A strange conception of free will

Just when I think there’s nothing more to be said about free will—after all, we’ve hashed over most of the points here—a new piece comes along with yet another take on the issue.

The latest slant, written by Dr. Peter Tse, is either deeply misguided or, less likely, profound in a way I don’t understand. I suspect it’s the latter, an essay that, in the end, is just a “deepity.”  Tse, a cognitive neuroscientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has written a 1200-word defense of free will in New Scientist called “Free will unleashed” (unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, though I give the reference below).

Although Tse doesn’t define free will, he appears to conceive of it as the condition of human behavior when, in a given situation, with all else equal, you could have done otherwise if you reran the tape of life. I used to hold that definition, too, until I realized that if quantum indeterminacy really does play a role in our actions, then it’s possible for us to have done otherwise in a given situation—that is, with all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way were the situation repeated—even though we’re not really affecting that decision through any kind of conscious rumination. I now prefer to define free will as Anthony Cashmore did in his article on the topic in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. (reference below):

I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

That excludes any quantum effects from the notion of free will, for I believe that even the compatibilists who post here don’t find their compatibility in quantum indeterminacy.

At any rate, Tse’s insight—his defense of free will—depends on the fact that when neurons fire, causing electrical “spikes,” the firing can change the subsequent way that other neurons fire:

The missing piece is that neurons can rewire each other. Spikes don’t just trigger subsequent spikes in other neurons. Within milliseconds, they can temporarily change the degree to which synapses –; the nerve structures that pass signals to other neurons –; trigger future spikes. This reweighting of a synapse is like changing the combination on a padlock without opening it, and can happen without necessarily triggering spikes immediately. I base this claim on research from the past decade showing that rapid bursts of spikes trigger the opening of specialised synaptic receptors, altering the responsiveness of neurons to subsequent spikes.

This means that a neuron could now be driven by an input that, moments before, might have contributed nothing to its firing. For example, a nerve cell that has just responded to a touch to your forehead could now respond to someone stroking your hand.

This rapid synaptic reweighting could potentially alter the connectivity of an entire circuit, defining new neuronal paths that signals can traverse. Just as railway switches must be flipped to allow trains to pass, synaptic weights must be reset before brain signals can follow one path through a neural circuit instead other possible paths. And if information is realised in the brain at the level of circuits, not just neurons, it is no wonder that listening to spikes in single neurons has not allowed us to crack the neural code.

I’ll concede the idea of “reweighting,” which doesn’t violate my notion of how brains might work. But how does this “reweighting” give us free will? Because it means, according to Tse, that we could have done otherwise.

You might ask, though, how could that be, since the description above is still deterministic ? Reweighting is just a deterministic phenomenon: neuronal firing affects the way other neurons fire. Here he simply sneaks in quantum mechanics (my emphasis), something that he hasn’t defined as part of “neuronal reweighting”:

What does this have to do with free will? Determinists argue that because all particles follow predetermined trajectories, all events, including our lives, unfold as inevitably as a movie. Indeterminists, supported by quantum mechanics, argue the opposite –that all events are random. In either case, whether predetermined or random, there is no room for free will to make events turn out otherwise.

There is, however, a middle path to freedom between these unfree extremes. If the brain sets up criteria for future firing, and if spike timing is made random by the amplification of quantum-level events in the synapse, it is down to chance how these criteria are met. The inputs that meet criteria cannot be predicted –the outcome depends on which spikes coincidentally arrive first.

How does chance interplay with these internal criteria in real life? If I ask you to think of a politician, your brain sets the appropriate criterion in neurons involved in retrieval of information held in your memory. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher comes to mind. If it were possible to rewind the universe, you might think of Barack Obama this time, because he also meets the criterion. This process is not utterly random, because the answer had to be a politician. However, it is also not deterministic, because it could have turned out otherwise.

Here he appears to find free will in the pure stochasticity of individual quantum events.  The problems are twofold: nobody wants to see free will in such indeterminacy, and we don’t even know if quantum effects have an effect on neuronal firing, much less on the behavior that results from such firing. And, absent quantum events, the system becomes purely deterministic. Since Tse thinks pure determinism rules out free will (he’s not a compatibilist), he has to do some fast-stepping to drag conscious “will” into the picture:

Factoring in rapid synaptic reweighting also gets around the argument that free will can’t exist because of the impossibility of self-causation. The argument goes as follows: we act as we do at each moment because of how our brain is physically organised at that time. So because we are not ultimately responsible for the way we are organised then, we are not responsible for the consequences of that action. It had to happen as it did, otherwise a thought could change its own neuronal basis, which is impossible. But with synaptic reweighting, mental events don’t change their present physical basis. They change the neuronal basis of possible future events.

As far as I understand this, though, “synpaptic reweighting” does not get around determinism and is not “self causation”.  Absent quantum events, there’s no obvious reason to ditch determinism simply because when a neuron fires it affects how other neurons will fire.  To me, this seems like semantic gobbledygook.

Tse then raises the problem that a zombie lacking consciousness could still show this behavior, but “we would not say it had free will.” In other words, to Tse, a conscious decision, one in which you can alter future events by thinking about them, is essential for free will.  He then explains, using a food analogy, how consciousness really is important in giving us free will:

If consciousness plays no part in the synaptic reweighting process, there is hardly a free will worth having. (There are many definitions for consciousness, but I define it as all the information that presently is, or could be, voluntarily attended to.) [JAC: note the sneaking in of the word “voluntarily,” which is skirting dualism and, at any rate, doesn’t have anything to do with quantum indeterminacy].

Fortunately, the neural activity associated with consciousness does play a necessary role. One way to demonstrate this is using a thought experiment. Let’s say you are planning a dinner party and play out various possibilities in your mind’s eye. You imagine serving a steak, then realise that one guest is vegetarian, so set criteria “delicious; not meat” among synapses associated with memory retrieval. As described before, whatever comes to mind will meet these criteria yet could have turned out otherwise.

Let’s say spinach lasagne is the first appropriate solution that comes to mind. This solution could only have been reached through intentional manipulation of conscious thoughts, so the neural activity that gives rise to consciousness is necessary for the subsequent act of shopping for spinach. Your brain freely willed the outcome of spinach by setting up specific criteria in advance, then playing things out. Such internal deliberation is where the action is in free will, not in repetitive or automated motor acts.

I don’t get this, for it seems like pure determinism to me.  The “internal manipulation of conscious thoughts” so touted by Tse is simply the working of the meat computer we call our brain. That computer running a program based on your genes and environment.  So how on earth is this the same as “your brain freely willing the outcome of spinach” in a way that your decision could have turned out otherwise? How could it have turned out otherwise? How do we “manipulate” our conscious thoughts? Am I missing something?

As far as I can see, Tse is coming perilously close to saying we have a dualistic free will, but coming nowhere near justifying his claim that our own thinking can change our decisions so that we could have done otherwise.  His ending makes this clear:

This way of understanding the neural code has deep implications. It means that our thoughts and actions are neither utterly random nor predetermined. This counters arguments that free will is an illusion. It shows that the conclusion derived from the dogma of determinism –that mental events, including volitional ones, cannot cause subsequent events –is wrong.

We are not mere automata or unfree characters in a deterministic movie. We can change the physical universe with our minds. For example, it was not predetermined at the big bang when and where aeroplanes would be invented. They were brought into existence by brains that could harness chance to creatively envision a different future.

This does not mean that we require a soul for free will. We don’t. My account is entirely physicalist. But our brains can set criteria, play events out internally, choose the best option, then make things happen. And it could always have turned out otherwise.

Really?

I will grant Tse one thing: I agree with him that the invention of aeroplanes wasn’t determined at the Big Bang.  For between that event and the Wright brothers there were lots of events in which quantum indeterminacy could have played a role.  The configuration of the universe right after the Big Bang, so Sean Carroll tells me, could have been profoundly influenced by pure physical indeterminacy. I’m also willing to grant that mutations—the raw material of evolution—could often be purely indeterminate. And if that’s so, then even the evolution of humans, or of any other species, might not have been inevitable had we, à la Gould, rolled back the earth 4.6 billion years ago, but leaving every molecule in the same place.

But that is not the same thing as saying that if I was planning a dinner party, and rolled back time a few minutes to the moment when I decided what to serve, I could have chosen meat rather than spinach.

Maybe I’m getting something wrong here, and maybe Tse is proposing a type of compatibilism with which I’m not familiar, but it seems to me that he’s simply stringing together a lot of words, mixing them with some findings in neuroscience, and coming up with a type of free will that doesn’t do what it purports to.

_________

Cashmore, A. R. 2010. The Lucretian swerve: the biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:4499-504.

Tse, P. U. 2013. Free will unleashed. New Scientist 218:28-29.

125 Comments

  1. Posted June 17, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    So, first, the fact that there’s physical re-wriring going on the brain is exactly what one expects, since it’s a very common feature of computer systems. Everything is physical, for starters, and “programmable hardware” is also common for certain development and optimization situations. But even garden-variety electronics still has physical changes dictating the different logical pathways being executed.

    But, beyond that, Tse’s big thought experiment is exactly what I’ve been saying is the sort of thing that people are commonly pointing to when they claim they’re exercising their freed willies: the mental construction of alternate possible outcomes to various options, and making a real-world decision based on their analysis of this internal private set of virtual realities. It’s all quite deterministic (with the usual quantum and chaotic caveats thrown in), but it feel like you keep rewinding the tape because, in your mind, that’s exactly what you do.

    I don’t think that’s what “free will” really is, because “free will” is incoherent — it’s what married bachelors exercise on their trips north of the North Pole. If a decision is free, it is not willed; if willed, it is not free.

    But I do think it’s important to observe that, when people think they’re being willfully free from random determinism, that’s what’s going on in their heads.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Precisely. Even under dualistic schemes, decisions are determined, the only thing at issue is the nature of the determinants. According to naturalism, the detrminant is nature, however you parse it.

    • Chance
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      “Free will” is on its last legs. All we can do is document its last gasps.

      “it’s what married bachelors exercise on their trips north of the North Pole.”

      Ha, I’ll have to remember that one.

      I think I need to better understand quantum indeterminacy though. I mean, Sean might say quantum indeterminacy greatly shaped our universe, but I still don’t understand what makes it indeterminate. If something caused it to be the way it was, wouldn’t that be what you’re looking for? “Random” is a concept I can’t fathom. It seems contrary to logic itself.

      • John K.
        Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        It is always odd to me that arguments against free will get so frequently straw manned into arguments against any will at all. Free will is in no way required to ponder dinner choices, and until we can “rewind the tape” in some way any concept of free will involving “I could have done differently” remains incoherent. Of course humans have various intellectual drives , or will, that can in some measure overcome the more basic instincts, but there is no reason to think there is anything beyond physical interactions to any of it.

        Married bachelors and north of the North Pole are perfect analogies for this kind of free will. One may as well ask what kind of spells could be cast with a “real” magic wand.

        • Vaal
          Posted June 17, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          John K,

          ” Free will is in no way required to ponder dinner choices, and until we can “rewind the tape” in some way any concept of free will involving “I could have done differently” remains incoherent.”

          And some would point out that is a strawman 🙂

          Compatibilism, the majority position on free will among philosophers, has nothing to do with requiring a “rewinding” of any tape. I can make a coherent statement that “I could have done differently” that requires nothing about rewinding tapes. But you have dismissed the possibility of “any” such thing, but only by pointing to the silliness of Libertarian free will.

          “Married bachelors and north of the North Pole are perfect analogies for this kind of free will. One may as well ask what kind of spells could be cast with a “real” magic wand.”

          Agreed, if the object of that remark is Libertarian accounts of free will that rest upon this “rewinding the tape but choosing differently” nonsense. But to the degree you use THAT account of free will to dismiss OTHER accounts of free will (e.g. compatibilism) then you will be strawmanning, which it seems you wish us to avoid.

          Vaal

          • Posted June 17, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            “I can make a coherent statement that ‘I could have done differently’ that requires nothing about rewinding tapes.”

            Right, for instance: “If I had wanted to, I could have done otherwise.” This refers to a counterfactual situation, not to what actually transpired.

            What some folks (not compatibilists) seem to want is the incoherent contra-causal capacity to have wanted (and therefore possibly done) otherwise in actual situations, with circumstances just as they were. They aren’t referring to counterfactual situations when they say “I could have done otherwise,” as are compatibilists.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      If a decision is free, it is not willed; if willed, it is not free.

      IMO, freedom is the essence of will. But your statement casts the terms as mutually exclusive. This strikes me as odd, and even nonsensical, since you seem to deny “free” has meaning at all. After all, what can be “free” in your deterministic scheme?

      IOW, usage of the word “free” in this context is itself a kind of capitulation.

      But maybe not. Maybe that sentence is a lot less than that. Your position seems to be that freedom is an illusion. It’s (in reality) determined. So we can modify your assertion to the following, using “free” as you see it:

      If a decision is determined, it is not willed; if willed, it is not determined.

      Well, now the sentence makes more sense, and I agree. But it doesn’t answer the question, Do we have a will?

    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      “free will” is incoherent — it’s what married bachelors exercise on their trips north of the North Pole. If a decision is free, it is not willed; if willed, it is not free.

      I love this!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        I think I’ve seen these married bachelors. Those are the dudes with the tan lines around their ring finger. 😉

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I find this confusing and partly I think because it is based on a lot of unknowns, which form the basis of further arguments that appear contradictory; witness the “might” and “could” in this sentence:

    “This means that a neuron could now be driven by an input that, moments before, might have…”

    I’m hoping for some actual data specifically showing how all this affects free will to make these concepts less confusing.

  3. Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Nice analysis. Tse wants it to be the case that we could have done otherwise in an actual situation, which he correctly sees requires that determinism be falsified. But as you point out, falsifying determinism via introducing QM necessarily has the effect of breaking the causal chain between our wills and the outcome, robbing us of responsible authorship.

    Richard Oerton nails this point in his recent book, The Nonsense of Free Will. Wanting to be able to do other than what our wills determine us to do from moment to moment is to want an incoherent and self-negating sort of freedom, since our actions would be less, not more, reflective of who we are.

    • Vaal
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Tom,

      Not that I go along with Tse’s argument, but I wonder if this criticism is a bit too quick:

      <i."But as you point out, falsifying determinism via introducing QM necessarily has the effect of breaking the causal chain between our wills and the outcome, robbing us of responsible authorship. "

      Tse’s thesis seems to be that, though there is a random element in the mix, the outcome of the conscious process is not random (just like there is a random element in evolution via natural selection, but the process as a whole is not “random”).

      So the brain consciously sets up the criteria, some randomness occurs in terms of precisely which thought comes to mind, though it will be a thought not totally random but within the parameters set by the consciousness. And then consciousness again vets that which came to mind and decides further how to act.

      And either way it would still be “my brain” doing all this, so I would still be the author.

      If that basically capture’s Tse’s idea, I don’t think your comment is sufficient to show what is wrong in his idea.

      Vaal

      (‘Course I may have gotten both you and Tse wrong…)

      • Posted June 18, 2013 at 5:22 am | Permalink

        Thanks, I take your point: the choice still reflects one’s character even though there’s some randomness in how it’s generated for consideration. But such randomness doesn’t create or add to the agent’s responsibility. So breaking the causal chain in order that the agent could have done otherwise in the actual situation – what Tse seems to think grounds free will – turns out not to be morally consequential, if indeed it’s the case.

        Robert Kane, a libertarian re free will, suggests the possibility of a choice between morally good and bad actions, both reflective of a person’s character, where the decision is ultimately determined by the working out of quantum indeterministic chaos in the person’s brain. Which ever way the choice goes, it’s individual’s since it’s her brain, but the choice itself is ultimately a function of chance, not character.

        So I don’t see how our being exceptions to determinism, either in generating choices or selecting among them, could add to responsibility.

  4. NewEnglandBob
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Dr Tae has a long and complicated way of saying there is learning an there is memory and they combine to make choices.

    I vote for Deepity.

  5. Leo
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    This neuronal reweighing sounds like the mechanism behind CBT or brainwashing. Or a well done marketing campaign. Which would make exactly the opposite of the evidence of free will.

    And why do people talk about what a zombie would do or have like they’d spent considerable time studying at least one?

  6. Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    I do think there can be important QM uncertainty in timing of synapse firing at the end of long chains of multi-branched synapses. But Jerry is surely right that this has nothing to do with free will.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      If it’s significant, after this many billions of years of the synapse, you can be sure that either it’s considered noise and there’s error correction to protect against it or it’s exploited as a source for randomness.

      b&

      • Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        (Or, of course, it’s not significant at all in the first place….)

        b&

      • Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        Yep.

    • John K.
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      It is also kind of odd that it seems the neurons are possessed of free will, but the people are not. After all, the mind is still a direct product of the actions of the neurons, as described by Tse.

    • Launcher
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Can someone help clarify the definition of “quantum”, as in the term “quantum indeterminancy” that appears in a lot of these free will discussions? There are of course many sources of randomness in the nervous system which can cause, say, an action potential to fire slightly earlier or later or not at all (in response to a stimulus, or to an input neuron firing, etc). Much of that randomness is related to 1) the discrete nature of molecules involved in synaptic transmission, such as sodium ions passing through a voltage-gated membrane channel; and 2) the thermodynamics that describes the distribution and motion of such molecules in a fluid environment; but mostly (from the point of view of an electrophysiologist like myself) 3) the typically VERY large number of input synapses that influence the action potential firing of any single neuron, all of them governed by factors 1 and 2 above.

      A biophysicist might call the minimal unit of a transmitted molecule a “quantum”. See, for a quick Pubmed example, the abstract for this paper on (of all things!) the Drosophila neuromuscular junction: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21877902

      But I’m guessing the way Dr. Coyne is using “quanta” in this post specifically relates to quantum mechanics; that is, the unpredictable behavior of SUBatomic particles rather than ions or other molecules. If so, is the idea here that, while by-and-large there are many many sources of neural variability (across trillions of synapses) that can influence decision making, all NON-subatomic factor are technically “predictable” in the sense that they follow deterministically from the current and past state of every molecule in the brain?

      • Launcher
        Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        And let me follow up by saying, as a neuroscientist, I don’t personally know of a single researcher studying a sensory or cognitive system (in humans or animals, whether psychological or physiological) that would deem subatomic influences very important to the type of randomness they observe in their data. I’ll admit, though, that none of them are “studying” free will. (I’ll also admit to skipping most of the one thousand scientific sessions offered at the annual Society for Neuroscience meetings. No doubt a few of those sessions feature researchers who have unassailable data on quantum mechanical influences in decision making.)

  7. Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I suppose we should refer to tonic-clonic seizures as quantum seizures since an aura occurs prior to the event. We can haz free epilepsy.

  8. Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Tse’s idea is like an argument I posted on my blog last September, namely, that for lengthy decisions at least, thoughts that we are aware of, i.e. conscious thoughts, can influence unconscious processes. This creates the impression we have that our conscious mind is in control. (However little influence this has, it is the only influence of which we are personally aware). There are one-off events in the world, that are powerfully influential (think about the meteor impact at the K-T boundary). These are part of a determined sequence, but are by no means predictable or even reproducible. Our behavior is determined, but it is not predictable.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      “but are by no means predictable or even reproducible”

      In principle the meteor impact is predictable to a very clever astronomer living before the event.

      I think this idea has been plagued by the confusion between hypothetically predictable, and predictability that is practically available to us.

      • Posted June 17, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        I accept that free will is an illusion. Predictability is not a property of the world outside, it is a function of our knowledge and thus changes as our knowledge increases or decreases. The fact that the behavior of people is not predictable does not mean it is the result of free will. We do not have all the facts and we do not know all the rules, not even about our own personal behavior. What is interesting is what we make of this unpredictability, because intuitively it suggests we are free to do differently than we do. If others’ behavior is unpredictable, we jump to the conclusion that this is because they are autonomous agents with a will of their own. If we did not understand why rocks fall, we would attribute their behavior to caprice, a desire to go to earth. Indeed at one time this was just what people thought.

      • Kevin Henderson
        Posted June 17, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        What is hypothetically predictable is very likely unreachable which means that all events for even single particles or fields are forever practically unpredictable.

        A good analogy is the transporter beam in Star Trek. [cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transporter_(Star_Trek)%5D. 2^150 bits of information are needed to reproduce one person…only reproduce, not predict future behavior. And people who think an MRI/CT scan of a handful of neurons will predict future decisions of a human being. Good grief.

  9. Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Is there a “free will” for dummies? The subject fascinates me but I get lost so quickly.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      It’s actually pretty simple.

      If a decision is free, then there is no will. If it is willed, then it is not free. Therefore, “free will” is a self-contained contradiction, like “married bachelor.”

      And, when somebody says they’re exercising their free will, what they’re pointing to is the mental process of imagining what would be the likely outcome of various possible actions for them to take, and then deciding which real-world action to take based upon this mental virtual reality simulation. That’s a very real and very important phenomenon, but the only thing it has to do with “free will” is that it’s what’s really going on when people are talking about ghosts in the machine and what-not.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • darrelle
        Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        Well, as with most things, to get to the point where it is “actually pretty simple” does take a bit of familiarizing yourself with all the various concepts of “free will”, the various arguments for and against those concepts, the specialized terms that a lot of the people engaged in the issue use, and the current state of knowledge about human cognition. Plus probably more.

        Not hard, but it does take some time starting from scratch.

        Searching WEIT for all the posts Jerry has made on the subject, reading his posts and the comments, and following up leads and looking up definitions when necessary, would make a pretty good start. Probably be plenty good period actually.

      • Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        That’s a very real and very important phenomenon, but the only thing it has to do with “free will” is that it’s what’s really going on …

        Only?

      • rickflick
        Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        This only gets serious when they want to give you jail time for something you freely did.
        Or the religious want to give you lashes for sin you freely committed.

        😎

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      It’s the “Free Will for Dummies” crowd that causes the stir. My suggestion in considering this issue is to begin with the Stanford Encyclopedia Characterization of Free Will at

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

      Once that is clearly understood, continue… 😉

    • couchloc
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Jeanine,

      The topic of “free will” traditionally falls within the subject of philosophy though it gets discussed elsewhere. If you want an overview of the subject I would start with the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry which is reliable and usually clear.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill/

  10. Gordon Hill
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    My first thought is that hiding it behind a pay wall may be a test of the possibility of free will… 😉

  11. Prof.Pedant
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Tse is confusing probability for free will. He has astutely noticed that predicting a reaction to a stimuli in a conscious being can only accurately be expressed probabilistically and reflexively assumed that this means a ‘choice’ is occurring. What he fails to apprehend is that the process is “If this, then that”. The random events that played a role in the series of events are just that – random, events that occur or do not occur without influence by the ‘thinking being’. The ‘then that’ part is simply the ‘predetermined’ response to somewhat random stimuli.

  12. Sagra
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    “The argument goes as follows: we act as we do at each moment because of how our brain is physically organised at that time. So because we are not ultimately responsible for the way we are organised then, we are not responsible for the consequences of that action.”

    I think this quote explains why everyone gets worked up about free will. All organisms are responsible for the consequences of their actions. If you don’t eat, mate, or run away at the appropriate time or in an efficient manner, you don’t pass on your genes. Natural selection holds everyone responsible.

    If you are an organism capable of learning, that is just a process of consequences getting fed back into the brain to influence future decisions. A learning machine doesn’t learn without a training set, we don’t learn without understanding consequences on some level.

    The abstract idea of you not being able to choose a different path may be correct, but in most cases it’s not a concept you should apply to your life. If your decisions cause bad consequences but your brain keeps thinking “That’s just the way I am. I’m not responsible,” then you have a problem. You are supposed to feel responsible so that you learn.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Yea, I like the way you put it.

    • Stephen Lawrence
      Posted June 27, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Sagra,

      “All organisms are responsible for the consequences of their actions.”

      P’raps, I’m not sure. But note you’ve dropped a word. The piece you quoted was about “Ultimate Responsibility” and that’s what “everyone gets worked up about”.

      Ultimate Responsibility is the idea that you “Can be guilty in God’s eyes” as Dennett put’s it. Assuming determinism God would see the choice you make and see that you could have made a different choice and that you would have if the distant past had been slightly and appropriately different. God would see that you were merely unlucky that the distant past wasn’t different.

      Since indeterminism can’t overcome the problem of luck we can’t be ultimately responsible.

      Free will can be defined in different ways but when someone says we do not have free will usually they mean the thing that is supposed to give us ultimate responsibility.

      Tse in defending what he calls “strong free will” appears to be defending the version that is supposed to give us ultimate responsibility. Otherwise what’s the ‘strong’ referring to and what is the ability to have made a difference choice (given the actual past) supposed to get us?

      • Sagra
        Posted June 27, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        There’s no evidence that a supernatural being weighs our virtues and sins on a supernatural scale. We have no data on the results of said judgement. If you can’t ground the basis of “ultimate responsibility” in reality, then of course you’ll only get endless debate.

        My view of responsibility is easier to measure. Alive is alive; dead is dead.

        • Stephen Lawrence
          Posted June 28, 2013 at 12:11 am | Permalink

          “If you can’t ground the basis of “ultimate responsibility” in reality, then of course you’ll only get endless debate”

          The reason we get endless debate over ultimate responsibility is because a lot of people won’t accept that we don’t have it.

  13. Boris Molotov
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Talk about jumping the gun. For this to have any credibility (quantum brain), there is a lot of work to do to bridge the gap between quantum indeterminancy and how that effects the electrochemistry of the brain, indeterminately. Despite quantum indeterminism, eletrochemistry behaves deterministicly (having predictable outcomes making quatum indeterminism is irrelevant). Introducing indetermininancy into brain thought processes requires evidence at the electrochemical level of indeterminism first, otherwise this is equivelent to suspecting quantum pixies can change brain chemistry.
    It need to be proven that in the brain quantum level events can change the general laws of electrochemistry and how.
    Maybe i don’t get it but it smells like dualism…

  14. Jamie
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Sean has a post up right now that speaks to all the people who see a clear division between quantum mechanics and macro behavior.

    http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/06/14/there-is-no-classical-world/

  15. Posted June 17, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating debate, but also a frustrating one for I tend to get the impression that it all revolves around the exact meaning of “will” – and this seems to differ widely.

    And I would like to know what role – in any – the question of “choice” plays in decisions humans make. Are some adherents of free “will” also denying “free choice”?

    An example: In a chilly Pretoria I contemplated a while ago what drink I would have with my dinner: Wine (white or red?), whiskey (Irish or American?), beer or apple cider. In the end I chose the cider. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because I haven’t had cider for sometime – or maybe because a neutrino shot thru my brain and loaded the cider neutron!

    I do not have a problem with the concept of determination of things and thoughts and whatever by physical “influences” – Hawking opened my eyes and my mind in The Grand Design. But I must express concern that an absolute dogmatic approach to the subject can be seen as dangerous flirting with the Calvinistic concept of predestination.

    So tred carefully and beware the pitfalls – but do continue the debate – with more clarity on what is meant by “will”.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      It’s the difference between determinism and fatalism. At least I can ask people what they mean by “everything happens for a reason” now instead of making an angry glare face assuming they mean fatalism. 🙂

      • neil
        Posted June 17, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        Determinism is just fatalism through cause and effect.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

          Except fatalism is god-y. I am pretty certain that Sarah Connor was wrong though when she said, “no fate but what we make”. 😉

        • Stephen Lawrence
          Posted June 28, 2013 at 12:23 am | Permalink

          “Determinism is just fatalism through cause and effect.”

          It depends upon what you mean by fatalism Neil.

          Often fatalism means that the future is uninfluenced by your actions, it will be the same whatever you do. But that is false, cause and effect is that the effect depends upon the cause, so which way things turn out depends upon what you do (to a certain extent).

          • Posted June 28, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

            “Often fatalism means that the future is uninfluenced by your actions,…” — leading to the phrase “which way things turn out depends upon what you do (to a certain extent).”

            But under the scheme you seem to believe in, there is no such thing as “your actions” or “what you do.” *You* can do nothing but observe actions beyond your control. So I think you’re speaking nonsense in these sentences by your own dogma.

            • Stephen Lawrence
              Posted June 30, 2013 at 1:57 am | Permalink

              “But under the scheme you seem to believe in, there is no such thing as “your actions” or “what you do.” ”

              I’m not clear about why you think that.

              I happened to use the example of human actions but to simplify let’s just talk about the weather.

              Whether it rains or not has an influence on the future, the grass will be wet if it rains.

              Fatalism is (often) the idea that the future will be the same what ever the weather does.

              • Posted June 30, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

                “Fatalism is (often) the idea that the future will be the same what ever the weather does.”

                There are variants of fatalism. That one is concerned with ultimate, cosmic ends, not the immediate effects of rain.

  16. Kevin Henderson
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Tse is yet another person shackled to cognitive conceptions of our perception of free will.

    The universe is physical, deterministic but it is intrinsically unpredictable, i.e., it is likely the only simulation that could predict events would be to completely run the entire universe as a simulation, and at present that does not seem plausible. All dynamics of any physical object are by definition unpredictable to arbitrary precision. Since only humans, as far as we know, care about the future, we do have free will because we cannot predict the outcome of any future events.

    All of our actions are determined, but none of them is predictable. Free will is indistinguishable from unpredictability, but it only matters because we think that is matters. Our lives our still determined, but the outcomes cannot be known.

  17. Posted June 17, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    So, if everything is determined, what are the deterministic factors creating so much interest in the subject of whether things could have been different, specifically as a choice at the macro-organism level and not as a quantum uncaused event?

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Although Tse doesn’t define free will, he appears to conceive of it as the condition of human behavior when, in a given situation, with all else equal, you could have done otherwise if you reran the tape of life. I used to hold that definition, too, until I realized that if quantum indeterminacy really does play a role in our actions, then it’s possible for us to have done otherwise in a given situation—that is, with all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way were the situation repeated—even though we’re not really affecting that decision through any kind of conscious rumination. I now prefer to define free will as Anthony Cashmore did in his article on the topic in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. (reference below):

    I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

    That excludes any quantum effects from the notion of free will, for I believe that even the compatibilists who post here don’t find their compatibility in quantum indeterminacy.

    Agreed, that is an empirical definition. Even better, it cuts to the heart of the matter.

    But, as I have to point every time so far we have broached this subject:

    1) The empirical problem with “free will” does not lie in the non-ability to build an effective theory (“possible to have done otherwise in a given situation”), because that is what folk psychology has done succesfully.

    2) And the main empirical problem with “counter-factuals” are that they are philosophic.

    Empirically, you can’t even think about aligning “all the molecules in the universe … in the same way”, not mainly because of quantum effects (but they are important too), but because of deterministic effects, deterministic chaos:

    “Sensitivity to initial conditions means that each point in such a system is arbitrarily closely approximated by other points with significantly different future trajectories. Thus, an arbitrarily small perturbation of the current trajectory may lead to significantly different future behaviour.”

    Here it means “arbitrarily close” in the mathematic, physical sense, i.e. there is no theoretical way anyone can reposition classical objects so that prediction is possible in all classical systems for the same reason we can never give all the digits in an irrational number.

    Here again statistics creeps in, and the resulting stochasticity is more severe than in quantum systems. But given a stochastic distribution, a measure of precision, you can reposition physical systems and lo, most will be robustly repeatable.

    Even philosophers have given up on stochasticity (but ironically perhaps not “counter-factuals”), it seems: “The question of how to distinguish deterministic chaotic systems from stochastic systems has also been discussed in philosophy. It has been shown that they might be observationally equivalent.”

    • Another Matt
      Posted June 18, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      And the main empirical problem with “counter-factuals” are that they are philosophic.

      I haven’t hung around this site for a long time, so I haven’t seen you point this out before; so I apologize if I’m responding to something that’s already been hashed out elsewhere.

      It seems to me that the main empirical problem with counterfactuals is that you have to employ them to learn things, to form hypothesis, build models and explanations, etc. Counterfactuals are even baked into concepts like “survival” and “advantage,” and certainly “ability,” and this is so whether or not you believe the only things that could possibly have happened are the things that actually happened.

      But I think this is only because in science we try to use such concepts in their epistemic, not ontological senses — they discuss possibility from the point of view of our limited knowledge and reason, not from a point of view where all the facts are known in advance.

  19. Posted June 17, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m still trying to figure out why people are so opposed to the idea that there ain’t no free will, yo? We don’t have any choice but to perceive that we’ve free will… isn’t that good enough? – our perceiving it to be so – that is. No amount of quantum gobbledygook changes this point, surely.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m opposed to it because “will” is something I exercise every day. And the opponents of free-will can’t find any evidence to support their position that this will of mine is an illusion. So, basically, it feels like the same sort of fight I have with religionists who reach far beyond empirical evidence.

      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        I’d say that’s the most reasonable position to take against it.

        I thought that it has essentially been proven with FMRI scanning (or some form of brain scanning)? the evidence showing that computer thingies can determine our decisions before we have consciously made them?

        I’ve not read about this specific aspect of the argument that thoroughly, but I thought that this was now fairly established in the land of neuroscience wizardry. And your will isn’t an illusion, just the conscious freedom of it. I suppose it’s unconsciously free, in a way, or something, ya know, just not consciously free?Well that’s my two point five, seven cents.

        • Posted June 24, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

          I thought that it has essentially been proven with FMRI scanning (or some form of brain scanning)? the evidence showing that computer thingies can determine our decisions before we have consciously made them?

          I vaguely remember reading about this. I have serious doubts that such decisions can be accurately measured by current technologies.

          • Posted June 24, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

            I’d say that’s fair enough. But there’s no one home so I’d just be talking to myself – I’ll stick with just writing it. That’s fair enough.

  20. Posted June 17, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    @h.a.w.
    If that is the way it is, then by definition it is good enough. But if that is not the way it is, then there are continued or refreshed implications about what that would mean about the “fabric of reality”, to quote just the title to David Deutsch’s 1997 book. Deutsch, as everyone probably recalls, was a proponent of the multiverse interpretation of quantum theory (ie, all possible outcomes have reality — as opposed to the probabilistic Copenhagen Interpretation or the de Broglie-Bohm pilot wave non local but hidden variable interpretation). Of course no quantum interpretation supports the Cashmore definition described by Coyne and cited by T Larson above. So I restate my question: how strange is it, that we machines are so interested in finding out an answer to the question or defending the existing deterministic no choice answer? What explanation for mere thinking machines to seek answers to that question? Why not just accept the illusion?

  21. JJH
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Well, this is interesting. I had just watched the Sean Carroll keynote talk at AHA before I came over to WEIT and read this post (If you haven’t watched Carroll’s talk it can be found at http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/06/04/purpose-and-the-universe/ )

    While Carroll discusses a “hierarchy of knowledge” between physics, chemistry, biology and social sciences and why it would not be smart to look at biology through the lens of particle physics; it appears that Tse does just that when he tries to invoke QM as a mechanism for free-will. Besides the obvious fact that quantum indeterminacy doesn’t actually fit the definition of free-will that most people assume in discussion, it is not even apparent that it could have the affects that Tse wants to give it. Vic Stenger does the math to determine that the human brain does not function like a quantum system, but instead it acts very classically. In “Quantum Gods” he writes, “In The Unconscious Quantum I presented a criterion for determining whether a system must be described by quantum mechanics. If the product of a typical mass (m), speed (v), and distance (d) for the particles of the system is on the order of Planck’s constant (b) or less, then you cannot use classical mechanics to describe it but must use quantum mechanics. Applying the criterion to the brain, I took the typical mass of a neural transmitter molecule (m=10 to the minus 22 kilogram), it’s speed based thermal motion (v=10 meters per second), and the distance across the synapse (d=10 to the 9th meter) and found mvd=1700h, more than three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be necessarily present. This makes it very unlikely that quantum mechanics plays any direct role in normal thought processing.”

    I think the idea of interdisciplinary research is great, I just wonder if the peer review process takes the fact that it’s interdisciplinary into account (i.e. were there any physicist or philosopher reviewers of the paper).

    • Boris Molotov
      Posted June 18, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      Without evidence, claiming quantum mechanics has anything to do with free will is speculation or wishful thinking at this point. There are several concepts such as indeterminacy and duality that philosophers and theologians love to play with to justify not only free will but the existence of God (as a “prime observer.”)
      Even if brain processes works at the quantum level (like a quantum computer) rather then classic electrochemistry, it has yet to be discovered. If such a discovery is made, then it has to be shown how these processes are built and that quantum indeterminacy has any role in decision making. It seems highly unlikely from what I can discern from current knowledge.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 18, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        Yes, my point as well. I like Sean Carroll’s post because it explained things clearly about the quantum vs classical world without going into wild speculation where Tse’s makes some pretty big leaps of “faith”. Indeed as I thought more about it, Jerry’s classification of it as “deepity” is apt.

  22. Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    JJH, Sean Carroll talk useful. Interesting take on macro-level analysis. I have been scouring the web for any scientific positions / theoretical frameworks for emergent properties, ie how to scientifically explain how these emergent macro-level properties arise from or as a by-product of physical material molecular and atomic combinations) and from physical processes (cellular and sub-cellular interactions). Anyone?

    • JJH
      Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      c, here is a link to frequently cited biologically-oriented paper on emergent properties ( http://www.necsi.edu/research/multiscale/MultiscaleEmergence.pdf )

      But, there is another one that was written by either a mathematician or a physicist that uses a thumb-rule that anytime you encounter a division by zero in the known laws of physics, you are at a boundary of an emergent state.

      Right now I have 2 kids and 2 cats begging for attention (summer vacation and summer shedding, I’ll let you guess which belongs to whom), when I find the paper I’ll post a link.

  23. Posted June 17, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    JJH, Thanks and thanks in advance if you can avoid the cat hair. Sean Caroll did seem to be a fan of complexity theory despite is open to dealing with biological and chemistry problems without seeking reduction. As to Dr. Tse, it seems logical that a biological organism with an ‘advanced’ neural signaling system might develop a system for altering future firing strengths, even on the fly – if not, then I don’t know how the neural system could ever adapt — but l don’t see how that equates to a form of free (purposeful) choice between ‘physically available’ alternatives, even if the thinking machine has a complex system for weighing expected outcomes against some kind of ‘desired outcome’ (such as tiger avoidance or tool creation). Some form of emergent properties (rather than some form of quantum functioning) seems required if an advanced biological organism is going to develop purposeful, real and not illusory choice.

    • Posted June 17, 2013 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

      Dang typos: Sean Carroll did not seem to be a fan of complexity theory … is what I meant to type.

    • JJH
      Posted June 18, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      No problem ce,

      I finally tracked down the paper (and successfully operated the lint brush).

      http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/5532/1/ESL-PSarchive.pdf

    • Allautin@gmail.com
      Posted June 19, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      I think it was the readiness potential that wrote Dr. Tse’s paper!

  24. Leigh Jackson
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    The Neural Basis of Free Will: Criterial Causation

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=b8nlvzon-80C

    There’s a video:

    And here’s an assessment of Tse’s idea:

    http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/tse/

    Don’t wish to comment till I have looked carefully at what Tse is saying.

  25. Vickstar
    Posted June 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    There are some really good comments on “The Neural Basis of Free Will: Criterial Causation” on Amazon. I understood what he was saying better after reading those. The New Scientist article is too brief.

    Also, there are some really interesting interviews with Tse on the TV show “Closer to Truth” which you can find if you google “Closer to Truth Tse”

  26. Allautin@gmail.com
    Posted June 19, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Honestly I did not, could not read it all; however one thing is absolutely certain.
    One has to take all he said with a grain of salt.

    Yes, salt should (has to) be placed in the gaping wound/hole of his theory. And this “cannot be a “current” criticism.

    I thing it remains —

    “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.”

    Samuel Johnson”

    Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791)

    Epigraph to the first chapter of the book entitled, The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel Wegner, Bradford, MIT. 2002.
    Dec 24, 2011

  27. Allautin@gmail.com
    Posted June 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    It was Dr. Tse’s readiness potential that wrote that.

  28. Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I will grant Tse one thing: I agree with him that the invention of aeroplanes wasn’t determined at the Big Bang. For between that event and the Wright brothers there were lots of events in which quantum indeterminacy could have played a role.

    This turns your position into a matter of faith.

    So the determinism your argument relies upon is ultimately indeterminate. This allows you to make claims that are fundamentally impossible to verify. No need for empirical evidence. Your position, as it turns out, is a matter of faith.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      “So the determinism your argument relies upon is ultimately indeterminate. This allows you to make claims that are fundamentally impossible to verify. No need for empirical evidence. Your position, as it turns out, is a matter of faith.”

      That’s silly. As I mentioned at some point earlier – determinism doesn’t necessarily mean an extra smart being could necessarily predict every event accurately. Quantum indeterminacy will obviate that. This has little to do with verifiability either. Determinism may simply be taken as that the current state of the universe is determined by all prior states, including the influence of particles coming in and going out of existence at the Plank level. This has nothing to do with faith as the term is usually used, does it?

      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps empirical evidence is silly to you. It isn’t to me. When a person admits he has no ability to provide empirical evidence for a theory, and has no ability to predict outcomes, I think it’s proper to question if he has more than blind faith in his position. If you think otherwise, please explain. While you can claim “the current state of the universe is determined by all prior states, including the influence of particles coming in and going out of existence at the Plank level,” if you have no ability to prove that assertion then your belief is nothing more than faith in determinacy.

        • rickflick
          Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          One thing I can definitely predict with a great deal of certainty is the outcome of this argument.

        • Posted June 24, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

          Oh good god (and yes I use that term advisedly).

          If you are truly an empiricist, then you must accept only empirical based arguments for your thesis. Any one who wants to claim non-maxwellian effects on the brain affecting human behavior, please provide the Schrodinger solution and a predictive future experiment to demonstrate it. If you can’t do that, then one, you are not an empiricist (and please stop pretending that you are), and two, absent a Schrodinger solution; why should I accept anything you say about QM effects in the human brain as true?

          • Posted June 24, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I’m truly an empiricist if we define one as a person who demands all claims of truth have a solid empirical basis. And if you believe these arguments are in any way based on empirical evidence, please provide that evidence. Maybe you can suggest a Schrodinger solution to describe how Shakespeare was a slave to forces beyond his will when his pen put marks on paper that came out as Hamlet.

            • JJH
              Posted June 25, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

              “Maybe you can suggest a Schrodinger solution to describe how Shakespeare was a slave to forces beyond his will when his pen put marks on paper that came out as Hamlet.”

              No, I absolutely can’t because there is insufficient evidence that indeterminate QM effects (when you would want to apply the Schrödinger equation, and in fact probably have to to make testable predictions) have any bearing on human behavior.

              And that was my point. If, as Tse suggests, quantum indeterminacy has an effect on behavior; particle physics has ways of testing that hypothesis (I think QED at last look was proven accurate out to 14 decimal places). But without the theoretical and experimental frame work, invoking QM to explain something is just sleight of hand.

              On a side note, if quantum indeterminacy did play a part, how could that even be considered free will? It would still be following the established laws of physics.

              • Posted June 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

                I’m not a follower of Tse and from the little I’ve read here I think his argument is weak. But quantum indeterminacy does mean one thing. We can’t predict some things with 100% accuracy. At the quantum level things get downright strange. It seems there is a bit of chaos in the system and once that is admitted we have to ask what else could be indeterminate? Could “free will” be such a thing? We couldn’t have predicted quantum behavior. It takes empirical evidence to put us on the right track. We certainly do not know all the laws of physics. I’m not suggesting our brains work outside laws of physics. I’m suggesting consciousness, creativity, and will might very well be evidence we don’t know nearly enough yet.

              • JJH
                Posted June 25, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

                “But quantum indeterminacy does mean one thing. We can’t predict some things with 100% accuracy. At the quantum level things get downright strange. It seems there is a bit of chaos in the system and once that is admitted we have to ask what else could be indeterminate? Could “free will” be such a thing?”

                So much in such a short reply. Let me break it down some. OK, we don’t know everything, but we really do know a lot (did you catch that the 14 decimal place thing). In fact we can predict which forces and particles can exist. If someone proposes a framework that included some free will particles and forces that would show how free will occurred, fine we have a big particle accelerator in the EU we could test it out on. But, why would I consider that hypothesis in the first place? Is there any empirical observations to support the hypothesis?

                It is a plain logical fallacy to assert that since we don’t everything, all hypothesis of the unknown are equal (free will comes from Leprechauns). And back to my original unanswered question, if there are free will particles/forces acting under nature, how is that free?

              • Posted June 25, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

                if there are free will particles/forces acting under nature, how is that free?

                I wouldn’t suggest looking for a free will particle. Speaking of fallacies, I think expecting such a particle commits a fallacy too. What’s it called? Fallacy of division?

                I’d expect free will to arise in complex systems, not simple particles.

                After all, we wouldn’t argue life is an illusion simply because there is no known life particle and we feel no need to find one.

            • Stephen Lawrence
              Posted June 30, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

              ” Maybe you can suggest a Schrodinger solution to describe how Shakespeare was a slave to forces beyond his will when his pen put marks on paper that came out as Hamlet.”

              This is just a matter of logic. Either the will is determined by prior causes in which case the will Shakespeare had was a slave to those forces. Or there was some indeterminism in the process in which case the will Shakespeare had was a slave to the results of that indeterminism.

              • Posted June 30, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                “Or there was some indeterminism in the process in which case the will Shakespeare had was a slave to the results of that indeterminism.”

                Begs the question. That indeterminate doesn’t necessarily have to be a slave to anything. You offer a false binary choice.

              • Stephen Lawrence
                Posted July 1, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

                “Begs the question. That indeterminate doesn’t necessarily have to be a slave to anything. You offer a false binary choice.”

                The point is Shakespeare had the will he had due to circumstances beyond his control.

                In other words Shakespeare was “slave” to the circumstances beyond his control which produced his will.

                If there was some indeterminism that lead to these circumstances beyond Shakespear’s control being one way rather than another is irrelevant, since they were beyond his control in any case.

                There is nothing question begging about this, if we can know anything at all we can know this since it’s such an obvious fact. Many people don’t want to accept it, that’s all.

              • Posted July 1, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

                Stephen Lawrence,

                “If there was some indeterminism that lead to these circumstances beyond Shakespeare’s control being one way rather than another is irrelevant, since they were beyond his control in any case.”

                Maybe you think I’m defending Tse’s position. I’m not. I agree that if will was based on an internal flipping of a coin it wouldn’t really be free. That’s not my position. I believe free will is a collection of processes that is inherently indeterminate. It doesn’t depend on any outside chaotic input. So that’s why I said you’re begging the question. There is another possibility you don’t offer: that the indeterminism we call free will is a product of the many processes, or algorithms themselves. They generate the indeterminate behavior themselves. That’s what I would expect of a legitimate free will.

  29. JJH
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Now, I have a serious question for free will proponents. Exactly what entity possesses said “free will?”

    I was thinking about the debate more in depth and that question occurred to me, and for the life of me, I can’t even come up with coherent way to approach it without invoking dualism.

    • Another Matt
      Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      If you aren’t careful, you invoke dualism from the other side.

      When someone frames it this way: “I’m completely at the mercy of the physical processes in my brain, over which I have absolutely no control.” — the “I” here, if taken seriously, makes the statement dualistic.

      • JJH
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Excellent point and it’s tough. When the word “I” is used, it merely means the mind that that resides in a body generally agreed to be JJH. And when the word mind is used, it merely means the non-Autonomic brain systems that cause typing and stuff. Or, more humorously put, “I am my brain, damnit!”

    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      I’m an entity that has free will and I’m no dualist. Yet I have the opposite problem you have. To me, claims that my free will is an illusion are incoherent. You might as well say my sense of self is an illusion. Or worse, you might as well say the gods animate me and I’m but an aware puppet. To me, that’s the stuff of fantasy.

      • JJH
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        I tried that one.

        Ok, Where in you (or me) does free will exist?

        • Posted June 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

          I’ll claim Beethoven’s Ninth is beautiful. Where does that beauty exist? Same place as free will. Not in any single neuron or atom. In the complex and active system of our brain. In my thoughts.

          • JJH
            Posted June 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

            Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. So, assuming you weren’t lying to me about Beethoven’s Ninth, I’d like you to listen to it right now and honestly report back that you have decided it is horrible. This is possible as many people don’t like it. That I would call free will.

            • Posted June 25, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

              I’d like you to listen to it right now and honestly report back that you have decided it is horrible.

              That’s not a free will choice. A free will choice would be me liking it yet refusing to go see it when someone gives me tickets.

              I won’t argue that matters of taste are freely chosen. For the most part, they aren’t.

              • JJH
                Posted June 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

                “That’s not a free will choice”

                What exact criteria are you using to determine what is and isn’t? I’m willing to bet that you don’t have that laid out.

                And more importantly, the strongest part of my argument (as far as our discussion has been concerned) is the questions I asked in the vein of, “If you only invoke natural forces, how is it free?” You have never addressed those questions.

                I truly enjoy having discussions with people who hold opinions in opposition to mine, it’s really how I’ve learned some fantastically incredible things over time. But I am at the point where I feel like I am at the “Gish Gallop” stage of this discussion.

                Absolutely nothing personal here, I honestly believe that you hold your sentiments in the most honest way. But, if you can’t engage the most salient points of my arguments and instead continually try to change off to other directions, I think I’m wasting my time (other than pointing things out to third parties who are reading; which I do think is important but I only have so much time).

              • Posted June 25, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

                What exact criteria are you using to determine what is and isn’t?

                I think I stated a rather uncontroversial position, no matter which side of the argument we fall on. We are not free to decide many things. We can’t decide striking our thumbs with a hammer is a pleasant experience. We can’t decide sugar tastes bad. Many (if not all) matters of taste fall into this category. I hate jazz. I can’t simply decide I like it. I can’t choose what input does to my (for lack of a better word) feelings. I *can* decide how I will act on those feelings. I *can* sit through a jazz concert or cut back on sugar.

                Free choice involves courses of action. It means, for example, we can choose to act in ways our bodies tell us is unpleasant. It’s often an overcoming of considerable negative feedback.

                “If you only invoke natural forces, how is it free?”

                Why can’t it be free even though I do invoke only natural forces? You’re begging the question — because it should be no surprise this is the crux of my position.

                I assume free will *can* be explained by purely natural processes (even though we have none yet). I believe our will is natural. I believe it does not exist in a particle or dualistic “substance” as you (I think) want me to suggest. I believe it only exists in the complex machinery of brains. I believe the evidence is right behind our nose and manifests itself in our choices we make every day.

                And I don’t see why you think I haven’t addressed your points. Perhaps you expected different answers? Perhaps you expected a non-materialist? I don’t really know.

  30. JJH
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    “I assume free will *can* be explained by purely natural processes (even though we have none yet)”

    OK, we’re good. You’re actually not an empiricist (which you claimed earlier). You have no criteria for what is or isn’t a free will action, that is pretty much considered a prerequisite for approaching something from an empirical standpoint (or at least you won’t deign to inform the rest of us), you only assume. And then base your conclusions on your assumption that it “can” be explained.

    But for one last time, how is it free? Define free and give some examples.

    Like I said, we’re good. I’ll let an informed public decide.

    • Another Matt
      Posted June 25, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      You have no criteria for what is or isn’t a free will action, that is pretty much considered a prerequisite for approaching something from an empirical standpoint (or at least you won’t deign to inform the rest of us), you only assume.

      Well, that isn’t quite fair. “Free will” is a fuzzy label for a large number of behaviors and abilities.

      “Free will” is a little like “mental health.” Nobody’s prepared to say that “mental health” isn’t real or can’t be studied empirically — but few people are willing to create a set of necessary or sufficient conditions for “being mentally healthy” or to define “mental health” outright.

      • JJH
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        Actually no. Free will, as most people define it, is a pretty specific property of biological species (something could have been differently under the exact same conditions), mental health is a culturally derived term that means “what we (the rest of society) consider to be healthy.” There are of course other definitions of freewill that this would not apply to. I only deal in the common definitions unless someone clearly redefines a term and then asks me to argue from there (although I will frequently remind everyone how the term has been redefined beyond common usage).

        • Another Matt
          Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          A little thought is all that is required to show that nobody has ever actually experienced “the exact same conditions.” In fact it seems impossible to study “the exact same conditions” empirically.

    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

      Suppose I wrote, “I assume abiogenesis *can* be explained by purely natural processes (even though we have none yet).”

      Would you say that sentence takes me and most biologists out from the umbrella of empiricism? If so, please explain. If not, please explain what you see as the difference in the free will case. I see none.

      Example? I’m going out to run right now. I’ve been running consistently for 40+ years. The body, especially lately, is not always too enthusiastic about the proposition or the execution. Yet I’m going to ignore the body and do it anyway. I’d rather watch TV with my wife. She’d rather it too, I think.

      The criteria for free will is in that. We will things even with negative feedback. I mentioned this earlier, btw.

      • JJH
        Posted June 29, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        “Suppose I wrote, “I assume abiogenesis *can* be explained by purely natural processes (even though we have none yet).”

        No, I would say you are using a rule of thumb that has roughly 4.something billion years of being correct. If you can demonstrate that for free-will, please do, I’ll wait.

        • Posted June 29, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

          JJH

          ” I would say you are using a rule of thumb that has roughly 4.something billion years of being correct. If you can demonstrate that for free-will, please do, I’ll wait.”

          Great, publish that process by which abiogenesis occurred. Until I see that paper, though, you’re in exactly the same boat as I am with free will. So don’t kid yourself. You’re certainly not kidding me.

    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      “You have no criteria for what is or isn’t a free will action,”

      I get the impression you’re looking for a particular part of the brain that switches on when the subject exercises free will. We’re nowhere close to that. Doesn’t mean we won’t get there.

      Above I wrote, “Free choice involves courses of action. It means, for example, we can choose to act in ways our bodies tell us is unpleasant. It’s often an overcoming of considerable negative feedback.”

      Maybe we can’t agree on what free will is. Maybe we can’t agree on what beauty is either. Still, I think both free will and beauty do exist as mental states even though they’re accessible only to that beholder for now.

      To me free will is selecting an act from two (or more) legitimate options. A good criteria would be when one chooses against short term pleasure for long term gain or an unselfish good.

      I could ramble on but it would be boring.

      • JJH
        Posted June 29, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        “Maybe we can’t agree on what free will is.”

        Maybe we can, maybe we can’t. My definition is: that if we roll the clock backwards, to the same exact history of the way a biological entity acted, at time x; said biological entity could have done differently based on their “free will.”

        If you have a different definition, please provide and we can go from there.

        • JJH
          Posted June 29, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          “A good criteria would be when one chooses against short term pleasure for long term gain or an unselfish good.”

          Also please describe why that particular incident could not be predetermined.

          • Posted June 30, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

            “Also please describe why that particular incident could not be predetermined.”

            It could be. But it also might not be. That’s the issue in question. I’m merely offering a class of cases where, imo, free will is most evident. I do this in an effort to clarify my position.

        • Posted June 29, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

          JJH,

          That definition is fine with me. Unfortunately we have no way of rolling the clock back so no way of testing the hypothesis at this time. Which is the problem. Neither side of this argument is falsifiable with current technology.

          • JJH
            Posted June 29, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

            “Unfortunately we have no way of rolling the clock back so no way of testing the hypothesis at this time.”

            I would tend to disagree. If, as you state accept my definition, we have the way of simple scientific induction. If there is a large, well established in the literature, examples of processes following well established rules of nature; and you would like to introduce a new process, called “free will” to describe the past and predict the future, then your welcome to do that. I would be willing to entertain that.

            Your current argument appears to be that if I wasn’t actually there in the past, I can’t understand the past. That would make all of history and anthropology false, most of geology and physics false, and certainly all of QM false. Is that your argument? That we can’t assume the past acts like the present (by the way unless you want to make the argument that relativity is wrong; we actually have rolled the clock backwards, billions of years).

            • Posted June 30, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

              “Your current argument appears to be that if I wasn’t actually there in the past, I can’t understand the past.”

              That’s not my argument. We can and probably do understand many things about the past. My argument is that we have no way of duplicating the conditions of the past. We can’t do controlled experiments on historical moments. Such experiments would have to duplicate billions of variables and modifying only one. Scientific induction requires that sort of experimental repetition. It’s simply not available to us in this case.

              You refer to well established examples of processes following well established rules of nature. And there are many. But those processes don’t seem to include all aspects of quantum behavior. That alone should tell us induction doesn’t necessarily lead to what you claim it does. Besides, you imply we should rule out processes (like, possibly, free will) that might not conform to your theory. That would be fine if you had some way of experimentally proving all animal acts are deterministic. But this isn’t possible. If science is going to be helpful to us on this issue I think it will be computer science. Perhaps they’ll one day create algorithms in machines that we can prove eperimentally are non-deterministic in a way that’s compatible with free will.

              • JJH
                Posted June 30, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

                “You refer to well established examples of processes following well established rules of nature. And there are many. But those processes don’t seem to include all aspects of quantum behavior.”

                Let the record show, that YOU are the one invoking QM to describe a phenomena. Fair enough, show some equations and data that fit your theory (that really is the way credibility is established in physics, and just about any other knowledge art).

                Hey, I don’t mind using the rules of evidence of any specific field in the field that it applies:.

                Want to use the rules of evidence of literature to assess a literary point? Well, please do.

                Want to use the rules of evidence of historians in addressing an historical point? Well, please do.

                And if you want to make an argument based on QM using the rules of evidence required by the field of QM; well please do.

                However, if you you want to state that, “I don’t know …ergo QM.” Gotta tell you, I’m just not going take that seriously.

              • Posted July 1, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

                JJH,

                “And if you want to make an argument based on QM using the rules of evidence required by the field of QM; well please do.”

                I’m afraid I don’t quite get your point. I’m not basing my argument on QM. I merely offer it as an example of something that disrupted our assumptions about cause and effect (God does not play dice with the universe? Really?). What makes you so sure there aren’t other phenomenon that don’t follow the billiard ball model of the universe?

  31. JJH
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    What exact criteria are you using to determine what is and isn’t?

    You say one thing is and another isn’t. Still waiting for an answer.

  32. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    The problem with the definition of free will that you are now working with is it doesn’t include what the “something more” is supposed to get us. If it doesn’t get us anything it just makes no difference. But, of course we know what it is supposed to get us and that is *Ultimate Responsibility*.

    Really your definition of free will as “Could have done otherwise” was fine with the addition of: In a way that makes us ultimately responsible.

    Peter Tse has just the same problem over defining what he calls “Strong Free Will” and this is what leads to his mistake. He thinks he is dealing with Galen Strawson’s basic argument when in fact he is not, since Galen Strawson’s argument is against Ultimate Responsibility.

    Tse makes the assumption that the ability to do otherwise gets us Ultimate Responsibility but since it’s not included in his definition doesn’t address how and so begs the question.

    By defining the particular concept of free will that you argue against and he argues for as: “Could have done otherwise in a way that makes us ultimately responsible” we can cut through a great deal of confusion.

  33. Posted June 27, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    Pretty interesting discussion on free will.
    I’ve been pretty busy lately, so enjoy these debates in lieu of my own musings!

  34. Vickstar
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the author and most of the commentators are arguing with Tse without having read his book, and without deeply understanding his argument. I bought the book last month and have found it to be very clear and a truly new take on the issues of free will and mental causation. The main argument is that neurons don’t just make each other fire, the way billiard balls make each other move, deterministically. Rather, neurons change the parameters or conditions placed on inputs that will cause neurons to fire or not in the future. The physical mechanism is rapid changes in synaptic weights. This effectively allow the brain to harness chance at the level of uncertainty of spike timing to satisfy these parameters in unforeseeable ways. What this basically implies is that there is a middle path between the unfreedom of determinism and the unfreedom of randomness, as he says in his recent New Scientist opinion piece. That middle ground is placing constraints on permitted future random outcomes. For example, the executive circtuits dictate a command to the memory circuits to generate a man’s name. Say “Peter” comes to mind. Well, that only came to mind because it satisfied those constraints or criteria first. But it was not random, because it had to be a man’s name, and it was also not determined, because some other name like “Frank” could have met the criteria first. Tse spends a lot of time in his chapters 4 and 5, which are difficult but fascinating, showing how random events in the synapse and at the level of individual NMDA receptors, can lead to randomness in spike timing, and how this is the material basis of bring quantum domain uncertainty to the macroscopic domain of neural firing patterns. To really understand the deep implications of this idea you would have to read “The neural basis of free will: Criterial Causation” for yourself but the comments on amazon are a good place to start. There is also an interview with Tse on a PBS TV show that is good, which you can find by googling “Closer to Truth Tse.” Anyway, I can’t do the breadth and depth of this new theory of how the brain works justice. But I do think it is wrong for people to try to judge the theory without having read it carefully. Since this is something genuinely new, to try to criticize it on the basis of old arguments that he disproves is wrong. For example, people keep reiterating that there is no freedom in either determinism or randomness, when Tse’s whole book is about how there is freedom if randomness is constrained or harnessed by the brain itself.

    • Stephen Lawrence
      Posted July 1, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Vickstar,

      ” Since this is something genuinely new, to try to criticize it on the basis of old arguments that he disproves is wrong.”

      Peter Tse thinks he’s opposing Galen Strawson’s basic argument, but he is not. The basic argument is against Ultimate Responsibility, which is impossible. The way to think about ultimate responsibilty is to imagine God watching. No need to believe in God to do this, the point is what God sees is what choice you make is a matter of luck. This is because God sees that you could have done otherwise and would have done otherwise if something out of your control had been different but you were merely unlucky that it wasn’t. We can’t have the type of freedom which is supposed to overcome this lottery.

      The trouble is if Peter Tse’s “strong free will” isn’t supposed to get us ultimate responsibility what is it supposed to get us and why can’t compatibilism achieve the same thing?

  35. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Donjindra,

    “There is another possibility you don’t offer: that the indeterminism we call free will is a product of the many processes, or algorithms themselves. They generate the indeterminate behavior themselves. That’s what I would expect of a legitimate free will.”

    Then it’s a matter of luck which way the processes turn out.

    • Posted July 1, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Stephen Lawrence,

      “Then it’s a matter of luck which way the processes turn out”

      The very question is, is intent more than luck? Shakespeare wasn’t that room full of monkeys knocking on random keys until Hamlet occurred by chance. What are the mathematical odds for that happening? Longer than the age of the universe, I suspect. Yet he wrote 38 plays. And there are millions of authors other than Shakespeare. You’re asking me to believe dumb luck generated that out of a fantastic stream of random events and I think you’re going to have to have considerable evidence for that extraordinary claim.

      • Stephen Lawrence
        Posted July 1, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        “You’re asking me to believe dumb luck generated that out of a fantastic stream of random events and I think you’re going to have to have considerable evidence for that extraordinary claim.”

        You are equivocating over the relevant meaning of luck.

        In this context luck is that something(s) out of Shakespeare’s control would have had to be different in order for Hamlet to have turned out differently, or for him not to have written it at all.

        If determinism is true that something is his distant past.

        If indeterminism is true it’s the outcome of something that could have gone either way with no other differences.

        This is because neither of these things could depend upon Shakespeare.

        • Posted July 2, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

          Stephen Lawrence,

          “This is because neither of these things could depend upon Shakespeare.”

          Restating your position does not count as evidence.

          • Stephen Lawrence
            Posted July 2, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

            “Restating your position does not count as evidence.”

            Actually I was giving the meaning of luck in this context.

            The evidence is that it’s self evidently logically impossible, which is plenty of evidence usually, especially in the absence of any good reason to believe in the first place.

            If that isn’t strong enough evidence for you then don’t believe anything at all because you won’t find stronger.

            • Posted July 3, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

              Stephen Lawrence,

              “Actually I was giving the meaning of luck in this context”

              As I tried to make clear above, your “meaning of luck in this context” is nothing more than question begging.

              Let’s concentrate on this sentence: “If indeterminism is true it’s the outcome of something that could have gone either way with no other differences.”

              In assuming “no other differences” you assume will is not a difference. My position is that will *alone* is a difference. It constructs its own differences. The question is whether will depends on *any* external difference. I say no. I say will must be capable of generating its own differences. I already understand you don’t accept this. But your above logic did not lead you to your position since you merely beg the question.

              I’m looking for the empirical evidence that leads you to believe will cannot generate its own differences. For me, the empirical evidence says very abundantly that it can.


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