slan's blog


Free Will

Robert Sapolsky, an American neuroscientist and professor at Stanford, is hailed as the best science writer. His famous books include "Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst", "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers", and his latest book: "Determined".

This book is about free will. Everybody thinks they have free will because they can choose, as we know there are alternatives available to us. Sapolsky's point is that choice is not the key to free will. How did you become the sort of person who would have that intent at that point? The answer is because of the biology over which you have no control, interacting with the environment over which you have no control. Genes and environment determine who you are. There is no place for the intuitive notion of free will.

What is distributed causality? How does it influence our actions and decisions?

Our behaviors, our decisions, went on in the neurons a 10th of a second ago. But what stimuli got those neurons to do what?

  • Environment like morning's hormone levels
  • Plasticity of the brain in the previous months to decades, Trauma, heartache, finding love, finding god, all of those things change the brain.
  • Person's adolescence and childhood and fetal life, genes, culture, the way mothers raise their children.

Our brain was being shaped by all of these things. Distributed causality is the idea that the causes of our behavior are distributed across all of these levels.

There is a famous example in neuroscience, the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who had a metal rod go through his head, and he survived. But he developed poor regulation of his behavior. It explains that the frontal cortex is important for regulating behavior.

And there is an experiment that lets people choose to shoot or not based on guessing if the other person's hand is a cell phone or a handgun. And it turns out that all sorts of things modulate people's ability to decide what they're seeing in a fraction of a second. This includes factors like being hungry, tired, stressed, scared, the environment being dangerous or benevolent, and the person's skin color. It shows that the brain will make different decisions based on all of these things in the previous hour.

A study of a bunch of parole board judges is highly likely to predict the outcome of a parole hearing based on how long it has been since the judge had a meal.

We are changed by circumstances

Two people went to the same movie. When they finished the movie, they were both changed. One person says "oh my God, that was so inspirational," and then gave his life savings away to Doctors Without Borders. The other person says "oh my God, the cinematography was so amazing in that movie, I'm going to go to film school." They were both changed by the movie, but in different ways.

Yes, they were both changed. Neither of them chose to change, they were changed by experiences. That is exactly where we get sort of prescriptions.

We, as biological machines, have some insight as to where the buttons and levers are, and to understand what makes certain types of changes more readily happening than others.

There is a whole world of changes you could bring about in people. For example, dictators, ideologues, and genocidal individuals intuitively know how to change people.

If we've been trained to respect that process and reflect on it and understand it, keep these recursive loops building and we can know our machineness.

AI and Free Will

Free will is an emergent property. With enough quantity, you invent quality and out will pop not only consciousness.

The emergence of the individual is really simple, and what's amazing is the simple individual inventing things like philosophy.

Emergence is the coolest thing on earth, from the ants and the individual neurons to suddenly doing stuff that they can't do. The different molecules that make up H2O and how they interact and produce wetness as an emergent property.

If you put enough ants together, they not only construct an amazing ant society and colony and architecture in their passageways, but they suddenly have the emergent property of being able to speak French.

Frontal Cortex evolution

The frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to mature. It's not fully mature until you're about 25 years old. We have evolved to delay maturation.

The frontal cortex's job is going to be make you do the harder thing. but what is the right thing will take you long time to learn.

Frontal cortex evolution make us as free from genes as possible.

Different mothering styles

How culture shapes the brain, mothering styles is a good example.

In collectivist cultures, like those in Southeast Asia and rice-growing regions, people tend to be more cooperative. They often work collectively with other villages to harvest rice in a single day. The parenting style in these cultures typically involves responding quickly when a baby cries.

In individualist cultures, like those in North America, people tend to be more independent and self-reliant. The parenting style in these cultures typically involves responding to a crying baby a bit later.

Even without free will, there is still steerability

How do you become the person who knows what constitutes a healthy diet?

How did you develop into the sort of person with a frontal cortex that could make you stick with that resolution?

How did you become someone who was fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood where fresh food is readily available?

Remember, all these things are influenced by a tremendous amount of biology and environment. Think about it in a logical way. Do the hard work, go back and remember that all we are is the end product of what came before.