Freeing ourselves from the unfree will
September 13, 2019 8:36 AM   Subscribe

A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked. "The notion that our brains make choices before we are even aware of them... pop[s] up in cocktail-party conversation or in a review of Black Mirror. It’s covered by mainstream journalism outlets, including This American Life, Radiolab, and this magazine. Libet’s work is frequently brought up by popular intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari to argue that science has proved humans are not the authors of their actions." ....

"But one aspect of Libet’s results sneaked by largely unchallenged: the possibility that what he was seeing was accurate, but that his conclusions were based on an unsound premise. What if the Bereitschaftspotential didn’t cause actions in the first place? A few notable studies did suggest this, but they failed to provide any clue to what the Bereitschaftspotential could be instead. To dismantle such a powerful idea, someone had to offer a real alternative."
posted by storybored (113 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it.

The implication being that the brain is somehow separate and distinct from the person? That is some magical @#Y^%@# thinking. For scientists, they sure do have a really mystical idea of personhood. I don't really believe in free will - because physics - but to make the argument against free will based on the brain "making decisions" is so cosmically weak that I find myself generally unimpressed with everyone who bought into Libet's line of thought in the first place.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:48 AM on September 13, 2019 [15 favorites]


"My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It's essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don't. The reality isn't important: what's important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has." - Ted Chiang
posted by The Bellman at 8:49 AM on September 13, 2019 [49 favorites]


I'm with Ted Chiang on this. I don't think people have free will any more than flour, eggs, sugar, butter, baking powder, and milk mixed and put into an oven for 30 minutes choose to become a cake. But that said, you absolutely have to conduct yourself as though you have free will, or you won't be able to function.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:03 AM on September 13, 2019 [24 favorites]


you absolutely have to conduct yourself as though you have free will, or you won't be able to function.

That's a paradoxical statement. If we don't have free will, then we don't have the choice to behave as though we do when we know that we do not. My opinion is that we don't have free will but are categorically - and probably physically - incapable of truly believing that fact, so unfathomably vast is the tree of potential outcomes that lie before us.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:17 AM on September 13, 2019 [18 favorites]


If you like your shortened oversimplification better than mine, that's cool. I'm pretty sure we're actually on the same page as this and that a perfect explanation is the kind of thing out of which philosophers make their life's work, not something we can nail down in a couple of internet comments
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:27 AM on September 13, 2019 [9 favorites]


The original experiment isn't best described as an argument against "free will"; it's much more of an argument against what we think of as the self having free will. Obviously if a person is moving at random after being asked to move at random, something is deciding to move. If the original experiment's conclusions were correct, they would imply that whatever will we may have isn't in the conscious self. That's not the same thing as pre-determination, unless you believe that a person isn't made up of their conscious and their unconscious mind.

~~
I'm all Pascal's wager on the question of free will - we probably don't have free will, but it would be a shame to realize at the end that you did have it but had assumed not.
posted by Frowner at 9:30 AM on September 13, 2019 [30 favorites]


I came across this article yesterday, which struck me as a compelling paradigm for both the dilemma of "unconscious choice" and the nonsense that is the concept of "free will."

This Man Says the Mind Has No Depths

Basically, consciousness isn't involved in making choices, it's a narrative device that we use to explain and justify those choices. And it is fundamentally different than what is normally considered the "unconscious" mind. Consciousness isn't part of the thinking, it's part of the analysis.

What I like about this is that is also explains why consciousness is useful. He uses the metaphor of a "storyteller" but I think a better one is "historian." Historians don't make history, but they define what history means, they provide a conceptual model for understanding the world, which is useful -- critical even -- to future decisionmakers.

The idea that consciousness isn't the core of the mind, but a tool that analyzes the mind and helps direct its development, works for me on so many levels. It explains zombies, split-brain syndrome, pretty much every consciousness-related "dilemma" I can think of.
posted by bjrubble at 9:31 AM on September 13, 2019 [40 favorites]


But that said, you absolutely have to conduct yourself as though you have free will, or you won't be able to function.

We have to believe in free will. We have no choice - Isaac Bashevis Singer

I side-step the whole free will argument by not being 100% on board with the idea of us being conscious in the first place and I think you have to be conscious before you can have free will (uh, right? That seems obvious to me, but now that I write it I have the feeling that maybe there is disagreement on this point), so no free will.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:37 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


People often quote that famous Einstein quote, "God does not play dice with the universe". However, they often forget the second part of that same refrain, "God tirelessly plays dice under laws which he has himself prescribed."

Bell told us we must either give up determinism or give up the existence of an objective reality explained by science and measurable by humans with instruments.

If that's not an indication of free will in there somewhere, I don't know what is.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:41 AM on September 13, 2019 [7 favorites]


Short term -- seconds -- probably not. But long term, weeks, months -- yes, our consciousness does have the ability to shift the unconscious behaviours that are most of our reactions. That's why we have enormous brains, to analyze things at a scale larger than instinctive or learned abilities can handle. The stories we tell ourselves, and tell each other, free us from 100% inevitability.

Also, quantum mechanics is in there somewhere, and you can't predict that shit either.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:43 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


Also, quantum mechanics is in there somewhere, and you can't predict that shit either.

Quantum mechanics is entirely predictable. We can routinely figure out the probabilities of an interaction happening and watch it happen. What quantum mechanics isn’t is deterministic.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:48 AM on September 13, 2019 [12 favorites]


The "question of free will" seems to posit the existence of an immaterial spook that works the strings of our brains and, like other question-begging questions, can simply be ignored. I admit it took me a long time to come to this opinion, since it sounds like a real question.

The question of "determinism" is different and if it is phrased as "are all things in the universe predetermined?" the answer seems to clearly be "no," since some events seem to be truly random and I am unable to think of a case where no quantum event ever eventually leads to a macroscopic event being different than it might otherwise have been. However, it is pretty much irrelevant, since something is going to happen, and once it happens, it happened...

I guess philosophers have to make a living somehow, though.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:53 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


There's pretty strong proof that the universe, as we currently understand it, isn't deterministic, and further that lack of determinism, indeed that fundamental randomness, has strong implications at a human scale. Essentially, our entire understanding of thermodynamics and how physical processes work depends on stochastic forces. Weather is stochastic, for example.

This whole argument about rising neurological noise should be explainable, able to be modeled as quantum mechanical ensembles (or more likely grand ensembles or some other variation). Randomness.
posted by bonehead at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


I guess philosophers have to make a living somehow, though.

Can we please not be dismissive of thousands of years of human endeavour on the basis of some of us, as individuals, not finding particular questions relevant to our own lives so far?
posted by howfar at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2019 [16 favorites]


pretend that you have free will

the nonsense that is the concept of "free will."

The "question of free will" seems to posit the existence of an immaterial spook that works the strings of our brains and, like other question-begging questions, can simply be ignored.


nothing terrifies us more than what we decide to do (and then do) matters. Give us an all-knowing all-controlling all-everything God ... or utter randomness, an initial BANG and then whatever. Everything in between implicates us, and we can't have that.
posted by philip-random at 10:14 AM on September 13, 2019


Quantum mechanics doesn’t enter this because intentionality lies at the heart of any conception of free will, and there is no intent to be found in statistical noise.

At any rate, I’m with most of the commenters above: the notion of free will is an absolutely essential one that does not stand up to close scrutiny. Your mind receives input from your senses, signals delivered via your nervous system. The staggeringly complex neurotopology of your brain processes these signals, parses them out into those that can be ignored, those which require immediate action, and those which require longer term consideration and possibly building a custom system model to solve a complex or long-term problem. The resulting output of all these exchanges is eventually routed back out to your muscles and you ultimately take action based on the input received.

Where, in all this neurochemical song and dance, lies free will? Descartes suggested that our ethereal souls would somehow reach into our brains and alter the outcomes via the pineal gland using some unspecified mechanism, but nothing we’ve ever observed suggests any form of external identity lying outside our physics is somehow reaching into our brains and mucking about with the results - and nothing less than that could produce any coherent semblance of true self-direction. Anything less is neurochemical clockwork determinism with a bit of quantum noise thrown in, and there’s no true agency in the classical sense to be found there.

The problem, honestly, is the religious notions of the Abrahamic faiths underpinning Western thought and ported to its secular philosophy by Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy (arguably so the Jesuits didn’t burn him at the stake for positing a concept larger than God in the first three chapters). Mind-body dualism has massively fucked with our reconciliation of subjective experience and measurable reality. The undercurrent of this idea is so strong that it will persist centuries beyond the current major religions, and I’m doubtful humans can shed it entirely.
posted by Ryvar at 10:16 AM on September 13, 2019 [9 favorites]


Well, I have decided to not enter into this discussion, oh wait...
posted by sammyo at 10:20 AM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


There's pretty strong proof that the universe, as we currently understand it, isn't deterministic

Well, sort of. The evolution of the wave function is 100% deterministic, it's the observations that are not. If you take the position that the wave function is reality then the universe is deterministic.

There are other interpretations of QM that are deterministic, although they are (currently) minority viewpoints.

So, maybe.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:24 AM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


For folks who don't believe in free will or think that it can be ignored, how do you reconcile that with holding people accountable for their actions?
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 10:24 AM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


Frowner: I'm all Pascal's wager on the question of free will - we probably don't have free will, but it would be a shame to realize at the end that you did have it but had assumed not.

I'm with you. And to me Pascal's wager makes more sense here than the original question. A life lived as if God didn't exist isn't necessarily wasted, you're just in trouble afterwards.
posted by ipsative at 10:25 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Ted Chiang is with William James on this question, and so am I.

Gilgamesh, one thing philosophers should make some real money doing is explain how you are using "question-begging" SUPER WRONG.
posted by allthinky at 10:28 AM on September 13, 2019 [8 favorites]


The evolution of the wave function is 100% deterministic, it's the observations that are not.

Maps, territory. Models are not the actual things.
posted by bonehead at 10:31 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


A life lived as if God didn't exist isn't necessarily wasted, you're just in trouble afterwards.

OK. Which god, though?
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 10:42 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


The Second International Conference on Neuroscience and Free Will at the Brain Institute at Chapman University, which is cited by the article, has the podcast of the whole conference online. (Full disclosure I am good friends with Uri Maoz and Amir Raz.) I just watched the talk "Do Neurons Play Dice" by Gabriel Kreiman and I found it insightful and neuroscientifically accurate. Long story short, my takeaway was that while neuronal behavior and responses appear stochastic, they are actually the result of complex inputs from a variable and complex world. Im sure the rest of the talks were also quite illuminating, if anyone wants to dig in for the current perspective of neuroscientists.
posted by Illusory contour at 10:42 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


how do you reconcile that with holding people accountable for their actions?

I’m going to take the wildly unpopular position here and say that I don’t. Mind-body dualism underpins our entire jurisprudence system with notions that some people are intrinsically “evil” due to some fundamental deficiency of their souls. That they need or deserve to be punished because of...our fetishistic compulsion to see others suffer for the perceived injustices of our subjective universe, from what I can tell.

Every human’s actions are the aggregate output of their nervous system, a system over which they have no control - even if you believe in free will the control we exert is only in the broadest strokes.

People are not good or evil, they are possessed of a neurotopology that incorporates and prioritizes empathy or not: the two ends of a spectrum with infinite points between. Below a certain threshold in certain contexts we deem it criminal or antisocial or mental illness, and while you can pathologize it and maybe even treat it, it’s never the result of an intentional choice by the enduser. It’s simply the system they were given and grew in response to their environment (nature/nurture, colloquially).

So how do I reconcile it? By trying to let go of blame and the desire for revenge or to see others suffer (I do not claim to be good at this). By acknowledging that everyone including me is simply executing their infinitely complicated wetware programming and blame is a fundamental misconception borne out of the irrational man-in-the-sky fables we invented to cover our ignorance and total inability to control what the universe throws our way.

My takeaway from all this:
Help and heal the people you can, encourage others to embrace empathy when they’re receptive. Embrace giving yourself space to breathe and forgive yourself for not possessing infinite willpower or a neurotopology that fits your personal definition of perfect.

There isn’t anything else you can do, no matter what your stance on choice.
posted by Ryvar at 10:50 AM on September 13, 2019 [34 favorites]


Maps, territory. Models are not the actual things.

Exactly, but I'm not sure in the way you mean.

The "nonsense" of free will isn't the idea that we have it or not, it's the idea that it's some actual, physical thing. It's a model.

I think it was Dan Dennett who had the analogy of "center of gravity." It's not a real physical thing -- if you cut apart some object looking for the special thing that determines its CoG you're going to be really confused, you might even speculate that there's some hidden dimension or mysterious force at work, because you have something that clearly exists, but every effort you make to reductively analyze it utterly fails to identify exactly where and what it is.

You could argue that it actually doesn't exist, it's a fiction, but by that measure nothing really exists. What's an atom? A wavelength? A Joule? Ultimately these are all just descriptions of behavior. They are models that we use to conceptualize what we see in the world, and if all these fancy concepts like QM teach us anything, it's that the idea of a "reality behind the model" is fundamentally meaningless.
posted by bjrubble at 10:52 AM on September 13, 2019 [24 favorites]



Where, in all this neurochemical song and dance, lies free will?

the part where you decide, will I march with the nazis, or against them, or maybe just move to Canada?

and perhaps more seriously ...

but nothing we’ve ever observed suggests any form of external identity lying outside our physics is somehow reaching into our brains and mucking about with the results -

I personally have observed pretty much exactly this while rather elevated on a so-called heroic dose of LSD. I saw that my mind (if you want to call it that) had roots (or perhaps branches) that spread way beyond the bounds of my skull, perhaps all the way across the universe to who knows who-where-what-when? It was weird. It was complicated. I didn't have the apparatus to take any photographs, so all I was left with was the experience. Which didn't really convince of anything except perhaps that I shouldn't be too sure that the everyday reality before me (and the science that supports it) is as solid as it appears.

Or as a friend once put it. "Einstein said that God does not play dice, but what about croquet?"
posted by philip-random at 10:53 AM on September 13, 2019 [7 favorites]


Which didn't really convince of anything except perhaps that I shouldn't be too sure that the everyday reality before me (and the science that supports it) is as solid as it appears.

The more time you spend optimizing the simulation layer of Minecraft-style voxel games, pushing tasks that can be made discrete into lock-free asynchronous job systems, or even better offloaded to the GPU entirely and never incorporated back into the game sim unless it’s suddenly needed (a very direct analogue to both wave-particle duality and Heisenberg), the more difficult it becomes to dismiss the simulation hypothesis outright. Far, far too many of QM’s eccentricities map directly to the gross performance optimization tradeoffs you’d make when designing a Planck-scale voxelization of our observable universe ticking in Planck-time increments. Especially if you assume the existence of a three-stage sync-async-sync Tick() system and the consequences thereof (lightspeed propagation and quantum erasure, Heisenberg *again* from utilizing lockfree tasks whenever feasible), and limited memory for the hardware running the sim (Bell, no-cloning, and so-called quantum “teleportation” effects via unique pointers & pointer swaps).

Which is to say that despite never having touched any kind of unprescribed substance (including alcohol) even once, I have more sympathy for not entirely accepting the universe at face value than my comment history might suggest.

But! None of that actually alters anything I wrote above about the nature of our existence or behavioral imperatives for social organisms within it.
posted by Ryvar at 11:21 AM on September 13, 2019 [10 favorites]


You could argue that it actually doesn't exist, it's a fiction, but by that measure nothing really exists.

I mean, this is an argument as old as philosophy. It's a religious argument, inaccessible by any proof or measurement. Indeed, the idea of measurement is, itself predicated on the idea that there's something to measure. It's identical to the statement: we all live in a computer simulation.

In my view, this is a form of solipsism. It's not disprovable, sure, but neither is it an interesting result. We can take it as written that this sort of argument cannot be excluded, but neither is it one that gets anyone anywhere. Personally, I view this as evidence of incompleteness in human philosophy.
posted by bonehead at 11:25 AM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


Can we please not be dismissive of thousands of years of human endeavour on the basis of some of us, as individuals, not finding particular questions relevant to our own lives so far?

I, for one, cannot help being a bit dismissive of many many (oh so many) other human endeavors that have been ongoing for millennia, and this seems like fair game.

The free will argument has generally struck me as the most ridiculously navel-gazing and unprovable notion since debating the existence of an afterlife. I quite like the idea of applying Pascal's wager thereupon, although I've never found it convincing in its original application . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 11:29 AM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


Oh crap, what does this do to point totals in the afterlife? I'm not going to get into the Good Place at this rate, not if I have no real choice...
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:34 AM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


Cough.. you're IN the Good Place...
posted by sammyo at 11:36 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Cough.. you're IN the Good Place...

Fork off. If I was in the good place I wouldn’t be able to say shirt.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 12:09 PM on September 13, 2019 [14 favorites]


I find it more useful (and maybe more true?) to believe in free will in small(er) doses than most people here seem to. I believe free will varies a lot day to day (and decision to decision). All mixed in with the more mechanical forces that are certainly there. And people seem to vary in the relative amounts of free will vs mechanical behavior. Not to mention the dynamic changes in free will with time (ex: various forms of addiction => more mechanical; other examples => other way).
posted by aleph at 12:12 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


intentionality lies at the heart of any conception of free will

Did you know that 'intentionality' is not a fancy synonym for 'intent'? I suppose you could make a case that having a mind capable of being able to "be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs" is a necessary condition for freedom of the will. and I admit I am not familiar with how the word may have been co-opted by "theory". Perhaps it is used with an altogether different sense there. But when people use it, I always wonder if they are familiar with its original meaning as a piece of philosopher's jargon.
posted by thelonius at 12:15 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Maps, territory. Models are not the actual things.

Once you get deep enough into QM it starts to seem like the "things" are just zero-dimensional bits of mathematics.

I mean, what is a proton? It's made up of three quarks (two up quarks, one down quark) which are point particles. We say that the proton has a diameter, but it's not a diameter in the traditional sense that you or I would think of one. It's a mathematical statement about the distribution of charges.

At some point it starts to look like the model is the reality.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:28 PM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


“Given the issue is so fundamentally important to our view of who we are, a claim that our free will is illusory should be based on fairly direct evidence,” he wrote in a 2004 book. “Such evidence is not available.”

I'd strongly assert that claiming our perception of free will is magic requires even stronger evidence and it's exceptionally absurd to act as though it were the reality just because.

"For folks who don't believe in free will or think that it can be ignored, how do you reconcile that with holding people accountable for their actions?"

I don't think you have to reconcile anything. Nothing at all changes, really, the fact that physics and chemistry were such that you did X thing is also the same physics and chemistry that were such that you be punished.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:32 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


I, for one, cannot make much sense of any conception of free will. In broad terms the arguments in favour seem to come down to either "There's randomness in the fundamental reality of the universe so therefore reality isn't fully determined and therefore free will can exist." or "Free will is some non-material thing that's able to cause bodies to act in certain ways." The first one doesn't seem like a useful implementation of free will and the second one doesn't seem very reasonable.

BUT...the notion that there is NO free will seems equally problematic (although for different reasons). If that's the case, if all our actions are merely the effects of pre-determining causes then the fact that we are all taking part in this conversation seems absurd. The fact that we pretend to having something called "understanding" about this question seems absurd. What can understanding possibly mean if that's the case?
posted by kaymac at 12:41 PM on September 13, 2019


Thelonius: in this case I was using it in the less formal but entirely valid “the fact of being deliberate or purposive” sense, not the phenomenology sense. And yes, I’m familiar with it in the latter context partly because philosophy (including Husserl) was “encouraged” for all cognitive science undergrads, but mostly because deep-diving on practically everything Dennett wrote was effectively required and The Intentional Stance came out two years before my freshman year.

I’ll accept the rebuke for imprecise language, but I love that if you squint it kind of works both ways.
posted by Ryvar at 12:41 PM on September 13, 2019




I’ll sidestep the issue of whether the universe is deterministic, but I’ll posit that it is incalculably complex. Or, equivalently, being within the system means we can’t really know whether it’s deterministically complex or if the complexity is emergent from chaotic randomness.

tldr; it is impossible to perfectly predict the future
posted by forforf at 1:30 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


"For folks who don't believe in free will or think that it can be ignored, how do you reconcile that with holding people accountable for their actions?"

This has always struck me as the root objection most people have to the lack of free will when you examine it closely enough. How can I justify taking revenge on those who scare me or harmed me? I want retribution emotionally, and it is impossible to justify without an assumption of free will.

And to those who think the question is solipsistic or pointless, the retributive justice question is the best example of why it is important and meaningful.
posted by Infracanophile at 1:47 PM on September 13, 2019 [8 favorites]


In a study of monkeys tasked with choosing between two equal options, a separate team of researchers saw that a monkey’s upcoming choice correlated with its intrinsic brain activity before the monkey was even presented with options.

Is it possible that we have a "decision wave/pulse" mechanism that makes us do something when choices we are indifferent to are presented?
posted by saysthis at 1:51 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. — Rush
posted by kirkaracha at 1:55 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


And if you decide by flipping a coin?
posted by aleph at 1:58 PM on September 13, 2019


And if you decide by flipping a coin?
You decided to trust the coin, you decided which side meant which outcome.
posted by Xoder at 2:00 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


Naah, but ok.
posted by aleph at 2:01 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Interesting that the conference where this paper was presented was hosted by Chapman University. I don't if its leadership's love of all things free market and libertarian extends to the Crean school. Still, until someone can assure me that no p-hacking was involved in the results, I'm going to assume that this was a Koch-brothers-sponsored pretext to attack soda taxes.
posted by bunbury at 2:17 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


In this timeline sounds reasonable to me.
posted by aleph at 2:27 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Carla Jean Moss: The coin don't have no say. It's just you.
Anton Chigurh: Well, I got here the same way the coin did.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:30 PM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


I love the study that found that people’s perception that they have free will diminishes when they really need to pee.

but did they really need to drink all that beer?
posted by philip-random at 2:34 PM on September 13, 2019


Free will does not exist, fundamentally, because the universe does not actually evolve in the way we think. However, free will sure as shit does exist in our every day experience, so it's pretty silly to pretend it isn't there. We humans have a worryingly persistent tendency to believe that our senses faithfully represent fundamental reality despite the notion having been proven wrong completely and repeatedly in the past hundred years and having had strong hints in that direction for at least a millennium.

The Schroedinger equation is plainly deterministic, yet none of our experiments appear to behave that way. Statistical measures like temperature and pressure are not fundamental, yet we still are burned when we touch a hot stove and we suffocate when the air is too thin to breathe. They are very much things relevant to our lives despite not actually existing as a real, concrete, fundamental thing. Free will is likely similar, in my view.
posted by wierdo at 3:13 PM on September 13, 2019 [7 favorites]


I think Free Will is a concept with great importance to the inner experience of consciousness, as well as our legal system and in most social sphere. It also happens to be something that doesn't exist at the level of physics or biology. This is not a difficult state of affairs, really. We've seen repeatedly in experiments that our internal experience is not a particularly reliable guide to what's really going on.

On preview: what wierdo said.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:16 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


For folks who don't believe in free will or think that it can be ignored, how do you reconcile that with holding people accountable for their actions?

Why do we want to hold people accountable for their actions?

Perhaps to get them to change their behavior in the future (or to repeat the behavior, if it was praiseworthy). This will work even if they don't have free will.

Or to induce others to change their behavior, lest they be punished, too (or change their behavior so that they can get the rewards). Again, you don't need free will for this to work.

Or to separate bad people from society so they don't do (any more) harm. No free will needed.

Because they deserve it! I will grant you that this seems to assume free will.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:28 PM on September 13, 2019 [11 favorites]


You could argue that it actually doesn't exist, it's a fiction, but by that measure nothing really exists.

I mean, this is an argument as old as philosophy. It's a religious argument, inaccessible by any proof or measurement. Indeed, the idea of measurement is, itself predicated on the idea that there's something to measure. It's identical to the statement: we all live in a computer simulation.

How so? If you think there's a fundamental difference between "center of gravity" and "atomic nucleus" please explain.

In my view, this is a form of solipsism. It's not disprovable, sure, but neither is it an interesting result. We can take it as written that this sort of argument cannot be excluded, but neither is it one that gets anyone anywhere. Personally, I view this as evidence of incompleteness in human philosophy.

It's not an argument about proof, but epistemology. And it's really an argument against solipsism. It's an argument that solipsism -- along with lots of other notions -- rests on the unsupported, unexplained, and downright incoherent notion that a system built from the oscillations of N-dimensional strings is somehow "real" in a way that a functionally identical system built from electronic logic gates isn't.
posted by bjrubble at 3:28 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


the retributive justice question is the best example of why it is important and meaningful.

The question of whether any society needs retributive "justice" is both more interesting than, and need not rely on, ontological questions regarding proof of (or against) free will.* Free will is actually tangential to the question of punishment, as Ryvar sort of hints at above.

*Do I have to specify "more interesting to me?" I know it may sound like it but I'm really not judging anyone for being interested in such solipsistic philosophical ponderings, just expressing where I ended up after several semesters and many meanderings around philosophy as a discipline, before burning out on philosophy for its own sake. As far as wasted time goes it seems less pointless than, I dunno, watching the Superbowl.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:31 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


I suppose you could make a case that having a mind capable of being able to "be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs" is a necessary condition for freedom of the will.

I would be very interested to hear a concept of "will," free or otherwise, that doesn't presuppose such a mind.
posted by PMdixon at 4:18 PM on September 13, 2019


Gilgamesh, one thing philosophers should make some real money doing is explain how you are using "question-begging" SUPER WRONG.
"Begging the question," as I understand the notion, is arguing a position by assuming its truth. That is what I was referring to, loosely--asking a seemingly-meaningful question ("does free will exist") while ignoring the unmentioned and unsupported premise ("does the immaterial spook exist"), thereby assuming its truth. Or do you mean I'm not using it to mean "raising the question?" Because I am certainly damn well not doing that, at least not on purpose.

Also, point of order: I am not Gilgamesh, I'm just his chauffeur.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:32 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


You are a plate of beans, overthinking.
posted by nikaspark at 4:44 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


“My opinion is that we don't have free will but are categorically - and probably physically - incapable of truly believing that fact, so unfathomably vast is the tree of potential outcomes that lie before us.”



This is perhaps a variation on my own take on the question back in my undergrad philosophy days: 



It’s a matter of the ontology vs. the epistemology: We can never know all of that tree of outcomes (and root system of causes) reality, or even all of it which bears directly on the causes of our actions and their potential outcomes. It doesn’t matter if you’re (intellectually) a hard determinist. You still can’t ever trace all of the causality for every event involving your decision-making.



Ontologically, we don’t have free will. But epistemically (thanks to our physical, neurological limitations, perhaps) we are incapable of ever knowing all of the causal chains leading to our actions, so we might as well behave as if we have free will. We might as well believe (albeit delusionally, for sure, as Ted Chiang suggests) that we have it. To give in to hard determinism is to be essentially passive and to abdicate one's responsibility to act with concern for oneself (self-preservation) and others (empathy and compassion.) We don't *have* to resist the notion that ultimately we're not in control of ourselves, but in doing so we make social harmony and civilisation possible.

It seems paradoxical: we have a choice whether or not to accept the logically apparently inescapable conclusion impelled by our understanding of the physical world: that choice - free will - is an illusion. I would say that most of us, even if we come to agree with hard determinism, intellectually, will instinctively, emotionally recoil from truly accepting that as a basis for how we live. How we choose to live. You could say that our ignorance, our innate, equally inescapable epistemic limit, combined with our affective predispositions, "creates" choice for us.
posted by Philofacts at 4:57 PM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. — Rush

You know that song ties together the concepts of free will and rational selfishness a little more closely than I (hears Geddy Lee's bass line going into the bridge) okay, okay, I see your point.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:59 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Why do we want to hold people accountable for their actions?

Well, relationships are built on trust, and there can't be trust if people can't be held accountable for their actions. If your significant other cheats on you, are you going to shrug your shoulders and say, "oh well, free will doesn't exist"?
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 5:11 PM on September 13, 2019


Well, if I can nerd out anywhere, I can do it here. Folks, please have a look at this article, which I think is brilliant and creates some space between the traditionally stark alternatives of free will and determinism:
Andrea Lavazza, “Free Will and Neuroscience: From Explaining Freedom Away to New Ways of Operationalizing and Measuring It,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10 (2016), article 262, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4887467/pdf/fnhum-10-00262.pdf.
You'll be glad you did.
posted by homerica at 5:27 PM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


I think the problem with many of these discussions is that they don't specify "free from what?"

Are your actions free from someone perfectly predicting what you will do? Maybe.

Are your actions free from Influence X or Influence Y? Would you act differently if we freed you from Influence X or Influence Y? Those are the kinds of questions that are important for deciding whether and how to hold someone accountable for their actions.

Are you actions free from having any cause whatsoever? Of course not.
posted by straight at 5:55 PM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


Various things have caused me to be who I am. This person the past has created can be more or less free to act according to my nature or can be seen as constrained by this or that other influence whose distinction from "me" might be somewhat arbitrary.

But I think it makes sense to see people as agents who choose to do things for reasons and who are who they are for reasons. And it makes sense to draw distinctions among which reasons seem more "internal" to the person, part of who they are, and others which are "external" and contingent, that if removed or changed would make them more or less "free" (from those influences) to act.
posted by straight at 6:03 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


In the case of the Bereitschaftspotential, I think it makes more sense to view the part of the brain that initiates the decision to move a finger as part of the same agent that has the experience of making a decision to move it rather than seeing them as two separate things, one of which could be somehow freed from the influence of the other. This conceptual grouping is in a sense arbitrary, but I think it maps more closely to what people really mean when they talk about freedom than the weird split that Libet tried to make.
posted by straight at 6:09 PM on September 13, 2019


People often quote that famous Einstein quote, "God does not play dice with the universe". However, they often forget the second part of that same refrain, "God tirelessly plays dice under laws which he has himself prescribed."

They also forget Niels Bohr's comeback:
"Einstein! Stop telling God what to do."
This may be apocryphal.
posted by Quackles at 6:17 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


The question of whether any society needs retributive "justice" is both more interesting than, and need not rely on, ontological questions regarding proof of (or against) free will.* Free will is actually tangential to the question of punishment, as Ryvar sort of hints at above.

I read Ryvar's comment and extended it in a way to say, if this is what we know about how humans work -- that they don't have free will but are grown into the actions they take by a collaboration of society and family, then the most healthy society would be one which sees humans as something which need to be nourished in the right ways during their lives and would prioritize that in order to minimize the existence of justice that required some kind of segregation/retribution.
posted by hippybear at 6:36 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


Free Will is a rather relativistic concept. It vaguely appears in certain contexts of human autonomy & choice.

Hard-core anti-free-will determinists tend to annoy me. It seems to me like they're barking up the wrong tree. They're trying hard to materialistically quantify something that is essentially ephemeral. (I find Sam Harris annoying, my genes tole me to say that.)
posted by ovvl at 6:55 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


I recall, years ago, a talk with one of the developers of a chat-bot, possibly the first one: Eliza.

He said that the maps of observed conversations with Eliza occupied only a small space of the total possible conversation maps. People tend to wander about in a small areas, talk in loops, false starts, familiar subjects.

He concluded (and this idea has stuck with me ever since), that one day "Free Will" will be lumped with the geocentric theory of the universe (Man at the Center of Everything). An emotionally pleasing idea without any basis in reality. Maybe there is a place for "Free Will," but it's a tiny planet orbiting a larger system.
posted by SPrintF at 6:59 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


For folks who don't believe in free will or think that it can be ignored, how do you reconcile that with holding people accountable for their actions?

Ryvar beat me to it. Accountability is a deterrence whether or not one has free will. The non-free will brain encounters knowledge that certain actions have consequences and responds as its physiology informed by past experience command it to. If one does not have free will, they may not be ethically responsible for their actions, but their actions can still be judged as defective. Whether or not prison is the best method for course correcting the behavior is a different discussion.
posted by xammerboy at 11:08 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


I meant It's Never Lurgi, not Ryvar.
posted by xammerboy at 1:08 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


john conway and simon kochen's 'free will theorem', fwiw :P also noncommutative balls in boxes (and the extra degree of freedom from creation-annihilation operations than annihilation-creation ones ;)

i guess if we're no different than atoms -- or elementary particles! -- and given to random processes, then that can kind of drain the 'meaning' out of things! but, i mean, that seems kind of presumptuous given how they give rise to life and consciousness isn't explained?
posted by kliuless at 2:14 AM on September 14, 2019


bjrubble's comment is about Nick Charter and his good, readable book The Mind is Flat. Better, though, is Thomas Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel, which puts forth a similar set of ideas at greater length and in greater detail.

I'm on board with a version of their arguments: free will is most likely illusory but an unavoidable artefact of human evolution. It may even be epiphenomenal.

Then again, I just finished rereading both Ligotti's "The Conspiracy Against the Human Race" and Dienstag's "Pessimism," so I'm almost certainly predisposed (ha!) to such arguments...
posted by deeker at 3:28 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Accountability is a hugely powerful tool for managing large groups of people. It is a framework for constraining the almost infinitely complex web of possible consequences of one's actions within a complex system, allowing individuals to reason about potential consequences more easily without having to predict the entire system within which their actions form a tiny part.

You can see this line of thought when you look at management theory. If you organise a workplace so that small groups can effectively be held independently accountable for their contribution to business outcomes, theory says that this will produce better performance (however that is defined within the business). Accountability gives people a clearer view of how their actions fit with the organisational purpose, and it gives them a feedback loop to help them course correct. If all the people are course correcting in the same direction, and you have the means to remove from the system those who are unable or unwilling to course correct, then you have a powerful and surprisingly scalable tool for focusing the efforts of a large group of people towards a common goal.

None of this requires them to have free will.
posted by quacks like a duck at 3:32 AM on September 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


"those who are... unwilling to course correct" most certainly seems to imply free will. In fact, that whole paragraph seemed to me to imply something like classic free will. I can't make much sense of this sentence without the agents having something like free will:

"Accountability gives people a clearer view of how their actions fit with the organisational purpose, and it gives them a feedback loop to help them course correct."
posted by deeker at 3:40 AM on September 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


I mean, I can parse the whole thing without recourse to free will but then it starts to read very differently and very rabbit-hole-y, as these things tend to do absent free will...
posted by deeker at 3:42 AM on September 14, 2019


So perhaps I am grossly misunderstanding the whole nature of free will, but I'd always assumed that free will presupposed some kind of individual subject which was able to make choices between options based on some kind of "thought" process - this might be a conscious process like when I think, "should I have an omelet or a sandwich" or it might be a process to which my conscious, thinking self doesn't have access, but the two things that are key are an individual subject of some kind and a genuine possibility of choosing among things. No matter who you are, whether you're my mother or an algorithm, you can say that's it's more likely that I'll have an omelet than a sandwich on any given occasion, but you don't literally know, and sometimes you'll be wrong. No one at the same point in time as me can literally know, because I'm choosing.

Without free will, I'm just riding along in my body as if it were a carnival ride, so to speak. "I" narrate and explain what's going on but if you started at the big bang you could follow an inevitable chain of causality which locks me into having the omelet.

So if that's the case, it seems like not only is there literally no such thing as accountability, there's no such thing as compassion, either. You don't choose to be compassionate in the face of absent free will any more than I choose to commit a crime. There's no philosophical effect in thinking any of this; we're just experiencing the illusion of selfhood, and we're only thinking it because thinking it was foreordained at the big bang, just like global warming, meringue and cats. Indeed, I can argue all I like but it's not as though arguing is any different - no "argument" is taking place, just a sort of pantomime between things that aren't actually conscious.

"There is no free will" is totally different from "the choices we make are so heavily contoured by our experience and physical being that they are far more limited and difficult than we realize", because only one of these supposes a "person" who can actually "choose".

This is a bit why I'm usually indifferent to the whole question, because either I'm making choices (healthy breakfast, don't trample others, send birthday cards) or I'm just riding along thinking that I'm making choices, thinking that I'm "arguing", thinking that "I'm" anything, really. If it's all basically an unhackable illusion (if I "see through" free will, that's just as predetermined as believing in it, so it's not really "seeing through" at all) then there's no here here, and if it's not, there's no point in spinning my wheels.

"Total lack of free will sounds horrible and what would we do about terrible people" isn't an argument against free will, because if there isn't free will there really isn't anyone about doing any arguing.
posted by Frowner at 4:49 AM on September 14, 2019 [11 favorites]


So perhaps I am grossly misunderstanding the whole nature of free will... but the two things that are key are an individual subject of some kind and a genuine possibility of choosing among things.

A lot of the debate around free will is confusing, because of semantics. When you are choosing whether to have an omelet or breakfast cereal, that is not an illusory process. You are really going down a decision tree and every point considered genuinely impacts your "decision" about what you will eat. It's just that the considerations and conclusions are the result of your brain and experiences.

Suppose that before breakfast you had read an article saying that what you were about to eat was a predetermined decision, and that therefore you'll just get an omelet without thinking about it. What really happened there is that based on information you encountered your best thinking was to not engage in a decision making process. If you hadn't read that article, you may have thought it through and your best thinking may have led to getting the cereal.

You are not just along for the ride, because your level of engagement really matters in terms of the outcome. In fact, the decisions you make now will become an experience and habit that will inform your future decisions. It's just that even on your best day, working with your best brain, your decision regarding breakfast is still the result of your brain's physical make up informed by millions of previous decisions doing its best to come to a conclusion.

But who really ever thought otherwise? Did you ever believe you were capable of making decisions outside of the constraints of your biology? Did you ever believe you could come to a decision based on information you don't have? Or that where and how you grew up doesn't inform your decisions?
posted by xammerboy at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


If all the people are course correcting in the same direction, and you have the means to remove from the system those who are unable or unwilling to course correct, then you have a powerful and surprisingly scalable tool for focusing the efforts of a large group of people towards a common goal.

None of this requires them to have free will.


this wording gets me thinking of military operations in general, the old school Napoleonic stuff in particular, where the lack of free will is precisely what you want (certainly in anyone below the rank of say, captain). And there's no doubting that it's a solid observation in that regard. But we humans are not first and foremost organization animals -- that's just one of the ways in which we function, get things done. And bluntly, in the military analogy, what we too often end up getting done feels like precisely what happens when you allow yourself to remove "free will" from your calculations. In the case of the Battle of Waterloo, that led to roughly fifty thousand lives lost in one day's mucking around in a field.

Which gets us back to ...

the means to remove from the system those who are unable or unwilling to course correct

well, what deeker said, with extra emphasis on the use of the word unwilling in aid of an argument against the reality of free will. I suppose one could step into William Burroughs territory here and argue that the problem is language itself ... and maybe that's where we really need to go, because I'm certainly having all kinds of trouble grasping the "free will does not exist" logic being put forth in this thread. I get that there's some deep science (or perhaps physics?) that supports this conclusion, and yet here I am dealing with a mild hangover from last night, and I very much recall asking myself whether I really wanted open another bottle of strong beer. And then deciding, yeah whatever, I'm enjoying this Waterboys vs U2 argument* way too much to stop now.

* the question was, whose 1980s music has stood up better over time, with Waterboys winning (in my opinion) because their poetry was stronger, which gave their passion more colors to work with.
posted by philip-random at 10:17 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think most people agree that what we experience as "thought processes" are among the causes for our actions. And most would agree that those thoughts are caused by who we are.

But there are a lot of different senses in which we could ask whether those thoughts and actions are "free":

Is someone holding a gun to your head? How much do you care whether you live or die?
Are you hungry, tired, or inebriated?
Are you angry? In love? Depressed? In pain? (Are these acute or chronic?)
Were you exposed to lead paint as a child?
Did your parents raise you to believe X or value Y?
Did you watch a series of YouTube videos that convinced you to believe X or value Y?
Did you go to college and through reading, study, and debate with professors and classmates become convinced to believe X or value Y?

There are various degrees to which your decisions could be said to be made by who you are or constrained by external forces, and various ways to think about why you are who you are, but I don't think you can be free from having any reasons or causes for being who you are.

I'm not sure the question "Given who you were and what state you were in, could you have done something other than what you did?" even makes sense, but that theoretical "freedom from being predictable" seem much less important than "freedom to act according to who you are."
posted by straight at 10:45 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Huh. I had always thought that the argument against free will was more, um, chemical in nature. As in, your brain is shaped by your past, and the chemical pathways within it are, well, they are chemical reactions. They follow the laws of physics. In your brain, the chemical pathways which guide your actions are determined by chemistry, and not your choices. That you feel you have a choice is a result of some other process, but once started, a chemical chain reaction is always going to have the same result because chemistry.
posted by hippybear at 10:50 AM on September 14, 2019


And any way of drawing a line around myself and saying "actions caused by stuff inside this line is me acting freely, actions caused by stuff outside that line are coerced" is going to be somewhat arbitrary, but I don't think that makes it useless or delusional to think that such a thing as "me" exists and takes actions based on "my" choices.
posted by straight at 10:56 AM on September 14, 2019


As in, your brain is shaped by your past, and the chemical pathways within it are, well, they are chemical reactions. They follow the laws of physics. In your brain, the chemical pathways which guide your actions are determined by chemistry, and not your choices.

But those chemical pathways are caused by the kinds of things we recognize as legitimately making us who we are. The books we read in college, the things our parents said and did, what our mothers ate while we were in the womb, the beverages we drank last night, our emotional reaction to the person in bed next to us.

What would my choices be other than the particular chemical reactions going on in my brain?
posted by straight at 11:03 AM on September 14, 2019


But they aren't your choices. You just feel like they are.
posted by hippybear at 11:09 AM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


What is this "me" that isn't a sum of my biology and my past that have created my brain and my body? If that me, that brain and body, acts, and the actions are caused in part by the thoughts in my brain, which are caused by the chemical reactions that are the result of my past and my current biology, in what sense is that not me acting based on my own choices? How could those choices be any more mine?

If they weren't caused by my past and my biology, wouldn't they be less mine?
posted by straight at 11:22 AM on September 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm not actually advocating this position, I just find it an interesting mental exercise, to realize that everything in my brain is chemistry and chemistry acts as it will act and there is no choice involved.

We talk all the time about animals having "instinctual drives" which lead them to build dens and nests and care for their young or even do elaborate mating displays, as if these animals have no choice in the matter -- it's just what their brains are driving them to do. Why do we think we are any different even when it comes to more complex supposed decision chains?
posted by hippybear at 11:58 AM on September 14, 2019


"those who are... unwilling to course correct" most certainly seems to imply free will. In fact, that whole paragraph seemed to me to imply something like classic free will. I can't make much sense of this sentence without the agents having something like free will:

"Accountability gives people a clearer view of how their actions fit with the organisational purpose, and it gives them a feedback loop to help them course correct."


Having a clear intended outcome and a feedback loop on how well that outcome is being achieved - is how AIs are currently trained.
Although "Unwilling to course correct" should perhaps have read "those who don't course correct"....
posted by quacks like a duck at 1:31 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


as if these animals have no choice in the matter -- it's just what their brains are driving them to do.

I just think "doing what your brain drives you to do" is the definition of making a free choice. Being forced to do something other than what your brain drives you to do is what it means to not have free will. And being divided within yourself, feeling like part of you doesn't agree with what the other part of you is choosing to do is a kind of impaired freedom.

Why do we think we are any different even when it comes to more complex supposed decision chains?

No purely cognitive chain of reasoning can explain our behavior. There has to be a more basic animal part of ourselves that has desires that are connected to and care about that reasoning.

But the fact that reasoning is instantiated by chemical reactions in our brains doesn't mean those reasons and our thoughts about them aren't real or don't affect our actions. That's a category error, like claiming Einstein's theory of Special Relativity can't be right because it's just a bunch of ink blobs on a piece of paper.
posted by straight at 7:06 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


But the fact that reasoning is instantiated by chemical reactions in our brains doesn't mean those reasons and our thoughts about them aren't real or don't affect our actions. That's a category error, like claiming Einstein's theory of Special Relativity can't be right because it's just a bunch of ink blobs on a piece of paper.

Of course they are real. The chemical reactions make us do things. There is no point in any statement I've said about this which said the chemical reactions aren't real or that they don't affect our reactions. They ARE our reactions.

I love your attempt to shift the discussion but it's meaningless. Our brains create chemical reactions which cause us to act in certain ways, and we think we have thought-through choices and decided our actions because our brains make us feel that way.

Again, I don't subscribe to this concept. I just find it an interesting thing to think about and debate.
posted by hippybear at 7:59 PM on September 14, 2019


Huh. I had always thought that the argument against free will was more, um, chemical in nature. As in, your brain is shaped by your past, and the chemical pathways within it are, well, they are chemical reactions. They follow the laws of physics.

Keep in mind that the argument against free will is one of the oldest and ongoing in philosophy. You don't need to discuss neurons or chemical pathways at all. A decision is an event, and events are caused by prior events and so on and so on.
posted by xammerboy at 9:50 PM on September 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


On a related note:

"Once, during the question-and-answer period at the end of a lecture given by M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled, I stood up and asked how, in struggling with an important personal decision, I'd know I was doing the right thing. Dr. Peck said the question was the single most common one he was asked and that “There is no such formula. The unconscious is always one step ahead of the conscious mind—the one that knows things—so it’s impossible to know for sure. But if you’re willing to sit with ambiguity, to accept uncertainties and contradictory meanings, then your unconscious will always be a step ahead of your conscious mind in the right direction. You’ll therefore do the right thing, though you won’t know it at the time.”
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:57 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


I wanted to say a little more about "being along for the ride". If you don't have free will but rather make decisions based on your brain and previous experience, than whatever choices you make today pay dividends on your future decision-making abilities. Better choices today will generally lead to the ability to make even better choices tomorrow. This is obvious when one considers early education, which clearly pays dividends in being able to make better decisions using acquired thinking skills ongoing. If you don't have free will you should logically choose to fully invest in making the best decisions you can. Your "decisions" are almost more consequential than they would be if you were able to think freely outside the context of previous experience and thought.
posted by xammerboy at 10:04 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


I stood up and asked how, in struggling with an important personal decision, I'd know I was doing the right thing.

This is Hamlet.

The accountability question is Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Oedipus finds he is innocent of his crimes, but chooses to punish himself according to the gods' laws anyway.

Old questions. No good answers.
posted by xammerboy at 10:10 PM on September 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


"those who are... unwilling to course correct" most certainly seems to imply free will.

It most certainly does not. The entire language of the question as to whether there is "free will" implies that there is non-free will, or else we've all been being redundant all this time and could just have been saying "is there will."

Given that "will" can or can not be "free," the use of the adjective "unwilling" does not imply that the cause of the lack of will is or is not free in any sense of "free."
posted by PMdixon at 7:37 AM on September 15, 2019


If you don't have free will you should logically choose to fully invest in making the best decisions you can.

Can you unpack for me what "should," "logically," and "best" mean here?
posted by PMdixon at 7:38 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


I love your attempt to shift the discussion but it's meaningless. Our brains create chemical reactions which cause us to act in certain ways

Can you give me some idea of what it would look like for a human being to think a thought, make a decision, and act on it that was not a series of chemical reactions taking your brain and body from one state to another?

We think we have thought-through choices and decided our actions because our brains make us feel that way.

Can you explain the difference between a genuine experience of thinking and deciding vs. a phony experience of thinking and deciding?
posted by straight at 7:52 AM on September 15, 2019


I honestly cannot not give you some idea of what something would look like or explain any difference between anything because I'm simply living in this situation wherein I find myself, wherein we all find ourselves.

None of this is genuine or phony. It's all what we live in. This is a thorny issue, and it's one where the very tool we have to use to examine it is the tool which we seek to examine. I don't think there's any good actual answer that can be achieved at this point because we don't really know what gives rise to what we call "consciousness".

Why does anyone think they have autonomy and can make choices? We have this thing, this mind presence, perhaps an illusion, perhaps not. Nobody can explain what it is or where it comes from.

I suspect that once we really determine what THAT is, we will better understand the balance between chemical reactions in the brain and behavior and whether there is something outside of the chemical reactions in the brain that can influence how those chemical reactions play out.

Which is basically what one is asserting when one talks about "will", especially "free will". Is there some part of a human which can somehow, by exerting itself, change chemical reactions to cause a different outcome.
posted by hippybear at 8:11 AM on September 15, 2019


the chemicals are how it's done, but what (if anything) triggers the chemicals?

Like, okay, I get it, I'm a machine, not unlike a car. But up until recently, cars required drivers. So who's driving? Is it God and I'm just the vehicle? Is it the randomness of billions of years of this and that, eruptions and collisions, ultimately coalescing down to the cosmic fluke that is me not just driving the car but intending to go somewhere?

Or is it something in between?
posted by philip-random at 9:41 AM on September 15, 2019


Can you explain the difference between a genuine experience of thinking and deciding vs. a phony experience of thinking and deciding?

A phony experience would be you popping into existence as a Boltzmann Brain with all of your memories, and to keep you from going crazy, including a memory of climbing into a sensory deprivation chamber moments ago so we don't have to posit that the brain has sensory organs, but completely convinced of your past existence and influence over those events.

How one might distinguish one's every day existence from that or a similar scenario being unclear is precisely the problem.
posted by wierdo at 9:49 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


Like, okay, I get it, I'm a machine, not unlike a car. But up until recently, cars required drivers. So who's driving?

We don't yet understand what is a "consciousness", and so nobody knows who is driving. Is it all just chemistry or is it something outside of all that which can influence the pathways? I have no answers. I don't even like to look at the question because it's too fraught. If I "decide" to go out dancing on Saturday, is that because the chemicals in my brain lead me to make that decision, or is it because something outside that pathway "had a thought" and so that's what I did?

Like, I don't know. Anyone who says they do know is lying. That's all I know. Meanwhile I continue to "make decisions" all across my daily existence. Is it all chemistry? If "I" have an influence, then what exactly is that mechanism? And what is "I"?

I mean, this all runs really deep, deeper than most of us are prepared to truly explore.
posted by hippybear at 1:41 PM on September 15, 2019


I would assume that consciousness is the later stage above our innate decision making, having evolved to make selections that are stalled by indecision on the instinctive level in order to avoid deadlock in the mind as we roam. It looks like free will because it uses recent memory and learned reason, and we associate it with our individuality because an intensity of confidence determines the decision.
posted by Brian B. at 5:01 PM on September 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


our innate decision making'

There is a lot packed into those four words which might require examining.
posted by hippybear at 5:13 PM on September 15, 2019


Your success isn’t down to free will – luck determines everything (on the front page last year) covers some of the same ground and points to an episode of In Our Time that discusses FW.
posted by kingless at 5:56 PM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


If it's all basically an unhackable illusion . . . there's no point in spinning my wheels

Yup, the discussion tends to head really quickly into "how do you know you're not just a brain in a vat?" territory.

Free will absolutism either direction is tedious - it's based on unfalsifiable faith. There's nothing inherently contradictory about a scripted set of mechanical actions manifesting "free will," and arguing that you are a sum of chemical reactions doesn't prove or disprove anything.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:08 PM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


we will better understand the balance between chemical reactions in the brain and behavior and whether there is something outside of the chemical reactions in the brain that can influence how those chemical reactions play out.

Which is basically what one is asserting when one talks about "will", especially "free will". Is there some part of a human which can somehow, by exerting itself, change chemical reactions to cause a different outcome.


I disagree. I would say that the thoughts I think and the decisions I make are contained in (or built out of) those chemical reactions. Those thoughts and decisions are part of what determines the next set of chemical reactions that are my actions.

When I pick up a pencil, you could at one level describe that as electromagnetic reactions between the molecules of my fingers and the molecules in the pencil. But those particular molecules would not be interacting with each other if it were not for their location in the larger-scale arrangement where my fingers wrap around the pencil.

You can describe thoughts leading to decisions as a series of chemical reactions, but those reactions would not be happening in that series if they were not part of a larger-scale arrangement in which a desire to write combines with a sensation of seeing a pencil to produce a decision to pick it up. I would say that is the part of a human being that exerts itself and changes the chemical reactions to choose an outcome.

Is that a free decision? Free from what? Why would it be more free if it were caused by something other than the activity of my own brain?
posted by straight at 10:40 PM on September 15, 2019


A phony experience would be you popping into existence as a Boltzmann Brain with all of your memories, and to keep you from going crazy, including a memory of climbing into a sensory deprivation chamber moments ago so we don't have to posit that the brain has sensory organs, but completely convinced of your past existence and influence over those events.

The memories of my past would be phony, but any thoughts I had and decisions I made during however long I existed in that form would be real thoughts and real decisions.
posted by straight at 10:51 PM on September 15, 2019


If you don't have free will you should logically choose to fully invest in making the best decisions you can. --> Can you unpack for me what "should," "logically," and "best" mean here?

A lack of free will means that you are not free to make decisions free of your brain's physiology and previous experience. It makes sense then to fill one's life as much as possible with experiences that will improve one's ability to make future decisions. You may not be free to make the decision to do based on your lack of free will, but it would logically likely lead to better outcomes for you generally.

I don't know why, but some people think a lack of free will means they shouldn't put effort into their decision making, because they will arrive at the same conclusions regardless. This isn't true. This misunderstanding often leads to people feeling de-motivated and like life is meaningless because there is no free will. If anything, it's the opposite. Make the best decisions your brain is capable of making, because your previous experience strongly impacts your future experiences.
posted by xammerboy at 10:56 PM on September 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm still working on coming up with a good metaphor for this, but I really think a lot of this debate is trying to apply the terminology of one context to a different one.

Maybe (sticking with computing metaphors) "Turing completeness" is a decent one. You can make a Turing-complete system in any number of ways, even using systems that would seem fundamentally incompatible with the notion.

Critically, Turing completeness means that the system can be analyzed under a totally different set of rules, whose terms and references exist only at that level of abstraction. Within that level of abstraction, these are in no way "illusory" or "fictional" -- but outside of that abstraction they are simply meaningless.

So a physically motionless system can "goto" and a system made entirely of ephemeral components can have "memory" -- because those terms describe the behavior of the abstract system, and while you can analogize these to characteristics of its component parts they're really not talking about the same thing at all.
posted by bjrubble at 11:00 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


More as a note to myself than an argument likely to sway metafilter, I feel like we maybe ought to set the goalposts somewhere.

What are the minimum circumstances that we could count as free will?

Why (specifically) is physical determinism incompatible with free will?

What outcomes does naive physical determinism have difficulty explaining, if any?

What is the closest determanism can come to free will?

Is the subjective experience of making a difficult choice necessary for free will?

If the outcome of making a difficult choice depends on deterministic inputs, should we give credence to our feeling that the decision might "go either way"?

If asked to make the same difficult choice repeatedly, but in such a way that each request is forgotten after the choice is made, do we expect that the choices will be consistent? What if they're not?
posted by Richard Daly at 3:57 PM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


Just a random thought, well not-random I guess, maybe ;-) Perhaps determinism is akin to the universe, it seems to be very different at different levels, the human scale is different in some ways to the atomic and subatomic. So our perception of free will may be different than at the extreme subatomic string theoryish determinism of every atom or parts of atoms from the before the big bang.
posted by sammyo at 12:35 PM on September 18, 2019


That is, our perception of free will may or may not be real but there may not be any way to test it without standing up a separate universe.
posted by sammyo at 12:36 PM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


Quantum computing, in a very real sense, is about doing exactly that. They will be far too small to answer questions like this for probably around a generation if things go reasonably well. It will likely be a while after that before we learn to formulate problems effectively enough to realize more than a small fraction of their potential, however. That is something we still struggle with in classical computing, after all.
posted by wierdo at 12:44 PM on September 18, 2019


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