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back to article Deploying Turing to see if we have free will

Alan Turing didn't just lay the theoretical basis for modern computing and save Britain in World War Two by defeating German cryptography: one of his problems also provides a theoretical basis for understanding free will, according to MIT quantum theorist Seth Lloyd. Given the number of biologists – particularly in the …

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Some people say I'm indecisive ....

But I'm just not sure.....

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Megaphone

Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

“The inability of the decider to predict her decision beforehand holds whether the decision-making process is deterministic or not”.

Call me old fashioned, but I find this kind of right-on politically correct language to be very annoying, not to say patronising. The possessive 'his' has for many years been defined as 'belonging to or associated with a person or animal of unspecified sex'.

I don't need my hand held to remind me that women comprise half the species, and clever talk like this won't force me to re-evaluate my perception of where they fit in the world. I really don't. So leave it out, will you.

Having said that, my wife can never make her mind up, so I won't deny the truth of the statement.

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Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

Once we can name the demon, we can slay it. The demon's name is "cant". Cant is the polite chatter we make to show our membership in the local good ol'boy's club. We express the political correctness we feel is required to prevent being viewed as a nonconformist. To be a nonconformist is to invite scrutiny and perhaps inquisition. So you'd better learn the cant or suffer the oppression of big brother. "Obey"

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Trollface

Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

You are presuming that the gender choice was intentional. That implies the existence of free will, which is the subject of discussion.

Your objections are therefore begging the question and logically invalid.

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Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

... about God: She's black :-)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

Or maybe you could stop thinking about sex every time you read the feminine pronoun? Comments like this are enough to make one think that maybe the feminists were right about that whole patriarchy thing all along.

As long as this remains jarring to anyone, it needs to continue. Once it ceases to be jarring, it will continue regardless because nobody will think twice about it.

If men ruled the world it would be in a somewhat parlous state.

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Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

I was taught that their is the non-gender specific possessive form.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

>The demon's name is "cant".

'Immanuel Kant was a real piss-ant who was very rarely stable... Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed; A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he's pissed.'

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Re: about God: She's black

She's black what? A poodle? A paramecium? Black hole? You're still being an "-ist" if you assume God is human/humanoid/human-like/human-aligned at all.

Of course, there's the part where God doesn't exist, but let's just set that to one side for now...

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Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

You're not allowed to use "their." That is something that the patriarchy uses to pretend women don't exist whilst simultaneously attempting to appear unbiased. A bunch of feminists decided that they didn't like it so they set upon a campaign to convince the world that using the plural form of pronouns was abuse of grammar - not to mention demonstrating "gender bias" - so they decided that everyone should default to the feminine pronouns instead.

In case you missed the memo this is huge in US journalism right now, and it has become "the thing" in SF tech circles as well.

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Facepalm

Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

Ok, so let me be the first to confirm that you are indeed old fashioned and sexist. Simple test of this would be to ask yourself if a women or young (< 25 say) person would have read an interesting article on the nature of free will, and had to comment not on the nature of determinism but because the author dared to use a female for an example.

I find people complaining about 'politically correctness' generally can't even define what it is, and why doing something like acknowledging 50% of people in any example scenerio might be female is so wrong..

The possessive 'his' may have for many years been defined as 'belonging to or associated with a person or animal of unspecified sex', but language changes, there are alternatives 'their', and without having read the paper, you don't know if the author was talking about a specific person like like Alice, Bob or Eve.

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@GrantB

I prefer to use gender non-determinative pronouns so that I can both acknowledge and dismiss 100% humanity. I don't give a flying Vista what gender, race, creed, religion or whatever "group" you are: you're all clownshoes to me until proven otherwise.

When talking about an indeterminate person I don't feel it's appropriate to use "his" or "hers." Gender determinate pronouns should only be used when a gender is known. Period.

That's like saying "he drove* from A to B."

*method of transportation not known, using a manually controlled vehicle as the descriptor "just because."

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Re: @Trevor_Pott

so: Sie/Hir then?

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@Oninoshiko

I truly wish I was allowed to use Sie/Hir or Ser. Unfortunately, we'd be back in the same boat; it's so uncommon, the usage of it would detract from the story.

I have started to use Sie in some of my personal stuff.

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Re: Stop making me think about sex. It's irrelevant.

And your wife, nor mine or any other wife I know is predictable.

The interesting part is that if they aren't predictable, you cannot simulate them either. You can only simulate based on past events, not on predictable behaviour.

With men it's questionable if we have a free will. Someone said once to me long time ago, few will like this ^^, "men are the head, the woman are the neck that turns the head".

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@t.est

Oik! I gots me two heads!*

*I can only use one at a time.

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Siri?

I do realize it would demonstrate nothing, but it'd be amusing if Siri was rigged up to provide "yes, yes, yes, yes" 8-)

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Re: Siri?

To the question: "Are you a decider?" Siri answers "No comment." So, while the free will question is unanswered, at least we now know that Siri is a politician.

That being the case, would you vote for Siri?

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Re: Siri?

"I do realize it would demonstrate nothing, but it'd be amusing if Siri was rigged up to provide "yes, yes, yes, yes" 8-)"

But, isn't Siri that program that tells you where the nearest restaurant is?

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Re: Siri?

I'll have what Siri is having.

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Re: Siri?

Almost! It's that program that searches Bing to tell you where the nearest restaurant is :)

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Re: Siri?

"program that searches Bing to tell you where the nearest restaurant is :)"

Actually, I think it's Wolfram Alpha...

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Do I make my decisions using recursive reasoning?

I do have some doubts about this. Maybe it's just me but consider the following situation. I see a gorgeous girl sitting at the bar. Do I invite her for a drink or not? There's not much of conscious reasoning in answering that question, it's just a gut feeling that tells me whether to ask her. Ok, some machine, far beyond today's technology might be able to model decision-making - I cannot exclude this possibility.

What current information (i.e. all that my senses sense) and what experiences do I take into account ? And what of all that do I leave out? What mood I'm in? Good luck with modelling that.

Up to now, all that was shown is that scientists do not really understand our decision-making process. This is especially true about the neuroscientists that propagated the view that we don't have free will. What they showed, in brief, is that our brain makes a decision before we are consciously aware of the decision. Is it so unthinkable to think that decision-making not only takes place in consciousness?

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Thumb Up

Re: Do I make my decisions using recursive reasoning?

"What they showed, in brief, is that our brain makes a decision before we are consciously aware of the decision.Is it so unthinkable to think that decision-making not only takes place in consciousness?"

Agree completely. It doesn't automatically follow from the first sentence that we do not have free will. It simply means, as you imply in the second sentence, that decision-making processes are mostly unconscious. In fact decision-making mostly depends on internal patterns that we are mostly unaware of, but that we can detect if we 'slow down' and analyse our own processes.

For example, some people, on being given an option will accept it immediately. Some people on being given an option will reflexively go for something different. Some people want to check out every available option before choosing. Some people will ask for external validation for their choice. And so on, and so on. It's easy to see at a restaurant. Some people go for something familiar, some go for something new. Some people already know what they want before even seeing the menu. Some people read every single damn item in the Chinese restaurant menu, all 450 items, and then ask you "what are you having?". You will note that the same people consistently exhibit the same pattern.

The key thing is that this unconscious decision that over time has become part of a person's 'programming', so day-to-day they will default to that behaviour. But if that behaviour is noted and challenged they are capable of changing it. Hence people DO have free will, but many times do not demonstrate it because their brain is working 'on automatic'

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Anonymous Coward

Re: their brain is working 'on automatic'

Well, what's the point of having a large and complex brain if you can't (if you so prefer) spawn a subprocess to deal with choosing items off a menu? Maybe there are other things to concentrate your fully conscious mind on - like social interaction, or whatever other priorities you might have.

Quite a lot of what I do is managed by un- or semi-conscious bits of my body or brain. Doesn't bother me at all. I think handling restaurant menus comes under the "semi-conscious" heading :-)

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Re: Do I make my decisions using recursive reasoning?

I thought, consciously or otherwise, that the brain does multi-threading on a large scale.

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@Mike Bell

“The inability of the decider to predict her decision beforehand holds whether the decision-making process is deterministic or not”.

As I understood it, the correct word to use in that sentence is the neutral 'their' and it was only when wossisface decided to create a dictionary for the English language that it was decided to impose the male term 'his' instead for what were regarded at the time as 'politically correct' reasons. It can be quite irritating to be reading stuff which is meant to be talking in general terms but which persistently ignores the fact that the person carrying out the described actions might just be of ones own gender, y'know. I'm as against political correctness for PC's sake as most, in most cases, but this is one case where I happily support the modern effort to redress the balance.

Besides, (donning fire-proofs), thinking about it, as us women tend to do more communicating than men, why the heck do you blokes think you own the language?! :-)

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@Esme

As I understand it, 'their' is an acceptable alternative to the use of 'his' in this context. Its use is not, however, any more correct than 'his'. I'm not a fan, since it usually refers to multiple people rather than an individual.

I'm sorry that you feel ignored when writers use a word that, by definition, pertains to an unspecified sex. But to tell the truth, the writer isn't talking about you, or even your sex, so you are bringing something to the party that doesn't exist.

The next time you see a group of girls out on the lash calling themselves, collectively, 'Guys', perhaps you'd like to think about who owns the English language. It's no more men than women.

I'm putting my own fire-proofs on now: the origin of the word 'Woman' is Wife + Man.

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He/his, she/her, they/their

While "his" has the endorsement of grammar Nazis, "her" is espoused by the politically correct, and "their" has the overwhelming backing of popular usage, it's odd that all these groups would probably object to "it" and "its" to indicate a person of unspecified gender. In most cases it would be clear enough from the context that the referend was not inanimate.

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Anonymous Coward

Men they may have many faults

Women have but two

Everything they say

And everything they do.

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Headmaster

Re: He/his, she/her, they/their

I use "one's" in such cases. But that's only because English is not my native language.

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@Mike Bell

"the origin of the word 'Woman' is Wife + Man."

Not really, the real origin should be "Female" + "Man". Though Wikipedia etc says female human, and they are partly correct as "man" has also been used as "human", also in modern language, e.g. mankind, referring to the specimen as whole including females.

But it's not Wife + Man. You could also consider the biblical view in how it has influenced the evolving languages. Where the woman is made out of a man's rib, where you could consider the meaning of man to both refer to the male man an to the species of "man".

That's what has influenced at least the languages of the western and mideast countries. I can't say how it is in asian or native american languages.

Furthermore you see the same structure when you consider the word's "male" and "female", were "female" is based on the word "male".

So to conclude if you want to refer to the other gender in a way that is not involving the opposite gender, you better start calling them aliens instead or maybe venuses, or simply invent a new word. For my sake, I happily follow the traditions where the female gender is included in the meaning of "man". That way a woman is privileged, as they have a word that describes only them specifically, while man refers to man of any gender.

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Anonymous Coward

confused, moi?

I'm sorry, but I read the article twice, very very carefully - but while I understand each sentence individually, I am not sure how they together logically address whether we have free will.

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Re: confused, moi?

It may come as a surprise, but philosophy is an actual field of research... After reading a one-page writeup on Fermat's last theorem and the proof thereof, do you expect to understand how elliptic functions tie to diophantine equations? No. You cannot hope to get more from a sketch like this than an idea of what direction the researcher is digging in.

This holds for most fundamental research (stamp collecting needs no such depth), although sometimes the difficult bits are easy to gloss over in a writeup.

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Re: confused, moi?

I once read some Bertrand Russell, and had to read each sentence twice in order to understand it and its in-context meaning. Some time you just have to keep banging the (mental) rocks together and hope it eventually becomes clear.

But if you'd prefer a more IT angle, why not try this instead?

"When does a physical system compute?"

http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.7979

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quantum non-determinism

I assume that if the universe is non-deterministic at the quantum level, then we have free will. Probably just not very much.

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Boffin

Re: quantum non-determinism

John Conway and Simon Kochen had a similar perspective when they came up with the first version of their Free Will Theorem:

http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0604079v1.pdf

"Do we really have free will, or, as a few determined folk maintain, is it all an illusion? We don’t know, but will prove in this paper that if indeed there exist any experimenters with a modicum of free will, then elementary particles must have their own share of this valuable commodity."

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Re: quantum non-determinism

Given that quantum events happen at a quantum level and are very predictable at any larger level and that their variability is truly random, then it only really means that we have free will at a sub-atomic level and that free will means the same as unpredictable behaviour.

How would free will of that nature be useful?

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Re: quantum non-determinism

I assume that if the universe is non-deterministic at the quantum level, then we have free will

No - that just makes things non-deterministic.

Free will means that what you think/choose can affect the outcome. So, if you believe in multi-verses, the version of you that thought "yes" goes off down one path while the version that thought "no" goes off down another. But they can't contact each other, so can never detect this.

Which is part of the problem. Whether you do or do not have free will won't affect what you actually do as it can't be detected since to do so means you have to predict the future, then change it, at which point did you change things, or was your prediction wrong? Just like Gődel's theorem says, some things are unprovable...accept it and get on with life.

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Re: quantum non-determinism

"Given that quantum events happen at a quantum level and are very predictable at any larger level and that their variability is truly random, then it only really means that we have free will at a sub-atomic level and that free will means the same as unpredictable behaviour.

How would free will of that nature be useful?"

Because, watching a monkey type in "1" over and over again as input to a very complex program would be very boring. Let the money put in truly random numbers and it might be entertaining.

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As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

Human consciousness cannot simply be equivalent to a Turing machine, for if it were, we would not be able to understand Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. See "The Emperor's New Mind" (1989), et al.

[Note that, contrary to the attacks of the strong AI crowd, this does not imply that consciousness cannot be achieved by a machine. Only that the machine would necessarily involve some non-algorithmic processing.]

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Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

Gawd. There should be a licence required to use the name of Gödel.

Penrose may have been a decent physicist, but as a logician he's what we in the trade call a "crackpot".

The incompleteness theorems say nothing at all about understanding, because understanding is not a mathematical concept. They merely say that any (suitably powerful and well-behaved) mathematical theory has things it can't prove. The incompleteness theorems themselves are NOT things that the system can't prove: they are proved in ordinary logic, and are no harder to understand than many other theorems.

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Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

You need to read the book(s). I suspect Sir Roger may know just as much and maybe even a teeny bit more about Gödel than you do.

Gödel shows that there are always true theorems that cannot be proved within a certain set of constraints of a particular set of axioms. Yet we can see they are true (otherwise there would be no contradiction). A purely algorithmic system would be unable to do this (by the theorem). Therefore we are not purely algorithmic systems.

But, as I say, for a complete explanation you need to read the book (and the associated academic papers).

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Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

And as Daniel Dennett pointed out at around the same time, consciousness is chaotic and uses natural selection to get stuff done, but is still essentially deterministic (see Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea).

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Re: As Sir Roger Penrose pointed out years ago

I did read the book. It's unlikely that Penrose knows more about Gödel's theorem than I do - it's not his field, and it is mine. Your (vague) statement of the incompleteness theorem is incorrect, and your `argument' fails in the second line, because we can't see that the Gödel sentence is true - we can only see that either the Gödel sentence is true, or the theory is inconsistent. (The proof of incompleteness takes a theory T, constructs its Gödel sentence G, and then says EITHER G is true (and hence unprovable in T, because G says "G is not provable in T") OR G is false (in which case it is provable in T, and so T is inconsistent). Given any particular theory, we can't tell which of those is the case, because we have no way of determining whether a theory is consistent (except by using a different theory, which we then can't prove consistent...).

The formal statement of the theorem doesn't mention "truth" at all, because can't be pinned down in any reasonably powerful theory. It simply says there is a statement such neither the statement nor its negation can be proved by the theory.

So if you want to argue that humans are more powerful than computers, you need a more refined argument than that.

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Go

Interesting PoV.

So the only way to decide what your decision is going to be is to actually apply all the logic and then make the decision.

Nothing less will do.

Intriguing.

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Free from what, exactly?

"Free will" is rather poorly defined. In this article, it seems to be predicated on unpredictability. It's unclear why being unpredictable is any useful indicator of will, free or otherwise. An unstable double pendulum is unpredictable, but that doesn't make it have free will by any useful definition.

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Re: Free from what, exactly?

Exactly. The (hidden) premise seems to be an evolution of the wobbly old idea that quantum indeterminacy can somehow provide a physical basis for free will (as if being driven by a random number generator in the brain looks anything like freedom).

The thing is, I'm most free when I can act in ways that are meaningful to me and those ways tend to be easily predictable by anyone who knows me. Of course, maybe free will isn't the same thing as personal freedom but if it isn't I don't know what it is bar a meaningless theological concept.

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Re: "Free will" is rather poorly defined.

Physical models explicitly disallow free will. The most free-will-like thing they can do is add in some statistical uncertainty to either the initial conditions or the dynamics; and then consider this uncertainty to be a proxy for whatever free-will might be. Note that chaos cannot help here, since it is still strictly deterministic, although it can be a handy way of making things more complicated when constructing a pseudo free-will fr your models.

How do you build a mathematical (or physical) predictive model of something with free-will? The notion of a predictive model of free-will is an oxymoron. If I've got a good model, the decisions no longer look free, they are just consequences of the state of the system. Hence, there are (can be) no predictive models of free-will.

Hence the article's focus on "practical unpredictability" -- i.e. "we cannot in-principle predict in advance" -- as a way of assessing the likelihood of free-will being present. It's about as close as we can (currently) get to understanding free-will.

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Re: Free from what, exactly?

The question is whether our brains are just very complicated, but squishy, computers. In which case, the structure determines each decision we make - and so although we may think we're deciding things - actually we're not. That decision was built into the system. Thus with sufficiently complex modelling, you could entirely predict our brain output.

I'm not sure if this debate is even worth having yet, seeing as we don't really understand how the brain works. Although I guess there's an argument to be made that it doesn't matter how many interactions there are between the chemical and electrical bits and bobs, so long as you can model it you can predict it.

I'd have thought the brain would be a chaotic system though, given how complex it is, and that bits of it work in several different ways, often simultaneously. But to be honest, all this makes my brain ache. And I'm sure you could have predicted in advance that I'd say that...

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