Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian: A growing chorus of scientists and philosophers argue that free will does not exist. Could they be right?
This is an interesting and profound question. Do we live in a block universe where every action we take is predetermined or are we actually capable of making choices. It certainly feels like choices are possible, but reality doesn't care about feelings and it could be the case that free will is an illusion. Unfortunately Burkeman repeatedly makes this mistake:
""For the free will sceptic," writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, "it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible." Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other – and especially the way we treat criminals – might change beyond recognition."
The presence or absence of free will is presumably a global phenomenon. If the criminal has no choice then we also have no choice in how we treat criminals. It gets worse:
"Smilansky is an advocate of what he calls "illusionism", the idea that although free will as conventionally defined is unreal, it’s crucial people go on believing otherwise – from which it follows that an article like this one might be actively dangerous."
This might be a dangerous article, but not for this reason. If there is no free will then people are going to believe what they were always going to believe. The risky proposition that could actually lead to bad consequences is that people believe that there is no free will when there actually is. Even if we prove conclusively that reality is completely deterministic then nothing changes (that wasn't always going to change that way in the first place - see my (somewhat) tongue in cheek solution to the Fermi Paradox).
So what should we believe? I think it's important to consider that we don't understand enough biology and we don't understand enough physics.
"And from the 1980s onwards, various specific neuroscientific findings have offered troubling clues that our so-called free choices might actually originate in our brains several milliseconds, or even much longer, before we’re first aware of even thinking of them."
These results are fascinating but have never troubled me. It actually takes the brain a little while to process all the data from our senses but we live in a physical reality that doesn't hang around waiting for this latency. So of course we need to respond quickly to events, often before we're aware of them. This leaves plenty of room for free will in how we train ourselves to respond. The brain simulates likely situations and how it should react to them. This could be an inevitable consequence of the big bang, or it could be that free will has a meaningful influence. I don't believe that we have enough evidence to say either way.
We don't even understand the biological basis for consciousness. It's called the hard problem for a reason. Consciousness is (presumably) expensive and it seems odd that evolution would have selected for it if it has no purpose. Of course in the block universe it's possible that this doesn't matter. It's a mistake that was always going to be made. It could be that we decode the algorithm and can run it on a computer and that if we start with the same conditions we always get the same results. Consciousness is classical and we can prove that it is deterministic. Or it could be that it hinges on quantum effects that mean we can't understand the biology without understanding the physics.
""This sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics," says one of the most strident of the free will sceptics, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne."
Maybe, but doesn't that depend on what the laws of physics actually are?
There are different interpretations of the physical basis of quantum mechanics. Is decoherence truly random? If so this might be a basis for free will. Run the same starting conditions twice and you get a different outcome. Or is the many worlds interpretation correct? In this case we potentially still live in a block universe, just an unimaginably larger one where every permutation of every decoherence event exists at the same time. Every possible version of you is out there, but each one is trapped in their own predetermined path through the multiverse.
I can't wait to see further progress in both areas. Until we know more the free will question seems impossible to answer. If we prove it's a fiction then nothing matters and nothing can be changed. Absent proof it's probably best to assume that free will exists and that this post was written because I chose to.
- Do free will skeptics make their own point by being so dumb?
- Can I move to a Better Simulation Please?
- Have we Already Proved that the Simulation Hypothesis is False?
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Kidlapse, the service I launched a little over a year ago to make timelapse movies of your child growing up, is shutting down on May 31, 2021. At that time all accounts, photos and movies will be deleted. If you use Kidlapse please make sure that you have downloaded anything you need by the end of May.
The main innovation in Kidlapse was generating a good looking movie from any photos of a person. The system used machine learning to recognize a face, and then zoom and rotate as needed so the face is in the same position in each photo. From there a timelapse movie was created with tween frames generated to cross-fade between each photo. While this was a lot easier than doing this work manually I think it was still too much time and effort for most people and so the product attracted few paying customers. It's too expensive for me to continue to run as a free service. I love the movies that the product creates, and I hope to release the underlying system as a downloadable software package at some point.
I learned a lot launching Kidlapse and I'm sad to put it in my own personal deadpool. When something isn't working though it's time to clear the space and time to launch something new. Subscribe to find out what.
(Previously: Kidlapse - Make a Movie of Your Child Growing Up)
Kidlapse - Make a Movie of Your Child Growing Up
Kidlapse is now live. This is a service I've been working on that uses machine learning to recognize faces and then rotate and zoom you so get pretty good alignment between each photo. You upload one photo per month and Kidlapse then creates a timelapse movie of your child growing up. If that sounds like something you'd be interested in sign up and give it a try.
I'm working on a project to generate a timelapse of a kid growing up. I wasn't organized enough to shoot my kids in the same pose on the same background so it's quite a tough problem. To fix this I'm using machine learning to recognize faces in photos and then automatically rotate and align them so the face is in the same place in every shot. From there it's just a matter of generating frames that fade between the different photos and stitching them together into a video. If this sounds interesting check it out at kidlapse.com and sign up to get notified when the service launches.
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Some changes to the ITHCWY coronavirus visualization page.
For reasons that I'm struggling to understand California's cap and trade system adds a discount to my energy bill.
Catfood WebCamSaver 3.24 released.
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I've just made a few changes to my daily Coronavirus Visualization post.
The daily version is now based on seven day moving averages. This helps with the rate at which different regions report statistics and makes the animation a but easier to follow. The shading is based on the difference between the average yesterday and the average for the previous day (i.e. today it's the increase from April 17 - 23 to April 18 - 24).
Population scaling is now different between the daily and cumulative versions. Daily frames are scaled to the worst recorded case and death increase for that region. Cumulative frames are scaled to the cumulative highest case and death levels, but each region is scaled by population so the highest level is on a per capita basis not an absolute total. For the US animation this uses 2019 estimates from the US Census Bureau. The global animation the figures are 2018 World Bank estimates.
Finally the frame rate for videos has increased to 24fps from 5fps.
The post Visualizing Coronavirus Cases and Deaths by Country and US County updates around 8:30am PST every day with images summarizing yesterday and videos that show the course of the pandemic so far.
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Once in a while I'm stupid enough to read my email. This month I'm getting a climate credit! Must have done something right? No:
"The California Climate Credit is part of California’s efforts to fight climate change. This credit is from a state program that requires power plants, natural gas providers, and other large industries that emit greenhouse gases to buy carbon pollution permits. The credit on your bill is your share of the payments from the State’s program."
So... apparently part of fighting climate change is making my energy bill randomly cheaper?
It's hard to think of anything less likely to help. Just as I'm starting to feel the pain of winter bills I'm paying slightly less and so I'm slightly less inclined to turn down the heating or finally do something about my beautiful but effectively absent front windows.
A problem with carbon taxation is that it's regressive. So why not use this money to make the first $xx cheaper, and maybe even charge more at the high end of usage?
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Interesting that there also seems to be a shortage on British supermarket shelves as well then.
Here's the Guardian on the shortage. So British chocolate can't be found in Europe or the UK. Where is it going? Eezy Freezy!
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And instead we get affiliate link stuffed fluff pieces?
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A deep faked me. Just needs hooking up to Teams...
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Everyone is always trying to kill email, and it's always because it's a supposed productivity villain and life will be so much easier when we can all live happily in some chat based universe. I've spent enough time in Slack and Teams and their predecessors to know that we should go back before it's too late.
Chat brings you infinite inboxes and no great way to tell which of them is important. Having looked away for a few minutes there are dozens of unread conversations. Some of them are people sharing a photo of their cat. One of them is an emergency requiring immediate attention but good luck finding it without wading through everything.
This brings me to a lack of useful state. I handle email in two quick passes - read everything (and discard anything that doesn't need further attention), deal with anything critical and then at some point go back and mop up the rest. In chat though you just blew past something that needs a response eventually and it fades from your mind as you fight the fire elsewhere. I never miss an email, I often miss a chat.
And good luck finding anything. Maybe a market leader or two will establish dominance for long enough but my experience so far has been lurching from one platform to the next, both professionally and personally, and having a hard time finding that one thing I know should be in there from the end of last year. My Gmail has emails going back to 1996, and yes that's almost a decade before Gmail existed. I can find anything.
On the subject of dominance, the real reason for all of the attempted email homicide is that it's one of the last open systems that everyone still uses. If only email would just die you'll be trapped forever in Messenger and Hangouts.
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I imagined that this was going to be a S03E01 of Red Dwarf type scenario where you get handed some notes and a few action items and then apologize for leaving early. But no, it's office hours.
""In a reverse meeting scenario, by contrast, I might take only 10 minutes from each colleague, taking up 50 minutes total of my time, and 50 minutes total of their time, for an overall demand of 100 minutes of attention, which is 3.6 times less cost," Newport writes. And voilà, he's just given your team back more than four hours of productive time a week."
Assuming that people manage to show up in perfect slots with no conflict and do so in a way that has perfect utilization for the victim and that there is no value in having someone point out that one of those 10 minute slots was full of incorrect information sending you down a two week rabbit hole that could have easily been avoided by having the right people spend some time together.
In a perfect world my ideal meeting situation is the meeting defragmenter. This involves software and cooperation unfortunately so the next best solution is out of office hours. I need focused time to get stuff done and blocking large chunks of meeting repelling time is really the only thing that works.