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.
The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

My previous post was about post-action rationalization, the idea that we often do things at an instinctual level and then apply a rationalization to them upon reflection, after the action has been completed. Our rationalization sounds logical and supports the idea that we have free will, that our decision was based on specific factors we identified, and that we consciously chose to do something. An understanding of post-action rationalization helps reveal the illusion of free will.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl uses the example of a soccer player to demonstrate how post-action rationalization works. The soccer player reacts to situations in the game as they develop. They don’t do complex math to calculate the best angle to kick a ball, they don’t paus to work out the probability of successfully scoring a goal based on passing to one player over another, and they don’t pause to think about all the alternatives available to them in any given moment. Their minds pick up on angles, speeds, past experiences, and other unknown factors unique to each situation and players respond instinctively, without conscious thought guiding how they move and what choices they make. According to Pearl, this instinctive and intuitive processing should challenge the idea that we have free will. It should challenge the idea that we consciously chose our actions and behaviors and cause us to think that we respond to situations without a real knowledge of why we are responding. Nevertheless, we all feel that we have free will, even if we know the feeling described in the sporting event example.
This illusion of free will has some benefits. Pearl writes, “the illusion of free will gives us the ability to speak about our intents and to subject them to rational thinking, possibly using counterfactual logic.” Free will helps us talk about the stimuli around us and how we respond to them, and it helps us by providing reinforcements for outcomes that go well and admonishment for outcomes that should be avoided in the future. It is useful by creating a sense of agency and feedback between us.
Pearl continues, “I would conjecture, then, that a team of robots would play better soccer if they were programmed to communicate as if they had free will. No matter how technically proficient the individual robots are at soccer, their team’s performance will improve when they can speak to each other as if they are not preprogrammed robots but autonomous agents believing they have options.”
As artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities progress Pearl may come to regret this quote. However, it is a helpful lens to apply to human evolution and how we arrived at our current mental states. Matter arranged itself to become self-reproducing and eventually became self-observant. By being able to attribute agency and free will to its own actions, matter became even better at self-replicating and self-preserving. This is the argument that Pearl ultimately makes through his soccer analogy. Robots might in the future be the most proficient at soccer without a sense of self, but at least at times in human history we have been served well by our illusion of free will. It has helped us organize and collaborate in complex social and political societies, and it has helped us work together to create the world we now inhabit. Free will may not truly exist, but the illusion of free will has helped us do everything from play soccer to launch satellites so that we can watch other people play soccer from the other side of the planet.
Post-Action Rationalization

Post-Action Rationalization

I have heard people write about a split brain experiment where a participant whose corpus collosum was severed was instructed in one ear, through a pair of headphones, to leave the room they were in because the experiment was over. As the participant stood to leave the room, a researcher asked them why they had gotten up. The participant said they wanted to get something to drink.
This experiment is pretty famous and demonstrates the human ability to rationalize our behaviors even when we really don’t know what prompted us to behave in one way or another. If you have ever been surprised that you had an angry outburst at another person, if you have ever had a gut feeling in an athletic competition, and if you ever forgot something important in a report and been bewildered by your omission, then you have probably engaged in post-action rationalization. You have probably thought back over the event, the mental state you were in, and tried to figure out exactly why you did what you did and not something else.
However, Judea Pearl in The Book of Why would argue that your answer is nothing more than an illusion. Writing about this phenomenon he says:
“Rationalization of actions may be a reconstructive, post-action process. For example, a soccer player may explain why he decided to pass the ball to Joe instead of Charlie, but it is rarely the case that those reasons consciously triggered the action. In the heat of the game, thousands of input signals compete for the player’s attention. The crucial decision is which signals to prioritize, and the reasons can hardly be recalled and articulated.”
Your angry traffic outburst was brought on by a huge number of factors. Your in game decision was not something you paused, thought about, and worked out the physics to perfect before hand. Similarly, your omission on a report was a barely conscious lapse of information. Each of these situations we can rationalize and explain based on several salient factors that come to mind post-action, but that hardly describes how our brain was actually working in the moment.
The brain has to figure out what signals to prioritize and what signals to consciously respond to in order for each of the examples I mentioned to come about. These notions should challenge our ideas of free-will, our beliefs that we can ever truly know ourselves, and our confidence in learning from experience. Pearl explains that he is a determinist who compromises by accepting an illusion of free will. He argues that the illusion I have described with my examples and his quote helps us to experience and navigate the world. We feel that there is something that it is like to be us, that we make our decisions, and we can justify our behaviors, but this is all merely an illusion.
If Pearl is right, then it is a helpful illusion. We can still understand it better, still understand how this illusion is created, sustained, and can be put to the best uses. We might not have a true and authentic self under the illusion. We might not be in control of what the illusion is. But nevertheless, we can shape and mold it, and have a responsibility to do the best with our illusion, even if much of it is post-action rationalization.
Co-opting Mental Machinery

Co-opting Mental Machinery

The human mind is great at pattern recognition, but it is not the only brain that can recognize a pattern. Pigeons can recognize patterns for food distribution with button presses, mice can remember mazes and navigate through complex patterns to a reward, and other animals can recognize patterns in hunting, mating, and other activities. What humans do differently is use pattern recognition to determine causal structures by imagining and testing alternative hypotheses. This is a crucial step beyond the pattern recognition of other animals.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “It is not too much of a stretch to think that 40,000 years ago, humans co-opted the machinery in their brain that already existed for pattern recognition and started to use it for causal reasoning.” This idea is interesting because it explains our pattern recognition linkage with other animals and helps us think about how brain structures and ways of thinking may have evolved.
In isolation, a brain process is interesting, but not as interesting as when considered alongside similar brain processes. When we look at pattern recognition and its similarities to causal reasoning, we see a jumping off point. We can see how brain processes that helped us in one area opened up new possibilities through development. This helps us think more deeply about the mental abilities that we have.
The ways we think and how our brains work is not static. Different cultural factors, environmental factors, and existing brain processes can all shape how our brains work and evolve individually and as a species.  As Pearl notes, it is likely that many of our brain processes co-opted other mental machinery for new purposes. Very few of what see in human psychology can be well understood in isolation. Asking why and how evolution could have played a role is crucial to understanding who we are now and how we got to this point. Causality is not something that just existed naturally in the brain. It was built by taking other processes and co-opting them for new purposes, and those new purposes have allowed us to do magnificent things like build rockets, play football, and develop clean water systems.
The Representation Problem

The Representation Problem

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl lays out what computer scientists call the representation problem by writing, “How do humans represent possible worlds in their minds and compute the closest one, when the number of possibilities is far beyond the capacity of the human brain?”
 
 
In the Marvel Movie Infinity War, Dr. Strange looks forward in time to see all the possible outcomes of a coming conflict. He looks at 14,000,605 possible futures. But did Dr. Strange really look at all the possible futures out there? 14 million is a convenient big number to include in a movie, but how many possible outcomes are there for your commute home? How many people could change your commute in just the tiniest way? Is it really a different outcome if you hit a bug while driving, if you were stopped at 3 red lights and not 4, or if you had to stop at a crosswalk for a pedestrian? The details and differences in the possible worlds of our commute home can range from the miniscule to the enormous (the difference between you rolling your window down versus a meteor landing in the road in front of you). Certainly with all things considered there are more than 14 million possible futures for your drive home.
 
 
Somehow, we are able to live our lives and make decent predictions of the future despite the enormity of possible worlds that exist ahead of us. Somehow we can represent possible worlds in our minds and determine what future world is the closest one to the reality we will experience. This ability allows us to plan for retirement, have kids, go to the movies, and cook dinner. If we could not do this, we could not drive down the street, could not walk to a neighbors house, and couldn’t navigate a complex social world. But none of us are sitting in a green glow with our head spinning in circles like Dr. Strange as we try to view all the possible worlds in front of us. What is happening in our mind to do this complex math?
 
 
Pearl argues that we solve this representation problem not through magical foresight, but through an intuitive understanding of causal structures. We can’t predict exactly what the stock market is going to do, whether a natural disaster is in our future, or precisely how another person will react to something we say, but we can get a pretty good handle on each of these areas thanks to causal reasoning.
 
 
We can throw out possible futures that have no causal structures related to the reality we inhabit.  You don’t have to think of a world where Snorlax is blocking your way home, because your brain recognizes there is no causal plausibility of a Pokémon character sleeping in the road. Our brain easily discards the absurd possible futures and simultaneous recognizes the causal pathways that could have major impacts on how we will live. This approach gradually narrows down the possibilities to a level where we can make decisions and work with a level of information that our brain (or computers) can reasonably decipher. We also know, without having to do the math, that rolling our window down or hitting a bug is not likely to start a causal pathway that materially changes the outcome of our commute home. The same goes for being stopped at a few more red lights or even stopping to pick up a burrito. Those possibilities exist, but they don’t materially change our lives and so our brain can discard them from the calculation. This is the kind of work our brains our doing, Pearl would argue, to solve the representation problem.

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.
Causal Illusions

Causal Illusions

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “our brains are not wired to do probability problems, but they are wired to do causal problems. And this causal wiring produces systematic probabilistic mistakes, like optical illusions.” This can create problems for us when no causal link exists and when data correlate without any causal connections between outcomes. According to Pearl, our causal thinking, “neglects to account for the process by which observations are selected.” We don’t always realize that we are taking a sample, that our sample could be biased, and that structural factors independent of the phenomenon we are trying to observe could greatly impact the observations we actually make.
Pearl continues, “We live our lives as if the common cause principle were true. Whenever we see patterns, we look for a causal explanation. In fact, we hunger for an explanation, in terms of stable mechanisms that lie outside the data.” When we see a correlation our brains instantly start looking for a causal mechanism that can explain the correlation and the data we see. We don’t often look at the data itself to ask if there was some type of process in the data collection that lead to the outcomes we observed. Instead, we assume the data is correct and  that the data reflects an outside, real-world phenomenon. This is the cause of many causal illusions that Pearl describes in the book. Our minds are wired for causal thinking, and we will invent causality when we see patterns, even if there truly isn’t a causal structure linking the patterns we see.
It is in this spirit that we attribute negative personality traits to people who cut us off on the freeway. We assume they don’t like us, that they are terrible people, or that they are rushing to the hospital with a sick child so that our being cut off has a satisfying causal explanation. When a particular type of car stands out and we start seeing that car everywhere, we misattribute our increased attention to the type of car and assume that there really are more of those cars on the road now. We assume that people find them more reliable or more appealing and that people purposely bought those cars as a causal mechanism to explain why we now see them everywhere. In both of these cases we are creating causal pathways in our mind that in reality are little more than causal illusions, but we want to find a cause to everything and we don’t always realize that we are doing so.
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.
Wired for Distraction

Wired for Distraction

“Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

Our technology today is not built nor designed to provide us with the best space for focus, it is not intended to provide us the maximum possible value, and it is not sold to us to truly enhance our lives. A lot of our technology today is intended to keep us engaged, to grab our attention, and to earn someone else a few bucks. What we get are curated distractions, constantly renewing streams of information that we pretend keeps us in the know, keeps us entertained, and provides us value. Even though our devices have this negative downside, we lie to ourselves about our need for our technology, and we are not honest about how much we rely on technology as a distraction to save us from a few minutes of boredom.

 

I find myself constantly checking Strava, just to see if anyone new has liked my run. I don’t like watching dishes without watching a YouTube video on my phone, and I don’t like cooking without listening to a podcast. Just like everyone else it seems, I’m hardly able to wait in line at the grocery store without pulling my phone out to just click around for the five minutes I might have to wait.

 

The problem with all of these habits is that it trains my mind to be distracted and constantly entertained with something flashy, new, and interesting.

 

Cal Newport, throughout Deep Work, returns to an idea, “The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.” If we are not training ourselves to focus, and instead train ourselves to be distracted, we will never be able to do deep work, and will never be able to concentrate on things that matter when it matters. “efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

 

Boredom and not having something stimulating for our brain has been seen as terrible. Being stuck in traffic, waiting at the doctor’s office, and having to vacuum the floor are all times when our minds used to be stuck in a state of boredom, but now can be in a state of distraction. All of our distractions train our minds to be dependent on interesting information and stimuli. Newport describes the problem this way:

 

“If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work–even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

 

If we want to be successful, do meaningful things with our careers, and engage with interesting and meaningful ideas and topics, we have to find ways to put down our phones and learn to concentrate through boredom. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but it can help our mind adjust so we are not distracted and oblivious to the world around us. It can help our minds be prepared to do meaningful work when the time comes.
Willpower maximization

Limited Willpower

When we imagine who we are going to be in the future, what we want to accomplish, and how we are going to reach our goals, we see ourselves as a super version of who we are now. We imagine that we can focus and achieve anything we set our mind to, at least if we can work hard enough. All it takes, in our vision of the bright future, is willpower to push ourselves to work harder, be smarter, and do the challenging but important work to get to the top.

 

The reality for us, however, is that this ideal version of ourselves will not simply appear with the flip of a switch. The hard work we view ourselves completing is not just hard, it is impossible to complete without focus and an ability to engage in deep work. We have to cultivate this ability if we want to see it in our lives, it is not simply a matter of willpower.

 

In the past I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When and how we move through several predictable stages throughout the day. For most people (those of us who are generally morning people – night owls are the same process in reverse), we wake up and our brains are fresh and ready to tackle the day. We can do our best focus work and complete important analytical work during the first roughly 6 hours of the day. Afterward, we fall into a trough, where our brain is tired and we are not good at being focused or doing analytical work. Later in the day we see a rebound, where we become a bit better on complex thinking work, but still find ourselves easily distracted.

 

What Pink’s research shows is that our day and our work isn’t driven so much by willpower but by the biological reality of the brain. Cal Newport’s research in his book Deep Work supports this idea. Newport presents several studies which show that our willpower only lasts so long before we give in. As he writes, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

We are not superheros and don’t have superpowers. We operate with a brain that can only handle so much before it becomes tired and stops working as well as we would like. We can resist those donuts in the morning when our brain is still fresh, but as the day goes on, we are going to become weary from the tough decisions we have to make, and our ability to fight off the donut craving will likely fail. We need to remember that our willpower won’t last forever and we need to set up systems and structures to help us do our best work when our brains are at their peak. Through these structures we can avoid negative temptations when our brains are in a rut. Plan ahead reasonably, and work to take steps that align with the reality of the brain. Don’t force yourself to rely on a superhuman effort that just isn’t realistic to be successful and accomplish the important things in your life.