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.