“Wow! It’s basically like I was on autopilot before. After trying Super Free Will™, I finally feel truly free!”
[Moral Relevance: Low. Super Free Will is a fun and enhanced qualia state, but developing it ranks much lower on moral priorities than, say, ending involuntary suffering. This essay pairs well with “Quotes from ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ by Alan Watts”. Title artwork created by Wendi Yan (a).]
In this piece, I won’t spend time rehashing arguments that have already been made for and against the possibility of free will. Instead, my goal is to convince you that whether or not we have free will, the feeling of what it is like to have free will could be much, much better than it is today.
Have you ever woken up in the morning, opened your fridge, and started to decide what to have for breakfast when you suddenly think, ‘Gosh, it’s so frustrating that all my future actions are limited by what I consciously ideate’? Well, if you have, you’re not alone! We at Possible Qualia Inc. understand that the illusion of free will that Darwinian evolution developed in advanced primates is incredibly mediocre. That’s why we created Super Free Will™. Instead of being constrained by the few options your human brain can come up with on its own–an apple with peanut butter, avocado toast, oatmeal with cinnamon and berries–we’ve made it so that while running Super Free Will™, you will literally instantiate billions of choices in your conscious experience in the same amount of time it takes to generate the few you normally do.
These are only a handful of the billions of possible choices that Super Free Will™ generated in the scenario above. See Appendix B for more options that were generated
We know what you’re thinking: billions of choices… wouldn’t that be overwhelming? I already have trouble deciding things just the way they are. And isn’t there some psychological phenomenon called Overchoice (a)/Analysis Paralysis (a)/Decision Fatigue (a), etc. where having more choices will actually make me less satisfied and less content?
Even though a meta-analysis of 50 experiments (a) can’t really find the choice overload effect, we know you’re partially correct. Given the neural architecture that humans evolved, billions of choices a second would probably feel overwhelming. However, we’ve taken care of that and engineered our qualia so that while running Super Free Will™, you will never feel negative hedonic tone. Super Free Will™ feels just as natural as the free will qualia you are used to today, if not more natural. Don’t believe us? Just listen to what some of our customers have had to say:
“Wow! It’s basically like I was on autopilot before. After trying Super Free Will™, I finally feel truly free!”
“It really feels like I can do anything! Well, okay maybe not anything. But I’d say at least eight orders of magnitude more things than I felt like I could do before I had Super Free Will™. And boy has that been helpful!”
“I turned off my Super Free Will™ for a day, and it was devastating! It truly felt like I would always be stuck in local maxima.”
“This might be harsh, but I’d like to propose an analogy: conscious agents running Super Free Will™ are to regular humans as regular humans are to fruit flies.”
At Possible Qualia Inc., we know that your best possible future is just a hop, skip, and a jump away… so long as you consistently make optimal decisions at every moment over your entire lifetime. That’s why we created Super Free Will™. As we like to put it, if you increase the size of your decision space, you increase the probability of creating an awesome future. Sure, your actions will still ultimately be controlled by randomness at the quantum level, but at least it won’t feel that way.
Try Super Free Will™ risk-free with our 30 day money-back guarantee. And we promise that cancelling your Super Free Will™ plan will always be an action that is consciously ideated at least 1,000 times each day. You probably won’t choose to execute that action, but hey, that’s what happens when you start using Super Free Will™.
The actual qualia of Super Free Will was first experienced at the start of the 22nd century. Of course, the qualia had been known in principle since the first quarter of the 21st century. The anonymous consciousness researcher G who coined the term realized through his own introspection that the feeling of what it is like to have free will is not a very complex qualia. Just like in our scenario above, G realized this while deciding what to have for breakfast one morning. He became aware of the fact that the subjective experience of free will felt something like:
Taking in basic information using sense data (in his case, seeing what ingredients he had in his fridge and smelling his almond milk to make sure it was still good to use)
Ideating some possible courses of action (dishes to make)
And finally taking some time to introspect and eventually choosing what dish to make. This included conscious visual and linguistic thoughts related to the decision making process, like remembering he already had a muffin yesterday and didn’t want to eat that again. It also included non-verbal feelings of interest and disinterest toward each choice he ideated.
Most philosophers at the time were content with the interpretation that free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of actions. If that’s all it is, then technically, this subjective experience was a very simple version of just that. However, G was also a philosopher and mathematician and had a keen interest in the ideas of Gottfried Leibniz, David Lewis, Saul Kripke, and the notion of possible worlds. G wished for a version of free will that let him choose between not just a few different courses of action, but between all possible courses of action–all actions that were logically possible and allowed for by the laws of physics.
G did realize that if either time or space were not finite, then an infinite number of possible actions and corresponding possible worlds did exist. Infinite? Sure. Imagine a certain type of world with infinite time where G is immortal (nanotechnology constantly repairs his body and health). G can choose to spend his entire existence looking at a screen that flashes a digit from 0-9, updating every second. Each sequence of digits is the decimal expansion of a real number between 0 and 1. Given that there are infinite real numbers between 0 and 1, there would be an infinite number of these worlds. However, this set of worlds is quite drab (especially those worlds corresponding to the decimal expansions of 1/9, 2/9, … 8/9), for these worlds have no fiestas, waterfalls, golden retrievers, or mangosteens.
But deep down, G didn’t believe that having the ability to choose between an infinite number of worlds was inherently valuable… a lot of those worlds were quite boring, or even worse, terrifying.
What G really wanted was to live his best possible life and enable other conscious beings to also live their best possible lives. The value he saw in Super Free Will was that it would enlarge his space of possible actions, helping him come up with choices that he wouldn’t have otherwise thought of, but which he very well might like to execute because they would make his own life and others’ lives better.
In fact, if G had to decide between:
1) Living a life with the subjective experience of Super Free Will but making sub-optimal decisions with his Super Free Will
2) Living in a deterministic universe set up so that G always chooses the best choice, but it comes with no feelings of Super Free Will and only feelings of regular free will
G would gladly choose the latter. To him, the experience of Super Free Will is an extra decoration on top of a universe of wonderful qualia, rather than the central qualia of value itself.
Now, if there is a God, the universe has already been created in a way that is maximally perfect. At least that’s what Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz thought. He proposed that if God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, and God could choose to create one thing over another, then the universe he created must be the best of all possible worlds. That’s why there is so much suffering and tragedy. Because if God created any other universe, it would somehow be worse than this one. Voltaire disagreed with this argument and lampooned Leibniz and his optimistic determinism in his novella Candide, ou l’Optimisme.
G also disagreed with Leibniz and his optimistic determinism. How could the best possible universe include cluster headaches (a1, a2)? And even if this was the best possible universe, G wasn’t promised at all that his particular conscious experience (from a closed individualist perspective) would be a great one. With the refrigerator wide open, still thinking about what to have for breakfast, G decided to take matters into his own hand. That very morning (which happened to be a Saturday morning during a warm New York summer), G took 10 extra minutes to think about some new possible courses of action that were different than what his brain usually came up with. Finally, he found his grand plan: hitchhike his way up to Maine for some fresh blueberry pancakes. G acted on this idea, and it turned out to be an extremely fun and enjoyable day. After G walked outside his apartment, he lifted up his thumb, smiled a grand, carefree smile, and caught his first ride after 12 minutes of waiting. Following that first leg of his trip, he rode with a 20-year old, sun-burnt young man who was picking grapes on a vineyard for the summer, a single widowed woman who didn’t speak much but always pointed out when cars were driving above the speed limit, and a young, splashy couple with matching tattoos on their left wrists of the skeletal formula for oxytocin. G finally made it to Ogunquit where he ordered a fat stack of blueberry pancakes, slightly crispy on the edges, bursting with warm, indigo-colored juice on each bite. His view of a rocky coastline, mid-sized pine trees, and the Atlantic ocean wasn’t bad either. In his opinion, it was much better than choosing one of the more mundane possibilities he initially came up with. And the weirdest realization that G had was that God might very well exist and G is in the best possible world, yet his awesome day only came about because he doubted God and doubted that he was in the best possible world. If God is real, G thought, then God must be a real prankster.
The phenomenal experience of Super Free Will can be described by two main features.
The first is related to the cognitive-linguistic aspect of subjective experience. With Super Free Will, the amount of informational content per subjective observer moment drastically increases.
Orders of magnitude more thought patterns are consciously realized and processed in the same amount of time a person is used to processing a few thoughts.
Super Free Will also comes with a much greater sense of being in control than regular free will. While it might be hard to imagine that that is possible, we can create an intuition for what that might feel like by considering examples that push us in the other direction.
For depressants like alcohol, increasing intoxication leads to cognitive impairment, delayed reaction and awareness, and a lack of feeling in control. In a state of drunkenness, there is a delay between sensorimotor actions you take and your awareness of those actions. It’s almost as if your conscious egoic decision-making self is a few frames behind a sloppy, perceptual reality.
Another state that comes along with a decrease in the feeling of control, albeit with a different flavor, is depersonalization disorder. Mayo Clinic describes the symptoms of depersonalization (a) as “Feelings that you’re an outside observer of your thoughts, feelings, your body or parts of your body — for example, as if you were floating in air above yourself.” That last part almost sounds poetic, but depersonalization disorder is usually not because it has a high comorbidity with depression and anxiety (a). A description that probably more accurately describes depersonalization disorder is “Feeling like a robot or that you’re not in control of your speech or movements.”
Compared to alcohol intoxication and depersonalization disorder, the feeling of Super Free Will lies in the opposite direction on this axis of feeling of control: the egoic part of your subjective experience feels ahead of your actions in a way that is much more magnified compared to sober, regular free will.
We can start by justifying the value of Super Free Will over regular free will from a functional perspective. Like I mentioned above, there are possible future actions that are more exotic and unique than what you would naturally come up with and would in fact make you happier and more fulfilled too. Even if you believe that the choices your brain normally comes up with are good enough, wouldn’t a better version of free will be one where, in the same amount of time you usually take to make decisions, you at least consider other ideas in your conscious experience before deciding against them?
This line of reasoning, however, only convinces us that Super Free Will is valuable practically. However, if your brain could do unconscious computational work and somehow always output the best possible action for you, why would the feeling itself of Super Free Will be valuable? This is harder to justify.
But maybe we should start by asking why we value the feeling of regular free will.
It’s probably because it makes us feel more in control than we truly are. I should acknowledge that one enormous downside of everyone believing that everyone else is truly free in some deep sense is that it makes punishment for the sake of retribution easier to justify, and doing so leads to punishment that is cruel, out-of-proportion, and filled with excess and unnecessary suffering. Punishment with the purpose of deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation could still be justified on consequentialist grounds, but its purpose would only be to make the future better, not to inflict pain on someone who is a product of their genes and environment.
Whatever the reason may be though, it seems like there is a general meta-preference as a conscious being to have the feeling of more control over your experience than less. People do voluntarily choose to diminish their sense of control temporarily (through drinking, for example). But they do so knowing that their sense of control will ultimately return and that they won’t experience a diminished sense of control forever.
An intense feeling of loss of control that is persistent and unchangeable is usually quite uncomfortable, like with depersonalization disorders. In a study (a) of 223 patients with depersonalization-derealization syndrome (DDS), who were outpatients at a German medical center from 2010 to 2013, almost all patients were self-referred and 97.3% (n=213) of DDS patients were interested in depersonalization/derealization specific counseling.
Acute episodes of extreme lack of control, like sleep paralysis (a) (where you wake up from sleep but are unable to move or speak) are also terrifying and panic-inducing. I can personally attest to the horrors of sleep paralysis. When I was a teenager, I practiced lucid dreaming, and it eventually caused a single sleep paralysis episode which was so scary that I gave up the lucid dreaming practice entirely.
It is quite possible that in all these examples, what people are really averse to is actually feelings of negative valence (a) that come with their feeling of loss of control and not loss of control itself. However, if we could keep valence relatively constant and offer someone the experience of more control or less control, I speculate that they would choose the former.
Would you prefer to feel like you have free will than feel like you are a marionette? If so, I presume that you would prefer the feeling of Super Free Will to the current version of free will you have now too. Some day in the future, we might be able to experience this qualia. If you’re around, you’ll just have to judge which you enjoy more for yourself.
I should preface this section by noting that the feeling of Super Free Will might not actually be possible given the natural constraints that exist for qualia in our universe. In the same way that our universe’s physics doesn’t allow for objects with mass to travel faster than the speed of light, it might not be possible to have a conscious stream of billions of thoughts in what feels like a few seconds (a). If there is a maximum amount of matter (a) that can be phenomenally bound into a unified observer moment, then there is probably an upper bound on the amount of informational content that can be included per unit of phenomenal time too.
I predict that our evolved human brains have probably not hit that informational limit though, which does make me believe that there is a degree of the feeling of free will that is much greater than what we experience now, even if it’s not on the order of 109 thoughts per few subjective seconds.
So, how might we engineer a greater feeling of free will in a conscious being? We would first need to understand where the qualia of free will comes from.
In Principia Qualia (a), Mike Johnson tries to answer the question of why we have the illusion that qualia have causal power. Update (October 31, 02020): I am quite uncertain whether qualia have causal power. This is a pretty tough problem! See: Mental Causation, Problem of mental causation, Causation in Physics He argues that:
“the brain is a complex, chaotic, coalition-based dynamic system with well-defined attractors and a high level of criticality (low activation energy needed to switch between attractors) that has an internal model of self-as-agent, yet can’t predict itself. And I think any conscious system with these dynamics will have the quale of free will, and have the phenomenological illusion that its qualia have causal power.”
If this is correct, then a greater feeling of free will may arise if the brain has many more well-defined attractors and there continues to be low activation energy needed to switch between them all.
This sounds right, and basically matches what the qualia of free will feels like subjectively. There are a few options that your conscious attention switches back and forth between until you finally choose one. The attractors for each choice don’t all have to be equally strong, but they should be well-defined so that each attractor comes along with its own distinct conscious experience / mental content.
If we did scale up the number of choices by orders of magnitude, would the time needed to make a decision increase by the same factor? Empirically, Hick’s law (a) suggests that the time it takes to make a decision grows logarithmically with the number of choices available. However, I’m skeptical that this would apply if we wanted the qualia of Super Free Will because each choice would need to take up conscious attention for at least some amount of time, meaning that time needed would grow linearly (a) with the number of choices. With a large enough brain, perhaps we can get around this problem by squeezing more information into each unit of subjective experience.
Lastly, how would choices be generated for Super Free Will such that they are as distinct as possible? After all, it wouldn’t be very useful or fun if the choices you came up with using Super Free Will were:
Computationally, we could force ideas to be as unique as possible by minimizing the semantic similarity (a) between choices (the thought vectors (a) representing the choices should be as far away from each other as possible). Forming a set of possible choices then is like a sphere-packing problem in thought-vector space!
If Super Free Will comes from being able to choose between many semantically distant ideas, it seems like your amount of free will is highly related to your divergent thinking (a) skills–how good you are at generating multiple distinct responses or solutions to a problem or prompt.
Chandra Sripada suggests that divergent possibilities contribute to the phenomenal feeling of freedom (a) too. He uses the example of a man who has been diagnosed with lung cancer and is deciding between chemotherapy or radiation treatment (treatments that work through different mechanisms, but ultimately have similar effects). He compares this cancer patient with a young man in a story by Sartre who must choose between fighting in a war and staying home with his frail mother.
“These examples illustrate that experiences of spaciousness and movement are important aspects of the phenomenology of freedom. It should be clear that these experiences are closely connected with latitude. Latitude is linked to the size of an option set; it consists of the potentialities for self-expression that are gained as one’s option set grows. Correspondingly, the difference in the respective subjective experiences of these two men just discussed arises from the difference in option set size. That is, the option set of the young man is larger because the options within it are highly divergent, and the young man’s freedom is experienced as movement back and forth within this expansive space.” [Emphasis added]
To some extent then, an increase in the ability to think divergently should contribute both to the functional aspect and subjective feeling of free will.
I don’t think anyone experiences Super Free Will today, but it seems like the most natural way to simulate it using our current version of free will would be by increasing your option space when making a choice.
Like the consciousness researcher G from above, you can simply take some extra time to come up with more possible actions before deciding what to do in a situation.
The scope of the actions you come up with will probably be directly limited by how creative you are. And even though divergent thinking is not a single process (a), it does seem like for Super Free Will, your ability to generate semantically distant words/ideas seems like the best measure of your skills here (which you can test in a few minutes using this online Divergent Association Task (a)). If you’re not too great at this, then maybe just call a friend to help you generate more ideas.
And if your friends are too busy and think you’re a weirdo because you’re trying to simulate something called Super Free Will, then probably best to consult a random word generator, random sentence generator, or random Wikipedia article to help get your brainstorming juices flowing.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until the 22nd century when Possible Qualia Inc. is in business before you can truly experience the qualia of Super Free Will. Until then, may your ideation sessions be fruitful, your decision spaces be abundant, and your best possible future filled with wondrous qualia lie ahead.
Greene, Joshua, and Jonathan Cohen. “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.” (a)
Thank you Miu Kumakura for keeping me accountable while I was writing this piece. Thank you Mom and Dad for reading it when I finished. And thank you Wendi Yan for the amazing illustrations!
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