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John Bentham

Shanghai, China

Registered: Oct 2006
Posts: 3

I am not clear about what NKS says about freewill.

I am not clear about what NKS says about freewill. If I understand what Stephan Wolfram is saying in chapter 12, freewill is an illusion. Is all human behavior based upon a series of preset responses? These responses seem to result from freewill because they are operating in a sufficiently complex system that no simpler model can be made that will give the same result in less time, so there would be no way to predict human behavior in the same way that we may be able to predict the behavior of some other living beings.

Or is he saying that the result of having this complex system is that there is actually freewill?

I have not read the whole book so if there are some chapters I should look at that will help me to understand this better I would appreciate it very much.
Thank you.

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Old Post 10-08-2006 11:04 AM
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Sean Lynch
Rowan University
New Jersey

Registered: Jul 2006
Posts: 13

The way I understand it, freewill comes from the fact that human behavior is a universal computation.

In any universal system, the state at any particular time in the future cannot be predicted. The only way to see what is going to happen is to run it for that amount of time and observe the results.

The reason we feel like we are in control and have the ability to take our future in any direction we want is because our perceptions of our world are unable to "outrun" the universal computations that we perform.

We will always be unable to see the future outcome of any universal system so we are unable to see the fact that we are following a deterministic program.

This is how I have come to understand it, although I must admit, it is still a concept that is difficult for me to understand.

Can anyone clarify this further, or if I'm wrong, describe it correctly?

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Old Post 10-09-2006 04:05 AM
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Val Smith


Registered: Jun 2005
Posts: 39

It amazes me that so many people ask other people if they are alive or a machine, and expect an answer.

By free will, choose the correct answer, or you are the biggest flunker of all time!:

1.I say you are a machine, and you worship me as a great scientist and are my peripheral slave.

2.I say you are alive, and you are free even to disagree with me.

3.In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Go in peace and tend your garden.
It is the image of paradise and you were created in the image of God.

4.You are a monkey's uncle. Climb a tree and get your free bunch of bananas.

5.I am a talking snake. You are going to die anyway, so why not get it over with now.

6. The answer to life the universe and everything is 42. Everyone knows that.

7. Champernowne's number (0.12345678910111213...) is the sum of all possible human knowledge.
Look at it, be infinitely smart, and realize that there is nothing new to learn.

8.See a shrink.
(before you join a cult and drink magic KoolAid and beam up to a comet).

9.Think practically! Study biology and medicine and find a cure for whatever's killing you before it does.
If you don't know then it's probably that global pandemic informally known as "aging".

10.None of the above. The correct answer is ____________ . (Please fill it in.)

__________________
If something is zero, and zero is nothing, then something must be nothing.

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Old Post 10-09-2006 10:56 PM
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Jason Cawley
Wolfram Science Group
Phoenix, AZ USA

Registered: Aug 2003
Posts: 712

The free will section of my regular "philosophical implications of NKS" talk

Wolfram presents an opinion on the subject of free will, which can be distinguished from two common previous opinions. Let spontaneity mean the idea that wills are uncaused. Let behaviorism mean the idea that wills are deterministic and predictable systems. Then call Wolfram's position "unpredictable wills", which follow a simple program deterministically but also perform irreducible computations.

Spontaneity and unpredictable both deny behaviorism's claim that wills are predictable beforehand. Unpredictable and behaviorism both deny that wills are uncaused.

We should distinguish between the view Wolfram presents on free will, and the force of his argument. He claims that behaviorism can't be true in general - though there may be subsets of behavior that are predictable of course. But if humans do irreducible computations, there will not be any general way of predicting everything they might do.

On the spontaneity side, Wolfram does not claim to have shown the position can't be true. Rather, he has attacked a piece of evidence commonly advanced in its favor. Specifically, he shows that evidence of unpredictability is not evidence of spontaneity. He thinks this weakens the spontaneity argument. Wolfram's own prior commitment to determinism leads him to favor the unpredictable position. But this an independent commitment on his part. It is not required by what he says about free will.

Sometimes I hear people say that Wolfram offers an explanation for "the illusion of free will". Behaviorism has commonly called it "an illusion", because they are in the business of explaining it away. Wolfram does not call it an illusion. He thinks wills are free in a meaningful sense, though not a sense that contradicts determinism or entails spontaneity. What sense?

The computation that determines a behavior that deserves to be called "free" is internal to the system. It is not simply a translation of initial conditions. The behavior of rule 110 can be said to adhere to that rule. If you feed the same inputs to another class 4, you get something different. The idea is that a specific enough rule performing an irreducible computation can be meaningfully said to add something.

If the essential element in "free" is seen as not following necessarily from any rule, then the unpredictable position does not ascribe "free" to wills. This basically just reduces to the statement that the unpredictable position is not the spontaneity position. If on the other hand the essential element is seen as "ownership" of an outcome not knowable ahead of time, tracing the site or subsystem responsible for its uniqueness, then unpredictable systems can be meaningfully called "free".

One might still argue whether the unpredictable position seems adequate to our own sense of will causation. Of another's will, unpredictability seems an adequate enough marker. But of our own, we do not simply experience our will as unpredictable by us. Perhaps this might be explained as having the intervening computation (or parts of it) available to ourselves. Is this an adequate explanation of the phenomenal sense of choice? Reasonable people might disagree about that.

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Old Post 10-10-2006 03:35 PM
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John Bentham

Shanghai, China

Registered: Oct 2006
Posts: 3

I could use some more clarification

Thank you for that thorough answer. I don’t know if I understood all of it though. According to NKS is it that our “wills” are nested in the sense of less complex behaviors are governed by less complex CA and that the freewill we experience is a result of complex CA? Free will according to NKS can be said to be functioning only at certain levels of human behavior. As the CA develop the complexity of behavior so increases to give one enough freewill in the arena of human interaction as to make it legitimate for an individual to be held accountable for their actions. This accountable aspect or sense of self is but a result of a highly complex system of CA. Do I understand this correctly?

Does this social and or legal accountability act then as another layer of CA?

Thank you

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Old Post 10-22-2006 08:42 AM
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Jason Cawley
Wolfram Science Group
Phoenix, AZ USA

Registered: Aug 2003
Posts: 712

I am happy to clarify.

First of all, NKS does not claim wills are cellular automata. The analogy is meant simply to illustrate the range of behaviors typical of simple programs. The idea is that wills may be computationally universal processes - like class 4 CAs in that respect. If correct, this implies on the one hand that wills may follow definite underlying rules - in contrast to the idea of purely uncaused, "spontaneous" wills - but can also show behavior of essentially unbounded complexity - in contrast to the "behaviorist" idea that wills must be simple and predictable systems if we just modeled them right.

"is it that our "wills" are nested"

Nothing said in the book depends on that. A computationally universal system can behave in very complicated ways or in simple ways. Universal implies flexible, if you like. So the idea is there is some universal computable process that corresponds to each individual will. Nothing is claimed about these being uniform from person to person - instead, imagine there is a "different rule" for each unique individual. A distinct rule for each, differing in fine detail.

OK, now put these different rules in similar conditions. In computational terms, you have a whole family of different rules. When fed the same (or close) initials, you will see a range of behaviors, not just one. To what is the variation seen, to be ascribed? To the various detailed differences in the various individual rules.

There may be various sorts of similarities - just as e.g. many CAs will do nothing if fed an all-white initial condition, there may be some common aspects, some simple behaviors in simple conditions, etc. Similarly, some low level reflex behavior might be nearly constant across people. But in full generality, what each individual rule does with each possible exact initial condition can only be known by explicitly carrying out the computation that system itself performs. There won't in general be any short cut to figure out what that specific system will do. You have to watch it and see, or you have to explicitly "emulate" it, walking through the same steps it does. We say, computationally universal systems are inherently unpredictable (beforehand or without doing equivalent computational work to the system itself), or "irreducible".

Wolfam's idea is that this phenomenon about universal systems is responsible for many of the characteristics we see in human wills, that have led us to separate off willful behavior from other systems in nature, to analyze them differently, and to regard them as free.

He denies that is an illusion. He thinks there is a real specific difference in the free-seeming systems and the simple-seeming ones. He does not, however, draw that line where past thinkers about free will have typically drawn it.

"...to give one enough freewill in the arena of human interaction as to make it legitimate for an individual to be held accountable for their actions."

The idea is that since it is the details of the unique individual rule that give rise to the behavior, and we in some sense are these detailed and unique rules, it makes sense to ascribe responsibility for the behavior to each of us individually.

Compare this to the behaviorist idea that what people do is determined by their environment in some uniform way. That would trace the cause of differences in behaviors to perhaps obscure details of the initials or environment, but regards those as independent of, or alien to, each of us, as a unique individual.

In contrast, Wolfram thinks it is the specific individuality of "our own" rule, that accounts for the specific way we respond to our conditions or environment. He considers it entirely rational to regard individuals as responsible for their actions, because to him individuals are specific rules (or bundles of rules, which is just "rule" in a broader sense).

This accounts fairly easily for our tendency to ascribe responsibility to free-seeming actors, and for the empirical unpredictability of willful systems. It has less to say about our subjective sense of willful causation.

A plausible extension of what Wolfram says in NKS might be to ascribe that to the access each of us has to the ongoing computation that takes us from situation or inputs A to decision or output B. Whereas third party observors see only the input and the output, and the wide variation in them across individuals, we each see a larger part of the intervening steps, in our own case, and they seem to "make sense" to us. While plausible, though, this is an extension - it isn't a claim Wolfram himself makes. (And a psychologist might quibble about how conscious any of that typically is).

Overall, Wolfram situates himself between the typical position of past behaviorists, who claimed free will is an illusion, in part in an effort to save their philosophical commitment to determinism - and past proposers of "spontaneous" wills, who claimed free wills are "metaphysically free" or completely uncaused, and therefore do not follow any (causal, at any rate) rules at all.

He disagrees with both of those traditional positions, in different ways. He agrees with the behaviorists in saving determinism. But disagrees with them about wills meaningfully being regarded as free, and especially about wills being predictable. He agrees with the spontaneity position in seeing wills as unpredictable. But disagrees with them about wills being "uncaused". He thinks both parties have too easily equated "determined" with "predictable". Since his formal investigations led him to determined but unpredictable systems.

It is really those he presents as "new evidence". Strictly speaking, his work shows that evidence of unpredictability is not evidence of indeterminism, as some on the "spontaneous wills" side of the traditional debate wished. Anyone might still regard indeterminism as true - but they can't point to empirical unpredictabilility of wills as conclusive in that respect.

Equally, one might say Wolfram jettisons behaviorism as untenable, without giving up his determinism. His reasons for favoring determinism are outside his discussion of free will and independent of it. He thinks it important to science (a subject much debated by philosophers - e.g. Popper vigorously disputed that and regarded it as a philosophical "extra" in no way required by scientific method) and more straightforwardly, simply regards it as true.

In all of this, it is important to distinguish Wolfram's personal philosophic views, from NKS more broadly speaking, and what the evidence from NKS tells us on such matters. Because the former includes other things - meaning, perfectly legitimate philosophical convictions on Wolfram's part, that are not requirements for doing NKS or part of its essential conceptual structure.

I hope this helps.

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Old Post 10-23-2006 06:15 PM
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