Re: Free Will (was Re: virus: Re: Rationality)

David McFadzean (
Mon, 10 Mar 1997 22:31:46 -0700

> From: Dave Pape <>
> Date: Monday, March 10, 1997 3:30 PM

> BUT, our nervous systems are in the state they're in because of the way
> they've interacted with their environment since they began to function. The

True, but look at it this way (this is where the cybernetic approach comes
in handy). Let's say you have to simulate your behaviour in software. Would
most of the complexity of the simulation (measured in terms of statements,
functions, classes, lines o' code, whatever you like) be in the part the
represents you or the environment? Well, obviously the environment, especially
if it includes simulations of other people. But hold on, now simulate a
rock in the same environment. Clearly (the simulation of) you have more
complexity (and, ipso facto, endogenous control) than the rock so it is
possible to say that you have more free will than a rock even though we
can't measure them quantitatively (yet).

So did I just talk myself into supporting your point?

> I'm saying that no meaningful behaviour is generated by the system
> Nervous-System-Not-Environment. The "choices we make" I think arise from
> competition between candidate courses-of-action learnt from previous
> /interactions with the environment/, and the input which triggers this
> actually ongoing and dynamic competition is environmental in its source.

I don't think it matters where the behaviours were learned originally
because free will is more concerned with proximal cause than ultimate
cause. It is true, but not very illuminating to say that everything,
even this message, was caused ultimately by the Big Bang.

> So, trying to describe some behaviour as endogenous in terms of its source
> is erroneous because the only system that produces coordinated, adaptive
> behaviour is Nervous System + Environment.

I'm not concerned as much with sources (triggers) of behaviour as the
process that generated the behaviour. For a morbid example, say that
while driving a car you run over a nail which causes the tire to blow,
which causes the car to veer into the lane of oncoming traffic, which
causes you to convert to Buddhism as your last act before vaulting
through the windshield. All this incredibly complex behaviour caused
by a nail just lying in the road? No, the nail may have triggered the
behaviour (in the counterfactual sense that if it had not been there
you wouldn't have converted to Buddhism), but the real cause has more
to do with the patterns in your skull.

> So, equating free will to endogenously generated behaviour won't work,
> because there's no clear distinction between endogenous and environmentally
> triggered behaviour.

I fully admit there is no "clear distinction". That doesn't mean there
are not important differences.

> anything anyone particular's said recently). In my mind, any will which is
> deterministic, is not free. It is precisely determined from moment to moment

You are "free" to define "free" that way, but then nothing is free. What
does that buy you?

> by the way the components, which make up the body which houses the nervous
> system which runs the memes which give rise to the sensation of that will,
> interact with each other. I'm saying that, in making any choice, I am
> enslaved to the choice I make by the nature of the particles which make up
> the nervous system in which that choice is made. That's not "free" in my book.

Certainly not if you are "enslaved" by your particles! :)

Really I agree, IF you define free will that way THEN there is no such thing.
I just question the utility of such a stance. Why hold anyone responsible for
their actions if they can blame it all on their particles?

> 1 Thinking about myself as being defined by and bound to my
> environment has helped me understand my genetic heritage, how my body works
> as a colony of cells working as a (dysfunctional?) part of an ecology, and
> (I reckon) how I came to know the things I know, and what it means to know
> those things. And this in turn helps me not to get cross in arguments. Which
> is pretty useful to me because I'm shit at fighting.

I'm not saying that we should ignore the environment, quite the opposite.
But it is important to define what you are discussing for purposes of
analysis. All of science is based on distinguishing systems from the
environment they are embedded in. Even though it is quite true that that
nothing is separate from its environment, good luck trying to figure out
anything about the whole universe at once.

> 2 In a sense, I think it's /sacrilege/ to differentiate a system from
> its environment because genetic species are defined by how their genes
> interact with genes expressed as /other/ species (rabbits run fast because
> otherwise foxes would catch them, budleias have certain flower types because
> butterflies like those flowers, but the butterflies have certain proboscises
> because budleias have a certain type of flower), and memospheres are defined
> by the memes which impinge on their brains.

You mentioned genes, rabbits, foxes, flowers, butterflies and brains. Why
are you differentiating these systems from the environment (just by naming
them) if you think it is sacrilege to do so?

> > ...good definitions have to correspond to our intuitions. It is a necessary
> >(but insufficient) criterion for a definition's quality.
> Can you explain please? I think I might disagree with this quite strongly,
> but don't yet understand it enough to bite.

Let's say for example that I redefine "religion" to be an institution whose
members believe that Jesus Christ came to America to spread the gospel after
his death in the Middle East? It may have some merits, but I've just excluded
all religions except Mormonism. Why is this a problem? Because we have
an intuitive notion that any reasonable definition for religion has to
(at least) include mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and
hundreds of other common, less common, and even dead religions.

If instead I redefine religion to be "any meme-complex whose purpose is
to give meaning to the lives of its adherents". This definition is better
because it includes all religions traditionally associated with the word,
plus by leaving out any mandatory belief in a deity the definition
includes systems of thought like Buddhism, Scientology, and the Church of
Virus which are religions (according to their founders) even though they
are excluded by the dictionary definition. My new definition also opens
up new lines of inquiry into the nature of religions by bringing attention
to their inherent viral nature (by calling them meme-complexes) and to
a possible common denominator in their purpose (semantic catalysts) rather
than doctrine (which academics have given up on, according to a friend
doing a PhD in religious studies).

I didn't explain that as well as I had hoped, but that should give you
enough to bite.

David McFadzean       
Memetic Engineer      
Church of Virus