“The apple cannot be stuck back on the Tree of Knowledge; once we begin to see, we are doomed and challenged to seek the strength to see more, not less.” – Arthur Miller
Thousands of years of human religious expression are built on an assumption that humans have volition or “free will.” It is a foundational part of the Creation narrative in the Abrahamic religions. Scientists and philosophers part with the “Eden” story but have nonetheless long debated over what human volition is and is not. In earlier posts  I have discussed the “determinist” argument that there really is no “free will” as we usually define it. “Compatibilists” alternatively acknowledge the reality of determinism in much of the universe, but still see a role for human “choice,” even if it is not as normally conceived.
In my continuing look at where we can find human volition at work and where we won’t find it, I want to offer up the example of how a human learns to successfully swing a baseball bat. I choose this example because, as we will see, it has a fascinating, and well-documented, probabilistic component. Indeed, the sport of baseball is heavily dependent on the probabilities and how they “play out.” It is a dream sport for the math-inclined. I have laid this story out into several discrete steps, and you may find yourself agreeing or disagreeing at any single step. If you don’t like the baseball analogy, I suggest you try to apply it to learning how to improve a golf swing.
Step 1 – The probabilistic brain
This is a key assumption in my construct of “free will.” The human brain evolved over millions of years, from the primitive brain in a common fish-like ancestor upwards, as a massively-parallel survival “probability evaluator.” In other words, our brain’s primary function is to evaluate masses of sensory information at the same time, save and recall related memories (in this case of incoming baseballs and bat swings, but including millennia of more lethal threats), and make the best probability-based “net decision” about which physical actions will best ensure our survival and procreation. 
In this case, the brain is outputting probability-based directives to the body’s muscle neurons to take specific actions, say to swing the held bat in a certain way at an incoming baseball (or maybe at an attacking lion if we want to go back further in evolutionary history). Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but the brains of our parents and a direct line of more distant forebears had, by definition, more life-critical successes than failures, at least up until the point of passing on their genes.
Step 2 – Conscious memory versus “muscle memory”
Some of this brain neuron action is consciously “perceived” by another part of our brain and some is not, the latter being what is sometimes called “muscle memory”. A professional ballplayer will likely have a hard time articulating why he has swung at one ball and not at another, because perception may be a fleeting, microseconds-long experience for many actions. You may have had the experience of arriving at a destination in your automobile and then realizing you don’t recall how you got there, as your “mind” was on something else. Your “muscle memory” drove the car, or alternatively, your at-the-time perceptions of driving have been discarded as “unimportant memories.”
This part of our thinking that we consciously perceive, in this theory of consciousness, is kind of like a portion of our brain “watching itself,” which we interpret through internal and external “language” as new memories thrown into the mix for improving the probabilities of the next swing. We may be able to, after the fact, “describe” the successful and the unsuccessful swings by recalling and “reliving” our stored memories. 
Step 3 – Internal and external “learning”
Our internal contemplation of those “stored memory” swings will have an effect on “changing the probabilities” of successive swings, hopefully for the better, but sometimes not. The more we practice, whether it be at batting a baseball or playing the violin or performing brain surgery, the more our “learned memories” translate into both better perception (we “see more” or “hear more”) and better “muscle memory.”
Also importantly, external humans, such as a batting coach or a music teacher, or even a video camera recording our actions, can also “perceive” our performances, interpret them, and communicate back to us, creating even more new memories for swing improvement. Or we might also watch other baseball players as they swing, comparing their technique to our own. This is the critical feedback loop we call “learning.”
I like this baseball example because, at any place up the professional league structure, if you can improve your “success” probability by getting a hit in just three out of ten attempts (a .300 batting average), you will move up in the ranks, while alternatively falling below two successes out of ten attempts consistently (a .200 batting average) could end your career. That small difference in skill is literally worth millions of dollars to the hitter. And even then, one “successful at bat” attempt often consists of multiple, failed swings.
Not every skill has as obvious a probability factor, but it may still be there if you search for it. After fifty years of playing the guitar, I usually get the chords right, and yet I occasionally miss the correct fret. It’s a probability function.
So where is “free will” in this process?
The “determinist dilemma” in this example is rooted in the observation that, the closer you look into the brain and its functioning, the more the “conscious” decision to swing the bat disappears, and the swing begins to look more subconsciously deterministic, or at least probabilistic, in nature. This is a story as old as Zeno’s Paradox and the long-fought mathematical battle to measure infinitely-small distances.  When neuroscientists delve into our brains, they can’t find the very point at which that swing is “on” versus “off.” Indeed, the common comparison of the brain to a digital computer is likely not very helpful at all. Our brain neuron electrochemical activity is often better modeled as an “analog” process rather than a “digital” one. 
My response to the “vanishing free will” dilemma is that we are looking in the wrong place. What happens “at the instant” of any human action, whether it be swinging at a baseball or making an important moral decision, gets very messy in terms of determinism and probability. If there is a “homunculus” (little person) somewhere inside us “directing” that action, we have not found it, and I don’t think it exists. 
So, my search for “free will” actually begins, not at the time of the swinging of the bat, but in all of the “skill absorption” and “learning” that preceded the swing. Why does one person spend hours practicing hitting a baseball or playing a violin, while another reads dozens of books about history, or yet another person eschews most forms of structured learning beyond facing the world’s challenges day-to-day?
In my view, that perception-feedback-action loop is basically our conscious perception of “free will”. As the odds of success get better, you perceive this as more “control” or “free will” over your swing. It is neither “God-magic” nor is it completely deterministic. Rather there is a significant probabilistic factor. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. The more we work at a skill or area of knowledge, the higher percentage of “wins,” and the higher perception of “free will” we experience. That professional baseball batter “chooses” to swing yet fails 70% of the time. 
Which brings us back to the Arthur Miller quote that began this post. We make the key “free will” choice when we absorb new information. The acts that result from that new information may well be your “destiny.” What kinds of information are you absorbing today?
- I first addressed the idea of determinism in an early post about “Albert Einstein and his dice.” From there, you can click on the “Volition” category in the left column of the blog to view all other relevant posts. Determinism asserts that there is only one physically possible future at any given instant of time.
- For my view on evolution versus creationism, read my book review of The Human Instinct by Kenneth Miller. For a very readable explanation of our evolutionary tie to fish, I recommend Neil Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Vintage, 2009).
- One disturbing aspect of this “watching ourselves” perception comes from research suggesting that the brain’s “conscious decision” action appears to occur tiny fractions of a second after the action itself has begin. Daniel Dennett discusses this research, and its weaknesses, at length in Freedom Evolves. Penguin, 2007, 227ff.
- To learn about the disappearance of “distance” the closer you look for it, read my earlier post on “Zeno’s paradox and the infinitesimal”.
- I wrote about the “non-digital” nature of our brain activity in two posts about hearing and seeing in logarithms.
- For more about the idea of the brain’s “homunculus,” see my post “Me and my homunculus.”
- I will also note here that “hard determinists” see probability itself as arising, rather than from patterns of natural randomness, instead from “pseudo-randomness,” patterns that “look” random, but whose pattern has been set from the origin of the universe. I will tackle this issue in a subsequent post.
For additional posts on probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.