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Neuroscience: removing free will since 6th century BC
September 15, 2011 6:53 AM   Subscribe


 
How do they distinguish between "us" and "our brains"?

Anyway, the concept of 'free will' doesn't really apply to neuroscience. It was origionally a question about whether or not we were just automatons going through a pre-determined path or puppets being controlled by god or whatever. It takes place on a different "level" then psychology. You can use psychology to predict what someone will do given certain inputs, but they can still 'choose' to not do it. Like for example, if someone hasn't eaten in 4 days and you give them some food, they will probably eat it. But they could choose not too if they wanted too.
posted by delmoi at 6:58 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


What about the implications for criminal sentencing?
posted by FrereKhan at 6:59 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


oh god not this again
what do you want your will to be free FROM? the laws of PHYSICS?
then I guess you've got to make every choice entirely at random
posted by LogicalDash at 7:02 AM on September 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?

And how can you call it 'free' if you do?

The funny thing about the term 'free will' is that it is not just an oxymoron on the face of it, but a deeply paradoxical concept that makes less sense the closer you look. I guess that's what these scientists just found out.
posted by Edgewise at 7:03 AM on September 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


delmoi: ...the concept of 'free will' doesn't really apply to neuroscience.

Wow, what a claim! The study of the organ that takes decisions and directs our actions can't examine whether or not we have control over those actions?

How do they distinguish between "us" and "our brains"?

I think that's the right question to ask. If neuroscience is reductionist, can there be such a distinction? Does it matter if we (our brain) makes decisions a few sections before we're (our consciousness) aware of them?
posted by FrereKhan at 7:04 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Years ago, Dr. Anthony Cashmore was one of my biology professors, and he gave a talk in one of my seminars that attempts to deal with answering the question of free will with real science. His PNAS paper (PDF) raises an interesting point:

Finally, I would like to make the following point: In the introductory chapter of many undergraduate texts dealing with biology or biochemistry, it is common to stress (as I have in this article) that biological systems obey the laws of chemistry and physics; as living systems we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals. It is almost with a sense of pride that the authors of such texts may contrast this understanding with the alternative earlier belief in vitalism—the belief that there are forces governing the biological world that are distinct from those that determine the physical world. The irony here is that in reality, a belief in free will is nothing less than a continuing belief in vitalism—a concept that we like to think we discarded well over 100 years ago! It is my concern, that this vitalistic way of thinking about human behavior—a style of thinking that is present throughout our scientific institutions—serves only to hinder what should be a major onslaught on determining the molecular genetic and chemical basis of human behavior. [emph. added]

Even as Nature seems to behave in a causal and statistically repeatable fashion, the argument goes, we believe ourselves to be exceptional, in that our individual behavior is not deterministic, that some agent within us lies outside the bounds of physical laws — by definition, supernatural — and allows the freedom to choose different outcomes. He is right to note that this would be an odd idea for biologists (ones who focus on the field of neuroscience, particularly) — for rational scientists — to hold.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:04 AM on September 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


free will is a Random Encounter Table
posted by LogicalDash at 7:05 AM on September 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


The debate never made sense to me, even as a kid, because it implied that we could some hit Rewind and Replay on the Universe. Could I have made another decision in the same exact circumstances? The question doesn't make sense since the exact same circumstances will not re-occur.

In a clockwork universe I guess you could argue that was not true. In a world ruled by quantum variables, it is even clearer that the question is nonsensical. I'm tempted to think: Yes, we do have free will but we can never prove it.
posted by vacapinta at 7:07 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


@LogicalDash: Penrose thinks that free will is only possible due to the laws of physics.
posted by FrereKhan at 7:08 AM on September 15, 2011


"I used to think the brain was the most fascinating part of the human body. Then I realized, well, look what's telling me that."
--Emo Philips
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:09 AM on September 15, 2011 [47 favorites]


Okay, we have to define some terms first:

"You" (or 'me')
"Free"
"Choice"
"Will"
"Mind"

After we get that sorted out, the question of whether we have Free Will is pretty easy.
posted by empath at 7:10 AM on September 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


This fits in my own view of consciousness, which is the borderline state of being that unable to automatically decide something subconsciously, perhaps not having enough experience logged in the genetic code. Therefore we default to an outward explore mode in order to decide on the conscious merits, thereby displaying what we know to be consciousness. This experience merely gives us the illusion we make all decisions this way. But there is also the aspect of negative decision making on the fly, which is basically hesitating.
posted by Brian B. at 7:11 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the question of free will is not about - who are we, what are we, am I really me, etc.

I think the question is about blame.

Can I blame, and then punish, someone for this? If I want to lash out against the person responsible for this, can I truly feel justified by hurting this person?

By believing in free will, our society thinks that, yes, putting criminals in jail is a just solution to crime. Because the true cause of their crime was them, freely choosing to commit it.

This is why I think the debate is important.
posted by rebent at 7:13 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure. But I do believe in Free Willy.
posted by maryr at 7:14 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


My personal opinion is that for any practical purpose, we have free will, even if on some deeper level, everything is predetermined (which I also think is the case).

I also think that what most of us consider to be 'ourselves' (our self-consciousness) is often not really in control and is more an observer of the decisions the brain takes, which it then rationalizes. It does seem to be the case that we can make fully conscious decisions as well, but I think most day to day actions are not undertaken that way -- consciousness is just too slow to react.
posted by empath at 7:15 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wow, what a claim! The study of the organ that takes decisions and directs our actions can't examine whether or not we have control over those actions?
The question of "Free will" is not a question of "whether or not we have control over our actions" in a "normal" sense. It's a question of whether or not we truly have control over the choices that we seem to have control over. It's about whether or not the entire universe is on a pre-determined path like a watch that's been wound up. With a watch, you always know that at 3:15 PM it's going to read 3:15 PM (notwithstanding small errors)

Or another view is the idea that we are all totally being controlled by god at each moment.

The concept of free will is a Philosophical one, not a question of what we see in our everyday lives.

So the question of "Free Will" in a psychological sense doesn't really make much sense (The concept doesn't make that much sense these days anyway).
----

Think about this way. Lets say we decide that humans have free will and take that as a given. In that case, any study of psychology is only studying the mechanism by which humans make their decisions in the context of free will. It makes no sense to say that a certain part of your brain is not "you" and so even if you can localize where decisions are made you are not "disproving" free will, you are only examining how free will itself works.

Or lets say you say "humans do not have free will, they are on a specific path on the basis of pre-determined particle interactions and the whole universe is like a windup clock" or whatever. Okay, in that case the study of the internal structure of the brain doesn't change any of that, either way.

---

And the other thing, asking "Does the fact that our brain knows our intentions before we do negate free will?" makes no sense because how can you say that "our brains" are somehow not "us"
posted by delmoi at 7:16 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


What about the implications for criminal sentencing?

None. The judge has just as much control over the sentence handed down as the criminal does over the crime committed.
posted by DU at 7:18 AM on September 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


rebent: I agree, this gets hairy. Following the second link in the thread, what should someone's culpability be if the only reason they commit a crime is because they have a frontal lobe tumour? If the tumour is removed they will have no desire to commit the crime and will never commit another. Perfect rehabilitation (in the criminal sense), no?
posted by FrereKhan at 7:18 AM on September 15, 2011


The other problem is that the free will/non-free will thing is non-falsifiable. There is no way you could ever 'prove' it one way or the other 'scientifically' because it takes place outside of the laws of physics. It's only a question of how you want to 'interpret' reality.
posted by delmoi at 7:20 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Free will discussions tend to use the language of power: "Can we control our own decisions?"

Power is kind of a nebulous concept when we're not talking about Joules. "Power" in social situations normally refers to the ability to get what you want when you want it, even if you do so by paying people who aren't legally or morally obliged to take your money or provide any service.

Power in the context of self-control means something different again, since even when you demonstrate the ability to do something under some circumstances, and therefore the power to do it, you won't necessarily be able to do the same thing when you're in a bad mood, unless it's bad enough that you can lift a car out of pure rage, unless you tear a muscle in which case...um...
posted by LogicalDash at 7:20 AM on September 15, 2011


"Does the fact that our brain knows our intentions before we do negate free will?" makes no sense because how can you say that "our brains" are somehow not "us"

That's why I was separating out consciousness. Our consciousness of our decisions can happen after the decisions have in some sense been determined by the unconscious brain. How can an unconscious choice be free?
posted by empath at 7:20 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

This describes pretty well the way I sometimes put comments up here.

Except that I do the acting before the thinking.
posted by three blind mice at 7:22 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


If there exists some spiritual entity that directs our brains' impulses "outside" of the laws of physics, and that entity behaves in a less-than-completely-random manner, then whatever rules (perhaps unreliable rules, quantum-style) that govern the spiritual entity's behavior are laws of physics, in and of themselves.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:23 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


random =/= free, btw.
posted by empath at 7:24 AM on September 15, 2011


Well, yes, and deterministic =/= free, which leaves us with a continuum of options in between that might qualify as "free".
posted by LogicalDash at 7:26 AM on September 15, 2011


This stuff is bloody obvious - your actions are the results of neural impulses coming from your brain, based on data sent to it via neural impulses.

In order for free will in the traditional Western notion of dualism to exist, at some point a mystical outside force would have to somehow interrupt the natural progression of chemical processes that take place between these two events.

The other problem is that the free will/non-free will thing is non-falsifiable. There is no way you could ever 'prove' it one way or the other 'scientifically' because it takes place outside of the laws of physics. It's only a question of how you want to 'interpret' reality.

I completely disagree: continued progress in the development of our tools of investigation will one day allow us to observe all chemical processes ongoing in the brain, at the molecular level, in real time. If in doing so we find that there is no outside interference with the natural progression of biochemical reactions (and let me point out that quantum effects are statistical noise, and thus free of intentionality) then we have conclusively demonstrated that dualism is wholly false.
posted by Ryvar at 7:27 AM on September 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


And the other thing, asking "Does the fact that our brain knows our intentions before we do negate free will?" makes no sense because how can you say that "our brains" are somehow not "us"

Yeah, you can make any higher level phenomenon seem to disappear by pointing out its got constituent parts that follow different kinds of rules than the rules that apply to the higher order phenomenon. But that just means you know more about the underlying mechanics of the higher-level phenomenon, not that the higher-level phenomenon reduces to the underlying mechanics and the higher-level descriptions are no longer meaningful. What is more "us" than our brains and bodies? The idea that "we" don't really have free will because our brains and bodies do all the deciding for us is nonsense, unless you're a committed dualist at the start.

And this study, like most others about the neuroscience of choice, ignores long-term planning and decision making. If, after weeks of deliberation, I decide to apply to college in the next fall, then isn't that a fundamentally different kind of choosing and decision-making than the kind these sorts of studies tend to focus on? I would argue that we're much freer in making these latter kinds of choices than in making the much more arbitrary, day to day kinds of choices we make, which are usually made under duress and with insufficient time/incomplete information for truly rational decision making.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:27 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


So my question about free will - absent the concept of free will, do we have any traction for social justice? Politicians act like greedy assholes, but not because they "choose" to do so, for example, and we can't even "choose" whether to respond to this. What does the absence of free will mean for consciousness? If I work in a sweatshop and get a horrible lung disease, is my suffering an illusion? Is consciousness itself an artifact, and if it is, doesn't the whole "people shouldn't have to live in misery" argument fall apart?

On a "history of science" level, I find it interesting that this research is being done and foregrounded when inequality is skyrocketing in the developed world.
posted by Frowner at 7:28 AM on September 15, 2011


(Random encounter tables are only random within the twenty or so predetermined options they provide.)
posted by LogicalDash at 7:28 AM on September 15, 2011


If in doing so we find that there is no outside interference with the natural progression of biochemical reactions

If in doing so we find that there is no outside interference

outside interference

outside

No, I'm pretty sure that people will just start arguing about what's "outside" the brain and what's "inside". Brains don't work for shit without some decent sensory organs...does that mean they're PART of your "exobrain," or...?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:31 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fact that cause presumably precedes effect probably negates free will long before we ever get to Neuroscience.
posted by Avenger at 7:31 AM on September 15, 2011



what do you want your will to be free FROM? the laws of PHYSICS?
then I guess you've got to make every choice entirely at random
posted by LogicalDash at 7:02 AM on September 15 [+] [!]


North Americans have fetishized individuality to the point of total lunacy. It makes it hard to have calm, rational discussions about the role of outside influences on our actions.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:31 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


In order for free will in the traditional Western notion of dualism to exist, at some point a mystical outside force would have to somehow interrupt the natural progression of chemical processes that take place between these two events.

An outcome may be pre-determined, but if it's not also predictable, then one could say that it is free.
posted by empath at 7:33 AM on September 15, 2011


(although that definition also would define the course of storms and various other things as being free)
posted by empath at 7:34 AM on September 15, 2011


No, I'm pretty sure that people will just start arguing about what's "outside" the brain and what's "inside".

Yeah, people are already doing that. Everything inside and outside of your body is just one big deterministic dynamical system.
posted by logicpunk at 7:35 AM on September 15, 2011


Just because free will is nonexistent doesn't mean any kind of justice or punishment has to go out the window. My toaster obviously doesn't choose to break, but I'm still going to fix it or get a new one.
posted by lucidium at 7:37 AM on September 15, 2011


The fact that cause presumably precedes effect

But it doesn't always, and it's not necessarily scientific to assume that.
A few legitimate physical theories have sometimes been interpreted as leading to retrocausality. This is not considered part of science, since the distinction between cause and effect in physics is not made at the most fundamental level.
Causality is not something science necessarily cares about; it's ultimately a philosophical idea more than a scientific one.

Causality is a metaphysical problem, not a physical one, which makes it a poor candidate for scientific scrutiny.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:38 AM on September 15, 2011


I completely disagree: continued progress in the development of our tools of investigation will one day allow us to observe all chemical processes ongoing in the brain, at the molecular level, in real time.

What if you can't do that without yourself altering the outcome of the processes? (Pretty likely if there are any quantum effects on consciousness, but even if it's not, it would be difficult to do).

Also, understanding how the circuits in an x86 chips fit together doesn't really explain how OSX works.
posted by empath at 7:38 AM on September 15, 2011


Brains do a lot of neat things. Intentionality and decision-making is part of the set of very neat things that brains do. Like everything else in the brain, some of the things that it does enters into conscious experience, and a lot of it doesn't. Conscious experience itself is more spotty, confabulated, and distorted than it usually presents itself as. I get that some people are unsettled by that, but I think if anything, it makes the brain even more neat.
posted by Drastic at 7:38 AM on September 15, 2011


My will isn't free. It is fucking earned in never ending battle.
posted by srboisvert at 7:38 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I feel that this Ted Chiang sci-fi story, also published in Nature, is particularly relevant.

See the FPP from last year which introduced me to this and all of his other brilliant stories.
posted by Buckt at 7:39 AM on September 15, 2011


(On the free will/individuality front - it seems to me that there's a big difference between saying "the decisions I make are contoured by my upbringing, my experiences, my class background, my physical health, etc" and saying "I don't actually consciously make decisions at all, even to choose between a small and limited set of options". In one instance, I might say that kids who grow up assuming that they're bad at math probably won't choose to do math-related stuff in college and that this choice is heavily contoured by their experience; in the other, I would say that kids don't "choose" to do anything in college; it's all happening at a level of consciousness that we can't even describe.

North Americans tend to ignore the former idea, true, but accepting it isn't the same thing as accepting the latter.
posted by Frowner at 7:39 AM on September 15, 2011


(On the free will/individuality front - it seems to me that there's a big difference between saying "the decisions I make are contoured by my upbringing, my experiences, my class background, my physical health, etc" and saying "I don't actually consciously make decisions at all, even to choose between a small and limited set of options"

I think people do make conscious decisions, but much less often than they think they do.
posted by empath at 7:40 AM on September 15, 2011


An outcome may be pre-determined, but if it's not also predictable, then one could say that it is free.

Nonsense. Dualism is specifically about intentionality, the "choice" of our mystical non-physical identities to choose one path over another. Random noise is by definition non-intentional.
posted by Ryvar at 7:40 AM on September 15, 2011


Dualism is specifically about intentionality, the "choice" of our mystical non-physical identities to choose one path over another.

Is software or a math equation or deductive reasoning a physical entity?
posted by empath at 7:41 AM on September 15, 2011


Of course software is a physical entity - otherwise how would it interact with the physical world?

High-level abstract concepts require representation both in the brain and on a harddrive. Our neurotopology is both our x86 circuit diagram and the contents of our harddrive.

Deductive reasoning is just the end product of our manipulating approximate representations of our subjective universe, typically for purposes of modeling solutions to various challenges. Usually this is driven by our need for survival, which exists because everything that failed to demonstrate such a need was eaten by something that did.
posted by Ryvar at 7:47 AM on September 15, 2011


Is software or a math equation or deductive reasoning a physical entity?

Of course software is

Alternatively, no they are not. They are parts of mental models of physical entities. And sometimes the models are wrong in that they don't correspond to physical entities. For example the notion of free will could be wrong.
posted by polymodus at 7:50 AM on September 15, 2011


Okay, but you can take a computer program, and move it from one computer to another, to an entirely different hardware platform with a completely different physical configuration and it still works in the same way -- so in what sense does understanding the physical action of the hardware give you any insight into the software? Why does the specific physical implementation matter?
posted by empath at 7:50 AM on September 15, 2011


"Intention" isn't a measurable scientific idea, though Ryvar, and no one has ever claimed it is. It's inherently a metaphysical concept. No one has ever claimed intention is an object that you can weigh and draw a tidy boundary around or anything even remotely analogous to that. It's more like a kind of natural force that emerges as a result of the realities of our existence as individuals within a complex social system--an emergent bi-product at the boundary of the complex biological and psychological systems that make us who we are and the complex cultural and physical systems that make our social reality what it is. From a scientific standpoint, intentional behavior very well might look random because if you think about, there's no clear, obvious scientific test for distinguishing random noise from intentional choice. I can't even imagine how you'd go about constructing such a test in theory.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:51 AM on September 15, 2011


Why does the specific physical implementation matter?


Because in nature you only get 1 implementation. It's a reverse engineering problem.

In OS X you have well defined abstractions created by humans. It's specifically made independent of, e.g., the details of x86.
posted by polymodus at 7:52 AM on September 15, 2011


High-level abstract concepts require representation both in the brain and on a harddrive.

Or in ink on paper, or in braile, or in a redstone circuit created in a video game, which runs in an emulator in a virtual machine.

The concept remains identical and works out the same way no matter what the physical substrate is -- it's entirely agnostic about it's physical representation. The physical layer is irrelevant.
posted by empath at 7:53 AM on September 15, 2011


maryr: "I'm not sure. But I do believe in Free Willy"

Is that like, "rock out with your cock out"? Because after one Drive By Truckers show, I emphatically *don't* want to believe in that.
posted by notsnot at 7:55 AM on September 15, 2011


Okay, but you can take a computer program, and move it from one computer to another, to an entirely different hardware platform with a completely different physical configuration and it still works in the same way -- so in what sense does understanding the physical action of the hardware give you any insight into the software? Why does the specific physical implementation matter?

My survival imperative compels me to leave for work, but what you're missing is the fundamental concept underlying Von Neumann architecture and Field Programmable Gate Arrays: the data is the execution path. Qualia is an emergent property of our individual neurotopologies, and thus our experiences cannot be shared.
posted by Ryvar at 7:56 AM on September 15, 2011


It's more like a kind of natural force that emerges as a result of the realities of our existence as individuals within a complex social system--an emergent bi-product at the boundary of the complex biological and psychological systems that make us who we are and the complex cultural and physical systems that make our social reality what it is.

Just like there's no such thing as temperature or entropy when you look at a single particle. They are emergent, macroscopic phenomena. That doesn't mean they don't exist, though.

If you want to explain anything at some point you have to find a process which is not that phenomenon, but from which it emerges. If someone asks you why leaves are green, saying that 'it's made of green stuff' isn't really a good explanation, but explaining that leaves are green because they reflect light of a certain wavelength doesn't mean that the leaves aren't really green or that green doesn't exist.

Just the same, explaining that consciousness or intelligence or free will (however you define them) emerges from physical processes which are not conscious or intelligent or free doesn't mean that free will doesn't exist.
posted by empath at 7:57 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's entirely agnostic about it's physical representation.

How do you know it is not incorrect to think that concepts exist outside of humans at all?
posted by polymodus at 7:57 AM on September 15, 2011


I'm of the mind that we have no free will-- I can't imagine a process within the mind, that adheres to physics that lets us make a choice that's outside of the system it's running in. Choices are deterministic. The thing that really I can't get past is "What's the genesis of a choice?" When you choose red over blue, where does that thought begin-- with a single neuron firing? So you chose for that neuron to be fired (however abstractly)?

I see us as marbles rolling down a rocky hill-- we are deterministic in the sense that we will end up at the bottom, but the exact path we take is so full of chaotic inputs that it's unknowable.

My little dream experiment to prove it one way or another would be to make a perfect map of the mind, in a computer-- lets imagine that at some point in the future we have nano-scale sensors-- I inject you with these and they go up into your brain and sit next to every single neuron, recording their current state.

Then at some point I put you into a state of suspension-- I download the current state of all your neurons and load it into a computer simulation of a brain.

Then I wake up the real you, you wake in a barren room, no windows, very sterile-- and I ask you 100 questions, pick random numbers, words, make up a story, anything.

Then I turn on the simulation-- it gets fed the same simulation of the room, the same questions, and gives it's answers.

My guess is they, the real and virtual you, would give the very same answers, but would eventually diverge because it would be near impossible to make a perfect simulation of even a simple room. But clearly the virtual you doesn't have free will (it's just a deterministic computer, which we could easily spin back in time) so therefore the real you doesn't either.

There's no ghost in the machine, but, we can't know the future due to the complexity of the universe and the idea of a perfect map, so sit back and enjoy the ride.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:59 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Argh.

Just the same, explaining that consciousness or intelligence or free will (however you define them) emerges from physical processes which are not conscious or intelligent or free doesn't mean that free will doesn't exist.

Free will in the Western tradition emerges from this notion of dualism, promulgated by Judeo-Christian ideas of the soul, and defined as a mystical non-physical identity which can affect the physical world. If it can be conclusively demonstrated that causality is never violated in the chemical processes of our brain, then we have effectively proven this notion which underlies modern jurisprudence and much of the Western tradition to be false.
posted by Ryvar at 8:03 AM on September 15, 2011


I'm not talking about the soul, or dualism, fwiw. Unless you consider something like the 7 layer OSI model the internet runs on mystical.
posted by empath at 8:06 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I certainly considered it mystical in my undergrad networking class. I think I got a B- though.
posted by demiurge at 8:09 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The only way I can make sense of the notion of an entity 'having free will' is in the form of 'having free will with respect to some other entity'. If agent X has the means to predict and manipulate*, to some extent, the outcome of the computations inside agent Y, then to that extent Y lacks free will with respect to X.

*Whether by manipulating the environment that Y uses as an input or manipulating the computations within Y.
posted by Anything at 8:09 AM on September 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


I also think we're working on different definitions of 'free'. I'm not talking about uncaused causes here. I just think a purely physical interpretation of the brain ignores higher level phenomena that are more relevant to a discussion of consciousness. Understanding the architecture of an x86 chip is generally useless for trying to figure out why windows won't boot, and understanding how neurons work doesn't get you much closer to understanding why I like coffee better than tea. (sorry to keep going back to computer metaphors, but they're useful).
posted by empath at 8:09 AM on September 15, 2011


Right. Nobody is allowed to comment any more in this thread until they've read and understood the Wikipedia entries on Compatibilism, Incompatibilism and Metaphysical Libertarianism.

I'll wait.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:10 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry, commenting anyway.

I think the question of free will evaporates if you use the competition model of brain operation, as explicated nicely in Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain: different deterministic processes advocate for different outcomes; whichever one wins makes the "choice".
posted by adamdschneider at 8:20 AM on September 15, 2011


(sorry to keep going back to computer metaphors, but they're useful).

Absolutely not. In the human brain the storage of data IS the act of rewiring the chip on the fly. The only thing even roughly analogous are FPGAs, and they're not sufficiently common for debating conceptual models on Metafilter.
posted by Ryvar at 8:28 AM on September 15, 2011


I like how that Mele guy says that science needs to "catch up" with its understanding of philosophy and that its not caught in the dualism trap anymore... that it is "comfortable with the idea that people can make rational decisions in a deterministic universe."

Except, it seems the Mele needs to "catch up" with his understanding of Science, apparently, because the universe isn't deterministic at the quantum level...

Of course then you could get all philosophical on what is the foundational root of reality (quantum world or macro world) that's the great thing about philosophy you can just keep asking questions. At least with science there's an attempt to actually find a correlation with physical data.

I also don't think people were using free will as some metaphysical construct - I always assumed they meant it in the everyday "'I' make a conscious choice, 'I' act" The question is what does it mean to make a conscious choice.

Also - as for delay - It's quite obvious that there is a timing/delay mechanism in the brain circuitry (we have to have it in order to fool ourselves that all sensory data is synced up).

Is it in the same sense that there's a delay of conscious perception of the outer world to correlate everything as a unity in sensory perception (generally), that perhaps there's a delay of conscious perception of the inner world, and what we call consciousness as the feedback loop and interface between the two different worlds, in order to sync them has this built in delay?
posted by symbioid at 8:28 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


When people talk about the "laws of physics" they're actually referring to the known laws of physics as mankind understands them. These known laws of physics have always been an approximation to the actual laws of physics, and history is chock full of situations where they are changed and tweaked to fit with new observations. To believe that the universe behaves precisely according to man's current understanding of SCIENCE is even more arrogant than believing in human free will as a special case.
posted by rocket88 at 8:30 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

Are they tracking this like a decision tree? Like knowing the code for firing that activates the choice? Otherwise, they could be very wrong here.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:31 AM on September 15, 2011


If you only define yourself only as the voice in your head that hangs out in an imaginary armchair, smoking a pipe, contemplating what to do next, then no, that guy is pretty much never in charge. He's mostly a respectable-looking front for all the silent decision-making that is going on in the back rooms of the brain. But I would say that both the back rooms and the guy in the armchair are you.
posted by the jam at 8:31 AM on September 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


Okay, we have to define some terms first:

"You" (or 'me')
"Free"
"Choice"
"Will"
"Mind"

After we get that sorted out, the question of whether we have Free Will is pretty easy.


Once you can define "mank" and "ind", the rest is cake.
posted by kmz at 8:32 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Frowner: "So my question about free will - absent the concept of free will, do we have any traction for social justice? Politicians act like greedy assholes, but not because they "choose" to do so, for example, and we can't even "choose" whether to respond to this. What does the absence of free will mean for consciousness? If I work in a sweatshop and get a horrible lung disease, is my suffering an illusion? Is consciousness itself an artifact, and if it is, doesn't the whole "people shouldn't have to live in misery" argument fall apart?"

It sounds like you're discussing the topics of Buddhism... Consciousness is an artifact/illusion. But they also discuss "living in misery" in terms of compassion (Metta) (which then gets into the whole metaphysical concept of escape from the cycle of life and death).
posted by symbioid at 8:33 AM on September 15, 2011


Also, the individual perception that free will exists seems to be pretty hardwired. Animals watch eyes for clues as to the next move other animals make, and we analyze others' behavior and our own as if free will exists. Is this a coincidence? Why would our internal systems be totally geared as if it exists if it did not?

I'd argue that belief creates "free will" itself.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:38 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


absent the concept of free will, do we have any traction for social justice? Politicians act like greedy assholes, but not because they "choose" to do so, for example, and we can't even "choose" whether to respond to this.

Absence of free will in no way invalidates the effectiveness of punishment/reward (in the sense of conditioning). As a result, one of the most common criticisms of compatibilism is that "it doesn't make any difference". On the contrary, I would say it makes a subtle but important difference. We can still hold people accountable for their actions, because punishment and reward is part of the chain of cause and effect. Personally, though, taking that view, I find myself less wont to blame people for their actions. In a sense, it's the ultimate liberal "he/she is a victim, too" take on personal responsibility (because every action is the product of what came before it), but just because the world looks crisper in black and white doesn't mean it's the most accurate picture.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:53 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The debate never made sense to me, even as a kid, because it implied that we could some hit Rewind and Replay on the Universe. Could I have made another decision in the same exact circumstances? The question doesn't make sense since the exact same circumstances will not re-occur.

Q: If you were on the moon, how much would you weigh?
A: I'll never get to the moon, silly.

Q: If you have 12 oranges and you give three away and eat twice that many, how many do you have remaining?
A: I don't have any oranges.

Q: If you were an orangutan of unusual size and grace...
A: ...
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:57 AM on September 15, 2011


all this trouble for trying to tease apart reason and action, cause and effect.

defining reality's mechanics from a humanocentric perspective introduces such dissonance — the more we zoom in to the gap between reason and action, the less separation there is... until they become indistinguishable.

when we stop trying to superimpose the image of a clunky hammer and spring clockwork on the universe, free will and determinism come to describe the same thing. reason and action become liberatingly simultaneous.

i suppose that sounds like compatibilism, but i would just call it the truth.
posted by angelplasma at 9:00 AM on September 15, 2011


I'm coming right back to a kind of Pascal's wager here:

If I can't consciously make any decisions (to join the union, to help the guy who fell of his bike), then...whether I worry about free will or not is absolutely outside of my control and whatever happens - whether I'm happy or miserable, whether I die at forty because I have no health insurance or live to ninety-five - all those things are just what was going to happen anyway, even my worry about this was going to happen anyway, as was my decision not to worry any more; I could not have done differently from what I did.

Maybe I decide that I'm not - no one is - morally culpable for their actions; maybe I decide on hellfire and brimstone. Except there's no "I" deciding, really, or nothing that I'd recognize as an I; and no conscious decision.

If there isn't any free will, this knowledge - if there really is a consciousness which "knows" - doesn't change anything.

If there is free will though, right, and I decide that whatever happens is what had to happen and that all my thinking and debate is an artifact, and that whether I help the dude who fell off his bike or not is completely outside my conscious control, that standpoint has some effect on what I do, right? I think it biases me toward the easier path, fatalism, acceptance of injustice.

Basically, if there's no free will, consciousness is an artifact, etc etc, then I can't not think what I'm thinking now. If there is some kind of free will and some kind of consciousness, then I'm going to keep believing in it just as hard as I can, purely so that I don't accidentally keep contributing to misery in the world.
posted by Frowner at 9:16 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


(I mean, when we talk about how we still "hold people accountable" for decisions that they make absent free will - well, we're in that system too. The decision to "hold someone accountable" is just as much an illusion as their "decision" to take the action for which they're held accountable.

I just don't see how you have any kind of consciousness - as opposed to the illusion of consciousness - if there isn't some kind of ability to choose (won't call it free will; we're not "free" in that sense of infinite possibility)

I mean, I'm open to the belief that consciousness is an artifact - but then, I'd almost have to be under those circumstances.
posted by Frowner at 9:19 AM on September 15, 2011


Animals watch eyes for clues as to the next move other animals make, and we analyze others' behavior and our own as if free will exists. Is this a coincidence? Why would our internal systems be totally geared as if it exists if it did not?

Decision-making in the sense that calcium and sodium ion potentials stack against each other until one neuron or the other fires most certainly does happen, but there's no freedom there, just chemistry.

Because we cannot observe processes so minute, we have to look for telltale signs (determined by past experience, or survival-induced instinctive behaviors) as to its likely outcome.
posted by Ryvar at 9:24 AM on September 15, 2011


I just don't see how you have any kind of consciousness - as opposed to the illusion of consciousness - if there isn't some kind of ability to choose (won't call it free will; we're not "free" in that sense of infinite possibility)

Recursion, basically.

Think of it like this: the capacity for deception evolved in primates because of the distinct advantages it provided re: food and mating. Deception is rooted in cognitive modeling, that is: creating a representation of the internal states of another mind, which are manipulated until a desired outcome is achieved, after which a duplicate of the successful manipulation is attempted in the real world.

In practice, pattern-matching and heuristics make this much more efficient 99.9% of the time.

A natural extension/companion of cognitive modeling is more abstract physical modeling for purposes of general (as opposed to hard-wired) spatial problem solving and complex tool use.

Take these, then add the capacity for self-reference: the insertion of identity and awareness of internal states into these modeling behaviors, and you've got something approaching our subjective experience of consciousness.

None of the above requires free will.
posted by Ryvar at 9:31 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Absolutely not. In the human brain the storage of data IS the act of rewiring the chip on the fly. The only thing even roughly analogous are FPGAs, and they're not sufficiently common for debating conceptual models on Metafilter.

I remember reading an article talking about someone who had combined genetic algorithms with FPGAs. The evolving process not only altered the algorithms used, but the configuration of the FPGA. After running it for long enough, they couldn't even understand exactly how the algorithms FPGA states worked - and duplicating the same algorithm and state on a different FPGA didn't work the same. They were able to determine that the process of evolving the solution ended up with the actual physical properties of each separate FPGA coming to have an influence on that particular result.

So the level of platform indifference and interoperability in today's personal computers is a result of being designed that way, such as the layers of abstratctions, and there's no way you can compare that to a human being. It would be unlikely that we would have layers of abstraction that would let you separate the "software" and the "hardware" like that.
posted by evilangela at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


An alternative conclusion would be that the experience of our consciousness is only the shiny iPad interface for our underlying free will and nightmarish subjectivity. So, we are more in the position of rider than driver.

This would explain the division between the appearance of free will and any present inability to stop playing Civilization after five more turns.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Because we cannot observe processes so minute, we have to look for telltale signs (determined by past experience, or survival-induced instinctive behaviors) as to its likely outcome.

Ryvar: Your position is the hard reductionist one, and its an argument that's been pretty thoroughly picked apart. The universe isn't strictly reductionist in the way that strict determinists tend to imagine.

Strict reductionist determines assumes that only upward causality applies in complex systems. But there's evidence that causality can apply downward as well (from higher to lower levels of organizational abstraction). The atom doesn't rule the causal chain; the world is a nonlinear, causal tangle at different levels of abstraction.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:39 AM on September 15, 2011


Deception is rooted in cognitive modeling, that is: creating a representation of the internal states of another mind, which are manipulated until a desired outcome is achieved

You say 'desired'. What is doing the desiring, exactly?
posted by empath at 9:39 AM on September 15, 2011


err... 'strict reductionist determinism'...
posted by saulgoodman at 9:40 AM on September 15, 2011


By now you've probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you're reading this. For those who haven't seen one, it's a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they're playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it's easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can't. If you try to press the button without having seen a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterwards, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There's no way to fool a Predictor.

The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay Ñ it sends a signal back in time. The full implications of the technology will become apparent later, when negative delays of greater than a second are achieved, but that's not what this warning is about. The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there's no such thing as free will.

There have always been arguments showing that free will is an illusion, some based on hard physics, others based on pure logic. Most people agree these arguments are irrefutable, but no one ever really accepts the conclusion. The experience of having free will is too powerful for an argument to overrule. What it takes is a demonstration, and that's what a Predictor provides.

Typically, a person plays with a Predictor compulsively for several days, showing it to friends, trying various schemes to outwit the device. The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means Ñ over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in. Some people, realizing that their choices don't matter, refuse to make any choices at all. Like a legion of Bartleby the Scriveners, they no longer engage in spontaneous action. Eventually, a third of those who play with a Predictor must be hospitalized because they won't feed themselves. The end state is akinetic mutism, a kind of waking coma. They'll track motion with their eyes, and change position occasionally, but nothing more. The ability to move remains, but the motivation is gone.

Before people started playing with Predictors, akinetic mutism was very rare, a result of damage to the anterior cingulate region of the brain. Now it spreads like a cognitive plague. People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable lovecraftian horror, or a Gšdel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we've all encountered: the idea that free will doesn't exist. It just wasn't harmful until you believed it.

Doctors try arguing with the patients while they still respond to conversation. We had all been living happy, active lives before, they reason, and we hadn't had free will then either. Why should anything change? "No action you took last month was any more freely chosen than one you take today," a doctor might say. "You can still behave that way now." The patients invariably respond, "But now I know." And some of them never say anything again.

Some will argue that the fact the Predictor causes this change in behaviour means that we do have free will. An automaton cannot become discouraged, only a free-thinking entity can. The fact that some individuals descend into akinetic mutism whereas others do not just highlights the importance of making a choice.

Unfortunately, such reasoning is faulty: every form of behaviour is compatible with determinism. One dynamic system might fall into a basin of attraction and wind up at a fixed point, whereas another exhibits chaotic behaviour indefinitely, but both are completely deterministic.

I'm transmitting this warning to you from just over a year in your future: it's the first lengthy message received when circuits with negative delays in the megasecond range are used to build communication devices. Other messages will follow, addressing other issues. My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It's essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don't. The reality isn't important: what's important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.

And yet I know that, because free will is an illusion, it's all predetermined who will descend into akinetic mutism and who won't. There's nothing anyone can do about it Ñ you can't choose the effect the Predictor has on you. Some of you will succumb and some of you won't, and my sending this warning won't alter those proportions. So why did I do it?

Because I had no choice.
--Ted Chiang, "What's Expected of Us"
posted by Rhaomi at 9:42 AM on September 15, 2011 [12 favorites]


You say 'desired'. What is doing the desiring, exactly?

Desire is a hard-wired preference for certain high-level neural states and behaviors, arrived at via a process not unlike backpropagation. Success triggers the release of neurohormones that strengthen the connections responsible for that success, etc.

Subjectively? Desire.

This is neural networking 101, dude.
posted by Ryvar at 9:44 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Strict reductionist determines assumes that only upward causality applies in complex systems. But there's evidence that causality can apply downward as well (from higher to lower levels of organizational abstraction). The atom doesn't rule the causal chain; the world is a nonlinear, causal tangle at different levels of abstraction.

Right, there is a feedback loop between mind and brain. The physical action of the brain causes the mind to emerge, but the mind itself then influences the physical action of the brain. What happens on the physical layer of the brain just doesn't make sense unless you take the action of the mind into account (ie, the pattern the brain holds) as well, and it's hard to say which is doing the driving.
posted by empath at 9:45 AM on September 15, 2011


I have come to believe in micro free will (ie individually I can choose things), but on a macro scale I don't. When I read the news, we as a species seem to be doing much like the bacteria I have growing in LB broth for my experiment.
posted by oshburghor at 9:46 AM on September 15, 2011


Desire is a hard-wired preference for certain high-level neural states and behaviors, arrived at via a process not unlike backpropagation. Success triggers the release of neurohormones that strengthen the connections responsible for that success, etc.

Subjectively? Desire.

This is neural networking 101, dude.


I didn't ask you how it works. I'm asking you what is doing it. There is an independent entity which desires an outcome. And acts to achieve that outcome.

In the same way that a room really has a temperature, even though temperature can be explained in a reductionist way without using temperature at all, the creature really has desires, and you can't talk about the activity of the creature as a whole sensibly without taking them into account.
posted by empath at 9:47 AM on September 15, 2011


I was under the impression that consciousness wasn't so much the mover, but rather the veto over actions our roiling subconscious would enact without us. Therefore, that we can predict which had presses a button isn't nearly as impressive.
posted by klangklangston at 9:51 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm asking you what is doing it. There is an independent entity which desires an outcome. And acts to achieve that outcome.

Your brain executes this behavior on the fly, constantly, because complex neural systems that didn't evolve that way died out in favor of those that did.
posted by Ryvar at 9:51 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the same way that a room really has a temperature, even though temperature can be explained in a reductionist way without using temperature at all, the creature really has desires, and you can't talk about the activity of the creature as a whole sensibly without taking them into account.

You keep missing the fundamental point that the data and the execution paths are inextricable, here.

Look, simplest case: in order for me to eat, neuron A must fire before neuron B, right? Let's say B fires first. Result: I don't move my jaw muscles in the correct sequence, I don't eat. No monoamines are released in reaction to sensory signals from my stomach that it is full.

Next time around, other environmental circumstances resulted in A being closer to activation potential than before. This time, A fires first. I chew. My stomach releases sense data that triggers monoamines and other neural connections to A strengthen, reducing the difficulty of activating it in the future.

Scale that basic operational mechanism out several orders of magnitude, you've got subjective desire.
posted by Ryvar at 9:58 AM on September 15, 2011


Right, there is a feedback loop between mind and brain. The physical action of the brain causes the mind to emerge, but the mind itself then influences the physical action of the brain. What happens on the physical layer of the brain just doesn't make sense unless you take the action of the mind into account (ie, the pattern the brain holds) as well, and it's hard to say which is doing the driving.

You're creating a false dichotomy here, again because of your failure to understand that data equals execution path. The physical layer is the semantic model, but it's never going to be a clean 1:1 correspondence between, say, neurons A, B, and G and the concept of the color blue.

Why do you think human communication is so difficult?
posted by Ryvar at 10:06 AM on September 15, 2011


Your understanding of neurological function is overly simplistic and mechanical, Ryvar. It's messier and less linear than you're imagining in real life. Biological systems don't function like simple physical machines (like complex levers and pulleys). There are effects in biological systems that aren't typically found in simple, non-living mechanical systems, and you're glossing over them in your analysis of causality.

You keep missing the fundamental point that the data and the execution paths are inextricable, here.

No, you just keep asserting this is so without actually demonstrating it. How do you definitively rule out the possibility that consciousness as a process is machine-independent? I mean, I get that you're arguing it isn't, but I don't see where you've ever actually accounted for why you hold this position. What's your case for consciousness necessarily being uniquely machine dependent in a way that, say, a computer program or an equation isn't?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:10 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the same way that a room really has a temperature, even though temperature can be explained in a reductionist way without using temperature at all, the creature really has desires, and you can't talk about the activity of the creature as a whole sensibly without taking them into account.

Sure one can. What is "sensible" in this case is "sensible" to you, because you have cognitive machinery which biases you to model the behavior of certain things using "desires". That doesn't mean that it is impossible to talk sensibly about organisms without the concept of desire. People often talk about inanimate objects as having desires, too, but that doesn't mean anything ("the gas wants to escape from the container").
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:10 AM on September 15, 2011


I handled this ages ago. Sorted.

"What about the implications for criminal sentencing?"

Previously =P
posted by Eideteker at 10:15 AM on September 15, 2011


because you have cognitive machinery which biases you to model the behavior of certain things using "desires"

On the flip-side, there are biases that make us prefer to overgeneralize and to assume causality begins at the lowest organizational levels due to the residual cultural prejudices left on us by the influential, classical Atomist worldview.

The fact is, there's no scientific reason--nor any a priori reason--for seeing causal power as "originating" at the level of particles or at the level of cosmic nebula. We have a cognitive bias toward reductive explanations, but there's no a priori reason to interpret causality one way or the other, and reductive models often completely omit important features of higher order phenomena.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:20 AM on September 15, 2011


It's messier and less linear than you're imagining in real life.

I'm engaging a completely off-the-cuff philosophical debate on a web forum where the majority of participants have no background in neural network programming, neurology, or cognitive science. Given the circumstances you'll have to pardon my examples and models being very streamlined.

Bluntly: you're mistaking my engaging the audience at hand for the extent of my knowledge.

No, you just keep asserting this is so without actually demonstrating it.

Okay, do you agree with the basic assertion that in nature we observe neural connections strengthen and weaken in response to the neurohormones released by various outcomes? Once you've allowed that, the rest follows in a fairly straightforward fashion (for the purposes of an argument on Metafilter).

How do you definitively rule out the possibility that consciousness as a process is machine-independent? I mean, I get that you're arguing it isn't, but I don't see where you've ever actually accounted for why you hold this position. What's your case for consciousness necessarily being uniquely machine dependent in a way that, say, a computer program or an equation isn't?

Why are you so certain that programs and equations aren't machine-dependent? They exist only as representations that are manipulated, or else they wouldn't be affecting the physical universe.

As to the rest, I'm just going to quote myself from earlier in the thread:

continued progress in the development of our tools of investigation will one day allow us to observe all chemical processes ongoing in the brain, at the molecular level, in real time. If in doing so we find that there is no outside interference with the natural progression of biochemical reactions (and let me point out that quantum effects are statistical noise, and thus free of intentionality) then we have conclusively demonstrated that dualism is wholly false.
posted by Ryvar at 10:24 AM on September 15, 2011


Most of the arguments I've heard about the nature (or plausibility) of free will seem to degenerate rapidly into arguments about what "free will" actually means, as if that made any difference to the real-world phenomenon. It always seems to be a linguistic argument rather than one about the actual phenomenon itself.

Personally, I think you're either a determinist or a dualist. Either

(a) Our minds are a product of the electrochemical state of our brains, which necessarily follow the laws of physics. Your preceding thoughts, memories and so on certainly influence your decisions -- because they're part of that electrochemical makeup -- but the outcome of all of our decisions, moment to moment, are inevitable and a direct product of those. If you could re-wind the universe to a given point in time over and over again, the run of electrical impulses and chemical reactions would be following the same physical laws, so we'd make the same decisions over and over again. At best, there's a random element introduced by quantumn effects (I personally doubt that they have a big role to play, although I'm not a neuroscientist), but this isn't "free will" any more than is a robot that keeps tossing a coin to make decisions.

(b) Our minds are more like "souls", with at least some elements that are entirely divorced from our physical brains. And whatever other substrate they're based on is not itself governed by set equivalents to physical laws, or by any external influences, letting your mind do its own thing completely freely, without external control.

...I tend to assume that the stuff I encounter is bound by physical laws, so I'm inevitably (!) drawn to (a).

My favourite explanation for the illusion of free will is one for which I've forgotten the source. All clever-ish animals have mental models of their predators' or prey's behaviour, necessary for hunting or to avoid being hunted. A slightly more clever predator will have a model of their prey's model of the predator, and so be able to avoid following the patterns that the prey is expecting. To outwit that, the prey must have a model of the predator's model of the prey's model of the predator... and so on. Humans are deeply social animals and need to be good at this stuff (I know that you know that I know that you think that shirley fancies bob...). And so with all the modelling and meta-modelling, we've ended up with extraordinarily rich models of ourselves, which takes as input all of the sensations, memories and unconscious moment-by-moment micro-decisions we make and integrates them into a coherent narriative. And this post-hoc narriative is what we experience as consciousness. The lag between sensation, decision making and concious awareness of this stuff is a result of the processing time for all the signal integration and formation of the narrative.

It's not a useful hypothesis as it stands -- it doesn't make any testable predictions that I can think of -- but I find it very appealing.
posted by metaBugs at 10:29 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


We have a cognitive bias toward reductive explanations, but there's no a priori reason to interpret causality one way or the other,

Pfft. Counter: we have a cognitive bias to stating that there is a cognitive bias toward reductive explanations. There's no a priori reason to believe anything other than one's own present existence.

It's all the rest of the claptrap Descartes gave us that got us in this dualist mess in the first place.

and reductive models often completely omit important features of higher order phenomena.

We're facing n-body simulation problems, here. It's either brevity and "emergent property" parentheticals or finishing the conversation sometime well after the heat-death of the universe.
posted by Ryvar at 10:29 AM on September 15, 2011


The problem with free will isn't whether it exists or not, it's that both people and groups of people are really bad at talking about it. The article mentions that the neuroscientists and philosophers tend to talk past one another. There's no formal, precise definition of free will, just ambiguous, subjective, and possibly culturally biased (for example Western) descriptions to work with. Just look at the number of "I believe" statements and/or half-observations that are so common in casual discourse about free will. I think it's one of those topics that would benefit from first laying out what we don't know, than have everyone blurt out what they think they know about it.
posted by polymodus at 10:36 AM on September 15, 2011


We have a cognitive bias toward reductive explanations.

I'm not actually sure this is the case. It took a long time for us to develop the intellectual tools we needed to find and look for reductive explanations for things. Scientists look for them because they're incredibly useful. But that doesn't mean that it's the only story. Higher order phenomena are no less real than fundamental ones, and they have very real effects.

Let's look, for example, at a single particle of gas oscillating it's position in a room. Sure you can model it by looking only at it's interactions with its neighbors, but if you ignore the fact that there is something in the room that's it's part of a sound wave, you're missing a big part of the picture. Is the moving atom causing the sound wave or is the sound wave causing the atom to move?

You can't ignore the fact that neurons acting in concert act as a single entity (or perhaps a group of entities) that can be described as 'the mind', which can be thought of as causing the activity of the individual neurons as much as they can be described as causing the mind, and one can reference 'how the mind works' without even looking at the activity of the individual neurons.
posted by empath at 10:37 AM on September 15, 2011


(but if you ignore the fact that there is something in the room that's it's part of a sound wave)
posted by empath at 10:38 AM on September 15, 2011


metaBugs: I first ran into the cognitive modeling for deception hypothesis at a talk by Gordon Gallup. Might be your source.

I agree with you that extending that concept into the recursion stuff Hofstadter was banging on about is probably the closest we're going to come to a working explanation of the mechanism of conscious experience without several decades more neuroscience.
posted by Ryvar at 10:38 AM on September 15, 2011


Why are you so certain that programs and equations aren't machine-dependent? They exist only as representations that are manipulated, or else they wouldn't be affecting the physical universe.

Because the equations and rules work the same no matter how they're represented physically.
posted by empath at 10:40 AM on September 15, 2011


Is the moving atom causing the sound wave or is the sound wave causing the atom to move?

A "sound wave" is just our useful shorthand for an emergent property of air pressure, which is just an approximation of how atoms behave in aggregate at certain energy states.

It is not an actual thing, just a label. Ditto "the mind".
posted by Ryvar at 10:42 AM on September 15, 2011


So you are saying that sound doesn't exist.
posted by empath at 10:43 AM on September 15, 2011


What about turbulence? Temperature, entropy? Human beings? The sun?

If what you are saying is that nothing exists but local interactions fundamental particles, then you have nothing meaningful to say about anything, let alone the mind.
posted by empath at 10:45 AM on September 15, 2011


I am saying that it is a useful label for everyday purposes.
posted by Ryvar at 10:45 AM on September 15, 2011


If what you are saying is that nothing exists but local interactions fundamental particles, then you have nothing meaningful to say about anything, let alone the mind.

Complex behaviors emerge from simple local interactions between many, many particles. Getting up in the morning and making coffee requires us to slap crude labels on the emergent properties of these interactions.

See also: reductionism vs. ending the conversation before the heat-death of the universe.
posted by Ryvar at 10:48 AM on September 15, 2011


What's your criterion for determining whether something is 'real' or 'exists'?
posted by empath at 10:49 AM on September 15, 2011



What's your criterion for determining whether something is 'real' or 'exists'?

If it makes something impossible.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:53 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


If what you are saying is that nothing exists but local interactions fundamental particles, then you have nothing meaningful to say about anything, let alone the mind.

I think what needs to be said is that "sound" is a way of looking at a piece of experience.

Do electrons (a kind of "particle") exist? Yes, no, and we don't fully know—depending on the context of the question.
posted by polymodus at 10:54 AM on September 15, 2011


I mean, when we talk about how we still "hold people accountable" for decisions that they make absent free will - well, we're in that system too. The decision to "hold someone accountable" is just as much an illusion as their "decision" to take the action for which they're held accountable.

As previously noted, I'm a longtime compatibilist. I have no problem accepting that everything I say now, your responses, our thoughts and feelings about them, are determined, and yet my real-time perception of control and agency remains. And it doesn't mean it isn't interesting to talk about, including the concept of "holding people accountable". I don't require that things not be determined in order to remain engaged in the world; not knowing the outcome of things makes it all plenty engaging to me.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:56 AM on September 15, 2011


Maybe someone can do a bus ad campaign like the atheists...

"Free Will Probably Doesn't Exist, But There's Nothing Anyone Can Do About That By Definition, So Carry On, Automatons"
posted by nanojath at 11:04 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Caryy on, Automatons.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:08 AM on September 15, 2011


We're hurricanes made out of butterflies.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:10 AM on September 15, 2011


Do electrons (a kind of "particle") exist?

Right, to say that particles (or neurons or whatever reductive explanation you have) are the true source of consciousness kind of ignores the fact that by the same criteria you use to 'explain away' consciousness, they also don't exist.

Electrons, for example aren't 'really' separate entities from each other. All matter is made up of perturbations underlying fields. By the same criteria you use to 'explain away' consciousness as a result of the actions of neurons, you can 'explain away' neurons and atoms and electrons and quarks, and really, the entire universe.

You can just say the entire universe is a single probabilistic wave function, but what does that really say about anything?
posted by empath at 11:11 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I could have phrased that better...

"To say that consciousness doesn't exist because it arises from the action of neurons..." would be better..
posted by empath at 11:17 AM on September 15, 2011


That's basically what I was trying to get at, too, empath.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:18 AM on September 15, 2011


Discussions like this always make me curious about what percentage of the participants ever actually studied, say, quantum mechanics in anything like a rigorous setting. 'Cause there is some serious hand-wavey BS about in here.
posted by nanojath at 11:21 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


When my son was about 4 or 5, we were sitting together at the bus stop, waiting for the bus. I make up some silly joke to tell him to keep amused, like I always do with him. After I tell him the joke, he looks up at me with the most serious expression I've ever seen him carry, and says "My brain thinks that's funny, Dad." Then he goes back to waiting for the bus, no hint of a smile, nothing.

So now when I tell him jokes, I try to tell him the jokes, instead of his brain.
posted by BurnChao at 11:26 AM on September 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


'Cause there is some serious hand-wavey BS about in here.

Such as? Only a few people have mentioned quantum mechanics and and I don't think anybody said it had much relevance to the topic. Personally I think there's probably some level of quantum computing happening in the brain used for various tasks (even plants use it, I'd be shocked if it wasn't fairly ubiquitous), but I don't know how significant it is for the question of free will -- I doubt very much that it's particularly important, and I don't think it's a source of 'freedom', if it is.
posted by empath at 11:34 AM on September 15, 2011


If, after weeks of deliberation, I decide to apply to college in the next fall, then isn't that a fundamentally different kind of choosing and decision-making than the kind these sorts of studies tend to focus on?

Man, I love this stuff. There has been a debate raging about this for awhile, and it raises so many questions, which in a way is maybe what it's all about - the questions, and the ineffable. Who knows?

If I buy the "no free will argument" I have to make assumptions about the stuff I'm writing here; in fact, I would - if I were doing pure science, and fully bought into this hypothesis - be doing nothing more than "watching the sun come up" as a metaphor for consciousness, and our world. Think about it. What would be there to discover, other than the things that are already predestined to happen. Maybe that's "all there is"?

As you write and think about this conundrum, keep going back to the hypothesis that free will doesn't exist.

Me? I don't think we will ever know (but is even the latter thought, just typed into cyberspace, predetermined?).

OK, from this point on, I am going to assume that I have some conscious agency in determining what I am writing, here and now. So, here goes. Take everything with a grain of salt, because it may be predetermined, but I don't care. In some ways, this is the same thing we face in religious argument. The God hypothesis, ultimately, isn't testable. I wonder if the "free-will" hypothesis is in the same boat.

This is one of the primary conundrums we face when trying to determine what consciousness is.

Like Korzybski said "the map is not the territory" - i.e. our sums as individuals and collective groups are more than the sums of our individual and collective parts..

Wittgenstein would have a ball with this question, because it goes right to the heart of the first part of his work - work he had to refine because the reductive hypothesis that he posited in the Tractatus he eventually found lacking. We are all bound by the subject-predicate nature of language itself, which is just not comprehensive enough to "get at" the bottom of this.

Maybe someday language will evolve to get us beyond the conundrum of "either-or" or simple causalities. Maybe "we" will, as we evolve. Who knows?

Maybe "either-or" or simple causalities is all there is. It's fun to speculate, but we don't know. Maybe we can't know?

Maybe we're simply not made up in a way that enables us to posit the right questions? Like Richard Dawkins says "My title: "Queerer than we can suppose: The strangeness of science." "Queerer than we can suppose" comes from J.B.S. Haldane, the famous biologist, who said, "Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy." Richard Feynman compared the accuracy of quantum theories - experimental predictions - to specifying the width of North America to within one hair's breadth of accuracy. This means that quantum theory has got to be in some sense true. Yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make in order to deliver those predictions are so mysterious that even Feynman himself was moved to remark, "If you think you understand quantum theory, you don't understand quantum theory."

Here's a little more on Haldane

These questions are mind benders (are they predetermined? haha!) maybe the real problem is that they're posited as questions? Maybe that's all there is - i.e. questions? Wittgenstein claimed that an entire body of philosophy could conceivably consist of nothing but questions. It's something to consider.

Anyway, these are cool experiments, and they do generate questions, more than anything else. More hypotheses will result; more experiments will come; more questions will arise. That's the wonder that Wittgenstein talked about - i.e. "Not how the world is is the mystical, but THAT it is"

One of the more interesting prognosticators and thinkers in this area is David Deutsch - who posits a multiverse, where in some realities exist in a way that time itself is not experienced the way we experience it. Where, in fact, "time" the way we think about it, doesn't exist. Everything might be "now", or something even other than that.

Just think what that hypothesis, if true, implies. Subject-object goes away. Causation appears to disintegrate (from our wired, temporal perspectives) "

Again, here's the snippet Time, causation and free will

"Not only are persons spread out through worlds, but they, like everything else, are quantized[disambiguation needed] through time in any given world. Time is a series of moments, and a person who exists at a moment exists there forever in four-dimensional spacetime, rather than being transformed continuously through the flow of time. Such change and flow are mythical, Deutsch argues. The argument doesn't strictly require the multiverse hypothesis, because deterministic physics since Newton has implied that the openness of the future is an illusion, and consequently that free will is an illusion. (This conclusion could be avoided by adopting compatibilism. Also, collapse interpretations of quantum mechanics imply both indeterminism and an open future).

What the multiverse adds to a block time theory is an attenuated account of common sense's ideas of causation and free will. Although an effect can't be changed by its cause, the counterfactuals that causal statements support are true. If the cause hadn't occurred, the effect would not have occurred. For the multiverse, which is "to a first approximation" a very large number of co-existing and slightly interacting spacetimes, includes universes in which the cause doesn't occur and its effect doesn't occur. And although the "me-copy" in this spacetime could not have done otherwise, there are me-copies in other worlds that actually do otherwise (thus, the common-sense idea that, in choosing one course of action, one refrains from another, is not retained). There is a branching of these me-copies that validates my sense that my future is open, in contrast to spacetime physics. However, the open future of common sense is a myth. As defined by the Darwinist framework, there is no flow of time dividing the actualities of the past from the unactualized potentialities of the future.

posted by Vibrissae at 11:45 AM on September 15, 2011


For the multiverse, which is "to a first approximation" a very large number of co-existing and slightly interacting spacetimes, includes universes in which the cause doesn't occur and its effect doesn't occur

In quantum multiple universes, there are actually universes where the cause does occur, but the effect doesn't, and universes where the effect does occur, but the cause doesn't. Histories are summed over all possibilities, and the results of experiments are probabilistic.
posted by empath at 11:52 AM on September 15, 2011


One more thing. Although I'm not a Buddhist, I like what the ideas of Buddhism imply - i.e. that we are in some way all connected as one - not "a one" - just ONE. Proving that or even building a hypothetical experiment to test it, is nigh impossible, because we would have to know almost everything - literally. I think this might be why Wittgenstein last uttered words - said in his deathbed after a full life that had been soaked unbelievable personal conflict, intellectual exaltation, and pain - "Tell them I've had a wonderful life". Wittgenstein was always precise in his use of language. To hear a guy like Wittgenstein - one of humanities' intellectual giants - finish with those words means a lot.
posted by Vibrissae at 11:54 AM on September 15, 2011


Right, to say that particles (or neurons or whatever reductive explanation you have) are the true source of consciousness kind of ignores

I don't advocate a reductionist explanation of consciousness. I think you misread what I said.
posted by polymodus at 12:28 PM on September 15, 2011


I think what needs to be said is that "sound" is a way of looking at a piece of experience.

What I am saying is that the notion of existence is ill-defined; it is a philosophical problem. So when making a linguistic jibe such as "So you are saying that sound does not exist"—it becomes a loaded question that assumes something about existence that (very reasonably) person you're expecting to get an answer from might not share.
posted by polymodus at 12:31 PM on September 15, 2011


… And in turn what this means is that notions such as "consciousness" and "free-will" are similarly problematic.

Wittgenstein was always precise in his use of language.

Precisely this. Language therapeutic, and more recently model-theoretic views have a lot to offer in reframing these traditional questions.
posted by polymodus at 12:34 PM on September 15, 2011


So when making a linguistic jibe such as "So you are saying that sound does not exist"—it becomes a loaded question that assumes something about existence that (very reasonably) person you're expecting to get an answer from might not share.

yes, I was trying to draw out what he meant by something being real or existing. If he puts consciousness in the same category as sound and temperature as 'things which don't exist', it's pretty clear that he's using some definition for 'exist' that most people don't.
posted by empath at 12:36 PM on September 15, 2011


Only a few people have mentioned quantum mechanics and and I don't think anybody said it had much relevance to the topic.

Just wanted to give a link regarding this, in case anyone hasn't come across it yet—the Free Will Theorem of John Conway (yes, that Conway) and Simon Kochen, 2006. I think there might be a video lecture of Conway floating around somewhere, too.
posted by polymodus at 12:50 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The free will question never bothered me because, as others have said, it's non-falsifiable. Until someone can come up with an experiment that could demonstrate free will, I prefer to treat it just as a semantic problem. If you can't prove it one way other the other, how is it worth arguing about? How is it even relevant as a concept? In the end, I don't think you could do such an experiment unless we develop a way to transmit information backwards in time, as in the Chiang story (which is awesome).

However, I think the study in the OP does have a very interesting implication. I've long believed that our sense of "self" is a fiction. The part of our brain that is conscious and produces our inner monologue isn't actually the center of our will - it's just an interface that evolved to help us interact with other people. It can feed into the part of us that does the actual thinking, like any other neurological input, but it cannot itself make any decisions, only interpret outputs from the non-verbal parts of our brain.

The fact that we interpret "my arm is moving" as "I am moving my arm" is just a neurological illusion.
posted by heathkit at 1:01 PM on September 15, 2011


I've long believed that our sense of "self" is a fiction. The part of our brain that is conscious and produces our inner monologue isn't actually the center of our will -

I have read this perspective somewhere, as well. It's like a tip of the iceberg situation. Or mistaking the president for the nation. That kind of analogy.
posted by polymodus at 1:05 PM on September 15, 2011


If anyone's interested in further criticisms of the famous Libet experiment described in the article (beyond just the fact that the subjects may be sloppy in pinning down the moment of their decision, though that's certainly an important point), I recommend checking out the book Rationality in Action by John Searle. If you have a hard copy you can look up "Libet" in the index, or you could jump to part of the discussion by using Amazon's "look inside" feature and searching for "Libet."
posted by John Cohen at 1:34 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


You don't destroy the essential concept of "a car" just by determining that one car has a particular kind of engine when you look under the hood. We'd recognize it instantly as foolish for someone to insist, "Hey wait a minute--actually, cars don't move people around, engines do! You people who still believe in cars are superstitious simpletons!" Same applies to higher-level concepts like free will. You can choose to adopt or reject an idea like free will, but that choice is necessarily a philosophical commitment, not a scientific one, IMO.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:38 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The psychopathic neurobiologist
posted by homunculus at 2:35 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


yes, I was trying to draw out what he meant by something being real or existing

Sound is real in that it is an observable phenomenon readily apparent to most people. However, it is ultimately just a convenient classification for an emergent behavior of an uncountable number of particle interactions. There is no gestalt of "sound."

I am positing that the same is true of the mind - that it is a convenient label for the ultimate result of a hundred billion neurons interacting, which is additionally a convenient label for an uncountable number of particle interactions.

Because much of Western jurisprudence - particularly the punishment vs. rehabilitation debate - is guided by the notion of free will in the dualist sense, there are some pretty significant ethical imperatives at stake if it is in fact provably wrong.

Additionally, there are profound implications for the validity of certain Judeo-Christian religious beliefs (ie the soul, the principle of sin) and the practice thereof.

You don't destroy the essential concept of "a car" just by determining that one car has a particular kind of engine when you look under the hood. We'd recognize it instantly as foolish for someone to insist, "Hey wait a minute--actually, cars don't move people around, engines do! You people who still believe in cars are superstitious simpletons!" Same applies to higher-level concepts like free will. You can choose to adopt or reject an idea like free will, but that choice is necessarily a philosophical commitment, not a scientific one, IMO.


Right, but free will isn't a necessary (or even likely) emergent property of neural interactions. I'd agree the mind is, but we don't need free will to have minds or consciousness.

If you can't prove it one way other the other, how is it worth arguing about?

See above re: jurisprudence and religion. There are some pretty heavy ethical imperatives at stake in this debate.
posted by Ryvar at 3:30 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am positing that the same is true of the mind - that it is a convenient label for the ultimate result of a hundred billion neurons interacting, which is additionally a convenient label for an uncountable number of particle interactions.

If you're putting mind in the same category as all other macroscopic phenomena, then I don't think we disagree. But I think it's a stretch to say that they don't exist or that the microscopic interactions are more real than the macroscopic phenomena. The rules that govern macroscopic phenomena are often rather agnostic about their specific constituent parts.
posted by empath at 3:35 PM on September 15, 2011


For example, the rules of wave propogation are essentially the same no matter what the medium. I don't see why 'mind', whenever we figure out what 'mind' is, wouldn't be the same.
posted by empath at 3:36 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Common sense should negate the idea of free will. The idea is so absurd that it has absolutely no place in serious intellectual discourse. And yes there are few serious philosophers out there who will go bat for any non-materialist notion of free will. Old gods die hard but they do die.

What's still somewhat questionable here is the very reductive model of cause-and-effect that neuroscientists are trying to pull here. This idea that anything 'causes' an action is highly suspect. Saying that the brain state causes the action just because it preceeds is completely arbitrary and is by no means sufficient to support the element of necessity that the scientists want to introduce here.
posted by nixerman at 4:20 PM on September 15, 2011


Common sense should negate the idea of free will. The idea is so absurd that it has absolutely no place in serious intellectual discourse.

If you define a person as the totality of the physical body that makes up a person at a given point in time, and define free will as the ability to make decisions without influence of any outside force and to act on them, then I think you can say people have free will, even if you have an entirely reductionist, deterministic and materialistic view point on the origins of consciousness. As long as you consider the human being as a whole entity and ignore the parts that constitute it, then the human being is free to act as it wills. If start to break the human being apart and try to figure out which part of it is doing the willing, then this starts to break down, because it seems that no particular part (even the conscious mind) is in charge, but that's been known for a long time.

If you require the humans to be completely free of the laws of physics and cause and effect for you to consider that they might have free will, then obviously they don't, but I think that's rather a naive interpretation of what 'free will' means.
posted by empath at 5:03 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you define a person as the totality of the physical body that makes up a person at a given point in time, and define free will as the ability to make decisions without influence of any outside force and to act on them, then I think you can say people have free will, even if you have an entirely reductionist, deterministic and materialistic view point on the origins of consciousness.

By that I mean, even if you consider that the actions and thoughts of a human being are driven by the purely physical and deterministic processes of atoms in the body itself, it is still the human being that is thinking and acting, not something outside of it.
posted by empath at 5:06 PM on September 15, 2011


"Hey wait a minute--actually, cars don't move people around, engines do! You people who still believe in cars are superstitious simpletons!"

This isn't simply a question of 'ultimate' cause though I can see why many people make this error and why these conversations tend to go this way. But it is not the case that free will is an effect of indeterminate cause. The case is that free will does not exist at all and that what people perceive as free will is almost certainly an illusion.

The analogy is not that it's really 'engines' moving but, rather, that there is no 'moving' happening in the system at all. Imagine instead that someday somebody discovered that it was actually space itself that was bending and warping whenever people happened to get into a car. Then it wouldn't be a matter of saying that 'it's not cars that move people around' but rather that cars don't move and that, in reality, there is no motion at all in the system.

People who advocate free will are saying that in a given system where humans are present that some sort of 'choosing' is happening. Again, this is almost certainly not true as (1) we observe in no other system does anything like choosing occur (2) choosing is wholly incompatible with our basic mental models of time and space and causality (3) the entire idea of 'choosing' doesn't make any kind of sense under close examination.

Sound is real in that it is an observable phenomenon readily apparent to most people. However, it is ultimately just a convenient classification for an emergent behavior of an uncountable number of particle interactions.

Eh, sound exists. It's not shorthand for anything but itself. But 'sound' is a scientifically verified property many systems. That sound can be wholly explained by something else is of no real consequence or interest.
posted by nixerman at 5:08 PM on September 15, 2011


But 'sound' is a scientifically verified property many systems.

As is consciousness and thought.
posted by empath at 5:10 PM on September 15, 2011


The question of free will is essentially meaningless unless you suscribe to a dualist view in the first place, in which case it becomes a question of whether or not you believe your invisible ghost is controlled by other invisible ghosts or not. There's not much to discuss, IMO.
posted by signal at 5:12 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


People who advocate free will are saying that in a given system where humans are present that some sort of 'choosing' is happening. Again, this is almost certainly not true as (1) we observe in no other system does anything like choosing occur (2) choosing is wholly incompatible with our basic mental models of time and space and causality (3) the entire idea of 'choosing' doesn't make any kind of sense under close examination.

Sure it does, and you can see it happening in even the simplest computer programs. Again, free will doesn't need to be a random choice. Free will can be probabilistic or it could even be determined in a sense. Your mind, let's just define it as a pattern that exists in your neurons, is an emergent phenomenon of the neural network, but once it exists, the decisions it makes flow downwards to the neurons. If you (ie, your mind) decide you're going to get a summer job instead of taking a vacation, that thought has physical consequences, which rolls back down to the neurons, and if you focus on the actions of individual neurons you are missing the forest for the trees. They are part of a larger pattern, just like a soundwave or any other macroscopic, emergent phenomenon.

Thought is the manipulation of symbols, not just simply neurons firing at random, and if you ignore those symbols, you don't understand what's happening in the brain.
posted by empath at 5:17 PM on September 15, 2011


Sure it does, and you can see it happening in even the simplest computer programs.

You see choice in computer problems?

Thought is the manipulation of symbols, not just simply neurons firing at random, and if you ignore those symbols, you don't understand what's happening in the brain.

This is the same old vitalist paradox. First, to definitively say that an entity chose to do something would necessarily require a material explanation. In other words to prove that a choice is indeed a choice we must demand its cause. Second, the attempt to instill symbols with agency will fail. Again, think of the claim that cars move people when in fact it's space warping. I could just as well say that your symbolic interpretation of computer programs is incomplete and it's what's really important is the logic and 1's and 0's. This is simply a boundary problem and it's not a terribly interesting problem because in reality symbols don't choose either! Symbols can only act in accordance with an observable and verifiable grammar -- otherwise they're not symbols! So the attempt to locate free will in mental/Platonic abstractions must also fail.

There are no systems that choose. Anything that looks like choice is either an illusion (ie a tautology) or a miracle. And if you go down the miracle route (or there are unexplained, higher forces, symbols, abstractions at work) then you might as well say that a wizard did it.
posted by nixerman at 5:25 PM on September 15, 2011


Common sense should negate the idea of free will.

Common sense could also argue that conceiving ourselves as choosers, or not, could have different results from differing assumptions. On the other hand, given that we live in a state of computational irreducibly (to use Wolfram's terms), there is really no way to know this or not. So, as he explains it, we live in a determined universe that is impossible to predict, therefore the illusion of free will. In that vast soup, however, the illusion of free will might discover pride, perhaps joy and purpose, and that may be all that it is worth, which is to say, worth a lot.
posted by Brian B. at 5:28 PM on September 15, 2011


computational irreducibly computational irreducibility.
posted by Brian B. at 5:31 PM on September 15, 2011


On the other hand, given that we live in a state of computational irreducibly (to use Wolfram's terms), there is really no way to know this or not.

I would say the same thing to free will agnostics that I say to religious agnostics: eh. What any given person believes is generally of very little real consequence and if people want to believe in fairy tales well, hell, at least they're not wearing polyester. The only reason the question is important is because the concept of 'free will', very much like the concept of god, is usually used to restrict inquiry, shutdown discourse, and generally justify all sorts of nonsense. It's precisely when free will and other such things threaten the peace of the realm that, well, they have to be dealt with.
posted by nixerman at 6:01 PM on September 15, 2011


You see choice in computer problems?

Sure. You can program even simple programs to choose from a variety of paths based on various criteria.

First, to definitively say that an entity chose to do something would necessarily require a material explanation. In other words to prove that a choice is indeed a choice we must demand its cause. Second, the attempt to instill symbols with agency will fail.

I'm not instilling the symbols with agency. The entity as a whole, the brain, the body, the thoughts, all of it together has agency. Pointing at once part as driving the whole thing is silly. The person as a whole has agency.

You don't blame an molecule for knocking down a hotel in a hurricane, it's the hurricane.
posted by empath at 6:35 PM on September 15, 2011


By that I mean, an hurricane is the collective action of a LOT of atoms acting as part of a system, just as consciousness and will is the collective action of a LOT of atoms acting as part of a system. Of COURSE the individual atoms don't have will, because all emergent phenomena arise from the collective actions of things which are fundamentally different. If you they were still the same, you've only kicked the can down the road. That doesn't mean that will doesn't exist in any sense.
posted by empath at 6:37 PM on September 15, 2011


The other problem is that the free will/non-free will thing is non-falsifiable.

Let's say you sit Bob in a chair, and attach some sort of brain-monitoring device. In setup (a) you ask him to select from a set of items (say the numbers 1-10). You record the brain activity pathway that precedes his conscious awareness of his selection of each item (per the article linked in the post). In setup (b) you repeat the procedure, but when Bob is due to make a selection, Alice activates the pathway for the number 7 (say using embedded electrodes?). Bob selects the number 7, but declares that he has experienced the sensation of having selected the number by his own "free will".

If Alice were able to repeat this result for the full set of items, and over a large sample of people of different ages, ethnicities, languages etc, would this not demonstrate that the sensation that we refer to as "free will" is an illusion?
posted by amorphatist at 8:11 PM on September 15, 2011


Ummmmmm. (Man-made) computers can be said to make decisions. But they do not have "free will", because they aren't conscious beings.
posted by polymodus at 8:44 PM on September 15, 2011


In fact the key difference is that when a computer makes a faulty decision, we don't blame the computer. We debug it and say that some part of the program was wrong. Or that the programmer was wrong.

In contrast, in social interactions we typically use "free will" to lay blame on the whole individual.
posted by polymodus at 8:48 PM on September 15, 2011


Why has it not been pointed out yet that maybe "free will" could be merely a social illusion? A meme. Just like God is a meme (a person can have a religious experience and following that, believe that God exists). Or like the idea of a calling (again, something that can be described concretely in terms of memories and emotions, but unfortunately is a socially invested word—e.g. many young adults are conditioned to search for this so-called "calling" experience). Or lots of other examples. So maybe it's neither a scientific phenomenon, nor an interesting/fundamental philosophical object.
posted by polymodus at 9:26 PM on September 15, 2011


In fact the key difference is that when a computer makes a faulty decision, we don't blame the computer. We debug it and say that some part of the program was wrong. Or that the programmer was wrong.

In contrast, in social interactions we typically use "free will" to lay blame on the whole individual.


That's adding an ethical and moral dimension to 'free will' that's a completely separate issue to whether it actually exists. To me, if a computer exists that can make decisions completely separate from its programmer or owner, in furtherance of its own desires and goals, without further interference from any external entity, and it has some form of self consciousness -- that is awareness of its own goals and actions, then it can be said to have free will, in some sense, even if it's behavior is completely determined by programming.
posted by empath at 9:41 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


potato!

Take that science!
posted by j03 at 10:11 PM on September 15, 2011


j03 used potato!

It's super effective!
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:14 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I completely disagree: continued progress in the development of our tools of investigation will one day allow us to observe all chemical processes ongoing in the brain, at the molecular level, in real time.
That's a hell of an assumption. First of all, I didn't say whether or not I believe in "Free Will" or not. I actually don't even think it's a valid concept, so you can't say either way. The problem is that even given a deterministic universe (which we don't have in the sense of our ability to determine the future) we still don't necessarily have the computational ability to predict the future. Even if we could simulate an entire brain, we can't simulate the entire environment in which that brain operates. So it is both the case that the brain operates due the laws of physics.

This stuff is really about what choices we can and can't make. Everyone accepts that if you fall and scrape your knee, it will hurt. You don't have a choice about whether or not you feel pain. As your go higher up in brain function it becomes more and more blurry. But saying that you have "no free will" in the philosophical sense mans that you have no choice over anything: that the future is as strongly determined as the past -- like the output of a computer program.

(The problem, though is that even if you think of the brain as a computer program, for a large class of computer programs it's impossible to know what the output of the computer program will be without running it. So lets say someone claims a computer program has 'free will'. How can you disprove it? Only by running the program, and if you run the program, then it has the chance to 'exercise' it's free will)
Absolutely not. In the human brain the storage of data IS the act of rewiring the chip on the fly. The only thing even roughly analogous are FPGAs, and they're not sufficiently common for debating conceptual models on Metafilter.
This is complete nonsense. Regular computers can do everything FPGAs do, just not as quickly. They can also emulate neural networks. And furthermore we don't know whether or not the brains 'data storage' is only done through 'rewiring' It's entirely possible that memory could be stored in other ways in proteins inside neurons or something like that. The physical structures that memories are stored in are called engrams and so far no one has ever found one.
Except, it seems the Mele needs to "catch up" with his understanding of Science, apparently, because the universe isn't deterministic at the quantum level...
The problem with that criticism is that 'quantum stuff' has nothing to do with our cognition, as far as we know. Quantum interaction is random but it's not something that plays a part in our choices. We have no more 'free will' if we are governed by random processes then we do if we are governed by deterministic processes, (unless there is some outside 'soul' that is secretly and undetectably controlling all the random stuff)
This is neural networking 101, dude.
Unlike you, obviously, I've actually taken AI/Machine learning classes as well as an actual Neurobiology class. Not only are none of those classes 100 level, but if they were you would be wrong. The brain doesn't use back propagation, it was created through natural selection. Back propagation is an algorithm to define the weights in an ANN, in the 'real world' that takes place through evolution. When you use that ANN to make decisions you're not using back propagation. In AI terms the ANN is the 'hypothesis' and back propagation is the algorithm used to generate the hypothesis.

The problem here is that you don't know what you're talking about. (In particular you assume that we know stuff that we don't)
I'm engaging a completely off-the-cuff philosophical debate on a web forum where the majority of participants have no background in neural network programming, neurology, or cognitive science.
Most importantly you.
posted by delmoi at 2:07 AM on September 16, 2011


It took a long time for us to develop the intellectual tools we needed to find and look for reductive explanations for things.

Yeah, but before we ever had those tools, we already had plenty of philosophers making the arguments for reductionism, like the Greek atomists. Never mind that we still haven't found an irreducible smallest component of matter, we still like to go around pretending it's only on the level of the smallest, irreducible components of things that our descriptions have any legitimate explanatory power.

The question of free will is essentially meaningless unless you suscribe to a dualist view in the first place

No, these criticisms of free will are all essentially meaningless unless you subscribe to a dualist view of free will in the first place.

There are plenty of robust, non-dualist formulations of free will.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:31 AM on September 16, 2011


Individual cars can travel at up to 100 miles per hour. Therefore, traffic jams shouldn't exist.

And yet they do.

Emergent behaviors...emerge. Whether we understand their underlying components or not.
posted by miyabo at 8:22 AM on September 16, 2011


First of all, I didn't say whether or not I believe in "Free Will" or not. I actually don't even think it's a valid concept, so you can't say either way.

I agree, it's not a valid concept. However, there is a specific variant of this idea that underlies much of our culture, underpinning ideas like original sin that have had catastrophic consequences for our development as a species.

It's this specific notion of an ethereal soul that somehow influences decision-making independent of the brain, giving rise to the idea that some people are just innately "evil" that I want to see expunged from western thought. It's also a notion that can be, unlike most other definitions of free will, flatly refuted by sufficiently advanced monitoring of neural activity.

we still don't necessarily have the computational ability to predict the future

This is painfully obvious: forward simulation of the universe logically requires a simulator larger than the universe.

This is complete nonsense. Regular computers can do everything FPGAs do, just not as quickly. They can also emulate neural networks.

No shit. Any Turing machine can emulate any other Turing machine. However, empath appeared to be stuck on the fixed function nature of modern CPUs and I was struggling to find a way to break him out of that mental model.

And furthermore we don't know whether or not the brains 'data storage' is only done through 'rewiring'

Oh for Christ's sake! Here, read: Hardt, O. & Nader, K. (2009) A single standard for memory: The case for reconsolidation, Nature Review Neuroscience. 10(3): 224-34

Unlike you, obviously, I've actually taken AI/Machine learning classes as well as an actual Neurobiology class. Not only are none of those classes 100 level, but if they were you would be wrong.

No shit AI/Machine learning isn't 100 level (actually, the very first cog sci. course I took that required neural network programming WAS 100 level, but that's very much the exception). Are you aware of the concept of a figure of speech? Idiom? Do you realize that we are arguing on Metafilter and not in academia?

The brain doesn't use back propagation, it was created through natural selection. Back propagation is an algorithm to define the weights in an ANN, in the 'real world' that takes place through evolution. When you use that ANN to make decisions you're not using back propagation. In AI terms the ANN is the 'hypothesis' and back propagation is the algorithm used to generate the hypothesis.

Again, no shit - these are things I learned in high school. I first used back propagation to set my weighted averages as a college freshman. I'm using the general principle as a convenient if slightly inaccurate analogy to the brain's use of neurotransmitters for feeding back outcome into neural connection strength.

The problem here is that you don't know what you're talking about. (In particular you assume that we know stuff that we don't)...
Most importantly you.


You're incorrect, being an asshole, and owe me an apology.
posted by Ryvar at 11:44 AM on September 16, 2011


Here, read: Hardt, O. & Nader, K. (2009) A single standard for memory: The case for reconsolidation, Nature Review Neuroscience. 10(3): 224-34

Addendum in case you're more interested in being a nitpicky asshole than moving the conversation forward: read and extrapolate the obvious implications.
posted by Ryvar at 11:54 AM on September 16, 2011


I fully subscribe to the view that a sense of self/self awareness is an emergent property of the complex system that is the brain and, to a degree diminishing with distance the biological systems attached to it.
I don't believe that this self awareness/self consciousness/self has any "substance" of its own and is probably more akin to a standing wave of sorts. I don't believe it has any reality beyond that and it seems to me that any sense of continuity of self is delusional and simply emerges from any momentarily arising state of self awareness' access to "memory" data (of varying degrees of accuracy) encoded in the brain at that point.
Because of this I don't think there's any such thing or concept definable as free will. It would imply the continuous existence of an agent entity such as a self which I already think doesn't exist.

Thinking about all this the following comes to mind: if complex brains have an evolutionary advantage and if self-awareness is an emergent side-effect of increasing brain complexity then maybe along with it must evolve a (however delusional) sense of control or free will and ultimately purpose.
Self awareness combined with the true full realization of not having any free will and/or a purpose would translate into a sense of being permanently trapped in one's body as a prisoner with no abilities but to observe. I wonder if any self-awareness could survive such a state undamaged.

Maybe, a sense of free will and purpose evolved along with self awareness because brains that generate self-awareness without these delusions simply don't function very well and have a lesser chance of survival/procreation. The sense of self-awareness may just be a side-effect but its probably also inextricably interwoven with all other processes the brain handles. Maybe without these delusions in place the emergent self-awareness would descend into some for of dysfunction/insanity and ultimately affect the supporting physical entity's ability to function, survive and procreate.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:22 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think it's really funny how worked up people get about convincing one side or the other that they are correct on this issue. Because if free will isn't, then you can no more convince me it is if I wasn't already going to believe that than you can stop the Earth in its orbit.
posted by Peztopiary at 12:35 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't believe that this self awareness/self consciousness/self has any "substance" of its own and is probably more akin to a standing wave of sorts. I don't believe it has any reality beyond that and it seems to me that any sense of continuity of self is delusional and simply emerges from any momentarily arising state of self awareness' access to "memory" data (of varying degrees of accuracy) encoded in the brain at that point.

But a standing wave is real. Hell, the entire universe is almost nothing BUT waves. They cause real, measureable effects. Why would consciousness be any different.

And, btw, a continuity of self makes more sense if consciousness is akin to a wave, because a wave can propagate through any medium and isn't necessarily physically bound. The cells and atoms in the body are replaced constantly, and yet the self remains. That could only be true if the pattern is more important than the substrate.
posted by empath at 1:27 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I said "akin to" not "is". The only on which I was comparing the 2 was in that "wave" is a label slapped onto a dynamic process rather than a substantial "thing". This is how I view "self".

To me this is subjectively illustrated in the way current self awareness can completely disappear and then something similar yet not identical becomes reconstituted from the scattered bits and pieces at a later point in time (zoning out, meditating, certain drugs, traumatic experiences, accidents,...)
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:52 PM on September 16, 2011


gah, "The only IN which..."

stupid me can't types dem lettrs
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:53 PM on September 16, 2011


"The only WAY IN which"

omg

I give up
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:53 PM on September 16, 2011


I need a drink.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:53 PM on September 16, 2011


well shit, now we've got calvinists jumping in the thread... metacalvinists at that!
posted by symbioid at 11:00 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, way late for the discussion, but this AskMe reminded me of a book, Blindsight by Peter Watts, that dealt with this question in a particularly frightening way. It posits that humans are an evolutionary accident, weakened by their wasteful and unnecessary senses of empathy, consciousness, and self-awareness. Most races in the galaxy are amoral, sociopathic, and completely non-sentient -- they have language and technology, but all the processing power humans devote to art, compassion, introspection, and culture is instead focused on machinelike superintelligence and ruthless self-preservation, completely lacking any personality or "soul." There is no "I" there.

It's best summed up best in this passage, a lecture to the protagonist by one of the book's "vampires," a non-sentient, superintelligent, sociopathic subspecies of man that died out ages ago and was recently revived by human scientists:
You invest so much in it, don't you? It's what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it's what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself. Wise Man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it's for?

Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you've forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterwards, unconscious the whole time. Maybe nobody's told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.

Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity's already halfway down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self 'chose' to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary—almost an afterthought— to the homunculus behind your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.

But it's not in charge. You're not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn't share living space with the likes of you.

Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively human pursuits that must surely rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that's what sentience would be for— if scientific breakthroughs didn't spring fully-formed from the subconscious mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night's sleep. It's the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it.

Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.

Don't even try to talk about the learning curve. Don't bother citing the months of deliberate practice that precede the unconscious performance, or the years of study and experiment leading up to the gift-wrapped Eureka moment. So what if your lessons are all learned consciously? Do you think that proves there's no other way? Heuristic software's been learning from experience for over a hundred years. Machines master chess, cars learn to drive themselves, statistical programs face problems and design the experiments to solve them and you think that the only path to learning leads through sentience? You're Stone-age nomads, eking out some marginal existence on the veldt—denying even the possibility of agriculture, because hunting and gathering was good enough for your parents.

Do you want to know what consciousness is for? Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves? Training wheels. You can't see both aspects of the Necker Cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other. That's a pretty half-assed way to parse reality. You're always better off looking at more than one side of anything. Go on, try. Defocus. It's the next logical step.

Oh, but you can't. There's something in the way.

And it's fighting back.

* * *

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains—cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.

* * *

The system weakens, slows. It takes so much longer now to perceive—to assess the input, mull it over, decide in the manner of cognitive beings. But when the flash flood crosses your path, when the lion leaps at you from the grasses, advanced self-awareness is an unaffordable indulgence. The brain stem does its best. It sees the danger, hijacks the body, reacts a hundred times faster than that fat old man sitting in the CEO's office upstairs; but every generation it gets harder to work around this— this creaking neurological bureaucracy.

I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis. Scramblers have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious. With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains—deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism—they think rings around you. They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they're saying. They turn your own cognition against itself. They travel between the stars. This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness.

I is not the working mind, you see. For Amanda Bates to say "I do not exist" would be nonsense; but when the processes beneath say the same thing, they are merely reporting that the parasites have died. They are only saying that they are free.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:20 PM on September 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


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