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We Are the Robots

January 31, 2011

Despite what a certain awesome song might tell you we pretty much are robots.

It was only a few years ago I had great problems coming to terms with the fact that there is no free will (depending on how you define it, though). To soothe my sense of despair at not being in control of even my own thoughts I said to myself: “Well, free will may be an illusion, but considering my stance on reality (a topic for a future rambling post) a perfect illusion is no different from reality; ergo, no worries, mate!”

Now I don’t despair about it all that much. The fact that we have no free will has become just another weapon in my mental arsenal for making people as disillusioned and cynical as I am. Or at least rock their comfy boat a bit.

“Why no free will?” you ask, arching an eyebrow.

Because on our level, physical processes follow cause-and-effect kind of paths. We use that sort of thinking about almost everything we see around us.

Let’s say I show you two pictures. One is of a pile of fire wood. One is of a pile of ashes. You would have no trouble telling me what a picture between those two would be: a fire. The reason you can do this is that you know that ashes comes from burning things. Cause and effect.

We do the same in social dealings. If someone says they broke up with someone because they were cheating on them or murdered the cat or something, we understand it immediately because it fits neatly into the pattern of “A happened because of B”. But if the person didn’t say why they broke it off, and you couldn’t see it clearly, you would start wondering why.

So we expect not only “dead” systems do act logically and according to causality, but people should also act somewhat logically.

This is a clue.

We do and say things because of reasons (mostly). And even when people act randomly we can say it’s because of things as well; perhaps mental illness or grief or sleep-deprivation or whatever. But we always seek the reason, the why. It seems we have an instinctive need for the world around us to work logically, every effect from a cause.

That our mental processes occur in the brain is kind of understood at this point. Brain damage hinders our mental abilities, and can even change our personalities. Sometimes damage can actually enhance certain abilities, so the point becomes: changing the brain changes how we think.

So everything we think, we think in the brain. Everything we remember, we remember in the brain. Every decision we make, we make with our brain.

And the brain is just another physical system, albeit complex. Complexity does not free it from the constrains of physical laws; the molecules behave according to the same forces and laws as they would do in any other circumstance. They act solely on cause and effect.

Like any other system in the universe, the future state of the brain is a direct result of the current state plus interactions with surroundings. This means that the brain cannot really make choices, because if the brain has a certain state (a certain set of memories, a certain mood, a certain sensory input, and so on), then it can only act in one single way. The brain cannot make a “free” choice, because there is only one way the molecules can interact given a certain starting state.

The brain cannot have free will any more than a burning log can. The only difference between the two dynamic systems is the complexity. The brain is much, much more complex. But as said, complexity does not free you from the clockwork laws; it just makes it harder to predict.

If we accept cause and effect as a way of understanding physics, we must also accept that we are mere biological machines, going through the motions.


From → General

One Comment
  1. I completely agree with you, however it depends on what you understand by “free will”. I think most people only think of it in juridical terms (I’m pretty sure that’s not the correct term in English, but whatever. Free will as defined by law). You know, the “you are free to do what you want as long as you don’t harm others” thing.

    But by taking it further, as you did, this ties in nicely with my theory that everything in the universe, including us, is governed by a supreme being or force or quality that we have yet to discover.

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