action potentials between neurons prior to our decisions to do something. We only experience us, acting in the world and mentally interpreting what is around us. We carry with us the innate sense that we are part of something bigger and that there is a protector out there who will come to us if we cry out toward the sky. We don’t experience the phenomenological reality of the universe, we experience the narrative that we develop in our minds beginning at very young ages.

 

My argument in this piece is that both Paul Bloom as presented in Kahneman’s book and the argument from the scientist in the podcast are correct. The mind contains scaffolding for religious beliefs, making the idea that a larger deity exists and is the original causal factor of the universe feel so intuitive. Our brains are effectively primed to look for things that support the intuitive sense of our religions, even if there is no causal structure there, or if the causal structure can be explained in a more scientific and rational manner.
Our Opinion Shapes Our Experience

Our Opinion Shapes Our Experience

A funny thing happened with people’s thoughts about the economy following the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Supporters of Hillary Clinton prior to the election had strong feelings about the economy, while Republican supporters of Donald Trump thought the economy was terrible. In the days and weeks following the election, perceptions of the economy switched. Nothing economically speaking had really changed in the immediate days after we discovered that Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States, but suddenly those who voted Republican in 2016 had a positive outlook on the economy, while those who had voted for Clinton thought the country’s economy was in trouble.

 

Our opinion of a circumstance can shape the experience we have of many aspects of our lives. The economic outlook of people following the election in 2016 demonstrates this ability. We can experience a great economy based on whether our favored candidate wins an election, or we can experience an economic downturn if our candidate does not, even if actual economic trends don’t change. We don’t exist in an independent or objective place outside of the world around us. Instead we take in cues about how others are doing, about our identity relative to others, and about the position of groups like us and start to create the reality we experience. Whether we want to or not, we measure our social standing against other people that we see or interact with on a daily basis and the stories we tell ourselves matter to how we feel about our place in the world and our future.

 

Being aware of this, however, can help us tone down negative impulses and thoughts that might be triggered by this type of social comparison. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “what does your condition matter, if it is bad in your own eyes?” If we constantly look around and see others who have more than us, who look better than us, and who in one way or another demonstrate a higher social status than us, then we will never be content with ourselves and our position. A solution is to step back and consider ourselves without defining ourselves as successful or as a failure relative to others. We can consider ourselves more fully, redefining what we need to be successful in our lives, and basing success on factors that don’t involve our relative social position to others. Through self-awareness and reflection, we can begin to focus more on what matters, on the things that actually make people valuable, and change how volatile our notion of good or bad can be.

Growth from Friction

I’m very good at traveling, but I am terrible at planning and setting up trips. I wish I was better at scheduling, coordinating, and getting out on trips, but I am not very good at thinking long ahead and planning out a vacation with another person. On my own, I can travel easily and I am comfortable almost anywhere with almost anything, but traveling with others is never quite so easy.

 

In his book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright talks about travel and how traveling pushes and influences us. Wright has spent a lot of time traveling and moving about the world at the suggestion of his fans and readers. He has been in many different places where he did not know the customs, traditions, or cuisines, and has had to learn things quickly in unfamiliar places in order to get by. When it comes to travel he writes, “Travel Frays. not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over again.”

 

When we are at home in the routine of everyday life, things is stable and clear. We organize our day, our home, and our actions to be predictable, comfortable, and desirable. We become what we do and what our life is organized around. Our identity is clearly tied to the things we do and the places we go. When we travel, however, curve balls are thrown at us and we are placing our trust, our time, and our physical location in the hands of strangers. Where we are, what we are doing, and how we interact with the world is influenced by forces beyond our control, and this, according to Wright, is what frays us.

 

I am good at traveling on my own because when I have no agenda, no demands, no expectations on myself, and no deep desires for a certain outcome, I can adjust to these fraying experiences and let go of my routine and plans. When I travel with other people however, I must be dependable and consistent through the changes. Traveling on my own I am content to simply walk and experience a new place. To try a new restaurant, to see something different, and to just be in an unfamiliar place. But traveling with others pushes me to do these same things and have these same experiences while also accommodating people who may not be as open and flexible as myself. This is the greater challenge for me, pushing me to give in some areas while remaining firm and foresighted in others. Independent travel reminds me of the variety of the world and human experience, travel with others pushes me to be more thoughtful about who I move through the world with. Ultimately, traveling with others is a changing experience because it drives me to be more mindful of time, my position in the world, and how my actions and the actions of those around me impact the person I travel with. It is a great shifting puzzle in which I must not only think about my own reaction to the world, but also how the person next to me will react to the world. This great challenge is fraying and sometimes a bit painful, but ultimately builds our relationships with other people and with an often unpredictable world.

Attachment to the False View of Self

When we try to compartmentalize reality and split our experiences into separate categories, we end up with a view of the universe that is incomplete and incorrect. Everything that happens is interconnected, and how we experience the world at one moment is influenced by our experiences of the past and expectations for the future. The time of day, how much we have eaten, and the temperature all shape the way we experience and interpret the universe. We are unavoidably connected to the matter of the universe, and we are truly matter observing other matter.

 

When we think about ourselves, we put ourselves apart from the universe. We view the person that we are as separate from the natural phenomena of the universe, as someone who experiences reality with a rational mind that views the things happening around us. We create a story about our selves that helps us understand the world we live in.

 

However, this is not reality. We cannot stand ourselves apart from the universe and we cannot look at ourselves as individual, objective, observers of the universe as though we are immune to the happenings and occurrences around us. Through meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhist monks through time, have come to recognize this problem with the way that we think about ourselves. They call this problem the false view of self. A view that creates a self as a rational actor moving through the world in control of ones perception, experiences, and outcomes. This false view can be dangerous and is formed on unfounded views of reality. As Hanh writes, “Attachment to the false view of self means belief in the presence of unchanging entities which exist on their own.”

 

What Hanh and Buddhists found through meditation, Amanda Gefter learned from the study of Physics, particularly from the discoveries of John Wheeler. In a previous post of mine, I wrote about a quote from Gefter where she explained that the universe can only be viewed from the inside, where everything is changing. Trying to view the world from the outside, from a Gods-Eye-View, violates general relativity and breaks the physics of the universe.

 

The view of self that we adopt as we move through the world (especially in the United States) is inconsistent with the view of the self described by monks who noticed their inability to control their mind during meditation. It is also inconsistent with the reality of physics which highlights the challenges of trying to the view the universe as an unchanging object outside the universe. Giving up the concept of self is difficult, but when you remember that there may not be a self, you can let go of stress and pressure to be the person your story is telling you to be. You are connected to the universe and you are a changing being within the universe. Your actions are not your own conscious choices, but the culmination of phenomena occurring within the universe. For me, mindfulness in this area helps me to think about my choices and decisions and react to the universe in a more calm and clear way, even though I am not standing apart from the universe and from forces around me to make the decisions that I make.