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A Thought Experiment…
Posted: 11 May 2007 03:30 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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I have read lots of discussion here about what consciousness is, or what it’s conscious of, and just who is being conscious.
And who gets to choose- us, God, or just sheer natural momentum.

I would suggest that the answers are all dynamic. Try this brief thought experiment and consider that while our life experience may seem seamlessly continuous, what we are experiencing is anything but.


It’s Time for Free Will!

You’re in a famous hypothetical desert. Twenty feet in front of you is a chair on which sits a solid blue cylinder three feet tall. You’re standing right next to a ten foot high steal shield that just screams “defensive opportunity” at every fiber of your being. There is nothing else to see but sand and sky. The cylinder explodes with a tremendous concussive force followed by a rapidly expanding fireball. Did you choose to stand behind the shield?

Your remains are cloned and returned to the test site. This time, just two seconds before it explodes, the cylinder emits a terrifying shriek and rattles violently on the chair. Are you standing behind the shield?

While the crew cleans up, short term memory is erased in any survivors, the rest are reborn. Back to the desert. This time, the cylinder is transparent, revealing that it’s full of clearly recognizable Acme dynamite. There is big LED clock above the cylinder that is counting backwards from ten real fast. Do you choose to stand behind the shield?

The clock reaches zero without any boom. After half a minute or so, the shield mysteriously vanishes. The cylinder has exploded in extreme slow motion. The explosion’s expanding wave will accelerate at a rate of three feet per hour per hour. How long will it take you to decide what if any action to take?

Afterwards at brunch, what conclusions might the three of you draw about free will?

Perhaps all our biological systems, including our brain activity, are at any instant, taking their best shot at being exactly what our immediate life situation requires. Lucky for us, most of our choices were made millions of years ago by distant ancestors. Choices like, “paper or plastic?”, “Allah or Yahweh?” have no evolutionary precedent. Only a conscious human mind could know those questions were there. When conscious, “free will” is synonymous with “caveat emptor”. We are entirely on our own.

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Posted: 17 May 2007 02:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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This is like deja vu all over again! 

Has anyone else ever wondered if they were living in Groundhog Day?

Nhoj:  I think your illustration is wonderful.

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Posted: 18 May 2007 12:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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[quote author=“Guest”]This is like deja vu all over again!
Has anyone else ever wondered if they were living in Groundhog Day?

Déjà vu? Have you seen this post before?

I think your illustration is wonderful.

Thanks, Guest, but I’m confused by your compliment.
Perhaps you’re just getting even.

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Posted: 18 May 2007 02:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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[quote author=“Nhoj Morley”]
Déjà vu? Have you seen this post before?

No, actually I haven’t. 

I think your illustration is wonderful.

Thanks, Guest, but I’m confused by your compliment.
Perhaps you’re just getting even.

No really, I just appreciate the exercise.  It makes me contemlate whether there exists parallell dimensions in which we are all toiling to get it right.  Something like the idea of reincarnation, but all happening at once simultaneously.  I know it sounds crazy, but I am having trouble explaining what I mean.  This idea has existed inside my mind for some time.  This is the first occasion where I found an outlet to consider that others might have the same types of thoughts.

Sorry about the anonymity.  It is nothing personal.

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Posted: 18 May 2007 03:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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[quote author=“Anonymous”]Sorry about the anonymity.  It is nothing personal.

No, I’m sorry, Guest
:(
I am a luddite who is still too iconoclastic for emoticons. A nice poster would have put a smiley face there to indicate the self-depreciating suggestion that my post was confusing. This isn’t the first time.  :oops:
I was composing comedy long before internet posting was around and I never needed no freaking faces!
:x I hate them! :twisted:

I try to write nice…
rolleyes

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Posted: 19 May 2007 02:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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I’m afraid I don’t really understand what you’re getting at, Nhoj. Is this an argument for free will?

You’re in a famous hypothetical desert. Twenty feet in front of you is a chair on which sits a solid blue cylinder three feet tall. You’re standing right next to a ten foot high steal shield that just screams “defensive opportunity” at every fiber of your being. There is nothing else to see but sand and sky. The cylinder explodes with a tremendous concussive force followed by a rapidly expanding fireball. Did you choose to stand behind the shield?

I don’t know, because I don’t know whether “I” know that the cylinder is an explosive. Probably, it wouldn’t occur to me to stand behind the shield.

While the crew cleans up, short term memory is erased in any survivors, the rest are reborn. Back to the desert. This time, the cylinder is transparent, revealing that it’s full of clearly recognizable Acme dynamite. There is big LED clock above the cylinder that is counting backwards from ten real fast. Do you choose to stand behind the shield?

Yes, now that I know that there’s something I need the shield to protect me from.

The clock reaches zero without any boom. After half a minute or so, the shield mysteriously vanishes. The cylinder has exploded in extreme slow motion. The explosion’s expanding wave will accelerate at a rate of three feet per hour per hour. How long will it take you to decide what if any action to take?

I imagine I’d start running away from the fireball very soon. I don’t very much want to be incinerated.

Afterwards at brunch, what conclusions might the three of you draw about free will?

Based on these experiences? None whatsoever. Could you make the connection a bit more explicit?

Perhaps all our biological systems, including our brain activity, are at any instant, taking their best shot at being exactly what our immediate life situation requires. Lucky for us, most of our choices were made millions of years ago by distant ancestors. Choices like, “paper or plastic?”, “Allah or Yahweh?” have no evolutionary precedent. Only a conscious human mind could know those questions were there. When conscious, “free will” is synonymous with “caveat emptor”. We are entirely on our own.

Do you mean to say that we have free will because some choices are too recently developed to have been selected for us by evolution? I don’t think that’s a very good argument. But first I’ll need to know what you mean by “free will.” I imagine you mean libertarian free will (the sort of free will in which a conscious self makes deliberate decisions that have their ultimate origin in nowhere but the consciousness itself), though; most people do.

The main problem with libertarian free will is not that we’re evolutionarily programmed to act in certain ways, it’s that the very notion is meaningless and increasingly untenable with what we know about consciousness and the physical brain. To quote Sam Harris:

[quote author=“Sam Harris”] Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less) in that it cannot even be rendered coherent conceptually, since no one has ever described a manner in which mental and physical events could arise that would attest to its existence. Surely, most illusions are made of sterner stuff than this. If, for instance, a man believes that his dental fillings are receiving radio broadcasts, or that his sister has been replaced by an alien who looks exactly like her, we would have no difficulty specifying what would have to be true of the world for his beliefs to be, likewise, true. Strangely, our notion of “free of will” achieves no such intelligibility. As a concept, it simply has no descriptive, or even logical, moorings. Like some perverse, malodorous rose, however we might attempt to enjoy its beauty up close, it offers up its own contradiction.

[...]

It has long been obvious, however, that any description of the will in terms of causes and effects sets us sliding toward a moral and logical crevasse, for either our wills are determined by prior causes, and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance, and we are not responsible for them. The notion of free will seems particularly suspect once we begin thinking about the brain. If a man’s “choice” to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, and this neural activity is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of an unhappy childhood, bad genes, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?

This pretty much nails it.

As for your specific examples, it’s true that there’s no “paper over plastic” gene. But our wills are still subject to our underlying desires, which precede choice. Maybe I pick paper because I have a desire to be environmentally friendly, or plastic because I don’t want my milk falling out the bottom. The point is that, though evolution may not have determined these choices, they are determined all the same.

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Posted: 20 May 2007 04:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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[quote author=“AmericanHumanist”]I’m afraid I don’t really understand what you’re getting at, Nhoj. Is this an argument for free will?

Greetings American Humanist,

It’s a shirt-sleeves argument for reframing the question of free will, and who it’s meaningless to.
It’s about experiencing choices, not making them.

In test #1, you’ve been there just long enough to take in the surroundings. There’s not much to see and there’s no imminent threat that your body can recognize via its vast genetic database, so it reduced any threat level that was felt when you first arrived. Your body has, however, recognized the defensive capability of the shield even if your mind was checking your hair in the shiny shield’s reflection or wondering how well it was anchored in the ground. You begin to consider the possibilities, perhaps even arriving at a reason to get behind the shield. But it’s too late. From boom to blown away is a fraction of a millisecond. No one got to make a choice. Test #1 is a strictly gratuitous starting reference.

Test #2 tries to startle your body into a reflexive action. “terrifying” and “violently” were done to spec. Two seconds is generous. You are behind the shield. Your body chose to defend itself. Your mind simply has to deal with it. Considering all the genetic predetermination involved, it’s hard to call it a choice. Even a duck knows the duck and cover reflex. The blast and your mental experience are gratuitous, again. The question suggested here is “did you experience the choice?”

Test #3 tries to say little to your body and speak to your sub-conscious mind. Substitutions of imagery are permissible. Anyone who grew up on Warner Bros cartoons has the imagery of a countdown, and of bright red sticks of dynamite, and their consequences, deeply ingrained in their mental experience. Such a mind will quickly work out the obviously possibilities and “foresee” the outcome, which prompts the body into the same predetermined action it would have taken if it could see the threat. Like in #1 and #2, neither the body nor the subconscious mind cares who made the choice.

For the first time, we beat the duck.

#3 silently segues into test #4. It’s silence eventually lowers your adrenalin enough to put thoughts together again. The loss of the shield forces your attention at the so far uneventful dynamite. Only a series of observations will reveal the threat. The best your evolutionary database will do for you is tell you the pretty fireball is a warm place for when it gets dark. Conscious experience assembles the body’s observations into the right sequence and prompts the subconscious mind to foresee the probable outcome which prompts the body to run much sooner and less fast. Evolution watches with pride.

…the very notion is meaningless and increasingly untenable with what we know about consciousness and the physical brain.

Patience. We’re still blowing out the dross. I don’t see a need to polarize such libertarianism from science, yet. Any given action falls on a scale between them.
Such an explanation leaves religion (the single greatest manifestation of human existence on earth) with only our stupidity to account for its enduring presence. I got the impression from EOF that Sam didn’t think that was a satisfying answer either.

…our wills are still subject to our underlying desires, which precede choice.

Exactly. That where stupid comes in. Conscious management of our underlying desires has been a series of disasters. Only in realizing its limited perception and complete independence from the evolutionary database will it ever learn to drive us brainy apes around.
Evolution needs to wake up to the obvious conclusion that we have a planet-threatening, mal-adaptive capability of free will.

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Posted: 20 May 2007 09:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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[quote author=“Nhoj Morley”]Evolution needs to wake up to the obvious conclusion that we have a planet-threatening, mal-adaptive capability of free will.

I suspect Nhoj knows that the human species is just something that happened. Something bad. Such as ‘Angelina Jolie doing it’.

Only in realizing its limited perception and complete independence from the evolutionary database

Only? I’ve heard better homilies from medieval popes.

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Posted: 20 May 2007 01:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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I don’t see a need to polarize such libertarianism from science, yet.

Would you then care to explain 1) how any act of will can be neither caused nor randomly determined, and 2) what evidence indicates that mental states exist independently of physical brain states?

Such an explanation leaves religion (the single greatest manifestation of human existence on earth) with only our stupidity to account for its enduring presence. I got the impression from EOF that Sam didn’t think that was a satisfying answer either.

Huh?

Evolution needs to wake up to the obvious conclusion that we have a planet-threatening, mal-adaptive capability of free will.

In what way is this obvious?

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Posted: 26 May 2007 04:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“AmericanHumanist”] Would you then care to explain 1) how any act of will can be neither caused nor randomly determined,

Our illusion of self can freely choose between illusions of the world. Religions are a topical example. Once deluded, extra-natural actions can be initiated that result in animal-organized, natural formations that manifest that delusion. Quality varies.
How would you categorize the act of voting for G W Bush? Or religious conversion, or rejection?

and 2) what evidence indicates that mental states exist independently of physical brain states?

Only our subjective experience. And just to be clear about your phrasing, any mental state is dependent on the prior existence of a physical brain state. No brain activity = no mental experience.

Are there footsteps on the moon because of Nature’s plan? If we just waited long enough, would our heads grow helmets? Given time, could the kudzu vine reach the moon?

Only our subjective experience is evidence for Windows XP. There’s nothing to find in the machine but highly organized charges whizzing through gates and buffers. The machine doesn’t see what the monitor shows and has no idea what’s going on. Windows and such are mental tools for creating mental artifacts for mental experience.
If your statement were true, mental evidence would exist independently of physical evidence.

In what way is this obvious?

It is obviously tongue in cheek. Would you agree that civilized man chooses more counter-adaptive actions than his prehistoric predecessors?

…though evolution may not have determined these choices, they are determined all the same.

I’m not sure where you stand on that further determinization. Laws of physics? Probability? More? Less?

…the very notion is meaningless and increasingly untenable with what we know about consciousness and the physical brain.

I suggest that “we” are getting way ahead of ourselves. Science can’t make that claim yet. Not until we bag the big one.
Yeah, rational people can refute religion (Tallyho, foolish one!) but they can’t explain it (You’re a stupid poophead!). Winning souls for science won’t happen until science finds a good solid reason to let them in. I think we better find it soon. There may soon be masses of religious refugees at the gate. Science will soullessly assist our competitors in more destruction. Our competitors eventually find a reason to let some useful scientific facts in, and they’re getting better at it. Religion will absorb science, and “we” will be hunted down and absorbed. I have faith that science will find a satisfying explanation for humanity’s religions. Maybe even in time. That will steal away the only power religion has.
Are you in this to survive or just be rational?

Can you imagine our next president committing the nation to finding God by the end of the next decade? NASA, Los Alamos, MIT, the Army Corp of Engineers and all our Top Men would spend trillions of dollars on researching everything until we got to the bottom of it. The above test was just one example.

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Posted: 04 June 2007 09:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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I think the problem with the though texperiment is that it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. In every situation in which a person finds himself in the thought experiment, either there was not enough information to make a decision, or the course of action is pretty obvious, not requiring much thought. I like the way Ayn Rand explained free will, as the decision to think or not to think, to focus your mind or let it drift. Once you make this decision, your thinking, and actions, will be determined by the facts available to you and your skill at thinking. Wether or not you decide to focus on the problem at hand is the only real choice we have.

I sometimes think thats the problem with autism. Those affected by this disorder seem unable to make important decisions about what to think about, especially in issues of value. Their minds may work very well on mathematical problems, but can’t deal with simple problems like making breakfast or driving a car.

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Posted: 04 June 2007 09:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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[quote author=“SaulOhio”]I sometimes think thats the problem with autism. Those affected by this disorder seem unable to make important decisions about what to think about, especially in issues of value. Their minds may work very well on mathematical problems, but can’t deal with simple problems like making breakfast or driving a car.

From what I’ve read, autism involves fewer connections between the hemispheres. That would interfere with integrated activities such as making breakfast and driving a car, or in the case of Asperger’s Syndrome, figuring out social cues. I have Asperger’s and I struggle with activities that involve multitasking - it took me about two or three years before I was comfortable with driving.

I did this experiment with myself - I played a drum beat by slapping my two hands on my knees. Then I attempted to recreate the beat using my voice as a substitute for one hand, and could not do it.

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Posted: 05 June 2007 01:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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[quote author=“Carstonio”]
From what I’ve read, autism involves fewer connections between the hemispheres. That would interfere with integrated activities such as making breakfast and driving a car, or in the case of Asperger’s Syndrome, figuring out social cues. I have Asperger’s and I struggle with activities that involve multitasking - it took me about two or three years before I was comfortable with driving.

I did this experiment with myself - I played a drum beat by slapping my two hands on my knees. Then I attempted to recreate the beat using my voice as a substitute for one hand, and could not do it.

That is quite interesting, and consistent with the theory of consciousness and free will I am talking about. Consciousness and free will serve to integrate our perceptions and actions. The connections between the hemispheres are part of the physical mechanism producing that integration. (This is more and more evidence that the mind and body are pretty much inseparable. One is an action or property of the other.)

I am glad you are capable of functioning well even with this impairment. I wish you luck continuing to cope with it.

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Posted: 09 June 2007 03:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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[quote author=“SaulOhio”] ...it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

Yes it does, when you put it that way. “Heart” as opposed to brain in the case of the second test. (Metaphorically referring to gut-level animal choices)

… or the course of action is pretty obvious, not requiring much thought.

In tests 2 and 3, there is no time to decide to focus and think about the facts available to you with your skill at thinking. Your unconscious mind is on its own, so the test required only a couple of simple connections to pass.

Test 4 requires conscious supervision (deciding to think) to perceive the threat. 

Is free will an issue that is exclusive to choices that we decide to think about?
Can we make a different choice at the gut-level? Do we experience that choice?
What would Ayn Rand do if their wasn’t enough time?

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Posted: 09 June 2007 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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[quote author=“SaulOhio”]I like the way Ayn Rand explained free will, as the decision to think or not to think, to focus your mind or let it drift. Once you make this decision, your thinking, and actions, will be determined by the facts available to you and your skill at thinking. Wether or not you decide to focus on the problem at hand is the only real choice we have.

I sometimes think thats the problem with autism. Those affected by this disorder seem unable to make important decisions about what to think about, especially in issues of value. Their minds may work very well on mathematical problems, but can’t deal with simple problems like making breakfast or driving a car.

Or eating bonbons.

[quote author=“Nhoj Morley”]What would Ayn Rand do if there wasn’t enough time?

Ayn Rand would be eating bonbons while Rome burned. Everyone would be equally free to burn. But not to eat bonbons while doing so. You have to earn the bonbons.

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Posted: 09 June 2007 05:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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[quote author=“Salt Creek”]
[quote author=“Nhoj Morley”]What would Ayn Rand do if there wasn’t enough time?

Ayn Rand would be eating bonbons while Rome burned. Everyone would be equally free to burn. But not to eat bonbons while doing so. You have to earn the bonbons.

That’s hilarious Salty! I guess that one has to know your writings as well as Saul’s and or course Ayn Rand to follow your train of thought…such as it is. Poignant but not salty. Just spicy.

Ayn lived in a very shallow, 19th century world. Very uniformed. Saul is still coming to grips with the idea that there is no difference between “mind” and body. Ayn was into chasing false, materialist idols and the consequences of her quest or her existence are something that she lacked the intellectual depth of experience and education in science to begin to fathom. She would indeed enjoy her bonbons while Rome burned, just another way of saying that ignorance is bliss.

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