Do Humans Have Free Will, or Are We Programmed by Society? Joscha Bach

July 24, 2017 by Laura Gomez

For many years, Joscha Bach could not understand why humans flock so strongly towards religion and ideology. Having grown up in communist East Germany and seeing the people around him buy into nationalistic narratives—that were to him obviously untruthful—made no sense. It was only when the wall came down that he came to understand that people everywhere are buying into various false narratives—as of 2015, 34% of Americans still reject evolution completely. The drive to believe whatever instructions come from above you is not a cognitive error, Bach realized then, but an evolutionary feature—as powerful as it is problematic. The ability for large groups of people to follow one set of rules, to cooperate, is how Homo sapiens established agricultural societies, and is ultimately how we outcompeted other now long-gone nomadic hominin groups. We are a programmable species, says Bach, and we need to belong and conform to a larger entity to survive. As such, Bach sees the debate surrounding free will not as a question of determinism or incompatibilism, but of social conditioning. Perhaps the free will relates to decision-making over physics: are you really free to act in a way that is true, or are you bound by a social code of responsibility that runs thousands of years deep in your genetics? Joscha Bach’s latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.

Joscha Bach
Cognitive Scientist
Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics

Dr. Joscha Bach (MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics) is an AI researcher who works and writes about cognitive architectures, mental representation, emotion, social modeling, and multi-agent systems. He is founder of the MicroPsi project, in which virtual agents are constructed and used in a computer model to discover and describe the interactions of emotion, motivation, and cognition of situated agents. Bach’s mission to build a model of the mind is the bedrock research in the creation of Strong AI, i.e. cognition on par with that of a human being. He is especially interested in the philosophy of AI and in the augmentation of the human mind.

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