The frog, the finger, and free will

If the first thing you do in the morning is eat a live frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you.

Mark Twain

When you go after hard problems like free will, sooner or later you’ll have to swallow something nasty. The worst thing you will have to swallow here today is this: Our current thinking is butt-sprung. Soggy. Tawdry and out of shape. We think like gravity-weary terrestrials, and believe the sun rises and sets in the six-inches between our ears. Swallow that frog right now, and the rest will be a breeze.

In other words, thinking like a terrestrial cannot answer the question of whether or not there is free will. It’s like inviting turkeys to plan your Thanksgiving Day meal – you will always eat ham. The garnish may vary, but not the main course. It will always be full of pork.

While the establishment may be split on the question of free will – some in the camps around DETERMINISM, others around the contrarian view of INDETERMINISM – these solutions are both grounded in linear, terrestrial thinking. As an example, let’s look at the landmark 1964 experiment that fueled the campfire of determinism for decades.

Two German scientists, Hans Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke, did not favor the idea of the brain as a passive instrument. They believed our six-inches of cognitive girth did much more than merely react to external stimulus it is given – it also has the ability to act wholly independent of sensory input from outside sources. To test their belief, they devised a groundbreaking experiment.

Every day for several months, participants in their study sat in an isolated booth and were instructed to flex one finger on their right hand, at times of their own choosing. In order to measure brain activity, participants were outfitted with an electrode cap that captured these electrical signals. Because there was no known method, in 1964, to directly link brain activity to initiation of a physical action, the scientists had to get creative.

What Hans and Lüder did was to record their subject’s brain activity on tape, run the tape backwards, and then use a technique called REVERSE AVERAGING to correlate these signals and the fingers they had on film. Using this method, they were able to see all the brain’s activity leading up to the moment of decision and movement. Ironically, the unintended results would give this finger to free will for decades.

What the scientists saw was clear brain activity prior to the actual decision to move a finger. This suggested the brain readies itself for a decision – and likely even made the decision – before it is consciously rendered by the subject. In the five-plus decades that followed, this and subsequent experiments would find itself at the heart of the free will debate and was used as proof that, indeed, there was no free will.

Tch, tch, tch … terrestrial thinking.

You see, terrestrials believe their Timex is actually time. That its linear passage – from past to present to future – is the way existence works. While this is the way we have been trained to think – in terms of the direction of time’s arrow – reality doesn’t work in this way at all. In fact, the only equations in physics that care about the direction of time are those involving thermal energy – heat. No other equations in physics give a rat’s rear. The arrow of time can go forward or backward, and outcome remains the same.

decision flow

In terms of the 1964 experiment and the question of free will, the bidirectional arrow of time in existence is crucial. For instance, if I am a gravity-weary terrestrial, I look at the flow of activity and action like this graphic. In a linear, Timex-like fashion. There is an input from my current surroundings, which is received by my senses, then processed by my brain, and then results in a decision and action. It must all work just like my watch.

If this is the way we think, then Hans and Lüder’s results tell us the brain fires a signal to move a finger long before the subject is even aware of a decision. Before they actually make a choice. All hail determinism.

But what if this linear flow is a deception? A six-inch long lie that is meant to keep my brain from catching fire – or send me screaming to the water closet – every time I open my eyes?

While no one can answer for your screams except you, there is an answer for the rest of it: It’s a crock. Thinking like a Timex is a terrestrial digestive-aid so you don’t lose your lunch on the subway. Or the park. Or any time you open your eyes. Time, as we think of it, is merely an abstraction of reality.

In other words, existence doesn’t work this way at its deepest and most profound levels. In fact, after a certain depth, existence behaves much more like a time-less séance than any clockwork of science. As it turns out, linearity is good for telling a story, but it is no way to run a universe.

The best way to illustrate these esoteric inner workings will take some ‘TIME’, but is worth the investment.

The DOUBLE-SLIT EXPERIMENT, first done by Thomas Young in 1801, provides a solid means to escape some of the confinements of terrestrial thinking.

Young, a British polymath (jack of many trades), wanted to know whether light was a particle (a chunk of matter located in time and space) or a wave (not localized to a single position). As you can see, it’s a pretty simple test. And quite brilliant, actually.

You put a flashlight in front of a couple slits, then add a photographic screen, then turn it on and see what you see. What Young saw is known as the classic interference pattern, and it proved that light was a wave. It had traveled though both slits, bounced off and interfered with itself on the other side, and produced a diffused pattern on the photographic screen.

If light had been a particle, there would have been dots, like bullet holes, in two vertical stripes on the photographic screen. The particles of light would have gone through either the right or left slot, then smashed into the right or left part of the screen.

Fast forward to 1927. It was a Tuesday when Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer changed out the flashlight in Young’s original experiment for better hardware – an electron beam gun. This gizmo fired one electron on a time – a stream of single electrons – downrange. This setup was exactly what Davisson and Germer were after, as their original intent was to test the surface area of nickel.

However, when they ran the experiment, they noticed something was wrong. On their photographic screen was a diffused pattern – the classic interference pattern – instead of two vertical groups of bullet holes. Meaning that the electron wasn’t behaving like a particle at all, but like a wave. Meaning that it must have gone through both slits at the same time, interfered with itself on the other side, then splattered itself all over the screen. Played with itself after the slits, so to speak, and was caught on camera doing so. Literally, an actual camera. A photographic plate.

This was a very strange result. Since cat-scans hadn’t been invented yet, Davisson and Germer opted to look at the slits instead. They put detectors in front of them – AKA an observer – to measure slit traffic. The result of this experiment is shown below.

When the result was verified, it was shattering. It proved the 1924 hypothesis of wave-particle duality, and ushered in a new reality of quantum physics.

In simple terms, wave-particle duality describes a fundamental, yet mystical, property of matter that allows it to behave both like a wave and a particle – until that magic moment of observation. Once observed, the particle must then localize – collapse its surrounding cloud of probability – and choose a place to exist as a particle.

In the case of the Davisson and Germer experiment, once they observed the electron it was forced to pick a slit. Localize right or localize left, and then smash into the corresponding area of the screen. In other words, until they looked for it, the particle really wasn’t anywhere. It was a wave-function, just like any other wave in the ocean. Non-localized – existing across many places at once.

How spooky is this – how much like séance has our science become? Without a conscious observation, matter would seem to exist in a quasi-real state – no fixed position, no fixed speed, no fixed properties. The implications bend the terrestrial mind: Reality must have an observer to make reality real. And the rabbit hole doesn’t stop there.

Fast forward to 1978 and the crème de la crème of quantum weirdness. John Wheeler, a highly regarded theoretical physicist, proposes a somewhat radical change to the double-slit: Move the observation to after the slits, and see if the electron’s choice in the past was reflective of its future.

This experiment is known as the delayed-choice experiment, and wasn’t carried out until many years after Wheeler first proposed it.

The actual experiment was much more complicated than shown here, but its result is the crucial point: The electron appeared to know it was going to need a slit – that it was going to be observed. It collapsed its probability cloud in the past, so that it could comply with a future that hadn’t happened yet.

This is a real mind-smack.

Either the future is somehow informing the past, or the elements of time we know and love and live by – past, present, future – are simply tricks of the mind. They do not really exist.

Whichever is the case, can we still trust our six-inches of cognition if it thinks like a Timex, and existence can’t – or won’t – tell time? How do we know, if we can only speculate like a Timex-loving terrestrial, that these are even the right questions?

And the right questions are hugely important. If you find yourself surrounded by answers, you should probably start asking better questions. We all should be asking better and better questions until there isn’t an answer, and then chase that thread with everything we have. We’ll always end up in a more interesting place than we started.

In terms of free will, based on the data from existence just covered, I don’t think we are asking the right question.

The right question isn’t whether or not we have free will. This question is a dodge of mind. It’s a question that leaves an unsatisfying answer on either side. An answer that can’t be seen in the light, or touched by hands, or identified in actual existence. In other words, it can’t be directly observed by the conscious observer. And, apparently, a conscious observer must be present in order for reality to take shape.

So the real question of free will might just be this: Do we choose what we observe? Do we have observational free will?

Or, from a deterministic view, are we predestined to simply observe only that which must be seen? A particular duality and superposition that must to be collapsed, at a particular time, in a particular light, in order to bring about a predetermined reality? Does a deterministic viewpoint even make sense anymore, in the light of double-slits, or is it just a diaper load?

And this is what good questions are intended to do – shine light on clean thinking and dirty diapers.

Can you see it now, this problem of free will, through non-terrestrial eyes?

No phenomenon is a physical phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.

John Wheeler

In my mind, the séance of quantum physics repeatedly demonstrates that observation collapses – manifests – the reality we enjoy. In this reality, in the reality of John Wheeler, isn’t observation the only free will that actually matters?

Without terrestrial eyes, what do you see, now?

A final thought which, if we can trust the slits, might just be the real revelation of free will: If observation collapses probability into reality, and this collapse brings about the reality we see and swill and sit on each day, and we have the freedom to observe anything we please, then isn’t EVERYTHING free will?

And that’s a frog of a different color. Maybe tomorrow, for breakfast.

2 thoughts on “The frog, the finger, and free will”

  1. What a fascinating inquiry into the mystery of choice…really, into the fabric of all we know as truth and reality. I feel this is one syrupy step into the hard question of consciousness, ripe with signposts pointing towards the universal patterns of our experience.

    Never did put a frog on the breakfast menu, but now it doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

  2. It is a fun creatively written piece. Tying the first empirical experiment with the double-slit experiment of quantum physics is intriguing.


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