BBC show on free will today

At 21:00 on BBC Two Horizon tonight there’s a show on free will called “Out of Control,” and, regardless of your take on the issue, it sounds interesting.

The synopsis from the BBC:

We all like to think we are in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think. But scientists are now discovering this is often simply an illusion. Surprising experiments are revealing that what you think you do and what you actually do can be very different. Your unconscious mind is often calling the shots, influencing the decisions you make, from what you eat to who you fall in love with. If you think you are really in control of your life, you may have to think again.

And a synopsis by David Butcher of the Radio Times:

There’s a lovely scene in this Horizon where the director gives each of the brain scientists he interviews a marker pen and a sketch pad. Then he asks each of them to show on paper how much of what the brain does is conscious, and how much unconscious, in their view. They vary: one shades in a tiny square, which he says is the conscious brain’s contribution; another shades off about a tenth of the page. But they all agree that, like an iceberg, the great majority of our brain activity lies below the surface. The sense we are consciously in control is an illusion – and the programme goes on to illustrate this with wonderful experiments involving golf, knitting and chasing toy helicopters. People assume they are in control of their lives, deciding what they want and when they want it – but scientists now claim this is simply an illusion. Experiments reveal that what a person does and what they think can be very different, with the unconscious mind often influencing the decisions they make, from what they eat to who they fall in love with. Horizon reveals to what extent people really do control their own destiny.

Go here to watch it live online, and here to watch it later online (available for 7 days after broadcast; may not be available in the US).  I won’t be able to watch it, as I have a review session for my final exam, but if you’ve seen it, weigh in.

h/t: Michael

42 Comments

  1. Bonzodog
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Also BBC HD ….

    • Nick Evans
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

      Now, that was annoying. What’s the point of showing something in HD if half of the images are going to be out of focus for artistic reasons?

  2. Steve
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    sub

  3. Kevin
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Sigh…again, just because your brain works “behind the scenes”, that does not mean that you are not ultimately in control.

    If we needed to use the “conscious” part of our brain to do everything, we’d all be dead before we were an hour old. Autonomic processes — breathing, heart beat, etc. are not consciously controlled. There’s no need. The brain has it taken care of without our need to think about it.

    Similarly, when we make decisions, there’s no need to sit and meditate on the decision until you figure it out. Your brain is perfectly capable of working things out in the background, and reporting back when asked (or in that “flash of insight” moment).

    Honestly, this really says absolutely nothing about free will. Nothing. Not one thing. Zip. Nada. Bupkis.

    And now, I’m using my free will to do something else.

    • satan augustine
      Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      No, you just *think* you’re using your free will to do something else.

      • Posted March 13, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        Well answered Satan Augustine…and I love your name, by the way!

      • Beachscriber
        Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:08 am | Permalink

        You just *think* you think things.

    • Niklas
      Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      “Similarly, when we make decisions, there’s no need to sit and meditate on the decision until you figure it out. Your brain is perfectly capable of working things out in the background, and reporting back when asked”

      I wonder a bit about your description, since I am right now reading Daniel Kahnemans new book, “Thinking fast and slow”

      Is not the issue, that many decisions appears to be formed subconsciously by system 1, and are (I) only sometimes intercepted by system 2 and (II) actually appears sometimes to be retrospectively rationalised by system 2?

      And that “working things out”, by means of reason, do require activation and conscious effort of system 2?

      But I am new to this very fascinating field… :)

    • bad Jim
      Posted March 13, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. When we interact with another person, we take for granted that we’re dealing with the whole person, not just the sliver that’s attending to the conversation.

  4. Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s not about free will as such. More how the subconcious brain controls movement, coordination, data handling and memory. I’ve also never liked the use of animals (ants in this case) to extrapolate what is going on in humans.
    Thanks for deawing it to my attention though.

  5. Launcher
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve noticed advertisements around the University of Cambridge that the Faraday Institute will be hosting a panel discussion on “Brain, Mind, Neurons, and Free Will” on March 17th:

    http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/index.php

    I can’t make it, but it might be interesting for someone else in the WEIT community.

  6. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t seen the show, but the synopsis commits the usual crypto-dualist fallacy of assuming that my unconscious mind is not part of me, and that any contribution it makes to my decisions means that I am somehow not in control.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Next up: scientists reveal that automobiles don’t really move themselves, because all the motive power is actually supplied by the engine.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      That is so wrong it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps I’ll just rephrase:

      The brain has both a subconscious part and a conscious part and the fallacy is in assuming that the conscious part is in control when, in fact, nothing is in control and that it is just the brain itself producing all the output by deterministic cause and effect relationships. The corollary is that the dualistic contolling conscious self is an illusion.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        A cruise missile is completely deterministic but it would be silly to claim that nothing is in control of it. Without its computerized control system, it would never reach its target.

        Arguing that determinism makes the concept of control meaningless is simply nihilism and sheds no light on how organisms and cybernetic sytems actually work in the real world.

        • Steve
          Posted March 14, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

          Last time I checked nobody was ascribing free will to said cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are subject to their matrix of causal determinants the same as humans are.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

            I never said otherwise, regarding either cruise missiles or humans. What I’m saying is that contrary to BillyJoe’s implication, control is still a meaningful concept in a deterministic world. If you have a coherent argument that says otherwise, let’s hear it. But if you’re just going to use my post as a jumping-off point for your standard straw-man attack on libertarian free will (which virtually nobody here defends), then I will respectfully decline to participate.

            • Steve
              Posted March 14, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

              If so, then what was your point regarding the missiles, if you aren’t making the case for free will?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 14, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

                Why would I use missiles to make a case for free will? I thought I’d been clear already that I’m making a case for being in control of our own actions, even if that control is exerted by deterministic brain processes in the unconscious mind. Control is still a useful concept for describing how organisms (including humans) regulate their behavior.

                To put it another way, saying that I am not in control of my own actions is to say that I am simultaneously large enough to contain the actor, but too small to contain the planner of those actions. That’s clearly nonsense in my view. You can’t have it both ways. The engine is part of the car, the guidance system is part of the missile, and my subconscious decision-maker is part of me.

                None of this depends in any way on the notion of libertarian free will.

              • Steve
                Posted March 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                Gregory,

                Maybe then this is just a case of your lax use of language.

                Why would I use missiles to make a case for free will?

                Beats me, it did seem as if you were trying to say that missiles are in control of themselves.

                I thought I’d been clear already that I’m making a case for being in control of our own actions, even if that control is exerted by deterministic brain processes in the unconscious mind.

                So what you are ultimately saying is in control are deterministic brain processes in the unconscious mind. I agree, which is why I am convinced there is no libertarian freedom in what anyone does. Ergo, if we are at odds, it would only seem to be over how our shared conviction is expressed.

                To put it another way, saying that I am not in control of my own actions is to say that I am simultaneously large enough to contain the actor, but too small to contain the planner of those actions.

                I lost you with this turn. I would say I am an actor, but I am not the planner – to use your phrasing. Why couldn’t it be that people are big enough to contain the actor but too small to contain the planner.

                That’s clearly nonsense in my view.

                Not sure what you are referring to here.

                The engine is part of the car, the guidance system is part of the missile, and my subconscious decision-maker is part of me. None of this depends in any way on the notion of libertarian free will.

                Yes, the engine is part of the car, and the guidance system is part of the missile. Neither are thought to imbue either the car or the missiles with free will. (Though I would point those who haven’t heard it before to the case of Fawlty’s car.) Likewise your subconscious decision-make is part of you, and yet it does not imbue you with free will.

                This is not so much a matter of these relationships depending in any way on the notion of libertarian free will, but instead that the notion of libertarian free will depending on those relationships, in so much as free willists would assert that your containing a decision maker is what imbues in you free will.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                Guided missiles are in control of themselves, by any reasonable definition of control. That’s why they have guidance systems, to keep them from tumbling out of control. But again, that has nothing to do with libertarian free will.

                If you’re big enough to contain the actor but not the planner, then where do you think the planner lives, given that the actor comprises your entire neuromuscular system — essentially your whole body? If you think there is no planner, then how do you account for purposeful behavior?

                I never claimed that having a planner imbues me with libertarian free will. As I said at the outset, I’m not interested in arguing about libertarian free will, so if you’re going to insist on having that argument, then count me out.

              • Steve
                Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                I would hope that guided missiles are under the control of those who launch them.

                I’m not interested in arguing about libertarian free will, so if you’re going to insist on having that argument, then count me out.

                Well then I guess we won’t be seeing you around these threads, since they are about this non-existence of free will.

                BBC show on free will today

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

                Correct. If you’re going to continue your habit of turning every thread that mentions the words “free will” into a rehash of the argument for the non-existence of libertarian free will (a point on which we all agree), then you won’t find me contributing much to those threads.

              • Steve
                Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

                Gregory,

                (a point on which we all agree)

                Kevin (post #3), certainly doesn’t agree.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 15, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

                Go argue it with him then.

      • Steve
        Posted March 14, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        BillyJoe,

        I agree, it seems as if the problem is with the conviction that the conscious part of the mind is in someway doing any deciding… this is hard, due to the illusion of libertarian control, for many to accept the notion that consciousness is only a “display” function with no actual control.

        It is right there, figuratively, in front of their nose, the conscious mind not doing the controlling, but the individual still experiencing (having the feeling of) the conscious mind as being in control, and yet they still ask/state, “I don’t see the significance of what I am seeing. It is still the individual making the choice, what does it matter that it is done in the subconscious mind, as opposed to the conscious?”

        • BillyJoe
          Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          I guess it’s just semantics but I prefer to say that the brain rather than “I”. Because the “I” is an illusion created by deterministic processes in the brain and doesn’t control anything. Neither does the brain control anything. It’s just deterministic processes all the way through. The word “control” is good shorthand, though, as long as it is understood that no “control” exists.

          • Steve
            Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

            Our language is woefully deficient when it comes to this topic… Look you used the word “I” at the beginning of the sentence in which you eschew the use of the word “I”. What a linguistic mess.

            • BillyJoe
              Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

              That’s because the illusion is that good ;)

  7. JamesM
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Can you think of processes initiated and controlled by the brain that you cannot control? or processes in the brain that you have no conscious awareness of and are not in control of? Processes that determine your behaviour, thoughts, actions, that preceed conscious awareness of the behaviour, thoughts, or actions? What does it mean to suffer a severe panic attack while being in total control?

  8. Dominic
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    I was at a Royal Institution talk/discussion about Science and journalism so I missed it last night, but Tali Sharot who was on the programme has written a good book called The Optimism Bias which is about a lot of those issues.

  9. Nick Evans
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    It was OK, but more about the fact that your unconscious mind controls a lot of your actions/decisions without your conscious awareness, rather than an exploration of whether “you” have any control over what your conscious mind is aware of.

  10. Daniel Engblom
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    I’m perplexed how Jerry Coyne could have recommended Sam Harris’ book “Free Will” – It was so muddled, with contradictions, lousy assumptions and appeals to intuition. Coyne must have noticed the unscientific mindset that plagued his book! I’ve expanded my thoughts here:

    http://www.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/16542/

  11. Simon King
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    The programme didn’t really satisfy. Horizon used to be a superb vehicle for introducing new science to the masses. Now, like its counterparts in the arts it has been dumbed down. There’s never quite enough detail in these programmes. They should spend longer on talking heads rather than blowing their budget on “cool” graphics and camera work.

    Its why YouTube/podcasts offers much more potential.

    • Beachscriber
      Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      Well said. I’m beginning to feel the same way about the BBC.

  12. S A GOULD
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Could not get the show to play, at the time or now. Says I need BBC iPlayer. Tried getting that to download, couldn’t do that either. Perhaps it WILL end on YouTube one day…

    • S A GOULD
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Never mind! IT IS on YouTube, now!

      • S A GOULD
        Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        Ack! No, just the commercial is.

      • Beachscriber
        Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

        SA, did you find a way of getting to watch these?

  13. Beachscriber
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    I’m keen to watch these. Does anyone know how someone outside the UK can get to see them (I’m in South Africa)?

    • Beachscriber
      Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:07 am | Permalink

      I get this message when I try to view them: “Currently BBC iPlayer TV programmes are available to play in the UK only, but all BBC iPlayer Radio programmes are available to you. Why?

      If you are in the UK and see this message please read this advice.

      Go to the BBC iPlayer Radio homepage”

  14. Beachscriber
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    I’d also be very happy if I could find one person in life – fundamentalist freak or atheism anathema (everyone uses the term with great abandon) – who could give me a satisfactory explanation of what Free Will is. It has baffled me since my childhood in church where they spoke about it a lot (“God gave us free will”). I never encountered the term in the Bible and I never encountered a satisfactory explanation at university. Basically, I know what the Will is but what is the *Free* Will? Is it Will that you buy on some shopping channel – like it comes with some “free” extra? Or is like Will was in jail but had the money for a slick lawyer? Or has it got something to do with Free Willy?

    Seriously, I’d really be happy to eat humble pi here. Someone tell me what is the difference between plain old Will and Free Will? And don’t tell me it’s the free exercise of the will because then I’m going to ask you what the difference is between that and plain old Freedom.


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