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Neuroscience and Free Will


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On a Christian site I read the following:

I'll even go one step further. If there is no such thing as God's universal law of right and wrong, if the Atheists and materialists are right, then there is no such thing as free will.

 

If they're right, you and I are just meat; biological cogs in the machine of life. Your "mind" and "soul" are just brain chemicals reacting from environmental input. You see light reflected off an object, the signal travels down your optic nerve, your brain chemicals are affected in a certain way. Other chemicals process this information (what we call "thoughts") and you act according to those chemical mixtures. Environment + brain chemical 1 + brain chemical 2 = your behavior.

 

Therefore if you do not beat your wife, it only means you lack enough of the "beat your wife" chemicals. Inject them into your brain, and you'll be a wife beater. If the sum total of you is just meat and chemicals and cells, then free will is just an illusion.

 

Christianity believes we have a soul or spirit that is the real you, that exists in a way that science isn't yet able to observe. The brain has instincts and impulses and ideas, but it is the spirit that chooses. When two instincts play tug-of-war with you (Sex Instinct says to have sex with the girl, Self Preservation Instinct says her father will kill you) it's the spirit that chooses which instinct you will follow. When your brain rationalizes and says that stealing this one magazine won't hurt the drug store enough for them to even notice, it's your spirit that says stealing is wrong and that's that. When instinct and brain team up to get you to do something shady, it's the spirit that weighs in on you with feelings of guilt.

From: http://www.christianfaq.com/morality.html

 

Is he right about this when he claims that a soul is necessary for free will? What are the current ideas in the field of neuroscience regarding free will?

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I disagree that a soul is necessary. Take his example of the "sex instint" In this case the behavioral "need" to reproduce is in conflict with the "need" to preserve your own skin. There is still a choice to be made, without a soul involved. This man is too subjective to take seriously.

 

I'm immediately wary of zealots, and people who don't look at both sides as equal before dispelling one.

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A soul as explained this way has always seemed to me like a poltergeist that can selectively pass through certain things while possessing the ability to pick others up. If the soul is transcendental and immaterial then what is its interface with the body and why can we not sense soul/body interaction?

 

Asking whether or not a deterministic universe destroys free will is a stupid question. Intelligent entities possess the ability to predict the future from sensory data and alter the outcome as they see fit. Whether or not this process is deterministic is moot (from a compatibilist perspective) as free will enters the realm when we compute a potential future then weigh the consequences of various actions we can take to alter it based on our past experience.

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Asking whether or not a deterministic universe destroys free will is a stupid question. Intelligent entities possess the ability to predict the future from sensory data and alter the outcome as they see fit. Whether or not this process is deterministic is moot (from a compatibilist perspective) as free will enters the realm when we compute a potential future then weigh the consequences of various actions we can take to alter it based on our past experience.

 

Actually I also tend to favor the compatibilist view as it seems to fit quite well with what we really mean when we are talking about free will. As I see it the existence of a soul wouldn't really change that much since the soul would also have to make decisions on some kind of basis. So the free will of a soul would then not be much freer than that of completely materialistic person. Maybe there's still the possibility of some kind of metaphysical free will, but I'm not really sure about that and if it would make much sense. But free will is a heavily discussed topic anyway, so it's probably not that easy to find a definite answer.

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decision making has been studies in the brain and it does seem to happen fine without any 'soul'. And the previously mentioned problem of just how and where the soul has it's influence is a major problem.

 

'Expectations and Outcomes: Decision-making in the Primate Brain'

 

http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/rweber/learning/papersfolder/platt_jcomphysa_inpress.pdf

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All the species we observe exist because of certain evolutionary traits that have ensured their survival. Far more species have become extinct because of environmental changes or other failures to adapt. Humans are still a fairly young species and there is no guarantee that we will survive, in fact there are many indicators that show we may well nuke ourselves.

 

Issues of morality eventuality reduce to survivability. In the Christian arena the claimed absolute set of moral rules, if followed, are meant to assure survival in paradise. At a rational level our survival is determined by following actions that are in our best interests; any behavior that is detrimental to other individuals or a group will be quickly isolated by others and the offenders are quarantined or removed from the species. It becomes a matter of survival of the fittest and in human terms that means the ability to think clearly. It doesn’t require religion for us to discover independently that cooperation with others results in mutual benefit and fostering a loving and social environment also assists with our long survivability – these are simply rational determinations that have been part of our evolutionary path and why we have been a success so far.

 

As for free will – I suspect this doesn’t really exist. Everything appears to be governed by cause and effect in which case every event is deterministic. If we knew every variable in the universe then we should be able predict every future event. However, at the quantum level there is much that appears chaotic and even events that appear to occur before they are caused. Would these events at the micro level be sufficient to create enough randomness to breakup the long change of deterministic cause/effect sequences that has led me to write this cumbersome sentence? And would knowing that free will really doesn’t exist matter? If it is an illusion it seems so difficult for us to determine that who really cares.

 

As for souls - an interesting fantasy concept not worthy of any serious discussion. All the things that have been claimed as the domain of the soul, e.g. thoughts, emotions, feelings, are all now understood as functions of the brain. As for consciousness and self-awareness - there is no reason to believe that the brain is not also the only and key player in these issues.

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As for souls - an interesting fantasy concept not worthy of any serious discussion. All the things that have been claimed as the domain of the soul, e.g. thoughts, emotions, feelings, are all now understood as functions of the brain. As for consciousness and self-awareness - there is no reason to believe that the brain is not also the only and key player in these issues.

 

 

It is still interesting HOW the brain is able to generate consciousness and self-awareness, though. :)

 

The brain controlls all those functions, but what controlls the brain, if anything? I don't say that it is a "soul"-thing, but it is still an interesting question, because we don't know the answer to that today... (or do we?). :rolleyes:

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GreenDestiny,

 

On a Christian site I read the following:

 

From: http://www.christianfaq.com/morality.html

 

Is he right about this when he claims that a soul is necessary for free will? What are the current ideas in the field of neuroscience regarding free will?

The author of that particular faq has a grossly naive idea of how ethical systems are developed in the first place' date=' nor does the individual seem to know the nature of "secular morality").

 

First, to explain why the author's misconception: a person is morally responsible for his or her actions when (1) the individual knows what he or she is doing and (2) the individuals thoughts and intentions play a part in the outcome of an action. Both of those criteria are achievable under both a purely materialistic universe, and a universe where individuals have freewill (however that may be defined).

 

Second, I will answer your question, GreenDestiny, in two parts:

 

1) The author is not correct about claims of the soul necessitating freewill. The problem is that freewill isnt philosophically coherent, because it implies the ability to free ones self from the laws of cause and effect.

 

Still, even if we had the hypothetical capacity to break the laws of cause and effect, that is actually harmful to the idea of moral responsibility. Because essentially, if our actions are not determined, then free action is nothing more than a series random and fortuous events - this view of human behavior is antithetical to moral responsiblity.

 

Freewill exists in the most trivial sense that, for most of your life, the actions you perform are at your own volition, you are not being coerced or controlled by anything but your own interests.

 

2) Most neurologists reject the idea that we possess freewill. Many of them take a philosophical position called "compatibilism", which means that while our actions are wholly determined, they are determined in a useful way by our values, memories, desires, experiences, and environment.

 

One of the implications of this form of compatibilism implies that human behavior can be reasonably predicted if certain "variables" (for lack of better words) are known - for the most part, human behavior is actually much more predictable than people realize. More interestingly, this kind of compatibilism implies that if I were to give you a choice between opening two doors, quite obviously you will choose either the left or the right; however, if it were hypothetically possible to recreate the [i']exact[/i] inner and outer circumstances before you made your choice, you would choose the same door each and every time; you have the hypothetical capacity to choose different if the situation were presented under a different set of inner and outer circumstances.

 

I believe compatibilists would argue that a completely deterministic universe has the most definite implication that the future state of events can be deduced from present circumstances. Certainly moral behaviors can be deduced as well (i.e. you can predict throwing something sharp at another individuals is likely to cause physical harm - which is definitely immoral), and I believe compatibilists would consider that knowledge of those effects should affects the behavior an individual - that is where the compatibilist can determine moral responsibility.

 

As far as scientific data is concerned, it has seemed to refute freewill. I found a very good .pdf file on the subject once before, but I cannot seem to find it now. However, the content of the file was a study of human beings being hooked up to an EEG (or fMRI or similar device) to study the decision making process, which indicates the actual choices people make occur for quite some time before they are even consciously aware they have made a choice - implying consciousness does not play a part in the decision making process at all.

 

We arent actually consciously aware of the functions of our brain, so we never know of the gap between our actions and our actual decisions to perform these actions - but our brain obscures this fact to create the illusion of a continuous experience. Think of this as similar to the fact that our visual processing in the brain is full of gaps, holes, and quite erratic, but our experience of these processes is drastically different.

 

Under this understanding, consciousness might be a peculiar artifact of the processes of our brain, and may not be at all involved in decision making (although certainly our present decisions will affect the outcome of future decisions). I am personally comfortable with the idea that I dont have freewill, just as I am comfortable with the idea that my visual experience is for the most part an illusion of continuous perception.

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Dennett had an awesome quote: "Yes, we have a soul, but it's made of tiny robots" Of course I'm more apt to believe that our soul is the sum of the impacts we have upon the material universe, which cascade and reverberate and have a greater and greater impact upon the future the farther down the line you go (unless mitigated by a powerful event which returns all the order you have constructed throughout your lifetime to chaos)

 

The bottom line is this:

 

Free will is about making decisions. The decisions we make are based upon what possible outcomes we can predict happening. There's no way to avoid outcomes we can't predict, and therefore we can't decide to do something which our knowledge structure doesn't know is possible. All our decisions are based on our world view and the predicitions we make from that view.

 

Does materialist causal determinism say that there's only one possible future, an unavoidable destiny which will happen no matter what we do? Of course it does. Can we change that future? No, it's impossible, because any decisions we make have significance upon the outcome. No matter what we do, the future will happen the way it will and it's been destined to do so since the dawn of time.

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If they're right, you and I are just meat; biological cogs in the machine of life. Your "mind" and "soul" are just brain chemicals reacting from environmental input. You see light reflected off an object, the signal travels down your optic nerve, your brain chemicals are affected in a certain way. Other chemicals process this information (what we call "thoughts") and you act according to those chemical mixtures. Environment + brain chemical 1 + brain chemical 2 = your behavior.

 

Thats exactly what I believe, although of course the brain just doesn't have chemicals, nerve impuslues are electro chemical in nature.

 

But yeah, stimulus-> nerve impulse -> nerve impulse -> reaction. Sounds good to me. I thought this up way back in elementry school when I was trying to figure out if the universe was deterministic or not (I knew nothing of quantum stuff back then). I wasn't totally sure about it then, and I'm still not. I figured then that the only way to test it was to observe somebody's reaction to something, go back in time and observe it again. If the reaction is always the same to a given stimulus I'd say our brains are essentially just computers. I would be inclined to believe this anyway, can't prove it though.

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I didn't see any reason to take offence in the article. It seems to me that the author was defining "free will". He didn't even claim that it existed, just said he believed it. He just wanted people to know that if they agreed with his definition than they believe (of disbelieve) in some form of "soul". (Like [Tycho?] did, "I agree", "I disbelieve")

 

My answer to "Is a soul required for free will" is that free will has been defined here as requiring a soul, no discussion. Instead you may want to discuss alternate definitions of free will. Personally his definition works fine for me.

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I didn't see any reason to take offence in the article. It seems to me that the author was defining "free will". He didn't even claim that it existed, just said he believed it. He just wanted people to know that if they agreed with his definition than they believe (of disbelieve) in some form of "soul". (Like [Tycho?'] did, "I agree", "I disbelieve")

 

He first stated the traditional fatalist position that a determistic universe and therefore a material and mechanistic consciousness/soul doesn't count as free will. As a compatibilist I take offense, think he's begging the question of what truly defines free will, and setting himself up for irrational Cartesian Dualism.

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I agree with the whole input/output thing. Just because the chemical reactions in our brain are on the whole, too complex for us to immediately fathom, doesn't mean that there's some elusive essence that controls our choices, when it can clearly be shown that chemicals do have a drastic impact on our "choices". Take for example, heroin. A lack of opioid peptides (naturally produced in the hypothalamus gland) can induce a "longing for love", or at least physical contact with a love connotation. Because heroin addicts are constantly supplied with more opioid peptides than their body would naturally produce, they often have no desire for any romantic (and sometimes any social) relationships. When all of one's choices are individually reduced to such reactions, there's no room left for anything else, as discrepancies between individuals constitute the entirety of "free will".

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I think it's fairly obvious that consciousness is nothing more than the sum of your sensory inputs plus the collective unconsciousness/a priori information we were born with. Is there really anything in your head that isn't sensory information, an extrapolation upon it, or something you were born with?

 

The data you accumulate is used to make decisions which in turn alter which new data you accumulate, and so forth and so on. Unless you've been taken captive, you are the ultimate arbiter of what you put into your consciousness.

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  • 3 weeks later...
Guest oliver

I wrote an article for SciAm awhile back called "Who will win?" (http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0006B3F7-9C0E-1C75-9B81809EC588EF21&pageNumber=1&catID=4) about a couple theoretical ecologists who showed that simple competition models could produce winners that are impossible to predict, because the outcome varies with initial conditions according to a fractal, meaning that no degree of precision in one's knowledge of the inputs is sufficient to predict the outcome. This can happen with just 5 or 6 competitors. I haven't thought this through in terms of synapses, but in the abstract it seems that the brain might organize totally predictable "mental modules" so as to compete in this Darwinian sense--rather than simply adding, for example--with the result that a person's thoughts and choices would be constrained to just a few possibilities (i.e. constrained to a win by one of the 5 competitors) but unpredictable and in this way indistinguishable from free.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Guest Billy T

I amnot really replying to oliver, but a major problem with the idea I am suggetion if genuine free will, consistent with physics, is to be possible is the mathematics or Logic that can be deployed in the simualtion I descibe partially in this post and more fully in the attachment. More about this later if anyone is interested.

... simple competition models could produce winners that are impossible to predict...I haven't thought this through in terms of synapses, but in the abstract it seems that the brain might organize totally predictable "mental modules" so as to compete in this Darwinian sense--rather than simply adding, for example--with the result that a person's thoughts and choices would be constrained to just a few possibilities ....
From post 3:

“…free will enters the realm when we compute a potential future then weigh the consequences of various actions we can take to alter it based on our past experience.”

 

This is a perfectly reasonable definition of “free will” but I’ll expanding it a little, to make a more formal definition of Free Will:

 

FW = a considered choice or decision, made consistent with external constraints, (can’t decide to simultaneous touch two objects 30 meters separated, etc.) but absent of “strong compulsion” from some external agent (e.g. you are not being tortured to say something false, etc.). I said “strong compulsion” as we are always under some external compulsion because of our basic animal needs. E.g. many would work less if they did not need to eat, pay bills, etc.

 

This FW definition, however skirts the issue in that most of us want some “internal agent” that is not just deterministically doing what the neurochemistry and prior experience compelled it to do in the decision making process. Somehow there seem to be a conflict between this biochemically “compelled behavior” and the intuitive concept of “Genuine Free Will“ or GFW, to distinguish from the better defined FW defined above. That is, this FW of the “I” who considered the alternatives and chose seems to lacking the essential element of GFW because the “I” doing the considering and making the choice, was just a bag of chemicals following physics laws that the “soul guy” of post one was talking about. The problem, for those who desire GFW, instead of simple FW, is how does a bag of chemicals avoid being compelled and make a Genuine Choice?

 

IMHO, people who answer this question by postulating a soul only move the question to a different agent, without answering it. Much like people who “explain” why there is a universe do when they say “God created the universe.”

 

A perfectly rational position to take is: “OK, we don’t actually make GC or have GFW.” The nearly universal felling that we do is just an illusion of GFW. We are a bag of chemical and have only FW. - It is clear we do at least have FW, and it is impossible to empirically test if we have GFW or not. Thus, for all practical purposes, since we can’t empirically tell GFW from simple FW, it can’t make any practical difference which we truly have. This was essentially my position for many years, but about 15 years ago, I saw a way that might permit us to be just a bag of chemicals and yet have GFW, without postulating a “soul,“ which really only moves the problem to a different level.

 

The way to have GFW consistent with the bag of chemicals always following physical laws (no miracles or non material soul causing even a single atom to deviate from the path permitted by physics) is to give up the idea that the “I” making the decision is material. I.e. “I” is not a bag of chemicals. If not this and not a soul, what is “I”?

 

In short, the answer is: “I” is information in a simulations of the perceived world. Or more accurately “I” is a subroutine in a complex simulation of the perceived world. Part of the “perceived world” of every human (and all organism but the ones in the lowest evolution stages) is the perception of the body associated with the “I.“ certainly the higher organism that are “conscious” perceive their own body.

 

It was the recognition that the standard theory of perception, accepted by most cognitive scientists, is demonstrably wrong (three such demonstrations are given in the attachment, and there are many more.) that led me to consider a alternative model of perception in humans. This alternative model is described in some detail in the attachment, but to just summarize here in the post:

 

Unlike most cognitive scientists, I do NOT believe that what we perceive “emerges” after many stages of “neural computational transforms” of sensory inputs (and memory also as what we perceive is influenced by our prior experience and our current expectations). I do, however, agree with them that these computational transforms do extract “features” and that they are preformed in physically separated regions of the brain. For example the visual scene is processed first in the retina itself (which is ontgenically brain tissue) mainly for data compression and boundary contrast enhancement, then slightly in the LGN and then in visual cortex, first V1 and V2, (I believe mainly for “object parsing” of continuous visual field) and then color, motion and other “features” are further process in well separated tissue. - some of the processed / transformed data flow towards the temporal lobe and is related mainly to object recognition and that moving anteriorly, is frurther processed more for position determination and control of reaching etc.

 

A major problem with this orthodox view is where and how do all these separated “features” re-merge to form the unified perception we all experience?

 

My answer is “It never does.” Instead we perceive an internal simulation of the external world with “I” being a very complex subroutine in this simulation, which is conducted mainly in the parietal region of the brain. The separated features are used, like an airplane pilot running down a check list, to make sure the simulation is OK - I.e. remains very faithful representation of the real external world. Thus, “I” do not exist when the simulation is not “running” I.e. when my body is in deep dreamless sleep or coma etc.

 

For more details read the attachment - this post is already too long, especialy for my first!

Free Will, Out of Africa.doc

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