I will do a longer, more rigorous piece on free will and what I think is important in that perennial debate from the perspective of the TAME framework, but meanwhile, here’s a short dialog written by GPT-4 (with very minor tweaks from me) to highlight a point I will develop later. The emphasis of determinism on causal stories leading up to an event (explaining backwards), and on predicting the behavior of systems one is presented with (projecting forwards from an already existing system prepared by someone else), neglects the most interesting and important thing: the effects that such a frame have on creativity and generation of novelty.
You are a software engineer manager, seeking to hire a coder for your new startup. You want an energetic candidate who will write new code to advance the company mission. You are interviewing a candidate who just read one of those books which say that there is no free will because a complete physical causal chain exists for any event. This candidate extends that view to programming, because he realized that whatever a computer does can also be described by the laws of physics and the microscopic interactions between electrons in the circuitry. Please write a dialog between them – how would the interview go?
Interview Room, Startup HQ
Manager: Good afternoon! Let’s jump right in. Can you tell me about your coding experience?
Candidate: Sure, but before we start, I just want to make it clear: I’ve recently read Robert Sapolsky’s book, and I’ve concluded that free will is just an illusion. Everything, including the actions of a computer, is predetermined by the laws of physics and can be explained by prior influences. So, really, all I’ve done is be a pawn in the universe’s grand game.
Manager: (raising an eyebrow) Alright… that’s… unique. But here we’re looking for someone to develop innovative algorithms to move our mission forward, not explain what already happened. Do you think you can work on creating new code?
Candidate: Well, I believe that’s a misconception. New code? It’s all just electrons moving about, determined by the laws of physics. “Algorithms” are a fiction; the activity of the computer is completely prescribed by the causal chain of physical events governing electron motions, so it makes no sense to speak of an Algorithm like some magical kind of Free Will that makes things happen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. There is no room for any Algorithm over and above the rules of physics in the chips.
Manager: So how do you approach the innovation of ideas and the creative process?
Candidate: Well, everything was more or less decided at the time of the Big Bang (modulo some quantum randomness which we also have no control over), so I eagerly await to see how the universe evolves and what happens next. What I know for sure is that there is a set of laws that can be used to trace back any computer’s state to the particle forces that caused it, as far back as it will go. No need to, as Sapolsky says, “focus on the last 3 minutes of the movie” by asking what this fictional algorithm was doing at a given time – we can trace it all backwards using physics, no room for magical interventions.
Manager: Okay… Last question. If you were faced with a tough coding challenge for creating something new – how would you approach it?
Candidate: I’d let the universe do its thing. Trust the process, you know? Maybe meditate, drink some coffee, or stare at the screen till the electrons in my brain decide on a solution. But honestly, I’ve had some cosmic revelations at the oddest times – like in the shower or while binge-watching cat videos.
Manager: Alright, thank you for this enlightening interview. We’ll be in touch, if the universe wills it.
Candidate: Ok, but I really want this job. What can I do to improve my chances?