RIP Cian Dempsey

A guy I knew in school died last Friday. Cian was a good bass player and singer (I was in a band with him for a while), and it's a shame that he died so young (he was only 23).

Experimental evidence of a lack of genuine free will?

If someone, while being PET scanned, is told that they can move their finger at any time they want, a very interesting thing happens

Between one second and three quarters of a second before the finger actually moves, a "Readiness Potential" is detected in the brain of the subject.

However, the apparently conscious decision to move the finger is almost simultaneous with the finger actually moving.

It is as if some part of the brain is pre-empting the actual decision to move the finger, by between 1 and 3/4 seconds.

What exactly is happening here is not at present known, but it must be one of two things:

1. There is a time delay brought about by the propogation of electric signals in the neural network of the brain, and evolution has conspired to give a time delay to the awareness of the conscious decision, timing it to coincide better with the actual action undertaken (in this case, moving a finger).

2. There is a genuinely robotic process at work here. The decision is made sub-consciously, in a computer-like manner, and the apparent consciousness of the decision is merely an artifact of some feed-back loop in the neural net - it's not really a conscious decision at all !

Based on my earlier post, even if "1" is the case, "free will" still doesn't actually exist.

Free will is an illusion

This is an idea I just got today. I might expand upon it later.

Basically, the processes by which our brains function must either be classical in nature, or envolve a combination of classical and quantum mechanics.

Let us for the moment suppose it is the former.

The very nature of classical physics is determinacy - if you know the positions and momenta of a group of particles that act classically, with enough computing power you can determine precisely what condition the system will be in at any point in the future. Sure, even a simple scenario (eg three planets in orbit around each other) can get very complex indeed. But the point is, it's possible, in principle, to predict with utter precision, because all the particles follow determinable ballistic trajectories.

Therefore, if the brain functions in a purely classical manner, it would be theoretically possible to predict how any individual's brain will respond to any particular set of sensory input.

Therefore, a classical brain means that free will doesn't exist. With the state your brain is in right now, the next thing you think is predictable. The next action you take is inevitable.

Specifically, the information needed to theoretically predict what a particular brain will do next, is the layout of the neural network of neurons and axons, the chemical composition of the fluid that exists between the individual synapses, the current state of electrical signals being sent down all the individual axons at this present moment in time, and the sensory information that is being fed into the brain.

However, these are mere details: the central point remains - a wholy classical brain has no free will, no freedom of thought, and no freedom of action. Only the illusion of these is present, due to some feedback loop of the neural network.

Now lets consider a quantum scenario:
Simply put, if an individual neuron can be considered to be a quantum system, the state of this individual neuron may be described as a|A> + b|B> where "A" corresponds to the neuron doing nothing, and "B" corresponds to the neuron firing. "a" and "b" are associated probability amplitudes, and are complex numbers (i.e. of the form c + id).

The point is, that here nothing is certain - by definition, quantum mechanics envolves probabilites. While these probabilies can be calculated with utter precision, the outcome of measurements cannot, of course, be determined precisly beforehand.

The neuron doing nothing has a probability equal to the complex conjugate of "a" (a*a), that of it firing is b*b.

Obviously, our brain are not entirely random. However, the point is that evoking possible quantum mechanical effects in the brain, as some (eg Roger Penrose) have, yields randomness, to a varying degree.

Inherent randomness, however, also kills the idea of free will. It means that our minds are by definition unpredictable, within certain bounds, but also removes any supposed power of choice that we have, at least up to a point.

However, I will say this also: the computer I'm writing this on is reasonably impressive. It boasts 2.8 GHz of clock speed, and 512 MB of RAM. It is utterly predictable. Knowing the source code of a particular program, how the particular compiler used works, and the internal workings of the CPU etc, will tell you exactly how a particular program will function. Computers are classical in nature.

I strongly suspect classical mechanics holds sway in our brains also. Quantum mechanical effects (for example Heisenberg uncertainity of position of molecules in the synapses) are undoubtably present, but probably cancel each other out on average, and have zero net effect on the thought processes.

Either way, free will simply doesn't exist. Our brains are nothing but biological computers, classical or not.

Yasmin Kerr

Yasmin Kerr is a very minor celebrity and minor character in the ill-fated and not very good sitcom "A bear's tail", which incidentally had a man dressed up as a two-foot high bear as its central character.

The main acting technique she demonstrated in this program was occasionally looking shocked at the latest lewd antics of the tiny bear.

It was garbage, but self-mocking garbage, so I guess that's ok.

Ahhh no, it was just dire.

PS This is a test. I'm curious if I'll get loads of hits from people searching for "Yasmin Kerr" on the various search engines when this gets cached. Obviously this wouldn't work for a major star - I'd be too far down the listings. But it might here.

PPS Did I mention Yasmin Kerr enough? Yasmin Kerr.

Orbiting hunk of expensive garbage

The ISS (International Space Station) is an orbiting white elephant, sucking up billions upon billions of pounds of public money, and producing absolutely nothing in return. No decent scientific research is undertaken there. It is all akin to a reality TV show. Nice pictures for the news channels, in order to try and secure more funding, to put more people up into Low Earth Orbit, to secure some more nice pictures. An endless cycle of waste.

Three and a half decades ago, Man walked on the Moon. This is 240,000 miles away. A truly huge round trip of about a half a million miles. Stepping out onto an alien world, having got there using less computing power than you'll now find in the average saloon car.

The ISS, on the other hand, is a lump of junk 250 miles up. That's right, a paltry 250 miles. Throwing away money on this, at this stage in humanity's technological evolution, is ridiculous.

All manned space flight to LEO that doesn't return a profit, should be halted completely. Let rich "space tourists" pay their way up there (as has been happening).

Spend the public money that is at present being wasted on manned space light to LEO, on developing new techologies. All of those billions would yield impressive R+D results. Our destiny is among the stars, not a few hundred expensive miles up, in some kind of reality TV show set.

Hubble Deep Field

This is one of the furthest views that humanity has ever achieved - these are among the most distant objects we have ever seen.

This is 1.5 by 1.125 arc minutes of the night's sky, as seen by the Hubble space telescope. For a sense of scale, the Moon's apparent diameter as seen from the Earth is 30 arc minutes, whereas the Moon is 1.3 light-seconds distant, and these galaxies are of the order 10 billion light-years away.

These are fairly new galaxies, created not too long after the Big Bang (of the order 1 billion years after, which is relatively speaking not too long).

Donnie Darko

I saw this film today. One of the most profound, surreal, thought-provoking, satirical and all-round brilliant films I've ever seen in my entire life.

It's from 2001, but I'd never even heard of it before today.

Anyway, rent it. It's amazing.