"If a tree falls in the forest, but no one hears it, does it make a sound?"

I didn't answer that question.  I didn't pick a position, "Yes!" or "No!", and defend it.  Instead I went off and deconstructed the human algorithm for processing words, even going so far as to sketch an illustration of a neural network.  At the end, I hope, there was no question left—not even the feeling of a question.

Many philosophers—particularly amateur philosophers, and ancient philosophers—share a dangerous instinct:  If you give them a question, they try to answer it.

Like, say, "Do we have free will?"

The dangerous instinct of philosophy is to marshal the arguments in favor, and marshal the arguments against, and weigh them up, and publish them in a prestigious journal of philosophy, and so finally conclude:  "Yes, we must have free will," or "No, we cannot possibly have free will."

Some philosophers are wise enough to recall the warning that most philosophical disputes are really disputes over the meaning of a word, or confusions generated by using different meanings for the same word in different places.  So they try to define very precisely what they mean by "free will", and then ask again, "Do we have free will?  Yes or no?"

A philosopher wiser yet, may suspect that the confusion about "free will" shows the notion itself is flawed.  So they pursue the Traditional Rationalist course:  They argue that "free will" is inherently self-contradictory, or meaningless because it has no testable consequences.  And then they publish these devastating observations in a prestigious philosophy journal.

But proving that you are confused may not make you feel any less confused.  Proving that a question is meaningless may not help you any more than answering it.

The philosopher's instinct is to find the most defensible position, publish it, and move on.  But the "naive" view, the instinctive view, is a fact about human psychology.  You can prove that free will is impossible until the Sun goes cold, but this leaves an unexplained fact of cognitive science:  If free will doesn't exist, what goes on inside the head of a human being who thinks it does?  This is not a rhetorical question!

It is a fact about human psychology that people think they have free will.  Finding a more defensible philosophical position doesn't change, or explain, that psychological fact.  Philosophy may lead you to reject the concept, but rejecting a concept is not the same as understanding the cognitive algorithms behind it.

You could look at the Standard Dispute over "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?", and you could do the Traditional Rationalist thing:  Observe that the two don't disagree on any point of anticipated experience, and triumphantly declare the argument pointless.  That happens to be correct in this particular case; but, as a question of cognitive science, why did the arguers make that mistake in the first place?

The key idea of the heuristics and biases program is that the mistakes we make, often reveal far more about our underlying cognitive algorithms than our correct answers.  So (I asked myself, once upon a time) what kind of mind design corresponds to the mistake of arguing about trees falling in deserted forests?

The cognitive algorithms we use, are the way the world feels.  And these cognitive algorithms may not have a one-to-one correspondence with reality—not even macroscopic reality, to say nothing of the true quarks.  There can be things in the mind that cut skew to the world.

For example, there can be a dangling unit in the center of a neural network, which does not correspond to any real thing, or any real property of any real thing, existent anywhere in the real world.  This dangling unit is often useful as a shortcut in computation, which is why we have them.  (Metaphorically speaking.  Human neurobiology is surely far more complex.)

This dangling unit feels like an unresolved question, even after every answerable query is answered.  No matter how much anyone proves to you that no difference of anticipated experience depends on the question, you're left wondering:  "But does the falling tree really make a sound, or not?"

But once you understand in detail how your brain generates the feeling of the question—once you realize that your feeling of an unanswered question, corresponds to an illusory central unit wanting to know whether it should fire, even after all the edge units are clamped at known values—or better yet, you understand the technical workings of Naive Bayesthen you're done.  Then there's no lingering feeling of confusion, no vague sense of dissatisfaction.

If there is any lingering feeling of a remaining unanswered question, or of having been fast-talked into something, then this is a sign that you have not dissolved the question.  A vague dissatisfaction should be as much warning as a shout.  Really dissolving the question doesn't leave anything behind.

A triumphant thundering refutation of free will, an absolutely unarguable proof that free will cannot exist, feels very satisfying—a grand cheer for the home team.    And so you may not notice that—as a point of cognitive science—you do not have a full and satisfactory descriptive explanation of how each intuitive sensation arises, point by point.

You may not even want to admit your ignorance, of this point of cognitive science, because that would feel like a score against Your Team.  In the midst of smashing all foolish beliefs of free will, it would seem like a concession to the opposing side to concede that you've left anything unexplained.

And so, perhaps, you'll come up with a just-so evolutionary-psychological argument that hunter-gatherers who believed in free will, were more likely to take a positive outlook on life, and so outreproduce other hunter-gatherers—to give one example of a completely bogus explanation.  If you say this, you are arguing that the brain generates an illusion of free will—but you are not explaining how.  You are trying to dismiss the opposition by deconstructing its motives—but in the story you tell, the illusion of free will is a brute fact.  You have not taken the illusion apart to see the wheels and gears.

Imagine that in the Standard Dispute about a tree falling in a deserted forest, you first prove that no difference of anticipation exists, and then go on to hypothesize, "But perhaps people who said that arguments were meaningless were viewed as having conceded, and so lost social status, so now we have an instinct to argue about the meanings of words."  That's arguing that or explaining why a confusion exists.  Now look at the neural network structure in Feel the Meaning.  That's explaining how, disassembling the confusion into smaller pieces which are not themselves confusing.  See the difference?

Coming up with good hypotheses about cognitive algorithms (or even hypotheses that hold together for half a second) is a good deal harder than just refuting a philosophical confusion.  Indeed, it is an entirely different art.  Bear this in mind, and you should feel less embarrassed to say, "I know that what you say can't possibly be true, and I can prove it.  But I cannot write out a flowchart which shows how your brain makes the mistake, so I'm not done yet, and will continue investigating."

I say all this, because it sometimes seems to me that at least 20% of the real-world effectiveness of a skilled rationalist comes from not stopping too early.  If you keep asking questions, you'll get to your destination eventually.  If you decide too early that you've found an answer, you won't.

The challenge, above all, is to notice when you are confused—even if it just feels like a little tiny bit of confusion—and even if there's someone standing across from you, insisting that humans have free will, and smirking at you, and the fact that you don't know exactly how the cognitive algorithms work, has nothing to do with the searing folly of their position...

But when you can lay out the cognitive algorithm in sufficient detail that you can walk through the thought process, step by step, and describe how each intuitive perception arises—decompose the confusion into smaller pieces not themselves confusing—then you're done.

So be warned that you may believe you're done, when all you have is a mere triumphant refutation of a mistake.

But when you're really done, you'll know you're done.   Dissolving the question is an unmistakable feeling—once you experience it, and, having experienced it, resolve not to be fooled again.  Those who dream do not know they dream, but when you wake you know you are awake.

Which is to say:  When you're done, you'll know you're done, but unfortunately the reverse implication does not hold.

So here's your homework problem:  What kind of cognitive algorithm, as felt from the inside, would generate the observed debate about "free will"?

Your assignment is not to argue about whether people have free will, or not.

Your assignment is not to argue that free will is compatible with determinism, or not.

Your assignment is not to argue that the question is ill-posed, or that the concept is self-contradictory, or that it has no testable consequences.

You are not asked to invent an evolutionary explanation of how people who believed in free will would have reproduced; nor an account of how the concept of free will seems suspiciously congruent with bias X.  Such are mere attempts to explain why people believe in "free will", not explain how.

Your homework assignment is to write a stack trace of the internal algorithms of the human mind as they produce the intuitions that power the whole damn philosophical argument.

This is one of the first real challenges I tried as an aspiring rationalist, once upon a time.  One of the easier conundrums, relatively speaking.  May it serve you likewise.

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I have no idea why or how someone first thought up this question. People ask each other silly questions all the time, and I don't think very much effort has gone into discovering how people invent them.

However, note that most of the silly questions people ask have either quietly gone away, or have been printed in children's books to quiet their curiosity. This type of question- along with many additional errors in rationality- seems to attract people. It gets asked over and over again, from generation unto generation, without any obvious, conclusive result... (read more)

I think a brain architecture/algorithm that would debate about free will would have been adapted for large amounts of social interaction in its daily life. This interaction would use markedly different skills (eg language) from those of more mundane activities. More importantly it would require a different level of modeling to achieve any kind of good results. One brain would have to contain models for complicated human social, kin and friendly relationships, as well as models for individuals' personalities.

At the center of the mesh of social interactions ... (read more)

"What kind of cognitive algorithm, as felt from the inside, would generate the observed debate about 'free will'?"

I would say: people have mechanisms for causally modeling the outside world, and for choosing a course of action based on its imagined consequences, but we don't have a mechanism for causally modeling the mechanism within us that makes the choice, so it seems as if our own choices aren't subject to causality (and are thus "freely willed").

However, this is likely to be wrong or incomplete, firstly because it is merely a rephrasing of what I understand to be the standard philosophical answer, and secondly because I'm not sure that I feel done.

1brook2yThis feels to me like part of the puzzle, as you say. I think the other part is some quality of mind-like-ness (or optimising-agent-ness, if you prefer). People rarely attribute free will to leaves in the wind, despite their inability to accurately model their movements. On the other hand, many people do regularly attribute something suspiciously free-will-like to evolution(s). I don't have a good idea how either of these two concepts should be represented, or attached to one another, though.

A difference of predictions between Maksym's proposed answer and mine occurs to me. If the sense of free will comes from not being able to model one's own decision process, rather than from taking the intentional stance towards people but not other things, then I would think that each individual would tend to think that she has free will, but other people don't. Since this is not the default view, my answer must be wrong or very incomplete.

"Many philosophers - particularly amateur philosophers, and ancient philosophers - share a dangerous instinct: If you give them a question, they try to answer it."

This line goes in that book you're going to write.

A warning to those who would dissolve all their questions:

Why does anything at all exist? Why does this possibility exist? Why do things have causes? Why does a certain cause have its particular effect?

3faul_sname10yI find that for questions like these, it is better to ask "how" than to ask "why". When you replace "why" with "how", the questions Why does anything exist? We observe that everything seems to obey simple mathematical rules. Do these rules become what we observe as reality, and if so, how? Why does this possibility exist? How is it that we observe only this possibility? Why do thing have causes? How does causality work? Why does a certain cause have its particular effect? How does causality work in this particular case?

I don't think this answer meets the standards of rigour that you set above, but I'm increasingly convinced that the idea of free will arises out of punishment. Punishment plays a central role in relations among apes, but once you reach the level of sophistication where you can ask "are we machines", the answer "no" gives the most straightforward philosophical path to justifying your punishing behaviour.

Things in thingspace commonly coming within the boundary 'free will' :

moral responsibility could have done otherwise possible irrational action possible self-sacrificial action gallantry and style (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut for that one) non-caused agency I am a point in spacetime and my vector at t+1 has no determinant outside myself whimsy 'car c'est mon bon désir' absolute monarchy you can put a gun at my head and I'll still say 'no' idealistic non-dualism consciousness subtending matter disagreeing with Mum & Dad disagreeing with the big Mom & Po... (read more)

Only in humans does it make predictive sense to talk about intent, capability, and inclination, and the wide gap between these kinds of perceived "properties" of fellow socially interacting humans, and the generally much simpler properties seen in inanimate objects and animals, leads the brain to allocate them to widely separated groups of buckets. It is this perceived separation in mental thing-space that leads to the the a free-will boundary being drawn around the cluster of socially interacting humans.

careful there. animistic beliefs are quit... (read more)

When you're done, you'll know you're done, but unfortunately the reverse implication does not hold.

So when you have the impression you are done, you are not necessarily done because some have this impression without really being done. But then when you are really done, you won't actually know you are done, because you will realize that this impression of being done can be misleading.

So here's your homework problem: What kind of cognitive algorithm, as felt from the inside, would generate the observed debate about "free will"?

I've written up my answer to this on my blog.

I claim that the reason we posit a thing called free will is that almost all of our decision-making processes are amenable to monitoring, analysis and even reversal by “critic” algorithms that reside one (or more) levels higher up. [I say almost all, because the top level has no level above it. The buck really does stop there]. There would probably be no fe... (read more)

Robin: So when you have the impression you are done, you are not necessarily done because some have this impression without really being done. But then when you are really done, you won't actually know you are done, because you will realize that this impression of being done can be misleading.

You'd think it would work that way, but it doesn't. Are you awake or asleep right now? When you're asleep and dreaming, you don't know you're dreaming, so how do you know you're awake?

If you claim you don't know you're awake, there's a series of bets I'd like to make with you...

As usual, this is better settled by experiment than by "I just know". My favourite method is holding my nose and seeing if I can still breathe through it. Every time I've tried this while dreaming, I've still been able to breathe, and, unsurprisingly, so far I've never been able to while awake. So if I try that, then whichever way it goes, it's pretty strong evidence. There — now it's science and there's no need to assume "I feel that I know I'm awake" implies "I'm awake".

Of course, if you're the sort of person who never thinks to question your wakefulness while dreaming, then the fact that you've thought of the question at all is good evidence that you're awake. But you need a better experiment than that if you also want to be able to get the right answer while you actually are dreaming.

[Apologies if replying to super-old comments is frowned upon. I'm reading the whole blog from the beginning and occasionally finding that I have things to say.]

9AlephNeil11yThat's awesome. I never devised anything as cool as that, but I did discover a pretty reliable heuristic: If I ever find myself with any genuine doubt about whether this is a dream, then it definitely is a dream. Or in other words not feeling like you "just know" you're awake is very strong evidence that you're not.

It's funny that the working reality tests for dreaming are pretty stupid and decidedly non-philosophical. For instance, the virtual reality the brain sets up for dreams apparently isn't good enough to do text or numbers properly, so when you are dreaming you're unable to read the same text twice and see it saying the same thing, and digital clocks never work right. (There's an interesting parallel here to the fact that written language is a pretty new thing in evolutionary scale and people probably don't have that much evolved cognitive capacity to deal with it.)

There's a whole bunch of these: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Lucid_Dreaming/Induction_Techniques#Reality_checks

This reminds me of a horrible nightmare I had back in High School. It was the purest dream I had ever had: the world consisted of me, a sheet of paper, and a mathematical problem. Every time I got to the bottom of the problem, before starting to solve it, I went back up to make sure I had gotten it right... only to find it had CHANGED. That again, and again, and again, until I woke up, a knot in my stomach and covered in sweat.

To realize that this dream has an explanation based on neural architecture rather than on some fear of exams is giving me a weird, tingly satisfaction...

2AspiringRationalist9yIsn't fear of exams also due to neural architecture?
1Raw_Power9yHow does that work out?
4ata11yIt is indeed. I can't take credit for it, though; don't remember where I learned it, but it was from some preexisting lucid dreaming literature. I think it's an underappreciated technique. They usually recommend things like seeing if light switches work normally, or looking at text and seeing if it changes as you're looking at it, but this is something that you can do immediately, with no external props, and it seems to be quite reliable. That's similar to what I originally did, but it doesn't always work — false awakenings (when you dream that you're waking up in bed and everything's normal) are especially challenging to it. In those cases I usually feel pretty confident I'm awake. Still, that heuristic probably works well for most dreams that are actually dreamlike.
0hannahelisabeth9yDo other people have the same problem I do, then? When I'm dreaming, I often find that it's dark and that light switches don't work. I'm always thinking that the light bulbs are burnt out. It's so frustrating, 'cause I just want to turn on the light and it's like I never can in a dream.
2hannahelisabeth9yThat's exactly my method too.

Apologies if replying to super-old comments is frowned upon. I'm reading the whole blog from the beginning and occasionally finding that I have things to say.

I have been reading LW since the beginning and have not seen anyone object to replies to super-old comments (and there were 18-month-old comments on LW when LW began because all Eliezer's Overcoming-Bias posts were moved to LW).

Moreover, a lot of reader will see a reply to a super-old comment. We know that because people have made comments in really old comment sections to the effect of "if you see this, please reply so we can get a sense of how many people see comments like this".

Moreover, discouraging replies to super-old comments discourages reading of super-old comments. But reading super-old comments improves the "coherence" of the community by increasing the expected amount of knowledge an arbitrary pair of LW participants has in common. (And the super-old stuff is really good.)

So, reply away, I say.

0bigjeff511yMy test is even easier - I rarely remember dreaming. It's very similar to just blacking out. I lay down, fall asleep, and then 6-7 hours have gone by and I'm being awoken by my alarm clock. I sometimes remember parts of a particularly disturbing dream but they don't have any detail after I wake up, and within hours it is almost completely gone. In these cases it may feel like a half hour or so has passed. I had a dream of that type a few days ago, and other than the impression that it was disturbing I can't remember a single thing about it. Nothing. Stuff that happens when I'm awake, though, I remember very well.
1arundelo11ySo if you do have trouble telling dream from reality, you don't remember it. :-)
0bigjeff511yYep :)
0scottclowe11yDitto.
1lessdazed11yI remember about three dreams per night with no effort. Sometimes when I wake up I can remember more, but then it's impossible for me to remember them all for long. If I want to remember each of four or more dreams, I have to rehearse them immediately, otherwise I will usually forget all but three. The act of rehearsing makes it harder to remember the others, and it's weird to wake up with 6-7 dreams in my mental cache, knowing that I can't keep them all because after I actively remind myself what 3-4 were about the others will be very faint and by the time I have thought about five the others will be totally gone. In related(?) news, often my brain wakes up before my body, and I can't move so much as my eyeballs! It's like the opposite of sleepwalking. If I'm lying in bed, totally "locked in" and remembering a slew of dreams, I know I am awake. No one has complicated thoughts about several dreams from totally different genres while experiencing that one is unable to move a muscle without being awake. If I'm arguing to the animated electrified skeleton of a shark that has made itself at home in my pool that he'd be better off joining his living brother in a lake in the Sierra Nevadas, who is eating campers I tell him to in exchange for hot dogs...I have a good chance of suspecting it's a dream, even within the dream. Neither of these are tests, of course.
1gwillen9yJust in case you aren't already aware (and haven't become aware since this was written) -- this is a common phenomenon (from which I suffer also), described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis]
0hannahelisabeth9yI'm not sure if I've experienced sleep paralysis before, but I've had experiences very similar to it. I will "wake up" from a dream without actually waking up. So I will know that I'm in bed, my mind will feel conscious, but my eyes will be closed and I'll be unable to move. Ususally I try to roll around to wake myself up, or to make noise so someone else will notice and wake me up. But it doesn't work, 'cause I can't move or make noise, even though it feels like I am doing those things (and yet I'm aware that I'm not, because I can feel the lack of physical sensation and auditory perceptions). But when I actually wake up and can move, it feels like waking up, rather than just not being paralyzed any more. And sometimes when I'm in that "think I'm awake and can't move" state, I imagine my environment being different than it actually is. Like, I might think I'm awake and in my own bed, and then when I wake up for real, I realize I'm at someone else's place. Which makes me think I wasn't actually awake when I felt like I was. But it feels awfully similar to sleep paralysis, so I'm not sure if it is sleep paralysis or just something very similar.
0gwillen9yI would say that's very likely sleep paralysis; it it is very similar to my own experience. As far as I can tell, without an outside observer to confirm this, my eyes are actually open during SP. After enough episodes I do occasionally get what seems to evidence of this (e.g. I will notice details of the world around me that I can clearly see when I wake up are actually there.) Sleep paralysis is associated with hallucinations; particularly (for me and I think also in general) feelings of fear, or hallucinations of some entity 'coming for you', or people talking indistinctly, or people calling your name. Generally you (or at least I) can't really think well in that state; as a state of consciousness, I guess I would describe it as "between dreaming and wakefulness." Sometimes I'm aware of what's occurring, and sometimes I'm not.
0themusicgod16y...I've had some pretty complicated dreams, where I've woken up from a dream(!), gone to work, made coffee, had discussions about the previous dream, had thoughts about the morality or immorality of the dream, then sometime later come to a conclusion that something was out of place(I'm not wearing pants?!) then woken up to realize that I was dreaming. I've had nested dreams a good couple of layers deep with this sort of thing going on. That said I think you have something there, though. Sometimes I wake up (Dream or otherwise) and I remember my dream really vividly, especially when I awake suddenly, due to an alarm clock or something But I've never had a dream that I struggled to remember what was in my dream inside of my dream. At the least, such an activity should really raise my priors that I'm toplevel.
1Brilliand6yOne method to check if you're dreaming is to hold your nose shut and try to breathe through it - if you're dreaming, your nose will work "normally", whereas if you're awake actual physics will take effect. (Note: every time I've done this while dreaming, I immediately got very excited and woke up.)
2buybuydandavis10y"Do you think that's air you're breathing now?" * Morpheus
0hannahelisabeth9yWhen I dream about being underwater, I can breathe in the dream, but I also am under the impression that I'm holding my breath somehow, even though I'm breathing. Like, I'll "hold my breath" only, I've just made the mental note to do it and not actually done it. But it won't be clear to me in the dream whether or not I'm holding my breath, even though I'm aware that I'm still breathing. It's weird and contradictory, but dreams are capable of being like that. It's like how in a dream, you can see someone and know who they're supposed to be, even though they may look and act nothing like that person they supposedly are. Or how you can be in both the first and third person perspective at the same time.
1ata9yHeh, I've recently had a few weird half-lucid dreams, where on some level I seem to know that I'm dreaming, but don't follow this to its logical conclusions and don't gain much intentionality from it... In one of them, I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a long time and later found he'd left something of his with me, and I wanted to return it to him. So I thought I'd look him up on Facebook and message him there; but, I reasoned, this is a dream, so what if that wasn't who I thought it was, but just someone else who looked exactly like him? So I felt I'd rather avoid going that route lest I message him and then feel foolish if it did turn out to be someone else, somehow accounting for this aspect of dreams but not noticing that this being a dream meant there was no real social risk to me and no pressing need to return his property in the first place. (Also kind of amusing that in retrospect he actually didn't look that much like the person he was supposed to be, yet in the dream I was able to know who he was while wondering "what if that was someone else who just looked like him?".) Last night I had a dream which for some time rendered reality in aerial view as a sprite grid resembling old Gameboy RPGs, including a little pixel character who I knew was me.

Then there's Edmond Jabes, on freedom and how words come to mean anything.

Eliezer, you seem to be saying that the impression you get when you are really done feels different from the impression you get when you ordinarily seem to be done. But then it should be possible to tell when you just seem to be done, as this impression is different. I can imagine that sometimes our brains just fail to make use of this distinction, but it is quite another to claim that we could not tell when we just seem to be done, no matter how hard we tried.

Eliezer, also, the bet your proposed would only be enforced in situations where I am not dreaming, so it would really be a bet conditional on not dreaming, which defeats the purpose.

When you're asleep and dreaming, you don't know you're dreaming, so how do you know you're awake? If you claim you don't know you're awake, there's a series of bets I'd like to make with you...

1) Some people claim they can recognize that they're in a dream state.

2) The quoted claims are an example of the rhetorical fallacy known as equivocation.

4Endovior10yGiven the scientific evidence behind lucid dreaming, I wouldn't call it a 'claim'. If someone can, while in the midst of REM sleep, as determined by a polysomnograph, deliberately transmit a previously-agreed-upon signal to an external observer, that's reasonable evidence that the person in question is aware that they are, in fact, in a dream state. Of course, if you disagree, it would be appropriate to research the phenomenon yourself.

When I'm dreaming, I always know I'm dreaming, and when I'm awake I always know I'm awake.

I realize that this doesn't apply to many other people, however... even the second part.

A fuller explanation of the preceding: As an example of Robin's point, "I can imagine that sometimes our brains just fail to make use of this distinction," the reason that some people don't know when they're dreaming is that that are unable, at that time, to pay attention to all the aspects of their experience; otherwise they would be able to easily distinguish their state from the state of being awake, because the two states are very different, even subjectively. I pay attention to these aspects even while dreaming, and so I recognize that I'm dreaming.

Ughh more homework. Overcoming bias should have a sister blog called Overcoming laziness.

Eliezer, you seem to be saying that the impression you get when you are really done feels different from the impression you get when you ordinarily seem to be done. But then it should be possible to tell when you just seem to be done, as this impression is different.

Yes, exactly; it feels different and you can tell the difference - but first you have to have experienced both states, and then you have to consciously distinguish the difference and stay on your guard. Like, someone who understands even classical mechanics on a mathematical level should not be fooled into believing that they understand string theory, if they are at all on their guard against false understanding; but someone who's never understood any physics at all can easily be fooled into thinking they understand string theory.

I think I'll give this a try. Let's start with what a simple non-introspective mind might do:

Init (probably recomputed sometimes, but cached most of the time): I1. Draws a border around itself, separating itself from the "outside world" in its world model. In humans and similarly embodied intelligences you could get away with defining the own body as "inside", if internal muscle control works completely without inspection.

Whenever deciding on what to output: A1. Generates a list of all possible next actions of itself, as determined in I... (read more)

1Endovior10yThat's a model along the lines of the one I was thinking of in response to the question; any number of simple algorithms for processing data, creating a worldview, determining the expected utility of a series of actions, and choosing the action which seems to have the greatest utility might believe it has 'free will', by the definition that its actions cannot be predicted, if it is not capable of understanding its own nature. Humans are, of course, more complicated than this, but idea alone produces the question... is your mind the sort of algorithm which, if all of its processing details, utility functions, and available worldview data are fully known, will produce output which can be predicted in advance, given the information? That doesn't feel like an ending, but it is, perhaps, grounds to explore further.
7Endovior10yFollowing up... Having (almost) finished the Quantum Physics sequence since this last comment, and come to the point at which this particular assignment is referred to, I figured I'd post my final conclusion here before 'looking at the answer', as it were. Given a basic understanding of QM, and further understanding that macroscopic phenomenon are an extension of those same principles... Knowing that nothing 'epiphenomenal' is relevant to the question of consciousness... And assuming that no previously unobserved micro-phenomenon is responsible for consciousness, by virtue of the fact that even if there were, there is, at present, no reason to privilege that particular hypothesis... There's no question left. What we call consciousness is simply our view of the algorithm from the inside. I believe that I have free will because it seems like the choices I make change the future I find myself in... but there are a great many other factors implicit in my thinking before I even arrive at the point of making a choice, and the fact that the probabilities involved in defining that future are impossible to calculate under existing technology does not mean that such a feat will never be possible. That said, even full knowledge of the state of a given brain would not allow you to predict it's output in advance, as even in isolation, that brain would divide into a very large number of possible states every instant, and QM proves that there is no way of determining, in advance, which state that brain will arrive at at any given time. This is not randomness, per se... given sufficient information, and isolation from contaminating entanglements, one could theoretically plot out a map of possible states, and assign probabilities to them, and have reasonable expectations of finding that mind in the predicted states after a determined time... but could never be certain of finding any given result after any amount of time. That doesn't mean that I don't have control over my actio
0bigjeff510yDo neurons operate at the quantum level? I thought they were large enough to have full decoherance throughout the brain, and thus no quantum uncertainty, meaning we could predict this particular version of your brain perfectly if we could account for the state and linkages of every neuron. Or do neurons leverage quantum coherence in their operation?
1Vladimir_Nesov10yYou don't need macroscopic quantum entanglement to get uncertainty. Local operations (chemical reactions, say) could depend on quantum events that happen differently on different branches of the outcome, leading to different thoughts in a brain, where there's not enough redundancy to overcome them (for example, I'll always conclude that 6*7=42, but I might give different estimates of population of Australia on different branches following the question). I'm not sure this actually happens, but I expect it does...
1bigjeff510yI'm not sure I understand how quantum events could have an appreciable effect on chemical reactions once decoherance has occurred. Could you point me somewhere with more information? It's very possible I misunderstood a sequence, especially the QM sequence. I could also see giving different estimates for the population of Australia for slightly different versions of your brain, but I would think you would give different estimates given the same neuron configuration and starting conditions extremely rarely (that is, run the test a thousand times on molecule for molecule identical brains and you might answer it differently once, and I feel like that is being extremely generous). Honestly I would think the decoherance would be so huge by the time you got up to the size of individual cells that it would be very difficult to get any meaningful uncertainty. That is to say, quantum events might be generating a constant stream of alternate universe brains, but for every brain that is functionally different from yours there would be trillions and trillions of brains that are functionally identical. If you include electrons a single water molecule has 64 quarks, and many of the proteins and lipids our cells are made of have thousands of atoms per molecule and therefore tens of thousands of quarks. I am having a hard time envisioning anything less than hundreds of quarks in a molecule doing enough to change the way that molecule would have hooked into its target receptor, and further that another of the same molecule wouldn't have simply hooked into the receptor in its place and performed the identical function. There may be some slight differences in the way individual molecules work, but you would need hundreds to thousands of molecules doing something different to cause a single neuron to fire differently (and consequently millions of quarks), and I'm not sure a single neuron firing differently is necessarily enough for your estimate of Australia to change (though it wo
2Vladimir_Nesov10yYou may be right, I don't really know what's involved in chemical reactions. A chemist knowing enough theory of a physicist would likely be able to reliably resolve this question. Maybe you really know the answer, but I don't know enough to be able to evaluate what you wrote...
1shminux10ySee my comment [http://lesswrong.com/lw/of/dissolving_the_question/5lvo].

I was once involved in a research of single ion channels, and here is my best understanding of the role of QM in biology.

There are no entanglement effects whatsoever, due to extremely fast decoherence, however, there are pervasive quantum tunneling effects involved in every biochemical process. The latter is enough to preclude exact prediction.

Recall that it is impossible to predict when a particular radioactive atom will decay. Similarly, it is impossible to predict exactly when a particular ion channel molecule will switch its state from open to closed and vice versa, as this involves tunneling through a potential barrier. Given that virtually every process in neurons is based on ion channels opening and closing, this is more than enough.

To summarize, tunneling is as effective in creating quantum uncertainty as decoherence, so you don't need decoherence to make precise modeling impossible.

2bigjeff510yInteresting! I hadn't thought about quantum tunneling as a source of uncertainty (mainly because I don't understand it very well - my understanding of QM is very tenuous).

Quantum uncertainty is decoherence. All decoherence is uncertainty. All uncertainty is decoherence. If it's impossible to predict the exact time of tunneling, that means amplitude is going to multiple branches, which, when they entangle with a larger system, decohere.

7shminux10yThat is not quite the conventional meaning of decoherence, though. Of course, if I recall from your QM sequence, it is, indeed, yours. Let me explain what I think the difference is between the two phenomena: a spin measurement and the tuneling process. During an interaction such as spin measurement, a factorized state of a quantum system becomes entangled with the (quantum) state of the classical system as some of the terms in the product state decay away (according to Zurek, anyhow). The remaining "pointer" states correspond to what is usually termed "different worlds" in the MWI model. I believe that this is your interpretation of the model, as well. Now, consider radioactive decay, or, to simplify it, a similar process: relaxation process of an excited atom to its ground state, resulting in an emission of a photon. This particular problem (spontaneous emission [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_emission#Theory]) requires QFT, since the number of particles is conserved in QM (though Albert Einstein was the first to analyze [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_spectral_line#Spontaneous_emission] it). Specifically, the product state of an excited atom and the ground (vacuum) state of the electromagnetic field evolves into a ground state of the atom and an excited state of the field (well, one of almost infinitely many excited states of the field, the "almost" part being due to the Planck-scale cutoff). There is virtually no chance of the original state to reappear, as it occupies almost zero volume in the phase space (this phase space includes space, momentum, position, spin, etc.). I believe even time is a part of it. To call radioactive decay "decoherence", one would have to identify the ground state of the field (electromagnetic vacuum) with the classical system that "measures" the excited atom. Calling a vacuum state a classical system seems like a bit of a stretch. An alternative approach is that the measurement happens when an emitted photon is a
0Vladimir_Nesov10yThis is not a problem. A computer runs a program the same way in almost all future outcomes, weighed by probability. QM shows how to determine what happens even in cases where it's not as simple as that.

Most of the proposed models in this thread seem reasonable.

I would write down all the odd things people say about free will, pick the simplest model that explained 90% of it, and then see if I could make novel and accurate predictions based on the model. But, I'm too lazy to do that. So I'll just guess.

Evolution hardwired our cognition to contain two mutually-exclusive categories, call them "actions" and "events."

"Actions" match: [rational, has no understandable prior cause]. "Rational" means they are often influence... (read more)

Great post, Rolf Nelson.

HOMEWORK REPORT

With some trepidation! I'm intensely aware I don't know enough.

"Why do I believe I have free will? It's the simplest explanation!" (Nothing in neurobiology is simple. I replace Occam's Razor with a metaphysical growth restriction: Root causes should not be increased without dire necessity).

OK, that was flip. To be more serious:

Considering just one side of the debate, I ask: "What cognitive architecture would give me an experience of uncaused, doing-whatever-I-want, free-as-a-bird Capricious Action that is so strong that... (read more)

2StefanW12yThere is some confusion about the meaning of free will. I can decide freely whether to drink a coffee or a tea, but you will see me allways choosing the coffee. Am I free to choose? Really? I'm free to choose whether to use my bycicle to go to work, or take the bus. Well - it's raining. Let's take the bus. A bloody moron stole my bike - now I'm not free to choose, I'm forced to take the bus. There are inner and outer conditions which influence my decision. I'm not free to stop at the traffic light, but if I take the risk to pay the penalty, I'm free again. Maybe I internalized outer pressure in a way, that I can't distinguish it from inner whishes, bias or fear and animus. The second problem is, that as a model of our brain we look at it, if it was a machine or a computer. We know there a neurons, firing, and while facing our decision making process that way, it get's something foreign to us - we don't see it as part of ourself, like we see our feet in action while walking. If you would tell somebody, that he isn't walking, it's his feet which walk, everybody laughs. Yes - the feet are part of him. He cannot walk without his feet. And firing neurons are the same thing as thinking. The process of thinking is this machine in our head in action. It's your machine - it's you! And mine is mine, and it's me. So we don't fall into the fall of distinction between 'me' and 'my thoughts, my brain, some neurons, firing'. And we know, that there are inner and outer influences to our decision. We have a history, which influences whether we like the idea of driving by bus, or going by bicycle. There are some stronger and some not so strong influences, and maybe millions, so the process, to make a decision is too complex, to make a prediction in all cases. I know, I drank coffee for the last 20 years and not tea - but on the other hand, if there is a strong influence, I might drink tea tomorrow. Mainly a disruption of my habits. I might get forced to do something
[-][anonymous]12y 0

Eliezer, you wrote:

But when you're really done, you'll know you're done. Dissolving the question is an unmistakable feeling...

I'm not so sure. There have been a number of mysteries throughout history that were explained by science, and the resolution didn't feel immediately satisfying to people even though they do to us now -- like the explanation of light as being electromagnetic waves.

I frequently find it tricky to determine whether a feeling of dissatisfaction indicates that I haven't gotten to the root of a problem, or whether it indicates that I jus... (read more)

[-][anonymous]12y 0

Eliezer, you wrote:

But when you're really done, you'll know you're done. Dissolving the question is an unmistakable feeling...

I'm not so sure. There have been a number of mysteries throughout history that were explained by science, and the resolution didn't feel immediately satisfying to people even though they do to us now -- like the explanation of light as being electromagnetic waves.

I frequently find it tricky to determine whether a feeling of dissatisfaction indicates that I haven't gotten to the root of a problem, or whether it indicates that I j... (read more)

Eliezer, you wrote:

But when you're really done, you'll know you're done. Dissolving the question is an unmistakable feeling...

I'm not so sure. There have been a number of mysteries throughout history that were resolved by science, but people didn't immediately feel as if the scientific explanation really resolved the question, even though it does to us now -- like the explanation of light as being electromagnetic waves.

I frequently find it tricky to determine whether a feeling of dissatisfaction indicates that I haven't gotten to the root of a problem,... (read more)

0[anonymous]12yDissolving a question and answering it are two different things. To dissolve a question is to rid yourself of all confusion regarding it, so that either the question reveals itself to be a wrong question [http://lesswrong.com/lw/oh/righting_a_wrong_question/], or the answer will become ridiculous obvious (or at least, the way to answer it will become obvious). In the second case, it would still be possible that the ridiculously obvious answer will turn out to be wrong, but this has little to do with whether or not the question has been dissolved. For example, we could one day find evidence that certain species of trees don't make sound waves when they fall and there are no humans within a 10 mile radius. This won't change the fact that the question was fully dissolved.

The neural explanation doesn't seem parsimonious, given that there appears to be a much simpler cognitive "glitch" that causes the tree-falling-in-the-forest argument and the free will argument: our habitual propensity to mistake the communication devices known as words with the actual concepts they correspond to in our own minds. And as a natural consequence, people forget that the concept they associate with a word might be different from the concept another person associates with the same word.

One common result of these errors is that arguers... (read more)

"What kind of cognitive algorithm, as felt from the inside, would generate the observed debate about 'free will'?"

As I understand it, there was no debate on free will before about three centuries ago. Since that time, the idea that we might all be automata has been taken somewhat seriously. In earlier times, it would have been considered absurd to question free will.

So, did our cognitive algorithm change back around the time of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton? Of course not. So how can the algorithm be "blamed" for the existence o... (read more)

As I understand it, there was no debate on free will before about three centuries ago.

This is quite incorrect. Determinism (as opposed to the default folk psychology of free will) has been long debated; from Wikipedia:

"Some of the main philosophers who have dealt with this issue are Marcus Aurelius, Omar Khayyám, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, Baron d'Holbach (Paul Heinrich Dietrich), Pierre-Simon Laplace, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and, more recently, Victoria DiMarco, John Searle, Suraj Manjunath, Jai Ramachandran, Ted Honderich, and Daniel Dennett."

This is a very incomplete list, which omits people like the Stoics such as Chrysippus; the other article mentions later the Atomists Leucippus and Democritus.

In Eastern tradition, there are many different takes on 'karma'.

The atheist Carvaka held a deterministic scientific view of the universe, and a materialist view of the mind (although so little survives it's hard to be sure). I'm not entirely clear on the Samkhya darsana's position on causality, though their views on satkaryavada (as opposed to the common Indian position of a... (read more)

Here's my attempt (I haven't read the comments above in detail, as I don't want the answer spoiled in case I'm wrong).

For whatever reason, it is apparent that the conscious part of our brain is not fully aware of everything that our brain does. Now let's imagine our brain executing some algorithm, and see what it looks like from the perspective of our consciousness. At any given stage in the algorithm, we might have multiple possible branches, and need to continue to execute the algorithm along one of those possible branches. To determine which branch to f... (read more)

1Yosarian29yI have a similar, but slightly different theory, based on what I've read on neuroscience. Let's say you are sitting on a couch, in front of a plate of potato chips. Several processes in your brain that your conscious mind are not aware of activate, and decide that you want to reach out and eat a potato chip. This happens in an evolutionary very ancient part of your brain At this point, after your subconscious mind has created this desire but before you actually do it, your conscious mind becomes aware of it. At this point, your conscious mind has some degree of veto power over the decision. (What we usually perceive as "self control"). You may think it's unhealthy to eat a potato chip right now, and "decide" not to (that is, your conscious mind algorithm overrides your instinctive algorithm.) This "self control" is not total, however; if you are hungry enough, you may not be able to "resist". Also, if your conscious mind is distracted (say, your are playing a very involving video game), you may eat the chips without really noticing what you are doing. So, from the point of view of your conscious mind; an idea came from somewhere else to eat chips, then your conscious mind "chose" if you should do it or not.

My $0.02: all it takes is a system a) without access to its own logs, and b) disposed to posit, for any event E for which a causal story isn't readily available, a default causal story in which some agent deliberately caused E to advance some goal.

Given those two things, it will posit for its own actions a causal story in which it is the agent, since it's the capable-of-agency thing most tightly associated with its actions.

Note that this does not require there not be free will (whatever that even means, assuming it means anything), it merely asserts that ... (read more)

Some rough notes on free will, before I read the "spoiler" posts or the other attempted solutions posted as comments here.

(Advice for anyone attempting reductions/dissolutions of free will or anything else: actually write notes, make them detailed when you can (and notice when you can't), and note when you're leaving some subproblem unsolved for the time being. Often you will notice that you are confused in all kinds of ways that you wouldn't have noticed if you had kept all of it in your head. (And if you're going to try a problem and then read ... (read more)

My answer to that assignment is that i have no idea how that would work or how i could figure out how it would. Did i guess the password? if not then is it swordfish? Just give me a gold star!

I've been going through the sequences, and this is probably the post I disagree with most.

Philosophy may lead you to reject the concept, but rejecting a concept is not the same as understanding the cognitive algorithms behind it.

More importantly, rejecting a concept doesn't solve the problem the concept is used for. The question to ask isn't what the precise definition of free will is, or whether the concept is coherent. Ask instead "What problems am I trying to solve with this concept?"

Because we do use the concept to solve problems. People... (read more)

So, to know if an answer is complete, you go by how certain cognitive processes make you feel? Seriously? Feelings lie. All the time.

My tackle at this question: Why do people debate free will?

The topic itself is of intense interest to humans, because we’d like to believe we have it, or that it exists. This is because we’d like to believe we have control over our own actions and our thoughts, since that would give us the feeling that because of said control we can shape our surroundings in search of our own happiness, or that happiness is achievable. But the crutch of the problem is we can’t just believe in free will now, because we have no idea, no proof or theories on how it exists. Th... (read more)

Those who dream do not know they dream, but when you wake you know you are awake.

I actually use this fact to enable lucid dreaming. When I'm dreaming, I ask myself, "am I dreaming?" And then I answer yes, without any further consideration, as I've realized that the answer is always yes. Because when I'm awake, I don't ask that question, because there's never any doubt to begin with. So when I'm dreaming and I find myself unsure of whether or not I'm dreaming, I therefore know that I'm dreaming, simply because the doubt and confusion exists. It's a method that's a lot simpler (and more accurate) than trying to analyze the contents of the dream to see if it seems real.

0MugaSofer9yI used to use a similar technique, but found the absence of pain was more reliable; you can start wondering if something is just a dream, but you can't start feeling pinches in a dream.
0hannahelisabeth9yI can feel pain in dreams. I'm not sure if I can self-inflict pain in dreams (I've never tried), but I've definitely felt pain in dreams.
0Kevin9yI can also feel pain in dreams here.
0MugaSofer9yYeah, it doesn't work for everyone, unfortunately. IIRC a (possibly slim) majority of people can't feel pain in dreams - it's probably connected to the mechanism that prevents you remembering pain - you know it was there but you don't really experience it like other memories. That's why pinching yourself is the traditional method of proving some thing isn't a dream. Some people can't read text or tell the time n dreams, it changes between viewings, is gibberish, blank etc. I can. AFAIK there is no method of lucid dreaming that works for everyone, you have to experiment.

'Free will' is the halting point in the recursion of mental self-modeling.

Our minds model minds, and may model those minds' models of minds, but cannot model an unlimited sequence of models of minds. At some point it must end on a model that does not attempt to model itself; a model that just acts without explanation. No matter how many resources we commit to ever-deeper models of models, we always end with a black box. So our intuition assumes the black box to be a fundamental feature of our minds, and not merely our failure to model them perfectly.

This explains why we rarely assume animals to share the same feature of free will, as we do not generally treat their minds as containing deep models of others' minds. And, if we are particularly egocentric, we may not consider other human beings to share the same feature of free will, as we likewise assume their cognition to be fully comprehensible within our own.

...d-do I get the prize?

1shminux8yYou have, in the local currency. So, you are saying that free will is an illusion due to our limited predictive power?
0SecondWind8y...hmm. If we perfectly understood the decision-making process and all its inputs, there'd be no black box left to label 'free will.' If instead we could perfectly predict the outcomes (but not the internals) of a person's cognitive algorithms... so we know, but don't know how we know... I'm not sure. That would seem to invite mysterious reasoning to explain how we know, for which 'free will' seems unfitting as a mysterious answer. That scenario probably depends on how it feels to perform the inerrant prediction of cognitive outcomes, and especially how it feels to turn that inerrant predictor on the self.
-3MugaSofer8yYou know, that fits. We often fail to ascribe free will to others, talking about how "that's not like him" and making the Fundamental Attribution Error ("he's a murderer - he's evil!") This means we have to ascribe free will to any sufficiently intelligent agent that knows about our existence, right? Because they'll be modelling us modeling them modelling us?

Free will is basically asking about the cause of our actions and thoughts. The cause of our neurons firing. The cause of how the atoms and quarks in our brains move around.

To know that X causes the atoms in our brain to move a certain way, we'd have to know that every time X happens, the atoms in our brain would move in that specific way. The problem is that we would have to see into the future. We'd have to see what results from X in every future instance of X. We don't have that information. All we have are our past and current experiences, that we... (read more)

If we’re pretending that free will is both silly and surprising, then why aren’t we more surprised by stronger biases towards more accurate notions like causality?

If there was no implicit provision like this, there’s no sense to asking any question like “why would brains tend to believe X and not believe not X?” To entertain the question, first we entertain a belief that our brains were “just naïve enough” to allow surprise at finding any sort of cognitive bias. Free will indicates bias--this is the only sense I can interpret from the question you asked.

O... (read more)

"Free will" is a black box containing our decision making algorithm.

What kind of mind would invent "free will"? The same mind that would neatly wrap up any other open ended question into a single label, be it "élan vital" or "philogeston". Our minds are fantastic at dreaming up explanations for things, and if they are not easily empirically testable at the time, then such explanations tend to stick. Without falsifying evidence, our pet theories tend to remain, and confirmation bias slowly hardens them into what feel... (read more)

0MarsColony_in10years7yI wrote the above before reading any of the comments, but there are a couple other ideas which people touched on but I did not. I'm bringing them together here, mostly for my own future reference: 1. Humans have the ability to model the outside world in our own minds, including other people, but not our own minds. Because of this, it seems like our choices aren't subject to causality. Credit, and more detail, here. [http://lesswrong.com/lw/of/dissolving_the_question/ikw] 2. Another comment [http://lesswrong.com/lw/of/dissolving_the_question/ilf] goes into more detail of why this is. In order to fully model itself, a mind would need more power that it has. Therefore, minds cannot predict their own actions with high fidelity. For minds that don't intuitively understand concepts like recursion, this implies that their own future actions cannot be predicted, and that therefore free will exists. 3. If we have separate neural hardware for processing human actions and for inanimate events [http://lesswrong.com/lw/of/dissolving_the_question/ilg] then this might lead to the idea of free will, and then also several other odd notions.

Noise / sound exist independently of observation, at least so long as you subscribe to the idea that there exists an objective reality outside of your own mind. They are pressure waves transmitted through some medium.

The tree makes a sound, which no one hears.

The answer to this seems to be as to the sound example and to most philosophical debates in general:

1)Different categorization patterns, or, simply put, different meanings of a word. In this situation, even two words: people can disagree on what "will" is (in the context of "free") and on what "free" is (in the context of "will"; let us assume a Frege-Heimian world where if you know the two nodes you always know their combination to ignore the "context" addenda).

2)Politization of the question. In the world... (read more)

I think we care about whether or not we have free will because we associate it with accountability - both our own and others.

If someone picks me up and throws me on you, you should not blame me for getting slammed - this is not my fault, and I had no say in the matter. If someone points a gun at me and tells me to hit you, you probably won't blame for complying. But if you had to rank my accountability in these two cases, it's obvious that I'm more accountable in the latter because I did have a choice - I could not hit you and get shot. This is a very unfa... (read more)

This question never sounded like a meaningful one to me. By the time I first heard it, I was familiar with the understanding of sound as vibrations in the air, so the obvious answer was "yes."

As Sam Harris points out, the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. It doesn't actually feel like you have free will if you look closely enough. So then why are we mistaken about things when we don't examine them closely enough? Seems like a too-open-ended question. 

2Yoav Ravid6moIs the illusion of the illusion of free will also an illusion? Is it a recursive illusion?
1Ian Televan6moThat seems unlikely. There is already a certain difficulty in showing that illusion of free will is an illusion. "It seems like you have free will, but actually, it doesn't seem." - The seeming is self-evident, so what sense does it make to say that something actually doesn't seem if it feels like it seems. As far as I understand it, it's not like it doesn't really seem so, but you're mistaken about it and think that it actually seems so, and then mindfulness meditation clears up that mistake for you and you stop thinking that it seems that you have free will. Instead, you observe that seeming itself just disappears. It stops seeming that you have free will. So now we come to your suggestion: "It seems(level 2.) like the seeming(lvl 1.) disappears, but actually, it doesn't seem(lvl 2.) like the seeming(lvl 1.) disappears." - but once again, the seeming(lvl 2.) is self-evident. So you'd need to come up with some extraordinary circumstances which are associated with more mental clarity to show that that seeming(lvl 2.) also disappears. But this is unlikely, because the concept of free will is already incoherent, so more mental clarity shouldn't point you towards it.
1[comment deleted]6mo