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That Elusive Ingredient… That… SPARK!

May 17th, 2007 · 6 Comments

Yet one more object lesson in the perils of science writers mucking about in philosophy is this bizarre, muddled article about studies identifying the “spark of free will” in… fruit flies. This seemed implausible for a variety of reasons, and no less so upon closer reading. Scientists wanted to see how flies would respond to a totally featureless room, an absence of stimuli. Here’s what they found:

A plethora of increasingly sophisticated computer analyses revealed that the way the flies turned back and forth over time was far from random. Instead, there appeared to be “a function in the fly brain which evolved to generate spontaneous variations in the behavior,” Sugihara said.

Specifically, their behavior seemed to match up with a mathematical algorithm called Levy’s distribution, commonly found in nature. Flies use this procedure to find meals, as do albatrosses, monkeys and deer. Scientists have found similar patterns in the flow of e-mails, letters and money, and in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Brembs said.

These strategies in flies appear to arise spontaneously and do not result from outside cues, according to findings detailed in Wednesday’s issue of the journal PLoS ONE. This makes their behavior seem to lie somewhere between completely random and purely determined, “and could form the biological foundation for what we experience as free will,” Sugihara added. “This function appears to be common to many other animals.”

This is interesting, but it has nothing to do with “free will”. Nothing about this description makes me think there’s any reason you couldn’t get a computer to mimic this behavior easily enough, but nobody’s going to write up a breathless piece about how my laptop has “the spark of free will.” All they’re describing is a perfectly deterministic-sounding algorithm (they do, after all, have an equation for it). Now, maybe there’s a gap in the algorithm where it takes some noise input to provide the necessary variety or “spontaneity” in behaviors. (Computer “random” number generators typically pull some seed digits from the machine’s clock to inject that spontaneity; a truly “random” one could in principle use the results of quantum processes as the “seed.”) This does not actually get you around the law of the excluded middle, or the oxymoronic character of free will noted in the article. Combining a deterministic process with a random input doesn’t put you in a magical mezzanine between determinism and randomness, where free will might live. It just means you’ve got a bit of determinism and a bit of randomness.

Tags: General Philosophy



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LP // May 17, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    I get your point here, but I can’t help noticing where one of the researchers says that this combination of randomness and determinism “could form the biological foundation for what we experience as free will.” I think this is different than saying that free will exists, and consists of this ‘randomized determinism.’ I think you could construe this to mean that (the researcher thinks that) free will doesn’t really exist ‘out there’ at all, and the phrase merely describes what it feels like to exist in a state of ‘randomized determinism.’
    Sorry to nitpick.

  • 2 John Goes // May 18, 2007 at 9:29 am

    I wonder why it is that modern scientists are under the delusion that science is a method by which spiritual/philosophical gnosis is to be had.

    Here’s a scientist-fiction scenario: respectable theoretical physicist, stuck on his research, is at the renowned university library walking aimlessly through the stacks, when he discovers an obscure book he hadn’t noticed before. The book is an alchemical text, apparently centuries old. Fascinated, he reads it in its esoteric entirety, seeing glimpses of the thing he is searching for. But how to formalize this with the rigor of mathematics, he exclaims to himself!? His colleagues begin to notice changes in his demeanor, he stops comb his hair and sleeps in his clothes and avoids everyone at all costs. The philosopher’s stone was a folk psychological, pre-scientific, inchoate perception of the Holy Grail of science, the Unified Theory. String theory was a good start, but there was something missing here. It’s non-testability was a good start, but there lacked a vision. The scientist was part of the physical world as much as that which he studied, the philosopher’s stone was the technological feat that would once and for all bridge the gap between scientist and his Object of study, “mind” and matter. It would transform the lead of the soul into pure energy, which would lead to the next level of evolution. The scraps of string theory and the prescient archetypal mappings of the early alchemists provided the theoretical foundation. He secretly began to contact engineers he could trust with his secret, as he began preparations to build his machine. Immortality, Cosmic Gold, he could taste it…

  • 3 John Goes // May 18, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Many months later, there were some snags. He realized he would essentially have to build a computer smarter than a human being to compute the necessarily probabalities and provide a framework for the manifestation of the chaotic engine he was sure the Philosopher’s Stone would have. He realized he needed a neuroscientist. Calling his good friend Daniel Dennett on the phone at 3am, he was given advice. He would obviously have to kill Dennett, he knew too much, but he had the phone number of the best neurologist in the country. He realized he would have to become the Philosopher’s Stone himself, his brain primed by this device utilizing the secrets he so fortuitously discovered…

  • 4 AM // May 18, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    LP’s right. “…experience as free will” clears the researcher from your complaint. But, you know, once we demystify (“determinize”) the concept of free will, it turns out to have everything to do with simply decision-making agency, computational power, adaptability to novel inputs, etc. We humans have “free will” inasmuch as we’re fantastic decision-making machines. If this research shows fruit flies to be more fantastic decision-making machines than previously thought, then ipso facto they have more “free will” than previously thought.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // May 18, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Yeah, I think the *researcher* is off the hook; the reporter less so.

  • 6 thoreau // May 19, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Speaking as a scientist, I would say that the real question in all this is whether science writers are intelligent beings. I recently met a science writer for a wire service and was thoroughly unimpressed.

    Scientific American and the Economist have some good science writers. NPR has some good reporting. But daily newspapers and weekly news magazine (except, of course, the Economist) are useless when it comes to science reporting.