Is free will a matter of being a conscious outlier?

I am no philosopher, so you are forewarned, I have no idea how logical this post is or whether this has been said before.

Much has been written about whether humans have free will, and let’s not even talk about “higher” animals. Moreover, it is increasingly recognized that our senses give us a limited view of reality (see here and here). It is true that multiple things influence our choices, often unconsciously, but it is also true that there are people that do unexpected things, people that do not follow the crowd.

That got me thinking again about a flock of birds. For some reason, I have been thinking about models a lot (not the Heidi Klum kind of model; by the way, my wonderful wife is fully aware that I find Ms. Klum somewhat attractive… (;-)…).

Anyway, mathematical models of nature…

When you look at a flock of birds in flight, it is remarkable how they seem to coordinate their individual flightpaths in such a way that it almost seem like the elegant motion of a single entity (I want to thank my supervisor, whom I am married to, for the idea of using the previous phrase…).

However, if you were able to only look at an individual bird, it would seem like it is flying in a kind of random way; in other words an apparent high degree of organization only appears when high numbers are involved. It is a matter of (gasp!) statistics.

In statistical parlance, an outlier is a data point that does not seem to follow the general pattern. In the figure below, such an outlier is represented by the indicated symbol.

outliers

Now, in a flock of birds, you often see outliers, birds that albeit momentarily, get separated from the flock, left behind if you will, until they catch up and go back to their friends.

We can predict Human behavior up to a certain point in an almost statistical sense. However, we are very much aware that there are always people that do not go with the flow. That can be a positive or a negative thing. Historically, people that think “outside of the box” (those who do not follow the flock) have given humanity the greatest works of art, science and religion. On the other side of the equation, some people that do not follow the flock have given us sorrow and horror, and I am not only talking about war.

Most of us, though are capable of go against the flow, to make up our own minds in aspects not as extreme as the ones described above. Then again, many, but not all philosophical schools of thought argue that we do not know all the possible variables that influence human behavior, so we may not have free will after all.

I have to admit that this makes sense. For example, I do not always do what I am thinking or why I do or not do certain things, so it is next to impossible for me to predict what anyone else is thinking or anyone’s motivation to do anything. In other words, I do not know all the factors that influence anyone’s thoughts and choices.

That said, I’d like to think that we humans have the capacity of being conscious outliers; that even when many external factors can affect our behavior at a subconscious level, we can decide to separate ourselves from the flock and fly in our own path overcoming our automatic impulses and tendencies, for good, bad or ugly. I hope that in time, humanity in general and every individual person in particular, decides to use this capacity for good. I can dream, right?

I like thinking… am I weird? (don’t answer that!)
(:-)

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4 Comments

  1. Sam Harris advocates the “freewill is an illusion,” position, but that’s a very deterministic point of view.

    Essentially, Harris says if you knew ALL the factors you could predict EVERY freewill decision, and that freewill is an illusion simply because we don’t see all the factors.

    But quantum physics has demonstrated that the universe is decidedly not deterministic, and I suspect freewill and consciousness are a biological representation of that. In other words, we are free to choose regardless of all determining factors because consciousness is not a predetermined state.

    1. I tend to agree with that line of thought. If consciousness is ultimately influenced by quantum mechanics, it cannot be deterministic at all, and I would love that very, very much. However, quantum mechanics does not seem to apply at the macro level, so back to square one in my mind….

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