Imagine that you cannot see or hear and have no sense of smell, taste or touch. Imagine that you have no arms or legs or mouth. Imagine that you have no brain. How would you find food? How would you survive?
On his blog, Matt Russell tells the story of how bacteria manage to survive and thrive despite not having any of the basic tools that we would consider essential for living. It’s a story of survival against the odds that can perhaps teach us something about ourselves.
Being a bacterium’s a bummer. You’re swimming along, minding your own business and pesky water molecules keep bumping into you, moving you about. One minute there’s plenty of food available, the next it’s gone. Life seems so unfair. The answer? Just get on with it!
But how? How do you know where the food is? Well, despite having none of the five senses that humans have, those resourceful bacteria can sense their surroundings rather well. In fact they can detect a variation of a few sugar molecules in a liquid with 1,000,000,000,0000 sugar molecules. And they can react to this variation, changing direction to move towards the food. A bacterium uses proteins that bind to specific molecules creating chemical changes that cause it to move or change direction.
Is this thinking? Does the bacterium have free will? How can it think or have free will if it has no brain? Isn’t it just a biological machine that moves around because of chemical reactions taking place? There’s nothing else going on.
But wait. Isn’t that what happens in the human brain too?
Our human minds construct complex mental models of ourselves and our environment and access all kinds of memories whenever we make decisions. But that’s nothing more than fancy data manipulation. Underneath, it’s just biochemistry. We are a lot more complicated than bacteria for sure, but are we fundamentally different?
Are we just automata, responding to external events in a predictable, deterministic way? On this blog I previously argued that free will is compatible with determinism, and so I like to think that bacteria are more than just dumb chemical factories too. If you view the world from a bacterium’s point of view instead of a reductionist one, the situation looks different. It’s no longer about proteins and chemical reactions – it’s about food and the quest for survival.
Bacteria don’t just respond to their environment. They change it. They don’t let the water molecules push them about. They won’t stay still and starve to death – they go looking for food. Matt explains in his blog how bacteria even communicate with each other in order to exchange information about their surroundings and make collective decisions.
They are movers and shakers, imposing their needs on the world of dumb matter that surrounds them. They are awesome little dudes.
Is this free will? The bacterium confronts problems and it makes choices. It’s not easily fooled. It may lack a sense of self-awareness, in other words it may not be conscious, but it’s fundamentally different from non-life. It possesses a magical, emergent property called intelligence, even if it has no brain.
But do they (or us) possess free will? As fellow blogger SelfAwarePatterns asks, free of what?
Perhaps the philosophical problem of free will is one that seems vitally important but is simply a non-question that hasn’t been properly thought through.
Is free will an ill-defined concept that unravels as you look more closely at it? Is the question of whether free will exists simply unanswerable? Is it an example of what Richard Dawkins just recently discussed – a problem that we created for ourselves because of a simple-minded desire to classify and give names to things that defy classification?
I certainly don’t know the answer. I’m going to let you decide 😉
Thanks to Matt and Mike for inspiring this post. Your blogs were so interesting, I had no choice but to respond 🙂