Complexity and Free Will
While there are several ways to generate complexity, our main concern is its reduction or simplification. Like how to capture the quintessence of a complex system like the brain? The following story will reveal some unpleasant side effects of this venture.
In the heart of the scientific revolution lies the insight that phenomena in nature can be explained rationally. Phenomena are represented by simple concepts which are then handled rationally. For instance a moving body is represented by its center of mass and its trajectory is a trajectory of the center of mass. Generally, Newton’s laws apply solely to similar representations and therefore cannot be regarded as laws of nature. Fortunately such representations are adequate to handle our daily activity and keep us happy.
The main problem of science today is how to represent complex and interacting phenomena like the stock exchange. It is unfortunate that the plethora of stock market representations suggested by experts does not make us rich. The pessimists claim that the random walk is the best representation of the stock exchange which does not explain why some still get rich.
Nerve cells in the brain form a complex network through which they communicate by electric signals called action potentials. Some neuroscientists assume that like bits, these action potentials are elementary units of the brain computer. Decode them and you gain access to our secret thoughts. Some even believe that these action potentials are our thoughts. In reality they are no more than representations of the brain activity.
Several years ago a neuroscientist named Benjamin Libet decided to study the relationship between our will and these action potentials. He asked subjects to move their finger and report when they decided to move it. Libet found that the nerve impulse from the brain to the finger was on its way before the subjects reported having made their decision. His conclusion was amazing. It is not they who decided to move their finger, it was their brain. Soon distinguished neuroscientists and philosophers joined him to announce that we lack free will. The brain decides for us.
This false conclusion was initiated by the assumption that action potentials are the essence of our brain activity while in reality they are arbitrarily chosen representations. Measuring other representations, and there are many, one might conclude that our free will still kicks as before. Yet there is more to it. The brain is part of the nervous system which interconnects all cells in the body. Every cell in our body has a dedicated nerve fiber with which it connects to the brain. When neuroscientists speak of the brain as a complex network they mean only cells in the brain and ignore the neural network in the body which may be even more complex than the brain itself. The brain is like a mushroom which belongs to a huge network of hyphae permeating the soil. It is embodied in the nervous system and in us.
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