Friday, March 27, 2015

Free will observations

I am seeing intelligent scientists and philosophers saying really silly things about free will.

Existence of free will is not a scientific question. There is no way to directly test free will by experiments such as putting two people in the same state of mind and seeing whether they make the same decision.

There are experiments by Libet and others showing that the timing of a decision, as measured by brain scans, can be slightly different from conscious expectations. There are optical illusions that show that your brain perceives images in a way that is also slightly different from conscious expectations. But none of these experiments deny the apparent ability of your brain to make decisions.

Possibilities of solipsism are fruitless. We cannot rule out the possibility that some sort of super-determinism controls everything we see and do, or that we are all part of some vast computer computer simulation. But so what?

Here is a much less radical, but similarly worthless, statement: A hammer is mostly empty space. You can believe that if you want, but you can still hammer nails, and it still hurts if the hammer hits you.

Daily life is impossible without a belief in free will. Everyday we make decisions, or at least we think we do, and we often put a lot of effort into those decisions. What would I do otherwise?

Suppose someone came to me and said: The forward march of time is just an illusion, and time is really going backwards. What would I do with that info? I still have to live my life as if time is marching forwards, as nobody knows how to do anything else.

Denying free will serves leftist political goals, and encourages irresponsible behavior.

Scientific reasoning does not require determinism. There is an argument that unless you believe in religion or dualism or the supernatural, then everything must be determined by initial conditions, except maybe for some quantum randomness. That is, everything is determined except for what is not determined. People give this argument as if determinism is some obvious consequence of scientific rationalist materialism.

It is not. Scientists do try to make predictions, based on whatever data they have, but there is never a claim that everything is predictable.

If we had free will, how would that show up in our physical theories? They would be mostly deterministic, except for some unpredictable aspects. In other words, just like the physical theories that we have.

Here are examples of the argument from two prominent Skeptics in published articles. Physicist Victor J. Stenger writes:
So where does this leave us on the question of free will? Libertarians are correct when they say that determinism does not exist, at least at the fundamental physics level. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how physical indeterminism at any level validates the libertarian view. As Harris points out, “How could the indeterminacy of the initiating event [of an action] count as the exercise of my free will?”22 For an action to be mine, originated by me, it can’t be the result of something random, which by definition would be independent of my character, desires and intentions. To originate and be responsible for an action, I have to cause it, not something indeterministic. So the libertarian quest for indeterminacy (randomness) as the basis for free will turns out to be a wild goose chase. Neither determinism norindeterminism gets us free will.
Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci writes The incoherence of free will:
The next popular argument for a truly free will invokes quantum mechanics (the last refuge of those who prefer to keep things as mysterious as possible). Quantum events, it is argued, may have some effects that “bubble up” to the semi-macroscopic level of chemical interactions and electrical pulses in the brain. Since quantum mechanics is the only realm within which it does appear to make sense to talk about truly uncaused events, voilĂ !, we have (quantistic) free will. But even assuming that quantum events do “bubble up” in that way (it is far from a certain thing), what we gain under that scenario is random will, which seems to be an oxymoron (after all, “willing” something means to wish or direct events in a particular — most certainly not random — way). So that’s out as well.
Essentially the argument is: It does not matter if the laws of physics seem to allow for free will. Those laws must be deterministic or indeterministic. If deterministic, then everything is pre-determined, so we have no free will. If indeterministic, then there is some randomness we do not understand, so also we have no free will.

My FQXi essay also has a discussion of this aspect of randomness.

This is illogical. It is like arguing:
Studying cannot help you get good grades in college. Social science models show that college grades are 50% correlated with parental income, with the other 50% being random. Studying will not increase your parents income. Randomness will not get you good grades. Therefore studying will not help.
There error here is that the models do not consider studying, so studying shows up as random. The random component is just the sum of unexplained factors. The argument excludes studying from the models, and then tries to draw a conclusion from studying being excluded.

Likewise, brain models do not consider free will. They cannot do that as no one even knows what consciousness is. Quantum randomness is unexplained. You cannot just say, "the brain is explained by factors that are currently unexplained, so therefore there is no free will."

You might say:
Of course the models do not factor in free will. The whole concept of free will is that of "mind over matter", and it is intrinsically unscientific and cannot be modeled. We can understand how studying for college exams might get you a better grade, but there is no way an immaterial dualistic mind can influence a material body.
We certainly have an appearance of having conscious minds that made freely-chosen decisions. No, I cannot explain how it works, but I cannot explain how it could all be an illusion either. Believe what you want, but it is not true to say that science has given us an answer.

Here is an argument from a prominent leftist-atheist:
The events that Sam Harris talks about in the you-tube clip “Sam Harris on Free Will” include descriptions of weak free will events. For example, he asks the audience to think of a city then points out that the audience did not call up an exhaustive list of cities from which a particular city is carefully selected. Instead, a city name (or two, or three) pops into your head. Even if only one pops into your head, you can make a weak free will decision to accept it or to go back to city name retrieval process.
Harris argues that because you cannot explain a fully causal mechanism for how you chose the city, then it does not feel like free will, and it feels more like some demon in your head is forcing the choice on you.

I think the opposite. If I followed a deterministic algorithm for the city, then that would not feel like free will. Spontaneously making some inexplicable choice feels like free will. His argument continues:
Now here is the part that gets a bit tricky. Harris suggests that you often aren’t even aware of why you picked Tokyo, even if you have a story to tell, such as you had Japanese food last night. Even if that story did somehow influence your decision (though he goes on to say how bad we are at assessing such), “you still can’t explain why you remembered having Japanese food last night or why the memory had the effect that it did. Why didn’t it have the opposite effect?”

This point is extremely important here. Even if you remembered the Japanese food, why didn’t you think “Oh, I had Japanese food last night so I’ll choose something different from Tokyo” instead of perhaps “Oh, I had Japanese food so I’ll choose Tokyo”? The fact of the matter is, one of these were forced to the forefront of your consciousness, resulting in your decision. But the chances are you really don’t know why one did and not the other.

Harris goes on to say “The thing to notice is that, you as the conscious witness of your inner life, are not making these decisions. You can only witness these decisions.”
I wonder what he thinks that free will would feel like. To me, it seems quite consistent with free will to assume that part of your brain stores memories of food, and another part makes decisions, and that I am often unable to give a causally-deterministic explanation for my decisions.


  1. These deadbeats in the universities are really something. Do scientific journals make good toilet paper?

    1. What you cite is just the beginning.

  2. Hey Roger, I have been seeing some strange reporting on the LHC. Isn't rainbow gravity basically incompatible with the standard model and has no evidence for it, ESPECIALLY combined with large extra dimensions? It appears to be more science-fiction PR designed to keep high-IQ scientists on the welfare gravy train.