Free will: the neuroscientists versus the philosophers

In a news item in the September 1 issue of Nature, “Taking aim at free will” (free online), Kerri Smith recounts the latest findings of neuroscience about how and when we make “decisions,” and how that bears on philosophical issues of free will.  The two-page piece is worth reading for its exposition of the latest research (some not yet published), and how philosophers are reacting to it.

The research, as we’ve discussed before, largely involves experiments that force participants to make decisions, and doing simultaneous brain scans that can a) “predict” the decision (albeit not with perfect accuracy) and b) find out when the brain actually takes action.  Those studies, pioneered by Benjamin Libet and continued in more sophisticated form by John-Dylan Haynes, involve scanning the brains of subjects who are forced to make choices, and comparing when the brain registers a choice with when the subject becomes conscious of having made that choice.  All the studies find that brain scans can predict, sometimes with high accuracy, which decision will be made, and that the brain activity occurs up to several seconds before the subject records having made a decision.

Here’s an example of Haynes’s recent findings:

Haynes. . . has replicated and refined his results in two studies. One uses more accurate scanning techniques to confirm the roles of the brain regions implicated in his previous work. In the other, which is yet to be published, Haynes and his team asked subjects to add or subtract two numbers from a series being presented on a screen. Deciding whether to add or subtract reflects a more complex intention than that of whether to push a button, and Haynes argues that it is a more realistic model for everyday decisions. Even in this more abstract task, the researchers detected activity up to four seconds before the subjects were conscious of deciding, Haynes says.

Another study  by Itzhak Fried, a scientist and neurosurgeon:

He studied individuals with electrodes implanted in their brains as part of a surgical procedure to treat epilepsy. Recording from single neurons in this way gives scientists a much more precise picture of brain activity than fMRI or EEG. Fried’s experiments showed that there was activity in individual neurons of particular brain areas about a second and a half before the subject made a conscious decision to press a button. With about 700 milliseconds to go, the researchers could predict the timing of that decision with more than 80% accuracy. “At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness,” says Fried. The conscious will might be added on to a decision at a later stage, he suggests.

More than 80% accuracy!

The experiments show, then, that not only are decisions made before we’re conscious of having made them, but that the brain imagery can predict what decision will be made with substantial accuracy.  This has obvious implications for the notion of “free will,” at least as most people conceive of that concept.  We like to think that our conscious selves make decisions, but in fact the choices appear to have been made by our brains before we’re aware of them.  The implication, of course, is that deterministic forces beyond are conscious control are involved in our “decisions”, i.e. that free will isn’t really “free”. Physical and biological determinism rules, and we can’t override those forces simply by some ghost called “will.”  We really don’t make choices—they are made long before we’re conscious of having chosen strawberry versus pistachio ice cream at the store.

We’ve discussed this issue before, and have seen how some philosophers like Daniel Dennett, and many of the commenters here, aren’t bothered by this: they simply redefine “free will” as something more sophisticated than what I see as the common idea (i.e., were we to relive a moment of decision, we could have decided the other way).   Nevertheless, the neuroscience clearly perturbs the philosophers.  Here’s how Walter Glannon, a philosopher at the University of Calgary, reacts:

And if unconscious brain activity could be found to predict decisions perfectly, the work really could rattle the notion of free will. “It’s possible that what are now correlations [he's referring to the correlations between specific areas of brain activity and the decision that's made after that activity occurs] could at some point become causal connections between brain mechanisms and behaviours,” says Glannon. “If that were the case, then it would threaten free will, on any definition by any philosopher.” . . . If neuroscientists find unconscious neural activity that drives decision-making, the troublesome concept of mind as separate from body disappears, as does free will. This ‘dualist’ conception of free will is an easy target for neuroscientists to knock down, says Glannon. “Neatly dividing mind and brain makes it easier for neuroscientists to drive a wedge between them,” he adds.

In other words, Glannon recognizes the problem that pre-conscious “decisions” pose for free will.  But although he says the threat is to “any definition by any philosopher,” not all philosophers agree.  The “compatibilist” school, for instance, manages to reconcile complete physical determinism of decisions with some notion of “free will.”

This shows, as Kerri Smith points out, that philosophers are revising the definition of “free will” in light of these neuroscientific findings.  This reminds me of how theologians redefine the meaning of Adam and Eve in light of genetic findings that we didn’t all descend from two ancestors, although I have a lot more respect for philosophers than for theologians.

There are conceptual issues — and then there is semantics. “What would really help is if scientists and philosophers could come to an agreement on what free will means,” says Glannon. Even within philosophy, definitions of free will don’t always match up. Some philosophers define it as the ability to make rational decisions in the absence of coercion. Some definitions place it in cosmic context: at the moment of decision, given everything that’s happened in the past, it is possible to reach a different decision. Others stick to the idea that a non-physical ‘soul’ is directing decisions.

This sounds to me very much like post hoc rationalization.  What does it mean to “make rational decisions in the absence of coercion” if that decision has already been made?  All it means is that our brains can cough up “rational” outputs in the face of diverse inputs, which of course is what they were evolved to do. And the second definition (which, by the way, is also my own), doesn’t solve the problem: if you’re a determinist (and what else is there besides molecules, genes, environments and physical forces?), there’s no possibility of deciding “otherwise” if all else is equal.  Even the compatibilist commenters on this site don’t believe that, at any moment, with all conditions identical, we could make two different decisions.  The third re-definition, of course, is bogus, since there’s simply no evidence for a non-physical “soul” that can guide our actions.

In the end, though, I think philosophers are bothered by the science.  Al Mele, a philosopher who’s participating in a Templeton-funded study that involves scientists, philosophers and perhaps theologians (I hope not!) weighs in:

Imagine a situation (philosophers like to do this) in which researchers could always predict what someone would decide from their brain activity, before the subject became aware of their decision. “If that turned out to be true, that would be a threat to free will,” says Mele.

Well, this is only my feeling, but I think this is precisely where neuroscience is going.  We can already predict some decisions with 80% accuracy.  This will only improve as neuroscience becomes more sophisticated.

Beyond redefinition, there’s another way critics attack experiments like Haynes’s and Fried’s: they go after the the methodology:

Philosophers who know about the science, she [Adina Roskies, a philoospher and neuroscientist from Dartmouth] adds, don’t think this sort of study is good evidence for the absence of free will, because the experiments are caricatures of decision-making. Even the seemingly simple decision of whether to have tea or coffee is more complex than deciding whether to push a button with one hand or the other.

I find that criticism unconvincing.  How, exactly, is deciding between coffee and tea more “complex” than deciding which button to press?  And suppose you did the same experiment, but instead of using a button, just open a window in front of the subject behind which there is a cup of coffee and a cup of tea.  If we could associate brain activity with their coffee vs tea preference, I’d bet you’d still get Fried-ian results: the brain would show a decision well before the subject was conscious of having made one.

Why is all this important, and not just a debate about philosophy? The answer is obvious: whether our actions are predetermined has obvious consequences for how and why we hold people responsible for their actions.  As I’ve said several times before, the law already takes “responsibility” into account by treating criminals differently depending on whether their actions may have been caused by extenuating circumstances like mental illness.  Nobody, I think, would refuse to consider the possibility that an act of aggression may have been caused by a tumor in the criminal’s brain.

The more I read about philosophers’ attempts to redefine and save the notion of “free will” in the face of the neurological facts, the more I think that they’re muddying the waters.  I believe that the vast majority of nonphilosophers and laypeople hold a consistent definition of free will: that we really do make decisions that are independent of our physical make-up at the moment of deciding.  If this isn’t the case, we need to know it.  Yes, it may be depressing—Haynes admits that he finds it hard to “maintain an image of a world without free will”—but we can still act as if we had free will.  We don’t have much choice in that matter, probably because we’re evolved to think of ourselves as choosing agents.  But rather than define free will so we can save the notion in some sense (this is like substituting the word “spirituality” for “religion”), why don’t we just rename the concept we’re trying to save?  Otherwise we’re just giving false ideas to people, as well as providing succor for religion, where the idea of real free will—the Holy Ghost in the machine—is alive and crucially important.

h/t: John Brockman

237 Comments

  1. Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    I WANT to leave a comment about the subject of “Free Will” but the initial conditions of the physical universe (some 12-15 billion years ago) have evidently rigorously mechanically determined that I will not be able to choose to leave a comment here on this subject (bummer!)…

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      Jesus, man – how old (and unfunny) do you think that quip is?

      • Filippo
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:38 am | Permalink

        In (non-?) response to your question-reply to Frank, I’m sitting here trying to decide what answer to give, and whether my answer would be different if someone else posed the question. Is it inevitable that I should do so?

        Before that I took several minutes to think about whether to respond, specifically whether my decision, whatever it wound up being, was inevitable.

        Would a second cup of coffee make the difference? Do I want a second cup of coffee? (Had I not joined the 24/7 navy, would I have remained a non-coffee drinker?)

        I thought about sending the response to myself only.

        I also wondered if the “Jesus” in “Jesus, man” was inevitable. Perhaps someone else would say, “Mithras, man” or “Wotan, man” or “Baal, man.”

      • Tim Hanrahan
        Posted May 9, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

        Laugh, and the universe laughs with you. Make sarcastic comments, and … well, you probably couldn’t help it.

    • Lotharloo
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Actually as Tim confirms, it was pretty much expected that someone would leave a comment like that!

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Yet you managed to do it anyway. Take that, physics!

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      If you’re just making a joke…see Tim’s comment.

      If you’re trying to make a point…well, it shouldn’t take much thought to realize that 15 billion years of cause-and-effect have conspired to make you want to have done whatever it is you have done. We will not find ourselves in the position of observing ourselves in horror as our physical apparatus commits some action against our will.

      (Apologies for that final phrase. I don’t know how else to out it.)

  2. Frank
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Once one abandons the notion that there is a non-material soul that acts as the puppet master of our brains, it becomes difficult to conceive how there ever could be free will. A purely materialistic conception of brain activity mandates that neurological changes MUST precede any conscious decision.

    • Lotharloo
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      I don’t follow your reasoning. Emotions such as lust, anger, or jealousy exist. Feelings such as feeling that you know a certain face also exist. They do not exist as “things” in the outside world but they exist as states of our physiology. No body argues that since such-an-such hormones and molecules control our anger, therefore anger does not exist. Because we all know such emotions correspond to the physical state of our body and that determining the mechanism behind them do not make them go away. Why it should be different with free will? Free will could also exist in the same way.

      • Frank
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        Not really. The key word is ‘free.’ Of course emotions exist – but even in your example, the emotions that surface to your consciousness (“I am really angry now”) required brain activity that preceded your awareness that you were angry. Emotions don’t go away, as you put it, just because we know their mechanistic bases. Similarly, “will” does not go away, either. It is the notion that it is truly free that withers in the face of modern neuroscience.

        • H.H.
          Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          But there is such a thing as “will power”–the ability to override our tenancies and instincts with conscious effort. If one recognizes they are angry, one can do things to relax and change their brain state.

          I think what these tests are measuring is our subconscious impulses, which probably do influence our conscious decisions to larger degree than previously thought. But I don’t think it’s a settled matter that the reverse can never be true–that our conscious minds can override what our subconscious minds are telling us.

          Whether any of this constitutes truly “free” will is another question. I do think it’s possible for consciousness to arise naturalistically as an emergent phenomenon from quantum neurobiology within the brain. I do think, given the same starting conditions, it might be possible for an individual to make different choices if circumstances could be repeated. However, even that would only raise the issue of randomness and not be proof that free will is actually “free.” I doubt it’s the kind of thing which can ever be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

          • Chris Granger
            Posted September 13, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see why our conscious thoughts would be any less deterministic than our subconscious ones. More to the point, our conscious thoughts are a direct result of the aforementioned subconscious ones.

          • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink

            H.H., what do you mean by “quantum neurobiology”?

            /@

  3. Jonny
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I find it quite amusing that you suggest that we ‘need’ to change our conceptions – if we don’t have free will, we can’t choose whether we change our conceptions. So I am going to simply ignore all this new scientific evidence, and maintain that we have full free will – according to opponents of free will I had no choice in my opinions anyway.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      ‘At’s beaUtiful, Jonny — my sediments perZAKly (though all credit evidently goes entirely to the initial conditions of the universe)!

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Please don’t tell me you think you’re making an intelligent point.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      What a convenient excuse for lazily refusing to challenge your preconceptions or learn new things. Be sure to carry that strawman around with you at all times.

      • Jonny
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink

        The very fact that you are remonstrating me for ‘lazily refusing to challenge my preconceptions’ is itself evidence that you believe I have chosen to do so. Which is it?

  4. Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I think you might be interested in this talk regarding the Orch-OR model of consciousness.

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-science-religion-reason-and-survival/session-4-1

    One of the weaknesses of these studies is that they only map brain chemistry. There are some models, notably this one, that posit a separate mechanism for consciousness, one that arises from quantum effects in the microtubules that support the brain. This helps to explain general anesthesia, which renders us unconscious but has no chemical effect on the body. It also allows for such strange phenomena as backward time, meaning we may consciously receive information, and thus be able to act, in real-time even if the chemical memory formation is delayed.

    • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:19 am | Permalink

      Um, no… 

      “Orch OR is no longer considered a good candidate for a quantum source of consciousness. In 2009, Jeffrey Reimers et al. showed that coherent Fröhlich condensates, the states Hameroff and Penrose implicated as the basis of Orch OR, could not exist in biological tissue. They found that coherent Fröhlich condensates of the sort required by Orch OR would require temperatures of between several thousand to several million kelvins, an environment not possible in biological tissue. If the energy required to keep the oscillators in a coherent state for the required 500 ms came from a chemical source, it would require the energy equivalent of a C-C bond being formed or broken every picosecond. The GTP mechanism proposed by Hameroff and Penrose would require the hydrolysis to GDP of approximately 4 or 5 GTP molecules every picosecond, a phenomenon that does not appear to occur in biological systems.” [Wikipedia, citing http://www.pnas.org/content/106/11/4219.full.pdf%5D

      More fundamentally, Orch-OR depends on “spontaneous wave-function collapse” (the “OR” part) for which there is no evidence in quantum theory. In fact, the whole idea of “wave-function collapse” is peculiar to the Copenhagen interpretation of QT, not to QT per se, and inherently unphysical.

      /@

      • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        “Quantum spookiness in microtubles” as connected to anything significant in brain function was refuted more than 15 years ago by both Rick Grush and Pat Churchland on the one and, IIRC, Vic Stenger on the other.

        • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          Citations? (I don’t doubt you; I just want to know!)

          /@

        • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          OK, I’ve found the first, via Susan Blackmore (which I think I’d come across before; I was looking for something along those lines before settling for Wp).

          /@

        • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          & the second — you were right, it was Stenger — via Michael Shermer, although Stenger’s argument, as reported by Shermer, that there’s a limit of mvd ~ h on systems that can be described by QT, isn’t a well established one, afaik. (But it’s many years since I did my Ph.D.)

          /@

        • Steersman
          Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          Apparently that argument of Stenger’s was from 2008 and referred to a 1999 paper by Tegmark:

          In a 1999 paper, physicist max Tegmark looked at the problem of quantum coherence in the brain and determined that the decoherence timescales would be ten or more orders of magnitude shorter than the timescales for an event in the brain. The brain is simply too large and too hot to be a quantum device, coherent or not.

          However, subsequent research strongly suggests that quantum coherence effects can in fact exist and be relevant in biological systems, albeit smaller than the brain, as described in a recent 2009 Discover magazine article:

          Electrons moving through a leaf or a green sulfur bacterial bloom are effectively performing a quantum “random walk”—a sort of primitive quantum computation — to seek out the optimum transmission route for the solar energy they carry. “We have shown that this quantum random-walk stuff really exists,” Fleming says. “Have we absolutely demonstrated that it improves the efficiency? Not yet. But that’s our conjecture. And a lot of people agree with it.”

          And a Wikipedia article (?) also notes:

          Studies in the last few years have demonstrated the existence of functional quantum coherence in photosynthetic protein. Engel et al. (2007) was the definitive paper in this field, while Collini et al. (2010) showed that this type of coherence in protein could exist at room temperatures. These systems use times to decoherence that are within the timescales calculated for brain protein.

          • Steersman
            Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

            And a Wikipedia article (?) also notes:

            That article is titled Quantum Mind. A notable quote therein is from David Chalmers:

            Nevertheless, quantum theories of consciousness suffer from the same difficulties as neural or computational theories. Quantum phenomena have some remarkable functional properties, such as nondeterminism and nonlocality. It is natural to speculate that these properties may play some role in the explanation of cognitive functions, such as random choice and the integration of information, and this hypothesis cannot be ruled out a priori. But when it comes to the explanation of experience, quantum processes are in the same boat as any other. The question of why these processes should give rise to experience is entirely unanswered.

            Seems like QM is hardly even the bridge to a complete theory of consciousness – if that is even possible. But at least it seems like it extends the approaches to one.

            • Posted September 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

              It can’t be ruled out a priori, but it can be shown to be extremely unlikely and that specifically the microtubule hypothesis is wrong.

              • Steersman
                Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

                I might tend to agree with you about the “microtubule hypothesis” – “a beautiful theory killed by some ugly facts” [Huxley]. Though I do still think there’s some merit in Hameroff’s general philosophy about consciousness and choice and the role they have played, and do play, in evolution.

  5. Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    All well and good, but what point is there in listening to (specific) philosophers who haven’t yet realized that our choices are determined by our brain chemistry? Glannon and Mele are still talking like there’s some other option!

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      “Brain chemistry” (and the brain’s associated neural network) surely ENABLES consciousness, cognizance, and cognitively volitional decision-making; but do “determined by” and “enabled by” have PRECISELY the SAME meaning?

      • Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        It’s determined. Frank, this is really simple. Your mind comes from your brain. Your brain is a biological organ. It works the way it does according to the laws of physics, and that’s it. What other option to you suggest? Magic?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

          Deep Blue is a computer. It works according to the laws of physics. But that’s not it, because there’s nothing in the laws of physics that tell it how to play chess. You need software for that, and by any reasonable definition it’s the software, not the physics, that makes the decisions.

          • Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

            Uh… software works according to physics, too.

            Or do you have some magic software I don’t know about?

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

              Software works according to logic. That logic is implemented (obviously) by a physical system, but if you want an explanation of why it does what it does, a description of electrons in motion won’t help you. You must have a theory of how software works, how chess works, how chess-playing algorithms work, and so on in order to understand what Deep Blue does. There’s no magic involved, just complexity that’s not captured by a reductive analysis in terms of pure physics.

              • Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                And yet, physics provides a complete explanation for what’s going on. Just like it does with our minds.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

                “And yet, physics provides a complete explanation for what’s going on.”

                Not quite correct. The fact that all causes reduce to physical causes does not mean that all explanations reduce to physical explanations. Physics provides a complete causal description of what’s going on, but in order to make sense of that mass of data you would inevitably have to construct higher-order theories about higher-order entities. Merely predicting the motions of vast numbers of atoms (even if such a thing were computationally tractable) brings you no closer to understanding what all that motion is in aid of (be it chess, cognition, or whatever).

                David Deutsch uses the example of an atom of copper in a statue of a famous general. Obviously copper atoms are physical objects that are moved by physical forces; that’s uncontroversial, and nobody claims otherwise. All the same, there’s simply no way to account for how that particular copper atom came to be in that particular place without talking about wars, politics, cities, cultural traditions of representational art, mining, metallurgy, and all the rest. The complete explanation is many orders of magnitude more complex than mere physics.

              • Posted September 13, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                Physics provides a complete causal description of what’s going on, but in order to make sense of that mass of data you would inevitably have to construct higher-order theories about higher-order entities.

                Right, so if you want to talk about the actions of a human: Instead of talking about the states of every atom in that human’s body (which you could, in theory, do), you talk about the aggregate. That doesn’t change the fact that the aggregate results completely deterministically from its parts.

                Which is what we’re talking about – determinism. Frank, above, seems to think that our choices aren’t determined. But they are, and nothing either of you have said changes that. Talk of hardware versus software is irrelevant – Deep Blue’s hardware and software work according to the laws of physics. Take any level of explanation you like, whether it be at the level of the Game of Chess, or the level of the Software Code, or the level of the Circuits Turning On or Off Inside the Computer – each level is 100% a result of the level below it. Talking about an “and” operator is just shorthand for talking about the flow of electricity through circuits by which it is created. REDUCTIONISM isn’t a dirty word.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 13, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

                You’re still confusing causality with explanation. Talking about an “and” operator is not just shorthand for talking about the flow of electricity through circuits, because the inclusion of the “and” concept enables a level of understanding that’s absent if you just talk about electrons. In fact it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about “and” gates without reference to their physical implementation. (You can make them from Tinkertoy if you like, or from patterns of cells in Conway’s Life.) The “and” operator is, in an important sense, orthogonal to physics.

                But at this point I suspect we’re just talking past each other. For what it’s worth, I grant that we are physically determined biological machines. I do not grant that physics is a sufficient explanation for the complexity of our behavior, or that all higher-level theories can be recast in purely physical terms and retain their explanatory power (as distinct from their predictive power).

              • Kharamatha
                Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

                Uhh, you do realise that software operates as tiny, physical structures in physical little objects, right? It’s tiny, itty-bitty mechano.

          • Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

            Gregory I’m with Tim on this. Assuming identical inputs**, any emulation of a particular computing device will give identical outputs ~ It is ALL physics

            The software element of any computer can be implemented purely in the architectural design of the computer hardware. The opposite is also true in that the entire hardware/software of any machine could be run as a virtual device on another computer ~ in fact this is done when computer CPUs are being designed ~ it’s routine

            Even a program that learns from experience can be built purely as a hardware device [very, very inefficient which is why it isn't often done in practice]

            To take this a step further ~ it is possible to emulate any software/hardware computer entirely in…

            Tin cans & string or
            Water fountains or
            Watch springs, ratchets & wheels or
            you name it

            ** A random unplanned-for cosmic ray, EM pulse or QM event is also an input & could change the output in some instances, but of course this isn’t free will ~ merely unpredictability [or more accurately it's noise]

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

              You’re with Tim on what, exactly? The fact that we’re made out of physics, and that it’s deterministic all the way down? I’m with him on that too.

              But he goes on to suggest in several posts that physics is all you need to know to understand anything about us, including agency and choice. That’s the point I take issue with. Physics can describe the detailed trajectory of that copper atom from the ore bed to the statue, but it can’t tell you why the general was memorialized in that way in that place.

              But I’m repeating myself. My arguments about the difference between causality and explanation are laid out above.

              • Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

                Physics can describe the detailed trajectory of that copper atom from the ore bed to the statue, but it can’t tell you why the general was memorialized in that way in that place.

                Sure it can. Let’s focus on the fact that people in charge decided to have the statue built. How did that happen?

                First, they had the idea to do it. Humans have a natural tendency to think of people after they’re gone and to raise people up as heroes, even posthumously. These tendencies are, simply, programs being run on neural hardware. The physical structure of our brains and the connections between the relevant systems account for this 100%. We don’t know the details, but we know it must be so.

                Humans had to discuss the idea. The discussions were carried out using physical mediums such as soundwaves or lines on paper, which are transduced into neural signals. Due to learned associations between sound and meaning, those signals coded for ideas in the humans’ brains – the “ideas” themselves being nothing more than clusters of neurons connected in certain ways.

                Of course, for the humans’ decision to actually have any weight, they must have been in some position of power or authority to begin with. There are many things that allow one person to impose their will on another. Humans can be overpowered, physically and psychologically. They submit to requests. Empathy, or feeling the pain of another, can be a strong motivator to change one’s actions and alleviate that pain. All of these are neurally coded for. In the case of the statue, human ideas about societal organization led to the acceptance of certain people as being “in charge,” such that if they made the decision to have a statue built, it would get built.

                And so it goes. You think because I’m using words like Empathy, Idea, and Society that this isn’t physics? All of these terms are shorthand for physical phenomena.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                Obviously I’m not getting my point across, so I’ll stop trying. Let me just say (again) that I’m as materialist as you are; I accept that everything that happens is physically caused, so you can stop trying to convince me on that point.

              • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

                Can we give this one more shot?

                I believe I just told you (though not in tremendous detail) why the general was memorialized. And I used physics.

                Do you disagree that I gave an explanation, or do you disagree that my explanation was physics? And if it wasn’t physics, why not?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 14, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

                You gave an explanation in terms of psychology and sociology, referencing concepts such as heroism, authority, social organization and so on. These concepts were central to your explanation. You mentioned physics as well, and physical processes obviously underlie everything that happens in your story, but the explanatory power of the story comes from the sociology of it, not from physical theories of particles and forces.

                Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we could write down a massive system of physical equations (i.e. equations of particles and forces) that would trace out the entire trajectory of that copper atom purely in terms of particle interactions, without reference to anything larger or more abstract. Such a system would obviously not be a theory of heroes and statues; those concepts would not appear anywhere in it, nor could it be usefully generalized to describe other statues of other heroes. It’s strictly a single-purpose description of that one atom’s history — a travelogue rather than an explanation.

                To construct a useful theory of heroes and statues — one that yields meaningful insights about heroes and statues in general — you have to go beyond particle interactions and talk about higher-level entities such as nations, wars, and heroes, just as you did in your story. Otherwise you’re just talking about particle motions, and produce no useful explanations of anything larger.

                Take another example. Suppose I show you a complex mechanical contraption full of cogs and levers and ratchets, with a bank of knobs at one end and a pair of colored flags at the the other. Twiddle the knobs into one configuration, and the red flag pops up. Twiddle them into another configuration, and the green flag pops up. The chassis is completely open, all the moving parts visible, so you can see the precise chain of forces that leads from knob to flag. Still, it’s not clear what the machine actually does, until I put labels on the knobs and flags. Suddenly it’s obvious what the machine does: you input a number on the knobs, and it tells you whether or not it’s prime. But notice that you’re no longer thinking of the machine in terms of mechanical forces; you’re thinking of it in terms of number theory. You needed a theory beyond pure mechanics to make sense of the machine’s action. Mechanics alone did not provide a sufficient explanation. (Maybe you could have figured out the labels yourself by experimentation and reverse engineering, but that’s not important. What matters is that you need to stop thinking in terms of levers and cogs to get there.)

              • Posted September 14, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

                Hmm… I think I see what you’re saying now. You’re right, I think.

                Thanks for sticking with me.

                But one question: Why did you first object to my comment above? As far as whether our thoughts are determined or not, my explanation that our brain follows the laws of physics “and that’s it” is completely accurate. There is nothing else for our thoughts to be caused by. You can say that higher-order concepts come between our Thoughts and Physics, but that doesn’t change the point.

              • Steersman
                Posted September 14, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                Tim Martin said:

                There is nothing else for our thoughts to be caused by.

                Except that is a rather reductionist, materialist, almost eliminativist position. On the other hand, a dualist – and there seems to be quite a range or spectrum in that fairly well populated camp (no guarantee, of course) – might reasonably argue, I think anyway, that there is still something there down at the bottom of the well of consciousness that is not caused by the physics but is causing it.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 14, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

                Tim:

                Perhaps I read into it more than you intended, but at the time, “our choices are determined by our brain chemistry” and “physics…that’s it” sounded to me like a denial of any role for cognition and conscious deliberation in decision-making. The Deep Blue analogy was meant to critique that position, since obviously in that case the software does play a role in choosing the moves (in the sense that different software would choose different moves).

                In a nutshell, you can’t understand an information-processing system just by understanding the physics of it. You have to understand the information content as well.

        • Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          Gracious, I seem to have fallen into a shallow pool of bad-tempered quick-triggers. I was not suggesting anything like magic, I’m a materialist clean-to-the-bone. Sorry to disturb you, I’ll crawl out and drag m’self back under m’rock and attempt point-making here by factious quip no more (clearly I do it SO badly)…

          • Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            Then what was your suggested alternative for where our choices come from if not brain chemistry? What other possibility were you entertaining?

            • sasqwatch
              Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

              Was someone completely determined by the laws of physics to piss in your cornflakes this morning?

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Mele is basically a compatibilist but is still agnostic about the libertarian possibility that our choices aren’t fully determined, see http://bigthink.com/ideas/19233

      He’s directing a Templeton-funded project on free will and thinks research could conceivably show that the brain is the locus of non-deterministic choosing, http://www.freewillandscience.com/wp/ Of course Templeton would love it to turn out that way, http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm#templeton

  6. Sastra
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    This has obvious implications for the notion of “free will,” at least as most people conceive of that concept. We like to think that our conscious selves make decisions, but in fact the choices appear to have been made by our brains before we’re aware of them. The implication, of course, is that deterministic forces beyond are conscious control are involved in our “decisions”, i.e. that free will isn’t really “free”… philosophers are revising the definition of “free will” in light of these neuroscientific findings.”

    I don’t think the significant factor is how we define “free will.” I think the big impact neuroscience has on philosophy and the free will question has to do with how we define the self.

    What is the “I?” Should we continue to separate the conscious selves that make decisions .. from our brains? This is of course the intuitive dualism of primitive thinking: there is the non-physical mind and then there is the physical substrate it’s connected to in some dubious and mysterious way.

    But this is wrong. There is no important, significant distinction in kind between the conscious self and the unconscious self. This is only a continuum with no firm dividing line. Science reveals that the “self” is much more complicated — and broader — than we thought. Mind is matter in motion.

    So I think you misunderstand compatibilism. Compatibilists aren’t redefining “free will.” We’re rethinking and revising the concept of self. This is the part of the free will equation that scientific discovery impacted: the “I” turned out to be more sophisticated than the common idea — a homunculus shut off into a neat little category of rational awareness alone, a theater suspended from nowhere and unconnected to cranes of neurons.

    I think that once you change how you define the self, the problem of free will turns out to be a pseudo-problem.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Oh. That first paragraph was supposed to be in blockquotes. Those are Jerry’s words.

      Really, really wish there was preview.

    • Darrell E
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      My thoughts as well. Except you said it while I was still trying to figure out how to express myself. And you said it much better than I would have, I think.

    • DV
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      this!

    • gillt
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      This seems like a semantic argument since I think everyone agrees free will is a part of the concept of self.

      If we’re shuttling more of our concept of self into the dark waters of unconsciousness where our conscious self as no access and where will power has no control (that I’m aware of) from a free will or either “self” standpoint I would consider that a restricted redefinition of conscious actor, ultimately a less free concept of self or free will.

      Theoretically, should be able to circumvent this by wiring consciousness to unconscious via real time imaging.

    • Steersman
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      Mind is matter in motion.

      That’s a nice analogy and image; reminds me of the machine in the movie of Sagan’s Contact.

      Except the devil’s in the details: what matter, which motions?

  7. Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    I believe Dennett agrees that the average person means by free will the freedom to make “decisions that are independent of our physical make-up at the moment of deciding.” But, as he points out, the average person wants something we can’t have.

    He likes quoting the example of how, when Lee Siegel started writing a book about magic, people were disappointed that it wasn’t about what they called “real magic”. But by real magic they meant something that doesn’t exist. Siegel was writing about something that does exist, and people saw this as “false magic”.

    The point is that free will in the sense most people probably understand it (if they think about it deeply at all) clearly doesn’t exist. That seems pretty obvious (for will to be will you need determinism; but then it can’t be entirely free). But there’s nothing wrong in trying to answer a more sensible question. Once you understand that what most people mean by free will obviously can’t exist, then it’s not unreasonable to try to answer the question of what our will *is* free from. And there’s a good case to be made that the constraints on the exercise of our will have changed over evolutionary and political history. And that’s a rather interesting story, just as the story of conjuring tricks is rather interesting once you give up on wanting to hear true stories about “real magic”.

    That, as I understand it, is Dennett’s point (although I admit it’s been a while since I read him or saw him speak).

    • Peter
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      Elaborating a little, Dennett et al. don’t even need to particularly refer to the details of neuroscience to show that the common conception of free will, as free all the way down, doesn’t make sense.

      And there is another important point: not only that we can’t be free in that sense, but that sense of freedom isn’t a good description of what we actually want.

  8. Thos. Cochrane
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    The confusion arises from talking about consciousness at different levels of analysis.

    When we’re analyzing actions & thoughts at the level of neurons & neurotransmitters, it’s obvious that there’s not “really” any such thing as free will.

    But when we’re analyzing actions & thoughts day-to-day, at the level of people, the concept of free will comes in handy, because we have no access to the deterministic mechanisms underlying our thoughts (let alone other peoples’ thoughts.) If you want to predict the other guy’s next move, it’s best to use a model that allows you to make fairly accurate and timely predictions. For this, the “free will model” works best (which is probably why we are programmed to use it.)

    This doesn’t mean that you have to endorse contracausal free will.

  9. Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure lack of free will really has an impact on accountability in practice. Morality still becomes an iterative process whereby whatever pre-concious decisions we make are informed by the consequences of previous decisions of which we have become concious (albeit after the event). Except in cases of “heat of the moment” acts, which are morally defensible anyway, you can still hold someone accountable for criminal behaviour for not reflexively acquiring a moral compass.

    • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      This is where a lot of the research in philosophy is going – working on the responsibility side.

      Unfortunately, in my view it has already collided with the problem of remaining agnostic as to mechanisms. A famous book, _Responsibility and Control_, talks about mechanisms, but the authors refuse to do metaphysics, alas.

  10. Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I have free will, but I also don’t think that demonstrating we rationalise our decision to ourselves after our subconscious has already made it is proof.

    The unconscious part of our brain is like a computer programme continuously running, the conscious is like a computer programmer that evaluates the performance and tweaks it – which is probably why we spend so much time mentally re-enacting confrontations etc, as a way of re-programming our brain to act differently when a similar scenario occurs in the future.

    The “decision” part comes after the event in order to prepare us for the next occurrence, and not necessarily before.

    • Darrell E
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      – which is probably why we spend so much time mentally re-enacting confrontations etc, as a way of re-programming our brain to act differently when a similar scenario occurs in the future.

      Interesting hypothesis. Similar to the visualizing exercises that people often use. I have used that technique myself many times to try and modify “glitches” in my initial response to certain types of events in motorcycle racing, and to try and learn new things faster.

      Though certainly anecdotal, in my experience it does seem to work fairly well. I would love to see several good studies of this.

  11. Dave
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I don’t see why this finding is “depressing.” So what if our choices are made in the brain at a level below conscious awareness? I don’t see that it follows that “we don’t have any choice.” That would only be the case if “we” are nothing more than our conscious, reflective experience, which I thought everyone understood (at least since Freud?) that we are not.

    We can still hold individuals responsible for their actions as a practical matter, because conscious choices are not the only thing people can do to control their behavior.

    • Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:50 am | Permalink

      Nice Dave!

    • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      It does, however, raise a family of interesting questions about the “bounds of the self” – matters which Dan Dennett and others have talked about for decades, now.

  12. Sastra
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of how theologians redefine the meaning of Adam and Eve in light of genetic findings that we didn’t all descend from two ancestors, although I have a lot more respect for philosophers than for theologians.

    Well, it doesn’t remind me of that; on the contrary. I think that insisting that compatibilism doesn’t deal with real free will (or real selves) is like insisting that if there is no God then there is no real meaning to our lives. Take the most simplistic, childlike, unsophisticated understanding of a fuzzy term (‘free will’ means our brains don’t make our choices for us; ‘meaning’ means we were created for a purpose) and hold on to it in the name of high holy purity.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Meteorology doesn’t deal with real lightning, because as everyone knows, real lightning is the kind thrown by Zeus. Talk of atmospheric electricity is just an attempt to redefine the problem out of existence.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:38 am | Permalink

        Mm, yes there’s a point there. However, what’s this fuzzy, comfortable “lightning” you can’t let go? Dwarven hammer or nothing.

  13. J.J.E.
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    This shows, as Kerri Smith points out, that philosophers are revising the definition of “free will” in light of these neuroscientific findings. This reminds me of how theologians redefine the meaning of Adam and Eve in light of genetic findings… This sounds to me very much like post hoc rationalization.

    I know this all comes down to semantics, but I must object to this perspective as it seems overly tendentious. I think what we label “free will” (and what we have labeled for centuries) is a real human experience, a real phenomenon that we really are struggling to understand. As it happens, a very popular and enduring notion in the west, “contracausal free will” based on a soul, is crap. And the phenomenon we seek explanation for seems less directly connected to our conscious mind than we previously thought.

  14. Dave
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I do like the line “We can still act as if we had free will. We don’t have have much choice in that matter.”

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      Heh, I glossed over that on first read of Jerry’s post. Nice. Love it.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Au contraire, we don’t want to act as though we’re uncaused causers (Jerry’s definition of free will), since that leads us to ignore the actual causes of our behavior, and incites retributive blame premised on the idea we could have done otherwise in a situation.

      And despite what Jerry says, we actually *are* choosing agents, just not contra-causally free agents.

      • Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        Here, I completely agree with you, Tom.

        /@

  15. Konradius
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I actually just made a comment on http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/13/what-it-means-to-me-to-be-free/
    and that actually is quite fitting to this post as well:
    To me what is free will is our ability to change our own programming of our own accord. Some time ago I made the decision I should work out more. So I changed my schedule, I set up my environment so I would be more likely to choose to work out after I finished work.

    Sure you can argue that when I reached whatever decision it was some specific neuron that got triggered and some deterministic process that led to that neuron getting triggered, but that’s missing the point.

    Given sufficiently advanced knowledge of anything you can predict what that anything will do in the future. This includes a brain, but it is essentially true for everything. If you want to argue against freedom of will with this as evidence, then you have essentially defined freedom out of existence.

    The point is that intelligent beings can look at a choice. They can gather information, discuss with friends, review earlier experiences, and then make that choice based on whatever they wanted to use as their selection criteria.
    Perhaps they just pushed one of the buttons.

    Free will is where the environment influences the individual and the individual changes the environment. It’s the brain changing itself to make better choices in the future. And it’s the brain having changed itself in the past to determine the choices we make today. You can look at the brain through a scanner in real time and see what a person will choose seconds in advance. However you will never know what that brain will do farther in the future. Why? Because asking that question in itself will change the answer. Any prediction you may have about someones actions will influence their actions and make the prediction moot.
    And that is the freedom of will.

  16. Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    The experiments show, then, that not only are decisions made before we’re conscious of having made them

    Well, let’s be clear…. Some decisions are made before we’re conscious of having made them. For some decisions, this is clearly not the case; or, if it is the case, while we may not be conscious we have made the decision yet, the decision was arrived at by unconscious processes.

    You are simply not going to convince me that when I solve a complicated differential equation, I already had the answer in my subconscious before I started consciously thinking about how to solve the problem. While the exact timing of when we are aware of our choices and when we make our choices may be a little fuzzy, the solving of a non-trivial calculus problem is pretty clearly a multi-step deliberative process involving a lot of conscious thought.

    Obviously this is not the same as libertarian free will, which I think all us materialists must immediately reject (and even if you aren’t a materialist, I think libertarian free will is difficult to salvage anyway). I see your point that compatibilist free will seems to be redefining it as something other than what the average person intuits it to be, but OTOH I think it raises a good point: The non-existence of libertarian free will has virtually no practical impact on our day-to-day existence, because compatibilist free will is manifestly true, and that’s all that really matters on a practical level.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      I flubbed my first paragraph there. I think I meant to say conscious processes in the last sentence, not unconscious. Whoops.

      I think my point is more clear in the paragaphs that follow anyway.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      “You are simply not going to convince me that when I solve a complicated differential equation, I already had the answer in my subconscious before I started consciously thinking about how to solve the problem.”

      Quite right, but of course consciousness is itself completely dependent on the brain, so it isn’t as if it adds something special to decision-making. What’s special are the neurally-based processes *associated* with consciousness, since all the evidence suggests they are indeed necessary for flexible, novel and complex behavior like solving differential equations, and for learning new skills and forming memories, http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Neuroscience

      “The non-existence of libertarian free will has virtually no practical impact on our day-to-day existence…”

      Well, to the extent our responsibility practices and interpersonal attitudes are premised on belief in libertarian free will, then debunking that belief might have considerable impact, http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm

      • Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Well, to the extent our responsibility practices and interpersonal attitudes are premised on belief in libertarian free will,

        But they don’t have to be. Compatibilist free will is a fully sufficient premise for our responsibility practices and interpersonal attitudes. Justice is important 1) as a deterrent, and 2) because we have an evolved need for it (which likely came about because of its use as a deterrent, but whatever the cause, people don’t live well when they feel justice is not being done). Libertarian free will is not a necessary concept to justify this.

        • Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, what I meant is, it’s more difficult to justify retribution, extreme social inequality, stigma against addicts and the obese, and other attitudes and practices premised on the libertarian idea that people are miniature first causes that could have done otherwise in the situation they were in. See for instance Greene and Cohen’s paper, “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing, and everything” at http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/GreeneCohenPhilTrans-04.pdf

    • physicalist
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Exactly right. What the studies obviously do not show is that conscious awareness is always and everywhere irrelevant to decision outcomes. And the fact that I often explicitly consider conscious states (e.g., I ask myself which color of paint I prefer) indicates that consciousness awareness often does play an essential causal role.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Though occasionally my brain actually will be working on a problem after I’d consciously stopped thinking about it, and then the answer pops into my conscious awareness fully formed.

      But yeah, that has never happened with a problem I hadn’t at some point decided to think about for awhile, and it usually only occurs when the solution can be presented in the form of a mental diagram rather than numbers and words.

      …What was I talking about?

      • physicalist
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        Yes, and even more importantly: When you come up with the answer, should we say it wasn’t “You” who came up with it? You still get the copyright, the Nobel prize, or whatever — you’re responsible for it.

  17. Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Well, I have to say that I agree with Adina Roskies. The neuroscientific studies are dealing with a caricature of choice. Nor is the choice between tea or coffeee necessarily any better. Choice is something which may take quite some time. Indeed, sometimes it takes days, and it is very doubtful that you could set up a situation which could give you brain scan information about choices like that. The situation in which a person is asked to push one button or another is a caricature of most instances of decision or choice, which may include considerable deliberation before the choice is made, and may indeed involve not a rationalisation of a choice already made, but a rational consideration of the choices yet to be made. It is true that, knowing me, you could, in many instances, predict what I will choose, but that does not mean that choice did not come into it. That’s the compatibilist position, and it does not seem to me that the choice experiments being made really deal with the kinds of choice that most of us routinely make based on reasons. This may not make them any less deterministic, but it may make them more or less rational.

  18. Paul
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I wonder if, like weather forecasting, because of a sensitivity to initial conditions predicting brain activity more than a certain time ahead would be (virtually) impossible?

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I would assume so.

      Not to mention the difficulty of even determining the initial conditions.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      In spades, given the vast numbers of neurone and synapses, let alone the complexities of our body chemistry and external stimuli (such as the weather).

      /@

  19. Another Matt
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I think the problem we have is a difficulty analyzing things at proper levels. Forget free will for a moment, and think about something a little more basic like nociception. It’s a useful concept because to describe it in purely physical or chemical terms would take far too long and there would be too much information. But in principle it’s possible to do.

    The problem is, at that level we’re tempted to say “but where is ‘pain’ in all of this? Is pain not real, but merely a bunch of chemical processes?” I think the right answer is that pain is real, not despite its grounding in chemical reactions, but because of its grounding in chemical reactions. That question fails on an implicit fallacy of composition, I think, that because the molecules and nociceptors don’t feel pain, then the body they are part of doesn’t really feel pain either — it’s “merely” an illusion. Words like “really” and “merely” are weasel words, and they do far too much work in these descriptions.

    A compatibilist will say that free will is what happens when a sufficiently complex computer with a sufficiently complex model of its world processes information and reacts to it. The “could have made a different decision” idea has to do with the scope of the model and the amount of information it can process. It hinges on the sense in which we mean “could” and “possible.” In compatibilist free will, could and possible “exist” at the level of the agent’s model. The model is necessarily incomplete so an agent needs to be able to imagine alternate scenarios based on the information it has.

    Jerry has seemed to insist that “possibility” isn’t really there because he’s not analyzing from the “world-model’s eye view.” There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but we’ll be at cross purposes until we realize that we’re just talking at different levels and thus mean different things when we use words that describe possibility. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the philosophers of hiding the ball.

  20. Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    “Why is all this important, and not just a debate about philosophy? The answer is obvious: whether our actions are predetermined has obvious consequences for how and why we hold people responsible for their actions.”

    No it’s not. How can the obvious consequence not having free will be DECIDING how and why we hold people responsible for their actions. Either we don’t have free will or we do. You seem to want it both ways in the above quote.

    Also in order to do research on these topics you need to make explicit what theory of consciousness and self you are using. You can’t really use the common sense notions because they are incoherent and fall prey to the “Ghost in the Machine” the magical place where consciousness happens in the above experiment. You need to explicitly state what you mean by “comes into consciouness” because many people find this idea problematic. Only by doing this hard conceptual work can you be sure about what the testable predictions of a theory about free will are.

  21. Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    “We like to think that our conscious selves make decisions, but in fact the choices appear to have been made by our brains before we’re aware of them.”

    As Jerry points out, many of the philosophers mentioned in the article seem to identify free will with consciousness and its proprietary role in behavior control. What would defeat free will according to Roskies (and Mele agrees) is if you saw “the brain making up its mind before conscious awareness,” but of course the brain is involved at *all points* in decision-making. Coming to a decision is a process spread over time, often involving unconscious *and* conscious stages, but it’s all brain based, so it’s all in principle scannable, and it all *will* be scanned eventually. Brain science will have its way with us.

    It may turn out that we can’t predict complex decisions in advance of the conscious stages (as James Sweet points out), but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the brain making up its mind. So long as we identify ourselves with the brain, not just conscious states (what Dennett recommends: make yourself big, not small), then we can say that as the brain makes up its mind, *I* make up *my* mind. This keeps the (expanded, Dennettian) self in control, such that we can justly hold each other responsible even if consciousness doesn’t add control above and beyond what its associated neural processes accomplish, see http://www.naturalism.org/glannon.htm On this view, saying “my brain made me do it” can’t count as an excuse since it translates into “I made me do it.”

    Who needs contra-causal free will?

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      I’d +1 you if I could.

      These discussions generally bug me because there are usually so many people behaving like it’s a “me versus my brain” situation. I guess it’s hard for people to not see themselves as a ghost in the machine, no matter where they fall on this issue.

      Your consciousness doesn’t direct what your brain does, nor is is a separate entity shackled by what your brain does. It’s part of what your brain does. Just like all those choices you make all the time.

      It seems so obvious. Of course the decision has to precede your conscious awareness of the decision. How could it be otherwise? How could you be aware of a decision before you made it?

      • Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Thanks, and yes it’s fascinating how folks think consciousness is an immaterial initiator and decider, as you say a symptom of deep dualism. That said, the neural processes associated with consciousness are apparently essential to complex behavior control.

    • DV
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      this too!

      • Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        I wholeheartedly agree, Tom.

        This is the model I’ve had in mind since reading Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. One of the things that particularly struck me ws the slide projector carrousel experiment, where the carrousel was advanced by nerve signals in each subject’s arm rather than the clicker in their hand, and each subject reported that the slide advanced before they’d decided to press the clicker, but that they could’t stop themselves.

        Thus, it seems to me, that all “conscious” thoughts, decisions, and so on, are really “subconscious” (thoughts from the id!), and our conscious awareness is really only a very-short-term memory of those thoughts, decisions, and so on.

        So, our consciousness isn’t a programmer observing and tinkering with the program — the programmer is actually part of the program. The consciousness is the “dashboard” — but it’s also part of both program and programmer.

        I think it’s easy to see how our consciousness evolved like this (not how our consciousness evolved!): If we were immediately conscious of our decision to grab a branch but had to wait some fraction of a second to be aware of our hand closing around it, we’d end up terribly confused. And possibly plummeting to the forest floor.

        On another point, what does sleepwalking tell us about the need for consciousness to make “conscious decisions”? (Maybe this is just a red herring… ?)

        /@

        • Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

          Yes, sleepwalking suggests that some fairly complex, perceptually dependent behavior can proceed without consciousness. But I don’t think one can learn new tasks, form memories, or deliberate about puzzles and choices when sleepwalking. It looks as if the neural processes associated with consciousness are essential for these sorts of behavior, http://www.naturalism.org/kto.htm#Neuroscience As to whether consciousness *itself* adds anything to control beyond what these processes accomplish, I have my doubts, http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm

  22. physicalist
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    “What does it mean to “make rational decisions in the absence of coercion” if that decision has already been made?”

    Well, who made that decision then? Someone besides me? You’ve got a very limited (and problematic) notion of a person/agent/self if you think that it’s limited to the brain subsystem that’s reporting awareness of something.

    “if you’re a determinist . . . there’s no possibility of deciding “otherwise” if all else is equal. Even the compatibilist commenters on this site don’t believe that.”

    I do. I argue that determinism is perfectly compatible with the ability to do otherwise. To say that “I could have done otherwise” is just to say that “If I had wanted to, I would have done otherwise. (This view is held by many compatibilists; I can’t claim credit for it.)

    “I believe that the vast majority of nonphilosophers and laypeople hold a consistent definition of free will.”

    What is this consistent definition? I (along with the majority of philosophers) would say that there is no coherent notion of libertarian freedom; indeed, this has always been one of the strongest arguments against the libertarian.

    (Note that compatibilism goes all the way back before Aristotle; it isn’t some new account generated in response to contemporary science.)

    Look at is this way: Either decisions are caused (in which case they’re not free according to the libertarian) or they’re the result of chance (in which case they’re also not our free choice). Libertarianism is incoherent, regardless of what science discovers.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      “To say that ‘I could have done otherwise’ is just to say that ‘If I had wanted to, I would have done otherwise.'”

      Well, what concerns Jerry and others is that one’s decisions and behavior are fully caused, such that given the same exact conditions then the same behavior would result. The libertarian misconception is that given those conditions, other (non-random) outcomes would somehow have ensued. This is what Jerry et al. mean by “could have done otherwise,” no?

      • physicalist
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        This is what Jerry et al. mean by “could have done otherwise,” no?

        Yes, obviously they have this in mind, since they hold that determinism rules out this ability.

        But I think that they have more than this in mind as well, and it’s the extra bit that’s leading to all the hand-wringing about not being morally responsible.

        The point is that we find ourselves with a fuzzy cluster of concepts like “cause,” “determined by,” “responsible for,” “able to,” and so on. And the reason that materialists like Jerry find themselves buying into the (incoherent) notion of libertarian freedom is that they fail to disentangle these various notions.

        So it seems to me that Jerry’s worried about actions being “predetermined” (as he says above) – which evokes fatalism rather than determinism.

        And Jerry wants us to worry that if we’re determined then somehow we lack some sort of power that if we did have it – if it weren’t ruled out by science – would give us responsibility. But my point is that if you think about what powers are – what it means to be able to do something, then you find that we’ve got as much power as we could want (as far as freedom and responsibility go, at least) in a deterministic world.

        • Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

          “Yes, obviously they have this in mind, since they hold that determinism rules out this ability.”

          Ok, so I don’t think you can claim that there’s a single notion of “could have done otherwise” out there, and that it’s “To say that ‘I could have done otherwise’ is just to say that ‘If I had wanted to, I would have done otherwise.'”

          If you weren’t making that claim, never mind :-)

          “Jerry wants us to worry that if we’re determined then somehow we lack some sort of power that if we did have it – if it weren’t ruled out by science – would give us responsibility. But my point is that if you think about what powers are – what it means to be able to do something, then you find that we’ve got as much power as we could want (as far as freedom and responsibility go, at least) in a deterministic world.”

          Absolutely agree with this. Being uncaused causers wouldn’t buy us more control, origination or responsibility, http://www.naturalism.org/fatalism.htm#The%20Flaw%20of%20Fatalism

          • physicalist
            Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

            I like your debunking of fatalism; it seems we’re in agreement.

            I don’t think you can claim that there’s a single notion of “could have done otherwise” out there.”

            That’s helpful. My complaint is that Jerry (& other incompatibilists) are assuming that there’s only a single notion of “could have done otherwise” and then when the notice that determinism rules out this one notion, they leap to the fatalist conclusion that we have no power over the future.

            I want to say that the notion they focus on is irrelevant. What we should instead be interested in is the notion of what would have happened if things had been different (specifically, if I had wanted to do something else).

            • Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

              “I want to say that the notion they focus on is irrelevant. What we should instead be interested in is the notion of what would have happened if things had been different…”

              We of course are always interested in the counterfactual sense of could have done otherwise (CHDO), but pointing out the falsity of the libertarian notion of CHDO is important, since some fairly widespread beliefs are premised on it, for instance that criminals, addicts and the poor could have acted differently given their circumstances. Such beliefs help justify punitive attitudes and social polices, and prompt us to ignore the actual causes of behavior. As Galen Strawson puts it, “How might we be changed by dwelling intensely on the view that ultimate responsibility is impossible?”

              “…they leap to the fatalist conclusion that we have no power over the future.”

              On the standard (but not universally held) view of spacetime as a 4-dimensional block universe, the future is fixed, just like the past, so we don’t have the power to change it (see Cosmic Variance on this). However, this doesn’t imply fatalism, since fatalism (that no matter what I do, a certain outcome will eventuate) means that there’s no reliable patterning of actions and outcomes, when in fact we see such patterning in spades looking at the portion of spacetime we have access to, http://www.naturalism.org/spacetime.htm

              • Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                “If I had wanted to, I would have done otherwise.”

                But in exactly the same circumstances, even if you did have contracausal free will, why would you have wanted to do otherwise?

                So, this kind of “rewind/replay” question doesn’t seem to me to tell us much about free will.

                /@

              • Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                “But in exactly the same circumstances, even if you did have contracausal free will, why would you have wanted to do otherwise?”

                Right, you wouldn’t, but it turns out weirdly enough that some people want to be free from their very wants, desires and personalities, which they see as somehow constraining their choices. Doesn’t make sense, but whaddaya gonna do?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        I think Jerry’s use of “could” is a misrepresentation of what most people mean by it. “Could” is not a statement about physical causality at the micro-level; it’s a statement about knowledge. “I could do X” means I know how to do X, but I don’t (yet) know if I will do it. Statements of this form are perfectly compatible both with physical causality and with Jerry’s definition of free will as “could have done otherwise”.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      You confuse the discussion by making it sound like you disagree with what Jerry says, when really you just disagree with the label he uses for it.

      You don’t believe that more than one choice is possible given the same brain state. Jerry is quite clear to state that this is what he means by “doing otherwise.” You agree with Jerry; you just don’t like him saying that we “can do no other” (Luther, on the other hand, was quite okay with it.)

      If you disagree on the basis of semantics, make it clear that that is your only disagreement.

      • physicalist
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        Jerry and I agree that we are (for practical purposes) determined.

        The question is what follows from this.

        We obviously disagree about whether determinism rules out moral responsibility. (I’m a compatibilist, he’s an incompatibilist.)

        But I think that part of the reason we disagree about responsibility is that we disagree about how one should think about abilities and powers in a deterministic world.

        It seems to me that Jerry’s committed to claiming that if determinism is true, then nothing ever has the ability to do anything it doesn’t actually do.

        But this seems obviously false to me. The earthquake could have broken the sidewalk (though it didn’t). That infection could have been lethal (though it wasn’t). And so on, and so on.

        Once you think about what makes claims about counterfactuals true in general, you see that we can apply the exact same story to ourselves.

        So I think this is an important correction to lingering dualist intuitions that are guiding incompatibilists like Jerry.

        • Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

          When we talk about counterfactuals in general, we usually don’t talk about what could have happened given the exact same initial conditions.

          When we say the earthquake could have broken the sidewalk (though it didn’t), we mean that an earthquake similar to this one could have broken it. But we also know, if we’re smart, that the exact same physical event acting on the exact same physical environment could not have broken the sidewalk… because it didn’t.

          You, me, and Jerry are agreed that given a set of initial conditions, Brain A will always make the same choice.

          I’ve yet to see how your disagreement is anything other than a dislike for how Jerry describes that fact. Where is the “lingering dualism?” Where has Jerry gone wrong?

          • physicalist
            Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

            we mean that an earthquake similar to this one could have broken it.

            Do we? How is this different from saying that an earthquake similar to this one would have broken it?

            It seems to me (and to others who defend this line) that you have one “could” too many here.

            I reiterate: On your and Jerry’s account, nothing ever has the ability to do anything it doesn’t actually do. This just strips the words “can” and “could” of all their usefulness.

            Someone says, “Wow, that was lucky! I had a wineglass perched on the edge of the table; the earthquake could have broken it!” And you reply, “No; the world’s deterministic, so the glass couldn’t have broken — since that would have violated the deterministic laws of physics.”

            We need some way to distinguish between the wine glass that could have broken and the iron table that couldn’t. Take this distinction (which we usually signal by the words “can” and “could”) and apply it to us, and you’ve got all you need for free will.

            The lingering dualism comes in (I claim) when Jerry sees the brain (or physics) producing an action and then deciding, “Oh, well then that can’t be me doing that. I didn’t have any say in the matter because the brain/physics did it without me!”

            • Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

              When you say you could have done otherwise had you only wanted to, you choose to call this “being able to do otherwise.” Jerry points out that there’s no way for you to change what you want (this would lead to an infinite regress, because you would have to want to change what you want), and so Jerry says that being able to do otherwise (had you only wanted to) is exactly the same as being unable to do otherwise.

              What information does your argument add to this?

  23. Steersman
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    As someone said, “I believe in free will. But I don’t have any choice in the matter”.

    But seems to me that both concepts are abstractions, reasonable approximations – sort of like the wave-particle duality of physics – each of which has some utility in some areas, but which breaks down in others. I tend to be happier with the engineering concept, “degrees of freedom”: it may not always be easy to quantify them, but it doesn’t seem difficult to understand that being a slave or being in prison has far fewer degrees than the obverse. Though other perceptions might reasonably lead to taking that with a grain of salt, for example, “I owe, I owe; it’s off to work I go”.

    But it also seems to me that that is sort of where theologians and philosophers – notably of the Aristotelian-Thomist [A-T] school (e.g. Edward Feser) – fall down in asserting the autonomous reality of their “essences” [“through the purity and essence of our (precious bodily) fluids. Amen.”]:

    Seems to me to be a very great logical error on their part to be accepting the provisional, ephemeral and hypothetical nature of their premises but to then assert – rather dogmatically, one might add – the truth of the conclusion – God exists – which depends crucially on those premises – as Feser has clearly done (in my view):

    But if universals, propositions, and mathematical [objects] are eternal and necessarily existing entities … [The Last Superstition; pg 90]

    Now if the essence of a thing and the existence of a thing are distinct in this way … [pg 104]

    Now if there really are Aristotelian natures, essences, final causes, etc., then the lesson of all this … [pg 145]

    Most illogical and rather unreasonable to then conclude:

    The most important thing to know about [God’s existence] is that it is true, and demonstrably so. [pg ix]

    Mad as hatters, even if they exhibit some method ….

  24. Kevin
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but I still don’t think this has anything to do with “free will.”

    This has to do with how the brain processes information. You are still choosing. It’s just that front-of-mind consciousness plays less of a role in making the decision than we might have expected.

    Doesn’t surprise me in the least — especially when you look at sports like baseball where the time needed to see a pitch, recognize velocity, spin, and location, and make a decision as to whether to swing or not is vanishingly short. It’s still YOU under that decision-making tent, just not that part of you that is the consciousness part.

    For fans of the Inner Game books, it’s the difference between Self 1 and Self 2.

    It has no bearing on free will. You are still the one deciding whether to let the curveball go because it’s going to end up outside and low.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      BTW: I think the whole concept of “free will” does suffer from a failure of specific definition.

      After all, free will was invented as a religious concept to answer the question, “Why would god’s perfect creature decide to violate what god had dictated as rules of behavior?” The answer: free will allows man to “sin”.

      Well, there is no god, there are no rules laid down from above, and therefore there is no “sin” — which I define as a human offense against god.

      Without those prerequisites, it’s just plain silly to speak of free will under its original definition. And without that original definition, you’re left with a very mushy concept, indeed.

      What you’re talking about is whether any decision we make (ever) is a result of a volitional process, or whether it’s all written in the stars — or at least set in stone by virtue of all of our previous actions.

      And I think it’s quite silly to believe in predetermination.

      Predetermination doesn’t take into account chaos theory. Random acts happen randomly and often have widespread consequences that can’t be determined. My nephew made a volitional decision to honeymoon this week in the Dominican Republic. Tropical Storm Maria made different plans.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      Although I haven’t read any of the papers (no access), the descriptions I read suggest another fault: once a person becomes conscious of something, they then have to start a whole chain of events to register some physical manifestation. Humans can prime themselves to act (and even anticipate something happening – something which causes problems on the starting blocks in sports events) and in priming themselves can act faster than typical in situations. Concentrating on something else (for example, daydreaming or doing arithmetic) will impede the ability to react. Now I’m wondering how reaction times to light and sound cues compares given 100% concentration (priming) and when engaged with other tasks (reading and responding to arithmetic equations).

      Another challenge I would expect to be answered in tests is that machines should decide and record what a person is going to do and the experiment must be designed to measure something other than the experimenter’s expectations (double-blind). This is to avoid post-hoc claims such as the absolutely absurd (and very obviously wrong) claim in this ridiculous news article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14841018

  25. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    You don’t need neuroscience to raise this kind of “threat” to notions of free will. Imagine that you’re the parent of a teenager applying to college, but unsure which school she wants to go to. Over several weeks you notice that she’s spending more time browsing the Harvard course catalog than the Stanford catalog. You predict that ultimately she will choose Harvard over Stanford, and in the event, your prediction turns out to be correct.

    I think it would be perverse to argue that this successful prediction represents a triumph of biological determinism that somehow trumps your daughter’s ability to choose for herself, or makes the weeks of research irrelevant to her final choice. If your notion of what it means to make a choice is ultimately grounded in physical causality (as any reasonable definition should be), then the fact that you may be able to guess your daughter’s choice before she knows it herself makes no difference to the fact that it’s her choice. I don’t see how replacing parental intuition with fMRI scans alters this argument.

    If there’s any dualism being argued here, it seems to me it’s on the part of those who insist that I am not the entity that makes decisions using my brain, that the boundaries of me are somehow smaller than my physical self, so that I don’t get credit for things that happen below the level of consciousness. That’s nonsense, in my view. I and my brain are identical, and its decisions — physically determined though they are — are by definition mine.

  26. Donn
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Skipped to end to ask, before it goes fuzzy:

    Is it not possible that the ‘decisions’ from below (that we ‘sense’ later) go out into the world (as actions) and leave residual feelings/states that feed back into the machinery below and thus we are involved in a kind of endless loop of will?

    I mean, I can feel despondent that my life is not going right – this motivates me to change stuff – I perform actions to do so.
    “I” felt the blues, didn’t I?
    “I”, however it initiated, took some action in space and time.
    “I” then feel new emotions – like a good/bad compass – helping me to take further actions.

    Can we not change our futures in some feedback-loop kind of way? Rather than this ideal of instant willed decisions, all rational, all the time — perhaps it’s more of a process?

    \d

  27. Daniel Darn-it
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    First of all, the 80% figure was for predicting the timing of a decision, not its outcome, its there in the article.

    A big source of confusion here (as has been brought up by one or two other commentators) is the rather loose use of conscious/unconscious. It seems to be assumed that in order to have free will we need to be consciously aware of all the reasons for the decisions we make. But this is absurd – a ten year old could recount multiple times when they weren’t sure why they wanted something, or felt frustrated without knowing why. Any real notion of the self, and thus the ‘will’ has to include the totality of the mind, both conscious and unconscious, rather than assuming that what we are aware of at any given moment is all there is.

    What this experiment proves for me more than anything is the continuing hubris of neuroscience. It amazes me that whenever experiments like this come up there are so few people pointing out the many massive logical flaws in making the conclusions they do from the very limited evidence. If you want to see a particularly ridiculous example check out the ones on ‘the neuroscience of love’

    • Steersman
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      What this experiment proves for me more than anything is the continuing hubris of neuroscience. It amazes me that whenever experiments like this come up there are so few people pointing out the many massive logical flaws in making the conclusions they do from the very limited evidence.

      Quite right. Science and the scientific method have provided us with a cornucopia of benefits but, like any tool, it can be used to create structures of questionable validity – “just-so stories”, for example. Speaking of which, I’m reminded of a review of Sagan’s Demon-haunted world by Richard Lewontin:

      Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

      Though I’m not at all sure whether he thinks there’s more to the story than just materialism, physicalism, as some of his other comments suggest a somewhat ambiguous interpretation.

      • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        Lewontin is also a self-described Marxist, so it would be very odd if he didn’t at least also claim to be a materialist. (Bunge points out that Marxism is only semi-materialist, however.)

        That said, I think Lewontin’s point is that people latch onto “just so stories” (like some of the more egregious versions of sociobiology) because they feel that without latching onto something the immaterial, theistic, etc. will get a toe in. I think this is ridiculous, but I’ve heard that view elsewhere – and I got that impression from Lewontin when I heard him in person. As far as I could tell, he’s convinced that all (effectively) of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is nonsense and so he imputes motivations – of various sorts – to those who are fond of such fields.

        • Steersman
          Posted September 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

          Lewontin is also a self-described Marxist, so it would be very odd if he didn’t at least also claim to be a materialist.

          Yes, I noticed that as well and that the paper I quoted from indicates that he reviews Sagan’s book from that perspective – at least in part – and from which he also provides some interesting thoughts on the social consequences of the theory and practices of science. But I also get a sense of some fundamental skepticism about both those facets. Whether that extends into a non-materialist / dualist philosophy is, I think, at least debatable.

          That said, I think Lewontin’s point is that people latch onto “just so stories” … because they feel that without latching onto something the immaterial, theistic, etc. will get a toe in. I think this is ridiculous

          Seems a reasonable explanation to me, at least in part (another part maybe being laziness or being poorly educated), as the history of the development of science was largely predicated on a search for natural as opposed to supernatural causes:

          It remained for Laplace, a century later, to produce a mechanics that predicted the stability of the planetary orbits, allowing him the hauteur of his famous reply to Napoleon. When the Emperor observed that there was, in the whole of the Mécanique Céleste, no mention of the author of the universe, he replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.” One can almost hear a stress on the “I.”

          As far as I could tell, he’s convinced that all (effectively) of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is nonsense and so he imputes motivations – of various sorts – to those who are fond of such fields.

          An interesting, though reasonable, summation with which I can largely agree. Though I’m not sure how good a handle he has on all the reasons, the motivations, of not just those “who are fond of such fields”, but all scientists:

          In what my wife calls the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Syndrome, young scientists on the make will challenge a graybeard, and this adversarial atmosphere for the most part serves the truth.

          And his comment about stress (above) might be a reflection of that motivation in Laplace: regardless, the truth was still served (more or less). But there’s still the problem of explaining why some (many?) scientists feel the need for recourse to such “just-so” stories. Laziness? Ignorance? Unclear on the concept? Publish or perish? Not easy to define. If you were interested, Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics has, I think, some relevant and cogent observations and conjectures ….

          • Ichthyic
            Posted September 14, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

            But there’s still the problem of explaining why some (many?) scientists feel the need for recourse to such “just-so” stories.

            one, this is overblown. the simple answer is that the vast, vast, VAST majority don’t. This is hard to perceive correctly if you are not directly involved in academic science.

            two, this also explains both why you have this impression, and why some scientist do engage in this behavior.

            people like a good story, whether its the general public, the media, or even funding agencies, and most people get their impressions about science, and scientists, from the media after all.

            I think this is why for example Marc Hauser started cutting corners.

            His experimental designs were things of beauty, but his early successes with them at Harvard basically drove a media and academic administrative frenzy for more, and I think he started telling stories, and cutting corners on actually collecting proper data, because of that pressure.

            In short then, you can’t rely on the media to give an accurate picture of the average scientist, but you CAN rely on the media to focus on “good stories” at all times.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted September 14, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

          As far as I could tell, he’s convinced that all (effectively) of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is nonsense

          Lewontin was the probably the biggest impediment to the early career of WD Hamilton as well, though NOW you won’t find him rejecting inclusive fitness theory.

          I know Lewontin has been the champagne bottle broken over the launching of many an important scientific career, but in and of himself, I have always more disagreed with his positions than agreed.

  28. Bill Gilliland
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I think an apt analogy is the pseudo-random number generators used by computers.

    On the one hand, the numbers you get have all the statistical properties you would want them to have (mean, variance, skew, kurtosis, etc.), are perfectly usable in lieu of “real” random numbers and there is no way to predict what the next number will be, aside from just running the operation that generates the pseudo-random numbers in the first place.

    On the other hand, if you seed the generator with the same value, the sequence of numbers you get is also purely deterministic. While you can get around this by incorporating multiple pieces of information (like the system clock at the moment the RNG is called), it is still ultimately a purely deterministic system.

    In the case of neurobiology, the “seed” is the state of the physical universe. Yes, your decision may be physically deterministic, but there is no reasonable way to predict it outside of the very short term scanning techniques being used here. Especially when you realize that any prediction about your behavior becomes, itself, part of the “seed”. I love coffee, and you might reasonably infer that I would pick coffee over tea, but if you tell me you are predicting I will pick coffee, I will pick tea just to spite you.

    Likewise, claiming you shouldn’t be punished for crimes you committed because you didn’t have free will is rubbish. The laws, your brain’s deterministic reaction to the laws, and your brain’s deterministic reaction to the possibility of punishment for breaking the laws, are all part of the system. The system will be perturbed — and the decisions made by deterministic minds will be changed — whether or not lawbreakers get punished.

    Deterministic will that cannot be predicted might as well be free will. It is a distinction without a difference.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Does not a “perturbation” of a system of rigorously mechanical determinism represent an example of the failure of that system to be rigorously mechanically determined???

      Wait, wait, I just remembered that I’ve experienced what happens here to folks who try to raise points or pose questions like I do…never mind!

      • Bill Gilliland
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        Does not a “perturbation” of a system of rigorously mechanical determinism represent an example of the failure of that system to be rigorously mechanically determined???

        Of course, the perturbation of a rigorously mechanically determined system would also include the perturbation. It would also include the effects of the perturbation, the response to the effects of the perturbation, the effects of the response to the effects of the perturbation, etc… all are part and parcel of the deterministic system. However, just because something is deterministic doesn’t mean it is predictable. The exquisite dependence of future decisions on past states makes such a system effectively identical to a system that is not determined in the first place.

        If there is no conceivable experiment you could ever do to ever the two apart, then what difference does it make?

        • Bill Gilliland
          Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          …”experiment you could ever do to *tell* the two apart”, even. Derp.

        • Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I like this, Bill.

          /@

          • Kharamatha
            Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink

            As do I.

            Although there are unrelated reasons against prioritising punishment.

  29. Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    On Bjoern Brembs blogs he has a short discussion about this paper but he also links to a really interesting looking paper on the possibility of free will in robots:

    http://bjoern.brembs.net/comment-n778.html

  30. Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I remember watching a video of a man who punched his mother in the face in the middle of a supermarket. He punched her in the face because he has Tourette’s Syndrome. Was that free will? It seems as though his brain decided to punch his mother in the face before “he” decided to; and much more before “he” decided not to.

    What’s the difference between this man punching his mother in the face, the experiment posted, and regular “free will” as philosophers have defined it? I’m pretty sure that if we had hooked up an fMRI to that poor guy’s brain, we could see him “decide” to punch his mother in the face before he actually did it (and tell his mom to get out of the way).

    It seems as though the only difference between the case of Tourette’s and your average person is that we have an additional precognitive brain module that prevents us from acting out on those anti-social behaviors. But both the initial anti-social behavior (a al Tourette’s) and its inhibition in normal people are unconscious precursors to “free will”.

    I would think that the next step for these neuroscientists would be to run the same experiment on people who suffer from Tourette’s.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      And by the way, this is why the concept of compatibilist free will is still important, even if Jerry is right (and I suspect he is) that when the average person talks about free will they are referring to the obviously absurd concept of libertarian free will. Neither you nor I nor this man has libertarian free will; but in that moment, most philosophers would say he didn’t have compatibilist free will either. And that’s important.

    • Darrell E
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Perhaps it would be useful for this discussion to clearly define what, precisely, a “decision” is. It seems to me that there are “impulses” and then there are “decisions”.

      For example, I would describe an impulse as a reaction to some stimulus without any conscious deliberation (whether milliseconds before or after). For example when things start going wrong when operating a vehicle most people will hit the brakes on impulse whether that is the best action to take in the specific circumstances that pertain or not, because they are not deliberating over which course of action that is possible will result in the best outcome.

      I would describe a decision as the outcome of a process of selecting between various options for the one predicted to result in the desired outcome, whether that occurs subconsciously or consciously, or with some combination of the two.

      I seem to remember a study some years ago that showed that children and teens lack impulse control compared to adults and that this correlated with frontal lobe development.

      • Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Best to stick with behavior and not falsely create any intervening processes — yet.

        There is a view that consciousness-language is mainly useful for deception of ourselves and others — probably mainly ourselves. Pretending we are consistent, rational, socially sensitive beings.

        But have you noticed how people who talk the most are the least behaviorally consistent? Except for brains that drive them to continuously narrate their immediate experiences — ugh — to themselves mainly.

  31. Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Philosophy is a dead language. Until we had brain science, there was nothing else to use.

    But it’s natural language nonsense is obsolete. What has philo ever predicted?

    As this post points out, it is primarily backward looking ideology. It comes up with mainly silly ideas and utterances, most with no empirical reference.

    Of course, our behavior is driven mainly reactively, in milliseconds and without consciousness — which is just verbal behavior anyway. Life would be impossible otherwise.

    All other animals have gotten along just fine w/out consciousness-language for billions of years. It’s no big deal.

    • Steersman
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      All other animals have gotten along just fine w/out consciousness-language for billions of years. It’s no big deal.

      Only if you think “nasty, brutish and short” is a reasonable way to fly. Or if you disagree with Darwin’s observation: “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature!”

      Though I’ll tend to agree with you on philosophy, and its poorer cousin, theology: more ambiguities, contradictions, inconsistencies and incoherencies than you can shake a stick at. Oh well – astrology evolved into astronomy and alchemy into chemistry; one might hope for a similar future for philosophy.

      • Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Hope, huh? Doubtful. Philo relies on natural language therefore basically emotional-ideological validity. It’s an obstacle to “progress.”

        “nasty, brutish and short” Well, that’s a moral-value utterance so best to go to philosophers on that one. The evidence is that alive is better than dead and consciousness-language isn’t even a passing thought.

        • Steersman
          Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          Maybe. Though in that case and as a minor quibble and if I understand you correctly, where might “progress” – the phenomenon – come from? Not to mention the reliance of its definition on “natural language” for its “emotional-ideological validity”. Although maybe that was the point of your quote marks around the word.

          As for “consciousness-language isn’t even a passing thought” you at least apparently have given more than a passing thought to the phenomenon. And, absent that “self-reflection”, I can’t see that “alive” is much different from “dead” or from, at most, a bunch of balls falling through a Pachinko machine.

          • Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

            No, that is the mistake and just human conceit. Behaviors, which are all that matter, have been honed for eons. The important ones are automatic — as they should be.

            For nature to leave it up to consciousness and self-talk to accomplish anything — that would be dumb. Consciousness-language is really new a bolt-on so to speak in living things. If it were valuable it would have evolved in multiple species and far earlier.

            So it’s not that important and probably a failed experiment. Even if we say humans have taken over the earth, crediting language-consciousness is unproven — at best.

            By progress, and natural language is really dumb but fun, we mean a better predictive tool for experience. But we can get better at knowing how to feed ourselves all automatically without consciousness-language. In fact, it’s probably a necessity.

            Our ancestors that had to think about everything clearly went extinct.

            No, alive is the ability to extract resources from the local ecosystem. The brain is a self-fueling machine, mainly. Is that “better” — a question for moral ideologists. Nature can’t even be said to favor alive since most species die off, pretty quickly in fact.

            We only spend time on the topic because it because it is such an obstacle to really understanding behavior.

            In our personal and professional lives we spend some time, not too much, on saying “Gee, you know, the “self” is not the center of our personal universe. Like the earth, it probably isn’t even that important.”

            You can imagine how popular that is! lol But it seems true. It sure works better to act that way.

          • Steersman
            Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

            For nature to leave it up to consciousness and self-talk to accomplish anything — that would be dumb. Consciousness-language is really new a bolt-on so to speak in living things. If it were valuable it would have evolved in multiple species and far earlier.

            Maybe consciousness is a mixed blessing or rather of limited benefits. Many cases where automatic pilots is the most effective – in many cases the power or speed of response of the control system will be or can be substantially enhanced or increased.

            But in cases where there are novel situations for which there is no algorithm readily available or yet developed the conscious operator is a necessity – far too many cases easily defined and explicated where any type of a lock-step response is only a recipe for disaster.

            So it’s not that important and probably a failed experiment. Even if we say humans have taken over the earth, crediting language-consciousness is unproven — at best.

            That it has its limitations is, I think, a reasonable argument. But that it provides an understanding and comprehension of various possible choices and their consequences – an apprehension of the future – and thereby provides improved chances of survival is, I think, anything but “unproven” – a self-evident “given”, I would say. As they say, “Those who don’t plan for the future will not have one”.

            As for its “evolution in multiple species”, I would say that the evidence is that it has, just that its scope and manifestations are only to the extent necessary to ensure the survival of the species in its particular niche: no sense having a human eye where 5% of one is sufficient or where other sensory mechanisms are more efficient. You might want to take a look at a paper by Stuart Hameroff on the possible (probable, I think) influence of consciousness on the Cambrian explosion.

  32. Boko999
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I have at twice as much respect for philosophers as I have for theologians.
    Three times for economists.

    • Steersman
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Quite right. But in all three cases you could take all the members of each class and lay them end to end and they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion ….

  33. B. Carter
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I studied philosophy and the mind/body problem, and I’m proud to say that philosophy is relevant. That said, the reason there is a dualist intuition is because of a cognitive dissonance that we’ll never be able to reconcile: namely that, despite all I can learn about neuroscience and the functions of the brain, whenever I use the word ‘pain’, I refer to the personal sensation thereof rather than c-fibers firing. Read Lecture #3 of Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity for more on this. Essentially, the problem is that I can explain pain through neurology, but I always reference it at a deeply personal level that is inaccessible to others; hence, we necessarily intuit free will, even if the clockwork behind it says otherwise. There’s nothing we can do about it since it’s impossible to break free of our subjective core and see the world as purely objective. Neuroscientists claim there is only the clockwork, and theologians say there is only the mind (though they prefer the colorful and fraudulent term ‘soul’), but only philosophers can explain how both seem to exist simultaneously. It’s not a literal dualism, of course, that’s just crazy. It’s more like a bipolarity; it’s kind of like the face of a clock looking at its own gears. It never quite comes full circle.

    • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      But the “identity theorist” (to use the silly philosophical name) – like me – would tell you that you *are* referring to C-fibres firing (or rather, to the much more complicated matter that is pain). This is basically a version of the “masked man” ‘paradox’.

      That said, the rest can be expanded: you experience your pain differently than mine because your pain systems are wired to *your* guts, memories, etc. and not to mine.

  34. Darrell E
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    From the article.

    “We feel we choose, but we don’t,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.

    and

    You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it.

    This seems a bit like hype to me. Your brain made the choice, whether it took you a few seconds to be aware of it or not. However the equipment works, it is you. You made the choice. No way to get around that.

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

    This makes little sense to me. The “will”, if that’s what you want to call it, is “yours” because it is a product of “your” brain. And, according to your own research, you do know what “it” decided to do. And, thanks to your research, you now have a pretty good idea of “when” it occured.

    Regarding the Libet study, I don’t find the description and results related in the article very convincing. So there was brain activity several hundred milliseconds before people expressed their conscious intention to move? There is not enough there to do anything with but speculate and wish for better equipment.

    I guess I currently reside in the compatibilist camp. I don’t understand why brain activity several seconds before a subject reports a decision convinces people that “we” therefore don’t really make decisions. Can you say what precise activities the brain is engaging in? Maybe it is all just semantics and redefining words. I don’t think there is enough data to warrant getting too comfortable with either position just yet. Lots more work to do.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      A weary amen, Darrel. This strikes me as much ado about very little – taking a quite predictable result and transforming it into a philosophical and theological issue. Of course deep thoughts in those disciplines have always escaped me.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      “The machines are us!”

    • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

      “I don’t understand why brain activity several seconds before a subject reports a decision convinces people that “we” therefore don’t really make decisions.”

      As others here suggest, it’s because people tend to identify with their conscious sense of self, supposing that conscious control is something other than what the brain is doing. Once we see that consciousness depends, completely, on the brain, then we’re forced to *identify* with the brain, which then means the concept of the self expands to include unconscious processes. It’s all me, no problem.

      • Darrell E
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        Bad choice of idiom. I do understand that. What I “mean” is that I don’t understand why people are so hung up on that. It is like a deep religious conviction.

        So you are not quite what you thought you where? Don’t sweat it. It is still you no matter how you look at it.

        • Posted September 15, 2011 at 3:39 am | Permalink

          Religious indeed! We’re natural born dualists according to Paul Bloom, then religion comes along with its supernatural soul, plus Western culture maintains the meme of contra-causal free will exerted by a non-physical mental agent: the conscious self.

  35. Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Complexity doesn’t erase physics, it is mainly a misperception.

    An ant colony is really complex but just the result of very simple individual organisms acting automatically — just like cities.

    Reductionism is a rhetorical trick and straw man created by philosophers and anti-evidence-based folks.

  36. JimV
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I am inclined to believe that the following may be true for human beings (and other creatures), in some but not all cases:

    ” … at the moment of decision, given everything that’s happened in the past, it is possible to reach a different decision.”

    However, this doesn’t mean I believe in “free will” (whatever the heck that is), just that I think I could program a machine with a decision-making algorithm which satisfies the above condition. That is, I could in principle use some quantum-mechanically-indeterminable outcome as the basis of a random decision. And in fact, based on my experience in programming some computer games*, if I were trying to design some kind of artificial intelligence, I would have, as a last resort, when no good choice stands out among options, a random algorithm to make the decision. So I think evolution would have been very remiss not to develop similar neurological processes.

    Which might be only pseudo-random and hence predictable based on past history, true, but in “QED”, Feynman states that the retina is capable of detecting a single photon. So if I were designing a nervous system, I might, in principle, be able to use something like an instantaneous photon count as a random seed, and hence have quantum uncertainty “trickle up” into my decision-making process.

    Possible experimental test: place genetically identical ants in identical sandboxes under identical conditions, and see if they follow identical paths of exploration.

    * A bit of randomness solves many problems in all sorts of games, not just in Monte-Carlo analyses or searches, but for those alone I would consider some neurological “random function” a necessity.

  37. Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Our approach is to start assuming no significant function for consciousness-language in directing, or reporting on behaviors. As a marketer we know that self-reports are only useful as contrary indicators of behavior.

    Plus, we know that when ppl really, really believe something and are very defensive and emotional — the opposite is usually true.

    Defensiveness usually means something is indefensible.

    On the mind-body problem, there is no problem. Another philo red herring — there are so many.

    The Mind-Body Non-Problem
    “Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain.

    This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems.
    But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth. Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires
    For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.
    The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called “the astonishing hypothesis.”
    Dualism is mistaken – mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications.

    For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls

    What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trials assume a strong form of dualism. It has been argued, for instance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it”. These assumptions about moral status and personal responsibility reflect a profound resistance to findings from psychology and neuroscience.”

    This is excerpted from a Science article.

  38. Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    For decades my favorite analogy for consciousness (which is where something called free will presumably resides in folk psychology) has been that of a public relations flunky lurking outside the door of a conference room in which the decision-makers are making their decisions. The flunky hears only bits and fragments of the conversation inside the conference room, and from those snatches of imperfectly overheard conversation constructs a story about the reason(s) for the decisions. That story bears no reliable relationship to the actual decision-making process, which is inaccessible to awareness.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Our analogy, we use with clients, is consciousness is like a rider, with no gear, on a wild horse — hanging on for dear life, mainly. Or post-play commentator.

  39. MadScientist
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    “… deterministic forces beyond are conscious control …”

    Should that be ‘our’ rather than ‘are’?

    I still wouldn’t dump the idea of ‘free will’ at this point, although it is clear that humans make a decision before noting that they have made that decision – this could be a matter of serialization of tasks. Since the results are far from 100% (in physics there are numerous random processes where we expect predictions to be far better than 80% correct on aggregate). Is the error due to vacillation? Does the observed brain activity only occur when the subject had already considered various things and is only deciding which way is best? I could probably learn more if I only had access to those publications.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      7 sec delay + 90% predictability — say the fat lady has sung. Time to give up our most cherished myth.

      This is a Copernician evolution — what we perceive as the center of our personal solar system/universe is actually a somewhat random shadow of a irrelevant little “moon.”

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        Don’t be silly. I have seen nothing yet to convince me of the interpretation given by those researchers. Where do you get your 90% and 7 seconds? What tasks are those? The “press the button when you feel like it” task is laughable at best because it involves a conscious effort to decide when to get that urge + some effort to delay. An urge to twitch a left finger or right finger does not come naturally as the authors seem to assume. Perhaps you are easily convinced by the arguments, but you are premature in declaring things about ‘myths’. Have you read and criticized the methods and results or are you simply parroting what you’ve heard?

        • Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          Those are the results. Ah, so nature, over billions of years, is going to develop a whole different system for visual stimuli triggering hand/finger movements and what? Cheering on a football team? Buying a biscuit?

          Are there special biscuit buying neurons? Maybe going to the loo and bring a newspaper neurons? Searching for my car key neurons and processes?

          How could those silly brain scientists miss that?! That’s why our brains are so big we have all these specialized and unique modern living neurons. That’s worth a Noble Prize — or two.

          But only if you have the special neurons for going up and getting a Nobel Prize, of course.

          Also of course, no one is convinced. If it wasn’t obvious the universe revolves around the flat earth, we wouldn’t need science at all. That would save a lot of time.

          • MadScientist
            Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

            You’re not making sense at all. Parroting “those are the results, they must be true” does not make something true. The things to consider are the experiment, the data, and the claims. There can be flaws with any of them and the role of scientists is to challenge what they can in an effort to establish something. I see a lot of claims that something has been established, but I see no good evidence for the claims.

  40. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    - In my choice, the article starts out by relinquishing too much to philosophy:

    We really don’t make choices—they are made long before we’re conscious of having chosen strawberry versus pistachio ice cream at the store.

    We (our brains) really make choices, it is just that what philosophers calls “us” (our “consciousness”) are something different.

    were we to relive a moment of decision, we could have decided the other way

    Possibly. But that isn’t the definition of decision as choice, which well can be deterministic (if mutable over time). Most empirical algorithms use deterministic choice, whether by us or by computers.* I fail to see how that weaker and more general concept is “more sophisticated”. I rather feel it is the reverse.

    Also, on that basis, that it doesn’t describe empirical situations at large, I am pretty sure the philosophical definition, let us call it “philosophic decision”, is rather uninteresting.

    Even the compatibilist commenters on this site don’t believe that, at any moment, with all conditions identical, we could make two different decisions.

    In deterministic stochastic systems such differing outcomes are the rule. And we can’t very well deny the physical existence of such systems!

    “Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[3][4]”

    Fundamentally, we can’t replay such systems and be sure they do not “make two different decisions”!

    We don’t know whether any brain functions are such or not. These systems are really simple and ubiquitous though. (Weather, pool tables, balancing sticks, et cetera.)

    – The last part of the article seemed like an excellent choice though!

    ————–
    * A prediction out of this definition would be that it could be possible to correlate brain images with decisions. And it seems it is.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

      “Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[3][4]”

      Wait, what? Let me point my finger thus:

      “Small differences in initial conditions”

      In addition, wield I thus:

      “their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions”

      Perchance, thus:

      “with no random elements involved.”

      • Darrell E
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

        I think one of his key points is that “with no random elements involved” is not possible in a real system.

        Fundamentally, we can’t replay such systems and be sure they do not “make two different decisions”!

        • Kharamatha
          Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

          True enough, though that there text does claim that the same would happen even if it were possible.

          “This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.”

  41. MadScientist
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    From the article quoted:

    “This month, a raft of projects will get under way as part of Big Questions in Free Will, a four-year, US$4.4-million programme funded by the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which supports research bridging theology, philosophy and natural science.”

    Oh gawd.

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Imagine that money put to good use!! Never happen.

      Why $4.4? Why not an even 5? Now there’s a meaty philo question.

  42. Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    We actually wrote the author and complained about the last sentence of the article: “It’s not as though the task of neuroscientists who work on free will has to be to show there isn’t any.” Pleeese!

    Can’t remember what we wrote but something like: But it is the task of scientists to challenge popular notions and ideologies that misrepresent the world and contradict peer-reviewed data.

    Can’t figure why Nature would give equal time to carping criticisms with no evidence basis.

    Why do scientists have to provide peer-reviewed data to get quoted and interviewed and philosophers, economists and other humanities types can just spew platitudes. Except historians — mostly.

    Why is the media in denial about philosopher (kings) having “no clothes?”

  43. Posted September 13, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I can understand the reluctance of some to come to the conclusion that free will does not exist. When you do realise it, it is a Blade Runner moment; it is the exact moment that the Replicant comes to the realisation that it is a machine. Some people cope with this quite fine, others are disturbed by it.

    • Steersman
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      “Resistance is futile!” ….

      • Kharamatha
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:52 am | Permalink

        Are we human? Or are we dancer?
        Resistance is futile. We are the Borg.

        (I wish “Your distinctiveness will be added to our own” were more popular.)

  44. Tim Harris
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m not going to get too involved in this endless debate, and I have only skimmed Jerry’s post and not read the comments (so somebody else may have brought this up), but what intrigues me about such experiments as are described is that they suggest that consciousness is not the simple datum that many seem to think it is, shining brightly and bravely above the murky pre-conscious, sub-conscious or un-conscious strata below and deciding to do this or that in a nice binary way, but part of a continuum so that the boundaries between what we take to be conscious and not-conscious are blurred and ambiguous. I am not really interested in the ‘problem’ of free-will: the questions raised about the nature of consciousness are surely far more interesting.

    • Steersman
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      I am not really interested in the ‘problem’ of free-will: the questions raised about the nature of consciousness are surely far more interesting.

      Quite agree – on all accounts; does seem to have some of the flavour of a dog chasing its own tail – which may be indicative of some underlying and important characteristic. But relative to your last statement, Richard Dawkins would apparently agree as well:

      The evolution of the capacity to simulate seems to have culminated in subjective consciousness. Why this should have happened is, to me, the most profound mystery facing modern biology. [The Selfish Gene; pg 59]

      • Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

        Re the connection between simulation and consciousness, see Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnell, reviewed at http://www.naturalism.org/metzinger.htm

        • Steersman
          Posted September 14, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the link; interesting article, interesting site.

          But relative to which, while I haven’t read much there yet, the concepts of naturalism and supernaturalism themselves are ones I’ve been “chewing at” over the last while. And I see that the Wikipedia article on the latter (I think) indicates some controversy over the scope and definition of the term – “supernatural” really seems an oxymoron from the outset.

          But that is part of the problem, I think, with the arguments of Feser’s – and Pigliucci’s, for that matter. In the case of the former it seems he wants to put God in the realm of the supernatural yet seems unable or unwilling to consider that if God actually exists – in some form or another, an admittedly tenuous hypothesis, at best – then that would be entirely natural, even if the proof or perception of that “entity” was beyond the scope or capabilities of science.

          And Pigliucci, while admitting the limits of science, still seems to suggest that there is some reality associated with the supernatural which science must accept as beyond its purview. Somewhat illogical as if to suggest that figments of the imagination cannot also be dealt with from a scientific / naturalist perspective.

          Definitely food for thought, I think ….

          • Posted September 15, 2011 at 4:29 am | Permalink

            I guess a first step is to define “supernatural,” which would likely involve contrast with “natural.” Not sure it’s an oxymoron. Then, could science conceivably weigh in on the existence of the supernatural thus defined? I suggest it can, http://www.naturalism.org/Close_encounters.htm If the supernatural exists, then its existence is as you say a “natural” fact about reality, but it would still be distinct from the natural, as per their contrasting definitions.

            What I don’t think is the case is that there’s some other reliable way of knowing about factual matters that rivals science and which has a special domain of competence, as some accomodationists hold, http://www.naturalism.org/epistemology.htm#rivals

            Hope Jerry does a post on the hard problem of consciousness sometime, that would be fun.

            • Steersman
              Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

              Definitely some problematic “nuances” there [sorry Jerry] in the definition of “natural”: further conundrums devolving from the “apparently pellucid notion of class”.

              My view, tentative in any case, is that talking of the supernatural is like hunting for the infamous Snark: an “impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature”. Seems not far removed from pedantically “learn-ed” and serious discussions on the nature, attributes, lairs, and obligations to, that mythical if not manifestly real creature known as a married bachelor: somewhat of an exercise in futility derived from a misapprehension of a logical contradiction at the outset.

              And while I’m sympathetic to your definition – “metaphysical naturalism … is the thesis that nothing besides the natural world, or nature, exists” – that does seem to raise some questions attendant on the definition of “exists”. For example, does the future exist? Is it not like the Kanizsa triangle, an “illusory contour”, simply a projection of the past? And, speaking of existing non-existents, are we not all riding a collapsing wave function on into the future? So to speak.

              But that does suggest to me, at least, that, as one possibility, your hypothetical recourse to supernaturalism – to provide a “bin”, a class, for what “we couldn’t describe or explain in terms of currently known phenomena, physical laws, psycho-physical laws, or in terms of any other sort of explanatory relationship” – is simply a misapprehension. Seems like a conflation of, or accepting as synonymous, “natural” and “explainable by science” – scientism, if I’m not mistaken. Seems far more coherent, and simpler – genuflecting to Ockham, to suggest that there is only what is “natural” – existing or not – some of which can be explained by science and some of which hasn’t been or cannot be.

              Though it is probably a moot point, as you suggest, as to whether there is a single term, such as “natural”, that can encompass “Life, the Universe and Everything”.

              And I’ll agree with you on Jerry posting on “the hard problem of consciousness” – the elephant in the living room methinks.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      That’s what I see in the data as well – lots of possibilities to explore about how the human mind works.

  45. Explicit Atheist
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    I think it is to be expected that we reach decisions before we are self-aware of the decisions. This is because self-awareness of the decisions is a secondary, add-on functionality of the brain. The first function of brains is to make decisions. The ability to be aware of the decisions that were made is a secondary function that was added later because of natural selection advantages to having this additional capability. If it were otherwise then that would raise questions about evolution given that the older, smaller brained creatures appear to have less of the secondary self-awareness functionality.

    I agree that the law already takes “responsibility” into account by treating criminals differently depending on whether their actions may have been caused by extenuating circumstances like mental illness. But I don’t agree that the conclusions that decisions are made without our willfully controlling those decisions is an extenuating circumstance that implicates the relevant personal responsibility which is relevant to punishment. Lacking self-aware control over our decisions is substantially different from being afflicted by a behavior changning tumor in the brain. I disagree with Jerry’s thinking that the existence of behavioral non-determinism is important to justifying criminal punishment, its not important at all.

  46. Marshall
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why these neuro. results should be surprising, let alone shocking. I think you can observe it in yourself, in moments of everyday sudden emergency, like reaching for something falling; there’s an activation gap you can feel. Especially when you’re too late, and you remember that instant when you knew what you want to do but couldn’t get the clutch engaged.

    I guess everybody knows they have a subconscious … don’t you all consider your subconscious a part of your “self” which exercises free will? Subconsciousness certainly arises in the brain. Do you see your “self” as only your verbalizations?

    • Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      If self is not language dependent, what is it?

      If it’s not language dependent then why do we have it and other animals don’t.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

        other animals do.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:49 am | Permalink

        I seems that the word “self” doesn’t mean the same thing to you as to Marshall.

        I am also not sure what it does mean to you. Which I guess is incidentally also what Marshall is asking.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      The “choose a number” tricks were always something which annoyed me because I was always aware that I was not making a random choice unless I used a randomization device of some sort.

  47. Ichthyic
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    In my view, the findings of these studies don’t bear so much on free will, but rather on what we define consciousness itself as.

    Seems to me, that these studies suggest that consciousness is merely another deterministic cognitive state, probably there for POST information processing.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      Off-topic, does post information processing mean a source of feedback for future calibrations?
      Seems clear, but somehow I’m worried I’m missing a technical term.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted September 14, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

        yeah, that sounds pretty close to what I was thinking. Kind of like a way of playing out scenarios for future reference.

        It doesn’t seem terribly unique to me, though I would note that it DOES seem quite limited in most other species. This doesn’t mean this type of cognitive process we term “consciousness” hasn’t arisen before now, either.

        as to the specific terminology, this isn’t my personal area of animal behavior expertise (I’m more of a interspecies and settlement behavior kinda guy).

        you need to talk to a cognitive psych person for those.
        :)

  48. Ichthyic
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    … i see others noted the same underlying issue, like Tim up at 43.

  49. Bharath Hariharan
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    What I can’t get, when we say that free will doesn’t exist and everything is determined, is that if we don’t have free will, we don’t have free will as scientists, and so given some set of observations, the conclusions that we draw out of them is not in our control. If that is indeed the case, then the theories we come up with, indeed the very act of verifying our theories through observation, is suspect, because the people making the observations and verifying the theories are under the control of biological/chemical/physical forces. Then how can one trust science itself?
    (This is not my own argument, but one that I came across in a neuroscience article that I have since been unable to place).

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:39 am | Permalink

      Consider the alternative. Scientists making conclusions that aren’t limited by actual states of themselves and their observations.

      • Bharath Hariharan
        Posted September 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

        Well, the alternative is bad, true, but that doesn’t resolve the paradox inherent in saying that there is no free will: if there is no free will, then there is a deterministic process that led us to the conclusion that there is no free will, but then in that case why should that conclusion be correct?

  50. David Ivory
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    Yes there is free will – it is just that our sense of it is time delayed just like the decisions measured by fMRI so we don’t realize it.

    When a decision is made our free will is exercised at that moment but it takes time for the brain to process BOTH the decision and sense of free will. Slowly it all bubbles up – and the experience of the decision made and the sense of free will comes to fruition in the moment we know as consciousness.

    This experiential time slip happens all the time (sorry – that was a word chosen by my language subsystem – so excuse the pun… it wasn’t me) – flick your eyes across the room and you seem to time travel without a sense of the blur the eyes must experience as they move.

    I see free will and that delayed experience of decisions in the same manner.

    And I don’t think it very profound, or problematic. Our time perception changes constantly, during involved tasks, or in emergency situations. Time slows or speeds up – heck even our sense of time over a lifetime changes… where the heck did the years go?

    So if our sense of self actually bubbles up in a finite period of time – but our experience of it seems instantaneous – then the duality (decisions vs free will) problem discussed here goes away. It’s just an illusion due to time perception creating a synchronicity with reality… which in turn must be perceived and processed in a delayed manner.

    So I think these “free will” concerns are a failure to acknowledge that the wave crest of consciousness we experience as self requires slow neurons to create it… even if it doesn’t seem so.

    That’s a neat trick the brain plays but time to move on – nothing profound here.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Just the other day I was testing a computer. I determined that it had no free will because I could see that it had actually finished a computation in a billionth of a second but it took almost 1/60 of a second to indicate that it was aware of the result.

  51. Kharamatha
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    Meh, guess I’ll just repeat why I’m meh about this.

    “Free will” has been replacing “will” in a lot of conversation, so now it’s hard to tell if people are only talking about will, or if they want something extra with that.

    My vote’s on only adding the “free” to refer to one or more certain factors being excluded. E.g. guns in a legal context.

  52. Seth
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    How could we determine if our inability to perfectly predict future decisions is a function of technical imprecision or genuine indeterminism (free will)?

  53. AJMOBLEY
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    I don’t think this has implications for free will at all. All it implies is that we become aware of our exercise of free will some time AFTER we’ve actually exercised it. Given that our awareness of pretty much all other events occurs after the events themselves, this is not surprising. It in no way implies that deterministic forces beyond our control are making the decisions for us – just that we make decisions before we become aware of making them. You don’t even need to appeal to compatibilism.

    Also, the author of this article is clearly woefully ignorant of the history of philosophy – compatibilism is not a NEW view created ad hoc just to deal with the Libet study. It precedes that study by decades, if not centuries. He seems to think that these views are a RESPONSE to findings in neuroscience – an attempt to rationalize free will in the face of science. They are not. They were around long before neuroscientists made any of the discoveries described. John Brockman is an ignorant hack.

  54. Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Greetings,

    A interesting post on this subject.

    I have a number of questions and remarks concerning the implications of this research.

    Firstly, the interval mentioned – one and a half seconds, between the neural activity (“decision”) and the subject becoming aware of having made it (pushing the button) – does not indicate whether this includes the time taken for the electrical impulse to travel from the brain to the finger/thumb to press the button.

    If this includes such, then the “gap” may not be as relevant as it appears – if at all.

    Secondly, in the early years of computer database development, it was discovered that if two users accessed the same record simultaneously, the system would hang.

    The only was to break the system out of this was to reboot it.

    As a result, programming was added to cater for this scenario to prevent systems hanging.

    In Nature, such a occurrence would undoubtedly be a threat to survival – if a self-aware animal (primate et al) were to suffer a mental freeze, it could result in death.

    Just as with the above computer scenario – and similarly to a “hung” Congress in the US, where the Vice President gets to cast the deciding vote – would there not be a evolutionary advantage to having a way to resolve such a mental conflict?

    Wouldn’t this be a form of “free will”?

    Whatever else comes of this research regarding the existence of free will or not, one thing is clear:

    It is imperative that human beings are afforded the best education possible, in order to provide the most well-informed, well-balanced basis for “decisions” to be made.

    Kindest regards,

    James

  55. Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Well, we’re getting some “heat” out of this discussion, not sure much light.

    Our definition of self is real simple — whatever drives behavior to get resources. The rest seems post-play chatter and self-talk. Epiphenomenal.

    Now it makes sense, suppose, that we would have a real strong emotional attachment to our consciousness, for social purposes if no other. It also doesn’t appear to be too much of a drag on our critical resources getting processes — as nature “designed it.”

    Let’s have some agruments about this — or anything else.

  56. nhavar
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if there’s a difference in the prediction results if the decision is based on something the subject has never done before. It might be hard to identify, unless possibly you use younger subjects. My thought is that the first time you have a new experience you take in all this data about the experience, you’re mind sorts it stores it and any conscious decisions made during that experience get winnowed down to simple reusable patterns. The next time you have that same experience your brain recognizes the pattern and immediately invokes the associated decision pattern and the conscious mind is there to interpret why that decision was made, regardless of the fact that it was made on autopilot from a decision template. Over time enough of these stored patterns emerge that the gap lengthens between when the decision is made versus when the conscious mind is aware of the choice. The conscious mind is there to collect and decipher new situations or explain choices after the fact. The conscious mind may help focus areas of study that will help refine the stored patterns.

    • Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Look into the neurology and dynamics, step by step of learning. Complex but fascinating.

      Our current approach is to assume language-self-reports and consciousness don’t predict much of anything and see if that is disproven.

      Why add in an unnecessary or weak independent variable. Parsimony, always parsimony.

  57. Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    The problematic assumption here is that good scientists are good philosophers. For instance, take a look at this awful syntax:

    “We like to think that our conscious selves make decisions, but in fact the choices appear to have been made by our brains before we’re aware of them.”

    This formulation implicitly assumes dualism.

    “But ‘you’ are not the momentary experience of you. ‘You’ are the synaptic pattern of memories, skills, personality traits, habits and dispositions, desires and emotions, and so on, which constitutes your brain.” – Richard Carrier

    So when someone says that “it was not you, but your brain, that did it”, we can rightly call it contradictory nonsense (what can you possibly be if not your brain?), because it would be like saying “it was not you, but you, who did it”. Thus, we can accept all of the science presented, and still retain compatibilistic freedom. Trying to argue against this type of freedom by attacking libertarian free will is at best a straw man.

    • Posted September 15, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      “So when someone says that “it was not you, but your brain, that did it”, we can rightly call it contradictory nonsense (what can you possibly be if not your brain?), because it would be like saying “it was not you, but you, who did it”.”

      Yup, just like Dave said in 11 and I said in 21 and Darrell in 34 and physicalist in a number of places plus some others as well I think. No need for contra-causal free will to secure anything worth wanting, unless of course you think retribution, radical social inequality, stigma against addicts and the obese, and other social pathologies premised on the idea that people could have done otherwise in their circumstances are worth wanting.

      • Steersman
        Posted September 15, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        No need for contra-causal free will to secure anything worth wanting, unless of course you think retribution, radical social inequality, stigma against addicts and the obese, and other social pathologies premised on the idea that people could have done otherwise in their circumstances are worth wanting.

        Interesting phrasing, interesting argument – bit of an edge there. And if I’m parsing that correctly I’m certainly at least sympathetic to the apparent conclusion that society should not be condemning individuals for behaviours that they had no choice in. But it seems to me that there’s a reductio ad absurdum counter-argument that needs to be considered, an example of which might be the following:

        There’s an exception to every rule.
        The foregoing is a rule.
        Therefore there’s an exception to that rule.
        Therefore there’s a rule to which there is no exception.
        Therefore the first premise is wrong.

        [Therefore there’s a rule to which there is no exception. Therefore God .... just kidding!]

        But similarly, if we accept your apparent premise that nobody has any free-will and therefore can’t be faulted for any of their behaviours then, by that token, we can’t fault societies for condemning individuals for behaviours that they had no choice in, that being a case of behaviour which society has no choice in.

        The problem, as I see it anyway, is in the tendency to think that free-will is some sort of absolute that we possess at each and every moment and that is not constrained and limited to one degree or another: the engineering and statistical concept of “degrees of freedom” is, I think, of some relevance and use.

        And in the case of drug addicts, for example, while it might be true – probably is, largely in any case – that many of them are in the position of “One toke over the line (sweet Jesus)” and might reasonably not be entirely faulted for their behaviours. But the point is that they knew, or should have known, that that slippery slope led to a precipice at the bottom of which was a rather sticky end and for which they have to accept the consequences and responsibility. To deny that joined-at-the-hip link between rights and freedoms, between rights and responsibilities is tantamount to anarchy – no way to run a railroad, much less a society – a civilized one in any case.

        But that issue of the definition – and subsequent problematic consequences – of free-will, as I suggested with my example in logic, finds further echoes and corroboration in some other likely more well regarded concepts in logic. In an exposition on Gödel’s proof Nagel and Newman discuss the seminal idea that “fatal contradictions [result] from an uncritical use of the apparent pellucid notion of class.” [pg 24]. For some interesting examples on how such contradictions lead to chasing our tails (amusing, but not very productive), you might be interested in the Wikipedia article on Russell’s paradox, notably the dramatization therein of the related Grelling-Nelson paradox.

        • Posted September 17, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          Thanks for all your most interesting remarks here and elsewhere. Just to pick up on one point:

          ” …if we accept your apparent premise that nobody has any free-will and therefore can’t be faulted for any of their behaviours then, by that token, we can’t fault societies for condemning individuals for behaviours that they had no choice in, that being a case of behaviour which society has no choice in.”

          We can and should certainly fault each other (and society), even if we’re fully caused to err, since holding each other at fault is one way to improve behavior in the future. But seems to me retribution can’t be justified under a deterministic view of ourselves. Our moral compass and morality survive, but not the idea of moral desert, which is often premised on our being uncaused causers, http://www.naturalism.org/pinker.htm

          The same insight applies to how we hold addicts accountable, http://www.naturalism.org/addictio.htm#Causality

  58. Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I notice a lot of people have been wildly conflating metaphysics and epistemology here. The issue is not one of *prediction*, hence of knowledge, but rather one of the way things are.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      Bears repeating.

      • Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        How is it not prediction? What value is an individual organism or brain if not to pursue and filter out what gets the most resources with least work.

        We find no value, and a lot of wasted effort, in any natural language-“philosophical” utterances on any of this.

        Brain’s, at the core are just self-fueling machines. How does philosophy help that task?

        • Kharamatha
          Posted September 18, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          How is what not prediction? We didn’t say that something isn’t prediction, but that for example an egg timer will ring at a certain time even if everybody in the room fails to predict the timing.

          • Kharamatha
            Posted September 18, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

            That is to say, if these people who didn’t get the right timing would argue that their failed attempt leads to the conclusion that the timer didn’t have a set time, they would be wrong.

            • Posted September 18, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

              A brain, with fingers attached, has to set the timer based on learned (accurate) predictions of what the time will predict.

  59. Posted September 17, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the thing:
    – We can blame anyone we want
    – We can moralize and punish
    – We can create ideologies, with no evidence basis, to serve our emotional priorities of moralizing, punishing, etc.
    – Pretty much everyone will buy into those ideologies

    However,:
    – There is no science to support their claims or proscriptions (around free will)
    – These ideologies don’t work. Criminalizing and punishing the medical affliction of addiction doesn’t work to solve the problem.

    So we can chit chat, hand wring, punish and philosophize all we want — the facts ain’t gonna change.

    So we can problem-solve with the best facts at our disposal or continue to pretend and spin out fantasy, feel-good fairy stories.

    From the comments on here, seems fairy-tales (as always) win.

  60. Rajesh Kher
    Posted September 18, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I think there is a tacit assumption free will implies that our decision has to be based on after all the facts are in we weigh and decide to take a specific decision. 4 sec for a decision this or that appears to be much more than Libet estimate of 350+150msec. 350msec is the time when the Brain actually becomes conscious of need for action and 150msec for actual motor act to take place. At least Libet avers that 150 msec is a potential free will period when alternative decisions are made. Even if we take 4 sec is the time and we can predict with 100% accuracy the outcome question is whether the decision that is made has already weighed all the reasons for the decision. Actually I have always wondered what is algorithm on which the decision is made by the MIND. May be that will hold the clue. For example as decision become more complex with larger number of acceptable choices, does this time reduce. If it does than MIND has already processed the data thru its logic engine and only the final motor act remains.

  61. Posted September 18, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    If decision making and free will were this all powerful and pervasive force in human, and apparently no other animals(!?), why has it been so easily debunked and the evidence against so easy and quick to come.

    So neuroscientists, in one of the first tasks of the new brain science, went out to find something everyone assumed would be a “lay up” — “Of course we have free-will decisions making, executive function etc. It’s a no-brainer! Everyone knows that.”

    Then they can’t even find it on something as simple as moving our fingers. Big problem.

  62. Posted September 19, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I wrote a recent review of the research purported to prove that free will is an illusion. See Ref.: Ms. No. ACP-D-09-00015
    Free Will: Simple Experiments Are Not So Simple
    Advances in Cognitive Psychology

  63. abogdonov
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I have a serious problem with the interpretation these researchers took from the results of this study. As far as I can tell the study does not relate to questions of free will at all. All they have done is refine our understanding of when and where decisions are made in the brain. They have done nothing to refute the notion that decision are in fact being made. And the ability to “predict” seems suspect as well. These predictions are being made only seconds before each individual decision is “manifested” physically. That is not really a prediction; the equipment is merely allowing them to “record” the decision faster than we can send the signal to our extremities to “enact” said decision. Now, if they were able to take a single scan at the beginning of the session and using that one scan, predict the choices made, I would find that very convincing evidence indeed. As it stands an 80% accurate recording of the brain patterns that represent a choice, while a significant advance in neuroscience, has little, if any, baring on free will one way or the other.

  64. Mr. Foster
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the author has a good grasp on the philosophical literature. The author is confusing free will with compatibilism, or is using them interchangeably. While free will is relevant to the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate, it does not directly address the issue.
    Compatibilism is the view that moral responsibility still holds in a determined world; incompatibilism is that for moral responsibility to hold, the action must include some sort of true choice. As such, any person who believes in a purely determined world, yet still maintains the relevance of morality will be a compatiblist. The notion of “acting as if we had free will” only really makes sense in a compatibilist world, for otherwise there is no real reason to ascribe free will to the situation.

    Free Will (i.e., libertarianism) verses determinism is arguing that there is some sort of agent causation (i.e., a cause, that produces some effect in the world, which is undetermined and stems from the agent) or that the world works entirely by some sort of mechanism that can predict (perfectly or probablistically) the next state in time.

    In closing, while the neuroscience has obvious implications for the free will debate, it bears little to none on the compatibilist debate. For example, if all moral responsibility requires is that an action is performed by a given entity with a cognitive capacity above a given threshold, then, regardless of the point of decision, the entity is morally responsible.

    Philosophers only muddy the waters in that people ignore relevant distinctions. For example, it is as if one argues that all cognitive scientists are behaviorists because they all use behaviors in their experiments. Obviously this would be based on a gross misunderstanding of the relevant concepts. I think a similar mistake has been made in this article.

  65. Posted September 21, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I find these experiments unconvincing because they use a loose definition of “decision.” The “decision” in the experiment is a random, meaningless choice, so it comes as no surprise that it is the result of some non-rational process “bubbling up” from the subconscious.

    The subject is given no criteria for making the choice, and the choice has no meaning. So basically you have a bored subject sitting in a chair trying to remember to occasionally hit a button – one or the other, it doesn’t matter – and remember a random number on a screen. I suspect the subject’s conscious mind quickly focuses on thoughts or memories that have some meaning and the “decision”-making is relegated to a mental process running in the background.

    Imagining myself in this situation, I can almost feel how the “decision” would intrude on my consciousness like a timed, repeating alert from a background process running on my computer, and I would hit whatever button I “felt like” hitting at that moment, noting the “choice” I made after letting my muscles make the choice for me.

    If we could associate brain activity with their coffee vs tea preference, I’d bet you’d still get Fried-ian results: the brain would show a decision well before the subject was conscious of having made one.

    And I’d bet you wouldn’t get the same results. Although I’d expect you’d still get some activity that might be usable to predict the choice even before the choice is consciously made – since the choice is going to be made based on memories and sensory input and probably other pre-decision processing (“Is it a trap? Is there a right answer? Is it a trick question? Do I need more caffeine? What kind of tea is it?”).

    But somebody will actually have to do that experiment to settle our bet.

  66. Posted December 25, 2011 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    I am a member of Christians in Science and the American Scientific Affiliation, two organizations professing to believe in Christian doctrine. On their websites, I posed the following test about the mind-body problem. Both organizations failed miserably. It is a test because in matters touching religious faith people have blind spots, that is, they are inhibited from thinking intelligently.

    Preliminary statement: Human beings have a drive to know and understand everything. When animals have nothing to do they go to sleep. But humans will ask the question: What is the relationship between myself and my body?

    Test: What is the answer judged to be true by rational people?

    Hint: The answer is supported by the evidence and judged to be true by Catholic philosophers and theologians.

    • Posted December 25, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      This is silly. Humans have no capacities not inherited from earlier animal forms.

      All animals are Bayesian machines constantly calculating for food, survival and mating. All life forms must.

      Only people paid by the word — philosophers and theologians — invent these silly conceits.

      • Posted December 25, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        When animals have nothing to do, they go to sleep. When humans have nothing to do they ask questions. Humans have a drive to know and understand everything. The idea that humans evolved from animals is pseudoscience. True science is that the bodies of humans evolved from animals, not their souls.

        • Posted December 25, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

          Supporting R&C. All animals have this drive. Humans could only inherit from other animals.

          • Posted December 25, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

            This is a bright idea, but what is the evidence supporting it? What questions do animals ask?

            Do animals every ask: What is free will? Do animals create images and other mental beings? Did an animal ever discover the cause of something or the relationship between things? Can animals create an infinite number of sentences? Did animals ever think the sun rotated around the earth? Do animals practice slavery?

            • Posted December 25, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

              By definition, there must be correlates of all brain activities and behaviors is animals from whom humans descended.

              How else would they have been derived? Bacteria make “economic” decisions and construct social arrangements, etc.

              Human exceptionalism has no evidence basis. The differences are in degree, not type.

              • Posted December 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                The evidence that humans are exceptional is that humans have free will. Free will is not a scientific concept. It can’t be observed with our senses. We know we have free will because we can make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. This is why humans are embodied spirits and why the human soul is spiritual. Evolution applies only to the bodies of humans, not their souls.

              • Posted December 25, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

                rofl…ah yes, magical ideas of inmmaterial stuff…sure sure, have your doctor refer to that next time your kids are sick.

                you’re on your own with silly ideas like that…

              • Posted December 25, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                The human soul is not “immaterial stuff.” The human soul is a concept in metaphysics. There is no evidence that immaterial substances exist. You are quite right to ridicule that idea. What exists is material stuff and human beings. The idea that human beings are collections of molecules and atoms is as irrational as thinking immaterial stuff exists.

              • Posted December 26, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

                We leave crackpot ideas to those who wallow in them.

  67. Guru
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Leave it to scientists to always be on the cutting edge of catching up with the mystics. Long ago, Atisha tells us of the three awarenesses.

    Most people operate without any consciousness, that is to say, they are on auto-pilot. They are consistently engaged in reactive behavior patterns. In the above studies, these people’s actions are predictable 100% of the time.

    A second awareness is to become aware of the thoughts that precede actions. This is the beginning of conscious behavior. The thought has already occurred, and science could still predict the action, though the action might not be taken, depending on the degree of developing awareness.

    The third awareness, a level of consciousness belonging to the class of people we would call enlightened, mystics or seers, is an awareness of the feelings that precede the thoughts that precede the actions. It is an entirely non-reactive state, and unlike the first awareness, the actions at this level of awareness are completely unpredictable.

    What science claims to prove in the lab is only further affirmation of the truth, which needs neither proof nor belief.

  68. Stakie
    Posted August 28, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    What I don’t like is neuroscientists claiming they somehow ended the notion of libertarian free will through brain research.

    I mean it’s not like a free floating ethereal soul would make decisions absolutely free from preferences and biases.

    You cannot want what you do not want, no matter how hard you try and that means there’s no libertarian free will and you don’t need to know about brain research to know it, nor does this hold true only for minds with a human brain.

    “The answer is obvious: whether our actions are predetermined has obvious consequences for how and why we hold people responsible for their actions.”

    Actually it doesn’t, at least not in practice. A laptop does not have free will but you can reprogram it until it performs a desired action. If punishment deters/reprograms the subconscious of criminals society does become more safe. The only reason people who are considered not responsible for their action are set free is because whatever made the not responsible is unlikely to repeat itself in the future, this clearly isn’t the case with people who have criminal personalities.

    “How, exactly, is deciding between coffee and tea more “complex” than deciding which button to press?”

    Consciousness can only possibly have some use in complex social interactions (even there it might be replaceable with other mechanisms, but humans just happen to have consciousness as a mechanism here), everything else can be done on autopilot, which is why even a tubeworm can press a button. When it comes to unfamiliar complex social interactions your conscious mind will think before an action is taken, there is still no libertarian free will though because your conscious mind is still a slave to its existing preferences and biases.


9 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] I am slightly depressed that another chance of consciousness surviving death has been demolished: Free will: the neuroscientists versus the philosophers Why Evolution Is True If neuroscientists find unconscious neural activity that drives decision-making, the troublesome [...]

  2. [...] my many recent missives on the topic of free will, you may well find this interesting. I just read a review on Why Evolution Is True of Kerri Smith’s Nature article from the September 1 issue of Nature called Taking aim at [...]

  3. [...] Coyne provides an excellent summary of how scientific and philosophical thinking on free will is changing these days. Good stuff. Like [...]

  4. [...] rapidly changing the topic all the time! It started off with the "proof" made by that blogger that free will can't exist because some brain activity, occurring a few seconds before we make our [...]

  5. [...] a recent post discussing the debate between philosophers and neuroscientists about free will, Jerry Coyne [...]

  6. [...] need to calculate the whole universe to know what people will choose. We can, using brain scans, predict with 80%+ accuracy what people will choose up to 7 seconds before they know what they will choose. At least, we can do [...]

  7. Is there anything required to define a mind that cannot be modeled as a computation?…

    >> The only way of knowing if consciousness fails if your brain (and you may as wellinclude the rest of the body) is replaced by machine parts, functionally equivalent to those replaced, is if you were the subject yourself [again, I still think we comp…

  8. [...] urge: “Don’t stop believing!” | Bering in Mind, Scientific American Blog Network Free will: the neuroscientists versus the philosophers Why Evolution Is True You only have so much free will, you only have so many choices. Just watch the video and do [...]

  9. […] same experiment was recently posted in Nature. Jerry Coyne, of Why Evolution Is True fame, posted his own comments about the article: The experiments show, then, that not only are decisions made before we’re […]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,801 other followers

%d bloggers like this: