June 04, 2005

Does this vine make my butt look big?

I don't know, the tattoo pictures have got to be getting kind of humdrum for you guys. No, dear, the vine looks fine. Yes, yes, that's very nice, Dianna. If I give you a cookie will you go away?

Today was shoulders and arms, and now the outlining is mercifully finished. Here's a not very illuminative picture, because Jacob's at the lab so it's just me here with the auto-timer and the slack-jawed self-picture-taking faces which marred all of my detail shots. You get the idea; I have a short-sleeved tattoo-shirt. It's unutterably badass, so I won't utter anything further about it.

Posted by dianna at June 4, 2005 10:40 PM

For the record, it's still totally hot.
Gowing steadily hotter with every inky etching.
Don't stop posting the pictures.
You go, girl.

Oh, and watch out for that pole.
and the unicorn. he's vengeful.

Posted by: kati at June 5, 2005 01:20 AM

I don't understand what the "choose" means. I'm assuming that's some kind of vegan thing?

Posted by: dr v at June 5, 2005 04:58 AM

Kati, you're always so stunningly complimentary that I'm starting to develop a sort of conditioned response; when I see that you've commented on my blog I start grinning even before I read what you wrote. Thank you!

"Choose" isn't a vegan thing; it's more general, and except for proximity it has nothing to do with the plants. It's about free will. It's a reminder that we as humans have the utterly amazing ability to decide the course of our own lives. We can each spend our however-many-years doing exactly what's important to us and exactly what reflects the values we hold, provided we remember to pay attention to the choices we make. Who is it supposed to be reminding? Me, which is why I was unhappy with the amount of attention it attracted from other people when it was the only thing on my back.

My original thought was to put something around the letters that continued the idea in graphic form, but it was way too heavy-handed. I kept toning it down until it turned into something that still does have a message buried in it that relates to "choose", but mostly it's just there to represent something I love.

Posted by: Dianna at June 5, 2005 09:55 AM

if it's there to remind you, shouldn't it be somewhere you can see it? when i got my dad's chinese name on my calf, one of the arguments posed by yutaro against that choice location was that i wouldn't see it very often and thus it would be like putting him behind me in a place which was inaccessible. obviously i chose it anyway which exemplifies the message of yours but it is still somewhere i hardly ever see.

irregardless, i'm loving the fruit.

Posted by: michele at June 5, 2005 10:24 AM

Irrespective of whether I see it, I always know my word is there. I actually put it there because of what I can only think to call body mythology; a strong statement like that had to go someplace that I thought of as big and strong.

Besides, with my sun-on-shoulders fetish and ability to keep tank top manufacturers in business, I see my back pretty often. And thank you, madam. I'm sure my fruit is loving you t-- no, wait, that doesn't sound right at all.

Posted by: Dianna at June 5, 2005 12:10 PM

i like the little separate leaf at the bottom best i think. this will eventually be in color, right?

Posted by: didofoot at June 6, 2005 09:42 AM

We'll have to agree to disagree.

Posted by: poot at June 6, 2005 10:14 AM

Kris, I hate to disappoint, but the free-floating leaf is not scheduled to stay free-floating forever. These things can change, of course, but at present that's merely a section of stem left out to make it easier to draw something else across that space later. That'll be in a few years when my bank account recovers from the beating it's getting right now.

Poot: you have a charming way of introducing a debate and then immediately swearing you won't take part in it. On this one, since it's a matter of personal belief rather than logic (for both of us, I suspect), I'm thrilled not to take part in it either.

Lastly, when I saw a link to a Bob the Angry Flower strip I was certain it was going to be one of his grammatical rants directed at Michele's use of "irregardless". I'm slightly disappointed to learn that it's not.

Posted by: Dianna at June 6, 2005 11:24 AM

I think where you put "Choose" is perfect. I put something just under my hairline at the base of my neck because I wanted to always have it, for lack of a non-corny well-articulated explanation, at the back of my mind. I can only see it in the mirror, and almost nobody even knows it's there because my hair is down most of the time. Body mythology is exactly right.

Posted by: dara at June 6, 2005 06:41 PM

Interestingly, I once did a little thinking on the concept of free will. The scientific evidence for this is extremely weak. We most definitely have the experience of free will but could you really act more than one way given an identical, preceding brain state? Almost certainly not as this would not be in accordance with what we know of chemistry and physics. Even when accounting for quantum mechanics -- which says there is some randomness in the world -- free will still cannot exist because the notion of free will implies that the conscious mind has direct influence over these quantum events (a top-to-bottom flow of causation instead of bottom-to-top). So, we constantly have the experience of free will but does it actually exist in a literal sense? Probably not.

Posted by: dr v at June 7, 2005 02:03 AM

I have to disagree. More and more the biological sciences are turning to statistical models (vs simple logic gates) for even small neuronal networks. There's a only probability (sometimes a very high one) that a given neuron will fire in response to a stimulus, and a probability again that the receiving neuron will itself fire. Multiply that by the billions of neurons in the brain, and I think there's hope for free will, yet. Especially in cases of emotion/logic, where stimuli are acting on thousands to millions of neurons at once, causing multiple pathways of probability to interact.

Posted by: Jacob at June 7, 2005 07:09 AM

...because the notion of free will implies that the conscious mind has direct influence over these quantum events (a top-to-bottom flow of causation instead of bottom-to-top)

Posted by: dr v at June 7, 2005 07:53 AM

I don't think it implies that at all. In fact, I think that the top-down vs bottom-up notion of free will is a straw man. Of course we can't control everything about our own bodies. We normally don't consciously time the beating of our own hearts any more than we decide which set of nerves a signal will travel down.
I find the free will argument is more interesting when arguing between 1) the mind as a collection of static programmed circuits (no free will, since the system will always act the same way for a given situation) or 2) the mind as a dynamic collection of semi-random pathways (free will, since there is now a choice between multiple paths).

Posted by: Jacob at June 7, 2005 08:57 AM

Well, that certainly isn't what free will means in the Western philsophical tradition, nor do I think that was the intended meaning in the above discussion about it. The idea is that your conscious mind has the ability to choose what actions to take. That is, your mind is at the beginning of the causal chain and everything follows from that. The simple fact that quantum mechanics and groups of neurons behave in a probabilistic fashion does not establish this causal chain.

When people speak of free will they are generally referring to the experience of being able to choose multiple actions in any given situation -- and that very much implies top-down causation. Just because the mind may not be completely pre-determined does not mean that your conscious mind ever plays a direct causal role in determining your eventual brain state and subsequent actions. Randomness does not equal free will.

Posted by: dr v at June 7, 2005 10:00 AM

I'm now on my third attempt to comment on this, and every time I get myself off of the logical sandbars on which I keep winding up and get ready to post, there's a new comment and it changes the context in which I'd be posting.

Let me try again: biology can't prove or disprove free will, because biology doesn't know yet. Jacob and Dr. V just demonstrated that. All there are are models, and sometimes contradictory models at that; that's the way of science, to float explanations until one of them can be shown to work (or all of them not to work). We're not there yet -- the preceding five posts are littered with probablies and almost-certainlies. I'll posit that anyone who has a solid position in this debate has it because of personal belief, not because of the non-unanimous science of the matter.

So then the question is what to believe? This is where you may begin cringing if you're in the no-free-will camp. Me, I can believe I have no control over anything, or I can believe I have control over everything. One reeks of fatalism; one motivates me. I choose the latter. Why? Because I can.

Posted by: Dianna at June 7, 2005 11:27 AM

just for the record, I join Kris in being a large fan of the lone leaf. Not that this matters, but there it is. It's purty.

Posted by: kati at June 7, 2005 11:35 AM

Dr V: I agree with you that free will = the ability to choose. But I disagree that implies top-down causation. If one can choose multiple actions, that doesn't necessarily mean that some numinous unexplained force must lay behind it all. Instead, the very randomness of the wiring is what gives you the ability to choose. When you come to the fork in a road, pathway X is as likely to fire as Y/Z/Q/N/M/F, even given umpteen billion things (emotion, time of day, relationship with parents, what you had for lunch, etc.) that were identical before then. In that way, randomness does lead to free will. Without the stochastic properties of the brain, people and animals would be stuck with one set of behaviors. Instead, the randomness of the system allows the brain to build new instruction sets from new experiences.

Let's say that at any given point, there are umpteen-billion different things you might do, based on the neural circuits that are currently firing. Many of those possibilities are things you've never done before and never even considered doing. But they're still dictated by the pathways in your brain. How is an impossibly huge number of potentialities any different from free will? Why must the number of possibilities be infinite?

Posted by: Jacob at June 7, 2005 12:00 PM

Thank you, Kati. It gives the whole thing a much more autumnal falling-leaves feel than I was going for, though. It's high summer in Backville, the prime of life for leaves. There's photosynthesizing to be done! No time for stragglers to go falling off the stem! Get back in line, you rascals, and do your duty for queen (bee) and country!

Posted by: Dianna at June 7, 2005 01:33 PM

Applying some brutal reduction to Dr. V.'s arguments brings it down to:

  1. Everything is made of atoms
  2. Atoms follow rules
  3. Brains, like everything else, are made of atoms
  4. Therefore brains follow rules
  5. Therefore mental processes are deterministic and there is no free will.

It's a pretty solid argument, and I think I disagree with Jacob; randomness and complexity do not, in my opinion, add up to free will. (If I understand it correctly, the "randomness" under discussion comes from things like which neuron fires first or which neuron fires at all, which very well might, with a little bit of digging into the atoms and chemistry, end up being deterministic too.)

But to go back to something Dr. V. said:

The scientific evidence for [free will] is extremely weak. We most definitely have the experience of free will but could you really act more than one way given an identical, preceding brain state?

And there's the thing. The sciences under discussion (physics, chemistry, bottom-up deterministic types of things) don't have anything that explains the sensation of free will. Or the sensation of consciousness, for that matter. So what's the scientific response to the observation of a phenomenon that does not fit into established theory? Either the observation is false, or the theory needs to be changed. As for the observation being false, well I've been taking data on this subject for a good 26 years now and I'm pretty convinced that I do exist and that I do, indeed, have the capability to choose what I do next. I cannot construct a scientific theory about what really is going on inside our brains, but I think I can make a scientific argument against determinism being the answer to all the questions.

Posted by: Andrew at June 7, 2005 02:46 PM

I think my sticking point is in the connotations. To me, a lack of free will suggests a set of rigid, pre-defined paths. Even in the reductionist description, though the brain might have a set of rules, those rules belong in the world of statistical mechanics and other such models of large populations of very small things. To me, the number of possible states one might get to is so large and in such a balanced equilibrium, that it might as well be free will.

I can see where you guys are coming from: a system responds to stimuli based on rules, and even though we might not understand what's inside that super-complex box, the rules are still there. But my point is that the very sensation of free will (and I'm not sure that's any different from free will itself) could come from the staggering complexity and semi-randomness of what's inside the box. Because you have such a wide array of possible responses that are dictated (at least in part) by chance, one generates a history of new experiences and attitudes that lead one to conclude that one has the ability to freely make choices.

Posted by: Jacob at June 7, 2005 03:12 PM


What's the difference between a decision wholly determined by your existing ideas and tendencies (hardwired in your neural pathways), and a free-will-exercising decision made upon consideration of your preferences and convictions (hardwired in your neural pathways)?

Posted by: Dianna at June 7, 2005 03:31 PM

Yes! That's exactly my point!

Posted by: Jacob at June 7, 2005 03:45 PM

Good! I like that point!

Posted by: Dianna at June 7, 2005 04:17 PM

The bottom line for me, I think, is that the belief in free will provides me with the motivation to behave as though I can be held strictly culpable for absolutely everything I do. When I remember to think about it, I stop to ask myself if I would want to be held responsible for X or Y action. No? Then I find something I can stand behind and do that instead.

Do you know how fucking happy that approach to life has made me? Fucking happy. I'd recommend it to anyone, illusion or no.

Posted by: Dianna at June 7, 2005 04:32 PM

I just think the falling leaf gives that tattoo movement,
which I think looks groovy.

Posted by: kati at June 7, 2005 05:12 PM

I think an important element is missing from this string: one's neural pathways are neither "hardwired" nor "random". In A General Theory of Love (Lewis, Amini and Lannon, 2000), there's a really good, jargonless explanation of how memories are created and triggered. I'm going to try to summarize that. Your neural pathways are not hardwired because they are forever expanding, integrating, and sometimes free associating. When you learn something or experience something new, a "new" neural pathway is created, although it's most likely an extension of pre-existing, strong neural pathway(s) associated with something(s) like, related to, concurrent with, etc., the new sensory input. To create a "memory", that particular neural pathway is "strengthened" through use, the way a dirt path gets worn over time, or a string becomes a candle the more it's dipped in wax. My point here is that memory is like a Lego structure, you can only add onto it using what you already have and most things will attach to the strongest part of the structure (although here it's because those pathways are the mostly likely to be activated through their constant use.)

Granted, there are billions of possibilities for the creation of this neural pathway and billions of different things that it could be associated with. It will be different for each person and each person may thing of something different every time they are prompted with, for example, the word "dog". However, this does not amount to neural pathways being "random". While the mind's ability to create and access associations is one of its mysterious miracles, it does so in a relatively orderly fashion considering the billions of possibilities. Just as new memories are created using existing strong neural pathways, when a memory is triggered (a particular neural pathway), it triggers strong neural pathways containing that particular pathway (the neurons that usually fire along with that memory's pathway). This simply means that certain thoughts usually trigger related thoughts and hardly trigger unrelated thoughts. One hardly thinks of sharks and fire together or coffee tables and Jupiter, but sharks and water, fire and ice, coffee tables and magazines, and Jupiter and Saturn commonly trigger each other. However, the fact that the mind can come up with opposites and unrelated ideas suggests that we are capable of blazing new paths outside our common associations and link them up with previously unrelated ones.

This leads me to believe that we experience free will because certain neural pathways are inevitably triggered by certain stimuli simply due to their usual connection to the initially triggered neurons. No one really knows if one neural pathway is triggered, which triggers connected pathways, or if many pathways are triggered at once and trigger their connected pathways. Either way, a lot of different things are triggered in any given situation and this will differ among people and with time in a particular person. Sometimes "cat" will be the first word you think of when you hear âdogâ, sometimes it will be "bone". When a stimulus triggers different but related neural pathways, those pathways may present you with a choice. Is "cat" really the first word you think of, or did you have to choose it over "bone"? When you're scared, do you choose to flee or fight, or do you just obey your "instinct"?

I say free will is the conscious experience we have after our mind has already done the basic work for us that we never even have to "think" about. These kinds of operations are so fast, natural and involuntary that you can't really expect to be able consciously control them. By the time we are faced with a choice, something at a very basic, physical level has already given us our set of choices. While you can spend days agonizing over a choice, considering all your options, exploring the different related and opposite neural pathways, those pathways can (usually) only be accessed in a relatively orderly way and each new choice stems from the original set of stimuli, making its way over well worn pathways that are always sprouting new branches and making new connections. I say choice is neither predetermined nor random, but âfree willâ a magical mix of both that can only exist in nature. It is what makes us human and allows us to learn and change over time.

For me, the word âchooseâ suggests both the unique ability humans have to recognize their consciousness, explore our thoughts and take one course of action, but also the mysterious ways our minds and âheartsâ work on a level we can only affect over long periods of time. Seriously, read A General Theory of Love.

Posted by: Kristina at June 7, 2005 10:21 PM

Dianna, to answer the question you had that nobody answered: the difference is the X-factor you added, the "consideration" of the hardwired preferences. That suggests an added layer of complexity. If the consideration is likewise a hardwired response, then it's essentially the same as the no-free-will argument, just using more words. If it's not, then it's something for which there currently exists no empirical data.

That's a logic issue. So is this: refuting causal determinism is a necessary but insufficient condition for proving the existence of free will.

I think Kristina offers the best argument against free will as an objective phenomenon, even though she refuses to use it for that end. Free will is explained wonderfully as a post-hoc subjective superstructure. Empirical data supports similar conclusions in related fields; test subjects unknowingly injected with adrenaline are more likely to interpret their physical reaction to the physical stimuli as nervousness, irritation, excitement, etc., based on the affectations of confederates who surround them.

But let us not dwell on such matters; instead, let's turn our attention to webcomics: harsh, digital, and dripping with cynicism. Aw yeah.

Posted by: poot at June 8, 2005 07:12 AM

I sincerely love this comment thread, with the back-and-forth fight about free will being shouted over the tiny little comments about the single leaf.

At the risk of breaking the pattern by uniting both strands in a single comment, I must say: I am an enormous fan of the single leaf. It does give movement. And it keeps the back from being too symmetrical or blocky. It's like a little punctuation mark down there. Di, I lobby heavily for it to stay isolated.

And the free will argument is pretty crucially lacking in humanistic considerations here, right? Biology can't prove the existence or nonexistence of free will, precisely because it would have to be something that's not biologically determined. It's not a matter of what's "hardwired" or not - it's much more subtle than that; you're not accounting anough for the way that culture shapes your thinking. The argument I'm reading here is really about competing ideologies. "Free will" is one grand narrative that explains how people live. "No free will" is another grand narrative. The thing with metanarratives is that they're total - they can't compromise or allow room for each other; it's not how they operate. So, depending on which metanarrative your thinking is structured by, you're just pulling in pseudo-empirical data that fits within it. The recourse to science isn't going to get you anywhere here. Look, it's more subtle than that anyway. There's a grand narrative in which I operate that says we have free will. Of course, I've inherited that narrative - I'm already not freely choosing it - so my thinking that I have free will, and acting accordingly, is already overdetermined by that narrative.

Keep the leaf.

Posted by: katie at June 8, 2005 12:35 PM

Damnit, it's THREE leaves. Three leaves don't fall off a plant together, and they definitely don't fall up. Further, I tend to think having it separate actually makes the whole more symmetrical; it suggests that the two vines end at similar heights, rather than letting the unruly tomato vine grow so far out that it passes the bottom of the rest of the tattoo and doubles back on itself.

Posted by: Dianna at June 8, 2005 12:49 PM

Ok, now I honestly don't know what you're talking about with the three leaves and the falling up business.

To me, it looks like a breeze is carrying it away. I'm with Katie, but ultimately am such a fan of the tattoo as a whole that it doesn't matter.

Plus, it's your back. And it's a tattoo.
So what on earth do I have to say about it anyway?

Posted by: kati at June 8, 2005 12:55 PM

Heehee. I love it as a separate leaf-bunch, actually. I'm playing devil's advocate and just letting you guys make an excellent case for keeping it. It's staying for several years anyway, probably, so you have all the time in the world to work on me. Keep at it.

Posted by: Dianna at June 8, 2005 01:12 PM

Adopting Kepler's laws of motion precludes adopting perfectly spherical orbits with epicycles, yet no one would argue that each is a "metanarrative" that draws in "pseudo-empirical" data to support itself. Asserting that the the free will dilemma cannot be adequately supported or refuted by science or empirical data is quite different from damning the two sides because they're mutually exclusive. You're free to adopt the former position, but it's not a given. The latter, meanwhile, has no bearing on the issue. It's a red herring.

As for us failing to account for culture shaping thinking, I think that "culture" and "thinking" are precisely the kind of pseudo-empirical data forms that we've been trying to avoid. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'd assert that "culture" and "thinking" can both be reduced to material stimuli, even if they're not directly observable. But both represent clunky human groupings of ridiculously complex bunches of stimuli. And that's bad news for any argument that tries to root itself in hard science.

As for the tatt, I've refrained from offering my opinion because I don't really have one. Not a legitimate one anyway. One man's art is another man's canvas I guess. No accounting for taste. Etc. etc.

Posted by: poot at June 8, 2005 01:54 PM

You know what else is just a red herring? Communism.

Communism was just a red herring.

Posted by: Jacob at June 8, 2005 02:22 PM

Can I interest anyone in fruit, or dessert?

Posted by: kati at June 8, 2005 02:40 PM

The Swiss! The Swiss are attacking!

Swiss cheese, for dessert, that is. Or maybe fondue. Can I have some chocolate-dipped strawberries? That'll cover me for fruit and dessert.

Posted by: Dianna at June 8, 2005 02:56 PM

Communism is the second of the three phenomena which make up the water cycle. The water cycle comprises three phenomena: fruit, communism, and dessert. Of these, communism is the second and middle phenomena.

Posted by: Dianna at June 8, 2005 02:59 PM

I feel compelled by the fates and the uncontrollable unpredictability of quantum theory to add my name to the "Keep the Leaf Lone" petition.

Posted by: Danny at June 8, 2005 04:13 PM

We're covering Dianna with fruit for dessert?

Posted by: Danny at June 8, 2005 04:14 PM

is swiss cheese vegan? it smells bad, i know that much. and not a good-bad either.

Posted by: michele at June 8, 2005 04:22 PM

Hell no. Do you know how many Swiss people you need to grind up to make just one block of cheese?

Posted by: Andrew at June 8, 2005 05:28 PM

It's the nectar of the gods. Squeeze a half-dozen gods for 8 ounces of nectar.

Posted by: Dianna at June 8, 2005 05:51 PM

I think one of the main problems with the concept of "free will" is that is presupposes that the "mind" and "body" are somehow separate things that can operate independently of each other. The reason science matters so much in matters of philosophy is that your mind can only operate as its biology allows. Therefore, we should try to look at how our brains actually work and try to reconcile that with our perceptions of our experiences. Humans undoubtably experience free will, an experience that has a great deal of importance and meaning in our lives that cannot be ignored... and I believe explaining it away with science is not productive and potentially harmful to one's sense of self, self-control and social responsibility. It's not good for society if one thinks that whatever they do is OK because they're "predetermined" to do that; people can, over time, change and learn the difference between "good" and "bad." However, blindly believing that you can immediately, consciously control everything your mind does is simply false and hinders meaningful discussion of what our experience of free will actually is.

The leaf is good. It's a very pretty tattoo.

Posted by: Kristina at June 9, 2005 09:50 AM

Couldn't help posting one more time so I'll try to keep it short.

1) The biochemistry of the brain is largely known. We know the chemistry of all the neurotransmitters and every different kind of neuron. We also know a substantial amount about how the various brain regions interact with each other. So, in short, it's not just a "model". 50 years ago it would've been possible to argue that there was some life force or mind force hidden inside the brain but it's no longer "up for grabs" as they say. We know -- with certainty -- that the neurons in the brain obey the same laws of chemistry and physics as everything else.

2) How is calling upon a wealth of neuroscience and biochemistry research to support my conclusion (that the mind plays no causal role in the physical configuration of your brain) making use of "pseudo-empirical data"? Last time I checked, time-tested results in physics and chemistry were not considered pseudo-empirical.

3) That leaves us with the only real support for free will -- the experience itself. Andrew points out correctly that there is no scientific explanation for the experience of free will. I personally believe -- for what I think to be good reasons -- there's a very good chance that there never will be a scientific explanation.

This is where Occam's Razor comes in. Given what we know of the brain it is simply far more likely -- in my opinion -- that the "will" is a side-effect of a biological process (or a "post-hoc subjective superstructure") and is not causal in nature. It's more likely that the mind is not causal because all of the current empirical evidence suggests that this is the case. If the mind were causal it would require a radical rethinking of neuroscience, chemistry and physics. Of course, scientific truth is not absolute. I would certainly change my views given real empirical evidence to the contrary. However, as a responsible scientist I can only conclude that the will is a non-causal phenomenon.

Posted by: dr v at June 13, 2005 07:37 AM