Sunday, May 20, 2007

Free will and neuroscience: More on the flies that think

Recently, I reported on an experiement with fruit flies that showed that the flies are not robotic, but can engage in spontaneous behavior.

In a recent Daily Telegraph article, Roger Highfield explains:

"The point here is that the people claiming that free will doesn't exist say that one day we will be able to show exactly why a murderer must necessarily have acted the way he did by looking closely at his brain. We can show that you cannot even do this in fly brains, as a matter of principle."

That's the key, of course. It is a matter of principle (actually, fact) that flies do not behave like robots.
These results caught computer scientist and lead author Alexander Maye from the University of Hamburg by surprise: "I would have never guessed that simple flies who otherwise keep bouncing off the same window have the capacity for nonrandom spontaneity if given the chance."

Great fly graphics too.

I am not sure - as I said earlier - that the researchers have discovered in flies what humans mean by free will. They have discovered something that natural philosophers have always known: Life forms, even simple ones, are not like machines.

Life forms pursue goals generated from within themselves. The difference between your computer and the fly buzzing around your computer is not merely that the fly is vastly more complex than your computer.

A much more important difference is that the fly does not need you to tell it how to be a fly. Your computer, by contrast, has no internal motives or goals and will do nothing you don't ask for (or that someone somewhere in the software industry didn't ask for), except by accident.

The researchers had expected to find that flies behaved like computers (with natural selection presumably playing the role of the software engineer), but they did not.

Contrary to the hopes of the artificial intelligence (AI) crowd, making the computer more complex would probably not give it what the fly has naturally. The fly's autonomy (or spontanaeity, as the researchers called it) is an aspect of life, as opposed to mechanism, that we do not yet understand. I am sure it is understandable in principle, but continued adherence to materialism makes it unlikely that we will understand any time soon.

In that context, the articles I have seen on this subject so far close with the fond hope that this discovery will enable us to build robots that have an inner sense of purpose and provide a (mechanical) fix for people with mental problems that inhibit spontaneity. Sigh.

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