All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.
Samuel Johnson, 1778
I woke up the next day at noon. The sun shining in my eyes had made my sleep turbulent for much of the morning. Mindy's apartment was not designed to be slept in. It was in a converted old mansion. The upstairs back porch, which spanned the width of the great house, was closed in with window panels. This may have made it cold in the winter, but it was glorious with the trees in a parade of autumn colors.
I felt as if I were awakening in a bird's nest, high in the trees. My sleep, though disturbed by the flickering rays of light, was also fostering dreamlike images from my memory. I was remembering Camus' The Stranger, who rediscovered the joy of his doomed life in appreciation of the complexities, the beauty and even the sensualities of the moment. I couldn't find anything in the wisdom of 'Be Here Now' that science or spirituality would belie. Maybe, as Ludwig had said, if such a thing could be seen as true in two paradigms, it could be used as a Truth, at least for the time being.
Mindy came home for lunch. I was very grateful for her ample hospitality. She was preoccupied by an envelope, lately retrieved from the mail. As she read it, her mouth fell open. I prepared to offer consolation when she leaped into the air with both delicate fists held high above her head. She let out a 'whoop' that would have humbled her chimps and followed with a more coherent, 'I did it! I did it! They've accepted my paper. So much for Victor's ghosts. I can't believe it!" The latter exclamation erupted with the high pitched voice of her teenage years.
I was happy for her but I wanted to know which paper it was. She had several out to journals for review. She informed me that this dealt with the first part of her theory, the pro-system and cognition. Comments from the reviewers were supportive for quite different reasons. One saw the evidence from the evolution of the nervous system as strong. Another liked the correlation with childhood developmental stages and linguistics. Yet a third accepted her black box analysis of mind affecting muscles and muscles influencing mind.
I took her out to lunch that day to celebrate. We talked about who does the reviewing in such cases, and the politics of scientific publishing. But I did get around to asking her about how her theories dealt with free will, emotion and the soul.
She answered. "You know, Will, I have definitely thought before about using my theories of consciousness to create conscious computers. But I never quite looked at it from the point of view of Free Will until you posed the question. Frankly I was a little nervous. I was happy to find that my theory is flexible enough to answer this and other questions relating to brain and mind."
"Well, am I an algorithm or not?"
"Most definitely not. But not perhaps for the reasons you might guess. I have to backtrack a little to recreate for you what's going on upstairs when we think.
"Sensory input comes in, from all five senses, and goes to their respective sensory cortex areas in the brain. This information is distilled into various characterizations, such as a chair with my friend Will sitting in it, a glass of champagne, a meal on a plate, the background noise of a not inexpensive, thank you, restaurant, and a sunny summery day outside."
"Where is this held in the brain?"
"I told you about cortical columns, one or more of which represents a concept. But the grander picture is that this entire situation is held in the relative levels of activity in nerve cells in the sensory and associative cortices. One particular constellation of nerves, active simultaneously, occurs when we have the sensory input of a chair. It can be a lattice work of active cells, not just in a single location."
"Well, what is a chair? There are so many types."
"A chair is determined by its function; what we, or something else, can do with it. It gets back to the concept of learning about the world through our actions, and thus through our pro-system, as I described earlier. But you're taking me away from my explanation.
"This restaurant setting is characterized in our higher or secondary sensory areas of the brain. A unique, and very complex network of nerves is activated which represents the totality of the situation that I find myself in.
"Now this situation has implications. Neurologically we call these associations. This just means that the activated cells representing the situation we are in, are connected to other nerve cells. The particular connections they make have been designed over millions of years to lead to an appropriate action. After all, that's the only reason to have a brain, isn't it? Ultimately, to design a successful action."
"What about just talking or enjoyment of a scene?" I asked.
"First of all, I'm including talking as a type of action." Mindy responded. "We can get a response in the outer world through verbal action. With regard to enjoyment, of senses or ideas, I think these are stepping stones along nature's way of getting us to take the actions which enhance survival and reproduction. It's like the pleasure of sex. From evolution's point of view, the pleasure is just a means to an end; not the end itself.
"So in analyzing my current situation, the plate of food in front of me is a plus. I like this situation for that aspect. You're my friend; remaining here with you is a plus. The glass of champagne before noon, at least in me, raises a few red flags, but not very strong ones. And the fresh memory of my momentous news this morning helps me understand why I'm celebrating. All in all, the actions which are stimulated by this situation are to eat, converse and stay awhile.
"Now if some large male ran in, dressed in black, with a ski mask over his head and an automatic weapon in his hands, then my situation would have a new element to it. This element would have strong associations, neuronal connections, with nerves leading to avoidance behaviors."
"Can the sensory nerves go straight to action nerves? Does the cortex have to serve as an intermediary?"
"Ultimately, we started off as one-celled animals. As you know, there are one celled reactions even in our own body. What we call reflexes involve just a few nerves.
"Subconscious pathways exist in the brain, below the cortex, to connect sensory data with action very fast. The fear connections work through a section of the brain called the amygdala. If something occurs which our genes or our learning has taught us is dangerous, we start the fear reaction before our conscious mind has a chance to react."
"Wait here a second. Before you go on. So this means our lower brain, the same one that exists in many higher animals like your chimps..."
"Or dogs, cats, birds and reptiles." Mindy added.
"...already has areas that distill out more advanced concepts from the sensory situation, and can trigger emotional reactions such as fear, or I suppose pleasure, curiosity..."
"Yes. We argue over how many fundamental emotions there are, but you're on target. Even the pre-human structures of the brain can analyze a situation and bring about an appropriate emotional reaction, though for animals we don't necessarily call it an emotion." Mindy explained. "Later the cortex can overrule the lower structures. But we digress again."
"Thinking about thinking leads to digression it seems." I ventured.
"Now, back to cognition, the set of associations which our situation has turned on, including the emotional tone, begins the planning for a specific, appropriate muscular response. This is the reverse of the sensory system. The sensory system takes specific sensory details and goes to general characterizations such as safe/unsafe, opportunity or none. The motor, or muscle controlling, cortex, does the opposite. It takes a general directive and sculpts it into a specific set of muscle activations."
"Yes. You described this earlier. While the sensory system distills progressively more abstract qualities to summarize the situation, the motor system has to float a trial response and decide if that will produce the desired outcome. How does it make its first choice?"
"That is worked out in part by genetics and also by training as we go from infant to toddler to school age, etc. In fact, we never stop training our reactions to new situations." Mindy said.
"It's always amazed me to watch my little patients respond with peak-a-boo eyes or pouty lips to appropriate situations. I used to think their parents taught them that but the more I see..."
"The more it seems so many behavior patterns are genetically programmed in." Mindy finished my thought.
"OK. So the first proposed set of actions goes out from the brain as nerve stimulation to the muscles." I started.
"Yes, but not at a strong enough level to bring about a full contraction of the muscle. Therefore there is little or no apparent body movement. Rather there's just a slight signal, which tenses the specific muscles a little. These muscles have sensory nerves in them, which feed back into the pro-system and go upstairs to the brain. This is new data. The brain, now computes how the current situation would be modified by the proposed action.
"The calculation generates a new situation which would result from our proposed action, let's call it 'Situation A2'. This situation is processed in much the same way as was the original situation. Situation A2 causes signals to go through the associative cortex which is a form of analysis."
Lovejoy tried to summarize. "So the brain uses genes and learned responses to generate plans of action, and uses modeling to predict how proposed actions will affect current situations. If it likes the projected result'"
"Actually it's not a question of like or dislike. The associative connections will add their nerve activity to the plan. These could be stimulatory or inhibitory." Mindy interjected.
"You mean if the associations are with positive things, like food, sex, fun and such, then'"
"Stimulation is added to the wavefront of nerve activity as it cycles through the brain." Mindy took over again. "And conversely if the associations are negative, for example dangerous situations, this will inhibit the nerve activity on its way to the motor cortex.
"The motor cortex then sends out another round of signals to specific muscles which incorporates these results based upon the relative pluses and minuses of Situation A2. The second wave of stimulation to the muscles tighten some muscles further, and perhaps relaxes others. This triggers a second round of pro-system feedback, which comes back in via the sensory system and is added to Situation A2, so that Situation A3 is computed. Situation A3 is re-analyzed by the associative cortices. With each iteration or cycle, the motor plan is shaped and strengthened. Eventually there is enough nerve stimulation to fully trigger muscular contraction and initiate the plan of action."
"What if there is a lot of inhibition?" Lovejoy asked.
"Then the nerve activity of this plan dies down and all that is left for the brain to analyze is the original Situation A1. This is an automatic way for the brain to go back to the drawing board." Mindy stopped for a moment.
"How does the brain remember the original situation while it does all this modeling?"
"The modeling is done in accessory areas of the brain, not in the primary areas."
"So the brain can keep it straight which is real and which is hypothetical?"
"Usually. If it didn't, you couldn't tell your imagination from reality."
"I'd be psychotic." I said.
"I guess you would." She answered.
"What about dreams? We imagine them, but the connections to our muscles are turned off. Are they part of this loop?"
"Yes and no. The brain uses these accessory areas to serve as surrogates for the body's musculature. The pro-system feedback still occurs, but it's not as information rich as the feedback from the real body. So the scenarios in dreams are a little looser. Also with the actual body, there's an upper limit on how much stimulation a muscle can take before it is fully contracted. However, in the accessory motor areas, there's no real upper limit. The modeling process has no concrete baseline by which to judge the various imaginations. So they can go to absurd extremes; as our dreams do."
"As I understand your theory, all this could apply to higher animals as much as it does to humans. I mean, there's no mention here of self-awareness."
"Right again. This outline is the foundation type of thinking, or 'animal thinking', if you can accept that, before we started the transition to a self-conscious creature. And you were asking about free will. Well before we even get to human, self-conscious "thinking", you can see that the processing in the brain of your dog'"
"I don't have a dog." I corrected her.
"Any vertebrate, an elephant then. The processing is so complex, that only slightly different starting conditions could cause the lacework pattern of nerve stimulation to take a very different course. Is that free will? I don't think so. But it's not really an algorithm either. Or at least it's an incredibly complex algorithm. If you try to copy the billions of nerve cells, with trillions of interconnections, each of whose communication strength is adjusted with every signal that passes through it; the job is mind-boggling."
"I'm willing to call that an incredibly complex algorithm. With enough time and material we could replicate that mechanically."
"Fine." Mindy replied curtly.
"So, how does self-awareness change that?"
"Completely. When you add an image of self within the model, which is derived from the same pro-system fibers that the modeling system itself uses, the whole thing becomes unstable; chaotic in the mathematical sense."
"You create a loop-de-loop within the thought-muscle loop." I quipped.
"Cute." Mindy grimaced. "The increased pro-system in primates lead to self-awareness and an unlimited ability to assign and reassign symbols. Incredible flexibility is produced because the image of self serves as a microcosm within the world model. Prior to self-awareness, any two concepts were only closely connected if the sensory input from nature repeatedly correlated these two concepts in time and space, as we grew and learned. But with this new central operator of self-consciousness available'"
"The concept of self functions as a central operator because it is built from proprioceptive input, which is also the same system upon which we model every single thing in the world." Lovejoy interrupted to confirm.
"Right. Since self is linked to everything, any concept is only two steps away from any other concept. Through self-consciousnes, we can connect apparently unrelated concepts together. The whole reality or validity of our connection system could tumble. If everything is related to everything else in equal amounts, there's no basis for choosing one way of organizing our thoughts versus another. Fortunately, the self-consciousness was added onto our previous brain systems. So the pre-self-conscious sets of connective strengths are dominant until we decide, or actually our parents, friends and society, decide to override them. The repeated telling of stories about what to do in certain situations, strengthens some connections while leaving others only as potentials."
"You're saying we're all brainwashed."
"Of course. Until we're old enough to choose which form of brainwashing we would like. But really by then the underlying preferences have, by and large, been set."
"So much for free will." I said sadly.
"Not so fast. I'm just getting to my answer. Remember I said, 'Yes and no.' You still have a very sensitive system here."
"Like the controlled instability of the Air Force's newest fighter planes, which gives them great power to maneuver abruptly."
"The Air Force is copying nature, not the other way around. Consider that you are walking down the street trying to decide upon two different job offers. As you cycle the possibilities of each position through your modeling process, unimaginable numbers of neural connections come into play influencing your decision. The sights and sounds of the physical location, financial issues, how people spoke to you and their body language as well, even memories of previous working situations which subtle events during your visit to each workplace would trigger.
"Though complex, if it were as static as all that, our decisions might fit an algorithm, a written computer program in a machine more powerful than any yet devised. But we are not static beings. We're dynamic. We get up, we walk around, we talk to other people. All during these actions we're getting new sensory input. We are an open system from an information processing point of view.
"You're still walking down the street trying to decide upon the job. Say a car passes by, driven by a woman whose face reminds you of your seventh grade teacher, who was a mentor to you and really emphasized her joy of working in multicultural settings. Then you weight this aspect more heavily and the balance between the two jobs shifts. Enough so that you now make a decision. Fine. You've made up your mind. Is that free will or not? I call it processing on an open information system with set values for its internal connections that are very sensitive to change."
"How about if I just waited longer? Couldn't new associations and further modeling change my job choice?" I asked.
"Yes, but from the point of view of this being an algorithm or not, that part doesn't change things. You see, there's not really anybody in your head deciding to delay action or not. If the nerve activity isn't raised to the level of completing an action, further processing is always possible. Then the critical issue becomes: "Does your attention get pulled to another topic?" If so, job choice processing is stopped, at least temporarily."
"Well that brings up something I've been wondering about. I understand your theory regarding actions that need to be taken now. Like my response to facing a tiger or discovering food, and so forth. But this job choice thing is a good example of how we spend lots of time thinking about ideas which do not lead to immediate actions. My job choice won't lead to an action for several days. And when I'm thinking about abstract notions like ethics, or electrons, the connection to actions is remote."
"Good question. When we talked about little children mouthing objects and learning about their forms by the mold of their shapes, I also alluded briefly to progressing to learning about more abstract ideas, like numbering and set theory, through actions with objects. Ultimately all our mathematical ideas and other abstract notions get their basis in our reality by experience through actions. There are countless metaphors making the connection between actions and ideas. Good linguistic evidence also reveals the dependence of abstract ideas upon our motions in space and actions with objects. The difficulty understanding this is that by the time we reach ten years old, let alone 40, we have been modeling through these metaphors for so long, that their origin is obscure."
"Like those assumptions in science we talked about before, which are so basic that we never ask ourselves if they're OK."
"Like that, yes. But actually these assumptions are even more basic. They existed before our concepts of science. They've existed in a way before language existed, from the very moment animals moved onto land and started modeling the world through interaction with it."
"How does self-consciousness come in? I mean, other advanced animals have very sensitive and open nervous systems too?"
"First of all, I have already mentioned that having the self concept creates a much more ornate and unstable symbolic system. But there's a second issue which gets back to emotions and feelings as well. It's only in the looking back at ourselves that we can conceive of 'Free Will'. Going back to your walk. You talk to yourself, self-consciously, about the decision you've finally made. And if any one asked you, you would say it was a free choice made of your own free will. Then you stub your toe on an uneven sidewalk. You almost fall, and looking ahead, you realize that you nearly missed falling onto a little toddler nearby. Imagining what could have happened, you remember your Dad constantly telling you to watch where you're going. 'Keep yourself centered.' he would always say. So now you ask yourself, 'Am I really centered about this decision to join the multicultural practice?' This brings on a whole new round on internal modeling and re-evaluation. To you it seems like a perfect example of exerting your free will to change your mind. But from the point of view of my theory about how we process information in a self-conscious brain, it all happens quite naturally. We don't have to invoke a soul or some third party God to explain it."
"Is that what you're trying to do? Prove there is no soul?"
"Not at all. I'm trying to explain things. I've always wanted to know how people think and what underlies consciousness. If I can explain it with neurons and information processing, then I will. If I have to invoke a soul then I'm going to ask myself, 'What is a soul really?'"
"Well, I do see what you mean by it being a 'yes or no' answer. From the outside your example has all the trappings of our usual concept of free will and yet there is a reasonable biological description of how it happens." I conceded.
"More than that, this explanation doesn't require us to consider ourselves as bound by fate which a closed system algorithm would. For example, if I believed strictly in destiny, I wouldn't bother going up to you to try to get you to change your mind about working at either position to come and do research with me." Mindy had been enticing me into further joint endeavors.
"In this system, it's still worthwhile for me to bend your ear in my direction. My words would be new sensory input which may change how you weight your connections. My talking to you may eventuate in your taking a different path. So functionally, the way we usually think about free will, in terms of the need to try to persuade others, is still accurate."
"The illusion of free will is operationally very real." I said.
"It's not so much that it's an illusion. There are so many turns that come from our outside-of-self-looking-back-at-self viewpoint."
"What you earlier called the second type of consciousness."
"Yes. We think, initially like other higher animals. But it is only in the looking back at ourselves that we say we have free will. It's the same with emotions. We emote. We subconsciously generate the fear reaction, for example, or the sexual attraction, before we become aware of it. But if we ask ourselves "How do I feel?" then we adopt an outside-looking-back-in perspective to figure out which sensations are happening. "Feeling' is a term that implicitly assumes self-consciousness much as "free will" does. But if you're not clear on how you use those terms, the semantics become confusing."
Soltrey@humanmind.net is copyrighted July 2000. All rights reserved B.T. Brian Brown.