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Entropy, complexity, and a science-based solution to the free will problem

The free will debate is a tiresome thing. The same old arguments over and over. Each camp rigidly defending and attacking, and it never goes anywhere. I think it needs a new perspective. I’d like to start a discussion that focuses on alternative views in the debate over free will. Forget the old arguments and start over anew. Leave out the fanciful thought experiments about all knowing super computers and rewinding and replaying the universe. I think it’s possible to create the framework for a science based model that can allow for deterministic cause and effect, predetermined future, and ever expanding room for freedom of choice. Of course, by free will I don’t mean unconstrained will. I mean freedom to act within a range of possibilities, and that the action will affect what comes next. That is the common understanding of free will, and more than that simply wouldn’t be scientifically possible.

To create the framework for this model, we just need to open our eyes and our minds, and step back and look at the big picture. The problem with the old arguments is an oversimplification of the cause and effect pair, which is of course way more than a pair. In the case of human behavior, it is billions or trillions of simple cause and effect pairs. When trying to create a simple model for the sake of argument, it is a mistake to do it from a human-centered perspective, because we can’t see through the maze of complexity. One of the reasons we can’t see through is that our view is blocked by the emergent properties and behavior of complex systems. We have to view what’s happening from the perspective of the universe. In order to create a workable model, we have to work up from the basic principles of the universe ( as currently understood by science ). To avoid the pitfalls of all the complexity, we need to treat each complex system as a unit.

In another discussion, someone asked me what entropy has to do with free will. I didn’t give him an answer because it was a rhetorical question, but entropy has something to do with everything. Science tells us that shortly after the beginning, the universe was composed of a fixed amount of total energy. Energy can be either ordered or disordered. Disordered energy, or heat, is particles moving in random directions at random speeds. The average speed represents the temperature. Ordered energy is when the particles are moving in the same direction at the same speed. This can be radiation, matter or complex compounds of matter. It is the presence of order in the universe that makes something happen, not the location and velocity of particles. Science also tells us that over time the ordered energy will decay into disorder. If there were no other factors, that is all that would happen: the order would slide smoothly into disorder. But there was one other condition in the early universe. There were local variations in the amount of order, which led to a drive to equalize the level by reducing the order in some locations while increasing it in others. This process always produces a heat loss which leads to the overall loss of order. Whatever happens in the universe, these conditions have to be satisfied.

There are three basic cause and effect pairs in the universe:

  1. Entropy causes the destruction of order.
  2. The destruction of order causes energy to be released.
  3. The introduction of energy to a system causes it’s order to be increased plus heat loss.

The interaction of many processes of the destruction and creation of order leads to more complex forms of order. This means there is an increase in the number of ways that order can be organized. Since creating order is making something happen, this also means that on a complex level, there are a lot more things that could happen. Eventually, as complexity increased and possibilities increased, some pretty amazing things happened, like the evolution of life, which was a complex system that developed the ability to take advantage of the creation of order. It used energy from the sun or geothermal sources to create a form of order to replace the order lost in it’s own system. As evolution continued, an interconnected system of complex order (a human) developed that, with its emergent properties of consciousness and advanced mental processing, was able to control the destruction and creation of order process. We now could choose what order to destroy (what to eat), and besides maintaining our own order, we could choose what form of complex order to create with left over energy. ( e.g. ride a bike or build a house.) Anything we think, say, or do is creating complex order somewhere at the expense of a larger amount of complex order somewhere else.

But for the universe, it’s only about order. It’s either increased or decreased, as long as there is an overall decrease in total order. It doesn’t matter what form, how complex or where the order is. The universe is indifferent to the things we do, as long as the books balance. Order in; order out; heat loss. The universe has given us a free pass to do what is possible on our level of complexity. That is why we live in probabilistic world: Given enough time, what CAN happen WILL happen, and it makes no difference to the universe as a whole.

And we are now actually growing our own freedom. As our culture produces more complex order, our possible choices continue to increase. We can choose to fly from New York to London, but 100 years ago, we didn’t have that choice. We have also evolved our own limitations on choice through the development of ethics and morality.

So, how do you know that it is you that causes the choice? It is not your conscious self that makes the choice, although consciousness plays a big role by focusing attention and moderating the internal debate. It is you, the whole person who causes the choice. You are a complex interconnected system, and the system is all of your cells combined to make all of your organs including your brain and all its memories and mental processes.

The phenomenon of emergence is when a purposeful, more intelligent behavior emerges from a complex interconnected system of relatively simple parts following relatively simple rules in a 'bottom up' process. It is feedback loops that make this emergence possible. An example of an emergent system would be a termite colony, or a human brain.

The output of a complex interconnected emergent system is not the result of any one of its parts, or even all its parts combined. The structure of the system determines how the parts are interconnected and how they interact with each other along with feedback from the results. It is all the parts along with the structure of the system that causes the result. The cause is the SYSTEM, and the system is you. YOU ARE the cause.

From this view, you can see that you can choose from a wide variety of complex behaviors and things that are meaningful and important to you, but to the universe it doesn’t matter what you choose because they all amount to the same thing: a loss of order. There is cause and effect: destruction of order releases energy; and introduction of energy creates order. It is predetermined that tomorrow there will be less overall order than today, and that as long as there is local variations in the amount of order, more complex forms of order will continue to increase. This increase in complexity can also mean an increase in our freedom to choose. Barring intervention from outside the universe, it is also predetermined that this process will ultimately result in the heat death of the universe. The physical laws that rule our complex universe emerged from the complexity along with all the other things that interest us and cannot be applied to the underlying simple universe that has its own law: entropy.

This model is based on scientific principles and observations of natural phenomena and if we applied our understanding of evolution, it would not be hard to show how the mental processes necessary for making good choices could have evolved.


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