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February 14, 2009 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Free Will versus the Programmed Brain. Shaun Nichols discusses some recent experiments relating belief in free will to moral behavior.

(Previously on MeFi: Philosopher Galen Strawson's argument against moral responsibility, neurophysiologist Ben Libet's experiments on consciousness and time.)
posted by voltairemodern (42 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
While the experiment is interesting in terms of psychology, I don't think that free will has been a very serious debate in philosophical or scientific fields during the 20th century. Quantum mechanics killed the simple idea of scientific determinism stone dead, and existentialism answered the philosophical question with the observation that, whether or not we have actual free will, we have subjective free will (i.e., the inescapable appearance of free will in our own minds) and therefore have no choice but to live as if we do.
posted by fatbird at 1:46 PM on February 14, 2009 [9 favorites]


The experiment couldn't have turned out any other way than how it did.
posted by empath at 1:57 PM on February 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


fatbird: Not all interpretations of quantum theory are indeterministic. (Cf. the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation. Recent discussion.)

Also, the reply that we must possess the illusion of freedom only provides half an answer to the problems that free will presents. For instance, if we don't in fact have free will, that will likely affect what theories of punishment we should endorse as a society, regardless of whether or not we feel as though we act freely.
posted by voltairemodern at 2:13 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are people still fussing over free will not existing? All it means is that words like "responsibility", "choice" and "behaviour" might technically have very slightly different meanings. Nothing will have changed on a practical level.

It might even force us to have rational reasons for our decisions instead of just appealing to external authorities.
posted by lucidium at 2:16 PM on February 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have no choice but to make this pointless comment.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:18 PM on February 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have no choice but to make fun of existentialism.
posted by Ms. Saint at 2:22 PM on February 14, 2009


On Valentines day, no less...
posted by hellojed at 2:30 PM on February 14, 2009


Wait -- if we have no free will, then how can we or our societies be said to choose what theories of punishment we endorse? oh, my brain chooses to hurt when I think about these things!
posted by jepler at 2:45 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hmm kinda makes sense I suppose. There is some precedent for people ascribing their actions to "human nature," "inevitability," "God," etc., and therefore disavowing responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
posted by Mister_A at 2:52 PM on February 14, 2009


I'm predestined to have free will.
posted by thivaia at 2:52 PM on February 14, 2009


I don't think that free will has been a very serious debate in philosophical or scientific fields during the 20th century.

This is not at all accurate. There was a huge debate between some luminaries in the field (Bargh vs. Baumeister) at the Society for Personality & Social Psychology Conference in Tampa just last week. Automaticity is a big topic for social psychology research, and people are actively approaching the problem of free will from a number of different methodological angles.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:01 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, IMO there is free will but just not INSTANTANEOUS free will. You have to take yourself "offline" and mold yourself to flow the way you want.
posted by krilli at 3:02 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd watch a movie called Free Willy vs. the Programmed Brain.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:20 PM on February 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


No fair...I thought i was coming in here for a free Wii.
posted by troybob at 5:45 PM on February 14, 2009


If have freewill, then we can choose to act accordingly. And if we don't have freewill, then it doesn't matter what we do because we were going to do it anyway, and that includes acting like we have freewill (even though we don't). So only one choice (inasmuch as we have a choice) makes any sense or has any sort of effective outcome. I mean, if life is deterministic and you choose to live as if it is deterministic, you gain nothing. But if it's deterministic and you believe (as you were/are determined to do) in freewill, then you have at least the illusion of freewill. Whereas if we have freewill and you choose determinism, you lose your freewill. Determinism just doesn't make sense.

I will choose Freewill.
posted by Eideteker at 5:46 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Quantum mechanics killed the simple idea of scientific determinism stone dead

Because there's randomness on the quantum level doesnt mean there's any when talking about macro systems like big juicy brains and animal behaviors. You cant say "Look, we cant say where this photon will go, so we cant say whether that monkey will choose the younger, healthier mate." Yes we can.

My computer runs on electricity. If I wrote a program to output the word 'hello,' it will do so regardless of the randomness that occurs on the low physical level.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:48 PM on February 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


I came here to post what damn dirty ape just did. Quantum mechanics has no bearing on these discussions.

An excellent discussion of free will, including what we actually want when we talk about it, is Daniel Dennet's Elbow Room.
posted by phrontist at 5:57 PM on February 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I blame society.
posted by homunculus at 6:50 PM on February 14, 2009


Good thing I'm wearing my smarty-pants while reading this.
Although I don't really need them. 'Cos I'm a genius.

...whoops, pants just caught fire.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:55 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think the computor is an effective for your argument damn dirty ape. My computer runs on electricity. If I wrote a program if will work how I intended it to most of the time. This inconsistency needs to be accounted for.
posted by pointilist at 9:22 PM on February 14, 2009


Quantum mechanics killed the simple idea of scientific determinism stone dead

Not being able to predict the outcome of an interaction does not mean that it was not pre-determined.
posted by empath at 9:25 PM on February 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


Clearly, we can solve this argument by coming up with a definition for free will that is something we can experimentally verify, then performing that experiment. You know, like how we did for the soul.
posted by adipocere at 9:38 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


an
posted by pointilist at 9:41 PM on February 14, 2009


If I wrote a program if will work how I intended it to most of the time. This inconsistency needs to be accounted for.

No, its a good analogy actualy.

If there is a hardware fault then we will see it. The biological equivalant is a disease. If there is a software fault then the biolgical equivalant is like mental illness. Saying "stuff doesntwork right sometimes, thus there's free will" isnt convicing.

I am personally sick of people taking QM and turning into some justification for paranormal things. Its one of my pet peeves and it happens all the time. Anything from UFOs to psychics to sasquach to soul to god to whatever. Its always people who have no clue what QM is and just parrot lines from psuedoscience authors.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:04 PM on February 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


You have a strong faith that everything can be accounted for dda.
posted by pointilist at 8:06 AM on February 15, 2009


You can't compare computers and brains. Computers are digital and absolute, brains are analogue, and therefore much more prone to being affected by minuscule voltage fluctuations.
posted by ymgve at 8:45 AM on February 15, 2009


Nichols isn't really arguing about whether we have free will in this article. He's concerned with, what he calls, the prescriptive project in the free will debate. This project concerns questions about what we should do or how we ought to act given our concepts and what the world is like. He wants to suggest that psychology can help us to find the answers to these kinds of questions, that we should take the sorts of empirical evidence that he cites into account instead of merely relying on a priori arguments. He also thinks that psychology can help with the substantive project concerning whether determinism is true, though he doesn't mention that here. He's published a much longer paper on this topic.

side note: My boyfriend is currently working on his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona and is taking a seminar with Nichols this semester. I'm going to be meeting him in the next few weeks during my spring break visit.
posted by inconsequentialist at 9:37 AM on February 15, 2009


You can't truly hate someone once you've accepted that they are just living out their own fate. For this reason I really believe that the world could be a better place without the idea of free will. It doesn't mean not having a justice system, it just means that it would exist to deter crime and contain dangerous people rather than to enact retribution. There would still be prisons but there would be less tolerance for violence and rape in them because we would recognize that the men and women there are fundamentally the same as us, swept along through life by the same tide of cause, effect and chance.
posted by tomcooke at 9:57 AM on February 15, 2009


Another problem with drawing conclusions about the fundamental nature of the universe from quantum mechanics is that quantum mechanics hasn't yet been reconciled with theories of gravity has it? Anyway it is not inconceivable that even quantum mechanics could have a deterministic basis.

Personally I don't believe in free will at all, but I think too much emphasis has been placed on the influence a belief in free will has on a person's actions anyway. I think that far from weighing up every single act, people behave how they have been conditioned to behave by experience and by the expectation of their peer groups. Think about it: if a person was asked to behave in an immoral way, how would they go about making the decision whether or not to do so? They would make the decision based on their feelings. And what influences their feelings on any subject? Their past life experiences, surely. Every choice we make is influenced by decisions we have made in the past about what is important and about how we should act. And even if we choose to act counter to our feelings, it must be for a reason based on some aspect of our currently existing personality which has been formed through past experience. Our current state of mind is always based on a previous state of mind. And if we choose to deliberately do something random, that choice to do something random itself surely does not arise out of true randomness, but out of a desire on our part to be unpredictable or different, which itself is an aspect of our personality formed through past thoughts and feelings.

Regarding this experiment, they suggest that people who have read that free will is an illusion cheat more. But if someone like me, who has already absorbed the notion that free will is an illusion, and has come to terms with it, and does not find it problematic whatsoever, just as I don't find the self-evident utter and complete meaninglessness of life and the universe problematic, read that same exposition, my behaviour would not be influenced by it. It is probably because the people who read it were not used to the idea that their behaviour was influenced by it. Does my rejection of free will and of meaning lead me to be immoral and sociopathic? No, fortunately I happen to be a moral person, due perhaps to some attributes which were instilled at birth and some which were instilled by socialisation, and perhaps even some which I have arrived at through personal introspection and thought (although I cannot claim credit for happening to have been the kind of person capable and disposed to undertake such thought).

So yes I do happen to think that in some purely abstract way people who commit crimes are not "responsible" for them in the sense that they are not responsible for being the kind of person who would commit crimes (when you get down to it they aren't actually responsible for themselves having been born in the first place, are they?), but this does not in any way whatsoever mean I think it is acceptable for those people to commit crimes, or that anyone should be allowed to get away with crimes, or that sanctions against such person should be different to what they are on the basis of this reasoning, because the effects of the crimes are the same regardless of such considerations. (Whether I think criminals should be dealt with differently for any other reasons is not something I'm commenting on here.)

In effect what I'm saying is that the absence of free will makes and should make no difference whatsoever to the way we conduct our lives or the way we experience life. The dissonance around the debate arises out of the fact that people in the first place assume that it exists and assume it has a bearing on things - that is an illusion.
posted by haines at 10:18 AM on February 15, 2009


I don't believe in free will, but I think that society, for the sake of its own preservation, needs to behave as if free will existed. Ultimately it doesn't matter if a criminal was free to choose his actions. His actions threaten the system, the system must act to protect itself.

We are all of us part of something larger than ourselves.
posted by empath at 10:59 AM on February 15, 2009


People only believe in free will when it a) makes them feel good about themselves or b) gives them an excuse to execrate and punish someone.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:00 PM on February 15, 2009


I don't believe in free will, but I think that society, for the sake of its own preservation, needs to behave as if free will existed. Ultimately it doesn't matter if a criminal was free to choose his actions. His actions threaten the system, the system must act to protect itself.

That's nonsense. If free will existed, then no matter what you did to someone, they could still as easily choose to continue being antisocial and criminal. It is only once a society acknowledges the ridiculousness of free will and adopts methods of correction which serve to address the causes of crime, both in the society and the individual, that any real progress is going to be made.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:04 PM on February 15, 2009


"That's nonsense. If free will existed, then no matter what you did to someone, they could still as easily choose to continue being antisocial and criminal."

That's also nonsense. If life is deterministic, then no matter what you do to someone, they could just as easily remain criminal due to forces outside their control.

And the reason that determinism always fails for me is that it takes as axiomatic that perfect knowledge is possible and that probability doesn't exist.

I do wish that more deterministic atheists would realize and capitalize on their kinship with deterministic theists, though.
posted by klangklangston at 12:51 PM on February 15, 2009


And the reason that determinism always fails for me is that it takes as axiomatic that perfect knowledge is possible and that probability doesn't exist.

I don't think that's the case at all. More that probability is the result of having less than perfect knowledge.
posted by empath at 1:17 PM on February 15, 2009


If life is deterministic, then no matter what you do to someone, they could just as easily remain criminal due to forces outside their control.

Determinism is essentially the statement: causes have effects. If you think that punishment has an effect on behavior, congratulations, you're a determinist.

No matter how badly you want to hurt people for being bad.

And the reason that determinism always fails for me is that it takes as axiomatic that perfect knowledge is possible and that probability doesn't exist.

Probability doesn't equal choice no matter how badly you need it to.

I do wish that more deterministic atheists would realize and capitalize on their kinship with deterministic theists, though.

Theistic and atheistic determinism are completely different ideas, though.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:38 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Determinism is essentially the statement: causes have effects. If you think that punishment has an effect on behavior, congratulations, you're a determinist."

No, determinism is the statement that causes have regular, specific and repeatable effects inexorably linked to them.

That the effects of causes are determined.

"No matter how badly you want to hurt people for being bad."

Leave me out of your psycho-sexual fugues.

"Probability doesn't equal choice no matter how badly you need it to."

Probability is an argument against determinism, not for free will. And knock off the "no matter how badly you need it" bullshit. You're not on DailyKos.

"I don't think that's the case at all. More that probability is the result of having less than perfect knowledge."

I understand your point, but note that it still presupposes that perfect knowledge is possible.

"Theistic and atheistic determinism are completely different ideas, though."

In some ways, but regarding personal responsibility, the overlap is interesting.
posted by klangklangston at 3:32 PM on February 15, 2009


I understand your point, but note that it still presupposes that perfect knowledge is possible.

I don't think that it does.
posted by empath at 4:33 PM on February 15, 2009


Probability is an argument against determinism, not for free will.

Then there's no reason to bring it up. Except that it is being used as an argument for free will by the "quantum mechanics=supernatural things are real lol" brigade.

You're not on DailyKos.

This is not the burn you had hoped it would be.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:04 PM on February 15, 2009




Your inability to distinguish between arguments is not my fault, and your dogmatic certainty is turning you into a prick.

(Besides, quantum arguments for the supernatural is oxymoronic. Quantum uncertainty exists within the natural.)

"I don't think that it does."

Why not?
posted by klangklangston at 11:38 PM on February 15, 2009


What do you think determinism is, exactly? My interpretation of the term is that everything that happens has a cause. Whether or not you're able to know what those causes are is besides the point.

It may very well be that quantum effects have a deterministic rather than probabilistic cause. Certainly many physicists have spent decades trying to find out whether they do or not and haven't yet come to a conclusion.

If I roll a die, from one perspective, you can say that I have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling a 5, for example. From another perspective, the roll is entirely determined by the physical conditions present when the die was rolled. It may be much simpler to go with probability, but that doesn't mean it's the truer explanation.
posted by empath at 12:53 AM on February 16, 2009


What comes to my mind is John Lennon's "Life is what happens while you're making other plans."

Life is what happens while you're trying to figure out what Life is, the arc of a lifetime seems always too short to make use of any of the wisdom-coins you may have picked up along the way. As if by design . . .
posted by Restless Day at 5:36 AM on February 16, 2009


"What do you think determinism is, exactly? My interpretation of the term is that everything that happens has a cause. Whether or not you're able to know what those causes are is besides the point."

I already said what I thought determinism was. My beef is that it's not falsifiable in any meaningful way. Without being able to know the causes, determining whence effects is impossible.

To cop from atheism, you're simply believing in one more God than I am.
posted by klangklangston at 11:18 AM on February 16, 2009


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