Monday, January 7, 2013

Free will vs Determinism, the Eternal Dilemma

Free will v/s determinism

Life is all about making choices. Right from the trivial, like what to eat, what clothes to wear, to larger and more far reaching issues like career and marriage. 
Making a choice implies that we do, indeed, have free will. 
There are however, moments when we confront the irrational, the unexpected and the inexplicable.  Situations when, despite all efforts, the tantalisingly close objective eludes, almost as if part of some grand conspiracy .
In such moments, our intelligence flirts with the possibility of a deterministic destiny.  Anxiety about the future, coupled with a helplessness of being totally at the mercy of factors beyond our control pushes us to look for a pattern or program, for some   order in this chaotic irrationality called life.  Is there any master coordinating this symphony of existence with every member playing prefixed chords and notes or is it mere free-willed  jamming? It appears a bit unbelievable that the creator would leave his "piece de resistance "on an auto mode. 
                                     Do we really have free will at all? 
Dr Libet, in the 80s performed a simple experiment where a subject was wired up to an EEG  (device to record  electrical brain activity ) and simultaneously, an EMG recorded muscular activity,  associated with a motor act, like moving the hand . The conscious decision to move the hand resulted in electrical activity from the cortex of the brain and actual movement caused a spike in the EMG.
There was a delay of 200 milliseconds between the decision to move the hand and the actual motor act of moving the hand. That was on expected lines. 
Surprisingly, the EEG revealed a buzz of electrical discharges that preceded the subject’s conscious decision  to move the hand  by about 300 milliseconds. This  famous experiment demonstrated the unconscious electrical processes in the brain called  "Bereitschaftspotential "(readiness potential) that precede conscious decisions to perform volitional or spontaneous acts. 
The trigger to these electrical discharges remains in the realm of the subconscious or then, perhaps, just testimony to determinism, or destiny.
Where do thoughts arise? What makes us think in a particular way? 
This ‘readiness potential’ recorded by Libet’s experiment does seem to lend a fatalistic hue to all our thoughts and actions hitherto believed to be the suzerainty of our free will.
   The free will vs determinism conflict looks irresolvable, simply imply because we might have to bifurcate reality into two parallel universes, just to verify this hypothesis.  In one, the subject behaves deliberately in a particular manner, (free will) and in the other there is no such proactive contribution (deterministic).
We then merge the two universes again and evaluate which path unfolds, the free will or the deterministic. This is a thought experiment, and is incredulous.
Verification of determinism or free will is seemingly impossible to investigate.
If the future of all of us is inexorably interlinked, it would seem very egoistic to believe in having the wherewithal to change the destiny of all those connected with us, along with our own.
It could well be, that the freely chosen option was precisely what was predetermined if viewed impersonally and dispassionately. This is aptly expressed in this mythological anecdote.
Garuda, the celestial eagle, who transported Vishnu, once took his master to a meeting of all the Gods. He noticed a small bird at the entrance and as Yamaraj, The Lord of Death strode in, he glanced at the small bird sympathetically and continued for the meeting. Garuda surmised that the time was up and the fate of the small bird was sealed.
Out of compassion for that weak helpless bird, he carried the bird along and flew at the speed of light for a few hours placing it secure in a deep ravine, far from any predators or danger. He returned back in time when the meeting was over and asked Yamaraj, why he looked so sceptically at the small bird prior to the meeting. Yamaraj replied, " I was wondering what the bird was doing here when it ought to be light years away in a deep ravine."

                     Subjective and objective consciousness 

Consciousness, if identified with ‘I’, as the  doer is left with no alternative but to subscribe to a conviction in free will. The "I" or ego becomes meaningless without the free will.  Free will is the proactive force that fuels the doership. This ‘I’ consciousness is totally subjective, personal, and restrictive.
Free will from the perspective of this ‘I’ is a freedom of choice from a superset of possibilities coupled with a conviction that the future is a totally  unchartered territory. 
If consciousness transcends the ‘I’, and expands beyond the subjective restriction, it becomes objective.
Consciousness dematerialised into an impersonal awareness, that just observes without assessing the situation as a cause-effect paradigm.
It is an undifferentiated primal state of conscious awareness that transcends the personal ‘I’ consciousness, an omnijective state,that is subjective and objective simultaneously. It is an awareness of the consciousness, by the consciousness, for the consciousness, prior to the subject-object differentiation. The deterministic view then becomes objective with no personal or subjective bias.
To this consciousness, it does not matter if any event is predetermined or not because it is an awareness from which springs this entire manifestation as also this quest to know. 

Dr. Deepak M. Ranade
(The author is a consultant neurosurgeon, -