[Paleopsych] Re: free will--fr Ted Coons
HowlBloom at aol.com
HowlBloom at aol.com
Thu Jun 2 05:45:58 UTC 2005
This is devilishly clever, Ted. And it gives a wonderful opportunity to put
ten years of thought about will down in one place. See comments below.
In a message dated 6/1/2005 2:47:37 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, eec1 at nyu.edu
Howard, before dealing with the math that a putative "free will" would
require, I feel there is a paradoxical motivational issue regarding "free
will" that first needs at least considering (if not clarifying). One of
the reasons "free will" is an attractive concept is that it liberates us
from a smothering sense of external control with which determinism
hb: good point, and one I've been pondering a good part of the day. In past
years, I've written that the sense of self is a fragile envelope, a
perceptual membrane with which we achieve an illusion of control. Self is a membrane
we use to differentiate ourselves from our parents and from the other power
figures in our lives. And self is a perceptual membrane that lets us say
that we're similar enough to others that they should accept us in their company,
but different enough that they should pay attention to us.
Self is like the O in Joel Isaacson's cellular automata. It is a
differentiator...a diversity generator. Gaining a sense of self in childhood,
adolescence, and adulthood is allied to the impulse among bacteria to either take a
position at a slight distance from their parents and eat an as-yet-untasted
part of the nearby landscape or to grow a propeller and leave the ancestral
homestead altogether. Self is vital to the itch of biomass to spread, spread,
spread, even if that imperialistic impulse takes cell-and-dna-based life two
miles beneath the surface of the earth, where lithoautotrophs feed on stone,
or to the surface of Mars, where several inanimate probes of biomass are
currently adventuring on our behalf.
The need for a sense of self is also akin to Val Geist's maintenance and
dispersal modes--his two basic phenotypes for all forms of life. Get yourself a
sense of self--of separateness--and either inherit the old family patch or
niche, use it in a slightly new way, or go off to seek your fortune elsewhere.
Meandering even farther, self in the Bloomian view is a billboard of
control. Other members of our species cluster around those of us who seem in
control of circumstance. They shun those of us who seem clueless, those of us who
seem to have lost our grip and to have lost control. That's true whether we
are single-celled lymphocytes in the immune system, or human beings. I also
suspect it's true among bacteria, slime mold, and most other living things.
The tendency of others to avoid us when we are bumbling and to cluster
around us when we are confident and have good reason to swagger turns us into
parts of a neural-net-like learning machine, modules in a creative mass-computer,
or neurons in a collective intelligence.
OK, now what does this have to do with free will? Good question.
The more perception of branching choices, the further we can spread. And
spreading is important to survival. Those who spread into the greatest number
of slots have the best chance of survival the next time a mass-die-off
happens. And so far we've counted 148 of those mass die-offs. But there may be
hundreds or thousands more we haven't yet been able to count.
Why so many mass extinctions? Because this planet periodically goes through
upheavals whose sources are far beyond the control of biomass--far beyond
the control of planetary passengers like busily-spreading single-celled
organisms and their newly-arrived relatives, multicellular creatures. We circle our
galactic core every 66 million years. On our merry way, we pass through
many a patch of "galactic fluff"--schmootz--space dust, that increases our
normal yearly accumulation of space grit from 30 million kilograms a year to 90
million or more. That dust changes our climate dramatically, wiping out
branches of the tree of life that haven't branched with sufficient bushiness.
Periodically the earth belches volcanically and blackens the sky, doing just
about the same thing an overload of space dust achieves--chilling the
temperature considerably. And we now think that periodically the seas burp vast
masses of methane, turning the planet into a hothouse.
On a planet of massive change, those branches of the tree of life that bet
on permanence and stability die. Those that shift tactics and locations,
those that make new niches of what previously seemed to be nothingness, thrive.
The mind is a new possibility-prober. The more options it imagines the more
options it opens. And more options it opens, the more mind is likely to
make it through the next planetary catastrophe. The more imaginings mind turns
to reality, the hardier and longer-lived the family of mind is likely to be.
But is will simply an illusion? After all, Benjamin Libet says that the
impulse that moves our fingers starts its journey from the brain to the muscles
nearly a half a second before it announces itself to the conscious mind.
Will, Libet implies, is a clever illusion.
I suspect Libet is right about timing and wrong about the ultimate power of
will. "Anything we conceive and believe we can achieve," said the singer and
preacher Al Green while he was driving me slowly past Elvis' mansion in
Memphis. (Others attribute the quote to Napoleon. But Napoleon was never kind
enough to drive me past a local landmark.)
The quote is on the money, in my opinion. But how? You've probably tried
to go on diets many, many times and have discovered just how powerless your
will is. But think. Roughly one out of every five of us DOES manage to go on
that elusive diet. It may take him six tries, but he does get there. How?
Well, let's imagine that the desire to toss some change into a vending
machine and buy some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups originates in the limbic system.
That's just a guess. One of the difficulties with Libet's studies is that he
works with encephalographs, not with NMR or fMRI machines. So Libet can't
pinpoint quite which part of the brain sends out orders to the muscles before
letting us know what it's up to.
But let's take a wild guess and blame the errant impulse to eat a forbidden
bit of chocolate on that old stooge, the emotional brain, the restless
reptile, the limbic system. The limbic system registers the Reeses. Out goes the
order to slide a dollar into the machine. By the time our conscious mind gets
the message, it's too late. We are on our way to another 500 un-needed
How does the limbic system manages to puppeteer us on critical issues like
chocaholic indulgence? The number of neurons going from the limbic system to
the cerebral cortex is large. The number of neurons headed from the cortex
back to the limbic system is small. In other words, the limbic system comes
equipped to puppeteer the conscious mind. But the conscious mind has very few
strings with which to jerk around the limbic system. Score a neurobiological
advantage for impulse over willpower.
But the brain is highly plastic. Use it or lose it. As studies of
musicians (including some Ted Coons has been involved in) show, the more you exercise
something--like your piano-playing or violin-stringing fingers--the more
nerves you manage to attract to the project on which you focus your
self-discipline. Yes, with enough practice you, too, can play the piano. And in the
process you can modestly remake your brain.
So the Bloom theory of will goes something like this. Try five times to go
on a diet and you may fail. But keep applying willpower, and you may
literally resculpt your brain. You may grow more than the normal number of neurons
going from the cortex--the thinking part of the brain--to the limbic
system--the emotional brain. With enough nerves going from the haughty-but-impotent
spokesman of self to the real meat of you and me, our reptilian impulse, you
can change the way the reptile makes its impulse-decisions. With new limbic
meshes born of steady practice, you can assure that your inner reptile
decides to keep your hands in your pocket the next time you pass the vending
machine and are tempted by a Reese's Pieces opportunity.
Yes, you, too, can exert the power of will. But will you do it to open a
new niche for yourself, for your family, for your species, and for the grand
schemes of mind and biomass? Will you do it with sufficient vigor and
imagination to insure that mind and biomass make it through the next cosmic or
planetary catastrophe? If will exists, then that depends on you. And, though will
comes only with enormous exertion, I think it DOES exist. But that's just
my willful opinion.
Who among us wouldn't like to throw off the behavior chains
of causality and "over these prison walls fly"? Yet when asked the reasons
why we do things, we say "because....," thus, admitting to a justifying
influence in vast preference to the insanity of doing something without
reason (the abhorrent equivalent of a motivationless crime, so to
speak). So the issue, at least psychologically, is: Can we choose without
being chosen or, if we must be chosen, can we still choose? Perhaps
entanglement is somehow the answer.....Ted
>At 11:19 PM 5/16/2005 -0400, you wrote:
>>This is from a dialog Pavel Kurakin and I are having behind the
>>scenes. I wanted to see what you all thought of it. Howard
>>You know that I'm a quantum skeptic. I believe that our math is
>>primitive. The best math we've been able to conceive to get a handle on
>>quantum particles is probabilistic. Which means it's cloudy. It's
>>filled with multiple choices. But that's the problem of our math, not of
>>the cosmos. With more precise math I think we could make more precise
>>And with far more flexible math, we could model large-scale things like
>>bio-molecules, big ones, genomes, proteins and their interactions. With
>>a really robust and mature math we could model thought and brains. But
>>that math is many centuries and many perceptual breakthroughs away.
>>As mathematicians, we are still in the early stone age.
>>But what I've said above has a kink I've hidden from view. It implies
>>that there's a math that would model the cosmos in a totally
>>deterministic way. And life is not deterministic. We DO have free
>>will. Free will means multiple choices, doesn't it? And multiple
>>choices are what the Copenhagen School's probabilistic equations are all
>>How could the concept of free will be right and the assumptions behind
>>the equations of Quantum Mechanics be wrong? Good question. Yet I'm
>>certain that we do have free will. And I'm certain that our current
>>quantum concepts are based on the primitive metaphors underlying our
>>existing forms of math. Which means there are other metaphors ahead of
>>us that will make for a more robust math and that will square free will
>>with determinism in some radically new way.
>>Now the question is, what could those new metaphors be?
Author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of
History and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind From The Big Bang to the
Visiting Scholar-Graduate Psychology Department, New York University; Core
Faculty Member, The Graduate Institute
Founder: International Paleopsychology Project; founding board member: Epic
of Evolution Society; founding board member, The Darwin Project; founder: The
Big Bang Tango Media Lab; member: New York Academy of Sciences, American
Association for the Advancement of Science, American Psychological Society,
Academy of Political Science, Human Behavior and Evolution Society, International
Society for Human Ethology; advisory board member: Youthactivism.org;
executive editor -- New Paradigm book series.
For information on The International Paleopsychology Project, see:
for two chapters from
The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History,
For information on Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big
Bang to the 21st Century, see www.howardbloom.net
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
-------------- next part --------------
An embedded message was scrubbed...
From: Ted Coons <eec1 at nyu.edu>
Subject: HOWARD...for you personally...Ted
Date: Wed, 01 Jun 2005 02:49:24 -0400
More information about the paleopsych