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Free will vs. Modern-day Criminal Justice System
July 6, 2010 9:20 PM   Subscribe

The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system
As de Duve has written, “If … neuronal events in the brain determine behavior, irrespective of whether they are conscious or unconscious, it is hard to find room for free will. But if free will does not exist, there can be no responsibility, and the structure of human societies must be revised”.
Ben Libet & free will, previously on metafilter. (And more on: Lucretius, Dualism, Philosophy of mind, and Free Will 1, 2.)
posted by scalespace (100 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
But if free will does not exist, there can be no responsibility, and the structure of human societies must be revised.

Must it? Or rather should or justifications for the status quo just be revised? This seems easier and less likely to cause problems.
posted by Bobicus at 9:24 PM on July 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Exactly - the conclusion does not follow, here. Responsibility itself can be redefined to accomodate the argument: our physical self is still causally linked to events we participate in, so our physical self can be held accountable (be it confined, re-educated, eliminated, whatever) for those actions, even if "free will" doesn't exist. It remains in our interest to rehabilitate criminals and confine the unredeemable, even if determinism holds true.

That said, I agree that determinism demolishes arguments for "retributive justice" - any scientific approach does that easily enough. Our urge to punish is totally irrational and frequently goes against our own best interests, let alone the interests of society as a whole. Many countries have already moved to justice systems which easily accommodate determinist philosophy; the USA lags behind in this regard. (Though their neighbour Canada is quickly racing backwards to catch up.) This particular country, to sate its desire for punishment, has squandered hundreds of billions of the public's money to build the world's largest prison system.
posted by mek at 9:34 PM on July 6, 2010 [7 favorites]


But if free will does not exist, ... the structure of human societies must be revised.

That is, I think, putting it lightly.
posted by Avenger at 9:34 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Before this descends into madness, I'd like to repeat something my boyfriend, at the time a philosophy student, once said to me regarding the problem of free will:

It's only a problem as long as you think it's a problem.

I'm running away, I can't hear any of your counterarguments or countercounterarguments
posted by sunnichka at 9:34 PM on July 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


scalespace: "But if free will does not exist, there can be no responsibility, and the structure of human societies must be revised”. "

Fine. Just don't blame me when that doesn't happen.
posted by pwnguin at 9:46 PM on July 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Maybe it's the received conception of free will that needs revising.

“If … neuronal events in the brain determine behavior

Might this not be an excessively linear way to think about it? It seems that our understanding of neuronal events allows for the capacity of thought to influence thought and biology simultaneously. So wouldn't it be more accurate, before we go any further, to say that neuronal events are correlated with behavior, since the mutual and continuous interaction between thought, behavior, and biological states doesn't seem to allow for a position of primary, unaffected causation?
posted by clockzero at 9:48 PM on July 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


A variation on this question is: what is the evolutionary selective advantage of consciousness? One answer to this question is that consciousness provides us with an apparent sense of responsibility: “Along with the illusion of control, our sense of agency brings the burdens of individual responsibility. Though this may sometimes weigh heavily on us personally, for society as a whole it is hugely beneficial. Our entire morality and judicial system is dependent on everyone accepting that they are agents of their own misdeeds, and those who don’t acknowledge this are—by legal definition—insane. We may not consciously control our own actions, but the cognitive mechanisms that create the illusion that we do keep society functioning”

This feels weak. I imagine that consciousness is actually a pretty broad range of behaviors and that most sufficiently advanced culturally evolving agents will develop consciousness as a side effect of the whole process. If not, then the self-regulation and self-analysis of mindfulness are selective advantage enough.
posted by Bobicus at 9:51 PM on July 6, 2010


Well, that sounds like the kind of thing someone might think if they'd just discovered philosophy. Or something.

I think there are two "levels" of free will, the first is "unpredictable determinism", or "apparent free will." where what you are going to do is, in some sense decided in advance, it's all a matter of electrons and ions in your brain and photons and sound waves and touch and whatnot effecting your mind in your senses. If you could calculate in advance the position of every particle, then you could determine what someone was going to do. But thing is you can't do that.

(then there's quantum randomness as well, but if your actions are governed by quantum events, then it's not really free will, right?)

But anyway, that's not possible. You can't actually measure everything and use that to predict what will happen. So from the perspective of another person free will does exist.

---

On the other hand, there's simple biological determinism. If a person hasn't eaten in 3 days, we know they'll really want to eat something and if you put some food in front of them, they'll eat it. That's a really obvious example. But we can actually predict a lot about human behavior, and we can and have done experiments. So even though people have "apparent" free will, a lot of what they do is reasonably predictable.

But there are obviously a lot of problems with our criminal justice system.
posted by delmoi at 9:52 PM on July 6, 2010


In case it's not clear, the quote is from the paper that I refer to.
posted by scalespace at 9:56 PM on July 6, 2010


Even if you're a dualist, your "mental substance" has to be such that it can support some kind of organization and causality - otherwise your "choices" would be random and unrelated to your previous thoughts and states of mind - and how would that be free will? So I don't understand how postulating mental substance solves anything.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:02 PM on July 6, 2010


The brain probably makes so many decisions per minute that when the brain's voting mechanism for the next move reaches an indecision, something else happens. These might be less than 1% of all the decisions we make, but it bubbles up to our consciousness because it wasn't automatic, and we are prompted to seek an informed or outside decision, perhaps even a social decision. This would have influenced our so-called (self-)consciousness to develop, with language forming a structure for self-awareness to facilitate the mental input of others in our decisions. Either way it mimics free will.
posted by Brian B. at 10:06 PM on July 6, 2010


Too much focus on neurons. IMO we "think" with hormones just as much as with neurons. And for that matter I think even our gut bacteria are a component of our "free will" thought processes.

Free will is a zen koan.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:10 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Speaking of consciousness, I'd best let in the cat. At the very least, I think if she had free will, she'd stay outside. I think she'd get herself in trouble.

And she's leashed, so I win. FFFish is the God of a Kitten.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:14 PM on July 6, 2010


Sorta a double
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:18 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


But anyway, that's not possible. You can't actually measure everything and use that to predict what will happen.

You're greatly overestimating the level of detail you need to resolve in order to predict how someone is going to behave better than they themselves can. You can do it pretty well just with a fMRI.

The more we learn about neurology and behavior the scarier it is. My best estimation at present is that we mostly don't actually decide to do anything, per se. In a lot of very real ways we simply act and then our brains fill in the reasons retroactively, and in such a manner that we have the illusion that the reason preceded the action when, in fact, it didn't.

We can actually demonstrate a related concept quite well in people who have their corpus callosum severed or some other types of brain injury. If you give them an instruction they can only see with one eye (I forget which) and they follow the instruction, you can ask them why they performed the action... and they'll spontaneously fabricate a bullshit reason on the spot and be absolutely convinced that the bullshit reason was why they acted the way they did, even in the face of contrary evidence.

Like, if you instruct them to get up and put on a coat (in a warm room) and they follow the instruction, you can ask them why they just got up and put on the coat. And they may well tell you they just spontaneously decided to do so because they were feeling a bit chilly. If you point out that it's very warm in the room, they'll still insist they were cold.
posted by Justinian at 10:18 PM on July 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


This feels weak.

It's beyond weak - it's nearly incoherent. To even conceptualize a "evolutionary selective advantage of consciousness" is to admit a tendency to consider consciousness a physical phenomenon in the standard causal continuuum. By what mechanism would evolution select for consciousness? What kind of evolutionary advantage could conscious experience itself bestow, that underlying physical processes do not? Evolution could (and most certainly does) select for the basic building blocks of consciousness (memory, senses, physical & spatial awareness, etc) but why do those blocks, when assembled, produce consciousness? And does that further phenomenon produce a as-yet-unquantified causal influence which cannot be explained with a purely materialist ontology?

This is all phil of mind 101 and yet the article struggles with it. As an aside, Justinian's comment is very closely related to The Anosognosic's Dilemma which is an absolutely fantastic read which I cannot recommend enough.
posted by mek at 10:22 PM on July 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


If I act and make decisions based entirely on my initial state and experiences since then, then we would say I don't have free will. But any aspect of my actions and decisions that is not due to those things ... is arbitrary! Which: whoop-di-fucking-doo.

Note that I phrased this such that it doesn't matter whether we are bound entirely by physical processes - so you long as you count any kind of soul or whatever as part of "me" (initial state, spiritual experiences).

Free will is just a handy model for the fact that people's actions often can't be explained through simple causality*, and can be hard to predict as a result. But I can't even see why it matters, in terms of societal structure. It's trivially obvious that people are subject to causal influence, and behave consistently. Whether it's 100% but too complex to understand, or just, say, 85%, it's pretty much equivalent from a functional point of view.

* By which I mean attributing a single cause to something. Instead, people's behaviors are clearly the results of extremely complex systems full of feedback loops, integration countless past stimuli. Sort of like weather, but with more that we do understand.
posted by aubilenon at 10:24 PM on July 6, 2010


What kind of evolutionary advantage could conscious experience itself bestow, that underlying physical processes do not?

Well, it may not be adaptive at all to be conscious. It could be something that's become widespread by piggy-backing along with memory, senses, spatial & physical awareness, and which has only persisted in the absence of powerful selection pressure against it.

I doubt this. If conscious humans do all the same things in all the same situations as non-conscious humans, then consciousness itself confers no real reproductive advantage.

So in short, my theory is that consciousness must make you sexier to talk to. Chicks dig it when you know you have feelings.

They especially dig it when you know they have feelings.
posted by edguardo at 10:31 PM on July 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Justinian, it seems to me that you're trying to demonstrate a hypothesis (My best estimation at present is that we mostly don't actually decide to do anything, per se. In a lot of very real ways we simply act and then our brains fill in the reasons retroactively, and then defending it by using examples that are not the norm (i.e. severed corpus callosum). Explain?
posted by deep thought sunstar at 10:35 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


edguardo: you correctly identify how consciousness could have arisen without it being an evolutionary advantage but then sort of deny that possibility without any evidence or reason. I think it quite possible, even likely, that consciousness doesn't confer much if any evolutionary advantage. It doesn't have to in order to survive; it simply must not be a disadvantage.

Canadian SF author (and convicted felon!) Peter Watts wrote a bit about this in Blindsight.
posted by Justinian at 10:38 PM on July 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


The "if there's no free will, then we have to rethink the justice system!" argument is the most facile thing in the entire realm of philosophy. You can be pretty sure that anyone who makes this argument hasn't thought about it for more than 30 seconds, because if they did, they'd come to this conclusion:

If criminals don't have the free will necessary to not commit crimes, then the executors of the justice system don't have the free will necessary to not punish them.

It's that simple. It's a win-win situation: If there is free will, then we can ethically punish criminals for using their free will to do harm upon society. If there isn't free will, then we are powerless to not punish people who were powerless to not do harm upon society. The only situation where you need to care about free will is if you have free will and the people you're imposing justice upon don't, which is exactly what we already have when we exercise the concept of being criminally insane.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:39 PM on July 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Explain?

Well, yeah, if I could do that sufficiently well and convincingly I'd be busy with my Nobel Prize rather than Metafilter. I would, I guess, say that I don't believe what can be demonstrated among people who have (for example) injuries such as a severed corpus callosum are atypical and not behavior present for normal people. Instead, we're just pulling back the curtain and exposing the illusory nature of much of our casual reasoning. Our brains manufacture a lot of our thought process post-hoc, we just can't see it happening unless there is a non-standard structure like physically separated brain hemispheres.

I can't prove that yet. But I would wager that it will turn out to be the case.
posted by Justinian at 10:42 PM on July 6, 2010


It's only a problem as long as you think it's a problem.
Edguardo's trying to play it cool, but he's actually the Boyfriend mentioned above. Obviously he's entirely incapable of following his own advice.

I wish we could all agree to only have this discussion once a year, with a drawn-up list of new information that could potentially re-frame the debate. Because right now . . . we are not quite past the angels-on-head-of-pin phase.
posted by sunnichka at 10:42 PM on July 6, 2010


I think it quite possible, even likely, that consciousness doesn't confer much if any evolutionary advantage. It doesn't have to in order to survive; it simply must not be a disadvantage.

Canadian SF author (and convicted felon!) Peter Watts wrote a bit about this in Blindsight.

Because, you know, there's NO reason why a convicted felon would ever argue against free will.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 10:43 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


edguardo: you correctly identify how consciousness could have arisen without it being an evolutionary advantage but then sort of deny that possibility without any evidence or reason. I think it quite possible, even likely, that consciousness doesn't confer much if any evolutionary advantage. It doesn't have to in order to survive; it simply must not be a disadvantage.

Canadian SF author (and convicted felon!) Peter Watts wrote a bit about this in Blindsight.


Wait wait wait, but if there's no good reason for consciousness to become the norm, then why does everyone act like they're conscious?

Are they just trying to get girls?
posted by edguardo at 10:43 PM on July 6, 2010


By what mechanism would evolution select for consciousness?

From the paper:

Consciousness confers the illusion of responsibility. No wonder the belief in free will is so prevalent in society—the very survival of those “selfish free-will genes” is predicated on their capacity to con one into believing in free will!

I don't think biologists can reliably answer the following without a lot more work:

What kind of evolutionary advantage could conscious experience itself bestow, that underlying physical processes do not?

But in any case, Cashmore suggests an answer here:

If the existence of free will is so widely accepted and has strong survival value, then why would we want to change it? Because, as a consequence of the advance in our understanding of the molecular basis of human behavior, it will become increasingly difficult to entertain this fallacy that currently has such a strong influence in the way we govern society.

Whatever its supposed evolutionary benefits, there is a strong social component to consciousness. We are not only aware of ourselves, but of others. We could infer that selection pressure would have been exerted on humans who are less social, less conscious than other humans, who experience less reproductive success over time.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:43 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


All I know is, if someone replaced my moral compass with some kind of RNG, like a d4, and I kept getting 1s (corresponding to "blow the proprietor away with a shotgun, grab the beer"), I doubt I'd feel any more responsible for my actions than if those same actions were the inevitable result of a cascade of events in my brain, like an avalanche.

What I meant to say is, I blame ... society.
posted by adipocere at 10:45 PM on July 6, 2010


We are not only aware of ourselves, but of others. We could infer that selection pressure would have been exerted on humans who are less social, less conscious than other humans, who experience less reproductive success over time.

Exactly what I was saying.
posted by edguardo at 10:46 PM on July 6, 2010


I would, I guess, say that I don't believe what can be demonstrated among people who have (for example) injuries such as a severed corpus callosum are atypical and not behavior present for normal people.

OK, I see what you're saying, I think. You're making the point that "abnormal" behavior exists within all of us, but doesn't get presented. I agree, and I think that was really well-said. However, the fact still remains that we're using a tiny, tiny population (those with severe brain injuries) to measure the reactions of a far, far larger population (those without) to...what? It seems unfair to make the determination of "YES we have free will" or "NO we don't" based upon a population who, admittedly, can pull back the curtain.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 10:54 PM on July 6, 2010


But if free will does not exist, ... the structure of human societies must cannot be revised.

Fixed that for you. Not like I had any choice in the matter.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:55 PM on July 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


My best estimation at present is that we mostly don't actually decide to do anything, per se. In a lot of very real ways we simply act and then our brains fill in the reasons retroactively

This was also the "estimation" of my undergrad Psych books and professors in the early 90s, so I don't think it's really that controversial, is it?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:58 PM on July 6, 2010


This was also the "estimation" of my undergrad Psych books and professors in the early 90s, so I don't think it's really that controversial, is it?

Among psych and neuro academics? Probably not although even there I suspect most people haven't really internalized what it means.
posted by Justinian at 11:04 PM on July 6, 2010


Because, you know, there's NO reason why a convicted felon would ever argue against free will.

Now, now. Watts wrote Blindsight long before he got arrested on a bullshit trumped-up resisting arrest charge at the border. I only included the felon bit since we had so much discussion about the case here on the blue.
posted by Justinian at 11:06 PM on July 6, 2010


You're greatly overestimating the level of detail you need to resolve in order to predict how someone is going to behave better than they themselves can. You can do it pretty well just with a fMRI.
First of all, I'm pretty sure you're you're actually wrong about the fMRI*. It's not a magic brain-reading device. Second of all, it helps if you read the entire post before you reply.

(Well, there is one thing we can say about someone's behavior while they are in an fMRI: They will hold their heads very still, because otherwise the device won't work at all and people don't like wasting eachother's time, for the most part)
Because, you know, there's NO reason why a convicted felon would ever argue against free will.
That's a joke.
posted by delmoi at 11:09 PM on July 6, 2010


But that still doesn't mean there are no choices! I would argue that the essence of what makes us (people, not just MeFites) human is that we make choices ALL THE TIME. Do you just rape random women, gentlemen? Why not? After all, you don't make any choices so it stands to reason that you men would just follow your biological imperative to reproduce, right? People of all genders - what about the time that stupid ass-head cut you off in traffic? Did you pull him out of his car and kill him? No? Why?
posted by deep thought sunstar at 11:14 PM on July 6, 2010


Well, computers make choices, too. They even have elaborate prioritizing algorithms to choose what to choose next. That's not the issue. The issue is whether the choice is determined.
posted by mek at 11:18 PM on July 6, 2010


That's a joke.

That's a harrowing tale, but I'm not sure how it proves that free will is a joke? Did he assault the officer? Did he have a choice to assault the officer or not?
posted by deep thought sunstar at 11:20 PM on July 6, 2010


You're greatly overestimating the level of detail you need to resolve in order to predict how someone is going to behave better than they themselves can. You can do it pretty well just with a fMRI.
--Justinian

Actually you are greatly underestimating the level of detail you need. Suppose there was some hot designer who regularly comes up with new world-changing technology. Heck, just put him under the fMRI, map out his brain process, then plug it into a model, and come up with the new technology yourself! You don't need him anymore because you can predict what he is going to do.

Except, you can't. The technology and understanding of the human brain needed to do this kind of prediction is probably 100s of years away, if it is even possible for us to ever be capable of it, which I doubt.
posted by eye of newt at 11:21 PM on July 6, 2010


Except, you can't. The technology and understanding of the human brain needed to do this kind of prediction is probably 100s of years away, if it is even possible for us to ever be capable of it, which I doubt.

I'm not talking about that sort of prediction. You're correct that it may never be possible. I'm talking about being able to predict very high-level, crude binary kind of stuff. But that's all you need to do in order to gain some understanding of how our minds work. Or even if "minds" exist as anything but an illusory concept.
posted by Justinian at 11:24 PM on July 6, 2010


If there isn't free will, then we are powerless to not punish people who were powerless to not do harm upon society. The only situation where you need to care about free will is if you have free will and the people you're imposing justice upon don't, which is exactly what we already have when we exercise the concept of being criminally insane.

This isn't really the argument being made. Think if it in terms of stimulus/response. Our current system is based on the idea that personal responsibility plays a large part in crime and therefore is factored into our ideas of criminal punishment.

If I receive new information, namely that personal responsibility is a non-existent bugbear, i have a changed stimulus, so my response may be different. It doesn't have to be wildly different, there's still no reason to assume we won't need prisons, but the question of punishment vs rehabilitation becomes a very different one, even assuming we have the same kind of social good as our desired outcome.

But when you say "we are powerless", you're arguing entirely the wrong thing. Society isn't powerless - but society never had free will in the first place. Society is, in many senses, the consensus reached between competing ideologies over time (ideologies that can easily be derived without free will from nature and nurture alone).

When the stimulus changes, the individual response may well be to drive toward a shift in that consensus that reflects better all stimuli thus far (it might not be, some people have a greater inclination to maintain the status quo). But we, as a society, are not locked into anything.

Why do we as individuals do this? The usual reasons - we are responding to stimuli as we have learned to do in our (social) environment according to our genetic makeup. Nobody is saying it's not going to be a two steps forward/one step back (or vice versa) process either.

Also, to those people dissing the author for Phil 101ing the topic - the writer is a Biology Professor, writing, apparently, for other biologists. He is providing an introduction to the topic, and he covered the basics pretty well. Although his evolution of consciousness thoughts could probably do with some further development. you can understand why biologists would be interested in that aspect of the subject.
posted by Sparx at 11:25 PM on July 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


First of all, I'm pretty sure you're you're actually wrong about the fMRI*

No, I'm not. Or at least I'm not wrong in saying that there have been studies which show you can use it to predict simple behaviors with a higher degree of accuracy than the people themselves can achieve. The studies themselves might turn out to be wrong. But I highly doubt it.
posted by Justinian at 11:26 PM on July 6, 2010


Can I just take a moment to say that the idea that we suddenly have to change things because we've discovered it's all predetermined is just laughable?

I refuse to take this seriously.
posted by Avelwood at 11:39 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's a harrowing tale, but I'm not sure how it proves that free will is a joke? Did he assault the officer? Did he have a choice to assault the officer or not?
No, he didn't assault the officer. The joke is that while he's technically a convicted felon, most people think he was shafted.
No, I'm not. Or at least I'm not wrong in saying that there have been studies which show you can use it to predict simple behaviors
Well, A) generally when you make a claim like that you need a link or something. And B) what do "Simple Behaviors" have to do with "Behavior"? I mean I don't need an fMRI to determine if someone is going to breathe in the next 60 seconds, but if we bet there's a good chance you could hold your breath long enough to prove me wrong.

And anyway, I'm not sure what your complaining about. The whole point of my comment was that people are predictable, in the sense of being able to guess what they are going to do next (MRI or no). The example I gave in the comment was that if someone was starving, and you gave them some food, they'd probably eat it. That doesn't mean they don't have "free will" because they could chose not to eat if they had some other motivation (like they thought you might be trying to poison them, or they were on hunger strike, or whatever).
posted by delmoi at 11:47 PM on July 6, 2010


I refuse to take this seriously.

Many said the same about Darwin's theory of evolution. Some ideas are a bit mind-blowing, at first.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:07 AM on July 7, 2010


A) generally when you make a claim like that you need a link or something

Well, okay, I just didn't think (as someone else pointed out) that these claims were extraordinary. Here is one summary about some work at UCLA. This is about predicting even more complex behavior than I was remembering; in this case, they were able to predict whether people would use sunscreen in the next week at around 75% accuracy based on their fMRI results. By contrast, the subjects themselves could predict with less than 50% accuracy what they would do.

Google should have a bunch of similar results.

The example I gave in the comment was that if someone was starving, and you gave them some food, they'd probably eat it. That doesn't mean they don't have "free will" because they could chose not to eat if they had some other motivation (like they thought you might be trying to poison them, or they were on hunger strike, or whatever).

I'm not disagreeing with you that people are predictable. Obviously. But you're talking about easy to predict direct response to stimuli. If you shock someone with a taser, they will flinch away from you if you bring a taser near them in the future. That sort of thing. I'm disagree that those sorts of basic stimulus responses are the only things we can or will be able to predict in the future. Hell, the link I googled about the fMRI results are about using sunscreen!

So I was specifically disagreeing with this:

You can't actually measure everything and use that to predict what will happen. So from the perspective of another person free will does exist.

We can actually measure things like brain activity and use that to predict what will happen even before (and better than) the subject himself. I wouldn't go so far as to say that shows free will doesn't exist, but it certainly does not support the idea that "from the perspective of another person free will does exist".
posted by Justinian at 12:42 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've been using myself as a crash test dummy to test the notion of free will lately, and for the most part I've discovered that I act first, rationalize later. Also, duh, I have no way of knowing if I would act any differently even when I do take conscious decisions; can't go back and re-test. I guess I could try consciously acting directly against my guiding beliefs for a while, just to break my "sense of self" - but I'm not really sure what that would prove, if anything. In any case, this was a very compelling read - thanks, OP!

But I feel like the author takes an extremely simplistic view of how society and law function. There was that really interesting thread a few days ago about screenwriters, and the logic behind keeping status quo in terms of the production and distribution of movies, even though the system is so utterly broken, seemed to be that the entire system, from movie studios to distributors and beyond, is already and utterly invested in the way things are.

Individualism is the basis for America itself, and free will is the only possible “logical” argument for individualism. It’s ridiculous to think that people who have the power to amend the laws have the power to initiate, let alone affect, change at this kind of fundamental, abstract, complex level.

(For instance, we don't find advertisers making this argument, even though this is exactly what they study and bank on. The author is making this case, finally, because he believes that belief in free will "serves only to hinder what should be a major onslaught on determining the molecular genetic and chemical basis of human behavior". So more power to what the author studies and understands, and the mitigation of legal retribution would just be a nice bonus -- which may be why it isn't even argued or delved into that well.)

Now if he’d made a case for how our education system needs to be revamped, that would be far more interesting and at least a little more plausible. But wouldn't that kind of broad connecting between science and social science require less fragmentation of society into subjects and experts? Isn't this kind of specialized argument a product of the very individualization it's arguing against? Plus, how much time does one person have, really, to make sense of all of this?

More generally, I don’t know how neurology can find all the answers without taking language into much greater account than it currently seems to. The experiments mentioned by the author and Justinian are about simple, concrete things. Our most critical choices are not about such things but rather about abstract things like patriotism, love, power, gain - and liberty itself -- which are abstractions we already believe in, differently from each other. So even if there is a convincing case for biological determinism, how does/will it tackle subjectivity?

That said, I am in utter agreement with the argument that individualism is way overrated and misused, and works primarily as a false argument to keep power where power is. Free will, to me, has always seemed like a placeholder for what we don't understand about how we act, but I also doubt that we can understand it, let alone convince people to stop believing in their essential self. Convincing based on reason and evidence, in general, doesn't seem to go down very well with most; it's either irrelevant to our immediate concerns or, at worst, directly threatens them.

Sigh. Back to work.
posted by mondaygreens at 1:12 AM on July 7, 2010


We can actually demonstrate a related concept quite well in people who have their corpus callosum severed or some other types of brain injury. If you give them an instruction they can only see with one eye (I forget which) and they follow the instruction, you can ask them why they performed the action... and they'll spontaneously fabricate a bullshit reason on the spot and be absolutely convinced that the bullshit reason was why they acted the way they did, even in the face of contrary evidence.

Well, think about the situation from the perspective of a person following instructions. Someone tells you to do something, you perform the action, and then the instructor asks you why you performed the action. What would your response be? How do you think you would feel and what might you say to the person asking the question? In most cases, I imagine wondering why the person who's instruction I just followed is asking me why I followed instructions and my answer in would probably be, "You told me to."

Like, if you instruct them to get up and put on a coat (in a warm room) and they follow the instruction, you can ask them why they just got up and put on the coat. And they may well tell you they just spontaneously decided to do so because they were feeling a bit chilly. If you point out that it's very warm in the room, they'll still insist they were cold.

If you point out that it's very warm, would you be prepared to answer why you instructed them to get up and put on a coat in a room that was not cold?
posted by inconsequentialist at 1:51 AM on July 7, 2010


If … neuronal events in the brain determine behavior, irrespective of whether they are conscious or unconscious, it is hard to find room for free will

Hold up, there's either something wrong with this person's language skills or they spilled some logic on the floor.
irrespective of whether they are conscious or unconscious
Whether they are conscious or unconscious is precisely what this all hinges on. If neuronal events in the brain are consciously manipulated, you have free will. If they are not, then you don't. If you have free will, you have responsibility, if you don't, you're off the hook.

You can't just start some mumbo-jumbo and then waive your hand and say something doesn't matter when it's the whole crux of your argument and then jump straight to a conclusion. That's… well, it's dumb.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:50 AM on July 7, 2010


Some ideas are a bit mind-blowing, at first.

It's not a matter of being mind-blowing. Suggesting that we have to change our actions in dealing with people because people don't have a choice in their actions undermines the whole fucking argument.
posted by Avelwood at 3:11 AM on July 7, 2010


This debate is ridiculous. Of course, I'm blaming nobody.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:58 AM on July 7, 2010


I like how sneakily he uses Dennett for his argument then, without mentioning him by name, cites him as a sole example of the voluminous works "claiming to provide an explanation for free will" that "are invariably lacking any hint of molecular details concerning mechanisms". I'm also pretty sure that the study parents like to scare unruly children with, the monster under the bed that is the electrical impulse detected before the reported decision to act, is often considered to be flawed.

That said, I couldn't agree more with the argument that our penal systems need to be updated to reflect the non-magical nature of human consciousness (free will aside, the US needs to take responsibility for the jaw-dropping barbarism it inflicts on its own population in the name of revenge justice).
posted by Mooseli at 4:02 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems that our understanding of neuronal events allows for the capacity of thought to influence thought and biology simultaneously.

Doesn't seem that way to me, at risk of having too many causes. An effect can only have one cause. It seems that the physical neuronal event is cause enough for the following physical effect.

There's simply no room in the chain for "thoughts" to have any causal power.
posted by bonaldi at 5:29 AM on July 7, 2010


Free will or no, a properly functioning society must have a mechanism for removing those people who by reasonable standards of judgment have proven themselves unfit to walk freely among us.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:52 AM on July 7, 2010


Cashmore's article was much better than I expected. He recognizes the role of chance in human behavior, and doesn't fall into the trap of equating determinism and determinacy, or free will and indeterminacy.

He doesn't assume that not believing in free will means we shouldn't punish people:

... to retain a degree of orderliness in society it will still be necessary to incarcerate individuals found guilty of certain criminal acts ... To a), protect society; b), protect the offending individuals from society; c), provide such individuals with appropriate psychiatric help; d), act as a deterrent (the act of incarceration and the presence of a criminal code forming part of the environment); and e), alleviate the pain of the victim.

He doesn't equate neutral monism with reductivism:

The beauty of the mind of man has nothing to do with free will ... This beauty lies in the complexity of the chemistry and cell biology of the brain, which enables a select few of us to compose like Mozart and Verdi, and the rest of us to appreciate listening to these compositions ...

(I'd add something about talking, thinking and remembering things.)

My main problem with his article is that he's critical of biologists for believing in free will. In practice, if someone does something and they know what they're doing and aren't coerced, we say they "did it of their own free will," knowingly and voluntary, or "on purpose," and we hold them responsible for their actions.

Saying people "believe in free will" simply means that they talk about ethical reasoning in a conventional way. As Cashmore himself pointed out, dropping the phrase "free will" for some other formulation doesn't really change much about moral reasoning.
posted by nangar at 5:55 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


We need to be more generous with the reprobate label, for the people that are preordained for damnation.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:16 AM on July 7, 2010


There's simply no room in the chain for "thoughts" to have any causal power.

I'm not getting this. I just typed a comment. I thought about what I going to say, then thought about it some more and edited it a bit. (I'm a bit lazy about the thinking thing, though, so there are probably still some typos.)

Is this because thoughts are 'just neural events'? I also think of thoughts as neural events, but that doesn't mean that neural events I'd describe as "thinking" weren't part of the process that determined what the comment was that ended up appearing on the screen.
posted by nangar at 6:16 AM on July 7, 2010


I'm not getting this. I just typed a comment. I thought about what I going to say
Well, you think you thought about what you were going to say, but what actually went on is more moot than introspection allows you to determine.

What I think is a useful way to consider the point is by comparison to an electronic chess game. We can describe what the machine does and its intentions in terms of chess moves -- "the computer has just moved its pawn because it wants to capture the bishop".

That's not what's actually happening, however: what is actually happening is the machine is performing a great number of binary operations. If we were able to encapsulate the machine's entire program and internal state we could determine precisely what "move" it was about to make. The chess-level game that the human is participating in plays no part in the machine's operation at that moment.

In this analogy, our neurons firing are the internal binary operations and "thoughts" are the chess moves. We think we're engaged in a process of thinking and operation of the will exactly as we think of the machine playing the game of chess, but actually what's going on are large numbers of physically determined events.

The conclusion is that the "thoughts" play as little part in our actions as "chess" does in the operation of the computer.

(One difference is that the machine was programmed with chess in mind whereas we presumably evolved our programming of consciousness, but that's not relevant to the outcome.)
posted by bonaldi at 6:34 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


One of the better theories I encountered in the cog sci program in college was the notion that consciousness emerged from lying. Deception as a class of behavior confers large, obvious advantages to an individual capable of performing it.

In order to perform it with reasonable consistency, however, an individual must necessarily be able to model two things: the cognitive state of another similar being, and the likely effects of one's own actions on that being. The second part involves some amount of self-reference, and I'm convinced it's the practical application of what Hofstadter was banging on about (at exhaustive length) in Godel, Escher, and Bach.

Deception occurs at various levels of sophistication in a number of species, but is nowhere more fully realized and utilized than in humans. We are able to deceive with the intent of leading another human's cognitive state toward a final outcome via an arbitrary number of steps.

What does this have to do with consciousness? It seems like a natural extension of this ability to model the state of another's mind for the purpose of exploitation, is the ability to model our entire environment and our actions within it for the purpose of manipulation toward a final outcome via an arbitrary number of steps. A further (or possibly prerequisite) adaptation is the ability to model the effects of certain actions on our own minds towards a final outcome.

All of these behaviors, however, are extremely computationally expensive and therefore resource-intensive from a cognitive standpoint, and evolution seems to have gone to great pains to remove this burden where possible via two primary mechanisms: pattern-matching and socially-acquired behaviors. One of the key takeaways from our Human Factors in Engineering class was that actual cognition occurs in a very low single-digit or even decimal percentage of all decisions. The majority of the time simple pattern-matching is sufficient, and because complex neural networks are astonishingly good at pattern-matching we spend that majority effectively on autopilot.

It's only when we get called on it that we, as Justinian mentions above, form a post-hoc rationalization for our behavior, or when something goes drastically wrong that we actually begin to utilize cognition. Our Human Factors prof. was a salty old RAF test pilot who'd seen way too many friends die in fiery crashes to let us pass his class without a *thorough* understanding of the behavioral transition that occurs when disaster strikes and everybody involved switches over from pattern-matching to cognition. Presented with poorly engineered systems or poorly designed user interfaces, we usually make the situation worse during the initial stages of a crisis.

The second way we avoid engaging in cognition is socially-acquired behaviors, which basically amounts to transference of patterns to us from our parents and/or society in general. Which provides the answer to these questions:

Do you just rape random women, gentlemen? Why not? After all, you don't make any choices so it stands to reason that you men would just follow your biological imperative to reproduce, right? People of all genders - what about the time that stupid ass-head cut you off in traffic? Did you pull him out of his car and kill him? No? Why?

We initially don't do these things because society or our parents have told us not to. Later on, we don't do these things because we are capable of modeling the likely outcome (lifelong imprisonment) and wish to avoid the consequences.

I'm not going to pretend that the above is anything like an explanation as to what consciousness actually is, but I think it's a big piece of the puzzle, maybe even the majority, and it answers a lot of the questions I see above regarding how determinism could result in the typical human behaviors we all observe, and why such behaviors (and consciousness itself) would evolve in the first place.
posted by Ryvar at 6:50 AM on July 7, 2010 [9 favorites]


The issue is whether the choice is determined.

Not really. Even if we accepted the concept of free will without doubt, every choice would still be determined. By the exercise of free will. To think that determined outcomes and free will are incompatible, as I've argued before, misunderstands free will. But I'm not going to rehash the argument again. Here's part of it. Here's the other part.

Basically, all these reductive attempts to dispense with free will are doing is claiming that since the higher-level concept of self can be decomposed/reduced into constituent parts that are not themselves volitional, this is sufficient to deny the possibility of any emergent property of the whole on the basis that this property can't be found in any of the constituent parts. That's what's known as a compositional fallacy.

It's like saying, "Look: all a bicycle is is a frame, a chain, some wheels, etc. You can't ride any of those things, can you? Therefore it is impossible to ride a bike."

And that's the last I'm going to say about it until someone can satisfy me that this obvious counter argument has been rebutted.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:52 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


To think that determined outcomes and free will are incompatible, as I've argued before, misunderstands free will.

You're going to have to define "free will", then. Because if you're arguing that it is something that somehow arises from or is comprised of fully determined physical events, the onus is on you to specify the mechanism by which the "freedom" enters into it. (If you just mean the ol' the-person-is-operating-without-external-duress that's one thing, but it's not what people generally mean by "free will".)

The bike analogy as posted in your comments doesn't work overall, because casual properties aren't reflexive: you can't ride it because it is a bike, it is a bike because you can ride it.

The property that this collection of objects "is" a bike is causally inert, just as describing the functioning of our minds as resulting is something with with "free will" is equally inert.
posted by bonaldi at 7:07 AM on July 7, 2010


The property that this collection of objects "is" a bike is causally inert, just as describing the functioning of our minds as resulting is something with with "free will" is equally inert.

Huh? Nothing is causally inert, whatever that means. A rock that smashes you in the head, inert or not, is an active causal agent. It might not be an intentional causal agent, but intention is a property claimed to emerge in self-complexes made up of neurons, gut bacteria, etc. You can't dispute the notion that selves can be causal agents without disputing the possibility that anything can be a causal agent.

Again, demonstrating that neural firings are not intentional (or even demonstrating that every single phenomenon that contributes to the complex phenomenon of higher-level selves are unintentional) does not demonstrate that higher-level selves aren't or cannot be intentional anymore than demonstrating that none of the constituents of white light appear white proves that white light doesn't appear white.

If intentionality is an emergent property of the complex, higher-order phenomenon of the self, then you wouldn't expect to find evidence of it in any of the constituent parts of the self.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:22 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Defining free will is easy, by example. It's a chess player's ability to open a game of chess with E2 to E4, or not, depending on what opening they think gives them the best chance to beat an opponent.

Any attempt to define free will at a lower-level than that changes the subject to phenomena that operate at a higher or lower level of organization, amounting to a digression from the original subject--such redirections in subject matter may be interesting or instructive in various ways on their own terms, but they're still digressions from the original subject.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:30 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think trying to define free will and getting caught up in philosophical arguments about whether there's any such thing as uncaused volition is kind of pointless. "The ol' the-person-is-operating-without-external-duress" thing is what non-philosophers usually mean by it.

I think people who say they "believe in free will" and think it's really important, usually mean that they think ethics is important, and think that people who don't believe in the existence of uncaused volition don't believe in ethics, (or they're objecting to some form of reductivism).

Personally, I don't either "believe in free will" or "not believe in free will." I don't really think it means much of anything outside of set phrases like "doing something of your own free will." I don't think there is such a thing as uncaused volition, but I do judge people positively or negatively based on their behavior.
posted by nangar at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2010


Defining free will is easy, by example. It's a chess player's ability to open a game of chess with E2 to E4, or not, depending on what opening they think gives them the best chance to beat an opponent.

What move the player opens with is determined by their analysis of the situation, the information available to them and workings of neural system performing the analysis. We make choices but there are reasons for our choices.

Bonaldi's chess program makes similar choices. We can even introduce some indeterminacy by including calls to a rand function, giving the the program the ability to make unexpected moves. (Trying to get the program to replicate a skilled player's creative use of indeterminacy by use of calls to a random number generator would be a difficult programming problem though, I think.)
posted by nangar at 8:12 AM on July 7, 2010


I don't really think it means much of anything outside of set phrases like "doing something of your own free will."

I disagree. Implicit belief in free will is the only reason we even bother to do things like play games of chess (why should we bother if it's only a shared indulgence in the illusion of making choices? If both players believe the outcome of the game to be arbitrary, why play? Well, of course, if the anti-free will argument were correct, both players would just go through the motions of playing the game anyway for no reason in particular, but I believe that explanation of the phenomenon would be deficient and incomplete in certain crucial ways).

Belief in free will is a necessary precondition for believing that human activity has any meaning or significance whatsoever, in my view. Disbelief in free will isn't a statement of commitment to any more rigorous attitude of scientific realism: it's a denial of the value of human effort or intention. Maybe that accounts for the research results showing that disbelief in free will tends to encourage antisocial behavior, as reported in that previous fpp.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:15 AM on July 7, 2010


> My best estimation at present is that we mostly don't actually decide to do anything, per se. In a lot of very real ways we simply act
> and then our brains fill in the reasons retroactively, and in such a manner that we have the illusion that the reason preceded the action when, in fact, it didn't.

That was B. F. Skinner's claim in the 1950s, and it's exactly the point of view one would expect from an animal behaviorist, emphasis on animal. It's obvious that acting, per se, doesn't depend on any sort of reason or plan or conscious intentionality because there are plenty of creatures to which nobody would impute this sort of ability (bugs e.g.) and yet they are still able to act just fine. Evolutionarily speaking, organisms' ability to act is far older than their ability to guide their actions by prior decisions or plans or any of those things. (We have to assume trilobites were able to act, or else what were all those legs for?)

If one accepts that people are evolved animals it's likeliest that most of what people do rests on capabilities that are millions of years old (trilobite-style genetically fixed behavior, modified to some degree by learning of the Skinnerian/Pavlovian kind) and that a lot less rests on specialized abilities fixed in the lineage much more recently (brainiac consciously rule-governed behavior.)
posted by jfuller at 8:53 AM on July 7, 2010


... people who say they "believe in free will" and think it's really important, usually mean ... or they're objecting to some form of reductivism.

I think people play chess mostly because they enjoy it. The outcome of the game isn't arbitrary because they want to win, and don't know how the game is going to come out. They're not just going through the motions, they're experiencing it. Saying that there are reasons for our choices does not mean that we don't make choices, or that we don't experience things.

I don't think that the idea of uncaused volition (a really literal, abstract interpretation of free will) makes sense, but I'm not a reductivist. I'm not claiming that there's no bicycle because it's made of parts. I'm not claiming we don't really think, feel and experience stuff because it's really just neurons doing stuff. Being a being with a nervous system thinking and experiencing things is not the same as a description of how neural systems work. (You know, we get qualia and all that stuff.)

I don't think we actually disagree. And I don't think it's necessary to take a reductivist position to be "scientific," though obviously some people think so.

I'll take a look at that previous fpp.
posted by nangar at 9:05 AM on July 7, 2010


Nothing is causally inert, whatever that means. A rock that smashes you in the head, inert or not, is an active causal agent.
Inert in this case does not mean the opposite of "active", it means "without power". The colour of the rock is casually inert with respect to the head-smashing.

Defining free will is easy, by example. It's a chess player's ability to open a game of chess with E2 to E4, or not, depending on what opening they think gives them the best chance to beat an opponent.
Well, that's a definition of "free will" that wouldn't be very controversial. It amounts entirely to "acting without external duress". But that's not, contra nangar, what ordinary people mean by "free will".

What they mean by free will is that their thoughts and consciousness is in control of their actions; that they think about things and make decisions based on those thoughts. But there's no reasonable way of describing how this could happen, without getting cause and effect the wrong way around entirely. The thoughts arise from physical processes that also result in actions. They don't, and can't, cause the actions.

Belief in free will is a necessary precondition for believing that human activity has any meaning or significance whatsoever, in my view.
I agree. But that the belief is necessary for another belief does not in any way make the original belief true. I might believe it's necessary to believe in Jesus to believe in the resurrection, for instance.

We need to believe in free will because otherwise we go insane, effectively reduced to passengers trapped inside our own minds. That still doesn't mean our thoughts have any causal role in the decision-making process.
posted by bonaldi at 9:11 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


> It amounts entirely to "acting without external duress". But that's not, contra nangar, what ordinary people mean by "free will".

It's what I mean by free will, and it's what courts mean. If you drove the getaway car because the robbers were holding a gun to your head, that's excuplatory--you had no choice in the matter. The concept "free will" originated in common language, not the specialized language of philosophers (or neurologists) and it's not required to withstand that sort of scrutiny. If your will is free according to the usual common-language tests (no gun to head, not chained in dungeon) then that's free enough to justify using the phrase.

That's not to say philosophical scrutiny of common-language concepts can't usefully expose confused or self-contradictory usages; of course it can and often does. But in this case it hasn't. Clinging to doubts about free will after that negative result, just because you have raised questions that can't be satisfactorily answered because they are not appropriate to the topic, is no different from clinging to doubts about free will because you can't weigh it or obtain a spectrogram or determine if it's gram-negative.

fuller says it's a ginned-up issue, pretty much like "what if we're all really just pickled brains in the matrix?"
posted by jfuller at 9:58 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's what I mean by free will, and it's what courts mean.
Certainly it's what the courts mean -- it's about the only reasonable interpretation you can put on "free will".

But that's clearly not the definition of "free will" we're starting with in this post, because no neurological or other research is going to end up contradicting that definition or putting our concepts of justice and the "structure of human society" in any doubt.

For these to even be issues there must be some stronger meaning of "free will", one that is contradicted by saying our actions all arise from the activity of neurons, etc. As the article puts it:
However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make “free” conscious decisions that do not simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision.
That's not simply "acting without external duress". We're talking about something more, here.
posted by bonaldi at 10:19 AM on July 7, 2010


Implicit belief in free will is the only reason we even bother to do things like play games of chess (why should we bother if it's only a shared indulgence in the illusion of making choices?

We play chess because we enjoy it. I'm unclear about what you call "the illusion of making choices". If determinism is true then we still make choices, but they are predetermined.

If both players believe the outcome of the game to be arbitrary, why play?

Why would they believe the outcome to be arbitrary? It is anything but. Sure, the outcome is predetermined, but also (usually) unknowable. The fun is in discovering the outcome.

Well, of course, if the anti-free will argument were correct, both players would just go through the motions of playing the game anyway for no reason in particular, but I believe that explanation of the phenomenon would be deficient and incomplete in certain crucial ways).

No reason in particular? What do you think determinism is? It's full of reasons. It could be said to be nothing BUT reasons.
posted by ODiV at 11:25 AM on July 7, 2010


If you have free will, you can favorite this comment.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:34 AM on July 7, 2010


>> However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make “free” conscious decisions that do not
>> simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision.

Yep, that "something more" is exactly what I'm calling a ginned-up issue. Those who claim there is something more can't state (ot at least have never stated) what this something more is clearly enough for me to see what it is they're affirming. Equally, those who deny that there's any "something more" can't state, or anyway haven't stated, what it is they're denying clearly enough for me to look for it and tell whether it's there or not.

The joker is in that "simply reflect." How does that reflection work? If there's anyone who can explain that to me then they've solved the mind-body problem. But if nobody can explain how it works then there's no way to tell whether the relation is or is not causal/determinist; and if it is, which end is prior; and whether it's one-directional or a feedback loop or what. Or whether the notion of a causal relation even makes sense.

My own feeling is that it does not; that actually when we talk about our meat versus our thinking/feeling we're talking about the same thing, just described in different terms and from different points of view--observing the events versus being the events. It's very much like driving in a conceptual wedge that divides what happens to my cousin John from what happens to my mother's sister's son John, and to assume there has to be a causal connection between the two and that one has priority and is the cause, the other being dependent and the effect. That's clearly a garbled way to think about John and John, and removing the wedge clears up the issue a lot faster than long arguments over causality and determinism will. (Yes, I realize IAMA monistic dualist; I think that's the proper resolution to a ginned-up dichotomy.)
posted by jfuller at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's not simply "acting without external duress". We're talking about something more, here.

I blame all the ginning-up around this issue on Canadian progressive rock super-group, Rush. They were obviously "talking about something more, here". But I'm not convinced anyone else is, outside of philosophy departments.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:59 AM on July 7, 2010


But if nobody can explain how it works then there's no way to tell whether the relation is or is not causal/determinist
We don't need to solve the mind-body problem to know that the causal powers of a physical event are fully determined by their physical properties -- no unexplained mystery remains that requires mentality or thoughts to be posited to explain them.

Hence, there's simply no room for mentality in the causal chain of our actions without violating the physical account of motion. A physical cause is both necessary and sufficient for a causal explanation.

Essentially, it's irrelevant to the question of strong free will whether or not this is "a ginned-up dichotomy" because the results are the same if they are one thing or two: mentality can't play any causal role.

If mental events are not reducible to physical events and are somehow separate, then they can have no causal powers on pain of over-determination. Likewise, if mental events simply are physical events, as you'd have it with your two Johns, then they're subject to standard determinism. Neither option allows for any sort of "free will" beyond the limited form of free-to-act.

The article would have it that this has far-reaching consequences for the structure of society and for justice, but that's not so: neither depends in any way on things being otherwise. As you say, they only depend on the much weaker form of free will.

But I'm not convinced anyone else is
I can't work out if you are or not, honestly.
posted by bonaldi at 12:27 PM on July 7, 2010


the causal powers of a physical event are fully determined by their physical properties

Ugh. It's pseudo-scientific concepts like "causal powers" that made me lose interest in philosophy. What level of description is the proper level at which these elusive "causal powers" can be seen and quantified? Is it the apple's higher-order, emergent properties that matter (it's roundness, it's redness, etc.), or is it only the physical properties of the lowest-level constituent parts of the apple that matter when reckoning causality? Or does it ultimately depend on the problem and the problem domain? Well, I'd say it's the latter. If the question is why did the apple roll off the table, then it's the apple's roundness that matters, and yes, external factors have some bearing as well--but they aren't strictly deterministic because a square apple, if there were such a thing, wouldn't behave the same way. If the question is how do apples get to be round, then you'd need to reduce the apple more. It still remains an apple though, regardless, and I can still eat it, or use it as a symbolic reference to "forbidden fruit" in a poem, no matter how far you can reduce the description of the apple.

What's to work out? In the larger sense, free will is an axiomatic principle of human social existence, not a working theory that needs to be explained or justified. In the more limited sense: Our particular memories and experiences, combined with our heritable traits, whether encoded in describable physical structures or not, inform our choices, don't they? When things like memory or rational faculty are described in reductive terms, as physical realities, you can accept that they might have "causal power" can't you? Well, those things are also necessary and sufficient for describing who we are--that is, who/what is making a given choice. It's tautological (i.e. trivial) to note that we can only make the choices we make because of who we are at the given point in time when we exercise our ability to choose. It doesn't prove/disprove anything to reduce this problem in those terms. It just fleshes out our picture of the complex of physical and social phenomena that give rise to the concepts of volition and self-hood, it doesn't do away with either because they are higher-order concepts.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:33 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


If intentionality is an emergent property of the complex, higher-order phenomenon of the self, then you wouldn't expect to find evidence of it in any of the constituent parts of the self.

Regardless of any emergent epiphenomena, bikes cannot ride themselves.

Whether they are conscious or unconscious is precisely what this all hinges on. If neuronal events in the brain are consciously manipulated, you have free will.


There's a difference between being conscious of and consciously manipulating something. Think of conscious and unconscious as in-sight and out-of-sight. Neither requires manipulation to provide a meaningful distinction.


As to the justice argument, and the person-under-duress, surely the reason why this is affected by the lack of free will is that you *are* being choicelessly compelled, not by the gun of a criminal, but by the very nature of the universe. It certainly won't change the admission of a crime, but the resulting *sentence* has to reflect the circumstances, and no free will is a definite change of circumstances (IANAL so there may be some way around this, but it seems unlikely, seeing as already there are so called 'automaton' defences that have been successfully used. Looking at how that works, from my not-a-lawyer perspective, a great number of the basic principles of law would be affected by the non-existence of free will).
posted by Sparx at 1:46 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


bonaldi, I think you're missing something. Thoughts aren't caused by neural processes, they are neural processes. It doesn't make sense to describe one of these as "real" and the other not. (Though perhaps you're not saying that. I may have misunderstood.) To have neural processes cause thoughts, you need a non-physical phantom something for them to write thoughts onto, something like a soul.

(I don't think this is what you intend. But if it's not, I think you should think through the implications of what you're saying. It sounds you're holding physical monism while simultaneously assuming physical-mental dualism, and trying to finesse the contradiction by claiming the mental domain, "thought," is less real, but still, at the same time, different from the brain processes that "cause" thought.)

Granted introspection gives us very limited access to the workings of our minds. We just know what we're thinking or experiencing, not why and how, and our explanations of our behavior can be very ad hoc and wrong.

If I get hungry and decide to make myself a sandwich, I'm aware of feeling hungry, deciding to make a sandwich and then doing it. My thinking "I think I'll make a sandwich" didn't cause me to get hungry. It didn't cause me to make the decision. My thinking that didn't (directly) cause me to get up and make it, and may may simply reflect my awareness that I've made a decision rather than being part of it. My decision to make a sandwich instead of something else is dependent on complex cultural factors and a history of personal experiences I can't begin to analyze. I can't begin to describe the neurological processes that go into feeling hungry, making a decision, translating that into a thought that I could articulate, or into action. I can explain my decision through causal reasoning based on what I'm aware of - "I was hungry so I decided to make a sandwich." I'll get frustrated pretty quickly with additional "why" questions: "I like mayonaise!" "That's what they had in the store," "I don't care who invented the sandwich!"

I'm part of a larger complex distributed system (my body and brain). And I'm part of larger world outside side of myself, part of a social world that has conventions like sandwiches. I know this. I'm mostly OK with this. It doesn't drive me insane. Like most people, it only bothers me when I do or feel something I don't like, or my social or physical world imposes conditions I don't like.

What they mean by free will is that their thoughts and consciousness is in control of their actions; that they think about things and make decisions based on those thoughts.

I think you're describing a social construction of "self." My actions are my actions because I did them and not somebody else. My decisions are mine because I decided to do certain things, when in theory I could have done something else. A person or animal is distinguishable from other things from it's ability to move around and do stuff on its own with out obvious external agency. I am one of those things. I consider myself a person and refer to myself as "I" or "me" and other people as "he," "she" or "you." Describing yourself and other people this way is pretty necessary for participation in a society that uses language.

I don't think it's necessary to subscribe to a philosophical notion of absolute free agency, or to a notion of omniscient introspection to describe yourself as person this way. Relatively free agents can still be partially, or largely, constrained and still be persons. I can still be me even though I don't know me all that well.
posted by nangar at 1:58 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's pseudo-scientific concepts like "causal powers" that made me lose interest in philosophy.
It's treating science like pseudo-philosophy that's getting you lost. Stuff like this:

... external factors have some bearing as well--but they aren't strictly deterministic because a square apple ...
don't actually mean anything under any definition of determinism I'm aware of. Likewise, this:

or use it as a symbolic reference to "forbidden fruit" in a poem
Is incoherent. How can you use the particular table-falling-off apple you're describing in a poem? You can use the concept of an apple in a poem but (and you know what's coming) that concept has zip to do with whether or not your particular apple will fall from the table.

Well, those things are also necessary and sufficient for describing who we are--that is, who/what is making a given choice. [...] We can only make the choices we make because of who we are at the given point in time when we exercise our ability to choose.

From the first to the second the "what" disappeared and left us solely with the "we", begging the question of whether the "we" that we feel ourselves to be is identical with the "what" that we know people physically are.

What's more, also being totally begged is this "ability to choose": if the universe is deterministic and therefore our actions are physically determined, there's no room for any sort of choice as thought of at the level where "choice" actually has any meaning.

It's this point that's the heart of this whole discussion.

surely the reason why this is affected by the lack of free will is that you *are* being choicelessly compelled, not by the gun of a criminal, but by the very nature of the universe ... the resulting *sentence* has to reflect the circumstances
I see what you mean, but as said above, our belief in our own free will is so intrinsic that it's virtually impossible to act or truly believe otherwise. I think that's really all that's required here. Our wills don't have to be truly free for us to have our justice system any more than money has to actually be intrinsically valuable for us to have an economy. Fake freedom works as well as fake value.

Thoughts aren't caused by neural processes, they are neural processes.
Well, to earn the italics on "are" you need to solve the mind-body problem, which hasn't been done as far I know. But like I said, as far as the question of free will goes it doesn't matter a jot whether one insists on dualism or monism: either way doesn't let some notion of "free choice" get a look-in.

This comes back to the chess thing: it's totally acceptable to say the machine is "choosing to move its pawn", and to manipulate it at that level. But what's actually happening is a fixed, determinate process. With enough awareness of the machine's state we could say precisely what "choice" it is going to make.

My decisions are mine because I decided to do certain things, when in theory I could have done something else.
I think that overall you're using "I" in your comment in ways that aren't entirely compatible. You say that "I am aware of deciding", which in its passivity sounds like there is a "you" that is aware of a decision having been made. If that's the case, what's the agent making the decision? If it's the "you" that means your decisions are your own, where does the split come from?
posted by bonaldi at 2:27 PM on July 7, 2010


I was under the impression that I didn't have endless behaviour potential, but a limited range of choices being calculated out by chemical and electrical processes. What I interpret as my stream of consciousness is kind of like the pretty graphics the computer shows you- they're an interpretation of all the zapping and squishing below the surface. My personality is an expression of the general trends of behaviour governed by how limiting my genetics and environment are.

I wouldn't be me, as an individual, if there wasn't something forcing me to make choices in an orderly fashion. However, slave though it may be, my ever active brain is also capable of long term calculations, choosing behaviour to shape it and other people in the direction it wants. Pleasure/pain, be it the sort of unsophisticated jolt of a hot burner causing a reflex retraction of an extended limb, or the complicated pleasure of typing this out, defines the limits of my life.

So the interface that goes over top of the actual thinking is just a very efficient method of communicating complexities back and forth between inside and outside my head and should not be mistaken for the whole of the entity that is driving the body. I need the feedback of causality to function as a self reproducing organism, otherwise I'd choose myself out of existence, and language is another form of universe perception, like colour or sound.

As for re-ordering society, I believe it was well accepted that the prisons were full of people from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, abusive or otherwise traumatizing/damaging childhoods and the population was dumber than the average. Even assuming free will, equal perception to guide your choices doesn't happen.
posted by Phalene at 3:19 PM on July 7, 2010


our belief in our own free will is so intrinsic that it's virtually impossible to act or truly believe otherwise

Not even if we chose to? Oh, the bitter irony!

But aside from disagreeing with you on that, I'm not sure I'm getting your point. Clearly we do currently have a justice system already, in fact, several - from religious Sharia systems to the western adversarial system. But there's no reason not to have a better one, a more just one, that takes all recent evidence into account. People are perfectly capable of considering and accepting things beyond their intuition and learnings - cf QM, GR, the fact that not everybody with a waxed moustache is a villain.
posted by Sparx at 3:47 PM on July 7, 2010


But there's no reason not to have a better one, a more just one, that takes all recent evidence into account.

Absolutely. What would this look like, though? The difference between actually having free will and only "thinking" we have free will is practically nil when it comes to matters of justice.

There are many ways we could and should make justice and punishment better. But none of them I can see are related to making it fairer because of reduced responsibility on the grounds of determinism.
posted by bonaldi at 4:01 PM on July 7, 2010


The difference between actually having free will and only "thinking" we have free will is practically nil when it comes to matters of justice.

Yes, but the difference between 'thinking we have free will' and 'understanding that we don't have free will' is not. The arguments for retributive punishment over utilitarian punishment are correspondingly weaker in the latter case, which is why I emphasised sentencing.
posted by Sparx at 4:26 PM on July 7, 2010


I don't think the US model of revenge justice is very supportable at all, but I don't see how the free will argument changes matters at all: if you accept the principle of retributive justice then you can dole it out to a free-will-less human exactly as you give the car a good booting when it springs a flat. If you don't accept the principle, it's no more or less acceptable whatever the free-will position.

All the utilitarian and rehabilitative arguments remain exactly the same. What other changes to sentencing specifically relating to the understanding that we don't have free will would you make?

If you're thinking about the automaton defence, that doesn't really work: the automaton is a machine that moves -- like a simple wind-up robot walking along who just happens to trample a puppy.

This free-will-less human, in the crudest form, is more like a vastly complicated robot following almost unfathomably complex decision-making programming. If such a robot winds up at a point where it kills someone, society is well within it's rights to lock that robot up and try to fix its programming -- prison and rehabilitation, in other words.
posted by bonaldi at 4:51 PM on July 7, 2010


> The arguments for retributive punishment over utilitarian punishment are correspondingly
> weaker in the latter case, which is why I emphasised sentencing.

Arguments? What would they be for? You talk like we had some choice in the matter.
posted by jfuller at 4:57 PM on July 7, 2010


You say that as if Sparx had some choice in the matter.

Won't it be fun when we all crack out the bad-faith argumentation kit?
posted by bonaldi at 5:12 PM on July 7, 2010


What other changes to sentencing specifically relating to the understanding that we don't have free will would you make?

Personally, I'd put the emphasis on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, but this is a meaty topic perhaps not best served by my dishing out thought cutlets on MeFi. Though I will say I think that your puppy-trampling robot and complex human (as given) are only different in matters of degree, so if automatonism can be a mitigating defence, then it follows that a lack of free will is merely automatonism writ large - and that I agree in both cases that rehabilitating the robot until such a time as it poses no danger is the best result. Again, IANAL, I know punishment is based an a number of factors, visibility for deterrence, repayment to society etc, but I suspect those things might be balanced very differently if the notion of fault is removed and automatonism is recognised to be a factor in every case.

I did also mention earlier that not everybody is especially interested in having the most ethically or scientifically accurate justice system for various reasons (that I generally disagree strongly with). But (assuming no free will) if you want to be able to say the system is based on what we know, not on an arbitrary subset of what we know, you need to be able to at least show you have acknowledged the lack of free will and its implications - which I suspect will be a complex journey into jurisprudence that I am not qualified for.

Arguments? What would they be for? You talk like we had some choice in the matter.


I addressed this earlier. Lack of free will does not mean not we do not change or react to desires and stimuli (such as new evidence) in ways we have been conditioned to by social environs, nurture, and genetic disposition.

But it's an interesting point. If we discover we don't have free will, nothing really changes from yesterday, but everything we assumed we knew does change. It's like the failure of Geocentrism. Life is exactly the same as it was, but the context is now completely different. The legal system, which is in some ways entirely based upon establishing contexts for particular facts, seems vulnerable to such paradigm changes.
posted by Sparx at 5:51 PM on July 7, 2010


If we discover we don't have free will, nothing really changes from yesterday, but everything we assumed we knew does change.

Is that so? That's an interesting idea. Wait--I know: What if somebody wrote and recorded a song about phenomena like that?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:46 PM on July 7, 2010


BTW, what nangar wrote above approximates my own position, too: but that's exactly why you can't explain away free will using reductive methods! And I don't think most people believe "free will" really amounts to anything more grandiose than that. It's an axiom of social existence--but that doesn't make it an illusion, so much as a set of very real rules by which the game is played!
posted by saulgoodman at 8:01 PM on July 7, 2010


> Won't it be fun when we all crack out the bad-faith argumentation kit?

Not. It had a point, namely that determinism as a philosophy appears to be very hard to live by consistently. Almost at once one starts to say things that sound non-deterministic.

I propose that determinism has such a weak hold on the minds even of those who support it in theory because it is one of those ideas that don't matter--that have no lived consequences. What if everything that happened were entirely determined by antecedent conditions, with not the slightest wiggle room for my imagined decisions to make any physical difference? Would I know? Could I tell I was living in that kind of universe? I think I could not, any more than I could tell if I were a brain in vat dreaming the universe. Maybe I make choices and decisions that have consequences for which I am responsible; or maybe it only seems to me as if do, but I don't really. Maybe there is an external world and other individuals with minds like my own, or maybe these only appear to me to exist, but they don't really. There isn't any way for me to decide which of these competing descriptions is true by looking for detectable differences. In choosing between descriptive styles, when empiricism fails there's nothing left but parsimony and Occam's razor. Which is a longer-winded way of saying the same thing Johnson said by kicking the rock.
posted by jfuller at 8:20 PM on July 7, 2010


I propose that determinism has such a weak hold on the minds even of those who support it in theory because it is one of those ideas that don't matter--that have no lived consequences.

If, as you say, there is no practical difference in believing in free will or determinism, then free will as an idea also doesn't matter.
posted by ODiV at 8:52 PM on July 7, 2010


From the first to the second the "what" disappeared and left us solely with the "we", begging the question of whether the "we" that we feel ourselves to be is identical with the "what" that we know people physically are.

What? I hate these discussions, period, because they necessarily involve hopelessly muddling up concepts from different problem domains.

Sure, "self" is just a polite term that maps to a loose conceptual boundary we impose by convention around a subset of complex interrelated physically describable phenomena that can also be analyzed in other terms at other levels of description.

But the same can accurately be said for any other word for any other thing we consider significant!

Pick any arbitrary thing. Let's say, a beer can. Well, a beer can can be described in reductive terms, in terms of its physical composition, the materials that make it up, etc., while we would all agree that in practice, any particular beer can still functions as, and remains what we refer to as a "beer can," at a conventional level of description.

So why is a "self" any different? Why should analyzing the physical realities that define selves make the original idea of "self" evaporate entirely, when analyzing the physical realities of a beer can doesn't make the beer can disappear? If you're really a monist (and I consider myself one), then you don't see any problem here. Well, I don't anyway. I'm just doing an awful job (apparently) of explaining why.

On preview, maybe I'm agreeing more with jfuller.

In any case, the whole topic of discussion brings to mind the Buddhist teaching sometimes known as "The Parable of the Arrow."
posted by saulgoodman at 8:55 PM on July 7, 2010


If, as you say, there is no practical difference in believing in free will or determinism, then free will as an idea also doesn't matter.

Except, as mentioned up-thread, studies have shown that not believing in free will makes individuals more prone to antisocial behavior. Weird how those results obtain, considering the frequent claim that we can find no evidence that intentional beliefs or mental states can have any bearing on behavior.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:14 PM on July 7, 2010


In choosing between descriptive styles, when empiricism fails there's nothing left but parsimony and Occam's razor. Which is a longer-winded way of saying the same thing Johnson said by kicking the rock.

When your argument requires the presence of a quasi-magical force that circumvents the behaviour of every other known physical substance in the universe - I'd say you're the one that is guilty of needlessly multiplying entities.

Have to catch a bus now, so forgive my brevity. Will be back later
posted by Sparx at 9:31 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Except, as mentioned up-thread, studies have shown that not believing in free will makes individuals more prone to antisocial behavior.

I don't think that's quite accurate a summary of what was found. Secondly, the comment you reference links back to another thread's comment which is quoting the article in this FPP. Kind of a circular line of reasoning.

In any case there isn't evidence that not believing in free will makes individuals more prone to antisocial behavior. A few minor studies have some indication that reading certain passages before making decisions can have an effect on those decisions. Which strikes me as a trivial result. But it says nothing about belief systems.

You can bias the results of polls depending on what you say before asking the questions, too, but that isn't evidence of much of anything.
posted by Justinian at 11:51 PM on July 7, 2010


Or even if "minds" exist as anything but an illusory concept.

And where does that illusion exist? It comes down to this: I think I think, therefore I think.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:08 AM on July 8, 2010


Not. It had a point, namely that determinism as a philosophy appears to be very hard to live by consistently. Almost at once one starts to say things that sound non-deterministic.
Well, the version of it implied by your comment is impossible to live by, because it is practically a straw man. Determinism doesn't mean that our life is a pre-programmed existence on rails.

Consider your computer. It is an entirely deterministic machine. If we could monitor every input and internal state between the factory and now we could say with absolute certainty that it is at present showing metafilter.com. But this doesn't mean "show metafilter.com at x time on Thursday" was programmed into at the factory. The inputs made a difference.

Similarly, Sparx isn't pre-programmed with his position on justice. Arguments can affect his position just as clicking the mouse affects the computer. There may be some God-like view in which it is evident how the arguments will affect him, but this doesn't mean they're pointless. Anything stronger is a misunderstanding of determinism.

Pick any arbitrary thing. Let's say, a beer can. Well, a beer can can be described in reductive terms, in terms of its physical composition, the materials that make it up, etc., while we would all agree that in practice, any particular beer can still functions as, and remains what we refer to as a "beer can," at a conventional level of description.

So why is a "self" any different?

If you could bring yourself to let go of the idea that we're all labouring under a composition fallacy this might go better. But two points: first, the "self" thing was from nangar's "I think you're talking about something else" digression and isn't actually germane to my point.

Second, and more importantly: the difference between the free will discussions and the beer can or the bike is that the composed product is the the thing in question. I have this frame, these wheels and chain and so on ... Do I have a bike? You can't answer the question by reference to merely the parts, because it is at a different level. It's a functional definition: i have a bike if all those parts are assembled in such a way that I could ride them.

Likewise, free will is a functional definition. I have all these parts of a thinking machine. Can I conceivably operate it outside the rules of determinism? If so, I have free will. If even such an idea is incoherent, then "free will" is a meaningless functional property that none of us can have any more than a heap of bike-bits "just is" a bike.
posted by bonaldi at 1:32 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


> If, as you say, there is no practical difference in believing in free will or determinism, then.
> free will as an idea also doesn't matter.

Oh aye. I seldom give it a thought in daily life (as contrasted to discussions like this one.)


> Well, the version of it implied by your comment is impossible to live by, because it is
> practically a straw man. Determinism doesn't mean that our life is a pre-programmed
> existence on rails.

OK, now we've got a weak-tea version of determinism on the table to go with the weak-tea version of free will that popped up earlier.

I sense a convergence. Is it recipe time yet? Canadian Bacon!
posted by jfuller at 6:29 AM on July 8, 2010


When your argument requires the presence of a quasi-magical force that circumvents the behaviour of every other known physical substance in the universe - I'd say you're the one that is guilty of needlessly multiplying entities.

Who specifically in this thread has argued for anything even remotely resembling the existence of some "quasi-magical force that circumvents..." yada, yada, yada? A few folks in here are seriously determined to beat the stuffing out of their favorite philosophical straw men, whether anyone else shows up for the lynching or not.

I'm a compatibilist and a monist. I'm not arguing for a transcendent anything. I take free will to mean simply the ability of people to act in at least some partially unconstrained manner in accordance with who they are (and all "who they are" means to me as a Buddhist--all that "self" is, by my accounting--is the aggregation of an individual's memories of personal experiences as manifest in the evolving structures of their neurology and physiology, the continuing influence of cause and effect from previous actions and external contingencies, and personal character as made up of a combination of genetic factors and active mental processes, which in addition to being experienced subjectively as conscious phenomena are also physically describable.)

I don't think it's controversial to argue that any arbitrarily bounded complex of physical phenomena (such as a self, or a can of beer, say) can with some limited degree of autonomy give rise to and influence other arbitrarily bounded physical phenomena. If that's not controversial to you, then neither is my version of free will.

... external factors have some bearing as well--but they aren't strictly deterministic because a square apple ...
don't actually mean anything under any definition of determinism I'm aware of.


Ah--I see why you were confused. I chose my words poorly. I meant to say something more like "strictly determinative." What I mean here is just that the roundness of an apple, which is an emergent higher-order property of the apple rather than a property of any constituent part of an apple, is a real physically describable causal factor in any complete accounting of what happens when an apple rolls off a table. In the same sense, a physically real person behaves in observable ways that are at least in part determined by who they are (consistent with the definition of "self" I offered above), and that, by definition, is choice. And nothing more or less than observable choices is needed to establish my version of free will. Some people might insist that consciousness play a role in free will, but consciousness isn't strictly necessary in my version. Consciousness might also play a role, but it doesn't matter whether it does or not. Even if you are in a certain sense just a robot, you are that robot.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:22 AM on July 8, 2010


OK, now we've got a weak-tea version of determinism on the table to go with the weak-tea version of free will that popped up earlier.

Strong, weak, soft or hard is irrelevant: There's no form of determinism that rules out interactive effects in the way it would need to for your what's-the-point-of-argument comment to work.
posted by bonaldi at 7:28 AM on July 8, 2010


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