Sunday, November 3, 2013

There is no free will, but you have a choice! (And the role of memes in choice-creation)

(This is the rough draft of the piece that became my INK Talk. It's more of a roughly summed up summary of the book I am currently writing. I have shared many inferences, without having enough space to elucidate on their logical proofs. Also, given the time and space constraint, I have not sufficiently established the relationship between culture and choice-expansion, but merely hinted at it. With my book, I also intend to spend a considerable amount of time deconstructing the memeplex of religious and political institutions, which again I have only cursorily hinted at here. Finally, one of the arguments made here is actually a simple observation that the existence of choice or the possibility to choose between existing choices is not in contradiction with determinism.)

"Free Will" by Nitin Zihani Chowdhary

As a filmmaker, I feel my job has many functions – to archive, to assess, to examine, to inquire, to challenge, to propose, to simulate, to stimulate, even hope to inspire, to analyse, to reject downright, to synthesise, aspire to be enlightened and share it, to interpret new data, to assimilate the most significant breakthroughs in our thinking and knowing into metaphors, analogies and narratives that domesticate the wild physics of the Higgs Boson particle and reconstruct time capsules so they are easier to swallow.

There are a few certainties. That’s good. That’s good to work with. One, we are all going to die. (Well, some of us might go on, if Kurzweil and some others have their way, but that’s going to take a while, so even if they are, most of us are going to die.) That sucks, but there’s something that sucks even more - Life is not teleological. That is, it did not evolve with a predetermined purpose (In a deleted conversation from Ship of Theseus, Cārvāka jokingly espouses the contrary view that the earth sprouted life to evolve into human beings, who can further construct technology to colonise other planets). Matter simmered in the boiling pot of the planet, hit by lightning and UV radiation for billions of years, passing through a godzillion reactions and their accumulated residue, leading to us. All meaning is an accumulation. All purpose must be invented.

Now, here’s my problem – I have been able to articulate it somewhat through a character in my film. The monk Maitreya says at one point “I guess we agree with reason, but now it’s a matter of disposition.” I agree with the nihilists and causal determinists completely, but my emotional makeup is that of a romantic, so what can I do about it? I thought I could put myself at the service of one of the many aspirations of life – and that is a proliferation of choices. An expansion of the scope of what's possible for an organism to do. As life evolves, memory systems and their interlinking co-evolve, helping the organism make more choices. So, I choose, or rather the cumulative decision making agency that is me, chooses to work in the field of memory, simulation and most importantly, meme-creation. For it’s ideas, metaphors, memes and memeplexes that shape our choices profoundly.

Aye, there's the rub. For in that sweep of determinism, what memes may come? If the parts are guided by laws of determinism and causality, how can the whole exhibit any freedom? It's of some significance that these parts themselves are wholes, that further have parts that are not guided by laws of strict causal determinism, but follow the freedom of quantum probability. But I am getting ahead of myself. Can the whole exhibit freedom, when the parts don't seem to? Something tells us, it does. We empirically experience choice. We experience impulse, emotion, reason, dilemma, ambivalence, conflict, and the relief of making the choice. Is it an illusion then? How could the whole be greater than the some of its parts? The answer seemed simple. There is the sum of all the parts, and there is the sum of all the interactions and relationships between the parts, there is also a sum of all the interactions with the environment of the parts, and the whole is a total of all these sums. That seems to me, to be the recipe for wonder, for consciousness, for free choice. When the parts stop interacting with each other, the sum stays, but the whole vanishes. And that is a dead parrot!

The human being is made of trillions of cells, and there are about ten times more bacteria in the human body than “human” cells. In the past centuries we thought of ourselves as monolithic entities, but now we know, we are entire ecosystems. So let’s take a whole, a hundred trillionth of a human being. A bacterium swimming smoothly in water – now let’s introduce a drop of acid in its environment. A mere contact with a single molecule of a fatal substance and it will tumble around and speed in the other direction. If we were to logically break down the steps between the contact and the action of tumbling, then we get – stimulus, contact / perception, reference to memory – in this case, a genetic memory of thirty six chemicals, recognition, inference, recall of response and finally, action / response. A simple if-then program that itself would have taken billions of generations to evolve (along with it's next consequential step - the dangling else) . This, understandably has happened through completely physical, causal “unconscious” processes.

What I can’t help but suggest is an approach of looking – that biology causes a substance interference in physical laws – by pitching one against the other. This is what I mean by that statement – if a micro-body that was a chemical imitation of the bacterium, were to come in contact with the molecule of acid, it would not be repelled by it. It would be engulfed, without resistance (much like a chemical equivalent of a bird will not rise against gravity and fly). So I am rephrasing choice as the possibility of tumbling – the possibility for the bacterium to not be engulfed by the fatal substance in its environment. So, while the laws that led to this simple if-then decision making system are deterministic, a choice is created by the very existence of the decision making process.

As life evolves into more complex forms, one more step gets introduced in this process – this step is learning – storage of new data, acquired within the lifetime of the organism. Memory evolved to supply useful information to the organism’s decision-making systems, so they can change their behavior to better suit their environment, or even predict the future based on patterns of the past. But memory itself is a metaphor, it’s a snapshot of reality. An intricate system of these snapshots acquired over a lifetime provide new updated information to life’s decision making agency, sometimes contradictory to the memory genetically inherited - causing conflicts between intuition and reason, the classical “heart” and the “mind”. 

Evolution of technology - either biological or human-created is exponential, but the timelines are drastically different. Life (bio-technology) evolves on a timeline of hundreds of millions of years, while technology produced by human beings (by technology here, I mean all forms of technologies - social, political, institutional, cultural, mechanical, digital, etc.) evolves on timeline of mere centuries and decades (and soon, mere weeks). Those alive today are both anatomically and neurologically similar to those around, say, twenty thousand years ago. The environments, however, have gone through radical shifts. One is likely to encounter more people in a mall or an airport than an ancestor did in an entire lifetime. Emotions are appeal systems (response recommendations), evolved over billions of years of experiences, that can be largely understood as two kinds of appeals - incentivising like joy, happiness, excitement, and warning appeals like jealousy, sorrow, anger, etc. Impulses and emotions that evolved in the forest and savanna environments could be found to be misguided in post-agrarian societies, while many more could be argued to be increasingly vestigial, and in many cases, socially detrimental. This vast magnitude of variables cause conflicts, contradictions and dilemmas.

To better understand the nature of information density in memories and memes, let’s take the famous case study by the nobel winning ethologist Tinbergen, (subsequently cleaned up recently by Ten Cate, reconfirming the inferences of the original experiment). Within an hour of emerging from its shell, a Herring seagull chick finds its mother’s large yellow beak (with a big red dot on it) and begins pecking. It is then that the mother feeds it. Tinbergen presented a seagull chick with a disembodied beak of an adult Herring gull. The chick still pecked at the beak, hoping to be fed by it. Tinbergen had discovered the essential properties, or the recipe, for a beak that tells a chick what to peck at: high visual contrast (between the dot and the base colour of the beak), rectangular elongation and thinness, and the color red (that was replaceable with dots of other colours, as long as the contrast was maintained. The red dot, however yielded maximum interest). So he took a long stick, painted it red, and showed it to the chicks. They excitedly pecked at it. Then he added three white lines to the bottom, to enhance the contrast, and he reduced the thickness by half. When he showed this object to the chicks, they went absolutely insane, pecking in every direction as quickly as they could. Dumbs chicks, eh? Does it remind us of any of our obsessive behaviours? The way we respond, perhaps, to oil in our food, to sex and violence in our cinema, to the promise of eternal survival in the religions?

The results of this experiment have been interpreted in many ways, and have informed us profoundly about the nature of perception, memory and response. I am extrapolating a particular association from the results - That there is clearly an evolutionary function of maximising information density in small units. Information is resource expensive and biological technology precedes digital technology in this optimisation - maximising the experiences and inferences that can be contained in smaller and smaller units of memory. It's resource wise to save the information of the unique part to recognize the whole - It's resource wise for the Herring gull to store the information of the unique beak to recognise the entire bird, as the chances of an ethologist playing a disembodied beak prank in its natural environment are zero. This content-resource optimisation is the prime causal force behind the phenomenon of super-stimuli. There are many recipes to achieve this distillation - reduction, isolation (a synecdoche of a unique part representing the whole), grouping, exaggeration, imitation and condensing vast amounts of information into codes.

A recurrent aspiration, and one of the many common aspirations at that, of all intellectual endeavor – of arts and sciences – is the maximization of content density per unit. A piece of literature is great when there is a high density of experiences contained in a few passages, a photograph great, when it transcends the mere documentation of the moment it's capturing, a scientific equation great, when many other inferences are contained within it... (The information of the entire organism itself comes from a single genome).

One of my favourite parables is that of the cartographer. The emperor of the kingdom summons the great cartographer to chart a map of the kingdom. The cartographer sets upon the supertask and starts making a most intricate map. When the map is finally made, the women and men of the kingdom gather at the public hall to witness it. Some are enlightened, some awed, some confused, and some criticize the map to be fallacious or inadequate. It doesn’t begin to do any justice to the vast, rich complexity of the kingdom, some feel. The cartographer is even more aware of the shortcomings of her own map. She builds another map, this time far bigger, comprehensive, three dimensional, with miniature automata, with interactive parts and environments, replete with fountains for streams, mounds for mountains... builds towers for people to go up to, and get a bird’s eye view of their universe - a total perspective vortex. People realise their insignificance in the larger scheme of things. Family feuds end, disagreements settle, some leave the kingdom in search of meaning, some turn to science, some to religion, and a few suicides occur. But the cartographer is still unamused... She keeps building a map, more and more intricate, bigger and bigger... till the time the map replaces the kingdom, itself.

How much of the territory can truly be represented by the map? How much information can be packed into one small unit of culture? How large would the map be if it had to be really, really accurate? Can it be read without a legend? A really dense map with a huge variety of symbols will require an elaborate legend, a map for the map.  

And then there are maps of maps of maps, each level aiming towards further distillation. An equation like e = mc2 will be meaningless without a decoding legend. If Munch's “The Scream” was a dense map of experience, response, mood and context, but one had never come across it, then a Matt Groening joke on it will be lost on that person, much like this allusion will be lost on those in the audience, who have never seen an episode of the Simpsons.

I want to examine the role of information packaged in memes in the expansion of the scope of choices. More experience means more foreknowledge, more foreknowledge means an increased capability to calculate and choose accordingly for the decision-making agency. Lifetime of experiences and inferences (true or fallacious, benign or detrimental) can be packaged in capsule sized units of culture, highly condensed, easily transported, and generations have to learn only the decoding systems.

(One of the most thriving memes of known history is the idea of transcendence - God, soul, heaven, after-life, immortality, even martyrdom. We find ourselves pecking at this shtick with the insane obsession of the Herring gull chick. The promise of survival beyond individual death or dispersion appeals to the most primal driving force of existence. Promises of transcendence have evolved out of the thriving desire to ward off the inevitable threat of individual death. Most systems propose a more or less perfect immortality – one where memories, hopes, desires, knowledge and even experiences survive the death of the physical body. An engagement and acceptance of this meme makes death particularly irrelevant. The upholding of the promise at the cost of individual sacrifice becomes acceptable. Individual sacrifices even become necessary in validating the promise.)

If there are a trillion trillion parts in the equation, a trillion trillion variables, and their near infinite permutations and interactions, a vast scope of probability emerges - that can be decided for and against, all evolved out of causal deterministic forces yes, but allowing for very, very real choices. We can rephrase Cogito ergo sum, to "I think I choose, therefore I choose". The I that did not choose to be here, just happened to have arose from a really competitive sperm, born into situations, not chosen either. But the scope of choice expands for some of us, and can be expanded for everyone, if we understand the significance of technological evolution in choice-proliferation. That’s what we do, when we travel, learn, eat, make love, hoard up, give up, read stories, watch films, sign into social contracts, choose political or philosophical affiliations … we protect and expand the choices.

I left the title of my talk a bit incomplete for a bumper sticker effect (or rather a cheap play of syntax). It should have been “There is no free will, but you have a choice – well, some of you, some of the time.” 


  1. Very very interesting.

    In Butoh, the Japanese dance form, one of the first things that is mentioned is that our body is built of trillions of cells, each having its own memory. The water in our system isn't our own unique fluid. It has been recycled since ages and is now found within us.

    Each and every building block inside our system has its own memory and association.

    You've very nicely mentioned 'Life'. Life as an open source that constantly evolves, ebbs and flows.

    Again referring to butoh, there is a constant mention..almost a forced teaching of sorts which keeps reminding us to 'Listen to your life' . It doesn't mean that we listen to the life that is built out of our present experiences means we let go and strip off our pre conditioned data, social prejudices and ego.
    Ego mostly, dropping it.

    Listening to your life goes beyond our conscious understanding. Letting the sub conscious body take over and the sub conscious mind flows itself.

    There is no free well. But yes there is a choice, sometimes and some of us do. Might seem like a privileged state at times but the more aware we are of our surroundings and internal voice stripped off ego, the more we can probably tap into some sort of higher information...or information that resides within in order for us to function in a more resonating manner.

    "There are a few certainties. That’s good. That’s good to work with. One, we are all going to die. "
    Made me laugh.

    Ship of theseus for me was beyond just cinema. The organism that is 'Anand Gandhi' and people at recycle wala have created an entity like SOT which acted as a key to help 'me' resonate with ideas and memories that lie within this being.
    To be reminded that in this vastness my thoughts aren't isolated and they do resonate. Death hung around SOT like a child clings on to its mother, or let's two lovers cling on to each other while there is chaos on the streets.

    Flowing from the two i think. At times in comfort and at times in intense desire, pushing the limits of the body, time and space.

    In simple terms...we have no idea who we are. We go way beyond our name, face and identity. It's up to us if we can listen to our life or if we let our ego get in the way.

    Then we might be able to take the next step towards understanding choices and free will.

    Thanks for taking the time to post this.

  2. Interesting article, there is one point that you have missed and will provide further insight into the illusion of conscious choice. Every decision we take, every single one, is decided by the subconscious some seconds before we are aware of it. I guess this is why in hunting, martial arts, ballet, life, etc., it is vital to "empty your mind," which is essentially to turn off conscious verbalization, the talk that we do with ourselves in our head, because not only will it not help you take a decision, it will impede it. How many times does it happen, we say to ourselves that we need to get up, we list reasons in conscious verbalization but we still don't get up. It is because the subconscious hasn't decided to get up yet.

    What does this imply? Is everything predetermined? By God? I don't think so, once you know how to turn off verbalization, you can take decisions faster but you can still take decisions, you can still decide whether you should get up or not, only thing we lose is the intricacies of the decision making process because it is being done in the subconscious. We lose the illusion of control, only to have more control over ourselves. To achieve this state, it is essential to trust the subconscious completely, which can be tough, but if you think about, subconscious has more information in store than we can consciously recall. This is why, very often discoveries are made and problems are solved at night while sleeping.

    Do we have a choice, to some extent, yes we do, some of us, some of the times. ;)

  3. Your blog is as revealing as your movie. It took me more than 2 hours to read and walk it through. I hope you write more and more out of it some time soon.

  4. A new word needs to be created to applaud this write-up (rather, let's say evolution of thought leading to thoughtful content).
    Nothing is predetermined, Infact, I believe it is we who gives birth, nurtures and kills the 'predetermination'.

    Eager for your next thoughtful, brainstorming and nurturing release! eager to see which capsule is decoded!
    Untile then..... shall decently stalk handbags and lingo.

  5. "A recurrent aspiration, and one of the many common aspirations at that, of all intellectual endeavor – of arts and sciences – is the maximization of content density per unit."
    And then you wrote a really dense piece... I see what you are doing there :)
    But as a scientist, I am scared of being cut by Occam's Razor if I "aspire to maximising content density". Just saying.
    So, I understand meme creation, and technological evolution and all that. But there is still no free will, hence still no choice. Why does choice expansion matter?

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  7. m glued to your blog...m a mass comm student and want to get into film making, how can i be associated with recyclewala, would like to intern

  8. You are essentially a non fiction writer, a very good one at that. And SOT was as much autobiography, like a journal filled with your ideas and interests, as it was a way for you to open up discussions and share knowledge. Applaudable as they are, I have a feeling pure, unadulterated fiction will help you get your ideas across more effectively without intimidating your audience with your ( no sarcasm intended ) jaw-dropping erudition.
    It is a pleasure following your blog, to have so many interesting things to read after every post and to state it for the umpteenth time, I love, love Continuum.

    1. Also, for what you said, "if a micro-body that was a chemical imitation of the bacterium, were to come in contact with the molecule of acid, it would not be repelled by it. It would be engulfed, without resistance", I can't help thinking that, since biology is also at its deepest just chemistry, if an imitation of a bacteria is made with the exact chemical components, it will not be engulfed but resiist, if not for anything else, just because of its molecular mature. Like neuroscientists, especially Sam Harris in Free Will, argue that every thought is just chemicals in a certain composition, then we are as much chemical locha as any bacterial imitation. As a Douglas Hofstadter fan, I can't help but go meta, and argue that you are thinking about the presence of a free will because you can't help not think about it. Like as a determinist, I can't help not say I can't help.
      After all, like someone said, "I may do as I will, but can I will as I will?" When our generic makeup and our environment shapes who we are, I don't believe we can choose; but can only react to life, the only way we can.

  9. If atoms and particles behave in probabilistic ways, a composite expression of 3 x 10 power 27 such atoms neither has free will nor choice - I had earlier read you say you were less convinced about transcendence. I beg to differ. If there be anything at all, AT ALL, transcendence makes more than just a plausible sense - Just as earth is visibly spherical from moon but not from within no matter how many theories and evidences were propounded, maybe when one ceases to be a part of the mind, something bursts forth itself. MAYBE! Hinted at several stances by Nikola Tesla himself, it makes a case for another probability within probability! :)

  10. Hi Anand,
    Great fan of your work. Just downloaded the movie from cineoo. Couldn't find any licence inside the downloaded zip. Also, nothing displayed on the site too. Creative commons will be a good way to go. Also, this. I know our intentions are good but a little precaution shouldn't hurt. There is a thriving opensource community with us.

    Cheers, Thanks.

  11. Thank you..Thank you for this film..I had lost all hope that any Indian film would ever step up to the plate of the international arena in my years of life..What a magnificent film..I was moved to the point that i ranted all over the internet about it..My blog,Facebook.Even writing mails to the guardians film critics,demanding them to take a look at the film..If it is any prize for your work from a fan..this is how my rant went...Ship of Theseus...Looking forward to a lot more from you and your team..

  12. The parable of the cartographer is a compelling and accessible illustration of the problem of sufficiency and the problem of induction considered here in the context of mathematical modeling.

  13. Hey Anand, I am not really sure how I feel about the ideas propounded here by you. I like the idea about the maximization of content density per unit, our choices expanding, but it bothers me to imagine myself as the dot in the Total Perspective Vortex and your substantial philosophical, biological and psychological analysis has just demonized Lenina Crowne (Brave New World) for me, some ten times over.
    I think i could clearly understand, the whole question of there really being a free will because I remember having this conversation with a friend and then feeling like a used cleaning sponge for a long time, about how could we really be free when everything, including us, is matter and all matter is governed by physical laws. Well, obviously, the woman from Mindwalk helped me elevate myself from that lousy state, you have made the picture much more clear, although I am not really sure what to make of the dangling else.
    Some things reminded me of Analytical psychology, especially the whole concept of Archetype, I really enjoyed dabbling in some interesting new ones.
    But if you were looking to expand choices, then I must say you have succeeded with flying colors, for among other major things, you have given me the choice to choose hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy in Daryajanj today, if I find it.
    And I am looking forward to that book.
    P.S.- Do you mind if I buy a ripped copy of Ship of Theseus? I already saw it in the theater when it released.

  14. Very nice information that you have shared.Thanks for sharing the information with us.

  15. Dear Anand Gandhi -There is a "FREE WILL", provided we don't have to make choice towards that free will. This article or blog is really obsolete for the free will required for the humanity... but still it's there...

  16. Hey Anand! Big fan of your work...I have read and re read your blog and ever since have been wondering about the difference in the mechanism of free will and choice, I do agree to the point that life is not teleological but to come to determinism I get stuck at an important question... if there is no will how does the choice come into existence? I would love to know your view on this...

  17. For the most part of it I agree completely, but off late I have been thinking that these thoughts lead you nowhere. Philosophy, spirituality and morality are desperate attempts to over come spurts of nihilism inside us. Everything is a consequence of chaos and randomness.