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Sam’s new thoughts on free will
Posted: 14 September 2012 10:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 76 ]  
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So, this thread has wandered, as threads are wont… but I’ve had this imaginary thought running through my imaginary brain…
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1. The evidence against free will (conscious choice) is that brain scans can tell what decision we will make before we are conscious of that decision. (leaving aside the annoying half-baked ad hominems that toombaru keeps interjecting.)
2. Let’s assume this is correct even for highly complex decisions, not just turn right or left.
3. The question I have is “Is there still a decision being made?” If not by the imaginary “I” but by the mass of neurons we call a brain?
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What I mean by this is, allowing that there is no conscious choice, is some kind of choice actually happening, i.e. does the brain fire in such a way as to “choose” right over left, but the possibility existed that it could have “chosen” otherwise?
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This is what we are left with, without conscious choice. Either the firings of the brain are completely deterministic, meaning that every cause and effect going all the way back to the Big Bang set the pattern in place and that particular neuron firing is the predetermined outcome… OR… there is still something else at play… not chance, but, say, probability.
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This is just a half-assed idea, but I’m working through it, and would like input. So… was the brain I think of as “me” destined, always, 100%, to choose “left” or was there, say, a 67% chance at left, a 30% chance at right, and a 3% chance that some other firing off of some various other result? If the latter, then the neuron firing brain acted like a computer running an algorhythm, and a “choice” happened.
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Basically, if “I” am an illusion, can the extant reality of the brain still make a choice? If so, then things are not deterministic, and choice can still be discussed as a logical concept.
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Also, because my consciousness is inefficient and therefore is behind the times in being aware of what the brain has already decided… that doesn’t mean consciousness is an illusion… just that it is a “lagging indicator” and not as efficient as we’d like. There seems to be an agreed upon discussion that there is an extant physical existence of the universe, and our brain neurons are part of that, and they are firing based on various stimuli from that reality, and that firing in various patterns creates various states of being… so why aren’t those states of perception that arise from the causal reality we are a part of less real than anything else? Why does it have to be considered an illusion, or that being an illusion is not-existing?

[ Edited: 14 September 2012 10:31 AM by ncarver]
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Posted: 14 September 2012 11:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 77 ]  
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ncarver has the gist of this problem exactly.  I should clarify that, as Sam rightly points out, randomness is not sufficient to generate free will.  The fact that your brain ‘choice’ patterns may fall along a probabalistic function does not introduce the possibility of free will.  I think we have to grant determinism to 1) environmental factors, 2) genetic factors, and 3) randomness.  My problem is that I’ve seen no evidence to convince me that those three factors can fully explain human behavior.  The assertion that they do is a convincing hypothesis: one for which there exists no conclusive evidence of which I am aware.

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Posted: 14 September 2012 12:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 78 ]  
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ncarver - 14 September 2012 10:16 AM

So, this thread has wandered, as threads are wont… but I’ve had this imaginary thought running through my imaginary brain…
-
1. The evidence against free will (conscious choice) is that brain scans can tell what decision we will make before we are conscious of that decision. (leaving aside the annoying half-baked ad hominems that toombaru keeps interjecting.)


Hey…....I don’t even believe in hominems.

:-0

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Posted: 14 September 2012 03:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 79 ]  
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Coolinator writes:

“…If mediation does not fall within that definition, then I’m not sure what he’s talking about, and to borrow Sam’s expression, I’m pretty sure neither does he.”

Hello Coolinator,
I’m probably not making myself very clear so please bear with me.

One of the measures of Scientific rigor requires that, at least in principle, a hypothesis be capable of falsification (shown to be false by some unambiguous test).  In other words, is it testable?  The problem with non-physical causes is that they’re not testable.  For example, we can attribute a physical result (perhaps Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) on any number of non-physical causes: magic, god, voodoo, or even the Easter bunny.  Each is equally valid (or invalid) since they’re non-physical and cannot be tested.  This, to me, represents an unsatisfying explanation.  On the other hand, we can conduct objective research that may provide insights.  To illustrate: recently, neuroscience has shown that meditation alters certain parts of the brain—specific neural networks are strengthened and enlarged (that is, the organism is physically changed.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity  The whole process can be likened to exercising a muscle—the more it’s used the larger and more efficient it gets. I like this explanation because it doesn’t require a non-physical change agent.


Coolinator also writes:
 
“…The question of free will turns on whether those determinations together with randomness can explain 100% of all human behavior. If it fails, even at a 99.9%, then we need a hypothesis to take us the rest of the way.”


It seems to me that either the will is “free” or it isn’t.  If any outside factors influence our decisions then they cannot be free.  I can’t imagine “partially free will” but perhaps you’re right and 00.1% or so of our behavior is “free”.  There’s really no way to prove a non-physical negative. (For an explanation, see my post here.) http://www.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/15828/P90/#221781

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Posted: 14 September 2012 05:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 80 ]  
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It seems to me that either the will is “free” or it isn’t.

 

There is a third possibility.

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Posted: 15 September 2012 10:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 81 ]  
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What Ho!

Been pondering the recent essay on free will and had some thoughts.  The question of whether or not we have free will seems to hinge on how one defines free will.  If we’re defining it was the capacity to make decicions completely unconstrained by our genes and environement, then fine, cleary free will doesn’t exist.  Our minds are historical products so I’m not even sure what it would mean for mental processes to occur without such constraints.

However, if we define free will as the capacity to make decisions within the domain of those constraints, then I see no reason for the attitude that free will doesn’t exist at all.  Sam’s position seems to be that we are completely determined by our genes and environment.  But if our conscious mental processes are part of that environment, then, by definition, we have had a hand on making decisions.  In other words, we were our own determinants.

For example, if I decide to pursue a career in pediatric surgery, that decision has emerged from a number of factors:  among them my upbringing, for which I’m not initially responsible, but that upbringing involved a large number of potential experiences and outcomes, only a very small part of which, were ever realized.  Since I turned right, instead of left, the path of experience and learning traced was the result of the initial conditions, contingencies along the way and the choices made by myself.  Since the factors in subsequent decisions involved choices made by myself previously, I have become one of the determinants in subsequent decision making.

Now, one could argue that this just kicks the can down the road: any decision that seems to be made and inculcated into later decisions was itself the product of determinants out of my control initially.  That is true as far as it goes until we look at what making a decision actually is. 

Shermer recently wrote a piece in scientific American entitled ‘Free Won’t and the gist of it was that decisions we make are not paths that we pursue de novo, but rather are saying no to a set of options provided us by our subconscious.  Whatever, we don’t say no to becomes our ‘yes’.  In other words, our conscious mind seems to function as a virtual captain, steering the ship by evaluating and discarding options presented to it by numerous and rowdy subordinates.  “Gosh, that pie sure looks tasty!’ shouts our left amygdala, whereas our ‘higher centers’ call our attention to the excessively tight fit of our jeans. 

Which to choose?  We’ll make that choice consciously, in part.

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Posted: 15 September 2012 10:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 82 ]  
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Kent - 15 September 2012 10:06 AM

What Ho!

Been pondering the recent essay on free will and had some thoughts.  The question of whether or not we have free will seems to hinge on how one defines free will.  If we’re defining it was the capacity to make decicions completely unconstrained by our genes and environement, then fine, cleary free will doesn’t exist.  Our minds are historical products so I’m not even sure what it would mean for mental processes to occur without such constraints.

However, if we define free will as the capacity to make decisions within the domain of those constraints, then I see no reason for the attitude that free will doesn’t exist at all.  Sam’s position seems to be that we are completely determined by our genes and environment.  But if our conscious mental processes are part of that environment, then, by definition, we have had a hand on making decisions.  In other words, we were our own determinants.

For example, if I decide to pursue a career in pediatric surgery, that decision has emerged from a number of factors:  among them my upbringing, for which I’m not initially responsible, but that upbringing involved a large number of potential experiences and outcomes, only a very small part of which, were ever realized.  Since I turned right, instead of left, the path of experience and learning traced was the result of the initial conditions, contingencies along the way and the choices made by myself.  Since the factors in subsequent decisions involved choices made by myself previously, I have become one of the determinants in subsequent decision making.

Now, one could argue that this just kicks the can down the road: any decision that seems to be made and inculcated into later decisions was itself the product of determinants out of my control initially.  That is true as far as it goes until we look at what making a decision actually is. 

Shermer recently wrote a piece in scientific American entitled ‘Free Won’t and the gist of it was that decisions we make are not paths that we pursue de novo, but rather are saying no to a set of options provided us by our subconscious.  Whatever, we don’t say no to becomes our ‘yes’.  In other words, our conscious mind seems to function as a virtual captain, steering the ship by evaluating and discarding options presented to it by numerous and rowdy subordinates.  “Gosh, that pie sure looks tasty!’ shouts our left amygdala, whereas our ‘higher centers’ call our attention to the excessively tight fit of our jeans. 

Which to choose?  We’ll make that choice consciously, in part.


There is no such thing as choice and no self to have it.
The objectifying mind conceptually isolates what it perceives as separate events from within a seemless gestalt of interaction.
There are no separate events from which to choose.
In the consensus definition of free will even a dog chooses to eat or not.
And yet no one would claim that dogs have free will.

 

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Posted: 15 September 2012 10:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 83 ]  
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TheCoolinator - 14 September 2012 11:21 AM

ncarver has the gist of this problem exactly.  I should clarify that, as Sam rightly points out, randomness is not sufficient to generate free will.  The fact that your brain ‘choice’ patterns may fall along a probabalistic function does not introduce the possibility of free will.  I think we have to grant determinism to 1) environmental factors, 2) genetic factors, and 3) randomness.  My problem is that I’ve seen no evidence to convince me that those three factors can fully explain human behavior.  The assertion that they do is a convincing hypothesis: one for which there exists no conclusive evidence of which I am aware.  [/quote

So… while I agree that randomness is not sufficient to generate free will, is it sufficient to generate another kind of “choice”... a probabalistic choice, but one that is not “determined.  That is where I differ from what you wrote above, if I read it correctly. Determinism means there is no chance, no probability, just absolute, predestined play out of a series of actions that began with the Big Bang.  IF, on the other hand, there is possibility of different outcomes the progress of those actions, which we call “time” then it isn’t predetermined… there is still unknowns and possibility (granted, at the moment of “choice” all probabilities collapse to zero and the choice taken was the only choice possible, etc., and that is what is maddening about quantum reality) but anyway…

.. just to be clear about what I’m saying… it seems to me that we can’t grant determinism “randomness” or “probability”... determinism is absolute… likelihood has no place. Thus, perhaps, there is a third state between “free will” and “determinism” where reality actually resides.

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Posted: 15 September 2012 10:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 84 ]  
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toombaru - 14 September 2012 12:08 PM

[ecision. (leaving aside the annoying half-baked ad hominems that toombaru keeps interjecting.)


Hey…....I don’t even believe in hominems.

:-0

yet you continue to attack them.

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Posted: 15 September 2012 12:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 85 ]  
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ncarver - 15 September 2012 10:49 AM
toombaru - 14 September 2012 12:08 PM

[ecision. (leaving aside the annoying half-baked ad hominems that toombaru keeps interjecting.)


Hey…....I don’t even believe in hominems.

:-0

yet you continue to attack them.


No no….....there is no longer the belief here that a little persona is living in the human brain.
The sense of self here is merely sending an artillery barrage into the incredibly well reinforced ideations of personal autonomy.
These collages of accumulated concepts are deeply dug in.
They are almost impenatrable in their ten-thousand year old armor and are programmed to defend their self and its kingdom to the end.
They will not give up the good fight easily for it is the life of their tribe they defend.
But they are not men and women…....they are ideas of men and women.
Only ideas are being attacked…..and defended.

[ Edited: 15 September 2012 12:51 PM by toombaru]
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Posted: 15 September 2012 09:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 86 ]  
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ncarver - 15 September 2012 10:35 AM

.. just to be clear about what I’m saying… it seems to me that we can’t grant determinism “randomness” or “probability”... determinism is absolute… likelihood has no place. Thus, perhaps, there is a third state between “free will” and “determinism” where reality actually resides.

I found Sam convincing on this point:


“If my decision to have a second cup of coffee this morning was due to a random release of neurotransmitters, how could the indeterminacy of the initiating event count as the free exercise of my will? Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility. And if certain of my behaviors are truly the result of chance, they should be surprising even to me. How would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?”

Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (p. 28). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


If you are looking for the amount of freedom which will agree with the amount you experience, you are going to be disappointed in the end.  The book that sealed the deal for me on that point was Daniel Kahneman - Thinking Fast and Slow.  You can be nothing more than your System 1, and it is the slave to your System 2 while believing itself to be the master. 


Sadly for the naturalists - this does not mean that we are not free.

 

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Posted: 15 September 2012 09:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 87 ]  
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Wreck of M Deare - 14 September 2012 03:27 PM

It seems to me that either the will is “free” or it isn’t.  If any outside factors influence our decisions then they cannot be free.  I can’t imagine “partially free will” but perhaps you’re right and 00.1% or so of our behavior is “free”.  There’s really no way to prove a non-physical negative. (For an explanation, see my post here.) http://www.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/15828/P90/#221781

When free will first came out, I wrote an e-mail to Dr. Harris which included the following paragraph:


In one of your examples you used a housefly to illustrate your point.  I’m not convinced that we can rule out free will in a housefly.  When I swat at the fly that is annoying me, the evasive course of action it will take is known.  Its actions could be said to be determined by its genetic makeup and the environmental stimulus of my rapidly approaching hand.  However, there are an infinite number of actual courses that fly might take; all of which comply with the known evasive pattern of houseflies.  Once it has moved directly up for a certain period, it will maneuver to the side.  But it may go left or right.  It may, in fact, choose any direction that is consistent with the pattern that its genes prescribe so long as an environmental factor such as the presence of wall does not preclude the option.


As you can see - I don’t think it takes much to avoid determinism.  Any non-predetermined and non-random influence at the margin will suffice.  Further, if such an occurrence ever existed in any organism and provided that organism with an evolutionary advantage, then we should not be surprised to see a great deal present in organisms such as ourselves.  That said, there is a limit to how much freedom we may have and the ceiling doesn’t go very high.  See my reply to ncarver above for more on that. 

 

[ Edited: 15 September 2012 11:52 PM by TheCoolinator]
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Posted: 15 September 2012 10:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 88 ]  
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Kent - 15 September 2012 10:06 AM

What Ho!

Great post.  Have you read Sam’s book on the topic?  I think he has an answer for your line of inquiry there.

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Posted: 15 September 2012 10:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 89 ]  
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Kent - 15 September 2012 10:06 AM

What Ho!

Great post.  I think Sam’s book on the topic has an answer to your line of inquiry.

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Posted: 15 September 2012 11:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 90 ]  
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TheCoolinator - 15 September 2012 09:59 PM

When free will first came out, I wrote an e-mail to Dr. Harris which included the following paragraph:


In one of your examples you used a housefly to illustrate your point.  I’m not convinced that we can rule out free will in a housefly.  When I swat at the fly that is annoying me, the evasive course of action it will take is known.  Its actions could be said to be determined by its genetic makeup and the environmental stimulus of my rapidly approaching hand.  However, there are an infinite number of actual courses that fly might take; all of which comply with the known evasive pattern of houseflies.  Once it has moved directly up for a certain period, it will maneuver to the side.  But it may go left or right.  It may, in fact, choose any direction that is consistent with the pattern that its genes prescribe so long as an environmental factor such as the presence of wall does not preclude the option.


As you can see - I don’t think it takes much to avoid determinism.  Any non-predetermined influence at the margin will suffice.  Further, if such an occurrence ever existed in any organism and provided that organism with an evolutionary advantage, then we should not be surprised to see a great deal present in organisms such as ourselves.  That said, there is a limit to how much freedom we may have and the ceiling doesn’t go very high.  See my reply to ncarver above for more on that.


I think we are saying the same things. I’m not claiming that randomness allows free will, not at all. I’m also not convinced of a completely determinist universe, either. I’m saying that probability allows for something other than either free will or complete determinism… we just don’t have a word to describe it.

 

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