Saturday, June 28, 2014

Free will claimed to be random

I have argued that the free will experiments do not tell us whether we have free will, and that people use the word "random" as just a euphemism for data that is not understood. Here is an example:
The concept of free will could be little more than the result of background noise in the brain, according to a recent study.

It has previously been suggested that our perceived ability to make autonomous choices is an illusion – and now scientists from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, have found that free will may actually be the result of electrical activity in the brain.

According to the research, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, decisions could be predicted based on the pattern of brain activity immediately before a choice was made.

Volunteers in the study were asked to sit in front of a screen and focus on its central point while their brains’ electrical activity was recorded. They were then asked to make a decision to look either left or right when a cue symbol appeared on the screen, and then to report their decision.

The cue to look left or right appeared at random intervals, so the volunteers could not consciously or unconsciously prepare for it.

The brain has a normal level of so-called background noise; the researchers found that the pattern of activity in the brain in the seconds before the cue symbol appeared - before the volunteers knew they were going to make a choice - could predict the likely outcome of the decision. ...

“This random firing, or noise, may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio static is used to carry a radio station.”

This latest experiment is an extension of psychologist Benjamin Libet’s 1970s research into the brain’s electrical activity immediately before a decision.
The article makes it sound as if something profound has been discovered. Not true. It is saying that in certain experiments, free will is attributable to random process in the brain, meaning that human decision making is based on processes that are not understood. This is a null result, as it leaves us with what has been thought for millennia.

This is a similar confusion in quantum mechanics, with physicists always saying that something is random. The use of the word "random" doesn't mean anything except that it is not known to be predictable with the available data.

It seems possible that free will is connected with quantum randomness. That is, when reductionist brain research attempts to isolate human brain decisions, some sort of quantum uncertainty could block a completely deterministic model of the brain.

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