Musings on the idea of Free Will

Think about what it means to make a decision.  The cashier gave you too much change – do you tell him/her?  It seems like you make your choice based on past events (your parents taught you that it was deceitful to take something that shouldn’t be yours) or the current state of your mind (the cashier is really cute, maybe I’ll get a few points by pointing out the mistake).  Upon further analysis, it really seems that the exact state of your brain (memories, neural pathways and triggers) and the state of external stimuli might be fully responsible for each decision and action.  However, one could make the same argument for a computer, which function is based on the concept of a finite state machine (each action is fully determined by the state of the machine and its inputs).  This idea essentially boils down to us being nothing more than robots.  Are you okay with that?

What about the following scenario:

Two kids with the same parents grow up in the same environment.  Why do they frequently have a completely different set of values?  One gives the money back to the cashier without question; one keeps the money without question.  Why?  It can’t be purely due to genetics.  And it can’t be purely due to upbringing.  Determinists would argue that slight differences in genetics or environment may have a domino effect on the value systems of the individual.  But, could it also be due to the possibility that these are two different souls, which have evolved differently?  Believers in reincarnation might say that the former has learned a universal lesson in a previous incarnation and is perhaps an older, or more experienced, soul.  It is therefore natural for that person to make such a decision, whereas the sibling’s soul has not yet learned that universal lesson.  We can’t be sure, but it does seem odd that people often talk of the deep personality differences between their children that are observable at such a young age that environmental differences are precluded.  This tends to lend support to the idea that there is a “ghost in the machine.”


Would it really be that bad to find life in our Solar System?

Nick Bostrom wrote an interesting article for the MIT Technology Review about how he hopes that the search for life on Mars finds nothing. In it, he reasons that inasmuch as we haven’t come across any signs of intelligent life in the universe yet, advanced life must be rare. But since conditions for life aren’t particularly stringent, there must be a “great filter” that prevents life from evolving beyond a certain point. If we are indeed alone, that probably means that we have made it through the filter. But if life is found nearby, like in our solar system, then the filter is probably ahead of us, or at least ahead of the evolutionary stage of the life that we find. And the more advanced the life form that we find, the more likely that we have yet to hit the filter, which implies ultimate doom for us.

But I wonder about some of the assumptions in this argument. He argues that intelligent ETs must not exist because they most certainly should have colonized the galaxy via von Neumann probes but apparently have not done so because we do not observe them. It seems to me, however, that it is certainly plausible that a sufficiently advanced civilization can be effectively cloaked from a far less advanced one. Mastery of some of those other 6 or 7 spatial dimensions that string theory predicts comes to mind. Or invisibility via some form of electromagnetic cloaking. And those are only early 21st century ideas. Imagine the possibilities of being invisible in a couple hundred years.

Then there is the programmed reality model. If the programmers placed multiple species in the galaxy for “players” to inhabit, it would certainly not be hard to keep some from interacting with each other, e.g. until the lesser civilization proves its ability to play nicely. Think about how some virtual reality games allow the players to walk through walls. It is a simple matter to maintain multiple domains of existence in a single programmed construct!  More support for the programmed reality model?…

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