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Free Will

Some systems consist of multiple layers.


On one level, a computer is just a system of “on” or “off” switches and a deterministic system to toggle then. If A is on and B is off then C will turn on. That kinda thing. The most obedient and predictable system of semaphores ever created.

On another layer, many steps up, you can play Super Mario Bros or read fanfic or calculate equations or use cubic interpolation on images.

Network protocols

On one layer systems can connect to each other using IP addresses. On layer up they can send information losslessly through TCP. Then they can connect to particular port and send and receive information using HTTPS. And on top of that you can see images or video or read the news.


In a lit room full of interesting objects, light waves bounce off everything and the bouncing can be different for different wavelengths. In eyes, there are cells that can detect different wavelengths (and different amounts), with the help of the neurocircuitry in the brain translate that to color, and use that to create a visual representation of what’s in the room. Pigments of paint, or varieties of led lights in a computer screen, can also reflect or even emit light of similar wavelengths and frequencies, making it possible to look at a photograph of a particular room and recognize it.

On the one hand, something is “just” a piece of paper with ink pigments that make the wild waves of light bounce at specific speeds and amounts. On the other, we can recognize that paper as a comic book page and see the characters and read their words.

Building blocks

With all those systems, we’ve made building blocks out of building blocks out of building blocks. We’ve defined a range of wavelengths as the color “red”, created multiple ways of producing those wavelengths, and can use it to tell Mario from Luigi on the screen or Superman from Mon-El on the printed page.

Sometimes what’s going on in the intermediate layers are pure scaffolding for layers above or below. The Mario game works by sprites, tiles, palettes and pixels.

Thought and Emotion

On a material layer, humans have some signaling systems both electrical (neurons firing or not firing, depending on how many signals they receive) and chemical, from hormones and other signal substances.

On another layer, some steps up, we can have the thought “I don’t feel like omelet for lunch today” or “The first thing we’ll do when we get there is visit the horses”; complete with internal imagery, sense memory of omelet or of the grass field between the bus parking lot and the horse paddock and the scent of November.

The Separation of Layers

What I am trying to instill here is some sense of independence between the layers, at least in the layers as defined by our meaningful interaction with them. We don’t use a hand magnet to flip bits on a digital camera’s memory to create a megapixel photo. Instead we aim the viewfinder and press a button.

This isn’t literally magic, but… It’s an exhilarating thing. Making an app by combining libraries without a thought of the original bootstrapping compiler of the language of the operating system of the editor where those libraries were written, across seas and streams.

Free Will, Then

It’s been argued that the lowest layers of these systems are deterministic. That there is no true random. That given a specific set of inputs and circumstances there is only one result.

It has also been argued that logically, this means that upper layers are just as deterministic. The button presses on your Mario game are just a byte of ons and offs. A falling die, by this reasoning, can only land in one way, based on winds and momentum and velocities and angles in the room, hand and table.

Do decisions exist? Choices at any point on the road, not just at forks. I can keep writing this text or I can stop. Do ideas, invention, creative thought exist? Can there be “eureka moments” of coming up with a new connection or insight? Do moral deliberation and agony exist, such as if my friend tells me a terrible secret, what do I do?

On the layer where those terms are used, they do. Choices, options, dilemmas, decisions do exist as meaningful constructs on that level. Just like the word “word” is a meaningful construct when editing an English text. Ultimately, do words “exist”, or are they just ink stains on a typewriter’s paper?

Sometimes, when faced with a problem, it’s helpful to go to one of the layers below or above. (Try it, it’s a great tool!) Other times, the most straightforward solution is with the tools on the layer you are on.

Hey, am I dodging the question? I’m not really getting around the notion of the upper layers being just as deterministic as the lower ones. Pointlessly laying out the cards for a game of solitaire when the answer is already carved in granite by God when the deck was “shuffled” (i.e. meaninglessly fiddled with, in the reductionist mindset) and the decisions on which cards to made were already preset by my brain’s current state and ability (influenced by sleep, food, microbiome, light, noise).

On the layer where concepts such as “card” (as opposed to “clump of atoms”) or “game rules” (as opposed to “state of neurons”) are wielded, a game of solitaire can be interesting.

The Threat from Holism

If trying to approach problems from lower levels is reductionism, holism can be just as problematic for free will.

Setting aside all the atoms and quarks, if some people in a house discuss a dilemma and come jo with a plan of action and then an unknown avalance mauls them before they could actually do it, did they have free will?


Be careful to not misapply stuff from other layers to your current layer. You have a responsibility to make decisions and act on those decisions. If that only applies to the layer where the semantics of the word “decision” exist, then that “only relevant on this layer”-ness goes both ways.

The determinism of lower levels and the fatalism of upper levels can’t touch “decisions”, “choices” — because they can’t meaningfully use those semes without imbuing them!

“I might as well rob a bank because I’m just a preprogrammed heap of atoms and the universe’s heat death is unavoidable”—no! This is not a legit conclusion since there is no “might” or “may” or “decide to” on the deterministic lower layers. In the land of “maybe”, “maybe” does work.

Then sure, it might be argued that the layer as a whole, when viewed from outside, is a deterministic black box, it could only go one way. Those inputs could only ever create those outputs, but inside the layer, the process were described and interacted with as if there were decisions. Make those decisions responsibly.

Teapot Post Script for Logical Nitpickers

Skip this post script if you are not a philosophy nerd.

Just now, I wrote:

The determinism of lower levels and the fatalism of upper levels can’t touch “decisions”, “choices” — because they can’t meaningfully use those semes without imbuing them!

To clarify, it’s not generally true that if a signifier can be used, the referent is ontologically meaningful. Sorry, fans of Russel’s Teapot and of the ontological argument.

Just saying that if the word “decision” can be uttered and understood, decisions can be made.

I am not saying that this inherently logically follows; in other words I’m not saying “Because A, then causally B.” I am saying, though, “If no B, then there can also be no A!” (Since they operate on the same layer and by the same principles—cognitive “understanding” operate on the same layer [for a broadly enough drawn layer] as conscious “decision-making”.)

Yes, that does leave it open for deterministic reductionism to argue for the case that it follows that the word “decision” cannot be uttered and cannot be understood—that indeed no word can be understood. They do have a logical tight, case for that. But if so, they may just as well STFU instead of making statements that, by their own jure, inherently can never be heard and understood, not even by themselves.

Even more post script

Funny how the same peeps who argue that “since the bottom layer is deterministic, the layers above also need to be deterministic” have no problems grokking that even though weather is chaotic, climate can have patterns.