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Thursday, February 8, 2007

Free Will

karma and free will The concept of Free Will has always intrigued me. I grew up believing in Karma. I still believe in karma. I have a healthy respect for Fate*, the magical thing that makes things happen, or not, in my Life.

To quote from Dennis Overbye's article:
... every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random...
Ha! What is karma if not deterministic?

When we were little, I saw a bug getting squished under my brother's shoe. Being a wise 4 year old full of Karmic knowledge I told him the bug would come back reincarnated as him and he would be reincarnated as a bug and it will squish him just like he squished it. That is Karma.

"How do you know I was not the bug in my last incarnation and this bug was me and it squished me first and it is my turn now?" he countered.

"Unfair!", is all I could scream.

...the more reasonably you try to act, the more unpredictable you are, at least to yourself, says Dr. Lloyd. Even if your wife knows you will order the chile rellenos, you have to live your life to find out.

To him that sounds like free will of a sort, for machines as well as for us. Our actions are determined, but so what? We still don’t know what they will be until the waiter brings the tray.

I completely understand that. Free Will is not getting what you want always: I know I want Spicy Black Bean burger as soon as I seat myself at the restaurant. A few of the customers ordered theirs and are enjoying it. All fine so far. But, when I place my order, I hear, "I am sorry ma'am we are out; would you like to order something else from the menu?"

If by free will we mean the ability to choose, even a simple laptop computer has some kind of free will, said Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Every time you click on an icon, he explained, the computer’s operating system decides how to allocate memory space, based on some deterministic instructions. But, Dr. Lloyd said, “If I ask how long will it take to boot up five minutes from now, the operating system will say ‘I don’t know, wait and see, and I’ll make decisions and let you know.’ ”

Right. It hasn't happened until it has, and, even if you know what is supposed to happen, it may not be what actually happens. Until it actually happens.

If Free Will is the ability to choose, How do we know what to choose from? Who determines how restricted or open our choices are? Are the choices based on one's Desire alone, or should there be Value attached to each choice?

In 1930, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel proved that in any formal system of logic, which includes mathematics and a kind of idealized computer called a Turing machine, there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false. Among them are self-referential statements like the famous paradox stated by the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who said that all Cretans are liars: if he is telling the truth, then, as a Cretan, he is lying.

One implication is that no system can contain a complete representation of itself, or as Janna Levin, a cosmologist at Barnard College of Columbia University and author of the 2006 novel about Gödel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” said: “Gödel says you can’t program intelligence as complex as yourself. But you can let it evolve. A complex machine would still suffer from the illusion of free will.”

Another implication is there is no algorithm, or recipe for computation, to determine when or if any given computer program will finish some calculation. The only way to find out is to set it computing and see what happens. Any way to find out would be tantamount to doing the calculation itself.

Free Will and Determinism are not necessarily incompatible in my simplistic mind. Free Will lets me choose to eat Spicy Black Bean burger instead of some poor slaughtered cow, let's say. But, Determinism makes the said Spicy Black Bean burger actually materialize in front of me within arms reach to chow down on. Or not. As the case may be.

Is Free Will an illusion? Is everything Deterministic? Not in my little Universe:-)

Karma, the way I understand it, is a blend of Determinism and Free Will. Karma is not just about cause-and-action, but, the intent of one's actions. If I accidentally stepped on a bug and squished it without intending to, I have not accumulated bad Karma. But, if I intentionally squished it... Alas!

Flip side: I accidentally drop a dollar note that helps some hungry person buy a meal. Do I accumulate good karma? Of course not. I have to intentionally mean to use that dollar to help out a fellowman in need, out of my own Free Will. Then I have good karma.

* Fate is not clearly understood, imo: it seems to come with a you-are-helpless-and-doomed finality, whereas Karma seems to provide a self-correcting course... Oh Well. What do I know?!

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