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September 29, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

Free Will, Quantum Mechanics, and Brain Science: John Polkinghorne Quotes

Science Is Unable to Prove Determinism–it Doesn’t Fully Understand It

There is a vast, yawning gap, which no one currently knows how to bridge, between talk of neural firings, however sophisticated and interest that may be, and the simplest of mental experiences, such as seeing red or feeling hungry.” (Questions of Truth, p. 11)

The problem of qualia (feelings) is a hard problem indeed. The talk of conciousness as the ‘last frontier’ that the heroic armies of science are just about to cross is ill-judged and bombastic. Pretty well everything else that science investigates, from atoms to life, can be treated as external and approached from outside of itself. That is not true of conciousness, which is intrinsically private and internal. I have no direct access to any conciousness other than my own.” (Questions of Truth, p.11)

“Much of our thinking about the world has been misinformed by metaphors drawn from the world of machines. However, John has long pointed out, most of the real world is composed of systems that are cloudlike and inherently unpredictable, rather than clocklike.” (Questions of Truth, p. 126).

Brain Science, Indeterminism, and Freewill

In addition, a couple of deep mathematical results support our position. The Nobel Prize–winning physical chemist IIya Prigogine showed that for systems of the complexity of the brain, even if their components were completely deterministic, there are solutions for dynamical equations of the system as a whole that are nondeterministic.” (Questions of Truth, p. 132)

Nicholas’s collaborator Hava Siegelmann prove in the early 1990s that analog reccurrent neural networks could have a computational power greater than that of Turing machines and must be considered equivalent to ‘super-Turing machines,’ that is, Turing machines with an intrinsic true random number generator (see H.T. Siegelmann, ‘Computation Beyond the Turing Limit,” Science 268 [April 1995]: 545-48).

An interesting survey of Indeterminacy in Brain and Behavior is given in a paper of that title by Paul W. Glimcher in Annual Review of Psychiatry 56(2005): 25-56.

Evolution favors indeterminacy and free will
(or at the very least a world of evolution makes the most sense in a world of indeterminacy and free will)

1. When the main evolutionary pressure comes from competition within your own species then you are likely to be playing evolutionary games where there is no single dominant best strategy: whatever you do your opponent can do the same and the result is likely to be a draw. Instead, the games will be like Rock/Scissors/Paper–each strategy can win or lose depending on what the other player does. In such conditions there is a big advantage in being able to anticipate your opponents strategy (if they play Rock, I’ll play Paper). Once this ability is prevalent in a population, which requires high levels of social intelligence and is greatly faciliated by the use of language with names (“Fred always plays two rounds of Paper and then Rock”), then it is a great advantage to be able to be unpredictable and adopt a randomized strategy when it is in your interests to do so..
2. An element of unpredictability is essential to the development of ideas. Just as random genetic mutation is essential to have interesting evolutionary dynamics at the biological level, so nondeterministic changes in culture and language are essential to linguistic and cultural evolution.
3. There is a large class of complex problems where stochastic algorithms (such as genetic algorithms or simulated annealing) substantially outperform deterministic algoritms. This would give creatures with an ability to add controlled amounts of randomness to their behaviour significant advantage over fully deterministic creatures in situations where complex problem solving had survival advantages.” (Questions of Truth, p.133)

You can read more quotes from John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beales’s book (2009) Questions of Truth: Fifty-one responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief
by clicking the link.

Thoughts on free will, determinism, quantum theory, & science?


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