Wow, what a claim! The study of the organ that takes decisions and directs our actions can't examine whether or not we have control over those actions?
A few legitimate physical theories have sometimes been interpreted as leading to retrocausality. This is not considered part of science, since the distinction between cause and effect in physics is not made at the most fundamental level.
By now you've probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you're reading this. For those who haven't seen one, it's a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.
Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they're playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it's easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can't. If you try to press the button without having seen a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterwards, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There's no way to fool a Predictor.
The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay Ñ it sends a signal back in time. The full implications of the technology will become apparent later, when negative delays of greater than a second are achieved, but that's not what this warning is about. The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there's no such thing as free will.
There have always been arguments showing that free will is an illusion, some based on hard physics, others based on pure logic. Most people agree these arguments are irrefutable, but no one ever really accepts the conclusion. The experience of having free will is too powerful for an argument to overrule. What it takes is a demonstration, and that's what a Predictor provides.
Typically, a person plays with a Predictor compulsively for several days, showing it to friends, trying various schemes to outwit the device. The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means Ñ over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in. Some people, realizing that their choices don't matter, refuse to make any choices at all. Like a legion of Bartleby the Scriveners, they no longer engage in spontaneous action. Eventually, a third of those who play with a Predictor must be hospitalized because they won't feed themselves. The end state is akinetic mutism, a kind of waking coma. They'll track motion with their eyes, and change position occasionally, but nothing more. The ability to move remains, but the motivation is gone.
Before people started playing with Predictors, akinetic mutism was very rare, a result of damage to the anterior cingulate region of the brain. Now it spreads like a cognitive plague. People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable lovecraftian horror, or a Gšdel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we've all encountered: the idea that free will doesn't exist. It just wasn't harmful until you believed it.
Doctors try arguing with the patients while they still respond to conversation. We had all been living happy, active lives before, they reason, and we hadn't had free will then either. Why should anything change? "No action you took last month was any more freely chosen than one you take today," a doctor might say. "You can still behave that way now." The patients invariably respond, "But now I know." And some of them never say anything again.
Some will argue that the fact the Predictor causes this change in behaviour means that we do have free will. An automaton cannot become discouraged, only a free-thinking entity can. The fact that some individuals descend into akinetic mutism whereas others do not just highlights the importance of making a choice.
Unfortunately, such reasoning is faulty: every form of behaviour is compatible with determinism. One dynamic system might fall into a basin of attraction and wind up at a fixed point, whereas another exhibits chaotic behaviour indefinitely, but both are completely deterministic.
I'm transmitting this warning to you from just over a year in your future: it's the first lengthy message received when circuits with negative delays in the megasecond range are used to build communication devices. Other messages will follow, addressing other issues. My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It's essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don't. The reality isn't important: what's important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.
And yet I know that, because free will is an illusion, it's all predetermined who will descend into akinetic mutism and who won't. There's nothing anyone can do about it Ñ you can't choose the effect the Predictor has on you. Some of you will succumb and some of you won't, and my sending this warning won't alter those proportions. So why did I do it?
Because I had no choice.
I completely disagree: continued progress in the development of our tools of investigation will one day allow us to observe all chemical processes ongoing in the brain, at the molecular level, in real time.
Absolutely not. In the human brain the storage of data IS the act of rewiring the chip on the fly. The only thing even roughly analogous are FPGAs, and they're not sufficiently common for debating conceptual models on Metafilter.
Except, it seems the Mele needs to "catch up" with his understanding of Science, apparently, because the universe isn't deterministic at the quantum level...
This is neural networking 101, dude.
I'm engaging a completely off-the-cuff philosophical debate on a web forum where the majority of participants have no background in neural network programming, neurology, or cognitive science.
You invest so much in it, don't you? It's what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it's what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself. Wise Man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it's for?
Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you've forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterwards, unconscious the whole time. Maybe nobody's told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.
Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity's already halfway down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self 'chose' to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary—almost an afterthought— to the homunculus behind your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.
But it's not in charge. You're not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn't share living space with the likes of you.
Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively human pursuits that must surely rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that's what sentience would be for— if scientific breakthroughs didn't spring fully-formed from the subconscious mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night's sleep. It's the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it.
Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.
Don't even try to talk about the learning curve. Don't bother citing the months of deliberate practice that precede the unconscious performance, or the years of study and experiment leading up to the gift-wrapped Eureka moment. So what if your lessons are all learned consciously? Do you think that proves there's no other way? Heuristic software's been learning from experience for over a hundred years. Machines master chess, cars learn to drive themselves, statistical programs face problems and design the experiments to solve them and you think that the only path to learning leads through sentience? You're Stone-age nomads, eking out some marginal existence on the veldt—denying even the possibility of agriculture, because hunting and gathering was good enough for your parents.
Do you want to know what consciousness is for? Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves? Training wheels. You can't see both aspects of the Necker Cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other. That's a pretty half-assed way to parse reality. You're always better off looking at more than one side of anything. Go on, try. Defocus. It's the next logical step.
Oh, but you can't. There's something in the way.
And it's fighting back.
* * *
Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains—cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.
* * *
The system weakens, slows. It takes so much longer now to perceive—to assess the input, mull it over, decide in the manner of cognitive beings. But when the flash flood crosses your path, when the lion leaps at you from the grasses, advanced self-awareness is an unaffordable indulgence. The brain stem does its best. It sees the danger, hijacks the body, reacts a hundred times faster than that fat old man sitting in the CEO's office upstairs; but every generation it gets harder to work around this— this creaking neurological bureaucracy.
I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis. Scramblers have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious. With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains—deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism—they think rings around you. They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they're saying. They turn your own cognition against itself. They travel between the stars. This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness.
I is not the working mind, you see. For Amanda Bates to say "I do not exist" would be nonsense; but when the processes beneath say the same thing, they are merely reporting that the parasites have died. They are only saying that they are free.
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