Quantifying Freedom: Part 1

Why Bother?

In ‘Freedom Evolves’, Daniel Dennett sets out his thesis  of how freedom has increased alongside biology up the evolutionary scale, e.g.:

  • Transition from plants to animals: Organisms can avoid catastrophic events by moving.
  • Cooperation and the benefits of altruism among agents.
  • Evolution of human culture and the role of memes (including morals).

Dennett is a Compatibilist (‘free will is compatible with determinism’) and so makes robust attacks on Libertarian (‘determinism must be broken to allow free will’) notions. The idea that breaking the deterministic physical world with gaps to give a chance for free will to intervene with genuine choices just doesn’t work. Quantum indeterminacy and random event will not help either.

He starts his story of the evolution of freedom with the extremely simple deterministic world of John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ cellular automata. Dennett requires his students to ‘play’ with ‘Life’ to understand how complex behaviour can arise from and be based solely on absurdly simple deterministic physics. (If you want to play yourself, run Al Hensel’s Java app or download ‘Golly’.)

David Barash is dismissive of Dennett’s enthusiasm for ‘Life’ in his review of ‘Freedom Evolves’. And I suspect Dennett’s Libertarian critics will not be convinced by his equating of freedom with free will – his assertion that determinism operates at the physical level but that we operate at the design and intentional levels.

But it seems to me there is the potential to quantify ‘freedom’ using the lowest-level ‘worlds’  such as Conway’s ‘Life’ which would then strengthen Dennett’s qualitative story. Quantifying gives us a precise definition of what an abstract idea is (consider Claude Shannon’s quantifying of  ‘information’ in terms of entropy and the subsequent advances in information coding that allows you to view this posting via a tiny handheld wireless device or kilometres of shoddy cable).

Freedom could be calculated  in ‘Life’ and what-if  ‘parallel universe’ experiments could be explored where we cannot in real life. From a workable measure of freedom at this low level, we could then estimate freedom of beings such as ourselves (to within an order of magnitude or two), and compare them against estimates for our non-natural intelligent creations.

But before we think in terms of ‘Life’, we need to ask…

What is Freedom?

Naively, freedom is about doing what you want – which implies goals (and where do these goals come from?).

Freedom might be considered simultaneously:

  • Offensively: the ability to change oneself and to change the world around us, and
  • Defensively: the ability to resist being changed by the world.

(Or is this ‘will to power’?)

I am wanting to consider a notion of freedom appropriate to biology or artificial physics rather than one at the high-level inter-human world of politics. In which case, maybe only the defensive notion of freedom is needed (‘offensive freedom’ only being indirectly beneficial – ‘attack is the best form of defence’) which sounds rather dire in humanist terms.

But in human terms, freedom implies choice – ‘I can do other’ as Luther didn’t say. An indicator of freedom is being able to make arbitrary decisions that have little effect on longer-term survival: ‘Shall I kill an hour at the Club, or play tennis?’ The rich can do what they want when they want. They have freedom; the poor are constrained.

We may want to define intelligence in a similar way to freedom (perhaps more in ‘offensive’ than ‘defensive’ terms?). But they are not the same: jumping off a cliff is a bold assertion of freedom but not of intelligence. With freedom, it seems we are not interested in the consequences of an agent’s actions. And in terms of quantifying it, this is a good thing. We don’t want to have to trace multiple parallel scenarios right through to the eventual death of an agent to determine how much freedom it had at a particular time, t. We may be interested in the number of different options at time t but not whether the agent is any good at choosing between them.

Freedom may be when we attribute the cause of a decision more to the agent than its environment. How do we attribute causation? An example: a contrast between maternity hospitals in Britain and France which has been noted. In France, a mother-to-be does what the doctor says (because the doctor is a representative of the Republic, and the neonate will be a new citizen of said Republic). In Britain, any authority above individuals is to be mistrusted; the doctor is serving the patient. The mother-to-be has written a ‘birth plan’ – a manifesto of her freedom; the doctor can suggest options when the birth is not going to plan. ‘Would you like to do x, or not-x which may result in permanent damage to the child? You would like to do x. I think you’ve made the right decision.’ There is no real choice in such matters, only the ‘illusion of choice’.

But choice can be easily engineered into an agent by inserting a random (or, rather, a pseudorandom) noise source within the agent to help steer decisions. The random movements of a fly is a defensive mechanism but we might well not view this as a real (high-level?) ‘choice’ of the fly. This might provide an increase in volatility/jitter/unpredictability but not of freedom.

Perhaps then, inspired by Vilayanur Ramachandran’s notion of ‘free won’t’, freedom is an ability to correct at a high-level a decision already made at a low, reflex level, such that it is possible for the agent to get to any particular state from the current state, if that should be its goal? In the film ‘Sliding Doors’, the story bifurcates. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character both catches and misses the underground train, leading to diverging parallel worlds – a film with a superposition of happy and sad endings. We might consider freedom to be a resilience against small factors that influence our lives – the ability for our high-level goals to override the low-level specifics of our environment.

A final thought, for now: When others in a quandary ask ‘If you were me, what would you do?’ I normally first reply ‘I’d do exactly what you’d do, because I’d be you!’ This of course misses the point. But perhaps freedom could be measured in terms of the substitution of one agent with another.

All these are vague notions of freedom. How do we get to something concrete? At this point I wish I knew. Hopefully I’ll think of something to be able to write a Part 2.

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