Monday, April 30, 2007

Free Will? Democracy?

Here is the entire discussion of the proposition I posed at Echidne of the Snakes last Saturday. It makes for interesting reading. I would, however, point out that the assertions of some of the participants, that the question was boring, would seem to be contradicted by the evidence. Now, I’ll let the responses speak for themselves, mine included.

Proposed: Science has proven that "free will is a myth".

Please discuss, including an explanation of how democracy and personal rights can survive this belief.

This assumption seems to be a question that underlies a lot of present day thinking and we can’t avoid confronting it. It’s cropped up no less than three times in my surfing the web and it’s in today’s Boston Globe, it’s clearly a question that is ripe for investigation. You've heard me on this subject before, now it's your turn.

The Responses

See, there's the problem. I don't read the Boston Globe, I'm just a working scientist. Nobody told me that:

1. An assertion that very likely means as many different things as there are people reading it.

2. Has been falsified by a process that has no access to the kinds of experimental processes that could falsify it.

Mostly it's unlikely that people will take the time to look into what's meant by free will. I'm gonna take a wild-ass guess (WAG in scientistspeak) and guess that what the chatter is about is that increasingly scientists are finding physical correlates for mental events.

Ever heard of "post hoc ergo propter hoc? I ask 'em"

The ancients knew that the temporal and physical association of two events does not prove causality. It doesn't even prove, although it suggests, a true associative linkage.

In short, if you feel a rush of love and are observed to be gushing endorphins like Old Faithful it neither proves that the endorphins "caused" you to love nor does it prove that your love "caused" the endorphins.

Or as our Asiatic sistren put it, coins have both heads and tails. Neither causes the other.

For a really "scientific" investigation of the will I think you need to look at the buddhists, who have worked this particular vein for millenia.

They've reached some interesting conclusions, which neither assert the unbiologically determined ship captain idea of free will that is undermined by any biological correlate nor deny the possibility of democracy and community.

Unfortunately language doesn't capture their results very well. A typical reply would be:

No free will?
Who is asking?
Heraclitus | 04.28.07 - 9:48 am | #

"Proposed: Science has proven that 'free will is a myth'."

Proposed: we ignore this nonsense.
little green | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 10:09 am | #

Gravatar First I have never seen science "prove" anything, it simply figures out which results can be consistantly recreated. Lazy ass laymen with with agendas are the ones that scream PROOF!!!

As for free will, this is my take on it. Watched Make a Deal with a friend once. Annoying woman was winning. We wished she would lose the last two Large Money amounts, in a row. She did. (Odds were absolutely against her of course.) She didn't take the deal cause she was so sure God was on her side and she couldn't help but win. You could see it felt like a lock to her.

Well, in the end it comes down to her having a $1,000 in her hand and a parting choice of two oversized cases. One would double her money and the other would take it all away.

She didn't make the deal, having figured out God was not on her side, but was asked which case she would have picked. They opened it and it had the word NOTHING in it (or a $0 or something that symbolized bupkis.)

I turned to my friend and said, "See that? The choice of the cases? That was Fate. The choice not to go there, that's Free Will."

I have yet to see anything in science that says our influencers are non-negotiable. Some people may lose a portion of their free will to uncontrollable mental illness or overwhelming circumstances but if there are moments of clarity about the situation then you can freely choose a different answer than the one you are so influenced into.
Afm | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 10:23 am | #

Gravatar olvlzl, I was unable the article you mention in the Globe, do you have a url handy?

I won’t let that stop me from commenting. I have not read your previous posts on the topic, I hope we have some common ground.

Science has proven that "free will is a myth".

There is a lot going on in that statement. What is ‘science’? What is ‘free will’? Can its existence be proven (or disproved)?

What is ‘science’?

A guy with a white lab coat who commutes to a institution of higher learning in Cambridge? A bunch of similar people? A consensus that exists among them?

Most recent debate of late on this centers around beliefs held by people that are not based on objective and reproducible observation. Such beliefs may be described as ‘faith’ and are fundamental to many organized religions.

So discussion centers on whether e.g. creationism (a belief of faith) or evolution (a scientific observation) are at odds.

Such discussions become very passionate and polar. Arbitrary faith has the potential to undermine the value of objective science. And teaching religious beliefs *as* science corrupts the notion of science based on objective observation.

So let’s take the religious stuff off the table. Let’s say for the sake of this discussion we know or care nothing about the old or new testament or any other articles of faith.

Can we *prove* evolution to be a complete explanation of how humans came to be? There is, in my humble opinion, tons we still do not understand about how such a complex mechanism works. Yet many scientists, and those that are inspired in their beliefs by them, are galvanized in describing evolution as a complete ‘proven’ explanation because the specter of enabling the corruption of ‘science’ by unproven and un-provable religion is so scary.

If the religious nuts would just back off we scientists would be free to acknowledge that there is still a ton we have to learn about how we got here.

Bit of a ramble, but I suspect the same thing is true with regard to free will vs. determinism. Any ‘scientist’ who believes that such a complex phenomenon is presently understood as a result of objective observation is full of compost. Lots more to observe, lots more to learn, scientists will be gainfully employed for a long time to come.

What is ‘free will’? Can its existence be proven (or disproved)?

The myth may be that this *question* means anything.

The concept of free will is embedded in the concept of the human consciousness, a concept that in and of itself is not meaningfully understood in terms of neuroscience or objective observation. Scientists can show better and better magnetic resonance imaging, insisting that we are learning more about how patterns of activity in sections of the brain relate to observed behavior, but we have no idea *how* human consciousness exists or how it functions.

The classical belief (held by e.g. Einstein) that human consciences must be a result (only) of the physical functioning of the brain is an unproven hypothesis.

Our religious nut friends come knocking again. Dude, it’s your *SOUL* …

Ignore them. Can’t we just acknowledge that we still have much, much to learn about what human consciousness is and how it works?

[The non-religious nuts among us are intrigued about some things in physics that we have come to understand a little better since Einstein’s day. That at the sub-atomic particle level particles do *not* appear to behave deterministically, they do not observe physical laws as we understand them for larger objects. Cool.]

Please discuss, including an explanation of how democracy and personal rights can survive this belief.

Well, OK, so I am not in the Determinism camp. And until I am I am going to make the conservative assumption that what I ‘decide’ matters. Like who I love, who I hate, who I help, who I hurt. Who I vote for. I am going to assume that my personal morality matters and strive to be a better person.
Carty | 04.28.07 - 10:42 am | #

Gravatar I found Jeffrey M Schwartz' book "The Mind and the Brain" very revealing on this issue. Schwartz has developed a therapy to treat Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Patients essentially learn to reinterpret the pathological signals their damaged brain sends them and to respond in a different manner.This eventual begins to change the network of neurons in the brain. Schwartz uses his experiences to reflect on research in this field. He posits a level of 'mental force',as a real, measurable quantity, ('will' if you like,) that originates in our conscious decision and then can influence brain chemistry and neuronal networks.

The book discusses much recent research as well as the ideas of William James, one of the early critics of the reductionism that says everything is just neural impulses.

The other side of the coin is presented by Francis Crick's "The Astonishing Hypotheses" which is that all conscious phenomena--all our perceptions, feelings, thoughts, religious visions, and moral decisions, etc.--are "nothing but" the behaviour of nerve cells and can be completely explained in those terms.
Ron | 04.28.07 - 11:00 am | #

Gravatar we've never really defined "free will" adequately enough to ever say it can be rebutted.

whenever people say "free will proven a myth" usually what they're referring to is some data showing causal reasons for human behavior.

but our notion of "free will" requires elements of both causality and non-causality. if all our actions are nothing more than stimulus-response reactions, then we would probably say there is no "free will" (if everything is stimulus-response we would have as much free will as a thermostat)

if, on the other hand, our actions were completely uninfluenced by events around us, that is, completely random, we would also say there is no "free will" because that is completely irrationall. (if we acted randomly we would have as much free will as a pair of dice)

the problem isn't that science is rebutting the concept of free will. the problem is that the concept of free will has never been well defined and doesn't actually make all that much sense. it's both causal and non-causal at the same time. science didn't rebut it. free will rebuts itself
upyernoz | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 12:03 pm | #

Gravatar Hume solved the problem definitionally. As did most good enlightnement philosophers he imagined that the mind was a machine, much as it has proven to be by cognitive scientists such as Sapolsky. He defined free-will as lack of constraint. ( i.e. threat of force)

The lovely thing about such a definition is that it very clearly acknowledges the almost purely mechanistic aspects of mental activity while simultaneously prescribing a method to maintain liberty.

We might find the definition a little unsatisfying for telling us what will is, what its nature is, where it comes from, what it does, and why it supposedly distinguishes man from animals ( an impression that will disolve completely if one has spent fifteen minutes trying to get a mule to do something and failed, or ever tried to keep a billy goat from eating a precious shrubbery.)

I find the whole notion of will, willfulness, and so on to be a rather unfortunate set of ideas. It is an abstraction that I think lacks a solid conception or definition. Desire and motivation I think make sense in context with what we know about the brain.

As for democracy, it relies not on the notion of liberty but on the notion of justice, fairness. It requires that one person acknowledges the rights of the others. Guarantees of rights are not first person grants but second and third person grants. It is our selfish misconception that democracy is about me, and my group, not all of us thrown together that is chiefly responsible for the imminent demise of democracy.

Teach non-religious ethical analysis from third through twelfth grade. Make every person realize that school is not just vocational training but training to be cooperative members of an interdependent society. Only when we understand the importance of that intuitively is there any hope of maintaining liberty.
steve | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 12:13 pm | #

Gravatar Recent research into how parasites practice mind control over their hosts is pretty scary. Take, for example, the ants serving as hosts to Dicrocoelium. "The brainworm emits chemicals that alter the behavior of the ant causing the ant to spend inordinate amounts of time hanging out on the tips of grass where it is exceed ingly more likely to be eaten by a grazing sheep, cow, deer or rabbit.

Once the ant is eaten, the brainworm is digested and dies along with the ant. The remaining parasites are released into the host where they mature and lay eggs, beginning the cycle anew."

Would an infected ant think it was voluntarily spending time hanging out on the tips of grass stalks?

If ants (hosts and non-hosts) debated free will - would it be the ant asking the question - or the parasite?

The popularization screams "Science says no free will" - but the effect of the subconscious upon the conscious thought patterns of us "rationalizing animals" is interesting. How many people voted for Bush based upon nonsensical appeals to emotion that made no rational sense? Of those people, how many rationalized their emotion-driven decision based upon their subconscious fears and desires?
RepubAnon | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 12:27 pm | #

Gravatar Of course the real question here isn't 'is their free will' but rather 'who is it who has free will'? An interesting novel take on this is in the current New Scientist: mg19225780.073
Ron | 04.28.07 - 12:45 pm | #

Gravatar The argument about determinism versus free will not end until the Sun goes supernova.
swampcracker | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 12:48 pm | #

Gravatar Some thoughts--
If a criminal mindset is a pathology then it should be possible to cure it. Prisons become more like hospitals at that point. Still, it would be an open question as to what counts as normal human behavior and what is designated as illness. A liberal society (the heirs of Hume, above) would likely still favor a society that accepts a broad range of human behaviors as being normal. Basic tenets of justice would not change only the nature of punishment.

Even if the self can be reduced to a collection of physical processes we still have to contend with contradictory impulses, for instance, between monogamy and lust. What is not understood is what the physical basis might be for choosing among them, i.e. consciousness.

Another troubling idea for the foundation of liberal society I infer from Frances Crick's hypothesis--that individuals themselves may not in fact exist, that our ideas of ourselves are merely that and have no more substantive basis than a superstition.
sporadic | 04.28.07 - 12:53 pm | #

Gravatar Ron: "Patients essentially learn to reinterpret the pathological signals their damaged brain sends them and to respond in a different manner."

And that is exactly what I've observed in recovering people. Why it doesn't get more attention is beyond me. All learning, all changing of behavior must be part of this willful rewiring of the brain.

So where does the "will" come from to do the rewiring?

Carolyn Kay
Carolyn Kay | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 1:00 pm | #

Gravatar Heraclitus' mini-dialog to suggest a Buddhist approach was very nice, very suggestive of what we can do when we think this problem. I'd like to come from the opposite side of the riddle.

In my experience, people who claim to disbelieve in their free will are actually disbelieving something else first - their own existence. As believers in mechanical causation, they are asserting that they have no free will because they silently assume taht there is no thing in the world that is "me". If they did believe they existed, they would have to believe that thing that is "me" can cause things to happen.

Why don't they believe that they exist? And why does it matter?

I think they're trying to abandon the fiction of the soul, or at least clearly fictional accounts of what is a soul (religious propaganda), and they're desperately challenging people around them to give them grounds for believing in themselves. So, yes, the problem is a democratic one, and a rights problem.

Personally, I account for my existence with the realization that all matter possesses the elements of mental energy, but people have to figure out existence for themselves before it will make convincing sense. Regardless of how each comes to it, I think we need to grasp that people really are not sure whether or not they exist, and this is a perfect state of mind to encourage authoritarianism.

They disbelieve in themselves because they feel powerless to live as they would like. That's the starting point.
citizen | 04.28.07 - 1:26 pm | #

Gravatar In my experience, people who claim to disbelieve in their free will are actually disbelieving something else first - their own existence. As believers in mechanical causation, they are asserting that they have no free will because they silently assume taht there is no thing in the world that is "me". If they did believe they existed, they would have to believe that thing that is "me" can cause things to happen.

Huh. I have to say, I don't believe in "free will" in any strong fashion. I believe that my actions are the result of my 28 years of life experiences and the bio-chemical nature of my body and the situation I'm in when I act. If you could somehow create an exact replica of me and put it in the exact same situations that I'm in, I believe that it would react in exactly the same ways that I do.

I don't think it has anything to do with denying my own existence- I know that I exist, and I'm quite pleased with how I've turned out. I don't think it's about feeling powerless- how I feel about things is as much a product of who I am as anything else is. Why should it bother me to believe that my actions aren't "free"? There are an infinite number of influences working on all of us, all the time. The reality is that I can't comprehend all of the things that are pushing and pulling on my choices every moment. Just by typing this up and hitting "publish" I could be shifting the experiences of someone else such that they react differently than they would have before.

It doesn't matter to me whether I have free will or not, because I'm going to continue living my life in the way that my experiences lead me to, anyway. Does it really matter if my choices are free or not?
Roy | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 3:04 pm | #

Gravatar Proposed. Science has proven that 2+2=5 what are the consequences of this?
Terra | 04.28.07 - 3:21 pm | #

Gravatar I second Ron's suggestion about "The Mind and the Brain", which also contains a bit about physical changes in the brains of Buddhist monks as suggested by Heraclitus.

The book suggests that events at a quantum level are the source of "mental force" and by extension "mind" and "free will". It is definitely worth the read.
goatherd | 04.28.07 - 3:27 pm | #

Gravatar Carolyn Kay wrote:
"So where does the "will" come from to do the rewiring?"

That is indeed the question. And many answers are possible.

I think that for starters you have to assume some kind of hierarchy, events form part of greater events and each level is capable of generating its own force of intention, individual or collective.

Ultimately, you nay feel that you have to posit some sort of 'ground of being' or 'God' or ultimate 'Self'. I prefer the Buddha's answer, no-self. If you peal away all the levels of relationships, there is nothing left, just pure potential. But now we are in the realm of philosophical preferences...
Ron | 04.28.07 - 3:37 pm | #

Gravatar I've always suspected that "no self" was more of a rejection of the Yoga idea of the "Self" than in what that might mean to westerners. I've always wondered why, considering his total unwillingness to speculate on other metaphysical matters, he would go into something as speculative as the self. This is one sutta I particularly like, it's more no comment than non-exitant. t...n.063.than.html
olvlzl, no ism, no ist | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 3:50 pm | #

Gravatar Here's a fun fact: With PET scans and MRIs and such, we can see the impulses from the brain to the to the finger happen BEFORE the "mind" "decides" to point at something. And what's more, there is experimental evidence that certain magnetic fields in proximity to the brain. can make us do things AND insist that we chose to do it, all evidence to the contrary. So the answer to this boring question is nobody knows.
JDC | 04.28.07 - 7:36 pm | #

Gravatar JDC, don't get me going on MRIs. And I wasn't the one who put the question in those terms, several people who believed it was true framed the issue that way. On liberal blogs. If it had happened on right-wing blogs it wouldn't have shocked me. What's the left if people get suckered into believing that freedom has been proven to be a myth? And, I'm not the only one who has noticed that is a belief that is gaining ground as more people, many without much sophistication in science or philosophy, are falling for the line.
olvlzl, no ism, no ist | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 8:01 pm | #

Gravatar I tend to be uneasy when I agree wholeheartedly, without any quibble, with Carty. So here I'll be uneasy.

Steve,what you are describing used to be called the comprehensive civics curriculum.

Heraclitus, excellent job of picking apart what is wrong with the whole idea of this question.
Helen H | 04.28.07 - 9:10 pm | #

Gravatar What's the left if people get suckered into believing that freedom has been proven to be a myth?

why are you assuming that belief that there is no freewil is "conservative"? freewill is not the same things a political freedom (i don't believe in the former, i do the latter). and i personally see determinism, not freewill, as more consistent with liberalism.

for example, when talking about crime who wants to look at the societal causes of crime, liberals or conservatives?

when dealing with terrorism, who wants to talk about what drives people to engage in terrorism, liberals or conservatives?
upyernoz | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 10:02 pm | #

Gravatar My initial impulse was to avoid commenting on this post because the subject is just too complex, and the body of literature too unwieldy to occupy the minimalist real estate of a blog thread. It would be something like putting the history of the universe into reverse by forcing all mass and energy back into a singularity. Nevertheless the subject is also irresistible, and I will keep my comments as brief as possible.

Determinism versus free will, gasp! Classical Greek literature is a good place to start. Fate, chance, and choice describe the plain of human interactions as understood by the ancient philosophers. These terms have specific definitions, and I refer readers to Wiki, a convenient reference for these baseline concepts.

Determinism did not always have its roots in science. Religious philosophers inferred determinism from the concept of an omnipotent and omniscient God, and the argument goes something like this: If God is omniscient and has foreknowledge of our actions even before we act, then how can mankind have free will. This concept of God leads to the religious concept of predestination.

Predestination troubled a great many thinkers, and their argument goes something like this: If mankind is predestined to act in certain ways, even before he/she acts, then how can a person be held morally accountable for his/her actions before the laws of God and man. An interesting dilemma.

Later philosophers argued that predestination and free will are not necessarily contradictory nor incompatible, and their argument goes something like this: Suppose you are a parent, and your two-old toddler is about to toddle off a stool and fall down and go “boom.” You have a choice: Prevent the fall, or let the toddler have an experience that will teach him/her something about the perils of gravity. Thus, it is possible to have foreknowledge and free will at the same time.

In a sense, God is like the parent who gives mankind a measure of freedom to act and suffer the consequences of those actions. In a nutshell, these are the historical arguments surrounding determinism versus free will.

At the risk of making a logical fallacy called the “error of mystification,” I would assert that science does not seek to prove or disprove the concept of free will. Science confines itself to measurable phenomenon in the natural world. It seeks to explain phenomena through hypothesis, experimentation, and observation. Although the psychosocial sciences use empirical research methods to observe human behaviors, conclusions are generally probabilistic, not hardcore deterministic. This is an important distinction and a source of confusion for many people. Behavior research reports statistical tendencies, not chalkboard physics with precise trajectories.

“Free Will” was, is, and will always be a moral and legal concept. Whereas the psychosocial sciences may attempt to explain why certain behaviors take place, and while there will always be clever lawyers, no doubt, who will try to convert an explanation into an excuse, the rule of law will always require a certain measure of accountability and responsibility.

I have always felt that freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. Act with responsibility -- there would be no reason restict personal freedoms. Act in an irresponsible manner, freedoms will limited or taken away. To a certain degree, society will always be struggling with these issues. Public debate will pivot, not on the definition of terms, but about where to place the fulcrum that balances freedom versus responsibility, i.e., free will.
swampcracker | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 10:58 pm | #

Gravatar swampcracker, while there have been religious and philosophical determinists I think that in the culture I'm concerned with, relatively educated people left of the political spectrum those viewpoints are either entirely unknown or are regarded as unworthy of serious consideration. The related matters you talk about are true for some religious or philosophical scholars and writers but equally untrue of others. Talking about something as varied as either field would be like taking one school in one branch of biology and using its theories to talk about "biology". But that's not really the crux of my concerns here.

I agree with those who hold that the question, as a scientific question, is meaningless just as addressing any question in which the main terms can't be defined and about which there isn't enough known is scientifically meaningless. Yet as it was put in the Boston Globe article this morning, quite close in phrasing to the other mentions on blog threads Q Some neuroscientists question the whole notion of free will and say it's a myth. evil_gets_a_closer_look_after_shootings/

People as relatively sophisticated as Rich Barlow, the journalist, ask the question in those terms. Politically it doesn't matter that the scientific meaning of the question or even the assertions (some of them more than implied by some pretty famous scientists) are bad science. The "science" used by the supporters of slavery and associated racism (Thomas Huxley, sad to say among them) was bad science, as has been the rest of this biological determinism. Most if not all of the official racism that goverments engage in is based in bad science, much of the racially and ethnically based killing in the second world war was "scientifically" justified or instigated. Bad science can have profoundly bad effects on people.

I would love it if scientists and science teachers did a better job of making their students a lot more skeptical about a whole range of things than they are. Many people with educations are astoundingly credulous about anything that gets labled as "science" and they assume that the science has to be "proven truth". I can assure you that if you took a sample of people with degrees and asked them about the nature of scientific knowledge most of them wouldn't suspect that contingency was assumed.

And this doesn't really get to scientists who make assertions about free will and the superstition that science can address all questions. Science as it really is, isn't particularly good about restraining career makers from public declarations out of all proportion to their actual findings. They don't even correct the media when they make absurd claims for it. And I'd guess outside of cancer research the area which has the worst reporting is in the behavioral and cognative sciences.

I'm very happy with this thread. Thanks to everyone who is participating.
olvlzl, no ism, no ist | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 11:27 pm | #

Gravatar Oops. That link didn't take. Here it is.
olvlzl, no ism, no ist | Homepage | 04.28.07 - 11:28 pm | #

Gravatar Dear Uncle. Please accept my thanks for your reply.

Your comment -- “Science as it really is, isn't particularly good about restraining career makers from public declarations out of all proportion to their actual findings” -- is an interesting one. I can think of numerous examples to confirm your point, as indeed you have provided examples. Historically, totalitarian regimes bend science to suit nefarious purposes and enlist scientists willing to do their bidding.

Let me point out a logical fallacy about science, or any discipline for that matter. There is a tendency to blame a discipline for the sins of its disciples. By itself, science is neither good nor bad, but there are good and bad scientists. I think we can both agree.

I have the same problem with respect to answers provided by Reverend Coleman: “knowledge can have a potential for good and evil.” Again, the same logical fallacy: knowledge is not necessarily good or evil; but there will always be persons who turn it into something good or evil.

And the same can be made about the Internet: It is a wonderful technology that enables people to access information and form communities. The technology is neither good nor evil, but there are people who abuse it and use it as a medium for spam, harassment, stalking, and death threats.

So I think the question revolves around human nature, i.e., the capacity to use or abuse, to facilitate or to hurt. I have some thoughts on this subject but I need to take a break and return later.
swampcracker | Homepage | 04.29.07 - 2:04 am | #

Gravatar As someone who has spent a lifetime inside a biochemically defective brain, I'm coming more and more to believe that free will is, in fact, a myth. Or illusion. Or what have you. I come more and more to believe that what we think of as personality, as *me*, is just bundles of chemicals and electricity. Observing up close and personal the deep and real changes relatively minor chemical changes wreak is pretty darn startling. And enlightening.

including an explanation of how democracy and personal rights can survive this belief.

We have to make sure they do because I might be wrong.

Mary Kay | 04.29.07 - 3:20 am | #

Gravatar I tend to be uneasy when I agree wholeheartedly, without any quibble, with Carty. So here I'll be uneasy.

Carty | 04.29.07 - 9:19 am | #

Gravatar Usuaually I have a quibble, for everyone.

Have you not been posting much, Carty? I may have just been missing what you have been saying as my travel has been more sporadic, leading to my blog reading to be likewise.
Helen H | 04.29.07 - 9:50 am | #

Gravatar I know quite a few scientists. None of us say things like "free will is a myth". That's the kind of thing philosophers spend their time on. Scientists are still trying to figure what the heck the statement is supposed to mean.

It hardly seems like a well-formed statement about the material world, after all.
Whispers | Homepage | 04.29.07 - 10:09 am | #

Gravatar Heraclitus. Thanks for that post. You're right - this 'stand-along' (no real explanation) assertion doesn't mean very much.

But I still like your post - it was interesting and nice and easy to understand

Can you post some more for the fun of it please.
Jules | 04.29.07 - 10:30 am | #

Gravatar "Proposed: Science has proven that "free will is a myth".

Please discuss, including an explanation of how democracy and personal rights can survive this belief."

Personally, I reject eliminaitonist theories about 'free-will' for purely introspective reasons: e.g., whether I will continue typing this response - or not - appears (introspectively) like an action beyond causal determinism. Of course, that's not sufficient, nor is it very interesting.

Scientific (as well as philosphical) arguments reject free will with a compelling disjunction: any putatively free action was either caused, or it was not caused. If caused, then determinism, if not caused then random. In either case, no free-will.

Here, I go Kantian. The very concept of freedom defies analysis: IF it could be analyzed in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, the concept would necessarily not exist. This seems to beg the question, but this TYPE of answer has a very powerful analogue when it comes to accounting for the intractable nature of the mind-body problem (i.e., how can purely material stuff give rise to emotions, intentionality, etc.).

Expanding on the Kantian notion of antinomy, many contemporary philosophers find analogous explanations of how material stuff can have mental properties attractive. Eliminationist views of mental states, these philosophers argue (and I agree) are prima-facie absurd (Zombie-type thought experiments go a long way to shaping intuitions about this). Our lack of an adequate analysis of them, however, only implies that we are incapable (either thru limitations in brain power or an incapability of understanding the relevant concepts) of telling the story, but does not support the conclusion that such states don't exist. We know they do. (As Kripke says, if GOd were to of-a-day make the universe, the introduction of pain as an experience was something extra, beyond the creation of complex physical systems). Sounds question-begging, again, and also perhaps slightly paradoxical.

But the point is this: sceince's failure to account for mental states doesn't lead people to conclude that they don't have them.

It should also be noted that what constitutes scientific progress has come at the expense of 'reason' and 'rational' explanations, quantuum mechanics being the clearest example (its truth entails the falsity of the law of excluded middle, the cornerstone of all reason).

In short, I believe that the problem posed by science for free-will is a 'psuedo-problem', akin to the following: observational evidence from large objects reveals that the electron clouds which comprise those objects are probabalistically distributed to infininty, therefore, there are no large objects.

Democracy and personal rights, insofar as they require freedom, are therefore safe from the threat of science.
scudbucket | 04.29.07 - 11:04 am | #

Gravatar It doesn't matter to me whether I have free will or not, because I'm going to continue living my life in the way that my experiences lead me to, anyway. Does it really matter if my choices are free or not?

Suppose you are confronted with a difficult moral decision. Suppose, for example, that you are short of cash and the mortgage is way past due, and you are confronted with two options: stealing some easily liftable cash and risk going to jail, or not stealing it and risk losing your home. Imagine the scenario such that the temptation to steal is very appealing.

Now, after the fact, when you are reflecting on this situation in jail, are you at all inclined to say that your choice was simply the result of conditioning?
scudbucket | 04.29.07 - 11:22 am | #

Gravatar Whisper, and others. Please read today's post, you will understand that my interest in wording the proposition wasn't a "scientific" one.
olvlzl, no ism, no ist | Homepage | 04.29.07 - 12:07 pm | #

Gravatar Mary Kay: I, too, am an inheritor of a defective brain. I used to suffer from debilitating depressions, which included two hospitalizations.

I was lucky enough to come upon a book about cognitive therapy, which I threw across the room the first time I tried to read it, but later came to appreciate. I also found out about creative imagery, and was able to use both of those techniques to make some serious changes.

A few years ago, in one year I went through breast cancer treatment, moving, and changing jobs without suffering depression. For me, that's a huge improvement.

Carolyn Kay
Carolyn Kay | Homepage | 04.29.07 - 1:37 pm | #

Gravatar Carolyn: I'm glad cognitive therapy works that well for you. I'm familiar with it and find some of its techniques useful. However, nothing budges my depressions except the application of drugs which increase the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine in my brain. I am really sure that none of the other techniques work because I tried them for 30 years before those drugs became available.

Watching this process from the inside is why I'm deeply dubious of the point I *think* scudbucket is making. (I might be wrong in what I think is one of his/her points. I really suck as a philosopher.) In fact something material does give rise to emotions: insufficient serotonin in the brain causes deep and powerful depressions. Correcting that not only sends the depression packing, but also stops compulsive thinking, certain types of anxiety, and pms dead in their tracks. I watched all those things happen in my own life, in my own brain. I've observed it from the outside in the cases of others.

Watching behaviors, thoughts, and emotions come and go, change and mutate as a result of a slight change in the chemical composition of one's brain is really arresting.

Mary Kay | 04.29.07 - 2:02 pm | #

Gravatar olvlzl: Again, I don't know what you are talking about. "Free will" is not a topic that is studied in science, so I don't see how anybody could seriously say that "Science has proven 'free will is a myth'".

Terra: Science has not "proven" 2+2=5. There are many things wrong with this false proposition. For starters, it's a mathematical statement, not a scientific one. Second, as a mathematical statement, the fact that "2+2=4" is nearly equivalent to the definition of "4". (Indeed, "4" is defined to be the number 4=3+1.) We needn't worry about "science" proving things that are mathematically false.

There is a certain kind of psychological reductionism that says that human brains are all just bunches of wires existing in reality and that "free will" is therefore an illusion, since the wires will simply behave according to the laws that govern biochemistry. I think this is a bit reductionist, but I'll get back to it in a second.

The extreme opposite approach to the problem invokes non-physical "souls" or "spirits" that have "free will", and casts human beings as being somehow more than physical, to avoid the inevitable conclusion that there is little inherent ontological difference between a human being and, say, a toaster, except for the complexity of the wiring.

I have problems with both extremes, but more with the second one, since it is obviously concocting terms that it refuses to define precisely, solely because it wants to avoid the negative implications of the first attitude.

So, what are the bugbears of the first theoretical framework that are so odious? Well, if you listen to the doomsayers (who are regularly badmouthing science, atheism, and any other system of belief that restricts itself to the natural world), a logical consequence of believing that humans exist entirely and solely in the physical world is the conclusion that humans are merely pawns in the physical system, and are somehow not responsible for the decisions they make.

To a great extent, people are slaves to our biology. We get hungry, we eat. We get tired, we sleep. We get horny, we breed. I don't quite see what that has to do with "free will" and "good and evil". Indeed, I find the practice of defining all decisions according to "right and wrong" to be much less trustworthy than defining decisions based on their consequences and the values of the people making the decisions.

It is fairly clear to me that, even though I do not belive in an essential "soul", and I have no idea what "free will" is supposed to mean, that I make choices about my life constantly. These choices are informed by my education, my emotional drives, my hungers, my ethics, and what have you, but they are all still choices, and I take responsibility for them.

Given all of that, I find the handwringing about the implications of a materialistic philosophy to be completely misplaced. It simply isn't necessary. And when you feel yourself well grounded in a materialistic philosphy that allows for the existence of human rights, concepts of good and evil, personal responsibility, etc., comments like
"Please discuss, including an explanation of how democracy and personal rights can survive this belief" just strike you are horribly misplaced.

Democracy is a concept that was invented in a material world. Why would it not be able to survive in a material world? The same goes for personal rights. Read up on Locke and the concept of a social contract. Personal rights exist in the collective imagination. What does that have to do with an ill-defined concept of "free will"?
Whispers | Homepage | 04.29.07 - 2:32 pm | #

Gravatar I would have to argue that while the biochemistry in our brain may effect how we feel, what we do can effect our brain chemistry (e.g. runner's high), some studies indicate how we "tell ourselves" we are going to feel can have some effect on our brain chemistry, so to can elements in the environment (the studies I've seen assumed "normal" brain chemistry, whatever that is defined by the study as being). This does not in any way lessen MKK's experiences from inside a brain with "defective chemistry"; it does indicate that our patterns are not simply what they are due to predetermined internal production, but are subject to change. I don't know that this has any bearing on the thological/philosophical concept of free will within a scientific examination for determination of existance.
Helen H | 04.29.07 - 3:10 pm | #

Gravatar Whispers said: "It is fairly clear to me that, even though I do not belive in an essential "soul", and I have no idea what "free will" is supposed to mean..."

One way to understand it, ala Aristotle, is that you are a 'first mover' with respect to your actions. The idea is that when you either raise or fail to raise your hand in five seconds (four, three, two, one...) the impetus for that action came from within you, an impetus which was in turn uncaused.

While its true that science is not interested in research on free will per se, science IS interested in theses such as a causally closed universe. If the universe is causally closed - that is, if every event is the result of a physical, causally sufficient condition - then there appears to be no room for free will (since every decision, judgment or choice is merely the result small particles bouncing off each other in determinate ways).

For my part, this is VERY counterintuitive. For example, if the universe is causally closed, then there is no such thing as morally praiseworthy or blameworthy actions. Morality, which many people think of as end in itself, is reduced to what is efficacious for promoting some other non-moral value scheme, utiles, stability, comfort, etc.

How this relates to democracy and human rights is pretty clear: a democracy is predicated an rational actors making (free) choices in determining governmental policy. Even on a reductionist view (which is realist about free-will!) which claims that freedom is merely actions unconstrained from outside forces, denying free-will entails the impossibility of democracy ('free choices' aren't determining anything because there are no free choices (the universe is causally closed)).

Realism about free will is necessary for anything but nominal democracy. More robust notions of free will are of course still consistent with democracy, and those I made earlier.
scudbucket | 04.29.07 - 3:51 pm | #

Gravatar Whisper, let me put it plainly.

In order for an idea to have a political impact, it doesn't have to be "good science". It just has to be a line bought by enough people to have a political impact.

The idea that "science - of some kind" has proven that "free will is a myth" is an idea that is out there and being discussed. It is a bad idea demonstrating a lack of the most basic knowlege of the philosophical basis of science but for it to have a political effect that doesn't matter one little big.

Creationism is also bad science but in areas where it is bought it has a political impact. It's really just as simple as that.
olvlzl, no ism, no ist | Homepage | 04.29.07 - 5:38 pm | #

Gravatar Imagine the scenario such that the temptation to steal is very appealing.

Now, after the fact, when you are reflecting on this situation in jail, are you at all inclined to say that your choice was simply the result of conditioning?

Why shouldn't I?
What reaction would you be inclined to have towards that choice?
Roy | Homepage | 04.29.07 - 10:37 pm | #

Gravatar I'll merely echo the point made by others--the proposition is not in a science framework. Sounds more like that of a journalist interested in getting his article printed.

Even if our finger points before our conscious mind concludes that it should, that doesn't mean that neurons are not going through a process which determines whether or not the finger points. Somewhere among those neuronal interactions is a cusp that leads to the pointing or non-pointing of the finger. The resolution of that cusp may take longer to reach the conscious portion of the mind than it does to the necessary motor neurons, but until scientists determine what takes place at that cusp concerns about the death of free will are premature.

I'll add a little more on the specific explanation you asked for. Just as the extreme lack of scientific support for many of the events of the Bible--Joshua's ability to stop the sun in the sky, for instance--has not stopped even some scientists from accepting the inerrancy of the Bible, neither would "proving" the absence of free will necessarily result in change of our society's practices relating to democracy or personal rights.

Nor, logically, should it. Even without an illusion of a scientifically-defined free will which has never been established, governments are needed, and agreements on what individuals can and cannot do. Since no individual has any inherent advantage of any other if no one has free will, how do we establish the necessary government and agreements? The concepts of a pre-determined atheist are no more and no less valid than those of a pre-determined buddist or pre-determined christian, unless there is a "proven" scientific superiority developed at some time in the future. Such a superiority has yet to be uncovered by science, and seems highly unlikely to be a part of science's future.

Remember, democracy is the worst form of government except for all other types that have been tried so far. What form of government would be best in the absence of free will? Well, probably the same one that is best when everyone is considered to be a free agent.

Of course, if we allow those who believe that their particular determinist viewpoint is more valid than those of others to take control, then there obviously will be problems. But that's true even in a world that believes in free will.

I also point out that the concepts of democracy and individual rights were not developed in societies that overwhelmingly believed in free will.

As can be seen by this response, I'm more than a little dismissive of the importance of the philosophical proposition olvizi presents. When I was a college student free will vs. determinism was interesting; the lifetime in between has often illustrated to me that the activities of individuals and societies are seldom seldom based on such concepts.
MedallionOfFerret | 04.30.07 - 4:39 am | #

Friday, April 27, 2007

The response which was posted here is removed since the misunderstanding has been cleared up entirely and without prejudice.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I said it before and I'll say it again

Bill Moyers is the greatest, English language, broadcast journalist of all times.

Daniel Dennett Just Can’t Stay Out of That Lions Den
For all of their self-publicized objectivity and rigorous standards of reasoning, there are some rather breathtakingly naive ideas that have gained currency in the contemporary culture of atheism and among some of a vaguely scientific bent. Few of these are as astonishing as the assumption that the theorized genetic basis of religious belief necessarily leads to the conclusion that religion is just the undesirable artifact of evolutionary biology and QED: god is bunk. For a person who doesn’t believe in a god or who is making a career in the burgeoning pop culture field that champions these kinds of ideas, that assumption seems to be immediately grasped because they think it confirms their pre-existing preferences. But that is certainly not the most necessary conclusion, nor is their heart’s desire the only conclusion that can be drawn from it using their own level of rigor.

First, the proposition, most often associated with Daniel Dennett, is glaringly lacking in rigorous analysis. It assumes that a proposed creator god who created the entire universe, planets, solar systems, galaxies, clusters, dark matter, energy, the entire shebang, and who also keeps it in motion, wouldn’t have any say in what happens in the puny little molecules that make up our genetic inheritance. Perhaps they think that such a god would just have to grow forgetful under the burdens of considering the big picture.

Not only COULD such a creator god’s role be proposed in any such genetic basis of belief, but to leave out that possibility is entirely dishonest in a PHILOSOPHICAL* discussion of the matter. It is hard for me to believe that doing so could be just a rather astounding oversight for a philosopher to make. If you’re talking god, you don’t get to leave the possibility of god out of the picture just at a point when doing so best suits your conclusion. It certainly wouldn’t be by a careful philosopher who was thinking about the subject. When talking about “god”, god isn’t an unimportant detail in the argument.

Rather charmingly, Dennett and his cubs seem to not realize that even if they were to conclusively prove that faith was controlled by genetics that could lead someone so disposed to take that as the strongest physical evidence ever found that there was a god. Not only a god but a god who wished that people should know of his existence, or at least to have that option open to them as a recessive or latent possibility**. They could be handing the I.D. types, not their death sentence, but fulfilling their greatest desideratum***. I say charmingly only because Dennett, one of the proponents of that other PR disaster in the making, “The Brights” idea, seems to have a bad habit of handing ammo to the other side.

Note: From experience, you can be certain that one of the things that might come up in a discussion of this issue is the matter of “wish fulfillment” to impeach one side of the argument. That is, again, rather an astounding gap between the pretense of the self-identified “realist” side of things and life as it actually is. There are few, established, well accepted ideas found by scientific research which were not fervently desired by their discovers and promoters. And there are a lot of ideas that, found by mistake, lead to an equally fervent desire for confirmation and extension. Wish fulfillment in and of itself doesn’t prove sloppy thinking or dishonesty, though it can certainly be a motive in both. The falsity of an idea isn’t based in whether that it’s considered to be desirable by the person who holds or promotes it but that it has been disproved. If that wasn’t the case then even the idea that there is a genetic basis of religious belief would have to go, since it seems to be pushed most strongly by those who have a well known axe to grind on the subject. And, like many of the ideas of this school of speculation, it’s pretty much a construct made of words and assertions. And , as seen above, many of them are rather shaky in themselves.

* That is philosophical, not scientific, so don’t bother bringing that red herring up. Questions of a god have no place in any part of science. Philosophy can and does deal with many things that fall outside of science, whether or not anyone likes that.

** God help us, the strict Calvinists would have a field day with that one.

***I, personally, am doubtful that there is any such genetic mechanism but I’m not a biological determinist to begin with.

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