Saturday, May 07, 2011

Random Musings on Free-Will, Game Theory, Social Psychology and God

Note: This is hopefully the first of a series of posts on the subject, in which case I sympathize with my readers! :P

Disclaimer: I am an Atheist, a Keynesian Capitalist (Free Markets with Regulation & Intervention) and a firm believer in Free-Will. Also, the topic under discussion is immensely vast, and is of such a scope that every human born into this world contemplates about it at some point of time in their lives, and great philosophers and public intellectuals have pondered on these questions, coming up with their own subtle variations to explaining the nature of life as we see it. I am just presenting a short snippet of my take on the subject and I am trying to stir up some conversation by being a polemicist!


As “Neo” tells the “Architect” in “The Matrix”: “The Problem is Choice”. This is one of the most profound self-evident truths in the universe, and yet not only is it under-stated, but also flagrantly contradicted by the corporations, advertisers and by civil society in public discourse.

We are told, again and again, by people, corporations, entities and Governments that the greatest gift of the 20th century has been “Free-Will”. This statement has been sold to the public repeatedly by the entire society, as if it were a self-evident truth, and people who seek to question its veracity (with the best of intentions) are demonized as being archaic, illogical and evil. This often repeated assertion assumes that Free-Will is necessarily a good thing – that man is happiest when he is given the freedom to choose, that civilizations with immense freedom are necessarily the ones which are the most productive.

Lets try to deconstruct that for a moment.

  • Assertion #1: Main is happiest when he is given the freedom to choose:

    Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in an acclaimed TED Talk [3], takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz's estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied, not clearer but more confused.

  • Assertion #2: Civilizations with immense freedom are the most productive:

    It is true that the Soviet Union collapsed spectacularly and this is taken irrefutable evidence of the failure of Communism/Socialism and conclusive evidence in support of Free societies. It is worthwhile noting that the Soviet Union had immense power and influence in the world for almost half a century – its power and influence almost rivalling that of the United States. That its power/influence thrived successfully for four decades is indicative that Socialist societies could indeed be productive and influential. Furthermore, it is also worthwhile noting that the Soviet Union, despite lacking political, economic & religious freedom, made very tangible and significant advances in nuclear technology, space exploration technology and other products and services.

Scientists and biologists have discovered that based on current evidence, it can be concluded that an individual’s sexual orientation is a combination of genetic, hormonal and environmental factors [1][2]. Who is to say that in another decade or so, the scientific community will say the same thing about the tendency of an individual to commit murder or perpetrate violence? This is indeed a scary thought, but it may very well be true – that human beings could possibly be merely biological automatons who live out their lives computing a function (which determines sexual orientation, political beliefs, religious inclinations, compassion/arrogance and other aspects of human behavior), which is encoded not in Binary logic, but the logic of the four nucleotides that constitute the DNA.

I am not saying that Free-Will is a bad thing or that Democracy should be abolished or that we should return to anarchy/totalitarianism (Don’t worry! I am no Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein!). But we must seek to constantly introspect, contemplate and question the foundational assumptions behind every important assertion (especially if the assertion is held to be self-evident and forms the moral and epistemological basis for modern civilization). And we must admit that our knowledge of the universe and the origin and nature of life is still in its infancy and that as science and technology progresses, we might find alternative explanation models for existing philosophical and moral conundrums.

Now let us say that Free Will exists and that it is a wonderful and noble thing.

Human beings are not strictly speaking universal turing machines, although we are analogous in some respects – we don’t function in a strictly algorithmic way, that is to say we do not function as per a mechanical procedure. Our lives are filled with uncertainty, decision-making, heuristic evaluation and intuitive assessment of goals, rewards and penalties with a streak of irrationality and emotions thrown into the mix. Every choice that an individual makes is predicated upon an inner (partially innate, partially inherited, partially acquired) complex heuristic function, which tries to comparatively assign priorities and subjectively assess various possible decision-paths in life. This heuristic function is individualized and customized to suit the sensibilities and tastes and preferences of that particular individual, and takes into account religious views (Christian/Jew/Atheist), economic ideology (Capitalism/Socialism), political stance (Conservative/Liberal), moral stance on several issues (Abortion, Death Penalty, Euthanasia), and a plethora of other attributes including perseverance, ambition, resourcefulness, etc. The nature of decision making and heuristic evaluation of decision-paths is thus a subjective process, for which there does not exist an objective numerical rating system. Furthermore, there is no universal de-facto standard composition/configuration of the heuristic function, which applies and scales equally well to all individuals.

It is precisely because of these reasons that the study of Social & Cognitive Psychology is so important and critical to eventually find the true nature of Free-will, ascertain the degree and semantics of the choice we exercise, figure out the exact neuro-cognitive thought processes that help us making decisions, and finally to possibly extrapolate these results into formulation of effective Government policies. Furthermore, Game Theory (and certain elements from Mathematics & Computer Science) involve the use of heuristic evaluation functions, which try to objectively assess the utilitarian benefits of a particular decision path, with the intention of finding a reasonably optimized (if not perfectly optimal) decision path. By its very definition, a heuristic is NOT an objective evaluation but is a subjective assessment of the utility value of a given configuration in the search-space, and most heuristics are based on a concoction of rational thought, empirical observations, logical deduction and critically human intuition.

Game Theory seeks to understand bargaining, pricing and competition – but it does so with the assumption that people plan ahead and carefully figure out what others will do, which often results in mathematical claims that are highly unrealistic cognitively. An interesting article [4] suggests a theory called “Cognitive Hierarchy Theory”, that a key part of strategizing by predicting the behaviour of other people (or corporations, or countries), involves thinking about what the others think you will do. One can extend this line of thought to also include the factor of thinking about what others think you think …. And so on. And as can be clearly seen, the intersection of cognitive/social psychology, game theory and neurological sciences is something that deserves celebration and applause, for it will bring forth many critical insights into several aspects of human behaviour.

Finally, as an ending note, I wish to emphasize a point made by Christopher Hitchens about the popular conception of the linkage of Free-Will with Existence of God. The religious dutifully and sincerely believe that Free-Will can only be explained by the existence of God – that He (or She for the feminist-conscious) is the one who grants Man with the capacity of Free-Will and confers upon us the right to choose our own path. But by the very definition of Free Will, if it is granted explicitly by a supreme creator, then it CANNOT be called “Free-Will”. Its like a Database Administrator granting privileges to Database users – the administrator is permitting freedom of access, but has the power to strip away the privileges at any time by a simple SQL command. God (if he exists, which I believe is not the case) too can execute SQL and strip Man of Free-Will – thereby defying the very notion and semantics of the concept “Free-Will”. Who would have thought that the religious unwittingly portray God as a Database Administrator?! .... Lets see if any of you can come up with a metaphor correlating God with Operating Systems, Data Structures, Algorithms or Web Programming! :P



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1 comment:

ananthriyer said...

Dear Rajiv,
Great to read your blog after a long time.
Two things Free Will and Democracy.
Without Free Will it would be difficult for us to lead a great life it is only free will which makes us think differently and come out with great ideas and innovations.
All this is possible only in an open and free society which means in democracy these things thrive better.
In the olden days of Autocracy great scientists were not allowed to express and question the ideas then known to mankind and we all know how Galileo was tormented for saying that Earth moves around the sun.
Democracy and free will go together and stimulates us to perform as we are given enough freedom to experiment with our ideas and thoughts.
You have seen that in communist countries even the e mail and internet access is being controlled are we wanting this?
I would definitely say no.
Only a Free society allows the birth of new ideas.
To say that Soviet Union was a force once upon a time is ok, but then it collapsed like a pack of cards tha t too by an uprising of its citizens and not by any foreign intervantion.Same with East Germany.
So i believe that Free will is all about enjoying our lives the way we want of course there has to be restrictions to ensure that our behaviour doesn not affect the community at large.