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The topic of free-will is one of the largest problems facing modern philosophers. An increasing empirical onslaught has done little to alleviate these murky waters. In actuality, each scientific breakthrough has resulted in greater philosophical confusion, whether it be due to an impractical knowledge base that is needed to interpret these results or counter-intuitive outcomes (RP signal, brain activity precedes conscious action). My own attempts to shed some light onto this matter are equally feeble, which has precipated the creation of the present article. What is the causal nature of the universe? Is each action determined and directly predictable from a sufficiently detailed starting point or is there a degree of inherent uncertainty? How can we reconcile the observation that free-will appears to be a valid characteristic of humanity with mounting scientific evidence to the contrary (eg Grand Unified Theory)? These are the questions I would like to discuss.

‘Emergent’ seems to be the latest buzzword in popular science. While the word is appealing when describing how complexity can arise from relatively humble beginnings, it does very little to actually explain the underlying process. These two states are simply presented on a platter, the lining of which is composed of fanciful ’emergent’ conjourings. While there is an underlying science behind the process involving dynamic systems (modelled on biological growth and movement), there does seem to be an element of hand waving and mystique.

This state of affairs does nothing to help current philosophical floundering. Intuitively, free-will is an attractive feature of the universe. People feel comfortable knowing that they have a degree of control over the course of their life. A loss of such control could even be construed as a faciliator of mental illness (depression, bipolar disorder). Therefore, the attempts of science to develop a unified theory of complete causal prediction seems to undermine our very nature as human beings. Certainly, some would embrace the notion of a deterministic universe with open arms, happy to put uncertainty to an end. However, one would do well (from a Eudamonic point of view) to cognitively reframe anxiety regarding the future to an expectation of suprise and anticipation at the unknown.

While humanity is firmly divided over their preference for a predictable or uncertain universe, the problem remains that we appear to have a causally determined universe with individual freedom of choice and action. Quantum theory has undermined determinism and causality to an extent, with the phenomenon of spontaneous vaccuum energy supporting the possibility of events occuring without any obvious cause. Such evidence is snapped up happily by proponents of free-will with little regard as to its real-world plausibility.This is another example of philosophical hand-waving, where the real problem involves a form of question begging; that is, a circular argument with the premise requiring a proof of itself in order to remain valid! For example, the following argument is often used;

  1. Assume quantum fluctuations really are indeterminate in nature (underlying causality ala ‘String Theory’ not applicable).
  2. Free-will requires indeterminacy as a physical prerequisite.
  3. Quantum fluctuations are responsible for free-will.

 To give credit where it is due, the actual arguments used are more defined than that which is outlined above, however the basic structure is similar. Basic premises can be outlined and postulates put forward describing the possible form of neurological free will, however as with most developing fields the supporting evidence is skimp at best. And to make matters worse, quantum theory has shown that human intuition is often not the best method of attempting an explaination.

 However, if we work with what we have, perhaps something useful will result. This includes such informal accounts such as anecdotal evidence. The consideration of such evidence has led to the creation of two ‘maxims’ that seem to summarise the evidence presented in regards to determinsm and free-will.

Maxim one. The degree of determinism within a system is reliant upon the scale of measurement; a macro form of measurement results in a predominantly deterministic outcome, while a micro form of measurement results in an outcome that is predominantly ‘free’ or unpredictable. What this is saying is that determinism and freedom can be directly reconciled and coexist within the same construct of reality. Rather than existing as two distinctly separate entities, these universal characteristics should be reconceptualised as two extremities on a sliding scale of some fundamental quality. Akin to Einstein’s General Relativity, the notions of determinism and freedom are also relative to the observer. In other words, how we examine the fabric of reality (large or small scale) results in a worldview that is either free or constrained by predictability. Specifically, quantum scale measurements allow for an indeterministic universe, while larger scale phenomenon are increasingly easier to predict (with a corresponding decrease in the accuracy in the measurement tool). In short, determinism (or free-will) is not a physical property of the universe, but a characteristic of perception and an artifact of the mesaurement method used. While this maxim seems commonsensical and almost obvious, I believe the idea that both determinism and free-will are reconcilable features of this universe is a valid proposition that warrants further investigation.

Maxim Two: Indeterminacy and free-will are naturally occuring results that emerge from the complex interaction of a sufficient number of interacting deterministic systems (actual mechanisms unknown). Once again we are falling back on the explanatory scapegoat of ’emergence’, however its use is partially justified (in the light of empirical developments). For example, investigations into fractal patterns and the modelling of chaotic systems seems to justify the existence of emergent complexity. Fractals are generated from a finite set of definable equations and result in an intensely complicated geometric figure with infinite regress, the surface features undulating with each magnification (interestingly, fractal patterns are a naturally occuring feature in the physical world, and can result from biological growth patterns and magnetic field lines). Chaos is a similar phenomemon, beginning from reasonably humble initial circumstances, and due to an amalgamation of interferring variables results in an overall system of indeterminacy and unpredictability (eg weather patterns). Perhaps this is the mechanism of human consciousness of freedom of will; individual (and deterministic) neurons contribute enmasse to an overall emergent system that is unpredictable. As a side note, such a position also supports the possibility of artificial intelligence; build something that is sufficiently complex and ‘human-like’ consciousness and freedom will result.

The two maxims proposed may seem to be quite obvious on cursory inspection, however it can be argued that the proposal of a universe in which determinism and freedom of will form two alternative interpretations of a common, underlying reality is unique. Philisophically, the topic is difficult to investigate and discuss due to limitations on empirical knowledge and an increasing requirement for specialised technical insight into the field.

The ultimate goal of modern empiricism is to reduce reality to a strictly deterministic foundation. In keeping with this aim, experimentation hopes to arrive at physical laws of nature that are increasingly accurate and versatile in their generality. Quantum theory has since put this inexorable march on hold while futile attempts are made to circumvent the obstacle that is the uncertainty principle.

Yet perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel, however dim the journey may be. Science may yet produce a grand unified theory that reduces free-will to causally valid, ubiquitous determinism. More than likely, as theories of free-will become closer to explaining the etiology of this entity, we will find a clear and individually applicable answer receding frustratingly into the distance. From a humanistic perspective, it is hoped that some degree of freedom will be preserved in this way. After all, the freedom to act independently and an uncertainty of the future is what makes life worth living!

After returning from a year-long hiatus to the United Kingdom and continental Europe, I thought it would be prudent to share my experiences. Having caught the travel bug several years ago when visiting the UK for the first time, a year long overseas working holiday seemed like a dream come true. What I didn’t envisage was the effects of this experience on cognitions, specifically, the feelings of displacement, disorientation and dissatisfaction. In this article I aim to examine the effects of a changing environment on the human perceptual experience, as it relates to overseas, out-group exposure and the psychological mechanisms underlying these cognitive fluctuations.

It seems that the human need to belong runs deeper than most would care to admit. Having discounted any possibility of ‘homesickness’ prior to arrival in the UK, I was surprised to find myself unwittingly (or perhaps conforming to unconscious social expectation – but we aren’t psychoanalysts here!) experiencing the characteristic symptomatology of overall depression, including sub-signs of negative affect, longing for a return home and feelings concurrent with social ostracism. This struck me as odd, in that if one is aware of an impending event, surely this awareness predisposes one to a lesser effect simply through mental preparation and conscious deflection of the expected symptoms. The fact that negative feelings were still experienced despite such awareness causes an alternative etiology for the phenomenon of homesickness. Indeed, it offers a unique insight into the human condition; at a superficial level our dependency on consistency and familiarity, and at a deeper, more fundamental level, a possible interpretation of underlying cognitive processes involved in making sense of the world and responding to stimuli.

Taken at face value, a change in an individual’s usual physical and social environment displays the human reliance on group stability. From an evolutionary perspective, the prospect of travel to new and unfamiliar territories (and potential groups of other humans) is a altogether risky affair. On the one hand, the individual (or group) could possibly face death or injury through anthropogenic means or from the physical environment. On the other hand, a lack of change reduces stimulation genetically (through interbreeding with biologically related group members), cognitively (reduced problem solving, mental stagnation once initial challenges relating to the environment are overcome) and socially (exposure to familiar sights and sounds reduces the capacity for growth in language and, ipsofacto, culture). In addition, the reduction of physical resources through consumption and degradation of the land via over-farming (hunting) is another reason for moving beyond the confines of what is safe and comfortable. As the need for biological sustenance outranks all other human requirements (according to Maslow’s hierarchy), inductively it seems plausible that this could be the main motivating factor why human groups migrate and risk everything for the sake of exploring the unconquered territories of terra incognito. 

The mere fact that we do, and have (as shown throughout history) uprooted our familiar ties and trundled off in search of a better existence seems to make the aforementioned argument a moot point. It is not something to be debated, it is merely something that humans just do. Evolution favours travel, with the potential benefits outweighing the risks by far. The promise of greener pastures on the other side is almost enough to guarantee success. The cognitive stimulation such travel brings may also improve the future chances of success in this operation through learnt experiences and the conquering of challenges, as facilitated by human ingenuity.

But what of the social considerations when travelling? Are our out-group prejudices so intense that the very notion of travel to unchartered waters causes waves of anxiety? Are we fearing the unknown, our ability to adapt and integrate or the possibility that we may not make it out alive and survive to propagate our genes? Is personality a factor in predicting an individual’s performance (in terms of adaptation to the new environment, integration with a new group and success at forging new relationships)? From personal experience, perhaps a combination of all these factors and more.

We can begin to piece together a rough working model of travel and its effects on an individual’s social and emotional stability/wellbeing. The change in a social and physical environment seems to predict the activation of certain evolutionary survival mechanisms that are mediated by several conditions of the travel undertaken. Such conditions could involve; similarity of the target country to the country of origin (in terms of culture, language, ethnic diversity, political values etc),  social support to the individual (group size when travelling, facilities to make contact with group members left behind), personality characteristics of the individual (impulsive, extroverted vs introverted, attachment style, confidence) and cognitive ability to integrate and adapt (language skills, intelligence, social ability). Thus we have a (predicted) linear relationship whereby an increase in the degree of change (measured on a multitude of variables such as physical characteristics, social aspects, perceptual similarities) from the original environment to the target environment causes a resultant change in the psychological distress of the individual (either increased or decreased dependent upon the characteristics of the mediating variables).

Perceptually, travel also seems to have an effect on the salience and characteristics of the experience. In this instance we have deeper cognitive processes that activate which influence the human sensory experience on a fundamental level. The model employed here is one of stimulus-response, handed down through evolutionary means from a distant ancestor. Direct observation of perceptual distortion while travelling is apparent when visiting a unique location. Personally, I would describe the experience as an increase in arousal to one of hyper-vigilance. Compared to subsequent visits to the same location, the original seems somehow different in a perceptual sense. Colours, smells, sounds and tastes are all vividly unique. Details are stored in memory that are ignored and discounted after the first event. In essence, the second visit to a place seems to change the initial memory. It almost seems like a different place.

While I am unsure as to whether this is experienced by anyone apart from myself, evolutionarily it makes intuitive sense. The automation of a hyper-vigilant mental state would prove invaluable when placed in a new environment. Details spring forth and are accentuated without conscious effort, thus improving the organism’s chances of survival. When applied to modern situations, however, it is not only disorientating, but also very disconcerting (at least in my experience).

Moving back to social aspects of travel, I have found it to be both simultaneously a gift and a curse. Travel has enabled an increased understanding and appreciation of different cultures, ways of life and alternative methods for getting things done. In the same vein, however, it has instilled a distinct feeling of unease and dissatisfaction with things I once held dear. Some things you simply take for granted or fail to take notice of and challenge. In this sense, exposure to other cultures is liberating; especially in Europe where individuality is encouraged (mainly in the UK) and people expect more (resulting in a greater number of opportunities for those that work hard to gain rewards and recognition). The Australian way of life, unfortunately, is one that is intolerant of success and uniqueness. Stereotypical attitudes are abundant, and it is frustrating to know that there is a better way of living out there.

Perhaps this is one of the social benefits of travel; the more group members that do it increases the chances of changing ways of life towards more tolerant and efficient methods. Are we headed towards a world-culture where diversity is replaced with (cultural) conformity? Is this ethically viable or warranted? Could it do more harm than good? It seems to me that there would be some positive aspects for a global conglomerate of culture. Then again, the main attraction of travel lies in the experience of the foreign and unknown. To remove that would be to remove part of the human longing for exploration and a source of cognitive, social and physical stimulation. Perhaps instead we should encourage travel in society’s younger generations, exposing them to such experiences and encouraging internal change based on better ways of doing things. After all, we are the ones that will be running the country someday.