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.”