Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Can a computer have free will?

  1. Feb 2, 2006 #1
    I was thinking of the subject today. I remembered back in high school we were able to use the new TI-81 graphing calculators. (sorry if that dates me). One of the cool features was being able to program simple games. One such game was Dice. To get more to the point, one of the functions was asking the computer to display a random number between 1 and 6. Now, I have a few questions as I am unclear whether the original programmer who wrote the original code for the calculator could know, in advance, what number it would choose? If not, does the computer show free will when it chooses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6? (I'm not talking a concious decision, but merely making a choice between a set of numbers however it comes about). If the original programmer cannot/does not know the outcome, I would say it does display a free will choice.

    The reason why I ask this question is I'm having trouble with thinking about my brain as merely a bio-computer. I'm having trouble understanding the possibility that someday someone will be able to de-code our brain into some mathematical equation. I'm having trouble trying to fathom how they will ever be able to crack the code of free-will.

    I can only imagine being able to narrow down the possible set of choices to either A or B. But I don't see how it would be possible to predict which of the 2 will be chosen.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 2, 2006 #2
    A computer has to some extent free will but it is confined inside the boundaries of the terms set.
  4. Feb 2, 2006 #3
    Would you say that the human brain is confined inside the boundaries of some set terms as well? (I don't want this to get into who/what sets the terms).
  5. Feb 2, 2006 #4
    If someone or something can predict what you will do then you don't have free will. You can only do what has been predicted, otherwise the prediction is wrong. The possibility of predicting what anyone or anything will do negates the possibility of free will.
  6. Feb 2, 2006 #5
    I don't think anyone can argue with that.

    Let me clarify my questions. If our brains are bio-computers, then:

    A) Is it possible for the "programming" to be reverse engineered?
    B) If "A" is yes, Could our free will simply be programming like that of the calculator with a choice between a set of terms?
    C) If "A" and "B" is yes, Wouldn't that prevent anyone from doing "A" to the point where one could predict a humans choice?
    D) or is it that "A" is yes but "B" is no? Which makes free will an illusion, where we will choose something purely by following our programming.

    But for any of those questions to be relevent is whether or not the original programmer can mathematically predict the choice given the set of terms when he first wrote the program. (I'm not talking about God here, the programmer I'm referring to is the TI-81 programmer)

    For the record, I am leaning toward "A" and "B" being plausible, and struggling with "C" and "D".
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2006
  7. Feb 2, 2006 #6
    Well, unless the consciousness is outside the laws of physics, then by logic alone it is confined to the laws of physics, which means all choices could be predicted. (Unless of course this is an indeterministic universe and the rules of physics change at random.)

    Whether or not the programmer can determine the outcome depends on the depth he researches the issue.
    For instance I can do rand(1,6) and it would spit out a random number between, to me as a programmer I wouldn't know HOW it did that unless I dug into how the rand function was built.
    If I built the rand function I presume I would use some sort of algorhithm or some such, but then again, I would still not know how the algorhithm chooses the numbers. So I would have to go into machine code, or assembly as it's called, and then go from there.
    But not even that would give me an answer, so i would have to go into the circuitry, and "follow the current" so to speak.
    But not even that would give me the answer I was looking for, so I'd have to go into quantum physics, and from the on to string theory, and from then to something else.
    It seems infinitely regressive, and it all depends basically on how the universe chooses between "1" and "0".

    Which is another thing altogether, determinism versus indeterminism etc.
  8. Feb 2, 2006 #7
    You approach the problem from an engineering point of view by wondering if it can be reverse-engineered, programmed, etc. I think you can simplify. There are only two possibilities.

    Possibility 1: your mind follows cause-and-effect relationships. If so then everything you think is the causal result of previous states and you function as an automated device so you don't have free will.

    Possibility 2: your mind does not follow cause-and-effect relationships. If so then what you think does not depend on previous states so your mind can spontaneously have one thought or another thought regardless of previous states. But if your mind acts spontaneously then you are not controlling it, so you don't have free will.
  9. Feb 2, 2006 #8
    Yeah exactly.. Which is why I have my theory that free will is an emergent property of determinism and consciousness, we DO have a choice because we can consciously analyze the choices. What happens on the lower levels is irrelevant as long as we are consciously aware of our choices.

    I hope that's not too off topic though.
  10. Feb 2, 2006 #9
    I think that it could still be possible to fit in the laws of physics and still have the property of "B" as stated above. (if the programing allows for a choice between a set of terms, ie. rand(1,6)). Or would that defy the laws of physics?

    In a nutshell, this answers the question of whether the programmer could know the outcome. I believe you are saying, "There is no way the programmer could know what number rand(1,6) will evoke." (at least, when he wrote the program). Good, that at least helps in justifying my other questions.

    I think I understand what you are saying. Although I'm not sure which of those two you see yourself in. Is it too much of a stretch to think that we are just as you say in possibillity 1, but as you break down our programming to it's simplest levels, we find an equation such as rand(1,6)? Since, at least by our understanding of computer programming, this equation, is asking for a free-will choice. (by definition using Funk and Wagnalls dictionary under "free-will", and further, "voluntary"). I know we are speaking in hypotheticals here, but the two scenarios you propose are more what I think how my dog behaves, not so much a human.

    I believe we DO have a choice as well, just trying to figure out whether it is an illusion or not. Where I differ is that what happens on the lower levels is irrelevant because it will never be able to predict the outcome of human behavior. I certainly don't think it's off topic, so please, do tell or link to a previous post where you have discussed it.
  11. Feb 3, 2006 #10
    In my opinion determinism must be in place otherwise there would/could be chaos, even from inside the system.
    What we see around us never changes, and hasn't for many years.
    While people speak of indeterminism on smaller scales, I do not believe this to be so, because any system capable of indeterminism would deteriorate and increase entropy level for every second.

    This is because in such a system, it is my belief that over a long enough timeline, there would be nothing but random events unconnected to eachother left.
    We have seen no such indication in this universe.

    So then, it is also my belief that we must have determinism for free will to work.
    Determinism lets us make the choices we want to make, and it doesn't interrupt us with random events in order to do so.
    It follows a straight predictable pattern where one event leads to the next.

    Now, it seems to me that we are aware of our free will, we are aware that we are capable of making choices.
    In my opinion this really settles the free will debate, because we are aware of it ourselves.
    Also, and this is maybe going too deep, but if consciousness is physical in nature, and the qualia is physical(if basically everything in the universe can be observed and predicted physically), then the ideas we have of our free will, is also a part of the universe.
    I mean everything inside the universe, has to be connected to the universe in some way, and thus it is a part of it.
    Regardless of whether it is "physical" or not, as we know physical.
    So to me, the awareness we have of our surroundings, makes it so free will is maybe not physical, but it's a real part of the universe, it's not an illusion, not a pseudo "thing."

    Many people argue that "yeah but what if we can determine everything and see into the future or something, because I mean if everything follows cause and effect, given enough time and research, you could know "everything."
    And to this I reply that, at this point, we just don't know.
    If the universe is built on cause and effect, then finding the smallest possible cause is essential, but even if we do that, the computing power needed to even process the path of a ball with this math would be extreme to non existant.
    So practically I don't see anyone doing it for a few years..

    But philosophically? I don't know.. Nobody knows right now if it's possible to determine everything given enough time and research, and nobody knows if it's impossible either.
    But we can at least give these two options;

    1. If the universe is deterministic, then there is possibly a way to determine human choice and/or everything.
    2. If the universe is indeterministic then there is no way, cause true randomness is impossible to predict, but I strongly disbelieve that this exists in our universe.
  12. Feb 3, 2006 #11

    You are confusing me here. On one hand you seem to be saying that you believe everything is based on cause and effect. (which means free-will was inevitable from the start). Yet on the other, free-will, by its very nature, is unpredictable. By the mere fact that we are aware of our own free-will means that indeterministic behavior actually does exist in the universe. Which rules out scenario one as being possible. Maybe you could clarify this for me.

    Is there not evidence that order comes from chaos? Certainly there is evidence that this does not, in and of itself, lead to more chaos. I seem to think that the universe has a way to balance itself out again. Isn't it more likely than not, when you break it down the programming of our brain to its smallest code, that randomness is a built in feature? What would make you think that this possibility somehow contradicts some natural order?
  13. Feb 3, 2006 #12


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    I just want to put in here, regarding the original question, that the "random number" algorithms used in computers, and in that TI-81, are not really random but deterministic. But they have a period much larger than the number of digits on the calculator so it's very unlikely you would ever notice this. It's random enough for all practical purposes. It's possible to believe that the human mind is that way too - really deterministic underneath, but free enough for human purposes.
  14. Feb 4, 2006 #13

    When I talk about determinism versus indeterminism, I mean the most basic building block in the universe, and nothing else.
    Strings, quarks, whatever is the most basic buildling block.
    What happens on the higher levels like consciousnes and awareness does not tell us that indeterminism exists, we can only look to the smallest of scales, the most basic and fundamental building block, to see that ti does.
    I would think that true chaos, true indeterminism, woukld exponentially grow throughout the system.
    Any kind of system needs to police itself, in some way, it needs to control itself to be able to keep functioning, and this in itself tells us that indeterminism cannot exist.
    You can't control a random event, it's just not possible.
    A true random event has NO cause at all.
    You can imagine this.

    A random event does not have a cause, but it does have an effect.
    If you've heard of the butterfly effect, this is kind of what I think would happen.
    Because the event itself would be uncaused by anything, but it would have severe side effects in the system, depending on what kind of effect it has.
    I sort of see the random events as a virus, or a cancer, eating tiself through the deterministic universe until there is nothing left.

    This is just my opinion though, from logic, my logic could be flawed so I urge others to tell me it is so.
  15. Feb 4, 2006 #14
    See, that is where I am at a disadvantage in this argument because I'm sort of a "late-bloomer" in the quantum physics aspect. I've read some books by Steven Hawking on his theories of the universe, and he touched on string theory and such, but I kind of missed the stuff leading up to the theory. So I'm kind of playing catch-up in that aspect of your argument.

    Maybe I don't share your view of the butterfly effect. As it was first proposed in relation to the weather, it suggests that even a butterfly flapping its wings could alter weather patterns. Even if this is true, lets suppose that the butterfly did it of its own free-will, and it was a truely indeterministic event, why do you think that one single flap would cause the weather to grow exponentially out of control? It seems logical to me that there are other deterministic factors that would prevent this. (like water temperature, cloud cover, position of the moon, etc). Not that there is anything controlling it other than other deterministic aspects of physics. For example, when we landed on the moon, we didn't knock the moonout of its orbit, the moon isn't showing signs of slowing down, or falling towards earth, so why would allowing for indeterministic behavior to exist mean that chaos would ensue.

    Certainly, after re-reading what I wrote, if you had enough concentrated indeterministic events, you could cause chaos, but will it ever be enough to send it over the brink? We could send a nuclear bomb up and destroy the moon, which would cause chaos on a local level. Some chunks of debris could fly off to some distant galaxy, and I will give you it may even alter the future events on a distant planet. But, isn't there enough mass out there in the galaxy to eventually absorb even that event? Or do you think that it will cause the entire universe to eventually collapse?

    I don't know if any of that makes sense, but in a nutshell. I don't rule out the probability of both deterministic and indeterministic events. I know I'm trying really hard to protect the ability of free will that I think I have. It seems that you are saying that the universe is 100% deterministic, then there is a 0% chance that free-will is real. My gut tells me this is not so, and trying to convince my gut.....
  16. Feb 4, 2006 #15


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    It's really hard to consider the scientific side of these arguments without knowing what the scientific assertions are. On the other hand, the more you learn about quantum mechanics and relativity - and relativistic quantum mechanics! - the hazier the free will picture gets. It's all about interactions, and they aren't deterministic, they are sort of constrained random. That is your interaction gives a range of choices, just as a roulette wheel does, and one of those choices will happen, but you don't know which one. But this picture only happens commonly at the atomic scale. Although experiments have been done to make it happen at our scale, they are very special cases. So take it from there.

    Also check out threads on Libet's research. Your brain knows what you are going to decide before you do.
  17. Feb 4, 2006 #16
    Indeterminate Determination...

    RVBUCKEYE, It just happens that I have an original TI-81 calculator. :biggrin:

    Try this experiment:

    I. Remove the lithium memory battery from your calculator. (CR1616 or CR1620)

    II. With the remaining 4 AAA batteries, turn the calculator on, then remove the far right AAA battery, wait a moment, then replace the battery, press the 'on' key then '2nd+up arrow' to contrast the display. The display should say 'mem cleared' (memory cleared).

    III. Now press the 'math' key then 'left arrow' key to highlight 'PRB' (probability) on the display, then press either the '1' key or the 'enter' key and the math term 'Rand' should appear on the screen. 'Rand' is short for the random function, basicly the calculators 'indeterminate probability' or 'free will'.

    IV. Now if a calculator has the ability of indeterminate probability or 'free will', pressing the 'enter' key four times in a row should never display the same four random numbers, indicated on the display here: (listed here to only 4 decimal places)


    Now, repeating steps II to IV what does the display indicate?

    The calculator will display the same set of four numbers, meaning that there is no real calculational 'random function', any calculators 'indeterminate probabilities' are ALL pre-determined (determinate) from a list of numbers hard encoded on that calculators microchip, a ROM.

    Therefore, a perfect calculator is not capable of indeterminism (free will), or any other computer for that matter because they always follow a set of pre-determined instructions.

    Last edited: Feb 4, 2006
  18. Feb 5, 2006 #17
    I'm not ruling it out strictly, I'm just saying, in a system where indeterminism is possible, it seems to me that it would spin out of control, because by definition indeterministic events ARE out of control.

    Also, I'm saying the exact opposite; free will is only possible in a deterministic universe.
    I explained part of it in an earlier post, but, determinism doesn't interfere with the higher consciousness, it lets it live and do as it pleases; consciousness is an emergent property of the physical properties.
  19. Feb 5, 2006 #18
    I dont believe it is free choice, because the programmer does know what the outcome will be, it will be whatever the user decides to put into the calculator to get an outcome following the rules set for it by the programmer.
    I have a TI-80, so hah!
  20. Feb 5, 2006 #19


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    A way around this would be if the programmer seeded the random number generator with a timed event, such as number of cycles elapsed from powerup until you press the Random button.

    It's still not truly random though. If you take the exact same amount of time in two seperate trial runs, you should get the same answer.
  21. Feb 5, 2006 #20


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Many (pseudo)random number generating algorithms take a "seed", a starting number that you feed into them to determine what numbers they will return. If you use the same seed two times in a row you will get the same sequence of "random" numbers. Many software programs using such a generator will get the seed from the last few digits of the clock time (so, some current number of milliseconds since the last second tick). This pretty much guarantees you won't get duplicate sequances iin the same invocation of the program. Does the calculator even have a clock?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook