More on Free Will

I have written about free will twice on this blog. In my first post about free will, I argue that regardless of where you stand on the debate, you must concede that the most important things in your life hinge on your inability to control it. My last post on free will was probably my most popular post to this point, especially on Google+. In my last post on free will, I have a much more in depth approach on my views on free will. I base a lot of my points by arguing against Daniel Dennet’s critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will.

For this post, I have found a few videos on YouTube from Big Think which touch on some common errors that I believe many people make when discussing this topic. Most importantly, the last video I will show I believe is the strongest argument I have ever heard in support of free will, yet I still believe it is missing the point.

Free Will is a Term That Distinguishes Intentional Actions From Unintentional Actions

Now I will first start off easy because this is something I can basically agree with. It is useful, in some sense to have a term that differentiates the two behaviors, one being the iris closing when a light is shined in your eye, and the other being the decision to invest in a type of stock or where to move the next chess piece (Though we already have less misleading ways to distinguish the intentional from reactionary, etc.). And I believe almost anyone that argues against free will would probably concede that if we are to define free will in that way, then I will agree with it.

The only problem that occurs is that a great majority of people do not look at free will in this way. Similarly, they may explain it in an elegant way such as Steven Pinker and yet hold deeper, illogical, and incorrect implications of free will. In a lot of ways it seems that people who argue for free will in intellectual circles will explain it in a similar way as the video above yet as the conversation continues, it becomes more and more clear that they have smuggled more into their definition than they originally advertised. And it is usually the smuggled information that we disagree on. And it is because so many people either believe or continue to smuggle the bullshit, that we can appear hyper-critical at times or stubborn. I argue however that this is us merely trying to look at the core of the issue rather than spar in a game of semantics. For the record, I do not believe Steven Pinker is doing any smuggling here.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

This is a common argument that I have heard again and again. My response is pretty quick and concise. Randomness is not free will and it is certainly not the free will that anyone is trying to hold on to. That is, if you are arguing that you have free will because there is randomness to the decisions that you make, then you are still not making the choice. To have free will to any level worth caring about is to claim that you are the author of your thoughts and actions, not that you are the recipient of random emotions.

A Strong Argument for Free Will

In this video, Alfred Mele makes many good points and says a lot of things that I agree with. For instance, as he defines it, I would agree that we all have this “regular” free will. At least us sane folk. That is, when we do something, we were aware of what we were doing, we probably understood the consequences, and no one was forcing us to do what we did. Yes, we can all behave in this way. Similarly, he makes a good point about the mid-grade free will. There isn’t really any evidence to suggest that the brain, or the universe, works in that way, but there also isn’t a lot of evidence that it doesn’t. So he’s right, from a scientific perspective, this is still empirically open.

He goes on to talk about the experiments that have been done to “show” that we don’t have free will, and here is where I believe he makes his strongest point. That is, that we can’t really correlate, clearly, decision making with the spike we see in the data. He also makes a point about how the muscle motion triggers the computer to log the data whereas the other data very well may have been useful. Now he may be completely wrong, but I am willing to give him the point.

There are two issues that still remain. First, this is still missing the point that those opposing free will are making. We are acknowledging that many people, even the intellectuals, are using free will as a means to place a conscious author in the mind. Something that is solely responsible for it’s actions and is not really affected by the laws of physics. This seems to come from a desire to want to hold people ultimately responsible for their actions. This justifies many negative emotions, such as hate and vengeance. I have already argued how we can still be civil people even with a view that no one is ultimately responsible for there actions, and I have shown that we are still justified in having prisons and other means of “punishment” which you can read in my earlier posts on free will. If it becomes clear that I wasn’t clear enough, I will touch on that specifically in another post.

The second point that I want to make is that I don’t really need the science to back me up on my view. Now this is not to say that I won’t listen to what the science reveals. If it is discovered that free will exists and it is proven, I would not hesitate in changing my view. But for now, in the science realm, this is still empirically open. So when I say I don’t need the science to back me up, this is because a lot of experiments on free will can be done through introspection.

What has become clear to me is that thoughts merely arise in consciousness. These thoughts have a causal affect on emotions which lead to other thoughts which cause other emotions and so the causal string goes. Again, I believe I have gone into further detail in the past and will reserve deeper discussion on this unless prompted by others, or if I later decide to devote a post to the point.

In many ways, we probably all agree and this argument is really a lot of semantics. But I do believe that at the core, far too many are smuggling too much into this term which leads to what I am currently convinced are views that simply aren’t true.

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7 thoughts on “More on Free Will

  1. I don’t think that free will is all that complex, but then I come at it from a much smaller level. Most arguments consider thinking and thoughts as part of their argument but never define what a thought is. I hold that because a mere child can conjure up the thoughts of a giraffe that is 2 inches tall and purple with pink spots we have free will. We can and do direct the simulation in our minds despite it being usually informed by our senses. This simple fact means that we are capable of making choices which are not part of our experience. The capability to choose other than according to experience means that we are not bound by experience no matter how much we rely upon it. Free will is not the exercise of it but rather the capacity to utilize it ad-hoc. Just as we are free to drive in the ditch, it is usually more advantageous to drive on the road. That we seem to follow cause and effect does not mean we are bound to it helplessly. The assertion that we are is simply myopic.

    • It sounds to me like you are saying that because there is no external source forcing the thoughts you have or the decisions you make , then you have free will. If this is the case, I would agree. I just wouldn’t call that free will. When I say that we don’t have free will, I do not mean to say there is an external force making our decisions, rather, I am acknowledging that there is no ultimate author to my thoughts or decisions. When you say things such as, “I hold that because a mere child can conjure up the thoughts of a giraffe that is 2 inches tall and purple with pink spots we have free will.” and “Just as we are free to drive in the ditch, it is usually more advantageous to drive on the road.” I am led to believe two things. Either you don’t put much value in having free will because it is basically meaningless, or you haven’t thought about it hard enough. You haven’t paid enough attention to how thoughts arise and how decisions are made. I am inclined to believe the latter, primarily due to the first quote. Thinking of something random does not imply free will, and it doesn’t get to the heart of the topic. Because people believe others have free will, it leads people to believe that they are ultimately responsible for their actions. What I mean by this is, people believe that they could have done otherwise. So when someone murders another person, someone would say that they could have chosen not to murder that person. I say they could not have. And while it is important to keep people who have a desire to cause harm to others confined from society for safety, emotions like hatred begin to not make sense. They are merely a product of their precise mind and life experiences which lead them to and through that point. You cannot take credit for the fact that you don’t have the mind of a psychopath. This is only the tip of the iceberg. But again, it simply seems as though you haven’t thought enough about this.

      • Much of the discussion of free will is plagued by poor definitions or lack of them entirely. You have used the words thought and choice as if you ‘know’ the definition of those words. Before we carry on discussing the iceberg we should define at least those two words.

        I’d like to offer you first go at defining them. You might also touch on the definition of desire while you are at it. I can tell you that it is through searching for a definition of these and other ideas that I have reached my conclusions on free will and even the definition of free will. It is commonly defined as: the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.

        This is problematic in that a toy robot can act at its own discretion – for all that an observer can tell. It becomes somewhat circular:
        Discretion: the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation.
        Freedom: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.
        Decide: come to a resolution in the mind as a result of consideration.
        Resolution: a firm decision to do or not to do something.
        Consideration: careful thought : the act of thinking carefully about something you will make a decision about

        In fact, I really need to know your definition of ‘thought’ and ‘choice’ if we are to have a meaningful conversation. The common definitions are not so good:
        Thought: an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind.
        Idea: a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.
        Choice: an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.
        Decision: a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration.

        You see, it all gets rather circular and the entire amorphous philosophy of free will becomes a sticky mess where no one is yet able to say something that is accepted by the majority as true. So I have concluded that better definitions are required to speak about the subject if we are to do so in an informed manner. The four blind men and the elephant is what we have. We need to share and use common definitions. For our conversation we should start with the words ‘thought’, ‘idea’, and ‘choice’. I await your understanding of them.

        BTW: you cannot know whether I have the mind of a psychopath or not unless I decide to let you know.

        We’re off to a good start. Thank you.

  2. I will oblige and define these words for you. However, ultimately we have to look at what we are talking about when we say that someone has free will. As you can see in my post, I acknowledge that many intellectuals can frame free will in such a way that I will concede that if this framework is what we are going to call free will then okay, I can agree with that. The issue comes in the smuggled implications and meanings that are brought in under the radar. Too often, free will is argued for its existence in a very deceptive way, only to have one concede that a unique framework called free will exists only to find implications carried with it that the one opposing free will is against. Also, all frameworks of free will I have conceded to have always been pointless. That is, it turns out to be a term that leaves us with nothing important; nothing worth caring about.

    As for the definitions..

    Thought: I like your definition, “an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind.” So sentences that appear in consciousness, each single word. You can kind of look at the microstate and macrostate of a thought . You can say each word is a single “micro-thought”, and a string of words forming a coherent sentence or idea make up a “macro-thought”. Now if you want to get into “languageless” emotions, I can go either way. If you wish to call that a thought, then we will proceed as such, and vice versa.

    Choice: Well we all know what a choice is. We really want to define the verb of choosing. I like dictionary.com’s definition: to select from a number of possibilities; pick by preference.

    Now as I alluded to earlier, I don’t think that a debate about how we should view a thought or a choice or emotion, etc. is going to really answer the question that we are curious about. I think the question that matters when we are talking about free will is; could you have done otherwise in any given moment? If your answer is yes, then we need to ask if this ability is anything that really matters. For instance, if one were to argue that quantum randomness gave room for free will or the ability to do otherwise, this isn’t really looking at the free will anybody cares about. This is because you do not pride yourself on random decision making, you feel like these decisions are deeper than that, so we still wouldn’t be looking at a free will that anyone really believes they have. So again, I believe that the real question is, do you believe you could do otherwise in any given moment? And is this ability anything of real substance?

    • Very good, thank you. I’m not leading you down the garden path on definitions. I intend to show why a thought is important to a choice and, importantly, what a thought is so that we have a clear understanding of what a choice is. After all, the real question is do we have the ability to choose freely. I’ll try not to be long about it but some diligence is required.

      We often think that we choose to open the tap to get some water. Imagine all the many micro thoughts that must have taken place prior to being consciously aware that we are going to get some water and what that entails. It probably started with a signal from your body which was not direct to your conscious. This signal attempts to request a chemical change in your body which like a domino carries on till some failure in the chain reaches consciousness and you are dimly aware that you are thirsty. Now the micro thoughts start by the millions until you are tasting the water. In actual fact the micro thoughts are happening millions of times per minute (if not more) continuously while you are conscious. Most of them you are conscious unaware of but their effort pop information into your mind where it is then placed into the simulation of the world around you as a form of an equation which your conscious mind then solves or in the case of automatic things (like scratching your arm) your conscious mind barely notices unless the data hits some peak that is interesting and your mind then focuses on it in the simulation. All of that is going on all of the time. So, where/why/when/how does a choice happen?

      How did you choose water over milk or soda or beer? This question is AS important as “could you have chosen otherwise” and cannot be answered without understanding the micro thoughts and their place in the chain of events which lead to conscious choosing of any kind.

      Choosing is what we say has been done when we have worked out an equation in the simulation of the world that runs in our head. We have considered the many aspects of each piece of the equation to our taste, calculated the interactions between all the aspects of all the pieces as we find important and after this simulation equation runs we say we have a decision. We run the simulation many times checking variances in the many aspects in the equation to determine the most favorable solution to the simulation.

      To keep short: To say that we do not have free will is to say that there is no method or manner to alter any of that sequence of many events by our own doing. Right up front it seems rather wasteful of nature to build such a system if it is not needed. Nature does not act wastefully very often. The brain requires a lot of energy and resource so creating a brain that is not needed is antithetical to natural process and what we would expect from nature.

      Second, to say that we do not have free will requires that each microthought and each run in the simulation of the equation is predetermined. Each run in the simulation is predetermined to arrive at the one conclusion or solution. I see millions of opportunities to alter the decision, each and every decision. We tend to use experience and knowledge to add weighting to the equation when we run it in the simulation.

      Lets consider for a moment what external influence might have on the decision making process. Electromagnetic stimulation of the brain can cause us to think or feel certain things. Is this important? Probably not or we’d have people making odd decisions near power lines. When drugs are introduced to the body, the mind/simulator does not function ‘right’ and we add weighting where all our experience and knowledge would not tell us to put it and we make bad decisions. Again, what is predestined does not need a brain simulator that works right. While it appears to some that the world is rigged, decisions happen in the brain/mind. When we are unconscious we make no decisions at all. Even with the right training, experience, and knowledge if our brains are injured we cannot make appropriate decisions. To say we have no free will requires the brain to be of no purpose. To say that everything internal and external to the brain is predetermined is adding more complication than Occam would allow.

      The delay between first brain action and some data entering the construct of the simulator in our minds is considerable. Nerves do not operate at the speed of light. Thus it is that superior sport players have practiced so much that much of what they do is memorized and requires little to no conscious thought. There is a famous patient who lost all but 10 seconds of short term memory but can remember how to play the piano, even if he can’t tell you the song or when he learned to play.

      So what is a thought? Could I have thought otherwise? Not only is there no reason to think that you can’t, the idea that our brains have been constructed to fool us fails logic. Mess with any little micro thought and the end result of the simulation can be different. If this is a sloppy mechanism we would expect people to have trouble telling you what their favorite color or food is. They don’t. That we are not making random decisions is exactly proof of free will. Damaged and impaired brains back this up. Identical twins also show that experience, knowledge, DNA and so on are not the driving factors in our thoughts and decisions. They are unique to our minds in spite of, not because of, these external inputs or any given series of experiences.

      Every thought incurs millions of opportunities to change the outcome. For that to be predetermined requires some infallible quality control – something we are certain the human body does not have. Subliminal advertising shows us that our sensory data affects how we run the simulation. Still, in complete isolation we can make decisions, sometimes we make the best decisions while isolated from inputs. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB8QtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DZyQjr1YL0zg&ei=2_s2Vbu3LsuYsAWol4GgCw&usg=AFQjCNFEt2rwhH2PHKj11wkME_yMsXzvfQ&sig2=tDOCf2t6hhjsokGeqQ-BhQ&bvm=bv.91071109,d.b2w That video demonstrates how the brain works, how we put the pieces into the simulator and crunch the numbers to make a decision or create a thought, and even when it is not us who put the information into our brains. For these guys to have no free will in what they chose is to say that they would have chosen what they did without all the subliminal hints. Hint, they wouldn’t have.

      Make sense?

      • Thank you for going into detail. I appreciate you taking the time to lay out your ideas and reasoning. I can honestly say that what you said here sounds a lot like the arguments I have seen in the past. For the rest of my response I will take excerpts from your comment and give you my feedback…

        Imagine all the many micro thoughts that must have taken place prior to being consciously aware that we are going to get some water and what that entails.

        – There is a slight misinterpretation of microthought here. I would say that if you are not consciously aware, than it is not a thought. Just as you wouldn’t consider the work the brain needs to do to cause the heart to beat a thought, nor would I consider any work of the brain that does not arise in consciousness a thought.

        To keep short: To say that we do not have free will is to say that there is no method or manner to alter any of that sequence of many events by our own doing.

        – False. To say we do not have free will is to say we could not have done, behaved, thought, or felt otherwise in any given moment. There is a method by which sequences appear altered. But to acknowledge that there are things going on behind the scenes of consciousness shows that “you” aren’t doing anything (Quick diversion, I plan to soon argue in a post that the self is an illusion as well). So in this case, we need to really think about what happens at the level of our conscious experience when we make a decision. Let’s make this simple. Chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream. Now what happens here? If you pay close attention, you will notice that thoughts simply arise in consciousness. They are coherent for most of us (thanks to the success of evolution) but they are probably raising pros and cons of each. Notice that YOU did not author any of these thoughts, they are simply appearing in consciousness. Of course it is illogical to actually believe you can author a thought because that would require that you think a thought before you think it. So what happens next? Emotions can probably be correlated to each thought. You may feel a back and forth, but ultimately, in the end, there will be an emotion, desire, urging that will be strong enough to move you. Just as simply as the thoughts before arose, and certainly motivated by the thoughts that arose, a feeling arises that allows you to commit to one. But none of this was of your true authorship. Now I should quickly touch on the self here, because many view this as being a prisoner inside the mind. I argue that you are not. Sam Harris puts it in a very clear way. You are not controlling the storm, but you are not lost in the storm either. You ARE the storm. There is so much more that I could say and may need to clarify later. But for the sake of this being a comment exchange, I will hope I have at least touched on the most important points here.

        Second, to say that we do not have free will requires that each microthought and each run in the simulation of the equation is predetermined. Each run in the simulation is predetermined to arrive at the one conclusion or solution. I see millions of opportunities to alter the decision, each and every decision. We tend to use experience and knowledge to add weighting to the equation when we run it in the simulation.

        – Yeah, I would say that each microthought is basically predetermined. But it’s not so much that it was predetermined as much as it simply could not have been otherwise. When you say that you see millions of opportunities to alter the decisions, of course you would. You will constantly be met with cross roads and you will make the decision, typically on a basis of logic and emotion. But at the end of the day, you make the one decision you make in that moment. You can say, well if I’m in the same situation, I’ll do option 2 next time. But this isn’t the same. It would be a similar situation, but not the exact same situation. To fully grasp this is to understand the error you are making here.

        Again, what is predestined does not need a brain simulator that works right.

        – Again, false. What is predestined needs the PRECISE brain by which the equation tells us its destination. The “determinism” comes from the equation that is based upon what exists. We are not dummy variables in an equation that equals a constant. We are part of a complex equation by which enough information to fill into the equation would tell us what will happen next.
        Take for instance the idea of an electron. Now we know that protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge. We also know that electrons attract to positive charges and vice versa. Now imagine that there is a particle in a given space. Soon it will be shot forward towards a divider, leaving the particle with the choice to go into slot A or slot B. You watch this several times, and it appears to go into slot A sometimes and slot B other times, so you think, this particle randomly chooses which slot to go into in each experiment. Now imagine that I give you more of the equation. Now I tell you that this particle is in fact an electron and slots A and B have been changing charges each experiment. For the next test, slot B will have a positive charge and slot A will have a negative charge. Which slot will the electron choose? You know the equation. The electron doesn’t have a choice. It will choose slot B.

        Even with the right training, experience, and knowledge if our brains are injured we cannot make appropriate decisions. To say we have no free will requires the brain to be of no purpose.

        – False, to say we don’t have free will is to say we are fully and utterly dependent upon the functionality and aptitude of the brain. To say we have free will is to say the functionality of the brain doesn’t matter or that the brain is of no purpose. To say that we don’t have free will is to say all that matters is the brain. Free will implies that there is something more.

        Mess with any little micro thought and the end result of the simulation can be different.

        – See, these are the statements that concern me. Of course if you manipulate a microthought, the simulation will be different. But what do you mean here? Do you mean that YOU can manipulate a microthought? How would you do that? With a thought that I showed earlier you are not the author of? An infinite regress forms here. Similarly, this concerns me that you have not spent enough time wondering if you might be wrong and truly challenging yourself as opposed to simply trying to confirm your initial belief.

        If this is a sloppy mechanism we would expect people to have trouble telling you what their favorite color or food is. They don’t. That we are not making random decisions is exactly proof of free will.

        – If I am right and we do not have free will, then this is not a sloppy mechanism, because, as we know, we behave in a coherent way. And this makes sense if you consider evolution. A brain that operated randomly and without an ability to identify optimal decisions, etc. It would not live long enough to reproduce.
        – Not making random decisions is not proof of free will. It is evidence of a very sophisticated, efficient, and effective system that is our brain. This is not how you identify free will. You are merely considering brain function.

        For these guys to have no free will in what they chose is to say that they would have chosen what they did without all the subliminal hints. Hint, they wouldn’t have.

        – You are confusing fatalism with determinism here. If you don’t have free will, then you are fully subject to external experience and it will play a role in the chain of events. Again, simply you are confusing determinism with fatalism. I wrote about this in my post “The I of the Storm”.

        Perhaps we can get to the center of this. What is it that free will is that you believe we have? What do you believe would actually be lost if we didn’t have free will?

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