Monday, November 19, 2018

Public Radio program says we have no free will

I believe in free will, for reasons similar to my belief in consciousness. It is an essential part of everyday human life. It is mostly a philosophical issue, not a scientific one. I only mention it here when someone tries to bring scientific arguments to bear on the issue.

The current episode of Public Radio This American Life is dedicated to denying the existence of free will:
David Kestenbaum: Let me say upfront, I realize the ridiculous, late-night, college-dorm-room nature of what I'm about to say, but here it is. I do not see how free will can exist. By free will, I mean, when you're staring at the menu, and you pick the salad over the burger or any other choice you make-- big or small-- who you marry, whether you keep listening to me for another minute.

Free will is the idea that you really get to pick. I'm saying you don't. I don't see how free will can exist. ...

David Kestenbaum: So you ask this question, can there be free will? But I don't think you directly come out and say what you think. So what do you think?

Robert Sapolsky: I think I was basically trying to be polite there and sort of a good guest. In actuality, I don't think there is room for the slightest bit of free will out there.

David Kestenbaum: Sapolsky said, this was, in fact, the entire reason he had written the book. He was trying to lead people slowly along a gentle path to this uncomfortable idea. I was reading it right.

I asked him why he doesn't believe we have free will. As a neuroscientist, he thinks about it this way. Take any action-- a movement of your eyebrow, something you say. Just trace that thing back. Behind anything like that are just some muscles that moved.
Robert Sapolsky: So let's simplify it. A muscle did something. Meaning a neuron in your motor cortex commanded your muscle to do that. That neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before.

And those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.
David Kestenbaum: Your emotions, consciousness -- same argument. At the bottom, just cells and chemicals acting like they would in the lab.

Robert Sapolsky: There's nothing more or less than the mechanics. ...

For Sapolsky, this idea that we don't have free will is truly profound and should change the way we think about lots of things. For instance, all those decisions you've made because you're a good person, all those things you're proud of-- don't be so proud. Anyone else starting with your atoms in the same place would have done the same thing. ...

David Kestenbaum: I should say, there is some debate about whether no free will means that if you went back in time, and let your life unfold again, you would make all the same decisions exactly the same way. The reason there's some debate is that way down at the subatomic level, there does seem to be a little wellspring of randomness.

Quantum mechanics is all about probabilities. Like when a radioactive atom breaks apart, the exact moment it happens seems random. It's unclear how often this apparent subatomic randomness escapes into the larger world. But it could be that if you rewound the film of life and played it forward again, you might get a different movie. But it wouldn't be because of free will. It would just be subatomic randomness messing with the plot. ...

Special thanks today to Rob Long, Kelefa Sanneh, Stu Greenberg, Sean Carroll, Jim Naureckas, Charlie Schaupp, Stephen Talbot.
The funny thing about this is that they consulted physicists Melissa Franklin and Sean M. Carroll who told them about quantum randomness, but who failed to set them straight.

Sapolsky is a big shot Stanford professor who wrote a fat book on how genetics and environmental conditioning can influence as much as 80% of human behavior. As an example, he explains how advertising can condition consumers to buy a product.

I accept that. Free will concerns only 20% of behavior, maybe.

It is funny how this pseudo-scientific arguments against free will go. First they give some 19th century argument for determinism, based on a mechanistic model of the universe. Then they explain how quantum mechanics proved that the argument is wrong, and that human determinism appears to be false. But then they go back to arguing their mechanistic determinism anyway to conclude that science shows that there is no free will.

Franklin says we appear to have free will, but that must be wrong because she cannot reconcile it with 19th century determinism.

If Kestenbaum, Sapolsky, and Carroll say that they have no free will, perhaps I should believe them. I have known lots of very high IQ professor who, when asked about politics or religion, sound like NPC automatons. They do not appear to have freely chosen their most cherished beliefs. Faced with that, maybe it makes sense for them to doubt free will.

But claiming that some scientific argument for determinism proves that no one has free will is a crackpot idea.

I enjoy This American Life radio, but they should have been able to find a scientist to defend free will.

Here is Sapolsky, from a previous Public Radio program:
SAPOLSKY: Well, just to really take us into (laughter) potentially not-touch-with-a-10-foot-pole territory, my personal bias is we've got no agency at all. I don't think there's a shred of free will out there. From spending my decades thinking about behavior and the biological influences on it, I'm convinced by now free will is what we call the biology that hasn't been discovered yet. It's just another way of stating that we're biological organisms determined by the physical laws of the universe.

RAZ: So everything that you're saying here now and everything that I'm saying to you now and the things I'm going to do for the rest of the day and that you're going to do for the rest - and the interactions you're going to have and I'm going to have, we have very little say in that?

SAPOLSKY: Actually, remarkably little sort of conscious access to it. An awful lot of the time, say, if we choose a behavior, it turns out there was some subterranean emotional tumult that led to that.
Again, his argument is based on assuming that the physical laws of the universe are deterministic, and that evidence of partial biological influence is really partial evidence of total biological determination.

Update: Biology professor Jerry Coyne agrees with these anti-free-will views, and writes:
Unless you don’t accept the laws of physics, the only kind of free will we can have is one compatible with the laws of physics, which denies us dualistic agency. Carroll is in fact a strict determinist, and his version of free will is compatibilist: “the free will that we use as shorthand for feeling like agents although we really obey the laws of physics.” ...

It was inevitable that Mao and Hitler murdered millions given their genes and environments and the laws of physics. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished. Punishment is absolutely compatible with hard determinism because it deters people, sequesters bad people, and can help reform bad people. I have written about this many times on this site.
I accept the laws of physics, but those laws are not deterministic.

I don't see how physicists like Franklin and Carroll can be strict determinists, when the laws of physics are not. I also don't see the point to helping reform bad people who do not have free will.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. These folks absolutely blow my mind. If there is zero free will, that includes verbal behavior. So the interviewees are just mouthing sounds driven by neurons driven by atoms etc. If it turtles all the way down,why would I listen to anything they say? What would be the point of it all.