Warning: this may well be an absurdist argument to justify a pre-existing belief. Or, it could be a more accurate description of reality than the one you currently hold. Who fucking knows ¯_(ツ)_/¯
This is Part 3 of a series on consciousness, free will and integrated information theory. If you haven’t read the first two parts, it’s kind of a good idea; in the same way as brushing your teeth is a good idea.
Having looked at free will, determinism, and Integrated Information Theory we just need to now tie it all together, with a splash of Buddhist philosophy thrown in of course.
Buddhist view of the self
Alright, let’s kick it off 2500 years ago with some dude who sat around meditating for days on days on days. What did Buddha say about the self, and how does it relate to IIT?
The Buddha said two important things in relation to this:
- Everything is impermanent (nothing comes from nothing)
- The self is an illusion
Let’s unpack that:
- An illusion in the Buddhist sense is something that when inspected is not quite as it first appeared.
- This has caused a lot of debate between Buddhist sects as to what exactly the Buddha meant.
- Some sects say that there is completely no self.
- While others just that the self is not what it appears.
Personally, my interpretation of Buddhist scripture is that:
- There is no everlasting self in the sense that most people think (a soul).
- There is no controlling self that has absolute control over the rest (a CEO self).
- However, the whole subjective experience of consciousness does constitute a self.
- But this is not as we generally think of the self, and hence, still an illusion.
My take on IIT
So how does Buddha relate to IIT? Well here is my take on how IIT ties everything together:
- IIT states that consciousness arises from highly integrated and differentiated information systems like our brain.
- Our brain is an interconnected network of neurons which fire (on/off) based on input from connected neurons.
- The interconnected firing of nodes in IIT is known as cause-effect repertoires, or as I like to call them, rulesets.
- The rulesets are the neural pathways of our brain that interact with each other.
- They are the integrated information that we call “consciousness”
Combining these two views together gets you to:
The “self” is a network of impermanent, self-influencing rulesets that make up our consciousness.
But then are “you” what if feels like to be the rulesets, or, the rulesets themselves?
- Both! They are one and the same.
- You can’t have identical rulesets that feel differently.
- IIT says that two identically structured systems (informationally, not physically) will have the same qualia shape (feeling)
- So no you are not special.
- Well at least not more special than the unique qualia shapes generated by 100 billion interconnect neurons
- Hint: it’s a really really big number. Like massive.
- Ok, you’re pretty special.
What’s important to grok is that these rulesets are adaptive:
- They are self-influencing in that they can impact themselves and other rulesets.
- They are a feedback network (not feedforward) which means that each ruleset communicates back and forth with other rulesets.
- When we think of rulesets we think of very simple logic gates that determine whether something happens.
- But in a neural network of over 100 billion neurons, the rulesets will be unimaginably complex.
- There would be meta-rulesets that are responsible for determining which other rulesets to run. In this way rationality has a major influence over our “decisions” as a whole (more on this later).
Traditional free will is a fallacious idea
The current idea of “free will” is extremely biased by western philosophy. It’s generally used as a dangling carrot to taint determinism.
In it’s loosest sense the idea of free will is not that big of a deal. But in it’s strictest sense, the argument of free will is completely false, let’s see how:
- Who is it that is free to will? You.
- What is it free from? The causal universe (cause and effect).
- So then there is a problem with “free will” as an idea, in that it fallaciously presupposes the answer.
- Free Will, in it’s strictest sense, implies that “you” are outside the chain of cause-and-effect (otherwise you couldn’t be free from it).
- It rests on the deeply theistic idea of a soul, which exists beyond the physical universe.
- It negatively implies that if determinism is true, there is a “you” trapped inside the mind with no way out and no way to steer in any direction.
- It implies that “you” cannot exist within the chain of cause and effect.
What is an IIT definition of free will?
So if “you” are what it feels like to be this differentiated information system, then what is free will?
- Objectively, yes the universe is a closed causal system. That’s easy to prove.
- You are the subjective experience of a self-influencing information system inside the deterministic universe.
- Therefore, Free Will is the ability for “you” (the rulesets) to influence “your” (the system’s) future.
- Ergo, free will is consciousness, and consciousness is free will.
We do not have free will, we are free will.
Compared to our original free will definitions
If you haven’t read the first part of this series, now would be a better time than ever to go back and read the first part on free will.
Is IIT free will predictable?
On the surface yes, but theoretically no. Let me explain:
- If you can model the entire system and all the inputs, you can predict the response in a single moment
- however, because consciousness is computationally irreducible, there is no model to forecast its results, you have to run the system to find the answer
- so to predict the response all the way into the future, you would have to calculate each moment how the rulesets self-influenced and how the world around it changed
- this is not prediction but replication: to accurately predict consciousness, you need to exactly reconstruct it.
- In another post I’ll explain why to do this accurately is not theoretically possible.
TL;DR: a complex consciousness is not theoretically predictable (without replicating it completely, which defeats the point).
Does IIT free will allow possibility?
If you define possibility as the ability to go back in time and make a decision differently, no IIT does not allow possibility:
- The state that the rulesets are in at any given moment are the only factors for transforming a given input to a given output. This is fucking liberating!
- So if you were to “rewind” time and play the same inputs through the same rulesets, you would get the same output.
- The only thing that could make the outputs different is quantum randomness, but that doesn’t provide any meaning.
- You can easily argue that even in a theistic “soul kind of way” the idea of “possible choice” is not really valid, but that’s not the point of all this.
TL;DR: No IIT free will does not allow “back-in-time” possibility.
Is IIT free will rationally influenced?
- Easy; Yes.
- One of the postulates of IIT is that consciousness has to have cause-and-effect power over itself (intrinsic existence).
- If conscious rationality didn’t help us make better decisions as an organism, it wouldn’t have evolved.
- Rationality is a set of self-influencing rulesets within the information system.
- Since the rules are adaptive (can influence themselves and other rules) then rationality does influence the “decisions” of the system.
TL;DR: Yes IIT free will is rationally influenced.
Is IIT free will in control?
- Not so easy.
- As a whole consciousness, yes the rulesets define the outputs, ergo “they” are in control.
- But if you strictly define, “I” as just the “self-conscious” mind, then no, it is not in control over the rest of consciousness.
TL;DR: Yes the system defines it’s outputs free from outside manipulation.
Two big implications
Here are two really interesting implications of all this.
Personally this is the greatest practical takeaway from IIT:
- All animals are conscious.
- The question then becomes, how conscious?
- Some animals with less connected and differentiated brains are less conscious.
- Some animals with more connected and differentiated brains are more conscious.
- Regardless of the level of consciousness, all animals have a self, but not all animals are self-aware, or have a sense of self.
- Therefore, humans are not unique in that they have a self, but we are possibly unique in that we have a sense of self (even that I think is a stretch.)
When you look at the self as self-influencing rulesets, what is meditation? Can we use IIT to explain the positive benefits of a calm, introspected mind?
- If we traditionally define mindful meditation as a way for you to observe your mind.
- We can translate that into IIT speak as: Meditation becomes a way for the rulesets of the system (you) to strictly receive internal inputs from (observe) the rest of the system.
- By focusing “our” self-conscious rulesets on the other rulesets, we can self-influence the system towards a different state.
- Deep contemplation then becomes not just looking at outputs (emotions) but at the rulesets that underpin these emotions (e.g. hardwired collections of rulesets programmed to seek approval).
Bringing it all together
- The world is deterministic (ruled by cause-and-effect.)
- On the surface, determinism seems to invalidate the idea of free will.
- Integrated Information Theory (IIT) is a theory of consciousness.
- IIT postulates that any information system that is integrated and differentiated is conscious; it feels something to be that system.
- The “self” is an illusion, in that it is not what it seems.
- More accurately, the “self” is the adaptive rulesets that make up the information system.
- Free Will is the ability for the rulesets (you) to influence the system’s (your) future.
- Ergo, in the deterministic universe, we do not have free will, we are free will.
Congrats on making it through this dense series on free will, consciousness, and the self. If this didn’t change your outlook on life, I hope it kept you entertained.
Also, thanks to my good friend Brian Kuzmanoski for going on the adventure down the rabbit-hole with me. I wouldn’t have learnt anywhere near as much without you 🙏
If you’re interested in learning more about any of this stuff, check out the related material below.
On free will & determinism:
- Book: Free Will – Sam Harris
- Youtube: Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24
- Blog: The Two-lever Argument Against Free Will
- Website: Free Will – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
On IIT and consciousness
- Book: Consciousness – Koch
- Youtube: Integrated Information Theory Playlist
- Essay: Letter from Guilio Tononi to Scott Aaronson
- Essay (critique of IIT): Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?