Thursday, May 17, 2007

LOST, Free Will and Fruit Flies

My favorite television show is LOST, in part because it often poses certain philosophical questions that you don't often find in popular culture. Indeed, many of the characters are named after major philosophers (although they don't always hold the same beliefs as their namesakes). One of the major themes of the series is fate versus free will.

In last night's episode "Greatest Hits" the character Charlie is told by Desmond, who has the ability to see "flashes" of future events, that if Charlie performs a certain action, he would die; but as a result his girl and her baby would be rescued from the island. If he doesn't die, the rescue won't occur. Charlie decides to sacrifice himself to save his new "family". In essence, Charlie's free will choice was to accept his death.

However, if Desmond had not given Charlie any information about the future, Charlie wouldn't have volunteered for the mission. This appears to be an example of retro-causality, for a future event is responsible for the action that caused the future event. That sounds more like Fate to me. Does free will even exist (in LOST or the real world)?

A new study by neurologists at the Free University Berlin hints that free will may exist, even in the lowly fruit fly.

For centuries, the question of whether or not humans possess free will — and thus control their own actions — has been a source of hot debate.

"Free will is essentially an oxymoron — we would not consider it 'will' if it were completely random and we would not consider it 'free' if it were entirely determined," Brembs said. In other words, nobody would ascribe responsibility to one's actions if they were entirely the result of random coincidence. On the other hand, if one's actions were completely determined by outside factors such that no alternative existed, no one would hold that person responsible for them.

"We speculate that if free will exists, it is in this middle ground" between randomness and determinism "that is currently not well understood or characterized," said mathematical biologist George Sugihara at the University of California at San Diego.
Basically what they've done is isolate fruit flies in a sensory deprevation chamber so there are none of the normal simuli for behaviors, then analyzed their movements. They found the flies movements were not truely random, but matched something called Levy's Distribution which they say is commonly found in nature. I know I'm a dumb as a sack of hammers sometimes, but I don't quite get how non-random patterns indicates free will. Wouldn't it indicate a hardwired default pattern of movement? You know - do this until you sense something? But I'm no neuroscientist - which I know comes as no surprise to most of you.
Neuroscientist Gonzalo de Polavieja at the Independent University of Madrid said these findings in flies point "to a complex decision-making processing underlying behavior. This seems a necessary condition for free will."

Brembs did not think flies had free will, per se. He also stressed their results did not suggest free will existed in humans or elsewhere. "We only showed that brains might possess a faculty which free will could potentially be based on," Brembs said.


dungan said...

I enjoyed this post. As a LOST aficianado too, I ponder if free will can exist in a world where Hurley is still fat.

but for the larger issue, i guess i believe that at least on the sub-atomic level there is the groundwork for free will, because possibility rules in that realm. but maybe it's effects are too small to count. so on the social level, i take pride in the fact that peopl are truly predictable as a group - the behavior range is fairly limited - but it's impossible to predict what any given individual is going to do next. that's good enough for me!

astroroach said...

I have a theory that LOST may be incorporating elements of quantum mechanics. I've always wondered if "pushing the button" was so critical, why wasn't it automated? Why does a person have to do it? And if the failsafe device could eliminate the problem, why wasn't that just done in the first place?

Could it be that a human had to push the button because, as in the famous double-slit experiments, observed reality depends on what information an observer chooses to know? Perhaps a human had to be in the loop to observe, and thus create a certain result.

We'll see if this holds together after the big Season 3 finale.

dungan said...

great questions about the button. let's watch tonight and see what happens! my guess is it's gonna be more about loose strings, not string theory. secretly, i want to see the ancient giant statues come to life.

astroroach said...

Hmmm. A little Ray Harryhausen action? That would be pretty cool!

Seriously though, I'd like to see the 4-toed statue revisited in the finale. It's been a year since it was last mentioned. We have seen other ruins scattered about the island, such as the place Anthony Cooper was tied to, and I want some more Island history.

Maybe it will figure into the "Rattlesnake in the mailbox" ending the producers are promising. We'll know soon!