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Free Will: Moral Implications
Posted: 14 August 2012 10:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]  
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A dialogue on free will

Free-willy:  I believe in free will because when I consider choices I have made, I can in many cases imagine myself making a different choice.

Deterministo:  Your premise seems plausible, but only because of your ability to imagine making a different choice.  Then again, I can imagine unicorns. However, I begin my counter-argument by pointing out that, as I’m sure you would agree or will come to agree, each choice you have made has been for a reason, or set of reasons (they may have been good reasons or bad reasons—that’s a separate issue).  Those reasons in turn determined your choice.  Certainly, the final decision may have been reached after a long thought process, wherein you considered reasons for selecting one option, and reasons for selecting another option (perhaps there were some factors you didn’t consider, due to time constraints or lack of insight, or lack of information—we could discuss that point a bit later).  In the end, one line of reasoning won out over the other, and you made a choice.  That choice was determined by a set of reasons and a thought process, which in turn were determined by your desires, “instincts”, knowledge from past experience, current mood, beliefs, values, “moral principles”, etc.  In neurologic terms, a certain complex of neuronal activity in your brain (the “choice”) was brought about (“determined”), by a set of other complex neuronal activities (“thought processes”), which in turn were shaped by a baseline set of biases (desires, “instincts”, knowledge from past experience, current mood, beliefs, values, “moral principles”, etc) encoded in your brain.  The number of variables involved in such a decision at the neuronal level is far beyond comprehension, but nevertheless the choice was determined, and you could not have chosen otherwise.  The only other alternative would be to say that the choice was random, but there is certainly no free will in random decisions.  Of course, choices could be random, if the indeterminism of quantum physics played a major role in decision-making, but there are clearly recognizable patterns of human behavior that tell us that human behavior in general, and decision-making in particular, are certainly not random.  Instead, it seems clear that brain activity, at the level of neuron circuits, as opposed to the molecular level, is determined primarily by non-quantum physical laws, and like all non-quantum physical phenomena, brain activity obeys the law of cause and effect.

Free-willy:  But I still say that if the same situation came up again, I would be free to make a different choice, and in fact, I might make a different choice.

Deterministo:  Ah, but that is a different misconception altogether.  You see, because of the vast set of variables involved, in effect, the same situation can never come up again.  You will be a different person.  You may have learned from past mistakes.  You might be in a different (at least slightly different) mood.  You may have developed new biases.  The environment in which you make the decision will be different.  You may have had an extra cup of coffee that morning.  Your relationship to the people affected by your decision may have changed.  Given a different set of variables, of course the outcome might well be different.  But the same situation will never again come up.  If it did, you would make the same decision you made the first time around.  You might think that everything was exactly the same, and then make a different decision, just to prove me wrong, but then I would point out that, the first time around, before this discussion, the idea of proving me wrong would not have entered your head, so it wasn’t the same situation.

Free-willy:  You say that there are recognizable patterns of human behavior, but in many instances, even I can’t predict what choice I will ultimately make, so in that sense there is an unpredictability that indicates freedom.

Deterministo:  Well, now you are talking about freedom in a different sense, and again I would like to come back to that when we talk more about how we make decisions.  But let’s focus on the unpredictability issue for a moment.  As I implied earlier, quantum phenomena not only are unpredictable in practice, they are fundamentally unpredictable.  That is why quantum physics is so baffling to physicists (To paraphrase one of the great physicists of the 20th century, if you are not baffled by quantum physics, you don’t understand its implications; or, if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t).  But brain activity is not primarily a quantum phenomenon, it is rather a chaotic phenomenon.  And chaos theory is a means of understanding seemingly random phenomena in deterministic terms.  It’s just that chaotic phenomena are determined by such a vast array of interacting variables, it is not possible in practice to predict an outcome, but it would be possible in principle if we knew the exact values of each variable and had a perfect model to account for how they interact.  As a classic example, the weather is not fundamentally unpredictable, but because there are so many variables involved, it is very difficult to predict the weather, and in practice it is impossible to predict it accurately beyond 10 days.

Free-willy:  Well, I agree that when a spider “chooses” a spot to build a web, there is no real freedom of choice.  Its behavior is no doubt based on instinct, which in turn is encoded in its genes. But humans are different.  Certainly, you would agree that a human has more free will than a spider.

Deterministo:  Bravo!  You have brought me to the point to which I had hoped to return.  Here again, you are now talking about a different sort of freedom.  You are no longer talking about free-will as an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and you are not talking about non-deterministic phenomena.  You are talking about “degrees of freedom” wherein a choice is not solely determined by genetically-encoded instinct.  You are talking about the ability of human beings to reason and reflect, to consider the consequences of their decisions; you are talking about their ability to base decisions on past experience and to consider the impact of their decisions on their long-term well-being and on the well-being of other human beings.  Using this definition of “freedom”, we can say not only that a human has more degrees of freedom than a spider, we can quickly see that the “same” human being, facing essentially the “same” decision, may have differing degrees of freedom at different points in time.  In one instance, she may be under time constraints, or faced with other pressing decisions, that limit her capacity to reason and reflect, whereas in a second instance, she may have the luxury of greater time and mental energy to consider the choice more carefully, and she may also have access to more information (eg, knowledge that will allow her to better predict which choice will bring about a more desirable outcome).  This form of freedom is perfectly compatible with a deterministic model of human behavior, but it is not quite what most people mean when they talk of “free will”.

Free-willy:  But when our daughter makes a choice that I believe is a “bad” choice (ie, non-conducive to her long-term well being or to the well-being of others), I will scold her or punish her, as parents have always done.  You seem to be saying that I have no valid reason to hold her accountable for her actions, and that society has no valid reason to hold criminals accountable for their actions.

Deterministo:  Not at all.  We can hold people accountable for their decisions, to the extent that activity in their brains brought about those decisions.  Of course, we can’t go back in time and change those decisions.  But we can scold and punish (and evolution has shaped human behavior such that scolding and punishing are essentially instinctual), with the “goal” (or in more accurate evolutionary terms, with the propitious “result”) of altering similar decisions made by the scoldee in the future, such that subsequent decisions are more pleasing to the scolder.  In fact, the idea of free will in a moral sense may be a habit of mind having evolutionary value, because it tends to make us feel like we have a stronger rationale for blaming someone for past behavior, even though the only logical rationale, based on the above discussion, has to do with shaping future behavior.  In point of fact, a deterministic model of human behavior is the sine qua non for giving us a valid basis for holding people accountable for their decisions and actions.

Free-willy:  But what if a criminal on trial for murder is discovered to have a brain tumor.  We have a sense that he is less accountable for his actions, because he has less “free will”, because the brain tumor is likely to be at least partly responsible for criminal, or anti-social, behavior.

Deterministo:  Well, I agree that you could argue that “he” is less accountable, not because he has less free will, but because the brain tumor is not “him”—it is mutant tissue (and it that sense “foreign” tissue, even though it evolved from his own brain tissue).  Alternatively, you could skip the blame game and simply admit that, practically speaking, the presence of the brain tumor makes it less likely that punishment will shape future behavior in a more pro-social direction—the best solution would rather seem to be to cure the brain tumor, if possible.

You might make a stronger case by choosing a criminal with a history of severe head injury resulting in cognitive and personality changes.  You might say that he has less “free will”, but I would choose to avoid the confusing term “free will” because people seem to have a problem agreeing on what it means.  I would instead say that his capacity to make pro-social decisions conducive to his own long-term well being and the well-being of others is severely limited by the prior brain injury—he has lost some of the brain’s functionality that creates what I believe to be the illusion of free will.  More importantly, the brain damage makes it less likely that punishment will bring about a desirable change in future behavior.  Upon reflection, we tend to think him perhaps more worthy of pity than blame.  Pity and blame are both basically emotional responses, not logical ones.  But pity here is useful, because it will make it more likely that we will search for a solution, other than punishment, that actually might help prevent bad decisions (ie, “bad” in the sense that if he keeps killing people, sooner or later, he’s going to get himself in real trouble).  So perhaps, we will provide him with medical care, and a safer, more supervised and controlled environment (albeit, one that may restrict his “freedom”), without resorting to frank punishment.

The real question is whether, in regard to criminals without obvious brain injury, we might also get better results by responding with pity rather than blame; and support rather than punishment.  It’s a question that deserves more investigation, but our habits of mind, including the notion of “free will”, often prevent us from keeping an open mind.

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Posted: 15 August 2012 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]  
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Captain Crunch - 14 August 2012 10:21 PM

A dialogue on free will

Free-willy:  I believe in free will because when I consider choices I have made, I can in many cases imagine myself making a different choice.

Deterministo:  Your premise seems plausible, but only because of your ability to imagine making a different choice.  Then again, I can imagine unicorns. However, I begin my counter-argument by pointing out that, as I’m sure you would agree or will come to agree, each choice you have made has been for a reason, or set of reasons (they may have been good reasons or bad reasons—that’s a separate issue).  Those reasons in turn determined your choice.  Certainly, the final decision may have been reached after a long thought process, wherein you considered reasons for selecting one option, and reasons for selecting another option (perhaps there were some factors you didn’t consider, due to time constraints or lack of insight, or lack of information—we could discuss that point a bit later).  In the end, one line of reasoning won out over the other, and you made a choice.  That choice was determined by a set of reasons and a thought process, which in turn were determined by your desires, “instincts”, knowledge from past experience, current mood, beliefs, values, “moral principles”, etc.  In neurologic terms, a certain complex of neuronal activity in your brain (the “choice”) was brought about (“determined”), by a set of other complex neuronal activities (“thought processes”), which in turn were shaped by a baseline set of biases (desires, “instincts”, knowledge from past experience, current mood, beliefs, values, “moral principles”, etc) encoded in your brain.  The number of variables involved in such a decision at the neuronal level is far beyond comprehension, but nevertheless the choice was determined, and you could not have chosen otherwise.  The only other alternative would be to say that the choice was random, but there is certainly no free will in random decisions.  Of course, choices could be random, if the indeterminism of quantum physics played a major role in decision-making, but there are clearly recognizable patterns of human behavior that tell us that human behavior in general, and decision-making in particular, are certainly not random.  Instead, it seems clear that brain activity, at the level of neuron circuits, as opposed to the molecular level, is determined primarily by non-quantum physical laws, and like all non-quantum physical phenomena, brain activity obeys the law of cause and effect.

Free-willy:  But I still say that if the same situation came up again, I would be free to make a different choice, and in fact, I might make a different choice.

Deterministo:  Ah, but that is a different misconception altogether.  You see, because of the vast set of variables involved, in effect, the same situation can never come up again.  You will be a different person.  You may have learned from past mistakes.  You might be in a different (at least slightly different) mood.  You may have developed new biases.  The environment in which you make the decision will be different.  You may have had an extra cup of coffee that morning.  Your relationship to the people affected by your decision may have changed.  Given a different set of variables, of course the outcome might well be different.  But the same situation will never again come up.  If it did, you would make the same decision you made the first time around.  You might think that everything was exactly the same, and then make a different decision, just to prove me wrong, but then I would point out that, the first time around, before this discussion, the idea of proving me wrong would not have entered your head, so it wasn’t the same situation.

Free-willy:  You say that there are recognizable patterns of human behavior, but in many instances, even I can’t predict what choice I will ultimately make, so in that sense there is an unpredictability that indicates freedom.

Deterministo:  Well, now you are talking about freedom in a different sense, and again I would like to come back to that when we talk more about how we make decisions.  But let’s focus on the unpredictability issue for a moment.  As I implied earlier, quantum phenomena not only are unpredictable in practice, they are fundamentally unpredictable.  That is why quantum physics is so baffling to physicists (To paraphrase one of the great physicists of the 20th century, if you are not baffled by quantum physics, you don’t understand its implications; or, if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t).  But brain activity is not primarily a quantum phenomenon, it is rather a chaotic phenomenon.  And chaos theory is a means of understanding seemingly random phenomena in deterministic terms.  It’s just that chaotic phenomena are determined by such a vast array of interacting variables, it is not possible in practice to predict an outcome, but it would be possible in principle if we knew the exact values of each variable and had a perfect model to account for how they interact.  As a classic example, the weather is not fundamentally unpredictable, but because there are so many variables involved, it is very difficult to predict the weather, and in practice it is impossible to predict it accurately beyond 10 days.

Free-willy:  Well, I agree that when a spider “chooses” a spot to build a web, there is no real freedom of choice.  Its behavior is no doubt based on instinct, which in turn is encoded in its genes. But humans are different.  Certainly, you would agree that a human has more free will than a spider.

Deterministo:  Bravo!  You have brought me to the point to which I had hoped to return.  Here again, you are now talking about a different sort of freedom.  You are no longer talking about free-will as an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and you are not talking about non-deterministic phenomena.  You are talking about “degrees of freedom” wherein a choice is not solely determined by genetically-encoded instinct.  You are talking about the ability of human beings to reason and reflect, to consider the consequences of their decisions; you are talking about their ability to base decisions on past experience and to consider the impact of their decisions on their long-term well-being and on the well-being of other human beings.  Using this definition of “freedom”, we can say not only that a human has more degrees of freedom than a spider, we can quickly see that the “same” human being, facing essentially the “same” decision, may have differing degrees of freedom at different points in time.  In one instance, she may be under time constraints, or faced with other pressing decisions, that limit her capacity to reason and reflect, whereas in a second instance, she may have the luxury of greater time and mental energy to consider the choice more carefully, and she may also have access to more information (eg, knowledge that will allow her to better predict which choice will bring about a more desirable outcome).  This form of freedom is perfectly compatible with a deterministic model of human behavior, but it is not quite what most people mean when they talk of “free will”.

Free-willy:  But when our daughter makes a choice that I believe is a “bad” choice (ie, non-conducive to her long-term well being or to the well-being of others), I will scold her or punish her, as parents have always done.  You seem to be saying that I have no valid reason to hold her accountable for her actions, and that society has no valid reason to hold criminals accountable for their actions.

Deterministo:  Not at all.  We can hold people accountable for their decisions, to the extent that activity in their brains brought about those decisions.  Of course, we can’t go back in time and change those decisions.  But we can scold and punish (and evolution has shaped human behavior such that scolding and punishing are essentially instinctual), with the “goal” (or in more accurate evolutionary terms, with the propitious “result”) of altering similar decisions made by the scoldee in the future, such that subsequent decisions are more pleasing to the scolder.  In fact, the idea of free will in a moral sense may be a habit of mind having evolutionary value, because it tends to make us feel like we have a stronger rationale for blaming someone for past behavior, even though the only logical rationale, based on the above discussion, has to do with shaping future behavior.  In point of fact, a deterministic model of human behavior is the sine qua non for giving us a valid basis for holding people accountable for their decisions and actions.

Free-willy:  But what if a criminal on trial for murder is discovered to have a brain tumor.  We have a sense that he is less accountable for his actions, because he has less “free will”, because the brain tumor is likely to be at least partly responsible for criminal, or anti-social, behavior.

Deterministo:  Well, I agree that you could argue that “he” is less accountable, not because he has less free will, but because the brain tumor is not “him”—it is mutant tissue (and it that sense “foreign” tissue, even though it evolved from his own brain tissue).  Alternatively, you could skip the blame game and simply admit that, practically speaking, the presence of the brain tumor makes it less likely that punishment will shape future behavior in a more pro-social direction—the best solution would rather seem to be to cure the brain tumor, if possible.

You might make a stronger case by choosing a criminal with a history of severe head injury resulting in cognitive and personality changes.  You might say that he has less “free will”, but I would choose to avoid the confusing term “free will” because people seem to have a problem agreeing on what it means.  I would instead say that his capacity to make pro-social decisions conducive to his own long-term well being and the well-being of others is severely limited by the prior brain injury—he has lost some of the brain’s functionality that creates what I believe to be the illusion of free will.  More importantly, the brain damage makes it less likely that punishment will bring about a desirable change in future behavior.  Upon reflection, we tend to think him perhaps more worthy of pity than blame.  Pity and blame are both basically emotional responses, not logical ones.  But pity here is useful, because it will make it more likely that we will search for a solution, other than punishment, that actually might help prevent bad decisions (ie, “bad” in the sense that if he keeps killing people, sooner or later, he’s going to get himself in real trouble).  So perhaps, we will provide him with medical care, and a safer, more supervised and controlled environment (albeit, one that may restrict his “freedom”), without resorting to frank punishment.

The real question is whether, in regard to criminals without obvious brain injury, we might also get better results by responding with pity rather than blame; and support rather than punishment.  It’s a question that deserves more investigation, but our habits of mind, including the notion of “free will”, often prevent us from keeping an open mind.

 


There is no free will.
End of story.
The desire to get better results by responding with pity rather than blame is merely another attempt by the brain to impose its illusory free will.

 

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Posted: 15 August 2012 02:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]  
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Captain Crunch - 14 August 2012 10:21 PM

A dialogue on free will

Free-willy:  I believe in free will because when I consider choices I have made, I can in many cases imagine myself making a different choice.

our habits of mind, including the notion of “free will”, often prevent us from keeping an open mind.

Sam Harris covers all of this in his quotes… 

http://samsnyder.com/2012/03/15/free-will-by-sam-harris/

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it. Thomas Paine

 

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Posted: 26 January 2013 11:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]  
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Paisley - 06 July 2012 01:32 PM

   
I believe the moral implications are the same regardless of whether determinism or indeterminism holds true. Why? Because I don’t believe you can be held any more responsible for something that reduces to chance (indeterminism) than for something that was predetermined. (This should not be misconstrued to mean that I necessarily subscribe to strong incompatibilism - the notion that free will is incompatible with either determinism or indeterminism).

i agree but others may not and there kids the problem. Perhaps the penal systems are labouring under the soul hypothesis. Capable of divine sensing for their penitential process.

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Posted: 19 February 2013 09:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]  
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Is there such a thing as free will?


You can’t simply say “no” because the matter is not yet properly understood. Eastern philosophy holds no answers in this regard because it provides no direct evidence that can be tested in a lab. It’s all talk. Yes, it puts forth a lot of plausible-sounding arguments, but its content lies solely in those arguments, however well constructed they are, and not in the physical brain, which is where the brain activity in question takes place.


Studies of monozygotic twins separated at birth sometimes show enormous predisposition in terms of processes such as decision- making, and the role DNA plays in predisposition is now a field of study that is shedding new light on the subject, but the process of decision-making isn’t so simple that one can claim obviousness in terms of apparent results. The mechanism itself is poorly understood because we don’t yet know what lies at its root, whether it’s primarily a matter of perception whose outcome is determined by the content of that perception, how much of that perception is built-in, how the growth of that perception functions in terms of influences, the built-in filter that processes influences over time and in various situational contexts, and so on.


One could argue that we do in fact make genuine choices and decisions, but that the choices and decisions we’re capable of making are limited in terms of our ability to perceive, which in itself is a filter. This would mean that our ability to make choices and decisions is rudimentary, because the underlying criteria are far more rigid and limited than our perception can either perceive or account for.


It’s why we’ll eat Kraft Dinner while thinking ourselves urbane.

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