Friday, April 28, 2017

Is Life Just a Simulation? Musings on Free Will and Determinism

What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a 'spark of life.' It is information, words, instructions... If you want to understand life, don't think about vibrant throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”
Richard Dawkins. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.

“Seconds after fertilization, a quickening begins in the embryo. Proteins reach into the nucleus of the cell and start flicking genetic switches on and off. A dormant spaceship comes to life. Genes are activated and repressed, and these genes, in turn, encode yet other proteins that activate and repress other genes. A single cell divides to form two, then four, and eight cells. An entire layer of cells forms, then hollows out into the outer skin of a ball. Genes that coordinate metabolism, motility, cell fate, and identity fire ‘on.’ The boiler room warms up. The lights flicker on in the corridors. The intercom crackles alive.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Gene: An Intimate History.

“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”
Jean-Paul Sartre. The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom, Volume 4.

To you, I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition.”
Woody Allen. Stardust Memories.

There are two main schools of thought out there when it comes to our understanding of human nature and its capacity for free will. The question, if I may oversimplify, is this: Do we, humans, make decisions based purely and mechanically on pre-programmed inputs or do we have the ability and the freedom to make our own choices?

Philosophers and theologians have grappled with this question for millennia, verily twisting themselves into pretzels trying to justify the existence of free will, believing that life as we know it would be too bleak without it. A religious person might argue that God has already written our destiny and knows what we are going to do; everything is predestined. Scientists are relative newcomers to this ongoing debate. A scientist would say we are just bags of chemicals interacting with each other and the environment, that our actions are the result of our genes and purely physical external criteria. There is no “soul”, no “I” other than a collection of algorithms pre-programmed into our brain through thousands of generations of evolution.

I'm an Atheist and, I'd like to think, a scientist. As such, I don't believe in the concept of God and all its related mythologies. I have five senses and everything I ever perceive in life is learned through those five senses. Of course, I understand that the universe contains “data” that I cannot perceive through my five senses. I understand that there are other senses as well; the bat’s sonar is a great example. But the fact that I can't sense everything is no reason to believe in a God that watches over us and pre-programs our every step. That's a giant leap I'm not ready to make. As Christopher Hitchens famously said (I'm paraphrasing): As an atheist, I'm not saying God doesn't exist. I'm just saying I haven't seen a single piece of evidence to prove his existence. I am perfectly willing to change my mind. Show me the data. The burden of proof is on the believers to show the data supposedly at their disposal to prove the existence of such an entity. I'm listening. I haven't seen anything yet. And - yes - I am limiting myself again to what I can ascertain with those five senses, not on some fictional belief or dogma. So, as you can guess, I don't subscribe to the religious view on this topic.

Much recent research has shown massive evidence for the scientific point of view. Scientists have shown, definitively, that the seconds or minutes spent contemplating our choices are simply an attempt by our brains to rationalize a decision that our primitive brains have already made almost instantaneously. You decide whether you love or hate Trump instantly, then you spend all your time convincing yourself that he really is a jerk or our savior. The next few months - or years, as the case may be - are really just mental masturbation, time spent confirming our pre-existing biases - again, based entirely on chemical and neural impulses in the brain that our conscious minds do not control. This post hoc rationalization, along with our confirmation bias, is what we really think of as free will. The concept is just an illusion, a lie our brains tell us to make us feel better. It's a story we tell ourselves to make our selves feel better. We have no choice but to behave the way we do, to make the decisions we make.

I agree with everything science has shown. Every decision I ever make is heavily influenced by my genetic makeup. This has been shown again and again through scientific studies of fraternal and identical twins. But every situation I find myself in is also unique and has never been experienced by anyone else before. Even the other people experiencing that same moment with me have entirely different backgrounds which, by necessity, means they have a very different experience of the moment than I do. If we think of this moment in time and space as the culmination of everything that has happened to the participants in the moments leading up to it (the scientific view: A caused B which then caused C, all the way back to the Big Bang), then each moment is unique not just in itself but also in its interpretation by each of the participants. There is no single “now” but instead, there is “now as experienced by Jack” and “now as experienced by Jane” and everyone else.

The choice I make at any given moment is, of course, massively influenced by everything that has come before it, every experience I have lived through, and every gene I've inherited. But the moment itself is unique and has never happened to anyone else before - in history. My actions may be automatic but the combination of all our actions together is not. You don’t know what I’m going to do next and I don’t know what you’re going to do either. That, in itself, introduces probability into the mix, making our combined future together nondeterministic. I may just be executing the next inevitable step in a program but that program has never been executed before nor will it ever be executed in exactly the same manner again.

Some people have even suggested that life is just a simulation - a proverbial Sims game writ large. These types of explanations are interesting but don’t really get to the heart of the problem. It only looks like a simulation because that is the metaphor we are familiar with as children of a certain age. To say that life is a simulation is no more meaningful than saying that it is created by an invisible yet omnipotent omniscient being. It avoids answering the real question by assuming the existence of a creator, in this case the programmer, conveniently placed outside our “world”.

Now, here comes the pretzel: The more satisfying explanation, the one I choose to believe, is that we are truly creating every moment on the fly - one moment at a time. We are, in that sense, the creators of our own destiny. We are writing this story. We are truly making it up as we go along. Because this particular moment has never ever happened in the past. And there are at least seven billion versions of “this particular moment”, seven billion “stories”. Each of us may just be playing out preprogrammed actions at each step, but the combination is unique and new. And the more people, the more relationships, the more ideas, the more variables, the richer and the more unique each moment. Isn't that enough?

1 comment: