Emanations of the Philosophy of Life Instinct
I am excited to release this article imperfectly, as I have the answer to one of the most troublesome aspects of life — Free Will. I’ll write better versions later, but the breakthrough is here.
This topic is not easy, although I’ve kept it simple. But it’s good to think about this deeply at least once. Whatever your reaction, you’ll be better off for it. So please put in the effort, even if it takes two days and three readings. It’ll give you food for thought and a sense of achievement. At the very least, it will make for interesting party conversation.
We’ll do this in five sections —
- A. Define the problem
- B. Discard old answers
- C. Find the real answer
- D. Note some ancillary points
- E. See the implications
A. What’s the problem?
Thought experiment 1
Imagine a rock happily travelling along in space near Earth in a smooth arc due to its momentum and Earth’s gravity. Then suddenly, you, a human astronaut, appear and shove it off its course.
So what? Something else, like another space rock or a passing meteor, could also have changed the rock’s course.
But the thing is, they would have had a particular and predictable effect on the rock, but we now see you shoot next to it and change its direction again, then stop it, hit it, and break it up. This is something else altogether. You have many choices of actions and effects on things. Inert matter cannot do this. How come you can?
But first, did you actually have a say in changing the path and state of the rock? Or is it something that happened because 13.7 billion years ago, the Big Bang created all matter and energy and set off a chain of related events that follow immutable laws, inevitably leading to the rock being diverted and broken in just this way?
If that’s true, it was not you that did it. You may think and feel you did, but you didn’t. If all matter, energy, motion, and changes follow the laws of physics, how could you have chosen to move the rock? That you would do that was predetermined for the matter in you and through you for what happened to the rock.
Let’s be clear; the problem is not of matter or energy affecting other things. It happens all the time in interstellar gases, galaxies, stars, quasars, pulsars, black holes, solar systems, planets, comets, meteors, etc. But they all follow the laws of conservation of matter and energy and the forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong & weak nuclear forces. Their history, interaction and future are predetermined. It is the same with the travelling rock in our example. They have no choice.
Life does something unexpected.
The big bang could have led to a lifeless universe with a fixed history in time. But somehow, the universe begat life, a strange form of matter. Among its oddities is that it seems to have the choice to select different future states for matter and energy, even if in a minuscule volume of the cosmos.
Ultimately, the universe may go the way it would have without life. But suppose we assume our ability to choose the future is illusory. In that case, it leads to these psychological, moral, ethical, religious, and even scientific issues for us, if not for simpler life forms.
Psychological — We feel strongly that we have the freedom of choice and action. To think otherwise is deeply troubling, and if we do so for a long time, it can lead to mental issues.
Moral, ethical, and religious — If we don’t have a choice, we are not responsible for our actions, good or bad. We should neither be rewarded nor punished. Religious teachings and consequences become irrelevant too.
Scientific — It is perhaps impossible to prove scientifically that our presence did not change the future.
Given this deep opposition between physical laws and what we feel and observe, our Free Will becomes one of the most inexplicable aspects of life. We’ve long been seeking a rational answer to how we are agents that can affect the future of matter and energy in ourselves and the external world in a deterministic universe.
A note on terminology
Let’s tighten up our terms. If we break down how a life form affects the future, it has this sequence:
- Get information on relevant events and the ecosystem
- Identify possible future states
- Choose a desired future state
- Identify potential actions for the desired future state
- Choose an action
- Execute the action (and the change)
“Free Will” is the term that has been used for a long time to stand in for the above process in humans. The ‘free’ part is obviously about freedom from a constraining determinism, but ‘willing’ is not enough. We must identify choices, select one, act on it and change the material world. Only then is Determinism violated. A better phrase would be, ‘freedom to choose the future of at least a part of the universe‘.
Despite the article’s title, let’s shorten this to ‘Freedom of Choice’ and use it instead of ‘Free Will’. You can still think of ‘Free Will’ wherever you come across this term in the rest of the essay if you prefer.
So, we can state our problem as follows —
Do we really have Freedom of Choice? If so, how does it work in us?
Dimensions of the problem
Let’s consider a few relevant things.
What’s the relationship between consciousness and Freedom of Choice?
Consciousness is the ability to see ourselves as separate from the world and observe our mind and body, external objects, events, and causal chains. It makes sense that choice needs consciousness. But can consciousness exist without choice? Can we be conscious observers without the ability to alter anything?
The answer comes from utility. Evolution is not wasteful, at least not for significant and long-lasting life features. It would not develop consciousness if there were no use for it. We use the data from consciousness to act in ways that increase our chances of survival. We use it to select what we think is the best of possible futures. E.g., we decide not to have one more drink before we drive.
So consciousness is required for the exercise of Freedom of Choice, even if, in many instances, we choose to do nothing with our knowledge.
Who has Freedom of Choice?
Although we have taken our problem at a human level and illustrated it, we must be more human-centric.
Do bacteria, viruses, amoeba, plants and simple life forms have Freedom of Choice? Should we answer that they are not conscious and intelligent enough to think of alternative outcomes, choose, and act accordingly?
Without choice, an organism acts and affects the future, but only in one predictable way. How such simple machines came into being is a different matter, as is their instinct to survive, grow, and reproduce. But they do not pose the problem of choice.
So, for the scope of this exploration, we will suppose that Freedom of Choice has developed in higher animals, especially humans.
One day we may find alien life forms with this apparent freedom. Their ideas about it would be interesting.
What about other entities? Could there be something that is neither inert nor life as we know it but has the ability and need to choose the future? It is hard to imagine what such an entity would be like and why it would exercise choices. But we cannot discount the possibility.
At what scale might Freedom of Choice operate? Where might it reside?
Our minds’ individual atoms and molecules can’t have enough states to hold and process the necessary information, rules, alternatives, and actions. It is only when they assemble into complex proteins, neural fibres and neurotransmitters that decision-making capability emerges.
In humans, the most conscious and complex decisions are made in the newest and most evolved higher brain — the cortex and pre-frontal cortex.
What sorts of choices could we have?
For higher animals, Freedom of Choice has to do with the ability to choose what we think and do. The former includes the choice not to think and the latter to do nothing.
B. The Answers We Won’t Give
The God answer
One easy explanation for our Freedom of Choice, some may call it a lazy solution, is that we are all gods or agents of God, to whom rules do not apply. We can do whatever we want.
That would be the end of this essay, but it isn’t, as we are not going down that path.
The illusion answer
A more helpful answer is that we don’t have a choice but only think and feel we do. Like, there’s no real problem.
But we do want to torture ourselves by assuming there is a problem. So, onwards.
The lets-change-the-goalposts answer of Soft Determinism.
An attempt was made to make Freedom of Choice compatible with Determinism through Compatibilism or Soft Determinism. Please have a look. It will only take a couple of minutes. It assumes Determinism is true and everything can be predicted if we know enough, but we can act freely when we are not constrained. This is a self-conflicted idea as it says we are unfree but free.
As I see it, Soft Determinism pushes away Determinism from our choices and does not explain Freedom of Choice at all. It posits we are only free to choose actions driven by features of life instinct, e.g., fears and desires. But this ignores the issue. The fact that you can make any non-deterministic decision is the problem. It’s like saying if a paralysed man can move his eyeballs, we don’t care how he does it, and we can still say he’s paralysed. But we were asking something else.
The tempting answer from the Uncertainty Principle I reluctantly abandoned
In my teens, I came across Quantum Mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Probability Waves, etc. Later, when I was mulling Freedom of Choice, I got the idea that an outcome of the Uncertainty Principle could be Freedom of Choice for life forms.
This is what I thought —
If matter and energy at a point in time have more than one possible future state, perhaps it manifests in our mind as freedom of choice.
But how? What happens in our brain’s nerves, ganglions and synapses so they can choose to fire one way or another?
Quantum Mechanics says that when fundamental particles travel through space, they do as waves, and when they interact with matter, they behave as particles. Their location can be described through a wave function with the square of its magnitude at a spatial point corresponding to the probability of finding the particle there. Could these waves be the via media of choice?
I surmised the following may be happening in our brains:
- The decision-making neural assemblies may take in information, store it, and execute rules to choose a future state.
- Achieving the future state by influencing the probability waves of atoms and molecules in the motor-control regions (if the action is physical, e.g., move the legs to kick the ball to the right) or emotion-control areas (if the action is not physical, e.g., get angry) to make them act as required.
Problems with this idea
But I was wrong, as there are multiple issues with this idea. (This is not an article for a Physics journal, so if you’re knowledgeable about Quantum Mechanics, please get the gist of the points rather than critique them.)
Why Quantum Mechanics cannot support the existence of genuinely free choice
- Uncertainty is the uncertainty in our knowledge of exactly where a particle is, not something inherent in the particle. While a particle is a particle and not a wave, it is located at one point in space and time, even if we don’t know exactly where. (Had it been called the Unknowability Principle, it would have caused fewer misconceptions as knowledge is about us.)
- Probability does not imply freedom in the future position of a particle but only the probability of one of the positions it must have.
- Quantum mechanics does not imply freedom from the law of conservation of energy, mass, momentum, etc., at a macroscopic level and in measurable time. So, it’s still ‘deterministic’ as we understand the term, just in a different way from classical Newtonian Determinism.
Why Quantum Mechanics cannot explain the working of free choice
- The uncertainty of position or energy drops off rapidly with scale, becoming immaterial at the size at which life acts, either simply (large molecules of nucleic acid (RNA/DNA) in viruses, bacteria, plants, etc.) or in complex ways (millimeter+ size neurons in animals).
- There is no plausible mechanism for neural assemblies in brain areas to direct the probability waves of particles in other neurons to make them fire in a certain way.
The answer of Randomness I don’t accept
Quantum probability and the Uncertainty Principle have led some scientists and philosophers to believe that the universe is fundamentally random. Not like artificially seeded mathematical randomness but genuine unpredictability. They agree that there are rules at larger scales but think there is randomness at the smallest — the fabric of space-time and fundamental particles.
If true, it could still support the possibility of freedom of choice in life forms in some manner. In our illustrative space rock example, the mind can allow a random choice, at least in principle, and the rock need not be constrained to go just one predetermined way. But how would randomness work in the mind? Through a super-consciousness that suspends rules and allows a random outcome to be chosen? Or an external agency that seeds the process randomly? It doesn’t matter. True randomness in choice would eliminate the problem of Determinism itself, and everything else would be a detail.
However, like Einstein and other eminent physicists, I believe (sans a doctorate or evidence) that there is no true randomness in the universe. It does not agree with its overall stability and the predictability observed at the macroscopic level, both Newtonian and Quantum. In my view, what may appear to be random (e.g., the emergence and location of particle pairs in empty space) is an insufficient understanding of the fabric and dimensions of space-time.
C. The Real Answer
Once I realised that particle physics is also deterministic and operates at too tiny a scale to be relevant to our Freedom of Choice, I was forced back to the drawing board.
I had to reconcile somehow our feeling of being special agents with a natural power to choose the world’s future with the idea that the world is, in reality, following immutable arcs of destiny beyond our control.
My mind unconsciously applied Occam’s razor, and the most straightforward answer stood up and stared at me — what if we have been wrong in the first place to assume that having rules for the state and behaviour of matter, energy, and time means the destiny of the universe as a whole and in part is immutable? I realised that —
The laws of the universe do not imply determinism!
Three ideas led me here and beyond.
1. Infinite possible valid states
Matter and energy could have various present and future states that meet all the requirements of universal laws. Two alternative states in which some galaxies, stars, planets or people are transposed can have the same overall mass and energy. Take this thought further; you’ll see many such combinations are possible. There could be infinite permitted combinations of matter and energy.
It does not imply valid states are stable or static. They have an intrinsic propensity to change. But each state exists because it is possible.
2. State change mechanism
We are concerned with changes in the universe’s state between now and its future. We see that it changes, but how does it move from one state to another? Is the movement from one state to the next stepped or continuous, instantaneous or time-taking? I am still determining if Physics has answered this question satisfactorily. But for our purposes, the precise nature of change should not make a difference.
3. Agents of state change
What causes a change in the universe? Here are some possibilities.
- The motive force created by the Big Bang is the first obvious answer. It’s pushed the universe from a pin-prick to its current vastness and form in 13.7 billion years.
- Life forms?
- Non-living machines within our universe?
- Black holes or connections to parallel universes?
- Change agents beyond our imagination?
Agents 1 and 2 are uninteresting.
Agents 5 and 6 are interesting but beyond the scope of this investigation.
Let’s check out agent 3, life forms, and particularly humans as possible change agents. On the way, we’ll find we’ve covered agent 4.
Are we change agents?
Thought experiment 2
Imagine a simple machine in space called a ‘rock shover’. It is automated and has an internal source of energy and a rule built into it to push the rock to the left if it is more than 10 kg in mass and to the right otherwise.
(*Putting things in space is a device to make us think cosmically.)
We see it shoving a series of rocks of various masses left and right as per the rule. Do we find anything difficult to accept in this?
No. It doesn’t seem like anything strange is happening. Do we see any laws of physics being broken? No, for we don’t see something crazy like the shove making the rock zoom close to the speed of light or gain mass or start glowing with new energy. We know what to expect intuitively, and we can scientifically check that Newtonian, Einsteinian, and Quantum Mechanical laws are not violated.
Yet, the machine’s presence changes the rock’s future state and hence the universe.
So, we can safely conclude that —
Machines can exist within the universe that change it without breaking its laws.
Now let’s add a human into the picture — you, in a spacesuit. We see you also shoving rocks around, but in more complex ways. We ask you what’s going on, and you tell us that you’re acting based not only on the weight but also on the darkness of the rock, its speed, and its shape. So we build your rules into the machine. Soon, its behaviour and yours can’t be distinguished for all practical purposes.
So, what’s the difference between you and the machine?
The difference is that we expect the machine to do the same thing every time in the same situation. It has no choice. But we don’t expect you to have to do the same thing every time, and you won’t. We believe you have a choice.
To prove this, you start breaking and changing the rules. You sometimes don’t shove a rock and sometimes appear to push one in a random direction.
So we build this arbitrary behaviour into the machine. Once again, it becomes indistinguishable in action from you. It also makes choices and appears free within limits. We can even say it has Free Will.
When the most complicated life form we know, ourselves, cannot be distinguished from machines, we can only conclude —
At least in terms of their ability to change the universe, life forms are machines.
It doesn’t matter who made the machine. Even if a life form made it, once it is working independently, it is causing valid changes in the universe.
Similarly, even if we don’t know how or why life started, it changes the universe like a machine.
Note: There are two types of rules machines are constrained to follow —
- Rules of universal laws. These are mandatory (e.g., conservation of momentum, mass+energy, force field effects, etc.).
- Internal rules for making choices. These are non-mandatory and specific to the type of machine (e.g., ingest matter if food stores are depleted).
How does choice work within us?
Now let us turn to the second part — How does choosing happen?
We have already looked at this, but let’s check its validity in light of our findings. Here is what we think happens in machines and conscious life forms.
- Get information on relevant events and the ecosystem
- Identify possible future states
- Choose a desired future state
- Identify potential actions for the desired future state
- Choose an action
- Execute the action (and the change)
None of these steps is at odds with our findings about valid states, change, agents, and rules. This working of the engine of our Freedom of Choice seems right.
One of the outcomes is that we can accept simple life forms without consciousness as change agents too. They are affecting the future, even if unconsciously, like machines. We may not say they have Freedom of Choice, but they are also breakers of Determinism.
One startling conclusion is that —
The independence of actual universal states and natural laws would probably never have been revealed but for the emergence of life.
The definitive solution
Given our three findings —
- The universe has infinite possible valid states
- Machines can change the universe from the inside if they follow its laws.
- Life forms cannot be distinguished from machines that make rule-bound change choices.
We’ll answer the two parts of our question like so —
To the first part — Do we have Freedom of Choice? — we can say resoundingly, ‘Yes. The nature of the universe doesn’t prevent it!’
To the second part — How does it work? — we can say, “We analyse information, run rules, identify options, make choices, take action and effect changes, all within the laws of the universe.”
We can summarise our answer as follows —
The universe has infinite possible valid states. A machine or life form can change the universe’s state as long as it follows its laws. Humans are rules-driven machines in the matter of choosing future states of the universe.
D. Ancillary thoughts
The End of Determinism
We can agree that every possible universal state is defined or ‘determined’ by laws. But there isn’t just a single predictable predetermined state, which is the accepted meaning of Determinism.
So we can lay the idea of Determinism to rest because it never rigidly existed in the first place, and the appearance of life forms as valid machines dispelled it instantly.
The universe could have been static or determinate, but it isn’t.
Determinism and therefore lack of choice are non sequiturs. There never was a problem to solve.
There’s no evidence to the contrary. There’s abundant evidence for the conclusion. This explanation is the opposite of Soft Determinism. It is non-Determinism.
Why do we feel we are not machines?
We’ve built millions of machines without scientific or philosophical difficulty in understanding why they work. So, why should we think that a human is different? From the viewpoint of an unbiased observer, a machine displays the ‘will’ to act and has the freedom of choice within the laws of physics.
We feel we are not ‘just’ a machine for the following reasons —
- It’s advantageous from an evolutionary viewpoint for a life form to consider its urge to survive, grow and reproduce, unlike inert matter, as special and unique, and therefore the vital ability to change its environment as it wishes as special too.
- Due to the large variety and volume of information and choices we process. (This is relative. To a vastly more intelligent life form, we may appear to be ‘just’ machines, as moths seem to us.).
- Because we sometimes make unexpected choices. (Recall our example of your unruly rock shoving). But there are three understandable reasons for our surprising choices —
- The rule of artificial randomness — we’ve evolved to know the value of apparent randomness or unpredictability, and it’s become a part of our ruleset.
- Evolution of rules — we can evolve and improve the ruleset and constantly do so.
- Malfunction — we decide to do something, but our body does not execute it properly.
If we detach ourselves from these reasons, we can see and accept that the human mind is only a complicated rules engine.
The types and limits of our Freedom of Choice
The Freedom of Choice we have is given to us by the universe. It is surprisingly small and large.
We can do the following —
- Affect matter, energy and time within the known (and some yet unknown) laws of the physical universe as per our current intelligence and power.
- Follow our needs and desires as a life form at our stage of evolution.
We cannot do the following —
- Break the known and unknown laws of the physical universe.
- Transcend our characteristics as a life form at our stage of evolution.
Our powers and Freedom of Choice are small and limited to our world, solar system and a bit beyond it. This is almost negligible, given the vastness of our universe. If we survive and keep evolving, we will increase our choices as the instinct to have more control and power over the environment is part of life. But even if we achieve all we imagine in Star Trek, Star Wars, etc., we will likely ever only affect a tiny fraction of the universe.
We have free will, freedom of choice, freedom of action, and we can change the future, but within the limits of physical laws and our current evolutionary capability. The latter will widen, but the former will always impose an upper limit.
E. The implications of our being rules-driven machines with Freedom of Choice
Freedom of Choice does not need a soul
The idea of the soul, like certain other human notions, is an evolutionary invention alongside our intelligence. We realised at some point between being apes and a homo species that we don’t want to die, but we do. So how to die but not die? Voila, let’s say the real us is an immaterial entity separate from the body which lives on after we are dead. Phew, what a relief. And guess what? Religion can use it, too, to make us behave.
And how does the soul relate to Freedom of Choice? To give the soul more use than simply keeping us alive after death, we ideated long ago that our soul also guides us while we are alive. From there, the concepts of having a good soul, soul searching, soul mates, transmigration of souls, reincarnation, etc., followed.
But suppose consciousness is an evolutionary development to survive better, and our mind is an internally programmed machine that does not require an external agency for decision-making. In that case, there’s no need during our lives for a soul. And the helpful consciousness that gives us the impression of an internal agency disappears when we die. So, no soul during life and no soul after life.
Freedom of Choice does not need God (or the Devil)
As our autonomous and conscious choice systems are mechanical and rule-based, there is no need for supernatural entities to guide or misguide us. When we do healthy things, the engine is working well, and it’s not when we don’t. Beyond a certain point in the curve of human intelligence, our reliance on invented concepts of God, religious laws, karma, damnation, punishment, etc., fall away.
Sure, there are consequences for our choices for ourselves and those we affect. We can call it karma if we like. But it happens in our lifetimes. For a healthy personal and social life, we can work out atheistic or agnostic moral and ethical systems that work just as well as belief in God and religious teachings.
Freedom of Choice being just a soulless rules engine in a machine is not a disaster. Even if you agree, you don’t have to get depressed, fatalistic or nihilistic. Most of us can’t because, as life forms, we can ignore what isn’t suitable for survival.
Even if you understood this essay intellectually, it will make no difference how you live for most of you. You will put it out of your mind and move on with life.
But just in case it makes you feel spiritually affronted, rudderless or melancholy, here are two conclusions that’ll cheer you up. I am not making these up for your consolation.
We have the freedom and responsibility to improve our rules engine
There are severe constraints on what we can do due to the nature of the universe and our characteristics as life forms. But within these limits, the rule engine beneath our Freedom of Choice can be improved by us individually and together. This is a relief and a responsibility.
We can and should improve decision-making through observation, reflection, and learning for better skills, health, sociability, morals, ethics, etc.
Freedom of Choice is only a rules engine, but life is still remarkable.
Science can explain much about life, and I’ve demystified Free Will, but we still can’t explain why life exists. It goes against the universal law of constantly increasing disorder or entropy. We don’t know what urges a particular assembly of molecules to stay whole, grow, and reproduce. We understand how genetic variation, competition, survival of the fittest and evolution support this urge. Otherwise, life would have died out immediately. (Read my book below for more on all this.)
We may soon make machines behave like life forms. We could program them with the drive to grow, reproduce, socialise, and construct them indistinguishable from plants, animals, or humans. But they will still not have the innate life instinct possessed by even the simplest life forms — viruses or tiny bacteria. Please read these two fascinating articles for the simplest life form — Protocell and simplest cell.
So the existence of life still poses two fundamental problems —
- Why do specific molecular assemblies have the life instinct?
- Why and how did they first assemble?
I have no answer for the first and chance as the only answer for the second. All in all, it is little of a solution.
You still have the opportunity to solve this second-greatest mystery of all — why does life exist? The greatest is why the universe exists, and the answer to that may well be beyond us.
For a lot more…
…on this and other philosophical topics that you can apply for a happier and healthier life, get my book below.
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