Hierarchical Brain

An explanation of the human brain

First published 1st February 2024. This is version 1.5 published 2nd March 2024.
Three pages are not yet published: sleep, memory and an index.
Copyright © 2024 Email info@hierarchicalbrain.com

Warning - the conclusions of this website may be disturbing for some people without a stable mental disposition or with a religious conviction.

Free will

Free will is an emotive and polarising subject. On one side of the argument, many people say it must exist in order to justify the aspects of individual responsibility that are assumed by our moral, justice and legal systems, and to make life worth living; on the other side, a growing number of scientists say that it cannot exist in a deterministic world. I propose that both of these apparently opposing views can be correct at the same time, but at different levels of description. However, both come with provisos: the free will I have is not what I inherently think I have, and the behaviour of my brain is not totally predictable, even though it is theoretically deterministic.

This explanation of free will as a high-level emergent feature depends on the existence of my self symbol schema, on my conclusion that I am my self symbol schema, and on the process of attention, and therefore sits at the highest level in my hierarchical structure of levels of description.

Contents of this page
Overview - an introduction with definitions.
Non-deterministic chaos - why the behaviour of the brain cannot be predicted.
My explanation - the details of my explanation.
Downward causation - how downward causation helps to provide free will.
Conclusions - including an argument for why I have to be a self symbol schema to have free will.
References - references and footnotes.

Overview and definitions

Non-deterministic chaos

My explanation

Downward causation


References For information on references, see structure of this website - references

  1. ^ Can neuroscience enlighten the philosophical debate about free will - Delnatte, Roze, Pouget, Gallea and Welniarz 2023
    doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2023.108632 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Section headed “2.1. Philosophical questions” contains a very good summary of the philosophical positions and problems relating to free will.
    Beginning of abstract:
    “Free will has been at the heart of philosophical and scientific discussions for many years. However, recent advances in neuroscience have been perceived as a threat to the commonsense notion of free will as they challenge two core requirements for actions to be free. The first is the notion of determinism and free will, i.e., decisions and actions must not be entirely determined by antecedent causes. The second is the notion of mental causation, i.e., our mental state must have causal effects in the physical world, in other words, actions are caused by conscious intention.”
  2. ^ Free Will, Physics, Biology, and the Brain - Koch 2009
    Chapter 2 in Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will ed. Murphy, Ellis and O’Connor pub. Springer 2009
    doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-03205-9_2 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 32, last paragraph: “The question of free will - what it means and whether it exists - is as old as philosophy itself, with an enormous literature... Arcane and eristic arguments have been advanced for or against whatever position one might conceivably hold. Let us not be too distracted by these millennia of learned and disputatious philosophical debate, and focus on what physics, neuroscience, and psychology have to contribute to this aspect of the mind-body problem. Science has discovered matters that open up new ways of thinking about the ancient conundrum of free will.”
  3. ^ Ibid. Free Will, Physics, Biology, and the Brain
    Page 36, third paragraph: “...it took the digital computer in the second half of the twentieth century to reveal deterministic chaos for what it is - a full-blown setback for the notion that the future can be accurately forecast. It was the MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz who discovered this in the context of solving three simple mathematical equations characterizing the motion of the atmosphere. The weather predicted by the computer program varied widely when he entered starting values that differed by less than a tenth of one percent: this is the hallmark of chaos - infinitesimal small changes, tiny perturbations in where the equations start off lead to radically different outcomes. Lorenz coined the term Butterfly Effect to denote such extreme sensitivity to initial conditions: the beating of a butterfly’s wings creates barely perceptible ripples in the atmosphere that ultimately alter the path of a tornado elsewhere.
    Chaos is the reason why precise long-term weather prediction will never be in the cards. Meteorologists must record the local temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, solar radiation, wind speed, and so on quite accurately to assess future weather patterns. For the sake of this argument, let us assume that they must be measured to within a few percent of their true values in order to forecast coastal fog in the morning a couple of days hence. To forecast fog a week from now, these variables need to be estimated to within a fraction of a percent of their true value; if one wanted to know about fog in ten days time it would require a degree of accuracy unattainable in the real world due to all the uncertainties and fluctuations in the atmosphere.”
  4. ^ Ibid. Free Will, Physics, Biology, and the Brain
    Page 38, end of first paragraph: “microscopic things such as elementary particles or small atoms and molecules violate common sense: the more precisely you determine where they are, the more uncertain, the more fuzzy, is their speed, and vice versa.”
    Page 40, second paragraph: “What cannot be ruled out is that tiny quantum fluctuations deep in the brain are amplified by deterministic chaos and will ultimately lead to behavioral choices. ... The release of a single synaptic vesicle may be dependent on some pre-synaptic quantum event. This might generate an action potential in the post-synaptic neuron that, in turn, triggers a cascade of active neurons that ultimately give rise to movement. Biological organisms - from bacteria to bugs to boys - may well act truly randomly, like the proverbial toss of the coin. In that case, the laws of cause and effect do not fully determine behavior. Physics would not, even in principle, predict whether I will choose the glass of coke or the cup of coffee. True choice would become possible.”
  5. ^ Ibid. Free Will, Physics, Biology, and the Brain
    Page 42, last paragraph: “A salient feature of nervous systems and their components are their noisy, random character. Individual voltage- and ligand-gated ionic channels - single proteins that are inserted into the neuronal membrane - enable neurons to communicate with each other via chemical synapses and generate and propagate all-or-nothing binary pulses, the action potentials that are the lingua franca [common language] of almost all nervous systems. The ionic currents flowing through such channels are microscopic, discrete, and stochastic [random].”
    Page 43, end of first paragraph: “...it is generally believed that the stochastic character of ionic channels can be entirely explained by thermal fluctuations and does not rely on quantum indeterminacy.”
    Page 43, last two paragraphs, to page 44: “Randomness is also apparent at the level of action potentials. Say that a microelectrode, essentially a conductive wire, is placed close to a nerve cell in the brain of a monkey looking at a display of a randomly moving cloud of dots. Each time the display is turned on, the cell becomes excited and fires a set of all-or-none electrical pulses, 'spikes' in neuro-lingo. These can be picked up by the microelectrode. Spikes are the principle means of rapid communication among nerve cells throughout the animal kingdom. If you look carefully, the precise pattern of spikes varies unpredictably from one trial to the next, while the average number of spikes remains reasonably constant. Some of this variability is due to trembling eyes, the exact timing of the heart beat, breathing, and so on. The remaining unpredictability is thought to be accounted for by the incessant movement of the molecules, primarily water, making up the wet and warm brain - thermal motion that I mentioned above. This ceaseless motion cannot be predicted but is still subject to the laws of cause and effect.”
  6. ^ Ibid. Free Will, Physics, Biology, and the Brain
    Page 44, end of first paragraph (continuation from previous quotation): “Biophysicists by and large believe that quantum mechanics has no essential role to play here [in the brain]. While nervous systems - like anything else - obey quantum mechanics, the collective effects of all these molecules frenetically moving about is to smear out any quantum indeterminacy. At the cellular level, neurons look to be firmly governed by classical physics.”
  7. ^ Ibid. Free Will, Physics, Biology, and the Brain
    Page 45, second paragraph: “Nervous systems are indeterministic. Whether or not this indeterminism is grounded in quantum mechanics remains an open question. Your actions are not, and never will be, predictable. Even though the universe and everything within it obeys natural laws, the state of the future world is contingent in a way that, in general, cannot be computed from its current state.”
  8. ^ Human Freedom and 'Emergence' - Newsome 2009
    Chapter 3 in Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will ed. Murphy, Ellis and O'Connor pub. Springer 2009
    doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-03205-9_3 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 54, third paragraph: “Absorption of high energy photons by DNA in my skins cells can result in genetic damage and fatal cancer, irreversibly changing the course of my life and the lives of my family, friends, and colleagues. Yet the triggering events - photon absorptions - are fundamentally random and unpredictable, even in principle. To my mind, therefore, the model of a fully deterministic world can be set aside.”
  9. ^ Ibid. Human Freedom and 'Emergence'
    Bottom of page 54 to page 55: “...the sense of human freedom, or autonomy, is just as important for scientific understanding as for everyday understanding of the world. Thoroughgoing determinism becomes entangled in profound logical difficulties in science no less than in everyday life. J.B.S. Haldane put the matter succinctly: 'If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of the atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ...and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms'. Haldane’s point is that the entire enterprise of science depends upon the assumption that scientists have freedom to evaluate evidence rationally and make reasoned judgments about the truthfulness of particular hypotheses and results. If, however, the scientist’s rational judgments, and her/his beliefs about the validity of the scientific method, simply reflect an inevitable outcome of the atomic, molecular, and cellular interactions within a particular physical system, how can we take seriously the notion that her/his conclusions about the world bear any relation to objective truth? ... The attempt to adopt a thoroughgoing determinism is like sawing off the branch that one is sitting on; the result is intellectual freefall.”
  10. ^ Ibid. Human Freedom and 'Emergence'
    Page 55, third paragraph: “How are we to reconcile the 'autonomy' of a reasoning intellect with our scientific conviction that all behavior is mediated by mechanistic interactions between cells of the central nervous system? Although I have no certain answer to this question, I suspect that answers will ultimately lie in a deeper understanding of emergent phenomena in complex systems. ...By 'emergence', I mean that complex assemblies of simpler components can generate behaviors that are not predictable from knowledge of the components alone and are governed by logic and rules that are independent of (although constrained by) those that govern the components. Furthermore, the intrinsic logic that emerges at higher levels of the system exerts 'downward control' over the low-level components.”
  11. ^ Free Will, Determinism, and the Criminal Justice System - The Law Office of John Guidry
    Middle of first paragraph: “Free will creates the moral structure that provides the foundation for our criminal justice system. Without it, most punishments in place today must be eliminated completely.”
  12. ^ On Microscopic Irreversibility and Non-deterministic Chaos: Resolving the Conflict between Determinism and Free Will - Hong 2012
    doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-28111-2_21 see GoogleScholar.
    Page 228, second paragraph: “If human actions are predetermined, what is the point of education and enlightening? ... From a legal point of view, if our actions were pre-determined by events long past, the criminals should not be held responsible for the committed crime. It was equally unsettling from an ethical and/or religious point of view: If there were no free will, what is the point of repentance and resurrection? Absent free will, what is the point of discussing whether free will is compatible with determinism or not, much less its existence?”
  13. ^ Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society: an Overview - Caruso, Shaw and Pereboom 2019
    downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Chapter 1, bottom of first page to top of page 2: “What all varieties of free will skepticism share, however, is the belief that the evidential standard for our having basic desert moral responsibility is not met, and as a result there is a strong presumption against the legitimacy of the practices associated with it - such as the reactive attitudes of resentment, indignation, backward-looking blame, and retributive punishment. Critics of free will skepticism argue that adopting such a view stands to have harmful consequences for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law. They contend, for instance, that relinquishing belief in free will and basic desert moral responsibility would undermine morality, leave us unable to adequately deal with criminal behavior, increase antisocial conduct, and destroy meaning in life.”
  14. ^ ^ Free Will and Top-Down Control in the Brain - Frith 2009
    Chapter 12 in Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will ed. Murphy, Ellis and O’Connor pub. Springer 2009
    doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-03205-9_12 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 200, under the heading “1 Top-Down and Bottom-Up Processes in Attention”, third paragraph: “Behavioral and physiological studies show that the brain contains a relatively simple mechanism by which mutual interactions between the many competing stimuli ensure that only one or a few stimuli win the competition for the control of behavior and awareness. The idea is that each sensory channel inhibits all the others. This means that, as information passes up through the central nervous system (CNS), the stronger channels get stronger while the weaker channels get weaker, until only the strongest survives. It is this strongest survivor that determines our next action, for example, by moving our eyes towards the source of the stimulus. It is also this strongest survivor that enters conscious awareness.”
  15. ^ I am a strange loop - Douglas Hofstadter 2007 Basic Books or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 339, second paragraph under the heading “Yes, people want things”: “When people decide to do something, they often say, 'I did it of my own free will.' I think what they mean by this is usually, in essence, 'I did it because I wanted to, not because someone else forced me to do it.' Although I am uncomfortable with the phrase 'I did it of my own free will', the paraphrase I’ve suggested sounds completely unobjectionable to me. We do indeed have wants, and our wants do indeed cause us to do things... ”
  16. ^ Ibid. I am a strange loop
    Page 340, under the heading “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Will”: “What, then, is all the fuss about 'free will' about? Why do so many people insist on the grandiose adjective, often even finding in it humanity’s crowning glory? What does it gain us, or rather, what would it gain us, if the word 'free' were accurate? I honestly do not know. I don’t see any room in this complex world for my will to be 'free'.”
    Page 341: “In sum, our decisions are made by an analogue to a voting process in a democracy. Our various desires chime in, taking into account the many external factors that act as constraints, or more metaphorically, that play the role of hedges in the vast maze of life in which we are trapped. Much of life is incredibly random, and we have no control over it. We can will away all we want, but much of the time our will is frustrated. Our will, quite the opposite of being free, is steady and stable, like an inner gyroscope, and it is the stability and constancy of our non-free will that makes me me and you you, and that also keeps me me and you you.”
  17. ^ German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, in an online post in 2006 says: “For middle-sized objects at 37 [degrees C] like the human brain and the human body, determinism is obviously true. The next state of the physical universe is always determined by the previous state. And given a certain brain-state plus an environment you could never have acted otherwise - a surprisingly large majority of experts in the free-will debate today accept this obvious fact. Although your future is open, this probably also means that for every single future thought you will have and for every single decision you will make, it is true that it was determined by your previous brain state.”
  18. ^ Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder is a well-known YouTuber who released a video entitled I don’t believe in free will. This is why. in June 2023. A transcript of the first few seconds is: “The future is determined by the past except for random quantum jumps which no-one can control; causes have causes have causes, and they go back all the way to the big bang.”
  19. ^ Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky wrote a book in 2023 entitled Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, and has been interviewed in the New York Times and quoted in Phys Science News, which says, under the title “Scientist, after decades of study, concludes: We don’t have free will”: “Most neuroscientists believe humans have at least some degree of free will. So do most philosophers and the vast majority of the general population. Free will is essential to how we see ourselves, fueling the satisfaction of achievement or the shame of failing to do the right thing. ... The book breaks down the neurochemical influences that contribute to human behaviors, analyzing the milliseconds to centuries preceding, say, the pulling of a trigger or the suggestive touch on an arm. ... If it’s impossible for any single neuron or any single brain to act without influence from factors beyond its control, Sapolsky argues, there can be no logical room for free will. Many people with even a passing familiarity with human biology can comfortably agree with this - up to a point. We know we make worse decisions when hungry, stressed or scared. We know our physical makeup is influenced by the genes inherited from distant ancestors and by our mothers’ health during her pregnancy. Abundant evidence indicates that people who grew up in homes marked by chaos and deprivation will perceive the world differently and make different choices than people raised in safe, stable, resource-rich environments. A lot of important things are beyond our control. But, like - everything? We have no meaningful command over our choice of careers, romantic partners or weekend plans? If you reach out right now and pick up a pen, was even that insignificant action somehow preordained? Yes, Sapolsky says, both in the book and to the countless students who have asked the same question during his office hours.”
  20. ^ What happens to your brain on the way to Mars - Parihar, Allen, Tran, Macaraeg, Chu, Kwok, Chmielewski, Craver, Baulch, Acharya, Cucinotta and Limoli 2015
    doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1400256 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    End of abstract: “Our data indicate an unexpected and unique susceptibility of the central nervous system to space radiation exposure, and argue that the underlying radiation sensitivity of delicate neuronal structure may well predispose astronauts to unintended mission-critical performance decrements and/or longer-term neurocognitive sequelae.”
    Second sentence of second column of abstract: “Clinicians have known for decades that patients subjected to cranial radiotherapy for the control of brain malignancies develop severe and progressive cognitive deficits that never resolve.”
  21. ^ Top-Down Causation and the Human Brain - Ellis 2009
    Chapter 4 in Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will ed. Murphy, Ellis and O’Connor pub. Springer 2009
    doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-03205-9_4 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 65 under the heading “Hierarchy”: “A hierarchical structure will be described by a corresponding hierarchy of variables appropriate to describing the different levels of the hierarchy. A high-level variable is a quantity that characterizes the state of the system in terms of a description using high-level concepts and language - it cannot be stated in terms of low-level variables. The higher levels of structure and causation cannot be reduced to lower-level terms, as the relevant concepts lie outside those that can be described in terms of lower-level concepts.”
  22. ^ Ibid. Top-Down Causation and the Human Brain
    Page 66, under the heading “4 Top-Down Causation”: “Top-down causation is the ability of higher levels of reality to have a causal power over lower levels. When dynamic effects take place, the outcome would be different if the higher level context were different. Altering the high-level context alters lower-level actions; this is what identifies the effect as top-down causation. ... Top-down causation is ubiquitous in physics, chemistry, and biology, because the outcome of lower-level interactions is always determined by context.”
  23. ^ ^ Godel, Escher, Bach - Douglas Hofstadter Penguin Books UK 1979 or see GoogleScholar.
    Chapter 20, “Strange loops, or tangled hierarchies”, pages 710-713 under the heading “The Self-Symbol and Free Will”, second paragraph: “One way to gain some perspective on the free-will question is to replace it by what I believe is an equivalent question, but one which involves less loaded terms. Instead of asking, 'Does system X have free will?' we ask, 'Does system X make choices?' By carefully groping for what we really mean when we choose to describe a system - mechanical or biological - as being capable of making 'choices', I think we can shed much light on free will. It will be helpful to go over a few different systems which, under various circumstances, we might feel tempted to describe as 'making choices'. From these examples we can gain some perspective on what we really mean by the phrase.”
    And page 713 under the heading “A Godel vortex where all levels cross”, end of first paragraph: “From this balance between self-knowledge and self-ignorance come the feeling of free will.”
  24. ^ On Minds and Machines - Daniel Gibson 2020
    Fitzwilliam College Cambridge Arrol Adam competition winner 2020 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    This prize-winning essay is a review of Hofstadter’s ideas on consciousness and free will that are briefly covered in the previous reference. From the last two paragraphs: “Even if our brains are fundamentally physical in nature, they are certainly complex systems, and many aspects of our behaviour are unpredictable. If it is fundamentally impossible to predict our future, short of allowing the universe to run its course, I would say this unpredictability is tantamount to having freedom of choice. That is by no means a rigorous argument, but it is how I think of my own free will, and I find it satisfactory to say 'Even if I’m entirely deterministic in nature, and can follow just one future path, my brain is so complex that there is absolutely no way of predicting every aspect of that future path. Therefore, I may as well have freedom of choice.' I don’t think that the physicalist viewpoint necessitates the depressing conclusion that, since everything can be reduced to computation, life loses all its meaning. My own beliefs regarding the mind have changed, but that has had no effect on my own inner feeling of free will or consciousness. Whether or not our minds our physical in nature, whether or not free will is an illusion - answering these questions will not change the fact that we do feel conscious, experience emotions and perceive our own thoughts. Above all, and without a doubt, it feels like we have freedom of choice. In a very real sense, how we feel is all that matters.”
  25. ^ Free agents: how evolution gave us free will - Mitchell 2023, Princeton University Press.
    Also see Free agents (Google books)
    I have only recently bought this book. Relevant direct quotes will follow soon.
    There are many useful reviews available - for example, see here and here.
    This Holodoxa review says:
    “We act for reasons, and these reasons emerge from the collection of our experiences, the goals we’ve set (via metacognition and planning), our innate proclivities, and the set of choices available to us in any situation.”
  26. ^ Ibid. Free agents: how evolution gave us free will
    A Royal Society of Biology review of the book by Mitchell says: “One final step sets humans apart. We can reason about our reasons. The extra levels of our cognitive hierarchies let us make models of our own minds. We can recursively think about our beliefs and desires and intentions, and consciously operate on them as objects of cognition, not just elements of it. We can consider and decide, and reconsider, and change our minds - we can consciously deliberate and choose our actions. It’s not absolutely free from any prior causes, as some people seem to demand of 'free will'. On the contrary, our actions are informed by our past and directed towards our future. That is precisely what allows us to persist as selves through time. We have degrees of freedom and we exert our will to choose among them.”
  27. ^ Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness - Philip Johnson-Laird Cambridge University Press 1983
    Page 473, middle of second paragraph: “An intention is a conscious decision to act so as to try to achieve a particular goal. An organism can have an intention only if it has an operating system that can elicit a model of a future state of affairs, and decide that it itself should act so as to try to bring about that state of affairs. A crucial part of having an intention is precisely an awareness that the system itself is able to make such decisions. The system has to be able to represent the fact that it can itself generate models of future states of affairs and decide to try to bring them about. Granted a goal-directed planning ability and the recursive machinery to embed models within models, the operating system only needs access to a model of itself in order to have intentions. The model that individuals have of themselves includes memories of how they have felt or behaved in the past; memories of how they interacted with others; and a knowledge of their tastes, preferences, and proclivities. They also know much about the high-level realities of their own minds: their ability to perceive, remember and act; their mastery of this or that intellectual skill; their imaginative and ratiocinative [reasoning] abilities. Of course, they have access only to an incomplete (and perhaps partially erroneous) model of their own mental abilities. Their model has no information about the inner workings of the multiple parallel processors or about the processes that underlie its own representation.”
  28. ^ Understanding complexity in the human brain - Bassett and Gazzaniga 2011
    doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.03.006 downloadable here or see GoogleScholar.
    Page 205 under the heading “Bidirectional causation and complementarity”: “Emergence is characterized by a higher-level phenomenon stemming from a lower system level; that is, emergence is upward. However, an important property of the brain, as opposed to some other complex systems, is that emergent phenomena can feedback to lower levels, causing lower level changes through what is called downward causation. The combination of upward emergence and downward causation suggests a simple bidirectionality or more nuanced mutual complementarity that adds to the complexity of the system, and underscores the fact that the emergence of mental properties cannot be understood using fundamental reductionism.”

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