In which I solve the problem of free will

I enjoyed listening to two episodes of Adam Conover’s Factually podcast, in which he hosted guests with competing perspectives on the existence of free will, a profound question that has vexed thinkers of all stripes for centuries. We have a strongly developed intuition that we choose what we do, and our theories of morality rely on this intuition. And yet, as we understand more about what humans are and how we work, it seems there is no space in us for a choosing agent.

The first guest, philosopher Robert Sapolsky, argues strongly that free will doesn’t exist. The second guest, Kevin Mitchell, argues strongly that it does. 

Well I’ve been meaning to do a bit more writing for this blog, so what better way to do that than by solving free will.

Here’s me: ‘free will’ in the absolute sense is, as both Conover’s guests agree, a nonsense. Human action is never freely determined, there is no master-ego within us with an open field of action, there are always profound constraints on the behaviour we produce. The real question is whether human action is fully explained by summative forces of domino-chain neural firing across synapses, which instantiate all the prior experiences and learning that shaped our brains; or whether there is some gap to fill.

Dr Kevin Mitchell argues persuasively that there is a gap. The future is made fuzzy by tiny proportions of randomness that multiply over time. The domino chains must admit uncertainty, which in turn allows for the imposition of some system of evolutionarily-developed cognitive control. (I am, of course, oversimplifying his account wretchedly, and compounding the crime by doing so from memory.)

I have my own account. I have not done the reading on this; it’s just the operating assumption I’ve landed on that satisfies me. Maybe it will satisfy you as well. It’s this:

I don’t think we experience free will at all. Examining our experience of conscious thought can never actually locate a moment of choice. We can experience need to make a decision; we can experience the decision as made. The transition is not something we can actually locate. This is because it is not something we do with conscious thought.

To restate in a doubling down sort of way: our choices are not conscious.

What we are in fact doing, and what we experience with our consciousness, is cycling through information, refreshing it, reweighting it, experiencing it in a new present context; and then, this process eventually tips over enough dominoes to take us down a path of having chosen. Our experience of conscious choice is actually the process of assembling sufficient information that a choice becomes made within us.

The process of considering – what we call thinking – is just dominoes. A decision-making process is itself triggered by prior dominoes, some conscious, some not. Everything that happens in that process can be causally traced: our eyes take in photons that our brain assembles into a person’s face, that trigger associations with that person which we associate as memories, which in turn weight other dominoes so they fall this way not that. Our cognitive systems cycle through pass after pass of neural patterns firing, which we experience as thinking, because that is what thinking is. One thought leads to the next, we manage to focus on one issue above others, we discard alternative hypotheses, we make a choice – that’s the conscious experience of the domino array. The hard thing to wrap your head around is how complex those dominoes are: the number of inputs is so vast, and the fuzzy outcomes and uncertainties that flow within them are so deep, that a control system that is a huge evolutionary advantage to generate behaviour out of chaos.

And we experience those vast domino arrays in our brains as consciousness. So it could be said our conscious experience is, yes, fundamentally epiphenomenal. But, and here’s the trick to that: so what?

For what it’s worth, I don’t think this perspective does require an epiphenomenal consciousness. I think the thing we experience as consciousness *is* the process of tuning and filtering that produces our behaviour. In the same way we experience a kick to the shin as pain, we experience neurons working shit out as consciousness. That’s phenomena, not epiphenomena!

That intuition of free will still isn’t satisfied though, right? It’s all just dominos and even if some of them are wobbly, where is the decision? Where’s the moment my inner self stretches out a finger and chooses whether to knock over domino A or domino B? Well with all due respect to this intuition, I think it is unproductive. And not even based on what we actually experience introspectively. What it is, is a nice story, a narrative explanation that sews together all kinds of elements of life into a single useful tapestry (this is not mixed metaphors, a narrative can be a tapestry and vice versa, also HELL YES a tapestry can be useful, have you ever tried to decorate a wall in a medieval castle???). What we’re really talking about here is, in the statement “I think about this problem and then I come to a decision”, who is “I”? Is I my conscious self, whatever that might be? Or is it the sum total of all the thinking processes I have, some of which I can talk about and experience and some which I can’t? If you’re too precious to admit there’s unconscious stuff as a fundamental part of everything you think and do, then I can’t help you baby… and if you do admit there’s unconscious stuff in the mix, then how can you account for that except by admitting that some of “I” is not within your awareness? In conclusion, consciousness might not be an epiphenomenon, but the story we tell ourselves of a willful, agented self sure is. That’s a whole other blog post though.

As for the question of how the ‘lack of free will’ affects morality: no of course it doesn’t follow that since all our actions come from wobbly dominos not a willful agented self then we should let the murderers go free. All behaviour is part of a great matrix of social information, and by enforcing rules we are tuning society to better suit our needs. So lock ’em up! (Actually carceral systems are bad for society including for most murderers.)

Anyway that’s what I was thinking as I went for a dog walk this morning. (Also, the problem of free will kind of goes away if you don’t think moving time exists, moving time I have my eye on you, I am not convinced)

The Kiwi Sense of Humour

The Kiwi sense of humour is like, you move to NZ and get a job and the boss sends you to the store to buy some striped paint, and you get there and the shop person nods and says “here you go” and the paint doesn’t say striped on it but you guess it must be right,

so you take it back and the boss says “now paint that house” and you do and it doesn’t come out striped so you ask the boss about it and he says “ah the stripes come out after a bit of sun”, then like a month of sun later you’re walking past the house and there are no stripes,

and you mention it to the boss and they say “I can’t believe someone painted over those beautiful stripes” and you go back and you knock on the door of the house and you ask the owner if she painted over the striped paint,

and she gives you a nod and says “yeah, when the stripes came out in the sun they looked different to how i imagined, tell your boss it wasn’t their fault” so you go back and tell the boss and they just raise their eyebrows,

and then you fall in love with a Kiwi and move back to London and have a kid and get married and get older and then one night you pause netflix and you tell them this story and you say “but there’s no such thing as striped paint, is there?”,

and they laugh and say “oh honey” and you think, at last, I’m not crazy, finally the truth, and then they say “oh honey, you painted the stripes vertical instead of horizontal and everyone was too polite to tell you”

That’s what the Kiwi sense of humour is like.

(Originally written on twitter; i’ve kept the tweet breaks in there because otherwise it would be an impenetrable wall of text.)

A few things I learned from getting COVID-tested.

Overnight Friday to Saturday my sleep was troubled by sore throat and post-nasal drip. Oh no! I only just got over a bad cold a few weeks ago! Again?? Again.

I admit I hesitated before calling it in. (Am I really sick?) Because once you engage in it, everything else has to stop. Our family’s plans for the weekend were instantly stalled. Just ordinary life stuff, but it has momentum, and you feel it as you pull the cord.

So that’s the first thing I want to highlight. That friction where we delay and sigh about it and try and rationalise to ourselves. We all do it! It’s how our brains work! And as a behaviour guy, masters degree in social psychology, I watched myself doing the same stuff.

Here’s the workaround. Two of them, in fact. First, make a plan, now. The plan isn’t complicated: if I get sick, I’ll call the healthline. Visualise it, even! I’ll look up the phone number, I’ll sit on my bed, I’ll get a pen and paper… The more details the better. That gives your brain a script to follow. Our brains love scripts, especially in the face of stressful situations. And being faced with taking an action that will upend the momentum of ordinary life? That is stressful! (Let alone the possibility you might have COVID!)

Second, make the plan with the people in your life. The people who will be affected when you pull that cord. Unless they are dicks, they will be all for taking action! Say it to each other – if one of us gets sick, we do the thing, even though it will be a nuisance.

So that’s the workaround for the hesitation, and the bad feeling and unease around slamming on the brakes over a wee sniffle (as your brain will rationalise it for you). Plan now, it helps then.

I called Healthline instead of the local Dr because it was weekend. They were great, very helpful and clear. MAD respect for all the people working those phones, I feel like they are nailing it, obviously working off a good combo of clear scripts and freedom to ask questions. They gave me the contact details for the local testing station, so i called them up and made an appointment. Smooth! They asked what kind of car I’d be driving up in, and my mind completely blanked, all i could say was “blue”. I had to go and check to remind myself!

While waiting for the test, i began self-isolating, as advised by healthline. there are some logistics involved, obviously! We can cancelled all the stuff we were lined up to do on the weekend, and my lovely partner began to figure out the details.

(Worth mentioning that i was sick, my brain was fuzzy, and the aforementioned stressful context hurts thinking – so having someone else do this kind of problem-solving is incredibly handy.)

Hopped in the car, went to get the test. it was quick and easy and the staff were so kind and clear. It didn’t hurt at all, but it did hit my gag reflex, definitely a bit unpleasant but over very quickly. Definitely not bad enough to be afraid of having one!

Then back home with some extra info about self-isolation. And so the next two days were spent with me sectioned off from my family! Daughter was horrified that she couldn’t hug me but pleased to have her mum doing a sleepover in her room.

Because we only have one bathroom, complete isolation was impossible. Solution was a pack of antibacterial wipes + masking. I wore a mask most of the time, to stop breathing particles on to surfaces, and when i went to the toilet I’d take a wipe to sanitise handles etc.

This is another piece of advice: get a pack of wipes NOW so you don’t need to think about it if and when you end up in household isolation.

The other tricky thing, oddly enough, is washing dishes. You can be delivered your meals by your loving family/flat mates/whoever, but then those plates and cutlery need attention after. We left the dishwasher open for me to load my dishes in directly, and also just let some dishes pile up in the corner of the bedroom in expectation of me getting the all-clear today.

…and i did! Text came through 46 hours after the test, and now i am free to breathe on whatever i like and hug my daughter again. Lovely.

So to recap my advice: mentally rehearse what you’ll do if you get symptoms. Do it with your family/flat mates/whoever, to create a bit of confidence and shared accountability. Get some disinfectant wipes now and put them aside.

We all need to be diligent about testing! There are still common colds and so on circulating, so there’s a good chance someone in your household will end up needing to do this, especially as level 2 is sticking around. A bit of mental prep now will make it much easier to give in to the process if and when that day comes.

I’m grateful to be part of the big NZ team. Be excellent to each other!

Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings: a few thoughts

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, Tina Makereti
I just finished reading Tina Makereti’s novel Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014, Vintage). In a short twitter conversation with the author and another reader, I mentioned an intense passage late in the book featuring some graphic and unpleasant content. (I said I wasn’t sure I could recommend the book to my mother on account of this sequence – it was a flippant comment, but sincere nonetheless.) When I tried to go into further thoughts on this sequence I gave up, the Twitter format defeating me. They both suggested taking it to blog – so here we are.

Context, then. The novel follows two stories in parallel. First, in the 1880s, the forbidden love arising between Māori girl Mere and her family’s Moriori slave, Iraia. Second, in a contemporary setting, twins Lula and Bigs investigate the secrets of their own ancestry that leads them back to Mere and Iraia, and then to Rēkohu (Chatham Island). Woven through the narrative is another voice, the spirit of an ancestor even further back who accompanies Iraia, and then Lula, on their respective journeys.

(Some plot spoilers, inevitably, follow – but despite the name I don’t think knowing the things I’m about to discuss will spoil the book for you at all.)

Late in the book, Lula and Bigs return to Rēkohu and for the spirit this is an awakening of unpleasant memories, recounted in two powerful sequences. First, we relive with him his death at the hands of invading Māori, an intense build-up to a battle that ends almost immediately in his death. The second section is the one that gave me pause. Here, we stay with the spirit as he finds he does not move on into the afterlife, but instead lingers, attached to his body. And the narrative follows what happens to that body, in careful detail, as it is cooked and eaten by the conquerers. The back cover describes the book as “quietly powerful and compelling”, and it mostly is, but this sequence is a clear violation of that tone. It is gruesome and confronting. I think it’s also important and valuable and probably crucial. Many reasons. Let me try and catch some of them.

The book is, in part, about the historical relationship (and conflict) between Māori and Moriori. This is, to put it lightly, poorly understood by New Zealand at large – this well-researched novel is certainly the most information I’ve ever encountered on the subject. But one thing that everyone knows – well, “knows” – is that Māori were the aggressors towards the Moriori, and killed and ate them. The reason everyone knows this is because many socially conservative voices try to invoke this historic injustice as a way of dodging the current inequality in NZ. If Māori were wicked to Moriori, then they can’t complain about Europeans turning up and being mean to them, and besides it’s not as if the Europeans ate the Māori, they aren’t barbarians, the Māori should be thankful for all the things we gave them… These sentiments are regularly expressed in the letters to the editor of every newspaper in the nation, not to mention in more than a few opinion columns and other venues. (Don’t even think about what gets said in comment sections. It isn’t good.)

In a sense this sequence was necessary – if you write a novel about the history between Māori and Moriori, I’d guess you can’t avoid this narrative. Not that I’m suggesting Makereti is obliged to address the social conservatives out there in NZ – far from it, no author owes anything to anyone – just that a novel on this subject would feel incomplete if it avoided addressing the best-known historical factoid about this relationship. Makereti in fact deftly structures the novel to exclude those grumpy old men entirely by locating the issues raised by this history in the relationship between twins Lula and Bigs, who share lineage from both sides of the historical conflict and each come to identify more with one side than the other.

So Makereti had to talk about the details of what happened somewhere. But the sequence she gives us is clearly far in excess of simply acknowledging this history. The intense dramatisation makes this a climactic moment of the entire novel, and a tonal disruption that colours everything around it. This serves her literary purpose well, because in historical terms that violence colours subsequent history right up to the present – the tone structure of the novel echoes the history that is its subject.

But the genius in this sequence, and why I think it’s so important, isn’t just that it presents this history so vividly and unforgettably. It’s that it contextualises these acts of, to my eyes, barbarism, with an anthropological eye filled with empathy. As the spirit becomes attuned to his new afterlife, his relationship to his body changes, and the perspective of the invaders slowly approaches knowability in his eyes. The crucial moment comes as he witnesses part of his body fed to an infant, and through this moment, leaves his body and moves perspective to hers. The description, unflinching in the detail of chewing and swallowing and digestion, is subsumed under the child’s innocence, and the spirit becomes able through her to perceive the other oppressors as people driven by their own fears and needs and loves. The sequence becomes, somehow, beautiful.

When I say, then, that this sequence of grotesque violence hangs over the rest of the novel, what I mean is the strangely comforting moment where the spirit allows himself to feed the child. It promises some redemption, someday, for conflicts that remain unresolved.

So, yeah. It’s structurally and thematically huge, and it works beautifully on many levels. That’s what I got out of this sequence, as best I can express it today anyway! The rest of the book of course is not full of violence. I should point out it’s a beautiful book and I love the characters and the storytelling and the whole thing. And in writing this I’ve talked myself around – the violence here shouldn’t dissuade anyone, my mum included, from reading this. It’s worth it.

No wonder I couldn’t fit all that into 140 characters…

(Edited to add: “Makereti” in this post feels wrong, but “Tina” would be even more wrong, and “Ms. Makereti” would be even even more more wrong. I dunno.)

Roast Busters: Two thoughts

Two small thoughts on this whole awful business, to clear my head:

* Because of our cultural distaste for direct expressions of what we want and don’t want, NZ youth find it very difficult to seek or express sexual consent. In consequence, NZ youth are predisposed to see hazy consent as commonplace and normal

* Because of our national reliance on alcohol in social situations, NZ youth are predisposed to see gross intoxication as commonplace and normal; even desirable.

* (The above two interact in a dangerous way – I would wager a fair percentage of Kiwi youth have at least once deliberately intoxicated themselves beyond the point where they could meaningfully consent, and done so to make a sexual experience more likely.)

* This means many of the sexual interactions of NZ youth float around in a murky fog of assumption, expectation, and impaired judgment.

* In sum: certain pervasive features of NZ youth culture mean that rape is easy here.

And – this is definitely a minor point, but:

* Among the comments and outrage, I’ve seen several commenters refuse to accept that a young woman would freely choose to participate in this kind of sexual activity, particularly if she knows she is likely to be subjected to online bullying afterwards.

* They’re quite wrong, as they would know if they honestly interrogated their memories of teenage life. Sometimes, young women can and do freely choose things that seem appalling to adults. (Often that’s part of the point.)

* Of course, it’s very clear that some (perhaps a majority?) of the Roast Busters’ sexual partners are correctly seen as victims. They did not, or could not, give consent; or they were unable or afraid to withdraw consent when the reality of what they had agreed to became clear; or they decided afterwards that they had given consent to resolve cognitive dissonance.

* But not all of them were victims. This overstatement is a minor point – but it does irritate me, and I think it’s important in the long run, because if you want to change things in our society you have to start by respecting the full range of behaviours and choices made by young women (and young men, but it’s young women whose volition is typically challenged).

And now that I’ve typed that out hopefully I can get back to work without thoughts buzzing circles in my head.

Make a Difference


No linky today, too much else on right now. Instead of that I’d just like to link to a short interview I did which is up at the Ruminator.

The interview is with my friend Karen, who is Good People. She came up with a way to do something worthwhile and a steadily increasing bunch of people are jumping on board. It involves sewing, so crafty people definitely want to read. More importantly it shows how she experienced the journey from idea to execution, and I think it’s pretty inspiring stuff.

Also, Karen is useless at self-promotion on account of being all humble and stuff, so do her a solid and read the interview. Maybe you know someone who’d like to help? 🙂

Phil Dick Movie Kickstarter

Also on this Friday I wanna draw your attention to the kickstarter for “Radio Free Albemuth”, a new film adaptation of a Philip K Dick story. It’s had great reviews at film fests etc, they’re fundraising to get it on cinema screens.

Among the perks: every single backer gets a special edition of LEFT COAST, the roleplaying game of reality-bent science fiction writers, by fellow Wellingtonian and smart dude Steve Hickey.

So if you are interested in Phil Dick, science fiction, RPGs, films, or Steve Hickey, then this is the opportunity for you!

Five days left. It’s currently at 72K against its 85K goal. SWEET.

Check it out

ANZAC DAY – Felix’s War Diary

Some excerpts from the War Diaries of my great-grandfather Felix Rooney. This is close to the start of his surviving diary – he did keep a diary of Egypt, Gallipoli and early time in France but it was destroyed in the attack that injured him and sent him to England to recover. The surviving diary begins when he arrives at Codford Camp in England after this recovery period (Codford hosts many ANZAC graves, and the locals mark 25 April with a dawn ceremony every year). He arrives in camp October 27, 1916, and is assessed as class B3 – he falls into a routine of drilling and marching as his health and fitness improve.

Tuesday 5 [December]
Up 6-30AM. Washed and breakfast 7-30. Parade 8AM. Inspected by the general. Dinner 12 noon. Medical inspection 1-30PM. Some of us put on guard. I expect to go into signalling section to-morrow. I met an old mate here, Mac Brosnan. He is sergeant instructor to the signallers. So I will be all right while I am here, but I hope that won’t be long. I would sooner be back in France than chased around here at drill. It is devilish cold here now. Keen frost, and the doors of the hut are kept open all day long. Fire must not be lit until 5PM. 17th Reinforcements back from leave to-night. Draft expected to leave Friday.

Wednesday 6
Another freezer of a morning. taken out on parade and transferred to signallers under my old mate Sergt Brosnan. On telephone work this afternoon. The company are out on the march to-night but I am exempt. Going out for a stroll and home again to bed.

Thursday 7
Up bright and early. There is no chance of laying in here. Cold and frosty. Out on signalling. I don’t think I will be going with the draft which leaves in a few days. If not I may have Christmas here. I am having a good time with these sigs here as I am the only one here who has been on active service and they don’t interfere with me. Out on station work this afternoon. Came on light shower of sleet and misty. Usual nightly shave and off to bed. Had a letter from old Lizzie.

Friday 8th
Up usual time and out to drill. Just before dinner I got orders to go with the draft to France to-night. Went down and passed the doctor and went on parade where Bill Massy and Joe Ward inspected us. Busy packing up now. We leave somewhere about mid-night.

Saturday 9th
We paraded last night at 11PM and moved off at mid-night. The train left at 1AM. Raining all the time. Arrived Shorncliff 7AM and marched to camp where we had breakfast and lunch. Left there and marched into Folkestone where we went aboard the “Princess Louise” and left about 2PM. Arriving Boulogne abut 4PM. After waiting about an hour in the rain with full packs up we moved off to a rest camp for the night. Got there 6-30PM and later had some tea. I am going to turn in soon, as we will most likely continue our journey to-morrow. Weary and wet to the skin I am off to sleep, that is if I can, as it is on the boards and they are hard, and my greatcoat is wet.

Sunday 10th
Up, washed and shaved. Still raining. We are on the old bully beef now for tucker. Medicinal inspection 10AM. Raining of course. Fell in 3-30PM and marched off in the rain. Entrained 4-45 and reached Etaples Camp about 7PM. Were served out with rifles and bayonets. Had tea and blankets served out. Twelve men to a tent. Turned in and fairly comfortable only wet.

Monday 11th
Up at 6AM and oh but it is cold. Had a wash and breakfast. Another medical inspection. Alotted new tents. Still raining. Had a shave after tea. I suppose we will start drilling to-morrow. I hope we go up to the trenches soon and get amongst my mates again. This is a miserable time of the year to be here. Met a few old hands I knew. Turned in 9PM.

Felix returned to the trenches in late January.

Some Things To Support

Three worthy crowdfundy things, to which I draw your attention:

Conquering Corsairs: Pirates of the Silver Sea! A card game designed by a couple of Kiwi lads, about pirates vying for gold and prestige and generally being piratical. Just hit its target! Well done guys. Only a few days left on this one!

Send speedstacker Ahlani to the USA: this 12-year-old girl lives around the corner from us. She’s globally ranked in the niche sport of Speed Stacking. She’s fundraising to get her and her mum across to the worlds. (Speed Stacking is pretty amazing to watch. And check out the reward levels – they include “we will bake you a banana cake” and “we will send Ahlani’s brother around to your place to do odd jobs”. This is good stuff guys!)

Liam Barrington-Bush (friend of a friend) is crowdfunding to publish his book “Anarchists in the Boardroom”, which is the fascinating culmination of years of work and thought looking into how organisations work and how people experience the workplace. It’s about taking lessons from social media and social movements to find new ways to structure your organisation, to make it “more like people”. Really interesting stuff! He’s hit his tipping point target, so the book is definitely going to happen – congrats Liam!

Hobbit Premiere Day

My city is going bananas today. There’s a frenzy of excitement around the premiere of the first Hobbit movie, with the red carpet TV coverage due to begin in an hour or so. There’s also a frenzy of grump as long-simmering negativity finally boils up around such issues as the cultural worth of the movie, the government’s priorities, our tourism branding and sense of identity, and Peter Jackson’s reputation as a nice guy.

There’s also a lot of people who aren’t fussed either way, but you don’t hear much from them.

Me, I’m happy to sit with the positives. I have time for many of the grumpy-type issues (apparently there’s gonna be a book on the Hobbit labour dispute? would be good to read that and try and figure out if I had it right or if I was a victim of an effective spin machine) – but when I think about the Hobbit, mostly I think about the people I know who worked on it. There’s a lot of them. It’s a rare Wellingtonian who doesn’t know any, in fact, and that’s exactly the point. This is a creative cultural product that’s come out of our local film setup, drawing on the expertise of many friends and countless friends-of-friends. I like it when my friends and my community do cool stuff.

So bring it on. I’ll have the telly on for the coverage. I’ll be particularly looking forward to Sylvester McCoy’s jaunt down the red carpet, and Barry Humphries. And I’ll raise a glass in respect to my friends who’ve put love and labour into this project. Nice work, folks. I look forward to seeing the result.