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Free Will vs. the Programmed Brain - Comments

sidfaiwu's Avatar Comment 1 by sidfaiwu

Since I blogged about this yesterday, I may as well use this article's re-posting here as an opportunity for shameless self-promotion:

http://www.sidfaiwu.com/blog/index.php/2008/08/free-will-a-useful-fiction/

This article does have a relation to a discussion about religion we're all familiar with. Even if the belief in free will keeps people moral, that says nothing about the truth or falseness of determinism. The question is, should we keep false beliefs around simply because of their moral utility?

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 09:33:00 UTC | #221227

J Mac's Avatar Comment 2 by J Mac

"If people come to believe that they don't have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?"

None.

I was suspecting I would hate this article, but it was actually well done and fair. It avoided the stupidity of "a lack of free-will makes people cheat, therefore there is free will."

But even just sticking to the facts, I'd like to do a similar study but do a preliminary survey before anything else to get their view on free-will. I suspect the cheating behavior is not the result of the notion of no free will, but rather it is the result of the partial shattering of the individuals world-view.

In other words I suspect the cheaters were the people who THOUGHT there was free will, but through the procedure the cognitive dissonance they faced caused them to question everything else. The fact that they question morality doesn't mean there is no answer.

For better or worse ethics and morality is on the foundation of many fictions in the minds of many; we can build no more on it. If we want to build more we need to tear down what is there first.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 09:43:00 UTC | #221230

Janus's Avatar Comment 3 by Janus

I don't see how my not having free will changes anything. If I steal 10$ from my employer, that I couldn't have done otherwise doesn't change the fact that I stole 10$ from my employer.

I often hear people who believe in free will say something like, "So you only did X because the physical processes in your brain made you do X". But this only shows their irrational attachment to the idea of a homunculus, an irreducible self that may or may not be controlled by physical processes. Of course that's nonsensical. It's not that I am controlled by the physical processes in my brain, it's that I am the physical processes in my brain.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:00:00 UTC | #221236

Quine's Avatar Comment 4 by Quine

<!-- Be sure tags are closed -->Over the years I have noticed that if you probe deeply into what someone means by the term "free will" you will find that he or she does not really know. I don't.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:04:00 UTC | #221239

bugaboo's Avatar Comment 5 by bugaboo

J Mac

I suspect the cheating behavior is not the result of the notion of no free will, but rather it is the result of the partial shattering of the individuals world-view.


Interesting point. They may have had a mood swing and been slightly pissed off therefore didnt care so much about the "consequences" of the cheating.

It would be interesting to see both passages they read in full.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:06:00 UTC | #221240

sidfaiwu's Avatar Comment 6 by sidfaiwu

It's not that determinism causes immorality, Janus, it's that _belief_ in determinism might (the study only established a correlation).

By the way, I love this line:

"It's not that I am controlled by the physical processes in my brain, it's that I am the physical processes in my brain."

Exactly! "My brain made me do it" is not a valid excuse for anything. It's equivalent to saying "I did it".

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:08:00 UTC | #221242

Janus's Avatar Comment 7 by Janus

It's not that determinism causes immorality, Janus, it's that _belief_ in determinism might (the study only established a correlation).


I know. What I meant is that I'm pretty sure that if those people thought about determinism as I do, they wouldn't have cheated.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:15:00 UTC | #221244

Mark Jones's Avatar Comment 8 by Mark Jones

Quine said


Over the years I have noticed that if you probe deeply into what someone means by the term "free will" you will find that he or she does not really know. I don't.


I'm glad you said that, because I've never got a handle on it. I still can't see how no free will (whatever it is!) leads to immorality. Surely even in a deterministic universe humans have evolved to make decisions that can be altruistic?

Perhaps I'm looking at it too simplistically.

EDIT: I see sidfaiwu's clarification; not no free will but no belief in free will leads to immorality. I'll have to think about that.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:25:00 UTC | #221251

T4Baxter's Avatar Comment 9 by T4Baxter

It seems to me that the sense of free will we perceive is the product of our contextual analysis within a moral decision making process. Our brains weigh up the evidence on all sides and decide based on our perception of it. Moral choices must by proxy have consequences. Cheating in the test could well be an attempt to undermine the previous declaration that the subjects lack the ability to choose for themselves. They may judge the lack of free will as an amoral suggestion and desire to cheat more so as to subtly punish or 'disprove' the claim. It certainly doesn't suggest they no longer take responsibility for their actions, as the consequences are meaningless to them personally. More likely they believe the 'responsible' action is to reassure themselves of their convictions through subversion of a test claiming they cannot make choices.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:26:00 UTC | #221254

Sargeist's Avatar Comment 10 by Sargeist

Because I find myself unable to do otherwise, I will say what I have said on another thread: if people are not responsible for their actions, due to there being no free will, then we will not have the free will to believe other than our current attitude that people should be punished for behaving badly.

Hence, I do not see a problem for morals.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:29:00 UTC | #221258

qomak's Avatar Comment 11 by qomak

Comment #233738 by sidfaiwu on August 20, 2008 at 11:08 am

It's not that determinism causes immorality, Janus, it's that _belief_ in determinism might (the study only established a correlation).


Well said.

Furthermore, through various religious indoctrination, people are made to believe that "determinism" is equivalent reckless behavior and thus people might subconsciously try to fit into this model if they are presented with a anti-freewill passage. This cultural influence is a major source of bias and the author(s) do not address this point at all.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 10:44:00 UTC | #221268

Sciros's Avatar Comment 12 by Sciros

Can someone please define "free will" so it can even be discussed?

Does "not(free will)" mean you theoretically can, given enough information, predict every decision a person makes with 100% certainty? (Presumably the more information you have, and the closer to the moment of decision your information happens to be, the closer to 100% your prediction about the decision would be.)

Does "free will" mean that, even in a state of omniscience regarding the past and present (not future, obviously; I simply mean "knowing everything relevant"), one cannot predict every decision a person makes with 100% certainty?

100% certainties aren't something science really ever nails, so maybe the question of "free will" is also one that can be settled with a "close enough to certainty" conclusion. But in this case the question of "what is close enough" is probably a philosophical one.

I think the "determinism" conclusion also has the implication that it is possible to model the human brain as a finite-state machine (states and event-based transitions between them), albeit a ridiculously complex one.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 11:01:00 UTC | #221285

Szymanowski's Avatar Comment 13 by Szymanowski

I don't see how my not having free will changes anything. If I steal 10$ from my employer, that I couldn't have done otherwise doesn't change the fact that I stole 10$ from my employer.

I often hear people who believe in free will say something like, "So you only did X because the physical processes in your brain made you do X". But this only shows their irrational attachment to the idea of a homunculus, an irreducible self that may or may not be controlled by physical processes. Of course that's nonsensical. It's not that I am controlled by the physical processes in my brain, it's that I am the physical processes in my brain.
My physical processes agree 100%.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 11:18:00 UTC | #221299

sidfaiwu's Avatar Comment 14 by sidfaiwu

Sciros:

"Can someone please define "free will" so it can even be discussed?"

Free will, as I understand it, is the ability to be a first-cause; to initiate action free of external causation, including sensory input, past experiences, etc.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 11:25:00 UTC | #221307

Sciros's Avatar Comment 15 by Sciros

sidfaiwu, would you say my thoughts in post #12 are consistent with what you said in #14?

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 11:38:00 UTC | #221320

SeaLife's Avatar Comment 16 by SeaLife

Furthermore, through various religious indoctrination, people are made to believe that "determinism" is equivalent reckless behavior and thus people might subconsciously try to fit into this model if they are presented with a anti-freewill passage. This cultural influence is a major source of bias and the author(s) do not address this point at all.


Strange thing is that religious people also use free will as a response to the problem of evil as in "God allows evil to exist because people have to be free to choose it".

I personally think that's where the concept of free will arose. Otherwise, what's the use of it?

There are 2 possible definitions, and the concept is really just a muddling of those:
1. That we have the ability to decide our actions.
Or 2. That we are somehow free from physical determinism, and that we have a sort of "will" that affects our decisions beyond the structure and chemistry of our bodies.

By definition 1, we have free will because I experience making decisions which are translated into actions. This definition of free will is only common among philosophers.

Definition 2 is clearly ridiculous from a materialist perspective. It's the kind of free will theologians use. It is also the one used by most people and the writer of this article.

Also, the whole argument that tiny quantum unpredictabilities gives us free will is a total red herring because random is not the same as free. You would still be bound by physical laws, and it actually undermines free will by the first definition.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 11:43:00 UTC | #221325

Ai Deng's Avatar Comment 17 by Ai Deng

I think Janus has it right in that

"I don't see how my not having free will changes anything. If I steal 10$ from my employer, that I couldn't have done otherwise doesn't change the fact that I stole 10$ from my employer."

Whether there is free will or not we still appear to be stuck in the same time line, and will still be faced with the same consequences. We still know that if we commit a crime, time marches on, and soon we will likely be facing unpleasant circumstances.

Wasn't there a similar topic in the movie K-Pax!

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:00:00 UTC | #221336

sidfaiwu's Avatar Comment 18 by sidfaiwu

Yeah, Sciros, I would say you identified a couple of consequences of free will and determinism as I defined it. So comments 12 and 14 are consistent.

Science could settle the free will / determinism issue with enough evidence. Like you said, it wouldn't be 100% since nothing in science is, but with enough mutually supporting evidence we could accept determinism as fact.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:05:00 UTC | #221340

TheSwede's Avatar Comment 20 by TheSwede

Perons A -If you believe in a deterministic world then a given person couldn't really choose not to commit a certain deed, so he shouldn't be punished for it.

Person B -In a deterministic world the people dealing out the punishment couldn't have choosen not to punish him either...

...so the world still keeps on going round the sun!

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:19:00 UTC | #221351

Donald's Avatar Comment 19 by Donald

Daniel Dennett has a nice point of view:

http://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Evolves-Daniel-C-Dennett/dp/0142003840/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219261175&sr=1-4

Dennett's view is that free will exists, and is not ruled out by determinism.

But like his view on the soul
yes, it exists, but it consists of trillions of billions of tiny robots
his view on free will won't be popular with everyone
yes, it exists, but is due to incomplete knowledge of our behaviour, and is completely compatible with determinism

(Disclaimer: my words in italics, not Dennett's.)

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:19:00 UTC | #221350

YssiBoo's Avatar Comment 21 by YssiBoo

The way i see it, if there is no such thing as free will, we would still be susceptible to incentives. Rewards and punishment is our attempt to make sure that the incentives for doing good outweighs the incentives for doing wrong. These incentives guide our behaviour regardless of the existence of free will.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:26:00 UTC | #221356

J Mac's Avatar Comment 22 by J Mac

Well said YssiBoo. I was trying to say something like that earlier. I never did manage to.

And combining that with Brian's post, those incentives or punishments would NOT have any effect if there was free will, but they ONLY work because there is no free will.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:30:00 UTC | #221359

RichardofYork's Avatar Comment 23 by RichardofYork

Did they do the experiment without having the guinea pigs read either text? Would the results be the same?

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:30:00 UTC | #221360

Barry Pearson's Avatar Comment 24 by Barry Pearson

Speaking for myself, I don't want anything other than the chemical activities resulting from heredity, from experiences (before and after birth) including my physical and mental capability and memories resulting from these, and from current sensory input, affecting what I think.

Because if there was something else, in what way would it really be ME?

For interest, a summary of my belief about free will is:

- What I will decide to do next week is inherently uncomputable, even by me. (This is primarily because of the chaotic nature of the universe).

- After I have made a decision next week, it would in principle be possible to show that every particle that influenced my decision was fully determined by the laws of physics.

This may be a trivialisation of Dennett's "Freedom Evolves"; I'm not sure

If we don't punish people when they do wrong, they will often do wrong. If we punish people when they do wrong, they are less likely to do wrong. That is blindingly obvious!

The difference is: I see the aim of criminal justice system to be to reduce or eliminate crime. Punishment has a role to play.

Some people see it as a form of revenge or retribution. I find that attitude a bit disturbing.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:39:00 UTC | #221364

sidfaiwu's Avatar Comment 25 by sidfaiwu

Hello Brian English,

That's an interesting point (comment 19):

"What I find a compelling argument against contra-causal free will is if people just started doing things that had no bearing to their likes or dislikes, or their state of mind and environment then how would they be said to be free to choose? They would be said to be insane as they do completely random and non-explainable things."

But I couldn't help but that some people are insane and do completely random and non-explicable things. Do they have true free will then?

Also, free will does not necessarily imply erratic behavior. Once can chose to wear one shirt over another without cause but no one would characterize that behavior as "completely random" or "non-explicable". We'd call it "arbitrary" Now choosing to wear one's cat as a shirt _is_ completely random and inexplicable.

Despite all this I believe your conclusion is sound; free will is a chimera.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:54:00 UTC | #221370

asyouwere's Avatar Comment 26 by asyouwere

If, in the past, I had no idea what I was doing in the first place (or maybe I just forgot), does that negate some degree of causality? Would a lack of common sense count also? If there's really no uncertainty, we should be able to get that cat on life support before he croaks.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:57:00 UTC | #221372

J Mac's Avatar Comment 27 by J Mac

"I see the aim of criminal justice system to be to reduce or eliminate crime. Punishment has a role to play.

Some people see it as a form of revenge or retribution. I find that attitude a bit disturbing. "

Damn, I was about to say that as well. Thats the problem with having to many smart people on one forum... I don't get to say all the smart things I think, cause someone beats me to it.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 12:59:00 UTC | #221373

J Mac's Avatar Comment 28 by J Mac

"...chose to wear one shirt over another without cause but no one would characterize that behavior as "completely random" or "non-explicable". We'd call it "arbitrary" Now choosing to wear one's cat as a shirt _is_ completely random and inexplicable."

I completely disagree on several counts.

1) Te reiterate what has been said previously, but perhaps in a different thread: There is an enormous difference between something being inexplicable in practice and in principle.
2) There most certainly IS a cause behind the choice of shirt otherwise the choice would never be made.
3) "Arbitrary" in that sense is a handy word for saying it is inexplicable in practice. No one sits around tracing all the variables behind such a decision, but it could certainly be done, those variables do exist.
4) Choosing to wear a cat as a shirt could have many explanations, it is not inexplicable. Perhaps the person suffered brain damage that impaired the ability to recognize familiar objects from their home, so they could not tell the difference between their shirt laying over the chair and the cat sitting on the chair.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 13:04:00 UTC | #221374

J Mac's Avatar Comment 29 by J Mac

Free-will = The uncaused cause. It simply doesn't fucking exist.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 13:07:00 UTC | #221376

sidfaiwu's Avatar Comment 30 by sidfaiwu

Hey, you forgot to quote the last part of my post, "I believe your conclusion is sound; free will is a chimera." :)

What I was pointing out is that lack of random behavior is insufficient for demonstrating determinism. It'll take more, such as the neural correlates to decision making that you allude to.

Similarly, with my example of the insane, I was only trying to demonstrate that apparent random behavior is insufficient to demonstrate the presents of free will.

I'm on your side, I just play free will's advocate so that we may better hone our ideas and arguments. I sometimes do the same with respect to religion.

I also just like to argue.

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 13:10:00 UTC | #221379