Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Free Will and the Brain

"The most fundamental neuroethical issue concerns free will and responsibility. The mind is what the brain does, and the brain is a causal machine. Consequently, deliberations, beliefs, decisions and ensuing behavior are the outcome of causal processes. Typically, the causal processes leading to awareness of a decision are nonconscious. The "user illusion," nevertheless, is that a decision is created independently of neuronal causes, by one's very own "act of will." Some philosophers-usually called libertarians-resolutely believe that voluntary decisions actually are created by the will, free of causal antecedents. Like flat-earthers and creationists, libertarians glorify their scientific naivete by labeling it transcendental insight."

--Patricia S. Churchland

Churchland's quote is one of the clearest and most concise arguments I've encountered against "free will." I agree with it, as far as it goes. However, I'd go further and say that our will and resulting behavior is determined not only by "neuronal causes," but also by interacting psychological, social, and cultural ones interacting with our unique neurophysiology. Because our will and resulting behavior cannot be other than what it's determined by these interacting conditions of different dimensions of our being to be, there is no free will in the sense of will and behavior that can be otherwise.

This seems so obvious to me. Why doesn't it to most people? Am I wrong, or are they?


Tom said...

You are wrong -- but you can't help it because you merely imagine you exist when really your life is unspooling without anyone/anything in control.

Just kidding. BUT, I do think you are wrong.

All I can say is that if one thinks "the mind is what the brain does" then you will have to explain to me your experience of the color green.

A physicalist analysis of 'green' is that it is a wavelength on the spectrum that stimulates some elements [cones? rods?] in your eye that causes your optic nerve to react chemically which causes electrical/synaptic activity in areas of your brain.

And to all of that I would say Why then is it necessary for you to see green as GREEN? How does any of this do squat in explaining the necessity and the experience of consciousness.

I know this is not a new example -- you likely have heard varients of it before -- but it is powerful and physicalist explanations, like Churchland's just never get past it.

I think there just simply is something more going on than just the sparks and chemicals in that big hunk of cheese in our skulls.

Life does not simply unspool; we do make decisions, I have decided.

dr.alistair said...

the word green is a consensus that we can all agree on but we cannot begin to objectively compare. your green is a different thing than mine. we draw conclusions based on our own loops and strings of pre-suppositions about what green means. if i say kelly green to an american he may think of the boston celtics but say that to a scotsman and he`ll think of glasgow celtic.
and as for the mind being in and of the brain........no way.
imagine seeing yourself sitting at a table with a beautiful woman. see yourself laughing and joking and making her laugh. now switch and sit across the table from her and know you are still watching you. now go back to watching you interact with her in a plaeasant way.
the more you do this kind of exercise, the more you realise that we are focused in the head most of the time but can expand out and away any time we feel.
unless you`re a scientist.

Nagarjuna said...

I agree with you and disagree with Churchland that the mind is strictly "what the brain does." I alluded to this when I mentioned "interacting psychological, social, and cultural ones [conditions] interacting with our unique neurophysiology." But what I meant is that I agree with Churchland that our will and its resulting acts are the inevitable rather than "free" manifestations of a causal matrix of conditions. I just happen to think that those conditions are more than merely neuronal.

Tom said...

Nagarjuna: Yeah. I was thinking I hadn't pegged things right when I reread your post and my comment after submitting it.

But I don't see why the conscious experience is 'necessary' if life falls in line with a set unspooling of inevitable events that come from conditions.

So far as I know, every other sentient being in the universe is an automaton, their life unspooling as it must, but *I* am different. *I* have this definite show going on. And I come to believe that others have *their* show going on because their behavior seems to indicate that it does.

Quantum mechanics tells us that in the realm of the really, really small there are probabilities and chance and possibilities. Since consciousness doesn't have a 'size', it seems to me that the rules of predictable Newtonian physics can 'easily' not apply to how conscious decisions are made.

I *think* it is me who makes my decisions and that I bifurcate inevitablity, and I don't think there is solid evidence that what I suppose is happening isn't what's happening. [Does that make sense?]

dr.alistair: I agree with you, that I cannot know others' experience of green. And, if anything, based on my blue-green distinguishing difficulties, my green is certainly not the concensus green -- if such a thing exists, but how could we possibly know?

AND, I agree with you that we can move our reference and worldview around. We can even overpower our emotions or inhabit others, empathetically. Or, become so engrossed in something that we forget ourself. Or, we can fall asleep and believe our dreams.

dr.alistair said...

and that moving our referance point around thingy is so much fun at times too. it`s a great way to get out of the headspace and it`s limits while maintaining a semblance of sanity at the same time.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, I should think that any life form with a sufficiently complex nervous system has some kind of interior "show going on." And this "show" or conscious mind is part of the causal matrix of interrelated brain, mind, society, and culture conditions generating volitions and behaviors.

If quantum events occurring at the subatomic level in neurons and neurotransmitters occur at random, it remains to be seen whether submicroscopic indeterminacy leads to random indeterminacy at the macroscopic level of human volition and behavior. But even if it does and our volitions and behaviors occur partly at random, this would hardly make them free in the sense that they could be other than they are given the combination of causal chains and random phenomena from which they arise.

I agree that it is "I" who makes decisions. But I understand this "I" as being what Alan Watts used to call an "organism-environment field" that is ultimately inseparable from what Ken Wilber calls a unified "Kosmos."

dr.alistair said...

yeah, we are all one thing...possibly witnessing from a variety of vantage points.

Nagarjuna said...

Yes, I like that. "Witnessing from a variety of vantage points."

dr.alistair said...

yeah, i mean if we are to accept that we are part of ne greater whole thing then a natural question is why do we all seem to have a different view on an objective external reality. it is almost as if a mind decided to fragment it`s self into billions of smaller sets of consciousness and set about experiencing billions of simultanious realities all tied together in a time context...........and then forgot it happened.

Sonny said...

Clocks can't keep time because they only respond to the sequence of cause and effect relationships between their mechanical parts. There's nothing there to measure time, specifically, so a clock has no "free will" to keep time.

Calculators can't calculate solutions to arithmetic problems, because they are just a collection of electronic parts responding by the laws of electricity. There are only relative voltage levels in an electronic calculator. There are no numbers there, so the calculator has no "free will" to respond correctly to the arithmetic, it only does what it must, which is not really calculation.

Birds can't fly. They just rest on the differences in atmospheric pressure created by the motion of air molecules against their feathers. No matter how much "will" a bird has, it's not going to put it up in the air. Only that reductionistic chain of causation allows a bird to do what we fancifully call "flying."

Similarly, the mind, whatever it is, on whatever planet, has causes for its operations, (since being scientific we will not accept the existence of things that are not matters of cause and effect -- they cannot be proven to us to exist.) Therefore, the mind must do what it is made to do by some mysterious neuronal-axon-neurochemical-electrical transmission process or such other technobabble as we may choose to label it, (ignoring for the present that what makes a brain do what it does is partly that brain, so if the function is a mind it may be self-regulating.) So the mind does not have "free will" to do anything else.

I'm having trouble communicating, because you see I'm only manipulating voltage levels in a matrix of transistors on a computer, and if these voltage levels are converted to light levels where someone else's retina will convert them to neuronal impulses, there's still not necessarily any other stage where a "mind" will grasp the idea I'm trying to get across. It's something about how once an expert explains something reductionistically, all the basic terms signifying it have to be ruled invalid and disused, unless they express the expert opinion. That gets in the way of expressing what things actually do that matters to you from your point of view.

Remember not to call the occultation of the Sun by the Earth from your position a "sunset." Don't call the conclusion of that a "sunrise" either. Those are crudely localized and geocentric terms. Don't speak of "solid" matter. Atoms are empty space, more so than the solar system relative to the diameter of its bodies. So don't call off-Earth "space" either. Similarly you don't have "free will" and you don't have "will" technically. All you have is what behaviorist, reductionist neuroscientists say you have: neuronal responses, reactions, whatever terminology they choose, to enhance the credibility of their theory. What people have called things based on thousands of years of experience and practical associations for signaling purposes is no object when scientific progress is at stake.

At the same time as the point of all the above, I tend to believe there isn't any such thing as pure randomness. It's an undefined concept, compared with pseudorandomness, which is well defined. (Digits of pi, well defined. Random digits, no way to say for sure if any sequence of digits really meets any proposed definition of randomness unless you claim to know the true ultimate causes of where that sequence of digits came from. So when scientists wanted random digits as a specified part of replicating a procedure, they looked them up in a book of random digits, literally. A random number is its own definition.) Calling something purely random hides ignorance, like calling DNA found outside of known gene formats "junk DNA." So in that sense, I agree with determinism.

In response to the later comments:

My green is I assume similar to the green of others who have green eyes and are used to natural light at the same latitude and altitude, and similar incandescent and phosphorescent light. Maybe that's assuming too much. Maybe green is only as similar between people as the experience of hot sauce: There are different recipes/spectra of it. It can be on different things with different meanings. The reaction to it can be pleasant or unpleasant. There's a basic meaning to the function of it: It's hot in a spicy way, so it's inflammatory if in excess./It's the medium color in frequency and the amount of it is nearly equivalent to the total luminance, so it's a plain color even at its strongest. If a brain can handle the information content and throughput of a human mind, can't it handle signifying "green" to itself in a consistent way, pre-linguistically?

We're all connected. Everything influences everything else to some degree, however small at a given time, or else it's not part of the same universe.

Nagarjuna said...

Dr. Alistair: It sounds to me like you've essentially summarized the Hindu mythology.

Sonny: I'm sorry, but I don't understand your point. It seems to me that birds do fly, calculators do calculate, and we do have will. The fact that these phenomena can be explained as processes determined by physical and/or mental conditions doesn't mean that they don't exist. It only means that they aren't free to be otherwise when those conditions exist.


dr.alistair said...

i believe sonny is artistically applying sarcasm to the debate........
i like the concept of pre-linguistic. i think that`s what we all are looking for in the gnosis or gestalt or intuitive not knowing. dogs, cats and horses do that all the time. they aren`t bound up by searching for meaning, measurement or time constraints. we marvel and admire and worship and diefy them.
back to the linguistic for a moment. i think that`s where we talk outselves into anxiety and depression. the chatter in the head rips us from a calm center. i just tell it to shut the fuck up and smile.

Nagarjuna said...

I surmised that Sonny was being sarcastic, but I'm afraid that I still don't understand his point. That reducing everything to physics and chemistry is absurd? I agree. Physics and chemistry can't account for all phenomena. But that doesn't mean we have free will. It might only mean that our will is determined by factors that aren't merely physical.

As for "pre-linguistic" knowledge, it certainly has its place. But Ken Wilber cautions against the "pre/trans fallacy" of mistaking prepersonal or prelinguistic knowledge for higher transpersonal or intuitive knowledge. Both have their place, but they aren't interchangable.


dr.alistair said...

ken is caught in the linguistic rabbit hole with the rest of us. using words to even attempt to describe processes outside of linguistic reality is quixotic at best and disingenuous at worst.
science, like religion and politics wants to measure, predict and control. these processes are the devices by which modern material man makes more bits of bits of things and then names all the bits and then forgets where they all go back together.......and even denies that they ever were part of a whole thing in the first place.
i used to do that with my toys when i was a kid, and i learned a lot about what things look like in pieces, but i couldn`t make them work so well afterwards. we live in a society like that now, all pulled apart and not working so well.

Sonny said...

When I wrote my comment, I was having fun thinking of an attack on the issue using sarcasm, speculatively, not knowing if I would make a good case for anything. I decided to comment because a lot of times I write reactions to things elsewhere and don't post them, because they're just boring repetitions of my opinions to me, so I'm trying to get over that and write and post things that are entertaining to me and hopefully to others.

Nagarjuna, we agree birds fly, calculators calculate, and we have will. You can see my surface-level argument was silly there. I think it's useful to say we have free will too, because exercising free will is what human beings do, at least humans who aren't sleepwalking (reminded of by Pop Occulture Blog today) or under hypnosis or paranoid about mind control and not mistaken. Free will is distinguished from will in the plain sense, which any animal trying to do something for a certain result can be said to have, without presuming more about what's going on in its mind.

Everything being connected, there are always potential "butterfly effects" where a small change somewhere makes a large difference somewhere else later, compared with what would have happened if the small change had been different. When people talk deterministically about mind and brain and deny free will, they're implying that the butterfly effects that matter to a human's behavior involve genetically programmed behavior of neurons, or accidents of electrochemical cascades at synapses, or maybe old-fashioned fate hiding behind a materialistic shell. The butterfly effects that matter most to an individual's behavior, the influences on an individual that direct an individual away from the average behavior that might be predicted for him given his external life situation and phenotype, are mostly influences of what that individual thinks for himself. There are thousands of little cultural influences you might pick up and react to. Which ones turn out to be the influences that make a difference that matters to you results most from what you spend time thinking about. At least that's what matters when looking at the question of choices from a human perspective of how can we influence better choices, not what randomizing microscopic influences are there.

When a person takes up fatalistic determinism and stops caring what he chooses to do and to think, because he thinks he doesn't have free will and what he does is as if already determined by his circumstances, then his intellect is simply malfunctioning or caught in a trap of fallacies. He's using philosophy to rationalize not acting on his potential to do what humans do, which is think until they decide what to do, and do it, in other words, free will, free of others or deterministic mental processes controlling them without their approval through their thoughts.

Since all things are determined by something or other, the mistake of a determinist is also determined, but it's still a mistake. Scientists can only accept that deterministic cause and effect or correlated things exist, everything else being beyond demonstration by repeatable experiments. We don't have to be scientists in our thinking, and that's where I leave a door open to the postmodern Forteanism advocated by Colin Bennnett:


Still everything might be determined on some higher level, even if Fortean things that aren't determined or recognized by science exist.

Maybe because I am not currently under the spell of determinism (the anti-free-will kind,) or I'm struggling against it, it's up to me to use my free will to think and write to give you a nudge out of a deterministic loop. Considering my current circumstances of depression and addictions I'm trying to get over and positive addictions I'm trying to start, I'm probably thinking of trying to help myself more than anyone else.

Maybe this was only a verbal disagreement and it resolves as we explain more. Besides, I know the feeling of "This seems so obvious to me. Why doesn't it to most people?" so I should respond directly to the original post, since I've got my opinion sorted out: It did seem obvious to me, what you wrote, and I've agreed with that point of view before. I still agree with the idea everything may have interconnected causes with no room left for uncaused action. But that quote you presented is an extreme of denial of free will, which I don't agree with. It claims the "user illusion" too, and explains that as meaning a further denial that what an individual thinks ("an act of will") determines what an individual thinks next and does next ("a decision") with the qualification "independently of neuronal causes" that keeps the sentence from being absurd. That's like denying that a calculator calculates independently of electronic causes. It can't calculate purely on the arithmetic, independently of electronic causes, really technically speaking, but that doesn't justify saying that it doesn't calculate. Similarly if humans minds are functions of brains that operate by neuronal transmissions, that doesn't justify saying humans don't have free will.

Oh, wait, maybe what this is all really about is the third sentence in that quote: "Typically, the causal processes leading to awareness of a decision are nonconscious." Sure, humans rationalize all the time. Every reason we think of for a decision before action or ex post facto can be a rationalization, false to the true motives to some extent. The true motives could be processed as non-verbal information at some level of the mind, like emotion, so it's hard to put into words and we may not even be aware of the process. That doesn't mean that what you choose to think doesn't significantly influence what you choose to think next.

The scary thing is: What if there are scientists who really do just have a user illusion, because they're so smart that since they were little all they've had to do is sort of "sit there" inside their heads and watch life going by and never make one decision for themselves that their unconscious mind can't handle for them on automatic? They're the ones that promote the "user illusion" theory, and even that comes from their unconscious automatism. What are their true minds deep inside thinking and feeling about all this? The world may never know.

dr.alistair said...

at popocculture they are discussing ants and it has always struck me that even though a single ant doesn`t seem to have the knowledge to build an ant hill, when enough of them get together hills get built. in many ways that is true of humans too.
it makes me wonder where the intelligence lies in humanity. is it in the individual brains, or the collective mass of brains?