Do all living things have free will? Or are they controlled by DNA and other forces?
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How low in complexity can you go and still have free will. Does a bacteria have free will? Do single cells have it? What do we know about agency in living systems? I collaborated with physicist and author Philip Ball, a former editor at the prestigious journal Nature. who has written extensively on this and other subjects.
What’s the difference between a living thing and one that’s not alive? Scientists don't agree. But we can say living organisms do things to suit themselves. They rearrange their surroundings for their own purposes.
Even single living cells act with agendas. Macrophages in your immune system chase a bacterium across the slide, switching course as its prey tries to escape, before finally gobbling it up.
But is this an anthropomorphic way of describing a biological process. Single cells don’t have minds of their own – so can they really have goals?
Biologists often insist that cells and bacteria aren’t trying to do anything. it all comes down to genes, chemistry and physics – no aim or design, but which fool our narrative-obsessed minds.
This is "agency" - the ability of living things to alter their environment (and themselves) with purpose, and an agenda. It might help us to understand what “free will” means. Agency supplies what genetic hard-wiring cannot. It’s not feasible to program complex living organisms for every situation they might encounter. For example, the hare is trying to escape from a wolf by being unpredictable. An organism that reacts differently in identical situations stands a better chance of outwitting predators.
The choices we humans make might be carefully deliberated: we contemplate the imagined future scenarios if we do this or that, involving our internal mental models of how the world works and of our position within it. This is what we experience as free will. But this is far from free because of the influence of memories, emotions, social conditioning, and physics.
Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell imagined a very simple scheme for how an agent could achieve a different outcome from the one the world would otherwise produce spontaneously. He imagined an ingenious demon that operates a door to sift “hot” from “cold” particles in a gas confined within a box.
The second law says this segregation of hot and cold should never happen of its own accord. But the demon does this by agency - gathering and acting information. But any real memory will eventually fill up – so the memory has to be wiped every to make room for new information. That erasure produces entropy. So all the entropy lost by separating hot from cold is recouped by clearing the demon’s memory.
Complex-systems theorist Stuart Kauffman and philosopher Philip Clayton, say we need a theory of organization. That doesn’t really exist yet.
In 2012 Susanne Still of the University of Hawaii, working with Gavin Crooks of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and others, showed that any entity with a goal – like a cell, an animal, or even a tiny demon – needs to have a memory if it is to work efficiently without wasting energy. They found that energy efficiency depends on an ability to focus only on the information that is most useful. Efficient agents are discerning ones.
You don’t necessarily need a big brain to do it, but just the right rules. Sometimes Maxwell’s demon can work best by taking a gamble on when to open and close the trapdoor, rather than responding to every individual molecule.
If we want to explain why a volcanic rock is at a particular location, we can tell a causal story in terms of simple mechanics, devoid of any goal. But if we want to explain why a bird’s nest is in a particular location, the explanation can’t be complete without invoking the bird’s purpose in building the nest. Agents are real causes of things that happen in the universe.
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