Intelligence, the Brain, and Free Will

Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole

Recently I finished an initial study of the book The Mind and the Brain, for a story I am working on. The book is an impressive review of neuroscience, especially of the last ten years in which investigators have pushed deeply into the area of how "plastic" the brain is. By "plastic" is meant the ability of the brain to respond physically to external and internal stimuli by making new neuronal connections, changing the location of entire functional areas, creating new growth, and overcoming psychotic behavior that has responded poorly to pharmaceutical and behavioral treatments.

Many previous generations of science based thinking will probably be washed out, considering that the implications of these research findings are enormous to fields as diverse as learning, brain rehabilitation after trauma, psychotherapy, and even philosophy.

I welcomed a lot of the findings in that they are supportive of many of my own views about the brain and mind. However, since I suspect that my own brain is two sizes too small, indicated by my inability to have a photographic memory, or sometimes even have any memory at all, my opinions are probably of little consequence except to hold together my own meager thoughts.

Several areas of interest to me, neuroscience, freewill, intelligence, psychology, theoretical physics (quantum physics), learning, and philosophy are informed by the book.

The writers, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley, took a few pages to explore the implications for freewill as it might be influenced through the mechanism of quantum mechanics. I found the idea less than convincing in two areas. The first is in the capability of quantum communications - something in which I would like to believe... but remain unconvinced. The second is in the nature of what constitutes free will.

The idea of the ability of quantum communications to stimulate the brain involves several theories. These theories have various interpretations, and opinions vary as to whether these theories have been "proven." These theories follow in sequence from the observation that photons (discrete quantities of light energy) and other microscopic entities have the characteristic of being measured as both a particle and a wave, simultaneously, leaving open the question of what these subatomic entities are.

We have no metaphors in the macroscopic world of daily life to help us visualize and understand something of this order (other than the similarity between water waves and droplets; and electrical and magnetic fields). Can a tiny unit of energy be in two places at once? "Things" of this size with unusual characteristics are explored in the realm of "quantum" physics, which seems to be a very strange place.

1. Quantum: a. The smallest amount of a physical quantity that can exist independently, especially a discrete quantity of electromagnetic radiation. b. This amount of energy regarded as a unit.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved. One speculation of some regarding quantum physics.

One seriously entertained question is whether subatomic entities actually exist as a particle (are local) before they are measured. Does the act of measuring make them exhibit the characteristic being measured? Can you view something without changing it? Does the mechanism of measuring light (photons) determine the trait that will be exhibited? Opinions vary.1

The Schrodinger Wave Function is a mathematical formula that describes the probability that a trait of a specific subatomic entity will have a particular value, and at what point in the wave travel. It has proven accurate during experimentation. One interpretation of the Schrodinger Wave Function is that a subatomic entity, such as an electron, actually exists in a "cloud" until the influence of measuring, forces the "wave function to collapse," giving the electron a physical actuality (localized), and only then does the electron exhibit measurable characteristics. Does this really happen, or is the "cloud" just a metaphor for all possible positions and all possible traits, and the interference of measuring simply exposes the position and traits? Opinions vary.

When particles collide, or are simultaneously generated, the resulting "spins" of each particle are mathematically predictable by a matching order of magnitude. These particles, or field states, are considered "entangled." Out of this came the theory that what happens to one particle happens to the other, as if they are in instantaneous communication. This spin holds true even if the particles are so far apart that even such distance that can't be overcome by the speed of light, is not an obstacle to instantaneous communications. Experiments to show proof of this theory are perhaps five years out (from 2001), however entanglement has been used in successful basic teleportation experiments.2

From these theories come the idea of "thought experiments" in which the observer actually determines the traits that will be revealed through his own consciousness. And then, quantum communications is thought possibly to occur with the mind through ions.

Perhaps this is all too much for my two sizes too small brain to conceive of, but it seems to me in this evolving hierarchy of theories that one supposition follows another in rather large leaps, none of which have been proved by science - in reality, nothing more may be going on than could be described by classical physics and mathematics. (What I would want to see is that in fact, after particles are entangled, then when you change the spin of one particle, the spin of the other changes. Perhaps this experiment has already been done - I would like to know.)

The other area that I find less than convincing about the author's concept of freewill is the approach taken to understanding what freewill is. I believe that people have freewill, at least those with a developed mind (developed: those who are aware of meaningful choices and are capable of evaluating them). Implicit in the idea of freewill is the notion that we have choices of behavior. Philosophy and science have typically looked for a deterministic cause of behavior. Cause is the opposite of choice.

Moving the determinants of behavior into the realm of the quanta does nothing to demonstrate the notion of freewill. This direction just looks for another "cause." The cause simply becomes smaller and more obscure, giving the illusion of freewill, while maintaining the idea of determinism.

I don't believe that the mechanism of freewill is found in synapses or the microcosmic. I do believe that it is found in experiences, influences, and systems approaches to understanding. A metaphor would be, in a system at equilibrium, the amount of energy required above entropy to do work. In the mind, of a hundred small influences, none will have the critical amount of energy (persuasion) needed to influence the brain.

As an illustration, if a person has to make a decision, but in weighing the factors finds that none have more value, the person may be indecisive. The choice is not made for him by some cause. Until he finds some factor to influence him, perhaps just the flip of a coin, he remains at equilibrium. He may also be inspired to check further into the infinitesimal "tickle," but not make a decision to act based on that inadequate influence. I believe that there are typically no microcosmic causes of behavior - perhaps it can happen, but this doesn't describe the way that people typically make decisions.

There are other powerful determinants. Experience weighs in through emotion-laden memories. Emotion has a major influence on behavior, but it can be just an influence, not a cause. (Note that the behavior of more people is influenced by emotion than those more inclined to rational decision making processes.) When the person evaluates which has more value, he has a choice to make. A way of conduct may include such emotional factors as public acceptance, and factors like guiding principles associated with desired behaviors, or meaningful behaviors, and consequences of behaviors. He may allow himself to follow habit, desirable behaviors, modeled behaviors, meaningful behaviors, or socially unacceptable behaviors. He may arrive at his conclusion by emotion, by a process of logic and consideration, by instinct (often regarded as experience), by an inner guide, or by an external influence such as coercion.

I have stated in previous articles that the more mature mind is more likely to evaluate its own influences and conduct and make informed and considered choices, while the immature mind is less likely to consider choices, reacting more out of emotion, and is more deterministic in nature. The mind has to be trained through guidance or experience in the idea that there are more worthy values, and it can make considered choices.

Overall, a person has choices of what is relevant to him regarding what he wants to become, and what is meaningful. Some decisions are torturously difficult and result from a lengthy weighing of many factors. Both experience and ideas influence what these decisions involve. A choice to evaluate experience and as a result change one's own behavior, or to select one direction or another to go in, is perhaps the greatest influence over future behavior.

To its credit, the book, The Mind And The Brain, clearly shows that people can make choices about their behavior that profoundly influence not only what they do, but their future thought patterns and the actual structure of their brain - what they actually become, mentally, physically (neuron connections and size), and as a result of their actions as a responsible person.

Trying to find infinitesimal causes of behavior oversimplifies the nature of the decision making process. However, if the authors were trying to find a communications mechanism that would illuminate a possible pathway that would explain observable and scientifically proven phenomenon that transcends (reaches what is outside of) the person's brain, such as accurate information gained through clairvoyance, or a spiritual connection that brings to mind knowledge existing in the person's mind, then I think they have a noteworthy quest. Read this book - it is incredible.

Update: I said in the above article that I would like to see some proof of entanglement (the implication that one quantum particle affects another at a distance), not just that experimental observation fixes the state. Scientists are somewhat closer in experiments on entanglement, having "entangled" up to 6 ions at a time for up to 150 microseconds. Interesting "stuff."


- Scott


1. One illustration of how quantum scientific theory can be incorrectly supported by unchallenged experimental methodology is in the following thesis. The challenge in this paper is itself a theory like the theory it critiques, but is a noteworthy critical approach. Introduction to the Quantum Zeno Effect, Chapter 2.

2. Teleportation is one very interesting demonstrated effect using particle entanglement: Quantum Teleportation

3. Freewill. An article about freewill on this Web site.

4. An article exploring the differences between a true "causal" device (the computer - artificial intelligence) and the human mind. The Human Condition, Computer VS Human.

5. Computer Relationship Systems Discourse on what it would take for a computer to really understand a word, in What's In A Word Part III

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