[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 
tyrannizes  us.  
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?

Howard Bloom
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 
21st Century
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, 
see  www.howardbloom.net/lucifer
For information on Global Brain: The Evolution of  Mass Mind from the Big 
Bang to the 21st Century, see  www.howardbloom.net

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