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Sam’s new thoughts on free will
Posted: 26 September 2012 08:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 211 ]  
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Skipping over the epic and tiresome duel between Coolinator and toombaru… I just read this article, which is an excellent discussion of topics around mind/brain, free will and religious belief.  Perfect for these forums.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/12/is-god-an-accident/304425/?single_page=true

The dualistic brain processes is a very apt explanation for the illusion of many things, animism to free will.

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Posted: 14 October 2012 02:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 212 ]  
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After reading Sam Harris, I wonder if anyone has thought about what the consequences of not believing that one has free will, will be?


One obvious thing, one should also not be as impressed by good deeds as before.


Not having a free will makes me think about a few other things too. What about feelings? Why do we have experienced feelings if we do not have a free will, what are their benefits. Why should I feel anger when I lack the free will to use it? Why are the emotions not connected directly to one’s behaviour? Remorse and guilt are very strange feelings if you do not have free will, are they not?


The next question is about consciousness, why have a mind at all if you do not have free will? What function does the mind have?

/Max

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Posted: 15 October 2012 02:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 213 ]  
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maxt - 14 October 2012 02:46 PM

Not having a free will makes me think about a few other things too. What about feelings? Why do we have experienced feelings if we do not have a free will, what are their benefits. Why should I feel anger when I lack the free will to use it? Why are the emotions not connected directly to one’s behaviour? Remorse and guilt are very strange feelings if you do not have free will, are they not?

I agree. Our brain might be the most complex structure ever evolved, and one of the most costly organs to be maintained by our bodies. It is not reasonable to believe that such an organ has evolved, not to have more capabilities than simpler brains, but to delude us in that we have more capabilities which we haven’t. There is no ratio in such a thought, and I can not imagine how natural selection would favour such delusion.

Sam’s booklet Free Will gives a good overview of the arguments against “conscious will” or “free will” (which is the capacity to choose a course of action.)

Let me give my personal opinion about each.

1. “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.” (p.5)
Everything a surfer does has fysical causes, and yet he must have a clear conception of the waves, the wind etc… and (really, not illusionary) choose his moves. A cause is something different from a choice, and they are, evidently so, not mutually exclusive. 

2.“The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.” (p.8)
This and other experiments all show a sequence of: 1/ brain activity, 2/ consciousness and 3/ action.
It seems only natural, from a materialist point of view, that consciousness, or any course of action, can only be produced by neural activity, and therefor that neural activity will always precede our thoughts, and both unconscious and conscious actions. But this neural activity does not (as Binet himself suggested) prove that a final conscious decision has been made before we know (of course not!)

3. “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” (p.13)
If “free will” is the capacity to choose a course of action, the only thing the agent needs to know are various possible courses, and a way to effectuate them. Modern knowledge of muscle physiology has not changed the number of possible movements we can make. I do not have to know in detail how my car works to drive it wherever I want.

4.“We know, in fact, that we sometimes feel responsible for events over which we have no causal influence. Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements.” (p.24)
A bit further Sam unwarrented changes this “sometimes” in “always”. We try indeed to make sense of confused situations, which is a very useful but sometimes erring capacity.
But we talk here about very cunningly misleading testing environments. You might create a situation in which I sometimes think I moved a cursor on the screen, while someone else did it, but you can not make me believe that I typed this text, while someone else did it. 

 

 

 

 

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Posted: 26 October 2012 12:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 214 ]  
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I would add another comment to Sam’ statement already mentioned:

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. (Free Will p.13)

In real life causes not only conglomerate in ecological mix-ups, they also produce emergence: new stable combinations following their own reason. To have a good grasp of causation, we should leave the ninetheenth century billiard-causation and appreciate that causes exist on different levels of being. So to be aware of all the necessary factors might be easier than it seems.

Suppose that we would definitely need “complete control” over all factors, as Sam Harris seems to believe. This would mean that as we don’t know what our neurons are doing, we can’t know why we choose coffee, or wear a hat. It would also mean that I have no say about the sentence I am now writing, because I am not aware of the electrons and photons involved. I have however control over them, because I steer them by typing charaters. What I decide to write is not dependent on the physical processes below; on the contrary, what happens physically fully depends on what I write, even without me knowing what happens below.

And in the end, I make my own free choices, expressed in sentences, without escaping fysical laws. 

[ Edited: 26 October 2012 05:27 AM by Siger]
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Posted: 05 November 2012 08:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 215 ]  
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Siger - 26 October 2012 12:20 AM

I would add another comment to Sam’ statement already mentioned:

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. (Free Will p.13)

In real life causes not only conglomerate in ecological mix-ups, they also produce emergence: new stable combinations following their own reason. To have a good grasp of causation, we should leave the ninetheenth century billiard-causation and appreciate that causes exist on different levels of being. So to be aware of all the necessary factors might be easier than it seems.

Suppose that we would definitely need “complete control” over all factors, as Sam Harris seems to believe. This would mean that as we don’t know what our neurons are doing, we can’t know why we choose coffee, or wear a hat. It would also mean that I have no say about the sentence I am now writing, because I am not aware of the electrons and photons involved. I have however control over them, because I steer them by typing charaters. What I decide to write is not dependent on the physical processes below; on the contrary, what happens physically fully depends on what I write, even without me knowing what happens below.

And in the end, I make my own free choices, expressed in sentences, without escaping fysical laws.


We don’t need “complete” control. We just need control. And we have it.


If we don’t like a thought or action we had/did, then we can reflect on it. We can discover our subconscious ideas and make them conscious and explicit. At this point we can criticize those ideas. We can refute them, thus changing our ideas. And by changing our ideas, we thereby change our thoughts/actions. This is free will in action.

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Posted: 12 December 2012 03:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 216 ]  
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maxt - 14 October 2012 02:46 PM

After reading Sam Harris, I wonder if anyone has thought about what the consequences of not believing that one has free will, will be?

The main thing that should become apparent after understanding that free will is an illusion is that our personal identity is also an illusion. Unfortunately knowing these things are illusions is not enough to stop us from beliving in them.


One obvious thing, one should also not be as impressed by good deeds as before.


Not having a free will makes me think about a few other things too. What about feelings? Why do we have experienced feelings if we do not have a free will, what are their benefits. Why should I feel anger when I lack the free will to use it? Why are the emotions not connected directly to one’s behaviour? Remorse and guilt are very strange feelings if you do not have free will, are they not?

Remorse and guilt make perfect sense if you belive you have free will. This is likely why Sam argues that removing that false belief will be beneficial both collectively and personally.

Also “why” is never a valid question since it always imples meaning. Which, you guessed it, is an illusion.


The next question is about consciousness, why have a mind at all if you do not have free will? What function does the mind have?

Why watch a movie if you cant control the actors? The mind is what is used to navigate the world. Its just a very usefull tool. Like the radar on a ship. So the mind is not the same thing as conciousness. You experience that you have a mind where as conciousness is what enables experience. Or, experience and consiousness is the same thing. And the mind is an experience “in” conciousness.

And “why” is BS. Same as in the previous question.

/Max

All my comments are above in bold.

[ Edited: 12 December 2012 03:21 PM by thisispointless]
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Posted: 12 December 2012 03:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 217 ]  
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Siger - 15 October 2012 02:56 PM
maxt - 14 October 2012 02:46 PM

4.But we talk here about very cunningly misleading testing environments. You might create a situation in which I sometimes think I moved a cursor on the screen, while someone else did it, but you can not make me believe that I typed this text, while someone else did it.

 


You can define it any way you like. You wrote the above text just as much as your hand, your pen or the entire universe did.
What really happned what that the universe unfolded in such a way that conciusness had the experience of beeing “you” writing the above text.

[ Edited: 12 December 2012 03:23 PM by thisispointless]
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Posted: 16 June 2013 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 218 ]  
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Rami Rustom - 05 November 2012 08:04 PM

We don’t need “complete” control. We just need control. And we have it.

A child’s spinning gyroscope controls it orientation.

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Posted: 16 August 2013 06:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 219 ]  
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“Gexbee’s Mousetrap” is being watched closely by Schrodinger’s Cat.

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Posted: 17 August 2013 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 220 ]  
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thisispointless - 12 December 2012 03:14 PM
Siger - 15 October 2012 02:56 PM
maxt - 14 October 2012 02:46 PM

4.But we talk here about very cunningly misleading testing environments. You might create a situation in which I sometimes think I moved a cursor on the screen, while someone else did it, but you can not make me believe that I typed this text, while someone else did it.

You can define it any way you like. You wrote the above text just as much as your hand, your pen or the entire universe did.
What really happned what that the universe unfolded in such a way that conciusness had the experience of beeing “you” writing the above text.

But why would you put it in such wording which is irrelevant to what is happening?

Let’s go back tot the experiment. I am sitting in front of a pc screen, and can move a cursor with a mouse. The mouse is tricked, so that sometimes the cursor is moved by someone else, and a number of times the experimentor succeeds in making me believe that I moved it.

The experiment shows that part of the time I, myself, direct the mouse.
If the moments I did not, but thougth I did, prove that I have no free will, what does it mean then that other moments I did move the curser myself, at my will?
Of course now one can say that that was an illusion of mine, but why the whole experiment if it was an illusion when I did not move the curser, but also an illusion when I did move it?

The experimentor seems to accept that I have free will when I knowingly move the cursor, otherwise the experiment is meaningless. 
And after all nobody claims that we have always an unlimited free will.

[ Edited: 17 August 2013 05:48 AM by Siger]
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Posted: 18 August 2013 07:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 221 ]  
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Rami Rustom - 05 November 2012 08:04 PM

We don’t need “complete” control. We just need control. And we have it.

If we don’t like a thought or action we had/did, then we can reflect on it. We can discover our subconscious ideas and make them conscious and explicit. At this point we can criticize those ideas. We can refute them, thus changing our ideas. And by changing our ideas, we thereby change our thoughts/actions. This is free will in action.

It certainly feels like that.  But the problem is, what you’ve just described is (as far as I can see) scientifically impossible.

You brain is a bunch of atoms all interacting with one another according to the laws of physics.  Because it’s a complex bundle, the whole thing might (like a chaotic weather system) waver between different states before settling into one of them.  Because you have a subjective experience of those changes happening inside you and the end result, you might feel like you are “choosing” between one thought and another, one action or another.  But how is that possible?

The reason I like weather as an example is because, local to where I live, the cliche for a day of mixed weather - especially one that shows promise of sun, only to disappoint - is to lament that “it doesn’t know what it wants to do, does it?”

I don’t think we have free will over our thoughts and actions, any more than the sky has free will to choose drizzle over a downpour.  If you want to believe in free will, I think you have to explain how this scenario can occur: somewhere in your brain, two particles would normally interact in one way, but instead interact in a different way - not because of random quantum effects, but because the two particles are part of a committee of atoms that can do or think what it wants - and there is some feedback mechanism that allows that sense of “want” to be communicated down to the subatomic scale, where it can override what the laws of physics would normally do.

I don’t know how we can entertain that notion without believing in something spiritual.  All we really know about free will is that it feels very very strongly like we have it, but it’s far easier to explain the illusion of free will than it is to support the notion that it’s real.

I basically believe that free will is exactly as magical a proposition as the soul is.  In fact, it’s the same basic proposition - that somehow, in the brains of conscious beings, something magical and scientifically inexplicable is going on.  The difference, of course, is that this “secular soul” wasn’t created by a supernatural being and doesn’t survive death.  But it’s still a non-scientific concept to me.

I admire Sam Harris’s stance on free will because it’s brave and honest (and I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t agree with all his opinions by any stretch!).

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Posted: 19 August 2013 05:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 222 ]  
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It certainly feels like that.  But the problem is, what you’ve just described is (as far as I can see) scientifically impossible.

You brain is a bunch of atoms all interacting with one another according to the laws of physics.  Because it’s a complex bundle, the whole thing might (like a chaotic weather system) waver between different states before settling into one of them.  Because you have a subjective experience of those changes happening inside you and the end result, you might feel like you are “choosing” between one thought and another, one action or another.  But how is that possible?

So a complex bundle of particles is apt to give you a “feeling”, but real phenomena besides particles are impossible?
An automobile factory feels to us like it produces cars, but it really is a bunch of atoms, and therefore it is just an illusion that cars come out of it?

I think you have to explain how this scenario can occur: somewhere in your brain, two particles would normally interact in one way, but instead interact in a different way - not because of random quantum effects, but because the two particles are part of a committee of atoms that can do or think what it wants - and there is some feedback mechanism that allows that sense of “want” to be communicated down to the subatomic scale, where it can override what the laws of physics would normally do.

Let me give it a try.
A bird is born with bodily characteristics (wings, color…) and with what is commonly called instincts (eat, mate, nest…)
Once it became an adult, a bird will start building a nest.
Up to this point, I guess you will not declare that anything is an illusion, caused by the movement of particles. It is interesting to know why, because there is no fundamental difference between the woirking of our brain and the working of nature as such. Therefore calling one aspect an illusion, and the other real, seems inconsistent.

Now let us observe this bird when it is building a nest. Though “building a nest” is an instinct, each nest is different. A safe place must be chosen. Twigs are to be searched for and chosen to be suitable, tranportable, bendable; those finding places must be chosen where it is most likely to find such material, depending on previous experience, on the time of the year and season, on the risk of encountering predators and so on.

Which part of this is illusionary? Then why would it be an illusion when I decide to build a house or chose left or right when I come to the end of a street?

You think defenders of free will could be influenced by remains of the believe in a soul, but denyers of free will must also pay attention not to deny natural reality with their rejection of the supernatural, just because free will was explained once as a supernatural phenomenon.

I don’t know how we can entertain that notion without believing in something spiritual.

Of course we can.  You seem to think dat nature is always deterministic, while our natural laws are stochastic. What you consider “unscientific” is exactly how life works. Evolution is only possible if now and then something unpredictable - ie. a mutation - happens, and certainly our brain is not all that different from the rest of nature.

[ Edited: 19 August 2013 06:42 AM by Siger]
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Posted: 03 September 2013 10:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 223 ]  
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We as a species, perhaps alone among mammals, have a self-referential hard wired feedback loop in our brains which gives rise to a unique sense of self- of ego- and coincidentally, but only coincidentally- the ability to have the discussion of free will at all.

Perhaps, as far as the universe and all its atoms are concerned, it might be of more value to have this discussion imagining you are a dog- or an ant- or an oak tree for that matter. To assert that homo sapiens are the only species which possess free will- or don’t for that matter- really leaves open the possibility that because of our unique hard wiring, we are able to believe in illusions which don’t really exist and are only an unusual hook-up of neural networks.

If free will is in fact a fact in this universe, you may very well be on more solid ground arguing from the point of view of an oak tree. But of course- we cant.

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Posted: 04 September 2013 05:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 224 ]  
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GxB - 03 September 2013 10:58 AM

We as a species, perhaps alone among mammals, have a self-referential hard wired feedback loop in our brains which gives rise to a unique sense of self- of ego- and coincidentally, but only coincidentally- the ability to have the discussion of free will at all.

Perhaps, as far as the universe and all its atoms are concerned, it might be of more value to have this discussion imagining you are a dog- or an ant- or an oak tree for that matter. To assert that homo sapiens are the only species which possess free will- or don’t for that matter- really leaves open the possibility that because of our unique hard wiring, we are able to believe in illusions which don’t really exist and are only an unusual hook-up of neural networks.

If free will is in fact a fact in this universe, you may very well be on more solid ground arguing from the point of view of an oak tree. But of course- we cant.

I think it is not useful to set our own species apart, even in issues were we are apparent special and we seem/are unique. One must always think of any organism as an integrated part of nature.  Your first paragraph I would translate as: “it seems that some species (ourselves for one) have self-referential brain capacities.”

From my point of view, I don’t understand why such a species would fall victim to more illusions than other species, because being hardwired for self-reference is obvious a selective benefit.  I just do not see why a complex brain, difficult and uneconomical to feed and maintain, would have been selected by nature if it produces mere hallucinations. 

As for other animals: I have seen snakes hiding their head only, thinking they had become invisible. I have seen cats hiding their whole body up to each millimater, tail included. Both have a kind of innate self-reference.

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Posted: 17 September 2013 04:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 225 ]  
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A self protective reaction is somewhat different than a self referential feedback loop that has given rise to an ego. The former can be found in many species, but an ego seems to be specific to humans. An ant probably does not go around saying to itself “I think, therefore I am”. The ego serves a useful function in the survival of humans since we have evolved beyond the point where the number of pounds of dead meat we could drag back to the cave lost ground to ego-based yardsticks- cunning and toolmaking; inventiveness; novel solutions; cooking skills; food preservation; clothing fabrication; language skills etc. etc. Each of these skills began to be associated with an individual rather than being attributed to a species as a whole, although the skill set may spread species wide.

If you can see the point here, then it becomes apparent that debating the existence or non-existence of free will is an entirely human activity and that the existence of free will as a feature of the universe (or even the debate) must be limited entirely to modern homo sapiens. That does not mean it’s a pointless question, but it might better be framed within the context of what is it, physiologically and neurologically speaking, that makes humans even ponder the question.

What I take issue with is that the debate usually casts too broad a net. Once you narrow the scope to humans only, the answer lies in how our brains have evolved. Man my be indeed “DNA’s way of understanding itself”.

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