Free will, Emergence and the Biological Event Horizon

Recognising the attachment we have to the power of truth, whatever that may be Ant Biggs takes a look at the important dilemma presented by the philosophical concepts of free will, v determinism.
The shape of the answer the consequences that are implied.
Flowing from this the idea that the individual be responsible for his or her actions,
or not.
And the journey this week?
One that takes us from questions of physical observation, through to the emergence of matter out of chaos, and into the realms of our own perceptive landscapes, the event horizons that emerge at the very limits of our own perceptive universe…
No pressure then.

Hi, I’m Ant Biggs and I’ ll be your host for the next 20 to 30 minutes,
Taking you on a trip into the strange
and wonderful landscape
of this here podcast.
Stay with me…
If you just want to come by and comment or just say hello
same place

Last week
a look at the world Physics, Quantum Bayesian Mechanics
and the evolutionary tricks of the Jewel Beetle
Understanding where we are at in the battle between free will and determinism.
And while the jury is still out
This week, today,
a look at why that battle is so important.
Why such a long and hard battle?

Breaking down the discussion?
To decide what we mean by it,
where we might find it
and why we need it?
Free will what’s in it for me?

But before we do…

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thinking maybe this podcast could use my support
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And thank you to those who are supporting us right now
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So Free will,
free will…
What is it?
Do we have it?
Where do we get it?
What’s it for?

The importance to humanity of the discussion
of free will can not be denied.
The idea of free will has been argued about for thousands of years.
The argument
raging even now
as to whether we live in a deterministic material world
or live in a world of ideas
rages amongst philosophers, physicists and theologians
because there are consequences
that flow from the answer.
About how we live and about how we behave in the world,
these are consequences that depend on our relationship to,
or our understanding of, free will.

If my consciousness,
my sense of self
is a by product of my brain’s complexity
if it emerges from the material of a physical world,
and that world obeys the physical definable laws of behaviour,
then my mind must obey those laws too…
We should be able to use the laws to predict what it will do.
What I will do.

My belief then in my own free will,
becomes nothing more than a illusion.

I might choose for example
inverted commas
to raise a cheer to my neighbour,
or two fingers even,
I might choose to eat fish this evening
or to enjoy a glass of wine
or both,
but ultimately
and let’s stick with the grapes
the argument goes that
they have been destined to be in that glass
since they were picked,
and the picker was destined to pick that grape
since the day he or she was born,
and the wool for the swaddling blanket that day
had been destined to wrap that baby, warmed by an open fire
from the day that fire was used to melt the iron from some pounded rock,
under the gray skies of a fortified hilltop settlement.
And the rain falls as little more than a mist, that day
beginning a journey that will see it appear later in this journey.

And I have no choice but to type these words, or you
whether to read them…

That is determinism.
And from this
flows the thought that its ok.
Everything is ok.
There’s nothing you can do about who you are, what you feel, or what you’ll be doing this evening..

But of course there are problems with this,
firstly in trying to explain how it is exactly
that consciousness
emerges from unconscious matter.
And of course how this explains god,
or love
or the self evident reality of conscious thought.
You know, I think therefore I am.

And philosophically speaking
if we are to accept that the universe consists of a single set of rules,
that it can all be explained as a single unity,
as we would understand from the study of physics
then we must believe it a binary question
with either one or the other answer,
either consciousness emerges from matter
or matter must emerge from consciousness.

So could the world be nothing but thought
or at least something meta or other other than physical?
So are we individual consciousnesses?
Are we small units of a shared consciousness?
do we create all of the rocks and stones
and planets and stars
out of our imagination,
as one imagination?
How come we see the same things, we share our experience…
How come I can’t control the future..?

Am I just a figment of your imagination?

So I’ve put the thought of free will into your head right there
but what do i mean by it?
And what do you mean by it?
Lets just roll this back a ways and make sure we are starting on the same page.

Central to free will we see undetermined
unfettered freedom,
it stands for absolute freedom.
And this is the philosophical freedom that exists in opposition to absolute determinism.
and this is where the battle lives,
between science and religion,
realists and idealists…
But whilst this row battle goes on we miss an opportunity to define a different version.

To put it to sleep
I would point out
that we can deconstruct what it means
to express absolute self determination.
and talk about the depth to which we can assume free will has its domain.

If we want to talk about an absolute free will
then we must be prepared
to believe that our world exists only for ourselves,
as individuals and that reality is highly unlikely.
Everything including you, me, reality emerges from my consciousness…

Any other view however must accept at least in part some degree of determinism
be it 1 percent, or 99%.
We can understand that to operate on a human scale both free
and determined behaviour are possible.

And so maybe it would pay to understand what this means to us,
to our daily existence…

Firstly, how does free will fit within us, as individuals?
What do the cognitive sciences tell us about free will?

Now listen up…
One more…

Did you know it takes less time to do that,
to click your fingers than it does for your neurological system to process it.
To see it happen,
to hear it,
to plot the movements.
Its as though your body or mind lacks any way to take control,
even of your own movements.
As though we might begin to get some inkling as to what it might really mean
to be observing a more primal or fundamental existence.

Here’s the thing.
How this works,
or how anything we do works
on a biological level,
is that to click my fingers
I need to set up all of the neurological path ways
and muscle responses,
the mechanical movements required.
And I sometimes consciously,
but mostly subconsciously
organise all of these previously acquired,
individually separate units of biological programming
into click
into that particular action and I release it.
I disinhibit a cascade of biological actions.
But what that means,
for our discussion here,
of free will
is that once it is set in motion,
once the cascade has been given the signal, the go-ahead,
there’s no stopping it.
Something unstoppable like that is said to be ballistic.

That was a simple but well documented example of biological process
so we must see that our choices are constrained
in all sorts of ways.
We must accept a certain percentage of determinism,
so what is left?
how should we think of free will..?

Again Jordan Peterson, says it is useful to think about free will in the same way as we think about games.
There are rules and limitations, circumstances described from which aims and structures, causes and consequences flow, …
But within that framework, of predetermined laws, be they the laws of chess, or football, or quantum physics, an immense number of possible choices, free choices emerge, as though the act of proscribing limits is akin to opening up new limitless worlds of possibility.

Like with music.

And I would go so far as to say that the creative urge,
in all its expression,
is in essence
nothing more
than a method of defining new boundaries.

Creativity appears on the face of it
to be the ultimate expression of free spirit,
of rebellion,
an embodiment of all it means to have free will,
being the artist, the explorer, the outsider
burning the rule book, tearing out the pages
perhaps counter-intuitively,
the artist is ultimately selecting a new landscape to explore,
narrowing its scope with each work,
so that it might become a consistent whole.
Yes free will to explore,
and free will to decide on the possibilities,
but within a framework.
It is only once the framework has been imposed
that it’s boundaries and meaning can be tested.
Ultimately the limits determine coherence.
Free will is nothing without determinism.

There is a usefulness in this thinking
about free will as a game
in that it allows us to recognise the need for limits,
for some degree of determinism
in which our choices can be made.
And I think there is an elegance
to the duality,
in its parallel to the acceptance of wave duality for example,
and to the lessons of quantum mechanics,
and in the way we are beginning to become accustomed
to non-binary, nuanced answers, or conversations.

Think otherwise,
that the question of free will is a simple binary.
All or nothing.

If there was no determination and everything was free will,
dependent on choice, we’d be gods.
And even here there is a deep irony.
You can’t get out of the trap.
The concept of an all powerful,
unlimited being, or state is a paradox.
The irony lies in that the attributes
of omniscience,
and omnipresence –
the classical attributes of a god,
would provide this being limitless power, limitless knowledge,
and limitless being.
So what would be the limits of this being?
A god must lack nothing…
the limits would be its lack.
all of a sudden,
we have a being that is no longer the god we thought.

And what we draw from this is there must be limits.

And back to clicking fingers.
It appears we have the free will to decide whether to set up the cascade,
and when to release it but
Once that cascade has been released,
that’s it.
Might there be some form of time constraint to our interaction with free will?
Yes, It looks like the further we look into the future
the freer our decision making might become…
And once we come closer to the present
the more that freedom becomes constrained,
to a point where it is diminished.

Peterson likens thinking about how we operate as mechanical beings,
to thinking about how we learn a musical instrument.
Through repetition we
train our body and brains to store mechanical routines,
moving fingers, playing notes, chords formed of mechanical programming
so that these routines can be replayed mechanically without thought.
The mental effort involved in this learning process
is no mean feat and can be neurologically tracked,
to start with a load of energy front right side of the brain,
as a load of attention is required
to encode the movements and sounds etc
into packets of memorable data,
determined neurological quanta perhaps?
but I’m calling them quogs!
Then the energy tracks to the left side of the brain,
and finally
begins to move towards the back,
requiring less and less up front
computing power as it goes.
A trained musician reads the notes, looks ahead,
organising a cascade of these quogs or automatic motor sequences
into a delivery strategy
to be dis-inhibited as required.

bottom line
is how we do stuff…
perhaps the weirdest thing is to realise that its the same mechanism
that drives your car.
But its a bit of luck really
Your brain is too slow to process and react
to the stuff going on right in front of you.
You’ve already
mechanically run that over…
Instead, you look ahead,
and your brain tracks the future,
the corners and the braking and the gear changes,
and your brain sets up the movements you will need to make when the time comes,
and lets them go when needed,
It reads ahead all of the time
relying on mechanical determinism at the point of contact,
the cognitive event horizon.

What this says about free will
is that there appear to be different degrees of it available to us,
from it seems
the virtually limitless possibilities available in our future
those decisions we will make around the next corner
to a virtual
events get closer
and the free will involved in taking action
is replaced by the pre-determined automation.
The event horizon.

There you have the cognitive science.
The biology of how stuff happens,
a combination of biological determinism and
a conscious mind
able to plan and manipulate.


And while consciousness is doing this
Peterson says
it isn’t running down like a clock,
heading toward a final state of entropy.
Like a clock runs downhill.
Human beings it feels don’t appear to run down
and that is because we,
or life
is not clockwork.
There is no analogy to the clockwork determinism of thermodynamics.
Life is different in that it is created of dissipative systems,
taking energy in,
and releasing it,
in balance with our energetic environment,
and organising the chaos,
We are anti-entropic dissipative systems,
confronting an infinite number of potentials,
in the chaos
and casting them into reality.

So life then… a dissipative system…
formed out of an irresistable march towards entropy.
thought I’d look it up…

Seems, the Second law of thermodynamics says that
in a closed system there is a flow of energy, a natural tendency towards disorder.
Life it is said,
in creating order out of disorder,
violates this law.

But not so,
if the system is an open system,
and the energy available therefore massively outweighs
the expected downhill flow towards entropy.

With the addition of feedback loops and
non-linear equations,
– Equations that are particularly suited to descriptions of natural phenomena such as the weather –
dissipative engines,
like steam engines
turning heat into movement
create structure.

This was Ilya Prigogine – Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977 for

“contributions to non-equilibrium thermodynamics,
particularly the theory of dissipative structures”

But what does that mean for us?
See a water spout, a cloud, see a galaxy or a star.

There is a short video on youtube that provides a fantastic example of what this means.
Chaos and Dissipative Structures | Joaquin Roca
But just consider a 2-litre water bottle,
and just to be sure, can we make this the last 2-litre plastic water bottle that ever got made,
in a testament to a period of absolute monkey brained idiocy…
But back from the distraction,
We have this bottle,
it is 3/4 full of water.
We turn it upside down and we zoom in
and we focus on the water as it flows out.

The energies of gravity and laws of thermodynamics work on this water
dragging it down and out as air comes in to replace it
and at the point of contact,
at the moment between the water and the air
with all of the energy of that spin,
a vortex forms,
a structure…
A stable and palpable, very real structure,
neither water, nor air
nor both, nor neither –
in succinct parallel to Heisenberg
and the Copenhagen Interpretation 1917.
This emergent thing
which we can see at once
and so close to the edge
of breaking up –
formed out of the chaos,
formed out of the drive for entropy.
Out of all of that visceral power we get
order, we get structure,
and ultimately,
we get life.

For a physicist given this theory the biological choice
becomes a choice between a definition of life as either
1. a violation of the laws of thermodynamics
or 2. as a dissipative structure.

And so a cell it transpires
can be seen to exist under the right conditions.
A cell maintains a high flow of electrons out of its nutrient.
surviving within a high redox energy environment.
And we must look for the engines
and in a search for these engines we ask
what is special about Redox energy.

Well it turns out it that the conditions for redox energy transfer remain particularly stable in water
meaning that a long chemically speaking lifespan is available, for structures to appear
and also that organic compounds
such as quinones, and flavins
and molybdenum turn out to be bio-catalysts,
creating order, out of the chaos,
but mostly by metals
Iron, Nickel etc
This is still just a work in progress but
Yes we have our engines…

So we need also to look at free will
from the perspective of conscious choice.
It seems that the degree of free will required to survive is becoming less and less but
We can still ask why would we have evolved a consciousness at all
without free will?
Why would we have evolved with a brain capable of planning and prediction,
and of reaction,
a mind that feels and enjoys creativity and decision making
if we weren’t able to implement its use.

And we can understand this through the lens of evolutionary biology.

I am not sure if I will ever come to grips with the distinction between the two,
between an extended phenotype and a meme.
But hopefully it is enough to ask how this newly loaded version of free will fits into our concept of society
because society, community, politics and the emergence of life
The emergence of life,
give weight to the same evolutionary narrative that can be used to describe
dissipative structure
the bee and the hive,
the beaver and the dam,
the trader and the market,
the family and the village…
all of these entities
these expressions of dissipative structure
moving towards order
at the same time demand control.

Peterson presents what might be considered an evolutionary narrative for the existence of consciousness and hence free will which is rooted in a deep understanding of our place in this world, this reality.
And from which flow the mechanisms by which we understand ourselves and govern our treatment of others.
This view recognises the value of free will from a personal and sociological level, defining it as a necessary component for essentially existential well being.
He belief is that without with determinism comes a fatalistic lack of responsibility, a lack of foundations for life’s decisions, and a bankrupt moral code.

If you treat yourself as a free moral agent, with choice, however
able to determine the course of your life,
and make choices about the world
that is going to come into being
then you seem to get along better with yourself
and to be less anxious,
and to be more productive.
And if you treat others like that,
as free agents making choices about
how reality is going to come into being,
with appropriate reward and punishment being available
for when they get it wrong or right
then your relationships seem to work.
And if we set up society in a way that reflects this ability
it seems we can have an effective
and functional society.

And this is where the importance of free will can be found.
Through the the metaphor that has human existence
a dissipative structure,
akin to a whirlpool in a bottle,
the bottle is the universe
and we given form, and consciousness
directly out of the flow of entropy through it,
and we are driven by evolutionary engines
to create order out of the chaos,
ever more patterning is created,
patterns of language,
of heirarchy,
of social organisation, and

Our layered brains,
which have evolved to make sense of this whirlpool,
experience free will as
So, consciousness might be

a mechanism that deals with potential before it is transformed into actuality.

What is important,
what flows from this is that
free will has an essential part to play
in our conception of our moral responsibility.

And our vested interest
through our relationship to society,
the social contract,
is to believe in free will,
to believe we are responsible for our own choices
and that we are capable of decision.
Because without free will we have a god committing crime,
a lack of good or evil, there is
no sin, no punishment.
No need for good,
And we have a psychopathic slide
into social chaos.

Why punishment?
Maybe a more detailed look at the tragedy of the commons next week.

Thank you for listening.
I’ve been Ant Biggs
and this has been Cow – the podcast.

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