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Free Will - Comments

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 1 by Schrodinger's Cat

I was about to respond to this thread.....but a slight change in the spin momentum of a single electron in my brain means I can't.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 19:04:07 UTC | #923525

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 2 by Zeuglodon

Comment 1 by Schrodinger's Cat

I was about to respond to this thread.....but a slight change in the spin momentum of a single electron in my brain means I can't

You're clearly lying. The evidence is out for all to see.

Cue the endless debates on free will and determinism.

The opposite of free will is not determinism but coercion. Point to an act of free will (e.g. deciding to save that man rather than this one) and the opposite isn't "his decision was caused" but "I gave him no choice because I forced him to save this man rather than that one".

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 19:09:37 UTC | #923526

Quine's Avatar Comment 3 by Quine

I was about to respond to this thread ... but the book not being available until next week means I can't.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 19:12:23 UTC | #923529

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 4 by AtheistEgbert

Comment 1 by Schrodinger's Cat :

I was about to respond to this thread.....but a slight change in the spin momentum of a single electron in my brain means I can't.

Well I'm pretty surprised that physics explains consciousness, that's new to me.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 19:12:43 UTC | #923530

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 5 by Steve Zara

From Harris' writings, I expect nothing new. This has been the subject of discussion for thousands of years, including the implications of determinism. Dennett has written substantially on this, and is worth reading even if you disagree with his conclusions.

The only free will I need is that described by David Hume - can I decide what I want and then decide to do it? Yes, I can. Whether or not what I decide is predictable doesn't bother me. I would be shocked if it wasn't, because I would rather not be random. The only way I can be me is if I am determined.

Comment 2 by Zeuglodon

The opposite of free will is not determinism but coercion.

Exactly.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 19:14:34 UTC | #923531

JeremyW's Avatar Comment 6 by JeremyW

Comment 5 by Steve Zara :

From Harris' writings, I expect nothing new. This has been the subject of discussion for thousands of years, including the implications of determinism.

Sam's writing resonates with me for some reason and I've found that even when he isn't treading new ground, his arguments are written in such a way that they provoke a lot of thought and consideration.

I'm looking forward to it - the big decision is whether to by it by clicking the RD referral link above, or the referral link from Sam's own site!

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 19:54:16 UTC | #923541

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 7 by Steve Zara

Comment 6 by JeremyW

Sam's writing resonates with me for some reason and I've found that even when he isn't treading new ground, his arguments are written in such a way that they provoke a lot of thought and consideration.

He does provoke thought, but I had a problem with his last book on morality, as it seemed to me to lose it's way about half way through, and never really backed up the premise. But anything that encourages discussion is valuable.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 19:59:11 UTC | #923544

brighterstill's Avatar Comment 8 by brighterstill

Comment 5 by Steve Zara :

The only free will I need is that described by David Hume - can I decide what I want and then decide to do it? Yes, I can. Whether or not what I decide is predictable doesn't bother me. I would be shocked if it wasn't, because I would rather not be random. The only way I can be me is if I am determined.

Another interesting conclusion to take away is that, just like a "random" number generator in a computer which really just takes a particular unrelated input and converts it into a number - like clockwork, humans aren't really capable of creating a random pattern, or even a unique one. Everything that comes out of our brains is just a reassemblage of things that have gone into it before.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 20:16:45 UTC | #923547

ShinobiYaka's Avatar Comment 9 by ShinobiYaka

Free will is a pernicious device invented by theologians, the sole purpose of which is to allow their deity plausible deniability.

PS Sam Harris rocks…

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 20:27:03 UTC | #923550

JoxerTheMighty's Avatar Comment 10 by JoxerTheMighty

I think whether or not our brains are merely pieces of ordinary matter like everything else and our decisions are merely the result of the movement of the particles inside that matter is irrelevant to morality...for example, people who murder should still be put in jail because we still have to protect ourselves. Or, we still should talk and act against injustice when we see it, because it still is a factor than can persuade other brains to do the same, resulting in more justice and less suffering. Of course, being able to, at least to some extent, explain the human decision-making in quantified terms would help in using scientific methods of reducing harmful thinking...on the other hand this could lead to some appaling notions(think "A Clockwork Orange" and Alex's "treatment").

I still prefer to think that, although of course my decisions have a lot to do with my DNA, my history and how the neurons in my brain behave, I still have some undetermined, independent and unique "core", a "self" which can't be reduced to simple laws of physics. It's probably metaphysical thinking, but hey, it gets me through the day :) It would really be difficult to me to internalize that I'm a bunch of protons,neutrons and electrons orbiting each other as usual following Newton's and Maxwell's laws and nothing more...doesn't quite make me feel right. Of course, it could be so, but, hey...

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 20:32:15 UTC | #923553

aquilacane's Avatar Comment 11 by aquilacane

Can't say, when I’ve thought about it, that I can see a way for free will to be possible. I can make no decision without the conditions of mind that made the decision possible having an affect. The chemistry, the genes, the stimulus, all need to be considered when will is exerted. So, is there no guilt for murder?

Perhaps there isn’t guilt for murder; at least not moral guilt for those incapable of moral recognition. They are guilty of crime but not of being criminals. Yes they need to be separated but do they need to be punished? Is a genetically psychopathic person guilty of being bad or just socially flawed beyond responsibility? Is my anger toward the religious reasonable, knowing they have no real choice and are religious from circumstance? Perhaps, if anger gets them to change their ways.

I see it as a rollercoaster. You get on, it flies down the track, you get off. We can’t change the coarse of the coaster but it is still a damn fine ride, especially when you can’t see any of the turns coming and you have no idea how long it will last. Observation is the best part of being alive. So let it happen.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 20:41:03 UTC | #923554

aquilacane's Avatar Comment 12 by aquilacane

Comment 8 by brighterstill

Everything that comes out of our brains is just a reassemblage of things that have gone into it before.

That’s the basic concept behind everything we discover. All things new are two or more old things or ideas put together. You can’t actually have a new thing unless its parts are recognizable. A car was the wheel and engine. A sailboat was a canoe and blanket. The gun was fireworks, a bolt from a sling and a long tube. This is why the religious have such a hard time explaining god. They need to use real things we are familiar with to explain unreal supernatural things we have no reference for. There can be no god because there is no recognizable definition of god to be.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 20:52:01 UTC | #923557

Tony d's Avatar Comment 13 by Tony d

Do we have free will? Yes we do.Well i do don't know about you lot.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 20:58:23 UTC | #923560

gr8hands's Avatar Comment 14 by gr8hands

You should check out the various discussions on Dr. Coyne's website Why Evolution Is True. This has been debated back and forth.

Personally, I don't think that peopel who don't believe in free will (because of belief that a deterministic framework precludes it) have really really really thought through the inevitable conclusions of their belief. It isn't pretty. It smacks of Calvinism.

Sam contradicts himself in this topic when he claims that there are no real choices due to neurological forces beyond our ability to consciously know have already determined what we will do at any point -- and then says that we can make choices. They are mutually exclusive.

If we can't make free will choices because everything in physics controls it beforehand, then we can't make any choices for the same reasons. That means all choices are illusory.

Perhaps it is not simply binary, yes/no on free will. Perhaps there is something we don't know about adding significantly to the equation, like a dark matter or the uncertainty principle that applies to our consciousness.

Sam's points, and Dr. Coyne's, are not persuasive -- mostly due to internal contradictions. But they exhibit fine writing, and I thoroughly enjoy the discussion they inspire.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:07:00 UTC | #923561

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 15 by Steve Zara

Comment 10 by JoxerTheMighty

I think whether or not our brains are merely pieces of ordinary matter like everything else

How can they not be? Isn't it quite astonishing that in the 21st century we are still having discussions about this?

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:09:04 UTC | #923562

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 16 by Cook@Tahiti

I'd be interested to see if Harris has got something genuinely NEW to say about free will. One would assume that only with new findings (fMRI research, or genetics studies?) would new light be thrown on the subject. We'll see. Perhaps it's just a clear summary of the same old issues, as he's usually a clear thinker/speaker. If so, then it might still be worth reading for novices.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:14:21 UTC | #923565

Serdan's Avatar Comment 17 by Serdan

I wouldn't even call it an illusion. It seems completely nonsensical.

"Order now for deliver (sic) on March 6th."

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:18:22 UTC | #923566

JoxerTheMighty's Avatar Comment 18 by JoxerTheMighty

Comment 15 by Steve Zara :

Comment 10 by JoxerTheMighty

I think whether or not our brains are merely pieces of ordinary matter like everything else

How can they not be? Isn't it quite astonishing that in the 21st century we are still having discussions about this?

No, I don't find it astonishing, considering the brain is most probably the most astonishing thing in the Universe. A piece of matter weighting about a couple of kg able to understand, to some extent, the universe, and even itself. How about that? Is there any other structure, anywhere, in the whole freaking universe, even resembling that? I mean, try to convince a mother that is looking at her new-born baby in the eyes and he/she is looking back at her, that what she calls "her baby" is just a bunch of elementary particles blindly bouncing of each other that sometimes give illusory results like "love", "laughter", "imagination" and so on. It might be so, but most humans won't internalize that. It's not "astonishing" that they don't. Not at all. If you say "but what matters is that this illusory feeling that you call love makes you feel good", then you're saying that you might as well feel good by getting high on some drug with the same effect, or make two "logically compatible" people fall in love by administering feromones to them, and it's the same thing. Why wait for a chemical reaction to happen when you can make it happen all the time? You're not violating anyone's "identity", there is no such thing, you're just improving a natural system using science. What could be better!

And there is always the possibility that the brain is, of course, a system of elementary particles same as every other particle out there, but a system of such tremendous complexity that new, non-deterministic or even non-mathematical laws emerge out of it. We don't have a "one to rule them all" model of the cosmos yet. And we're not even sure there is one. As Feynman said, it could just be layers upon layers on an onion. I'm sorry, but for that matter, I need to be convinced; ie build a machine that "scans" a humand and its surroundings, and build an accurate simulation of that, predicting its future decisions. Or build a fully sentient machine. Anything sort of that, won't convince me that what happens in my brain is just elementary particles playing a blind game of billiard.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:26:03 UTC | #923568

Hume's Razor's Avatar Comment 19 by Hume's Razor

The concept of “free will” - as commonly understood - seems to me a lot like the concept of God. After all “free will” is basically thougt to be an “unmoved mover” or an “uncaused cause”. It has the power to cause physical actions, but is not itself a part of the causal chain. Let’s call this “strong” version of free will “free will (1)”.

What really annoys me are people (often other atheists who don’t believe in the ghost in the machine) who simply redefine “free will” as something else [let's call it "free will (2)"] – thereby changing the subject – and then go on to argue that your arguments against free will (1) are wrong because free will (2) exists (as if we were still talking about the same thing). This is very similar to theologians who equate “God” with “Life, the Universe and Everything” ["God (2)"] and then go on to accuse atheists of attacing “caricatures” for arguing against God (1) (a supernatural creator of the universe) rather than God (2).

When people insist that you could have chosen differently than you did, they typically cheat by adding a hidden premise: “you could have chosen differently if you wanted to”. However, this only begs the question: Could you have wanted differently even if all prior causes (including the activities of the physical brain) had been absolutely identical? If the answer is yes, did you choose to want differently? And wouldn’t such a choice by definition require a will? The regress never ends...

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:30:52 UTC | #923571

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 20 by Anaximander

Steve Zara: Isn't it quite astonishing that in the 21st century we are still having discussions about this?

I was about to respond, but because I have not yet measured the component of the spin of the electron in my brain in x-direction, I cannot give a definite answer.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:30:54 UTC | #923572

gr8hands's Avatar Comment 21 by gr8hands

You have to be able to know where something is, and how fast it is moving at the same time. How can it not be? Isn't it quite astonishing that in the 21st century we are having discussions about this?

And yet . . .

Then there's the fact that emergent properties abound all around us. They don't seem to have rhyme or reason.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:36:17 UTC | #923573

blitz442's Avatar Comment 22 by blitz442

I'm sorry, but Rush had all of this figured out already about 30 years ago. I guess they are compatibilists.

Freewill

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:56:23 UTC | #923581

danconquer's Avatar Comment 23 by danconquer

It is perfectly possible (though personally I don't) to accept the thrust of Harris's argument that 'free will' amounts to an illusion and therefore doesn't exist... But then what term are we supposed to use in it's place?

Think of the difference between how a wasp 'decides' what it is going to do, versus how a human decides what it is going to do. Or the decision that the mind makes to blink the eyelids when someone thrusts a fist towards your face, versus the decision the mind makes in a restaurant as to what dishes to order. There is such an obvious qualitative difference between such phenomena that we require a widely understood linguistic short-hand to describe that difference. If it isn't really 'free will' then just what is it? Do those who support Harris's notion have an alternative suggestion? Or are they proposing that we use a term that is, according to their argument, inaccurate and misleading?

It feels more like philosophy than science to me.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 21:59:49 UTC | #923582

Hume's Razor's Avatar Comment 24 by Hume's Razor

Comment 14 by gr8hands :

Personally, I don't think that peopel who don't believe in free will (because of belief that a deterministic framework precludes it) have really really really thought through the inevitable conclusions of their belief. It isn't pretty. It smacks of Calvinism.

First of all the desirability (or lack thereof) of having free will has no bearing what so ever on whether or not it actually exists. That said, I don't agree that rejecting free will leads to any of the dreaded implications. I would go further and argue that belief in free will is not just unnecessary, but positively harmful, since it tends to turn the focus away from doing something about the known causes of unwanted behaviour to giving people "as deserved". As someone on another forum once observed: "Getting what you deserve can be extremely unfair."

Sam contradicts himself in this topic when he claims that there are no real choices due to neurological forces beyond our ability to consciously know have already determined what we will do at any point -- and then says that we can make choices. They are mutually exclusive.

Only if you make free will (i.e. being uncaused) part of the definition of "choice". Since Harris doesn't define choice in such a way, there is no contradiction.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 22:10:50 UTC | #923585

JeremyW's Avatar Comment 25 by JeremyW

Comment 23 by danconquer :

Think of the difference between how a wasp 'decides' what it is going to do, versus how a human decides what it is going to do.

I don't understand really how there's necessarily a difference in the mechanism of decision making or the concept of agency there. There's certainly a significant difference in the data sets (sensory input, memory, etc) that are used in the calculation.

It feels more like philosophy than science to me.

But that's sort of Sam's whole point. People tend to classify anything that's not fully explainable by science during a given era as being part of philosophy or metaphysics. There's a difference between "not explainable by currently tested scientific principles" and "will never be able to be explained by science".

The domain of science will continue to grow and rob from other domains. I don't think there's a reason to wave a dismissive hand at everything not currently understood scientifically. That's what religion does! You practice the "Philosophy of the Gaps".

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 22:15:57 UTC | #923588

The Jersey Devil's Avatar Comment 26 by The Jersey Devil

Oh, I’ve had this conversation about a thousand times in 12 step recovery meetings.

Most people like to believe that any action/behavior was preceded by a decision to act or behave.

In other words, people like to believe that the conscious mind controls behavior. In my view, it’s closer to the truth to say that our actions control our thoughts because we rationalize actions after the fact.

Actions/behaviors are largely controlled by ‘instincts’. After the fact, our conscious mind says “I meant to do that all along, it was my decision”.

This comes into play as far as the ‘steppers’ is that part of 1st step, “We admit we were powerless over X (alcohol, drugs, gambling, whatever)…”. Where 12 step programs are correct is that the action comes before – or sometimes even despite – any conscious decision making. I say sometimes ‘despite’ because there are ample cases of people deciding not to engage in an activity yet engage in it they do anyway! Where 12 step programs are incorrect the absolute terms they use. When they say powerless, they mean a state of absolute powerlessness with the only hope of change coming from a ‘higher power’ or God.

OK, that’s it for now.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 22:23:38 UTC | #923591

gr8hands's Avatar Comment 27 by gr8hands

Hume's Razor, I didn't mention anything about desirability, only about whether people have thought about the conclusions, which is obvious that they have not.

Without free will, the phrase "unwanted behaviour" is meaningless.

Please enlighten us with your definition of "choice."

You see, Harris believes that all the prior events and neurological forces put you in the position of only taking one option without the capability of selecting a different option. Therefore, he violates the very concept of choice. To use the rollercoaster analogy in aquilacane's comment 11, if you're riding in the coaster, you are not choosing the path it takes.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 22:24:25 UTC | #923592

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 28 by Steve Zara

Comment 26 by The Jersey Devil

In other words, people like to believe that the conscious mind controls behavior. In my view, it’s closer to the truth to say that our actions control our thoughts because we rationalize actions after the fact.

But what an evolutionary waste that would be. All that neurological processing to allow for a conscious mind that doesn't control anything.

Until neuroscience gets quite a lot further, we can't make any definite statements about what part of our brain controls our behaviour, but I think we can get a rough idea from quite simple evolutionary considerations.

Brains are expensive, both in terms of cells and in terms of energy. It's reasonable to assume that we have evolved for processing in the brain to be done with economy. Having a relatively useless conscious part of the brain is far from economical. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that when it comes to choice and behaviour, things are as they seem - our conscious minds are the agents which examine our choices and control our behaviour.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 22:30:52 UTC | #923595

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 29 by Zeuglodon

Comment 27 by gr8hands

You see, Harris believes that all the prior events and neurological forces put you in the position of only taking one option without the capability of selecting a different option. Therefore, he violates the very concept of choice. To use the rollercoaster analogy in aquilacane's comment 11, if you're riding in the coaster, you are not choosing the path it takes.

The rollercoaster ride is the choice-selecting process. If you want to turn left, the ride won't ignore you and turn right. The track will already be turning left.

You're confusing determinism with passivity. Hume's Razor is a rebuttal of the idea that our choices are uncaused (i.e. random) or caused, not of the idea that our inputs are passive or active.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 22:45:21 UTC | #923600

Jiten's Avatar Comment 30 by Jiten

Free will is a religious concept needed to explain why so much suffering exists and is not the fault of god. Science has no need for it. Once the universe has stuff in it then one thing leads to another through the laws of physics.

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 22:47:20 UTC | #923601