On free will, a bit, but mostly on graduate school and Rob Peace.

I’m supposed to be writing a post about free will.  And I did start writing it.  Began something like this: Given that my motivation for writing these posts is that K told me I needed to, to explain some of the research I’m going for my project, it might be fair to wonder why I wrote about the movie Timecrimes.  My project, as it happens, is not about time travel movies.

But I am trying to engage with the concept of fate in several mythological traditions, and fate is tied up with the idea of free will, and the message I took away from Timecrimes is actually very similar to a theory I’ve seen supported by several neurologists studying free will. Maybe this would be more clear if I phrased it slightly differently than I did in the previous post: the protagonist already knew what happened, but his goal was to graft a new explanation onto the events.  Similarly, a common theory is that the part of our brain that seems to have free will is primarily engaged in grafting justifications or conscious rationalizations as meaning onto actions already taken.  As in, a signal is received indicating that “the left arm is about to move!” or even “the left arm just moved!” and the conscious mind then must concoct a story like “oh, yes, I decided to move it because…”  So the main point of the theory is that the rationalizations seem to come later.  This causes a person to believe he or she has free will, without actually having it.

And it’s probably fair to point out right now that I think this theory is hogwash.  No offense intended toward its proponents, whose experiments were very helpful for me to read about.  And not that pigs necessarily want the theory any more than I do.

The problem is, barring one experiment that would be very tricky to set up, and which relies on probability as an output, which would make it hard for a human to believe in one way or the other after a single trial, you can’t ever convince someone who believes he or she has free will that, nope, wrong, you don’t.  Because you can feel it, right?  You can decide to do something, and then do it, and so at any moment you can prove to yourself that you indeed do have free will.

And next I was going to describe some recent neurology experiments related to free will.  Like here’s a fun one where the application of a magnetic field to a research participant’s brain affects their (presumably unconscious) decision which hand to use to pick up an object.  Which is related to free will – are you making a choice if someone can alter that choice using magnets? – but not definitively so… it’s like if you were going jogging and there were two routes to pick from, one meandering through the woods and the other a long open straightaway out and back, and I built a giant fan to create a howling winter gale, you’d probably pick the wooded jog.  But that’s not negating your free choice, simply making one choice easier to select than the other.  People under the influence of these magnets could use either hand, but the experimental design tips the balance as to which is easier to use.

And there are many more interesting papers that I’d planned to write about… but then I ran into a problem.  Because during the intervening time between when I researched neurological experiments querying free will and now, when I’m writing this post, Scott Aaronson published a nice essay on free will.  And so I’ll have to put in a bit more effort to engage with his work, and I haven’t done that yet.  Other things to do, right?  Like feeding somebody breastmilk from a bottle, changing diapers, all of that… riveting!  (UPDATE: I finally wrote it.  Here’s that post.)

So instead of a post about free will, I’ll just write a tiny thing today about The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs.  Poor dudes both, Jeff, who lost his former roommate, and Rob, who lost his life.  Rob came close to having a very different life – sounds like he was a great student, enjoyed lab research, was a driven and dedicated dude.  But things went off the rails after he finished college.

Later in the book, I wished somebody had explained more about graduate school to him.  He was making a little under twenty-eight thousand a year teaching at the time, and, well, here’s a quote from Hobbs’s book – Rob was trying to make some investments in real estate to recover some of his lost savings: “Once fixed up, he would flip all the houses except for Greenwood and come out with $100,000 to $150,000 profit. Half of this he would invest in more real estate. The other half he would use to support Jackie and begin graduate school. As soon as the math worked out, he would stop selling drugs completely.” …and, reading that, I wished somebody had told him that you don’t really need any money to start graduate school with – sounded like he had a great transcript from college, and between that and the personal fortitude demonstrated throughout the book, he most likely would’ve been awarded grant money to give him a living stipend higher than his teaching salary at the time, and he wouldn’t have paid tuition.  And maybe that’s something that’s assumed to be common knowledge amongst wealthy science majors, so maybe nobody told him.  Who knows – if he’d realized he’d be getting paid to attend graduate school, maybe he would have made some different choices.  From Hobbs’s book, sounds like it was a shame for the world to lose him.

Not that we all aren’t beautiful and unique snowflakes or whatever, but still – he sounded like a special dude. Which, right, minor caveat – I guess maybe you don’t get a sense of much “special dude”-ness from the passage I quoted.  But if you read the book, especially the first half before he started floundering, you’ll see.

And, right, I’ll write that thing about free will soon.