Sunday, October 27, 2013

My take on the free will

Free will. Popular topic discussed by philosophers and scientists. Do we have it? Or do we have just an illusion of it? Can we be held responsible for our actions? I would like to share my position on this subject with you. Because I have no choice but to do that :-)

People feel that they have free will that is a free control over their decisions and actions. We punish people when they decide to do bad things to others, because they are the ones who freely choose that harmful behavior and thus are held responsible for their actions.

There’s an idea of free will that you can do absolutely anything, going around the laws of the universe is obviously not true, otherwise I wouldn't be in this kind of universe, writing this article, since I would be too busy playing around in a world of my own choice. So let’s focus on a free will that means we have any choice over what we do within the possibilities of our bodies and the universe we inhabit.

Are we just decision making algorithms? 

We are made out of matter and energy, including our brains, which are very intricate “machines” that process information and control our behavior. We are our brains, at least everything we know at this moment points to that. If our brains are complex machines that work according to a determined set of rules that essentially boil down to very convoluted and complex interactions of basic elementary particles, does that mean that we have no free will and are subject to the laws of physics?

If we write a program that takes certain data as input and produces certain decision as output, did it achieve that decision by its own free will? It simply followed its predetermined behavior, a set of rules that given the same input variables produce the exactly same result. Even if we made the algorithm very large and convoluted, with many input variables influencing its output in various ways, its decision making process would be very difficult to follow as well as the influencing variables, but it still wouldn't make a free choice, but simply follow a deterministic set of rules.

Does randomness help? 

And what makes us think that our brains are different? Perhaps quantum physics can help us here, with the uncertainty principle. It would be analogous to including a random number generator as an input variable (consider source of true random values, not a pseudo-random generator for the sake of argument). Then, given the same input variables (sans the random one) it would produce different result each time.

But does that make its decision making process actually free? It still follows a predetermined series of steps in order to achieve a conclusion. It’s just that one of the input variables is randomized and unknown in advance, which also means that the algorithm has no choice over it. There’s no conscious element choosing a particular outcome, only undetermined event influencing deterministic algorithm. Furthermore, given same determined input variables and same randomized variable, the algorithm would still produce same result.

So even if nondeterministic phenomena had any significant effect on the decision making process of our brains and neural networks, it would hardly be a free will.

No… for a true free will, our minds would have to exist outside of the causality and laws of physics, controlling our brains and bodies like puppets, but nothing in all the knowledge and understanding of how our brains work seems to indicate anything even remotely similar to that. So there’s little reason to believe there’s actual free will.

What kind of “free will” do we have? 

But why do we feel that we have free will? Free choice over what we do and how we behave? Is free will just an illusion?

Indeed it is. Our behavior and decision making process is at the principle no different from the simple computer algorithm, but much more complicated and convoluted, with millions or even billions of various influences – “input variables”. Our behavior and choices are influenced by our genetics and environment.

As have many experiments shown, genetics has large say on our personality and nature, which interplays with the environment from the earliest stages of development in the womb. Differences in nurture can alter the way our brains develop and are structured to some extent as does education and interaction with the world after we're born.

Each day we are bombarded with tons of new information that our brains process and we are consciously aware only of small portion of it. Our conscious mind can’t keep track of all the influences, of the countless numbers of “input” variables that are continuously processed by our brains and in various ways influence the “output” – our behavior and choices we make.

Our decision can be influenced both by immediate experiences, like reacting to something that just happened and distant experiences, like a traumatic event in our childhood (but also much more subtler ones). We can’t control all these variables that produce our decisions and we can't even be aware of all of them, therefore we aren’t aware of how we actually reached to our decisions. Our behavior is even heavily influenced by our endocrine system as various hormones bathe the brain and influence its function.

However we consciously experience some of the mental processes that process the input stimuli and output a decision, which is why we have illusion of free will. The decision making process isn't a black box from our perspective. We are the decision making process.

Unlike a simple computer algorithm, we contain many more “algorithms” that process the world around us and take care of rationalizing, conscious thought, emotions. Our mind is interplay of these interconnected “algorithms” which are involved in various ways in the decision making process. Even if our rationalization and thinking follows some predetermined rules, it’s complicated and convoluted enough that it creates illusion of free choice.

So if I were to define a free will that definitely exists, I would define it as some self-aware “entity” (which can be manifestation of interactions of various parts of the brain, not a single physical thing) experiencing at least some of the decision making process, even if that process is completely deterministic and follows some physical laws that the entity has no control over.

Under that definition, we do have free will, but simple computer algorithm doesn’t. If we were to create a complex computer algorithm, which was capable of reasoning the way we do and internally experiencing its own decision making process, it would also have this free will, even if it’s just an illusion.

What responsibility really means 

If we have no true free control over our actions and our behavior is just very convoluted and complex set of interactions which all boil down to the laws of physics, how can we attribute responsibility for someone’s actions? How can we say that someone is responsible for certain action when what they did is simply a result of the physical laws?

The whole world is full of specific interactions that follow the laws of physics. And we call some bunches of particles arranged and interacting in certain way X and another arrangement interacting in different way Y or even different interaction of the same arrangement Z. Considering this, free will is nothing more than another group of particles interacting in certain way.

Of course, no arrangement or interaction is the same. For example each apple is completely unique and I think you would have problems finding two apples that would be exactly the same, down to every single molecule. So it’s not about naming very specific arrangements something, but rather arrangements that have certain common and similar features. The whole word is fuzzy and only things that have enough apple-like features will be called apples, even if it’s just our concept and there’s no intrinsic concept of “apple” or any other isolated entity in the laws of physics.

And some other sets of arrangements of particles we call humans and we also label their interactions and actions in various ways. We can say that given person is responsible for certain action, because it originated from it. Free will is not necessary to assign responsibility and blame to some entity, if we say that responsibility means that given event was a result of actions of given entity.

Falling rocks and murderers 

This of course means that if a large rock falls and kills a person, we can say that this rock is responsible for killing that person as well as the events that led to it falling down, whether there was any decision making process involved or not. It’s simply a non-factor. The rock could have fallen down perhaps simply due to unfortunate conditions and timing or perhaps a person made a decision and pushed it over with intention to kill someone else – in this case we can trace the responsibility to this person.

Some would ask a question then: Why don't we lock up the rock in prison then? And the answer is quite simple: Because it doesn't make any sense. But why do we then lock up murderers and serial killers in prison, when their behavior is simply result of physical laws of the universe?

Because we have evolved in a way that we try to ensure our further survival, we have to deal with these things in order to prevent any more harm to our society and to individuals. And while both rock falling by unfortunate timing and a person consciously deciding to shoot someone were simply following physical laws and are same in this regard, their properties and the way the series of interactions led to death of someone else are very different.

And that difference is what we base our response on. We should always try to find the best possible way to eliminate harm. Locking up rock in a prison is nonsensical, because the rock isn't capable of intentionally rolling around and falling on people again. A person on the other hand can keep shooting and killing more people if left free.

Free will or even conscious thought are irrelevant when dealing with potential harm: we have to consider the specific situation and circumstances and approach each case differently based on its nature and the way it could result in more harm.

In case of rock, we might place any loose rocks in the area somewhere else, where they have no risk of falling down. Or we can build barriers to stop them. Or also put up warning signs or even find alternate, safer route.

In the case of a person killing others, we can put this person in prison, to prevent any further murders. We can assign responsibility for the deaths to given person, when the person executed actions that led to these deaths. Therefore putting this specific person which kills other persons in prison will ensure safety of others.

Unfair world and the insane 

Is it fair to the person that the physical laws ultimately led to them behaving in that way and ending up locked down? It’s definitely not. But it’s not fair either for people who are being killed or harmed in other way if the person is left free. And after all, we all follow the laws of nature and if the killer has no actual free will and choice to do things he did, neither do other people who capture this person and put it in prison to protect others.

Ideally we should try to influence these people in a way that they can be reintegrated back to society and have better life themselves. More importantly we should look for ways to help other people in less fortunate circumstances to prevent harmful behavior happening in the first place.

There’s also difference between someone who hurts others for personal gain and a mentally ill person. While both people had no actual choice in their behavior and their actions were determined by many factors following the physical laws, there’s a difference in the actual cause of their harmful behavior and the way we deal with them.

People in the first group usually understand that their actions will hurt other people and when dealt with appropriately, there’s a possibility they realize what they've done and won't do it again and can be reintegrated in the society.

The other group however has their reasoning skills impaired in some way. The legal system can classify them as “Not guilty for the reason of insanity”, but they are still the ones responsible for the things they did, even if their action stem from different mental processes. And we deal with these people different as well.

We take care of them in mental asylums, which are better suited for their situation. The point is, even though both groups are following the same basic physical laws, each one is structured somewhat differently. Their circumstances are different and just as we don't treat rock falling on people and a murderer the same way, we don't treat people who murder for personal benefit and are reasonably and people who don't realize they are actually killing others the same way.

Different response for different circumstances 

Different circumstances need to be dealt with differently, even if they all boil down to the same physical laws.

Our own bodies deal with harmful elements, like bacterial or viral infections or cancerous cells and try to remove or eliminate them. Some cells can go rogue by a set of biochemical reactions that are simply unfortunate coincidences, but following the very same laws of nature as all the other healthy cells and they are sacrificed and destroyed to save the whole organism.

Same could be applied to society – certain kinds of behavior are simply harmful to the society as whole and we need to deal with them. Ideally not by destroying them, but by containing and helping them to change, so they can function better with others.

The world isn't a fair place. Lives of some are very lucky and full of joy, lives of some are extremely unfortunate and filled with pain and suffering and there are a lot of people somewhere in between these two extremes. But we should try to find ways to create influences and environment that push as many people as possible closer to the lucky side and generally make everyone’s lives better.

Even though all our actions and interactions might follow the physical laws and our free will is an illusion, we don't know what the future will bring because of the sheer amount of influences. My hope is for a world that better and happier place for everyone.

My hope is that the laws of nature will give people no choice but to create such world.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A year of freelance self-education (+ rambling about biology)

It’s been a while since I have decided to drop out of the college/university and keep learning on my own, as I've been doing for a while. Recently I was asked how it feels and if I regret that decision by someone and I think I could share more elaborate answer with you.

I'll start with a quick answer: No, I don't regret my decision. On the contrary, I am very happy about it and educating myself further without the combined variety of pressures of the college life feels much more relaxed and enlightening.

I've learned a lot over the time. I bought myself a bunch of books on various topics outside of my current area of expertise (computer science): most importantly a big biology textbook that covers everything from basic biochemistry to whole ecosystem (and is appropriately lengthy), since the realm of functions of biological “machines” was one of the most unknown ones to me that was also bugging my mind the most.

And when I don’t know almost anything about something, it burns. Not knowing is like extra flammable oil poured into the fire of curiosity. And that’s what really pushes me to learn about things: just my natural curiosity and desire the understand things and how the world works. I don't want to learn things because I have to according to the school curriculum, but because I want to know more about them.

Natural curiosity is good enough motivator to spend hours buried in textbooks and researching materials.

One thing I found during my time at the school is that it can have quite opposite effect and rather suffocate the flames of natural curiosity. The pressures can distort normally captivating study materials into repulsive shapes, making me actually annoyed to go through them, simply because I am forced to.

It’s well known that people have more trouble acting under a pressure and might not find many activities as entertaining. While a lot of the pressure is natural and unavoidable in daily life, some of it might be unnecessary and artificial and these could be eliminated and more importantly should be eliminated.

Even though I found certain topic interesting (although as I often like to say, I find everything interesting) I found myself often annoyed with having to go through it according to some premade schedule. I didn't have much freedom to adapt the learning process to my interests and style. I got annoyed by spending too much time on things I understood well and going too quickly or superficially over things I didn't understand well enough.

Natural curiosity can be suffocated by the school environment conflicting with personal needs of a student and actually have negative effect.

But dropping out of college and using the free time to structure the learning to my own needs did wonders. I found many books and resources on topics that caught my interest or that I needed for some project of mine and I am still finding more and more. I feel literally like a kid in a candy store, with sweets made from knowledge and understanding, not knowing what to learn first.

Nothing is pushing me or forcing me to learn something in specific way or order so instead I chew through the knowledge (and I mean actual understanding of it as well, not just memorizing stuff) candy naturally, how it bests suits me at the moment. If I get tired with particular area, I go do something else for a while, or if I would like to get more details or alternate explanations, I just go and find them.

Learning new things became very natural, relaxing and enlightening experience for me.

One thought that went through my mind, but more importantly through minds of others I encountered is that without school, without the external pressure, I'll get lazy and stop learning.

Learning has also become entertainment for me.

Yet I find myself trying to read more and more every chance I get, sometimes even having to sadly put the book down (or rather close it, since I mostly read electronic variants), because I have to do some work on a project.

I was always very curious, ever since I was a little kid I was always asking questions and always spent hours buried in books and encyclopedias and I’m very glad that I retained this curiosity and hunger for knowing more.

The very act of learning more about how various aspects of this world work is very enlightening, adding data and details to my internal model of it or even correcting some parts is very fulfilling. The better grasp of reality I get, the better I understand why things happen and how can I affect them or use them for my work.

Just a few months ago, I knew almost nothing about how organisms work and now, even though I'm only about a quarter into the Biology textbook (but it’s a pretty thick book) my understanding is much higher.

Whenever I look at animals, plants or even some phenomena involving microorganisms, I think of various biological processes happening inside of them, I think of how they developed, how they got here. And even though I understand only a fraction of all there is to know about these I still feel fascinated by the beauty of it wanting to learn more.

Understanding the world in all its complexity involves finding relations and connecting things, seeing what I actually learned in the world around me and realizing how various areas and fields relate. But the amount of information and details is so overwhelming that thinking I understand things around me fully would be pretentious and arrogant.

I love connecting my new knowledge and understanding to the real world around me.

Biology is fascinating subject and coming from computer science and engineering background makes it even more peculiar. Organisms are essentially complex molecular “machines”, but they're machines without a designer. At least an intelligent one.

When I look at function and processes in a cell, I see chaos. The biological processes result from (semi)-random interactions of molecules, floating around, bumping into each other, forming groups or dissolving and interacting in various ways.

Yet there is an order within the cell, because only the interactions and molecules that are good at keeping the whole system going and propagating themselves remain. The randomness is filtered by the conditions of reality and environment. The natural laws of physics are “designing” and “guiding” the development.

There’s no intelligence involved however, there’s no foresight or sense of elegance and clean design. Organisms are overly convoluted bunch of chemical reactions interacting with each other and often tend to compensate for this chaos by robustness and quantity, so on the outside they seem to function very well with a sense of direction, function and purpose.

But apparent sense of purpose of organisms is just an illusion.

Biology has also some interesting relations to computer science (or vice versa). Ribosomes translating RNA to polypeptides, using a sequence of specific molecules as “instructions” are very like a Turing machine. The cells have various ways of communicating with other cells or environment, a protocol involving various other molecules that trigger whole series of reactions.

Some of the processes even inspire engineers when creating solutions for problems, for example using the principles of evolution in evolutionary programming to sift through a large set of possible solutions with fitness criteria over thousands simulated generations to get the very good ones.

Biology and Computer Science seem to have more in common than one would imagine.

And not just that, we can take the inspiration a step further, because engineers can do what nature generally can’t: Design with a foresight with some intended function and redesign certain parts when they become overly convoluted.

Nature can change the “design” of organisms only by small steps to changing conditions. Much like when you're developing software and your client keeps changing his mind all the time, the constant changes and modifications result in chaotic disorganized code. And we can see that in biology.

But programmer or engineer can do a great thing when this occurs: Erase the whole design and start anew, designing the system from the scratch to handle all the complexities it’s supposed to handle in the most elegant way possible. Unlike nature, he doesn't need to change the system in a series of small steps from something very simple to something more complex.

If life had a designer, it was a brain dead one. "Retarded design" seems to be more fitting than "Intelligent design".

But we can get inspired by biology and take it a step further using our intelligence, which we, funnily enough, obtained by this long process of random variations in biological processes over many generations of organisms. This reminds me of bootstrapping in computer science, where a simple program can initiate a much more complicated one.

I wonder about the day when we will be capable of creating a “super-organism”, a being much more efficient, intelligent and generally well-designed by an actual intelligent designer(s) compared to ourselves.

And to do that we have to understand the world we live in as best as we can. And that’s why I love learning about everything I can. It satisfies my curiosity about the past, how things developed, from galaxies, to intelligent life, about the present and inspires me about the possible future.

At the moment I am captivated by biology (hence the musing about it above), but I already found interesting books on geology, psychology, cosmology or quantum computing and I can't wait to get into these topics as well.

All this fuels me to get more books on various sciences, not just one and hopefully use that to contribute to building a fascinating future as much as I can during my life.

Well… enough rambling, back to learning and working on cool stuff :3

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Are atheists and scientists really close minded?

One of the common retort of believers of various unsupported claims is that science or atheists are close minded and should open their mind. I would like to demonstrate that it’s actually the opposite.

“You need to open your mind to other things”, “Science just blinds you to all the other possibilities” or “You need to have open mind in order to accept god” are some of the things you can hear from many people who are proponents of various religious or supernatural ideas when countered with questioning or rejection of their claims.

They attempt to stick “close-minded” label on people who don't believe in what they do without sufficient evidence and claim that science closes people’s eyes to all the other stuff that’s out there.

But is it really the case? Does science make you blind? Is being rational, logical and having high standards for evidence really closing your mind? I say no and I would like to explain why. In fact, I would actually go as far as push the “close-minded” label on the people who spout it out so fervently when their supernatural beliefs are criticized or questioned.

Science isn't a closed thing that determined the nature of reality and closed to anything else. It’s a method of examining and understanding the world we live in with many properties that make it very reliable: it gives us replicable results and understanding of various phenomena that we can use for everything from building complex technology to curing people. It's responsible for many other advances of our society that just *work*, which should be a testament enough to the grasp of the science on reality.

But, as many theists argue, it doesn't know everything. That's certainly true. But they forget that it’s humble enough to admit that. And from that stems its open-mindedness.

It continuously seeks for new answers, ways to improve the existing ones or in some cases even replace with much better and more precise answers based on the gathered evidence.

It evaluates the world from all angles and searches for the best explanation available and if it can’t find any, it’s honest about it and says “I don't know”, often adding hopeful “yet”.

And that’s what’s being open-minded is about: You have to be open to all the options and all the answers. However open-mindedness alone isn't enough. We also need critical examination, logic and careful reasoning, to examine and experimentally test the answers.

The truth is singular, anything else is mistruth to various degree, ranging from slight incorrectness to blatant falsehoods.

And that singular truth is what science seeks, it tries to get as close to it as possible and eliminating all the errors it can find. Science and scientists need to be open-minded enough consider various possible explanations, but also rational enough to analyze how well is each one of them supported by evidence and how well they explain what is really happening.

If they were really close-minded, science wouldn’t work well. The search for new answers would be difficult and progress very slow, because they would get stuck on certain idea, refusing to let it go. Things wouldn't work and we wouldn’t advance.

And that’s exactly what happens with the proponents of supernatural phenomena. They find an answer they like and they stick with it, no matter what. They close their minds to all the other possible answers, maybe because they aren't pleasant and comforting as they would wish them to be, which of course has no bearing on their truthfulness.

These people reject any naturalistic explanations of things they deem supernatural, even if these answers are clearly demonstrated and experimentally verified. They close their minds to anything that doesn't fit in their world. They become close-minded themselves to the point, where when they can't counter any arguments against their claims they start throwing “close-minded” labels at the people, just to stop the criticism or perhaps just queries for any actual evidence, because their mind is not open enough to consider even the possibility of being wrong.

If you're being rational and use scientific method to examine the world, you have no need to use such labels to “win” an argument. You have a good reasons to believe something based on actual observations.

You are open-minded to consider the possibilities, but also think critically enough to eliminate ones that have little reason believing in or even reasons to dismiss it.

And very importantly, you're also ready to change your view if new solid evidence comes to light.

The point is, you're not closed to believing in any given claim, you're just waiting for the other side to actually provide any solid evidence.