Friday, November 21, 2014

Free will is stochastic

Leftist-atheist-evolutionist Jerry Coyne attacks neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga on the subject of free will:
Gazzaniga’s thesis is that, although determinism reigns at the brain level, so that our actions are determined in advance (though not 100% predictable), humans nevertheless still have free will and moral responsibility. In other words, he’s a compatibilist. Compatibilism is, of course, the notion that “free will” can still exist despite physical determinism of our behaviors, including “choice”. ...

As an incompatibilist, I reject the notion that humans have moral responsibility for their actions, since the concept of “moral responsibility” involves “ability to choose otherwise.” ...

There are dozens of different (and sometimes incompatible!) ways to define “free will” to make it compatible with determinism, which leads me to suspect that compatibilists are like theologians, who redefine God so it always remains compatible with the latest findings of science ...

Gazzaniga’s whole thesis is undercut by this misguided statement: “My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context.” ...

And let me say this one more time: philosophers who are truly concerned with changing society based on reason wouldn’t be engaged in compatibilism, they’d be engaged in working out the consequences of determinism, especially its implications for how we reward and punish people.
It sure is funny how he can reject free will, and still be full of opinions on what everybody should be doing. Rejecting personal moral responsibility is too nutty for this blog, but I want to address some of his dubious scientific assertions.
One of the most obvious resemblances of theology to compatibilism is the continual redefinition of “free will” so that (like God) it’s always preserved despite scientific advances. When Libet and Soon et al. showed that they could predict a person’s behavior several seconds in advance of that person’s conscious decision, the compatibilists rushed to save their definition, declaring that these experiments are completely irrelevant to the notion of free will. They’re not. For if free will means anything, it means that our choices are coincident with our consciousness of making them (to libertarians, our consciousness makes those choices, and we could have chosen otherwise).
John Maynard Keynes (and others) have been quoted as saying:
When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?
So there is nothing wrong with theologians revising their views based on scientific evidence. Now that I have seen Libet's experiments, I would not be surprised at all if my urge to eat a cheeseburger was detectable in my brain before I was consciously aware of it. But I still have the free will to choose to eat or not eat that cheeseburger.

Coyne says that he follows this Anthony R. Cashmore paper:
Hence, the popular debate concerning the relative importance of genes and environment on behavior, is commonly inadequate for two reasons: both because it ignores the question of responsibility (or lack of) and because of the additional stochastic component that influences biology (12). ...

The introduction of stochasticism would appear to eliminate determinism. However there are three additional points that need to be addressed here. The first point is that, at least in some instances, what at first glance may appear to be stochastic might simply reflect microenvironmental differences and may not be the direct consequence of some inherent stochastic property of atomic particles. The second point is that some physicists, for example ’t Hooft (14), do not necessarily accept the apparent unpredictability associated with the quantum mechanical view of matter (It was concern about this unpredictability that prompted Einstein to offer the viewpoint that “God does not play dice”). Finally, even if the properties of matter are confirmed to be inherently stochastic, although this may remove the bugbear of determinism, it would do little to support the notion of free will: I cannot be held responsible for my genes and my environment; similarly, I can hardly be held responsible for any stochastic process that may influence my behavior! ...

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.
It is true that there is a split among physicists about that "stochastic component". Einstein was an ordinary determinist, with his beliefs backed by religion more than science, and rejected quantum mechanics for that reason. 'tHooft has expressed sympathy for superdeterminism, an extreme view. Most physicists seem to be persuaded that quantum mechanics proves that nature is inherently random. A few deny randomness by supporting the many-worlds or Bohmian interpretations, and all the unobservable ghosts that go along with those views.

I stick to the hard science, and a lot of smart people are seriously confused. A stochastic process is just one that is parameterized by some measure space whose time evolution is not being modeled.

Unless you are modeling my urges for cheeseburgers, then my appetite is a stochastic process. By definition. Saying that it is stochastic does not rule out the idea that I am intentionally choosing that burger.

Certain quantum mechanical experiments, like radioactive decay or Stern–Gerlach experiment, are stochastic processes according to state-of-the-art quantum mechanics. That just means that we can predict certain statistical outcomes, but not every event. Whether these systems are truly deterministic, we do not know, and it is not clear that such determinism is really a scientific question.

The nature-nurture folks are fond of twin studies, where they separate influences into genetic (aka heritable), environmental (aka shared environment), and stochastic (aka non-shared environment) factors. Until these studies, most human behaviors were thought to be mostly environmental. These studies consistently show that they are about half genetic and half stochastic, with very little attributable to the (shared) environment. That is, when two kids grow up in the same household and community, their similarities are attributable to their genes (if siblings or identical twins) or to unknown factors that have nothing to do with that household and community. A 2000 review (pdf) says, "When genetic similarity is controlled, siblings often appear no more alike than individuals selected at random from the population." These findings are hard to accept, as it seems obvious that parental child-rearing practices should be a big factor.

The word "stochastic" here is chosen to include all factors other than heredity (aka genetic determinism) and environment. The twin studies do not know what it is, but need some term for unexplained variance. But now Cashmore goes a step further, and defines free will as what goes beyond heredity, environment, and stochastic process. Then he concludes that there is no such thing as free will.

These guys have some underlying misunderstanding of mathematics. Or physics. Or philosophy of science, I am not sure. If we have free will, and psychologists or sociologists go around studying people making decisions, then that free will would be seen as a stochastic process. We cannot model those decisions deterministically, and can only say that they are choosing from some auxiliary space of possibilities in a way that is not externally controlled. That is exactly what a stochastic process is.

Cashmore and Coyne say that they should not be responsible for their behavior if it is influenced by a stochastic process. They say that as if it were an obvious truth, and give no justification. But free will is a stochastic process. And of course they are responsible. The essence of their argument is to say that life is either random or non-random, and they are not responsible either way. Coyne adamantly contends that this is an irrefutable logical argument that only religious people would reject, and that is another reason for exterminating the evils of religion.

Again, I just deal with the hard science here, and not the theology. Cashmore and Coyne is simply logically incorrect in their dismissal of free will. Their view has no support from science or common sense.

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to say something profound about free will, but at the moment all I can think of is the Gary Larsen joke from The Far Side where a Mrs. Paramecium is yelling at Mr. Paramecium "Stimulus Response, Stimulus Response! Don't you ever think!??" I think this sums up my amusement at very stupid super smart people who are utterly dedicated in their impacted ideologies by trying to prove how they actually aren't really capable of choosing to think. One wonders what will happen to their illusory egos should they convince themselves they are actually correct.