June 16, 2006

Free Will and Quantum Mechanics

photo © Christof Wittwer for openphoto.net

I have a question.

What is the difference between a random action that is uncaused and one that comes as a result of free will?

Science is a method, not a position speculates that they may be one and the same.
"They .... say that quantum indeterminacy is essentially random, not meaningful. But what if this is wrong? What if consciousness itself can influence the collapse of the quantum waveform, in a desired direction. This would provide the mechanism for consciousness to act within the world."
This is a weird concept for sure. I interpret it a little differently. If we are the product of quantum randomness, then we ARE quantum randomness. I don't know why we have to drag in the word consciousness to influence our decision-making on a pico (smaller than nano) scale. Consciousness, in my opinion, is an interpretation of a collection of interconnected events -- it does not describe the singular points that create the network. Still, calling us a bunch of collapsable quantum waveforms is a fun idea that preserves free will in a world of fixed causation. I'll bite the hook.

SiaMnaP also "cites" that neuron firing is indeterminate and probabilistic, meaning that the summation of the stimuli needed to trigger an action potential down the axon could vary. The process of stimulation and inhibition on the dendrites of the neuron could be the result of quantum tinkering by acting on ions and neurotransmitters!
Because the firing of a single neuron can be amplified through thousands or millions of other neurons throughout large areas of the the brain, and trigger motor neurons, this gives the possibility for individual quantum events to determine gross motor behaviors (shall I give the possible example of neurons controlling muscles in fingers typing a blog entry?). To a large degree, the brain can be seen as a device for magnifying the effects of quantum indeterminancy to the macro-scale, and if those quantum fluctuations are somehow influenced by consciousness, they can use them to drive behavior.
This is wacky stuff! I don't think that the butterfly effect applies in the case of "a single neuron fired can be amplify through thousands or millions of other neurons." I don't think that the butterfly effect applies much in the classical example either. Most of the time, these miniscule events are dampened by other forces. Tossing a pebble in a lake doesn't create a tsunami on the other side. Friction dampens the wave eventually. Neurons have more than one connection and it takes multiple, near-simultaneous firings to activate or inhibit the neuron they are linked to. Of course, some of the time, these tiny forces coagulate into something significant. Poised on the brink of a probabilistic hill, a ball has an equal chance of rolling in any direction. Any nudge will send it sailing on its way. If nothing nudges it, then it will remain static forever... but maybe, just maybe, quantum butterflies flutterby.

Saying that flutterbys happen on a constant basis, acting as the vehicle of free will is just wacky. It would help if SiaMnaP had a better citation for the indeterminacy of neuron firing. The link is questionable, dredged from the back alleys of some University of Edinburgh site. I would have liked a link to something with more substance (and further citations) that uses the search words quantum, probabilistic and neuron. Hey, Google Scholar's first link has something like that! It is from the Royal Society of London, 1986. Further delving reveals a more recent article by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 1992. Here's the abstract:
"The relationship of brain activity to conscious intentions is considered on the basis of the functional microstructure of the cerebral cortex. Each incoming nerve impulse causes the emission of transmitter molecules by the process of exocytosis. Since exocytosis is a quantal phenomenon of the presynaptic vesicular grid with a probability much less than 1, we present a quantum mechanical model for it based on a tunneling process of the trigger mechanism. Consciousness manifests itself in mental intentions. The consequent voluntary actions become effective by momentary increases of the probability of vesicular emission in the thousands of synapses on each pyramidal cell by quantal selection."
The outer layer of our brains, the 1 mm thick cerebral cortex, is responsible for perception, information integration, reasoning and directing voluntary behavior. I agree, these are the key aspects of free will. To say that fancy mathematics show that the likelihood of releasing synaptic vesicles increases by "quantal selection" sounds suspiciously like circuitous logic.

What is increasing the probability of neurotransmitter release? Massive (relatively) physiochemical reactions or teeny quantal selective events? In most cases, electrical impulses travelling down the axon tell the neuron to release its neurotransmitters as a result of simple cause-and-effect. When exocytosis is unlinked to this mechanism, we ask ourselves... what initiated this?

What is the initiating event for decision-making in our heads? It is cool to think that it is an aggregation of quantum activity that takes off as massive butterfly effects in our heads. I don't think that this necessarily implicates the additional driving meta-physical force of consciousness, nor does it happen continually. Every so often, metaphorical dominoes are dumped out onto a table and a few of them align, waiting for the quantum flutterby. This is the exception, not the rule.

I will tackle the subject of initiating free will tomorrow.

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