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Free Will
Posted: 27 January 2012 09:34 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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I have been reading Sam’s work on free will and was wondering, when he says we have no free will does he mean that we are guided by natural forces, pushed by desires and ideas that come from those impersonal forces and finally make decisions based off of such forces making choice illusory because it is always circumstance that pushes one into action or does he simply mean that we at no point, at all whatsoever, make a choice? To simplify, are our hands forced to make the decisions we do by chance or are our hands just “not our hands” moving without any perceived will at all?


I ask this because while I am certain that while he means to say that we have zero free will, and that we never have made or will make a single decision ever he does not seem to comment on the horrible implications this has, let alone the utter loop of thinking such a realization puts someone in. This would mean that no one is moral, no one successful, no one anything except what they by complete chance happen to be. No choices ever being choices, every single choice being a movie we’re watching through our eyes, thinking we have control over. He simply does not seem touch on the fact that almost every aspect of human life (since human life involves constant choices) completely breaks down into sophistry.


Thanks for your “guidance” and “replies” even if it’s just your unconscious making them!

[ Edited: 27 January 2012 09:36 PM by cokeninja]
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Posted: 28 January 2012 12:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Ahh I have to read this. I am familiar with this whole topic from past reading, starting with WIlliam James and then going forward in time. A lot of books dedicated to this seem to have been written in the 50s 60s and 70s when Existentialism was big.  I guess this topic goes in and out of being interesting to intellectuals.


People who say we have zero free will mean we live in a completely deterministic universe, even if it’s lately been shown to not be completely deterministic at the sub atomic level.


This basically means that yes, we live our lives as spectators to our own actions and decisions but we have an illusion that we have free will and could have chosen other than we did. 


Oscar Wilde encapsulated the same basic idea more amusingly and intuitively when he said, “I can resist everything but temptation”.  In other words, you have “free will” to chose what you want, but not free will to want what you want.  You can’t will yourself to want to eat anchovies if you don’t like anchovies, although you could, I suppose force some down just to try to give the finger to strict determinism. 


But basically what he probably means is that because we’re just atoms and molecules interacting in accordance with known laws which we have zero control over , there isn’t any sense to saying we have “free will” anymore than there is sense in saying a rock falling has free will. Both systems, us and the falling rock, are in the absolute grip of the laws of nature over which we have no control, and this grip extends even to our decision making process and the actions which result from that process.


So to answer your question, yes, your feeling of being free is an illusion.


It’s hard to describe how vehemently people react to this idea. They hate it , a lot,  and go to great lengths to deny it according to their capabilities and philosophical inclinations and , mea culpa here to some reading, that would include myself.


I am not satisfied the matter is settled for a number of reasons, some of which perhaps Sam rebuts in his book, which I will have to read just to see if he does rebut and what I therefore need to do about that.


One of the reasons I am not satisfied the case is settled is because I am not sure we *really* know the boundaries of what we call the self, the agent of this free will. 


Someone else here had a name for this idea which I had not heard before and maybe they’ll jump in, but essentially it’s the question of whether anything can be fully known if it’s considered just in isolation and if not, in what sense is that thing an individual thing as opposed to mere part; to what extent have we misconstrued its real identity and therefore real nature?

If we’re all somehow just parts and our *real* identity is as a part of a greater thing, then it doesn’t make sense to talk about freewill or no freewill for a thing which does not really exist in the first place.


Another reason I am not convinced is because it assumes that we understand causality and what’s been called the arrow of   time rightly. Free will assumes that at time present we decide to do something which results in our actions at time future. That’s a form of time-defined casuality.


I am not satisfied our conception of time is ultimately accurate and if time turns out to be other than we expect it to be, if say time past and time present and time future are all mixed together, then the question of free will turns out to be nonsensical.


Another reason I am not satisfied is because there seems to me to be something about consciousness , where free will is generally said to reside or emanate from that is sui generis in the universe.


I *could* be a wind up doll just going through the motions of my life and have no need of consciousness it seems to me. I could be like a very complicated rock or clock which we presume has zero experience of the world. It’s not clear to me why I need to experience anything . Consciousness , that is, conscious experience, seems to be completely superfluous . It could have been the case that my brain makes very complicated calculations and causes my words to form, my body to move,  and me to calculate and animate all without any kind of raw experience not to say raw input from the environment.


If you’re going to rebut, realize that it’s no fair citing what *good* that experience does me if I could as well have done just as well without it.


Daniel Dennet wrote a book called “Consciousness Explained” where he at least succeeded in formulating this question accurately and taking it head on as a valid puzzle. The problem with the book is, after achieving admirable clarity formulating the question, he punted on the answer.


This is not just my opinion. I was standing in line at university and got chatting with a stranger and we started talking about this book (one of us must have been holding it) and we both agreed that Dennett “punted” . That stranger was an extremely well known Cognitive Scientist who shall remain nameless because it’s a small world and I don’t want to make waves between strangers.


So anyway, that’s another problem with determinism. It fails to define the putative source of free will which is being rejected, that source being consciousness or awareness.


For me, conscious experience is a still a Great Mystery. I can imagine a world of automatons which a super advanced race built that are indistinguishable in every way from humans but about whom we know for a fact they have no awareness.


The obverse of this is that any being as complicated as a human HAS to be conscious, that is, have conscious experience.


This obverse statement seems to me to be mandatory for people who explain consciousness as strictly brain based-  assuming this philosophical position means you think it IMPOSSIBLE to have a human like (or alien like) creature exist without consciousness, that is, without conscious experience. 


This is what Marvin Minsky thinks. He even goes so far as to say that anything even a little reactive to the environment, like a thermostat, has a rudimentary form of consciousness. One point for Marvin Minsky for bravely accepting the follow on implications of his logic no matter where it takes him.


The problem with this “no creature without consciouness” position is it represents a very strong and unsupported statement about all possible future configurations of matter and the universe. In order for it to be true, we have to set a limit on what can ever be done, specifically no one will ever be able to create a human imitation without also creating conscious experience in that imitation, whether they meant to or not


That’s a very very strong statement and I wonder sometimes if the determinist / reductionist / conservative types in science realize they are making it.


Anyway, yes the materailist reductionist view is we’re fancy billiard balls thwoking around the table of the universe propelled by forces we didn’t create and are unable to control.


Other critical critiques of this view are not in short supply, especially by some avant garde physicists. I can’t keep typing but if you look on Amazon and do a little Googling you may find their integrative synthesis of physics theories, buddhist (typically zen) writings and philosophical gedanken compelling.


Apparently Sam did not.

 

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Posted: 28 January 2012 05:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Here are my ponderings on it:


The experience of wanting something (aka will) exists and we know it has causal power on the physical (for example our bodies). So on to the issue of whether it is “free”. The laws of nature: what does it mean to be a “law” anyway. Isnt a law just a mental abstraction based on a fixed pattern we observe in physical objects? Who says the pattern cannot be changed? I can open and close my hand 10 times in a row and from this pattern come up with some law. Even though that pattern/law exists, it is a fact that my will had a causal influence in it. It is also a fact that the pattern can be altered, again influenced by will.


So we have established that under the influence of consciousness, a pattern/law can be created and changed. I see no reason to assume that the (physical) laws of nature are any different, that they would have some hypothetical unchanging nature or substance to them.

 

Also “the physical” and “experiences” are two such different phenomena that it makes little sense to think of one in terms of the other. For one, experiences have a non-spatial nature. Statements like “pain is 50 meters away from the smell of an apple” and “the number 5 weighs 200 grams” are meaningless. So the type of interaction between experiental things is quite different from the type of interaction between physical objects. And that means the laws of physical objects are not applicable to experiences. The physical and the experiental interact, but this is a two way interaction, and it is not so that experiences are fully determined by physical laws. And that means the physical laws(patterns) can be influenced by will.

[ Edited: 28 January 2012 05:33 AM by srrr]
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Posted: 28 January 2012 06:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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To softwarevisualization:

Thanks for the speedy reply. I apologize for my lack of eloquence on the subject. You mentioned consciousness as manifest in ‘awareness’ as being a problem to Sam’s assertion and I’d have to agree. What confuses me most about the ‘no free will’ group is not that my decisions are influenced by past and present stimuli and determined as such, I can easily concede that, but that the WILL to think or act or decide does not arise from my conscious self. So while I understand that the final decision I make in a choice is not up to me, I am at a loss to think that I did not first consciously WILL myself to make a choice one way or another even if my motivation to choose to will myself is not my own.


Of course my own personal biggest beef with the pro-free will crowd is in trying to imagine how a free choice can be explained any way whatever. What exactly can be said is going on in the brain when choosing between apples and oranges if we have free will? It’s near impossible to even imagine what a choice would ‘look like’ in that kind of a system. It seems here that Sam is right in asserting that ‘the laws of nature break down’ in such a presumption. This tied into the fact (one that has been well known by philosophers and saints for ages) that our thoughts, desires, and emotions come out of our unconscious mind as if spontaneously without any effort needed seems to convince me that there is likely no free will. I suppose my trouble is in understanding how it is that I have never willed myself to think something, but perhaps this is because I am mistaken about the nature of will. Still, I find it all very muddled and self-defeating to think this way, like a never ending loop produced by an brain that is aware it is not making it’s own decisions while actually making it’s own decisions, haha. I will however, get into reading more and more about the matter of consciousness and conscious awareness and how they pertains to will and choice.


There may after all be something to the fact that consciousness is the most enigmatic and complex system of natural laws we know of and it may have to be conceded forever that it can only be best known ‘from the inside out’ not ‘from the outside in’. The fact that self awareness is very difficult to explain or conceptualize ‘from the outside looking in” may speak to the problem of conceptualizing what a free choice could possibly look like.

[ Edited: 28 January 2012 06:27 AM by cokeninja]
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Posted: 28 January 2012 10:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Yeah what you said is my sense of this- we’re talking, all of us, way past our knowledge framing the problem with concepts “free will” “determinism”  etc that will ultimately be shown to themselves just be misunderstandings.

A friend of mine once said “you can’t fall out of the universe”, by which he meant that no matter what the underlying ultimate reality is, it’s not going to change anything about the way you experience your life as a creature with free will who makes decisions. The only danger is that you’ll chuck all the practical self knowledge you’ve earned about how you operate, how to “run” yourself and your life because you adopted the philosophical position that you’re a billiard ball.

 

So in other words, imagine that through some magical power, you’re suddenly blessed with total and accurate knowledge of all the things we’re talking about now. You know their ultimate reality, you know exactly who and what you are and for any act of volition, you understand where it came from and how it arose. Now what would then be the status of the hard won practical knowledge about how to run yourself I referred to earlier? Would it suddenly become false? No, it would be contextualized into some greater, fuller picture and you’d think things like:

 

“oh, so all those times I had to I force myself against resistance to think hard on something in order to learn it and I had set up THAT motivational structure around myself then there came that time when I felt I had a choice and had to exert will power, all those times what was REALLY going on was THIS”.

 

which in no way changes the relative effectiveness of what you were doing or removes any internal perception of agency or in any way disavows the “experiential narrative”  you had maintained in yourself involving self and freewill and study time.

 


On the contrary, what you would more likely experience is an enhancement of your self and your place in the world and the rightness of it all since the accounting for your feelings and perceptions would be total.

 

If the old narrative wasn’t quite right, or partial and founded on ghostly entities that have no reality, -free will for instance- what took its place would be even MORE personal, more rewarding, more real and truer to your “true self”. That couldn’t be experienced by you as a “loss of self”  or “agency”  or even less “billiard ballification”.

 

By extrapolation I don’t know of any scientific theory which has displaced a fairy tale that has not also had the effect of making the story of what we are grander, truer and much more interesting.

The reason I don’t get bent out of shape over the free will issue is because I’m a bit of a apostate myself but also I think really pushing the idea that people have zero free will under all circumstances and for all time frames no matter how big or small is deleterious to the inherent motivational structure and feeling of accountability that makes life in society possible. Michael Gazzaniga has written on this point in The Social Brain.


http://www.amazon.com/Social-Brain-Discovering-Networks-Mind/dp/0465078524


and also here:


http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/11/18/free-will-debate-who-s-in-charge.html

 

Removing agency- free will- totally from people has a bad effect on them because you remove the foundational basis of personal responsibility. In my view, it has a bad effect on them and ALSO it’s probably a very poor framing of something larger we don’t understand.  So bad for you and probably fundamentally wrong. That’s not a great epistemological combination, or one I’m anxious to push on others. 

 

OTOH the belief in perfect, uninfluenced free will under all circumstances leads straight into barbarism . You’re responsible for every single thing you do, irrespective of the circumstances. Statistics that show that people from this or that socio-economic status (SES) make these bad “choices” at this higher rate than the general population can only mean all those people are “bad” as in evil for no other reason than they’re just evil and the correlation between their shared life experiences and environment is just, supposedly, a coincidence.  So fuck them, they deserve all the bad things that happen to them and no use trying to help them either.


Sorry, can’t go there either.

 

 

 

[ Edited: 28 January 2012 11:28 AM by softwarevisualization]
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Posted: 30 January 2012 09:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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I forgot the author of this quote.  But it sums up best for me the contradiction in terms that is free will:


“I do what I will.  But I don’t will what I will.”

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Posted: 30 January 2012 10:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Yeah I can’t want to become a fundy. But when I examine that fact, it seems to me that what I am saying is I cannot , effectively, will myself to go crazy, that is,  just start acting in ways I know full well don’t accord with reality. Why not walk out in front of a bus while I’m at it or swallow some gravel?

We exert our “free will”, at least at the very broadest granularity,  in ways which have not failed some minimal “sensibility test”.

So we’re essentially creatures that create narratives about reality and those then “determine” -very broadly speaking- what we will do if only by defining a negative space of what we WON’T do .  This isn’t special to us, all animals do this at some level.

So on this level I am determined and free simultaneously, at least, I don’t feel this fact as a kind of constriction of my will. I am a sort of bounded infinity, metaphorically speaking.


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Posted: 30 January 2012 10:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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I don’t understand how your inability to will yourself to go crazy is a demonstration of any kind of free will.  Seems the exact opposite.


There’s two things here:


1) Your inability to will yourself to go crazy is simply that: a lack of free will.


2) Your inability to walk out in front of a bus, however, is the outcome of yourself not willing to do it.


The first one is will.  The second one is action.  You can will yourself to walk in front of a bus (for example, if you believe in martyrdom, are wearing a bomb, and the bus is full of infidels)  But you cannot will yourself to will that (because free will is nonsense)

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Posted: 30 January 2012 12:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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QuakePhil - 30 January 2012 09:48 AM

I forgot the author of this quote.  But it sums up best for me the contradiction in terms that is free will:


“I do what I will.  But I don’t will what I will.”

Buddhist monks use meditation to get rid of all desires. So manipulation of will is possible.

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Posted: 30 January 2012 12:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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I’m not convinced that meditation about desires is any demonstration of free will.


Here’s another angle that is helpful (at least for me) to talk about free will.  It is an exercise in constructing the best possible way to empirically prove that free will exists.  Currently, the best experiment I can think of is itself nonsense… but here it goes:


My best experiment so far consists of the subject doing his will X, going back in time, and then choosing to do a different will Y instead.  In other words, he makes coffee for breakfast, hops into a time machine, and makes tea for breakfast instead of coffee, thus demonstrating his empirical ability to change time.


The experiment is nonsense because it requires time travel (true time travel, not travel to an alternate state of reality) and all the paradoxes that come with that, but it is the best I can come up.  A time machine is impossible.  More importantly, to change your will (which is what freedom is to me) is impossible.


The buddhist monks meditate and get rid of desires.  But the buddhist monks don’t demonstrate a freedom of the will in doing so.


Here’s yet another, maybe simpler, angle.  Define free will in the simplest terms possible, so that it makes sense.  (My best attempt at defining it is above, but I fail because it doesn’t make sense—because it requires time travel or the modification of an action at a static moment in time)

[ Edited: 30 January 2012 12:53 PM by QuakePhil]
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Posted: 30 January 2012 07:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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QuakePhil - 30 January 2012 10:57 AM

I don’t understand how your inability to will yourself to go crazy is a demonstration of any kind of free will.  Seems the exact opposite.


There’s two things here:


1) Your inability to will yourself to go crazy is simply that: a lack of free will.


2) Your inability to walk out in front of a bus, however, is the outcome of yourself not willing to do it.


The first one is will.  The second one is action.  You can will yourself to walk in front of a bus (for example, if you believe in martyrdom, are wearing a bomb, and the bus is full of infidels)  But you cannot will yourself to will that (because free will is nonsense)


I wasn’t saying it was an example of free will. I was saying that free will is not infinitely free then elaborating on how ti’s circumscribed.

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Posted: 30 January 2012 07:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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”  Define free will in the simplest terms possible, so that it makes sense. “

OK I will. In the morning. smile

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Posted: 31 January 2012 10:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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OK I have a second.


I need just one thing from you before I can proceed . We’re talking about free will and if a person, you or I say,  have it or not.


Can you define the “I” in the above? I’t s a prerequisite for being able to answer this question.


Looking forward to your reply.


Cheers.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 12:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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cokeninja - 27 January 2012 09:34 PM

I have been reading Sam’s work on free will and was wondering, when he says we have no free will does he mean that we are guided by natural forces, pushed by desires and ideas that come from those impersonal forces and finally make decisions based off of such forces making choice illusory because it is always circumstance that pushes one into action or does he simply mean that we at no point, at all whatsoever, make a choice? To simplify, are our hands forced to make the decisions we do by chance or are our hands just “not our hands” moving without any perceived will at all?


I ask this because while I am certain that while he means to say that we have zero free will, and that we never have made or will make a single decision ever he does not seem to comment on the horrible implications this has, let alone the utter loop of thinking such a realization puts someone in. This would mean that no one is moral, no one successful, no one anything except what they by complete chance happen to be. No choices ever being choices, every single choice being a movie we’re watching through our eyes, thinking we have control over. He simply does not seem touch on the fact that almost every aspect of human life (since human life involves constant choices) completely breaks down into sophistry.


Thanks for your “guidance” and “replies” even if it’s just your unconscious making them!

People still are moral and people still are successful, but the “we” or “I” or “you” that we tend to label people with is not responsible for it; “we” or “I” or “you” are just observers.  “You” may be a successful and moral person by certain measurable standards but by “you” I mean your body and brain which the real “you” (your conscious experience, which is the only thing that really matters to you) has no control over.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 01:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Reading what I typed above, my explanation was pretty terrible.

What I meant to say is that yes, it seems you’re correct that we are just “watching a movie through our eyes,” except that I would add that we also are experiencing the movie too, in a very real way (that experience is entirely out of our control though).  The problem is, as you said, we simply have no control over anything that happens to us.  Ever.  It just seems like we do.  Most people will never admit this, but there’s simply no way around it.  I’m looking forward to seeing how Dr. Harris addresses this in his book.


Another bizarre reality on this topic is the fact that we can’t even “give up” and do nothing, as we would have to excercise free will in order to even do that.  We can’t do anything or nothing; we just do what we happen to do, and there are no exceptions.  I know that most people see this as extremely depressing, but I personally find it to be a huge relief.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 04:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Another bizarre reality on this topic is the fact that we can’t even “give up” and do nothing, as we would have to excercise free will in order to even do that.  We can’t do anything or nothing; we just do what we happen to do, and there are no exceptions.  I know that most people see this as extremely depressing, but I personally find it to be a huge relief.


OK I think you’re mixing two issues together. One is free will. The other is omnipotence. Unless you’re careful,. you’ll liable to start expressing ideas which imply that if we don’t have omnipotent free will, then we must have none at all. I think you’re doing that above.


Just because there are things we cannot change about the world, or ourselves, this doesn’t imply that there is no time frame / scope / activity in which we have free will. <—- recently corrected for double negative error!!


I am not proving we have free will. I am saying that just because we can’t do X doesn’t imply we have no free will under any circumstances.


The reason people believe we have no free will is because they believe the entire universe is deterministic down to the final spin on the final electron that composes the atom that’s a part of the molecule that’s a part of peptide which was synthesized in the soma and transmitted down the axon and into the synaptic divide which fired the neuron which event , we believe,  is synonymous with thought and consciousness in all its forms including decisions making. .


That’s why.


Even allowing, this narrative goes, for non-determinism at the sub-atomic level, it’s still all just billiard balls hitting each other under Newton’s Laws at the level of large enough aggregates.


Actually, the above sentence is not true; there’s no principled reason the non-determinism which exists at the sub-atomic level could not manifest at any level above it. But even given THAT, it’s still, this narrative says, not an argument for free will. And it’s not a clear one, I agree (but look for books by new age-y type physicists which pitch their shovels in just there and start digging merrily.)


The point is , it’s important to know the foundation of the argument against free will. In a certain sense, it’s an 19th century argument. A William James affair, who maybe formulated the argument early on in the clearest possible language.  Once you’re clear about why we suppose determinism is all encompassing and inescapable, then you can at least see if an counter argument presents a valid case - one that attacks the roots of determinism.


On this topic I find it useful to go Descartes one better . He of course said “I think, therefore I am”. He couldn’t doubt the fact of his I-ness, even if he could doubt everything else . I can doubt my I-ness or at least I would like to understand what this perception of selfness is much better than I do now. From there we can talk about things or properties this self may or may not possess, free will being one of those   properties. 


There are a number of assumptions determinism makes which may not be true as it intersects with the question of free will. One of those is the universe is deterministic *as far as anything we ever have anything to do with is concerned”.  But if the universe is not deterministic at some level or time frame, then what determines what happens and what if that non-determination has found some avenue through which stuff like us intersects with it in some way?


The other is we do not have a well developed notion or understanding of the I thing which is said to have the property of being determined.  Sorry, but that can’t mean nothing to the argument that I am determined , that is, I do not have free will.  It may mean the question is nonsensical; that we’re referring to an entity “I”  that just doesn’t exist in some fundamental way.  It may mean something even weirder, like the “I” I think of as “i” is just a tiny fraction of the “real I” which has properties we know nothing about. consciousness itself could be the most fundamental property of the universe in some weird way we don’t yet fathom. Lots of things are possible here since we know so little about the brain and how it gives rise to a self. Excluding them from consideration is not really being a good scientist, it’s being political in that conservative way that some scientists feel is proper.


I am not saying I know. i am saying we don’t know.  Neither am I sowing false doubt where there is all but certainty; advancing ridiculous hypotheses which would require everything we know be reinterpreted in some highly improbable way.


I am just saying really, we don’t know about these things well enough to be certain about this kind of ultimate question- what is self and consciousness and what are its properties and how do these things intersect with the rest of the universe. It’s just being modest and leaving questions open in my mind that are actually   open questions in the world .

 


 

 

 

 

 

[ Edited: 31 January 2012 09:10 PM by softwarevisualization]
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