The Nonlinear Origins of Free Will

piero scaruffi is an author, cultural historian and blogger who posted:

  • The problem of free will is framed incorrectly. The “I” that is supposed to have free will does not exist: it is something that changes all the time, because at every instant countless cells of the body change including countless cells of the brain.
  • Hence the “I” that is supposed to have free will is actually defined by that “free will”: it is the sequence of unpredictable actions generated by a nonlinear system.
  • You yourself cannot predict what your free will will make you do and think in a few seconds, let alone a few years from now.
  • Free will exists, but the “I” does not exist.

via The Nonlinear Origins of Free Will.

Scaruffi’s framing is interesting, especially in light of my previous posts on identity. He asserts that the “I” doesn’t exist, per se, rather the appropriate frame is “free will.” Free will exists by virtue of a “nonlinear equation,” and the “I” is illusory. Granted, he is talking about consciousness and not identity. But I’m not quite resolved to his argument. He seems to be asserting that because there is always variability on a spatio-temporal micro scale, that regularized patterns on a macro scale are also illusory. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps what he is doing is bringing us up to the boundary of emergence within a nonlinear system, where both free will and identity exist, but not taking us beyond the boundary into a reification or ontologization of an “I” (or multiple cultural “I”‘s).

I do think the issue of “free will” or <em>volition</em> is an interesting one. It’s an issue I’ve tried to understand for a long time. The idea of volition is essential to ethics, for example. If we didn’t have the ability to choose our courses of action, how could we be said to have an ethical sense, an ethical obligation or violate ethical precepts? Not having volition is one of the key reasons why we don’t ascribe ethical responsibilities to our machines. Free will is something we agree exists, but can it exist without predictability? If we can’t predict the consequences of our actions, or what the world might look like if our actions were made into universal law, then what is free will really?



Identities, Part 2

Continued from Part 1…

Moreover, “I” am always learning, growing, changing. However my emergent experience is always shaped by past experience. There is an anchoring that reflects the idea of the peach-pit. But there is also an adaptability over time that reflects the idea of growing or acquiring onion layers. In accord with the idea of an interplay that has a temporal anchoring directed towards the past and a temporal adaptability towards the future, let’s pose identity as a many-faceted, crystalline sphere with an increasingly opaque center and a malleable and expanding surface.

The individual-I is represented by the sphere, the limits of which constitute the limits of the physical self. This idea is simple enough to understand metaphorically. Our bodies constitute a unique whole, as would a crystalline sphere. The core of the crystal is opaque to varying degrees. If we imagine it to be the temporal anchoring, it is like a black hole, from which no light escapes. We are only able to see the event horizon and a corresponding lens effect, the appearance of which depends on a number of factors including our relationship as an observer. The gravitational pull of the core is our temporal anchor. It is the singularity of our individual-I. It at once grounds us as embodied beings through its gravitational pull and reveals our being as ineffable.

The relational-I is represented by the malleable faceted surface of the sphere, where our facets represent distinguishable but interconnected identities. These facets grow, shrink and change according to our experience. They also enable us to interface with other spheres, other people’s identities, by providing a similar set of schematic structures for communicative exchange. The facets don’t need to be metaphorically flat akin to a precious cut diamond ring. Indeed it is likely that they are not, for they would need to allow for an individual to absorb, assimilate and integrate the understanding of others. The facets of the sphere would need to interlock with the facets of other spheres to allow for the exchange. This interlocking suggests that the facets lie on spires to project one’s own experience and valleys to accept others’ experiences.

This interlocking of faceted spires and valleys creates a synergy of crystalline growth. It enables the facets to grow, as crystals also grow, but more irregularly unlike the onion. The irregular surface maintains a malleability as the sphere-I continues to experience and engage with other spheres in ways that promote growth of some facets of identity and inhibit the growth of others. We can see this metaphorically reflected in our identities, as our interactions with others promote the growth and strengthening of some identities and the atrophy of others. These facets of the surface, however, are not untethered. Rather they are spawned from the ineffable and increasingly opaque core that serves as the temporal anchor for the many facets that comprise the surface of the sphere.

The metaphor of a crystalline sphere allows us to understand that the identities we hold arise from a single, ineffable, temporally anchored structure that grows into a more complex and irregularly faceted structure. They crystal provides a metaphorically unifying structural type that reveals the individual-I and the relative-I to be, in fact, a singular crystalline sphere-I.

My metaphorical understanding of identity will undoubtedly continue to evolve as I explore its relationship to semantics and the use of semantic technologies. I offer this metaphor of the crystalline sphere as an alternative to the seemingly limited metaphors of the peach pit and the onion for understanding identity. It allows us to incorporate the notion of Gadamerian play, via an expansion of horizons/facets, and the notion of Feyerabendian ineffability.

Inter-organizational Coordination in the Wild

I received notification the other day that my manuscript, Inter-organizational Coordination in the Wild: Trust-Building and Collaboration among Field Level ICT Workers in Humanitarian Relief Organizations, has been accepted for publication in Voluntas.


As many NGOs find themselves responding to the same crises, they have realized the potential benefits of coordinating their information and communication technology (ICT) activities—sharing satellite communications and internet access, sharing disaster assessment information—and have created cross-organizational coordination bodies. Coordination at the headquarters level across organizations has proven to be insufficient and some bodies are now engaging ICT personnel in their field offices in coordination efforts. This case study presents the findings of one body’s field office coordination efforts among its ICT workers, where trust-building through collaborative activities are revealed to be essential elements in successful coordination across organizations.

This article is co-authored with Andrea Tapia, Carleen Maitland, Edgar Maldonado and Louis-Marie Ngamassi Tchouakeu and comes from research done with the COHORT project.

Identities, Part 1

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the concept of identity. I claim in my dissertation and elsewhere that we have multiple cultural identities. This seems straightforwardly true to me, given that I subscribe to the idea that we use different sets of cultural schemas to manage our interactions with others and the world. However there is an interesting problem with the idea of multiple identities when it comes to creating a computational ontology about a person. Should the person be described as a footballer, a legislator, or a felon if he has been all of these things over the course of his life? Obviously, these are identities with cultural context. At the same time, they are all subsumed as roles of a single identifiable being, one that maintains that identity through time and in parallel with multiple cultural identities. The question that puzzles me is: how do we maintain a “unity of self” as we enact multiple cultural identities daily and throughout our lives? How does a unified self emerge when every context we encounter requires the interaction of one of our cultural identities? It seems like a strange question to ask, but why do we not think of ourselves as multiple people?

I’ve been reading Ess, C. (2009) Digital Media Ethics, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. In the last chapter, where he reviews a number of ethical frameworks he offers a nice description of the concept of identity when contrasting Modern Western and Confucian ethics:

Modern Western thought strongly tends to assume the human beings are “atomic” individuals–i.e., that the human being as an individual is the most basic element or component of society, one that begins and can remain in complete solitude from others. (This atomism is traceable to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the French philosopher René Descartes, but that story is too long to develop here.) Henry Rosemont (2006) has characterized this view as the “peach pit” view of human beings. That is, a peach presents us with a surface–one that grows, changes, and finally dies over time. But underneath these surface changes remains the peach-pit–a stony, hard core that remains (relatively) unchanged over time. The peach-pit is thus closely analogous to traditional Christian and Islamic conceptions of the soul, and modern conceptions of the atomistic self. That is, underlying a surface body that grows, changes, and ultimately dies with time there is thought to be the “real” self, the identity that remains the same through time, “underneath” the outward and surface appearances of the mortal body. To be sure, this conception of the self resolves some important philosophical and ethical problems concerning identity–e.g., if there is no substantive, real self underneath the constant changes of a body, then who or what is responsible for that body’s actions? That is, if the body associated with “you” committed a terrible crime five years ago, is it reasonable to say something like “that wasn’t really me–I [meaning, my body] have changed and can no longer be held responsible for what I [my body] did five years ago”? Generally in the modern West we do think that individuals remain responsible for their acts through time; thinking this way makes sense on the assumption of a “peach-pit” or atomistic self/identity that remains more or less the same over the life-course. (p. 214)

The peach-pit view makes the assumption that there is a “core” identity that exists and there may be multiple contexts in which the peach-pit is found. So the place to begin any investigation of identity in this view is the individual as a physically distinct person. This is not where I begin an investigation of identity. Rather, I focus upon the schematically different cultural identities that are manifest in myriad contexts. This transforms the idea of a “core” into an idea of a unification of multiple selves. In other words, the unified self or core is the product of an emergent integration of our multiple identities. It is the product rather than the source of identity.

The atomistic view seems to be connected to the historical processes of industrialization and wealth generation. This makes sense to me given the pervasive metaphor of mechanization that historically accompanied industrialization. Industrialization was a means of organizing labor into highly specialized roles that metaphorically paralleled a machine, where each cog and gear provided a special and distinct function that enabled the machine to produce something. Each individual piece had a functional role in making the whole function and enabled greater overall efficiency. This mechanistic view was reflected in the advanced science (i.e., natural philosophy) of the day: Newtonian physics. The atomistic view permeated the conceptualization of humans, labor and production, and the underlying foundations of the universe.

Such a conception of the self, however, can be understood as the result of a long development in Western societies, primarily in the last five hundred years, beginning with the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant emphasis on the individual soul and salvation is then philosophically refined and secularized in figures such as Descartes. Making real such a conception of the self further appears to depend on the wealth generated through industrialization. (As we have seen in the discussion of privacy, such a conception of the self, while initially alien to Eastern societies such as China, Japan, and Thailand, is becoming increasingly apparent–in part, as these societies develop the wealth that make individual privacy realizable, e.g., through the luxury of private rooms for children, etc.) (p. 215)

Industrialization, as it spread to non-industrialized nations, brought with it the ability to understand individuals as having a “core” identity where individualism as a value holds sway. But this isn’t the only cultural model of identity that exists. Ess offers another, based in a Confucian tradition:

By contrast, in classical Confucian thought (and elsewhere, as we will see), human beings are understood first of all as relational beings: we are who we are always and only as we are taken up in specific relationships with others. For me, this means that I am always and only someone’s son, brother, spouse, father, uncle, friend, employee, boss, beneficiary, etc.; and how I am–i.e., my choices, attitudes, behaviors, etc.–is always shaped in specific ways by each specific relationship. And so, how I am in relationship with my parents is different from how I am in relationship with my spouse, my siblings, my own children, my students, etc. To continue Henry Rosemonts’ (2006) organic metaphors, in classical Chinese thought, human beings are like onions, not peaches: each of our distinctive relationships with others–including the larger social and political communities and, finally, the natural order at large (Tian)–constitutes one of the multiple layers that in turn make up who we are as human beings. In contrast with the peach-pit model, however, if we remove layers of relationship from the onion, there’s nothing left. (p. 215)

The onion metaphor corresponds better to the idea of having multiple cultural identities. It also makes clear the difficulty in establishing a transcendent unity of self, an emergent integration of the whole. The onion view simply layers the multiple cultural identities, but offers no clear way of understanding how they are layered or what keeps the layers together. It simply frames the layers as a unified whole in the form of an onion. Maybe it is as simple as this–these multiple cultural identities represent a single, integrated identity when considered together. But for me this is ultimately unsatisfying. It is the same as imposing a supra category upon a number of sub categories. It reflects a sense of something and we can making meaning of it, but it doesn’t explain how the multiple layers became a singular entity.

The question of singular vs. multiple identities seems like a chicken-and-egg problem: which came first? How do we know which came first? How does one develop from the other? It’s too analytical of a problem. What if we looked at it phenomenologically? Could we describe these seemingly distinct things as mutually constitutive? Do they develop or emerge simultaneously in context? The individual-I and the relational-I are always and at once engaged in Gadamerian play. Individual-I is engaged in play such that I am focused on the activity of concern (e.g., playing, learning, writing). Individual-I is actively doing something like kicking the ball, listening or speaking in class, or typing on a keyboard. Relational-I is actively, though perhaps subsidiarily, processing the rules of the activity and the other player/instructor/reader’s activities in context. In Gadamerian parlance, I am both engaged in the game activity and simultaneously aware of the rules of the game. These cannot be separated, though we can isolate either engagement or awareness for discussion or analytical purposes. So, “I” am both an individual-I and a relational-I at any given moment for any given context. In this view, “I” am actually a phenomenon that is the continual interplay between an individual and relational. The only metaphors that suffice would be those that capture the notion of “interplay.” Neither the peach-pit nor the onion satisfy this condition.

To be continued…


Qualitative Research is…

Most of use would find it easier to conduct research if there were more clear set of rules to follow, if we could be assured that the paths of least resistance would be the most fruitful, or if were we guaranteed at least one “aha” moment in which it all fell into place and the right route was revealed. Qualitative research is never going to offer those things…doing qualitative research well is a matter of finding practical and defensible balancing points between opposing tensions. We always make trade-offs in our research choices. The trick is to understand the trade-offs we are making well enough to defend them to others.

Nancy Baym, ”What Constitutes Quality in Qualitative Internet Research?” In Markham, A. and Baym, N.K., Eds., Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method. Sage Publications, 2009.

Informational vs. Semiotic Views

I’ve been working on a paper that is based on part of my dissertation. It challenges the idea of semantic in semantic technologies. It turns out that Søren Brier had a similar idea. I almost wish I’d read his book before writing the dissertation. It’s good to be validated.

The informational paradigm is based on an objective, quantitative information concept and works with algorithmic models of perception, cognition and communication. Semiotics, in contrast, is based in human language’s meaningful communication and is phenomenological as well as dependent on the theory of meaning.

One way to approach the problem is to view the pan-informational paradigm as a ‘bottom-up’ explanation and the pan-semiotic paradigm as a ‘top-down’ explanation. One could further combine this with an epistemological perspective, which suggests that no final reductive scientific explanations can be given to anything in this world, including the behaviors of organisms. All we have are complementary explanations that work well in different situations. We can never attain a full view. Accordingly, it may be impossible to unite the two paradigms by manipulating basic definitions into unifying compromises….

One of the consequences of this is that concepts of meaning and the objective statistical information concept are defined within two distinct paradigms. This makes the informational aspect of communication as an objective and quantifiable entity completely independent of any meaningful interpretation by the recipient and any intent on the part of the sender. In linguistics this opposition is seen from the perspective of analytical philosophy, which perceives semantics as a question of the representational truth function of a token, whereas pragmatic linguistics posits that meaning arises from the use of signs and words in real-life situations.

Brier, S. (2008) Cybersemiotics: Why Information is Not Enough, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 42-43.

Information as Ontologization

UPDATE: Published in Early View.

I received notification this morning that my manuscript, Information as Ontologization has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.


The traditional view of data, information and knowledge as a hierarchy fosters an understanding of information as an independent entity with objective meaning—that while information is tied to data and knowledge, its existence is not dependent upon them. While traditional conceptions assume a static nature of information, expressed by the equation information = data + meaning, we have argued that this understanding is based on an ontologization of an entwined process of sense-making and meaning-making. This process starts from the recognition of a pattern that is interpreted in a way that influences our behavior. At the same time, the process character of meaning-making makes us aware of the fact that this ontologized hierarchy is in fact an interwoven process. We conclude that the phenomenological analysis of this ontologization that makes into being data, information, and knowledge has to go back to this process to reveal the essential underlying dependencies.

Essentially, we argue that information doesn’t exist as part of a hierarchy of data-information-knowledge regardless of the directional preference one has for this hierarchy. Information, rather, is a phenomenon of ontologization, the core of which consists in the transformation of patterns through an entwined process of individual sense-making and sociocultural meaning-making. Moreover, the transformation of these patterns is handled schematically, which provides a consistency to these transformations such that data and knowledge are merged into one being—information as an ontological whole.

Information & Privacy

Floridi (1999) Information Ethics: On the philosophical foundations of Computer Ethics, Ethics and Information Technology 1:33-52, DOI: 10.1023/A:1010018611096

On privacy as a case of information ethics:

[p. 52-53:]

Privacy does not play a significant role in standard macroethics because it is the property of a class of objects as patients, not of actions. It becomes a central issue only within a culture that begins to recognise that entities are clusters of information, and that privacy is a fundamental concept referring to the integrity and well-being of an information entity. Privacy is not only an individual’s problem, but may be a group’s problem, a company’s or corporation’s problem, or a whole nation’s problem, since all these entities have their nature fully determined and constituted by the information they are. How does the problem of privacy arise then? Within the infosphere, entities form a web of dependencies and symbiotic relations. The data output of data collection and analysis processes can become the input of other information processes (no hierarchy is implied). Complex relations among data- producers, data-collectors, data-processors and data- consumers constitute an ecosystem in which data may be recycled, collated, matched, restructured and hence used to make strategic decisions about individuals. In this scenario, questions of informational privacy become increasingly urgent the easier it becomes to collect, assemble, transmit and manipulate huge quantities of data. Note that cases in which privacy and confidentiality are broken because the information in question is legally or ethically significant are cases which society may agree to tolerate: e.g. we may all agree that in special circumstances bank accounts may be checked, computer files searched, or tele- phones bugged. The interesting point, for a theoretical foundation of information ethics, is not that information may have some legal consequences. Typically, privacy and confidentiality are treated as problems concerning S’ ownership of some information, the information being somehow embarrassing, shameful, ominous, threatening, unpopular or harmful for S’ life and well-being, yet this is very misleading, for the nature of the information in question is quite irrelevant. It is when the information is as innocuous as one may wish it to be that the question of privacy acquires its clearest value. The husband, who reads the diary of his wife without her permission and finds in it only memories of their love, has still acted wrongly. The source of the wrongness is not the consequences, nor any general maxim concerning personal privacy, but a lack of care and respect for the individual, who is also her information. Yet this is not the familiar position we find defended in CE literature. Rather, a person’s claim to privacy is usually justified on the basis of a logic of ownership and employment: a person possesses her own information (her intimately related facts)[8] and has a right to exercise full control over it, e.g., sell it, disclose it, conceal it, and so forth. There follows that the moral problem is normally thought to consist both in the improper acquisition and use of someone else’s property, and in the instrumental treatment of a human being, who is reduced to numbers and life- less collections of information. Sometimes, it is also argued that privacy has an instrumental value, as a necessary condition for special kinds of social relationships or behaviours, such as intimacy, trust, friendship, sexual preferences, religious or political affiliations or intellectual choices. The suggestion is finally advanced that a person has a right to both exclusive ownership and unique control/use of her private information and that she must be treated differently from a mere packet of information. According to IE, however, this view is at least partly mistaken and fails to explain the problem in full. Instead of trying to stop agents treating human beings as information entities, we should rather ask them to realise that when they treat personal and private information they are treating human beings themselves, and should therefore exercise the same care and show the same ethical respect they would exercise and show when dealing with other people, living bodies or environmental elements. We have seen that a person, a free and responsible agent, is after all a packet of information. She is equivalent to an information microenvironment, a constantly elastic and permeable entity with centres and peripheries but with boundaries that are neither sharply drawn nor rigidly fixed in time. What kind of microinfosphere am I? Who am I? I am my, not anyone’s, self. I am ‘me’, but who or what is this constantly evolving object that constitutes ‘me’, this selfhood of mine? A bundle of information. Me-hood, as opposed to type-self-hood and to the subject-oriented I-hood (the Ego), is the token-person identified as an individual patient from within, is an individual self as viewed by the receiver of the action. We are our information and when an information entity is a human being at the receiving end of an action, we can speak of a me-hood. What kind of moral rights does a me-hood enjoy? Privacy is certainly one of them, for personal information is a constitutive part of a me-hood. Accessing information is not like accessing physical objects. Physical objects may not be affected by their manipulation, but any cognitive manipulation of information is also performative: it modifies the nature of information by automatically cloning it. Intrusion in the me-hood is therefore equivalent to a process of personal alienation: the piece of information that was meant to be and remain private and unique is multiplied and becomes public, it is transformed into a dead piece of my self that has been given to the world, acquires an independent status and is no longer under my control. Privacy is nothing less than the defence of the personal integrity of a packet of information, the individual; and the invasion of an individual’s informational privacy, the unauthorised access, dispersion and misuse of her information is a trespass into her me-hood and a disruption of the information environment that it constitutes. The violation is not a violation of ownership, of personal rights, of instrumental values or of Consequentialist rules, but a violation of the nature of information itself, an offence against the integrity of the me-hood and the efforts made by the individual to construct it as a whole, accurate, autonomous entity independent from, and yet present within, the world. The intrusion is disruptive not just because it breaks the atmosphere of the environment, but because any information about ourselves is an integral part of ourselves, and whoever has access to it possesses a piece of ourselves, and thus undermines our uniqueness and our autonomy from the world. There is information that everyone has about us, but this is only our public side, the worn side of our self, and the price we need to pay to society to be recognised as its members.

[8] T. Forester and P. Morrison, Computer Ethics, 2nd ed. Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press, p. 102, 1994: “Perhaps the final issue is that concerning information ownership: should information about me be owned by me? Or should I, as a data- base operator, own any information that I have paid to have gathered and stored?”.

The Heideggerian Disruptions of Zippy The Pinhead | Philosophy Now

I wished I could have incorporated more about comics as illustrative of the automatic processing functionality of schemas. I suppose now it becomes fodder for new writing. The Ellen Grabiner article linked below is short. Worth the read.

Martin Heidegger and Zippy the Pinhead. These thinkers both question our habitual approaches to everyday life and suggest we abandon gestellen – the ways in which we tend to ‘enframe’, and consequently diminish, our experience.

The Heideggerian Disruptions of Zippy The Pinhead | Philosophy Now


From Brier, S. (2008) Cybersemiotics, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 12:

…we can see that inquiry is never disinterested. As Popper and Peirce point out, it is usually an answer to questions or problems. Truth is not merely socially determined, so it seems that the questions of what, how, and why are always intertwined. Nor is it simply a matter of what works (pragmatism) – for instance, to satisfy desire or relieve pain – or of maximizing happiness (utilitarianism). Furthermore, what counts as true is not a simple given essence, be it abstract ideas (Plato), mathematical laws (scientism), or phenomenological noumenial structures (Husserl). The problem is that knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of theories, which form concepts and categorizations, but knowledge also presupposes values. Conversely, knowledge of theories and values presupposes facts. The hermeneutical circles evolve into a spiral movement in understanding. Thus truth is a normative term as well as a descriptive one (Peirce). Simple correspondence between word and object – or sentence and state of affairs – provides very little explanatory force and value alone (correspondence theories of truth). Inquiry is never disinterested, so while facts in the world are of course a necessary feature of what it means to talk about the truth, there are always underlying ontological, epistemological, and axiological commitments in holding a term or sentence to be true. This is why Kuhn’s paradigm concept (rather, his discinplinary matrix) is a useful analytical tool in the philosophy and sociology of the sciences. But in my view (Brier 2005) it is not to be used to discourage the search for compatibility among the various ways of striving for publicly accessible and controllable meaning and knowledge.