Free Will: Why we don't have it, and why that's a good thing.

Hambydammit's picture

Matter moves from instability to stability.  This is a basic physical truth.  Sodium is highly unstable, and when it encounters moisture, it changes states rapidly to form more stable compounds.  Rocks last a long time because their atoms have reached a level of high stability.  Eggs fry because the added heat causes their atoms to be in an unstable state, and they naturally move to a more stable state.  Because of the incredible complexity of matter, there are lots of ways that it can be arranged, and because of the incredibly complex systems of movement in the universe and the incredible amount of energy it contains, it's going to take a really damn long time before the eventual state of "complete stability" is reached.  (Assuming, of course, that the universe isn't going to contract again.)

What has this got to do with free will?  Everything.  The first replicator on earth, whatever it was, came to exist because it was following this principle.  The configuration of the first replicator was stable enough that atoms "wanted" to move into it, the same way that salt wants to form cubic crystals.  At each step of evolution, the next level of complexity was reached by the same process.  You can think of it as two laws working together.  The physical law of "survival of the stable" interacted with the mathematical law of "survival of the fittest" which actually ought to be renamed "survival of the best equipped to survive."  It is so simple as to be perfectly obvious when we say it that way.

Anyway, at some point, replicators developed rudimentary walls to insulate themselves from the environment.  Eventually, cells developed.  Eventually after that, some cells developed the ability to work together with other cells, and the inevitable math of Game Theory was set in motion.  What is crucially important to bear in mind is that all of this happened completely without consciousness.  It was the inevitable result of the interaction of survival of the stable with survival of the best able to survive.

Jump ahead in evolutionary history, and you get to a huge moment, where eukaryotes and prokaryotes split from each other.  After that, plants and animals split.  Here's where things started to get really interesting.  Plants, for whatever reason, never got around to moving very fast, or being able to perform what we can call "free movement."  They pretty much just grow.  Animals, on the other hand, discovered the benefit of much faster movement.  The earliest animals (which would have been a lot more like a paramecium than a rat), "learned" how to eat other animals and plants.  Remember, all of this happened without consciousness because matter always moves from instability to stability.  It's really, really important that you keep this in mind.

Soon, through natural selection, some individuals developed very rudimentary senses.  Perhaps it was the ability to detect a chemical in the water which indicated that potential prey was nearby.  Perhaps it was the ability to react to the intensity of light.  It doesn't matter.  What matters is that this was a HUGE advantage.  Through nothing but blind matter interacting with other blind matter, the senses came to exist.  Soon, complexity added to complexity and early versions of what would become nerves developed.  Once animals had muscles and nerves, they were able to perform astounding feats of independent movement.  Their eyes developed into the complex organs they are today.  Their hearts, lungs, and livers all developed in complexity, and one other extremely important organ developed as well -- their brain.

At first, brains were very rudimentary, but the engineering advantage of having a central "control station" are undeniable.  Through millions of years, brains grew in size and complexity.  At each step, the animals became better and better adapted to their environment, still following the principles of survival of the stable and survival of the best able to survive.  The way brains work is really astonishing.  Specialized cells called neurons link with other neurons into long chains, through which unbroken chains of reactions can take place.  You can think of it like a row of dominoes.  An outside stimuli (your finger) knocks over the first domino, and without any further influence, the entire row topples, one at a time. This happens because of the laws of physics. So it is in brains. When light enters an eye, the cells in the eye have no option but to do what they naturally do. Light triggers a change in one cell, which triggers a change in another cell, and so on. The matter which makes up an eye must move from instability to instability, and the only way to do this is to react in the way it has been arranged to react.

The earliest brains didn't produce anything approaching what we call consciousness. They were just control centers made of matter that couldn't help how it had been arranged. However, through the inevitable laws of matter, increasingly complex brains were bound to develop. If it is beneficial to be able to see prey and chase it, it is more beneficial to be able to see prey, chase it, and make rudimentary predictions about its future actions. Such a leap in brain development may seem huge, and perhaps in terms of time, it was. It isn't that hard to conceive, though.

Memory is something that happens in very simple animals. Even simple worms can be “trained” to react to certain stimuli. All we need to do to imagine the birth of memory is to imagine an arrangement of matter in an early animal in which repeated occurrences of the same stimulus would create a permanent change in the animal itself, thus altering the way it behaved. No consciousness is necessary, and the exact mechanism is extraneous to this discussion. All we need to be concerned with is the fact that it's not hard to imagine rudimentary memory coming into existence.

Once memory existed, it is not hard to imagine it becoming more and more complex as brains became larger and more complex. The first predictive behavior, then, is easy to imagine. After chasing several prey animals in exactly the same pattern, a permanent change happened in the hunter such that the next time it chased a similar prey, it “anticipated” the movement, quite automatically.

With memory and prediction came great evolutionary advantage, so it's not hard to imagine these kinds of creatures proliferating. We can imagine two kinds of creatures, however. The first kind of creature could see its prey, chase it, and predict its movements, and would pursue relentlessly, even to the point of exhaustion or death. The second kind of creature, with the same abilities, also had the tendency to stop chasing its pray when its own energy began running low, but before exhaustion set in. This simple modification to behavior patterns needs no grand explanation. Again, all it takes is imagining a small mutation which produced the behavior once. It requires no consciousness, but it is the beginning of something amazing. From this simple change in behavior, the ability to weigh options developed.

Suppose that a creature encountered two potential meals at the same time. It could only chase one of them. Any creature which had a rudimentary ability to judge the chances of success for each of two chases would have a stunning advantage over those which just randomly chased one or the other. This is a big leap in brain development, but again, it does not bring us to the point of consciousness in the modern philosophical sense. These animals were still what Richard Dawkins has called “survival machines.” They were doing what they did because the matter in their bodies (now arranged in staggeringly complex ways) did what it had to do.

Hopefully, you can see where I'm going with this. Each step of brain development happened through the same process of survival of the stable combining with survival of the best able to survive. The discussion of what exactly constitutes consciousness may seem like a huge concern, but it is not. In the same way that there is no such thing as the single ancestor of humans that was the “first human,” there is also no exact divide between consciousness and unconsciousness, at least from a biological point of view. This may seem controversial, but please make sure you understand precisely what I'm saying, and more importantly, what I'm not saying.

Goldfish have memories, and can recognize individuals of their own species, as well as other species. Their brains transmit impulses through nerves in such a way that they can perform feats of apparent purpose like traversing a maze to get to food. I doubt many people would suggest that they are fully sentient beings. One of the main reasons for this is that even though they show apparent purpose, they do so predictably and mechanically. If they're hungry, and food is placed at the end of the maze, they will move towards it and eat. Higher animals, however, show a lot more autonomy – that is, ability to take one option over another based on analysis of sensory data. An ape, by all appearances, spends time “deciding” whether or not to attack another ape, and we can only assume that his brain is processing data from the ape's memory, and is weighing the potential for victory against the potential for defeat, and perhaps even the possibility of personal injury in either case.

While this may be an incredible dilemma for philosophers, it's not that big of a deal to biologists. Goldfish have less complex brains than cats, which have less complex brains than monkeys, which have less complex brains than dolphins, which have less complex brains than humans. The measure of an animal's ability to perform predictive analysis is a measure of their brain's size and complexity. Period. There's no such thing as a really smart earthworm because earthworms don't have complex big brains.

Before we can finally address free will, we must perform a couple of mental exercises. First, think about an ant. Do you have any problem thinking of an ant as a creature that simply reacts to its environment based on its genetic programming? I would hope not. Ants simply don't do things like quit their job or decide to move to another anthill. Ants do what ants do, and nothing else. They do it predictably, and when we do experiments on their genes, we can reprogram them to do other things just as predictably.

Ants have brains that were “designed” just like every other part of their body, as a natural result of the survival of the stable combined with survival of the best able to survive. They are alive, but not sentient, according to every philosopher I can think of. Yet, even these simple creatures show remarkable behaviors that seem “intelligent.” Some varieties of ants engage in “tandem running,” a process by which one ant leads another ant to a food source. It requires many adjustments, and happens methodically, as if each ant “intends” to find food. Still, we can imagine that the ant genes have programmed their carriers to perform this way, and they do so because they have no choice in the matter. They are ants, and their genes, like everything else in their bodies, must obey the law of survival of the stable.

Bees, as most people are now aware, have a system of communication that is virtually unrivaled in the animal world. They do an incredibly complex dance to indicate to their hivemates the distance to food, quantity of food, and exact direction. Still, it is clearly a genetic behavior, for all bees do it the same way, and they do it predictably, without the ability to “decide” to do otherwise. They have genes that dictate their behavior by causing proteins to be built in a particular way, and those proteins, acting entirely according to the law of survival of the stable, react with other proteins in exactly the “correct” way, on up the line of complexity, until the amalgam of all those chemicals, a bee, behaves precisely as it must behave.

At some point, though, we're going to have to address the philosophical leap that comes with the existence of what we call “sentience.” For our purposes, it won't matter precisely what sentience is, but it is important to note something of critical importance. Whatever sentience is, it is that way because there are genes within the sentient animal which, according to the law survival of the stable, caused chemicals to interact in completely predictable ways to “build” a being capable of sentient thought.

The last paragraph is staggeringly important. We must realize that whatever a brain allows us to do, it does so because it was built to do so by genes. Every stimulus that a creature encounters causes a series of unavoidable events to occur. When an eye opens, chemicals react with other chemicals to create nerve impulses that must go to the brain, where the brain must render them as images, and the creature must perceive the external world in whatever fashion it has been built. Once that image has been perceived, the same kinds of neural impulses unavoidably travel through the brain in complex patterns, triggering still more reactions, and still more, until the entire organism can be said to have reacted (in whatever way) to the stimulus.

Finally, now, we can address free will. The first thing we must do to address it properly is to define it. This might prove to be much harder than we first imagine. We can say that free will is the ability to make choices, but this is unsatisfactory. When a spider walking across the forest floor encounters a log, it can either turn left, turn right, turn back, or climb up. Alternatively, it could just stay right where it is. It has quite a few “choices” and will make one of them. It cannot avoid making one of them unless it suddenly dies. Because time moves forward, and there are many potential actions for any creature at any given time, we can say that all creatures make choices.

Clearly, we need to work on our definition of choice if free will is to have any meaning. Perhaps it means taking one option over another based on rational choice, rational meaning “conforming to the laws of logic.” This is also unsatisfactory because many animals who are not aware of the laws of logic do precisely that. Apes, when sizing up a potential opponent, very often make the “correct” decision based on the size and strength of the potential opponent and the “chooser's” memory of previous battles. Yet, most people are unhappy with the conclusion that apes have free will.

Perhaps for free will to exist, the creature must be able to think in the abstract. That is, it must be able to run “simulations” in its brain, and must be able to think of concepts, not just objects or actions. This easily eliminates most creatures from the discussion of free will, although not necessarily all. Dolphins, apes, and even parrots have shown the ability to understand the concept of rational numbers. Dolphins and apes have both demonstrated rudimentary ability to predict the outcome of an action based on abstract thinking, and both have demonstrated the ability to imitate with modification.

In any case, I said that the philosophy behind sentience was irrelevant, and it is. By illustrating the problems with these definitions, I hope to show you that the definitions aren't really flawed. The concept itself is flawed. If you've followed my somewhat tedious tour through evolutionary history, you've realized that at every step of brain development, new abilities were added naturally through immutable physical forces. This is in direct opposition to the spirit of any argument for free will, regardless of the exact definition.

When I speak of the spirit of the free will argument, I mean this: humans possess consciousness and sentience, which allow us to control ourselves in any way we desire, and to enforce our “will” upon the universe. What I want you to see is that this kind of thinking is backwards, for it assumes something existing independently of the law of survival of the stable. For us to be conscious, impulses must move through neurons in our brain. These impulses exist before consciousness. They must. The inescapable conclusion is that our brains cause us to be conscious.

Let's think now about what happens when we humans make a choice. Suppose I am at a restaurant, and am offered the choice of chicken or fish. The waiter asks me which one I want. My ears receive the vibrations caused by the waiter's mouth and vocal cords. Without any external “will” causing it to happen, the vibrations are translated into nerve impulses which travel, completely on their own – because they are obeying the law of survival of the stable – to the part of my brain which, through no conscious will of its own, processes sound. I cannot help but comprehend the waiter, for my brain is doing what it must do. It is sending neural impulses to and from various parts of my brain, all of them unavoidably doing what they must do because they are matter and they are seeking stability.

Once my brain has translated the vibrations into a concept, I cannot help the reality that follows. My brain is now in a state. Either I desire chicken, or I desire fish, or I desire neither. I cannot change this state, for I am matter, and my brain has done what it had to do, and my preference is now a reality in time. I cannot help but move forward in time, and I must act in one the thousands of ways potentially available to me. If you think about it, there are probably hundreds of thousands of things I could do in the next second after entering the state of being aware of my preference.

I will do something in response to the question. Most likely, I will speak, expressing my desire for one or the other. The important question is this: Did I decide to speak, or did I speak because my brain caused me to do so? Here is where the survival of the stable plays its trump card. We really have two choices here. Either my brain caused me to have a preference, and then caused me to speak, or something else caused me to have a preference and then speak.

To suggest that something else caused me to have a preference is to defy time, for we have already recognized the simple truth that uncontrollable interactions of matter happen in the brain and then a state is reached. To put it another way, a “choice” in the religious or philosophical sense of the word would really involve moving backwards in time! First, a state would have to exist, and then act upon the brain in some way so as to put the brain in the chosen state. However, as we've seen, perceptions cause neural impulses which cause brain activity which causes a state.

Perhaps an even bigger problem with the idea of an independent choice is that it violates the law of survival of the stable. If matter is unstable, it must move to stability if that move is available. If several possible stable states are available in the environment, we can predict which one a particular piece of matter will “choose” based on its atomic structure. (For illustration, notice that even though there's plenty of carbon available from the operation of an internal combustion engine, there has never been an exhaust pipe that randomly spewed diamonds instead of carbon dioxide.)

Some might object that I am being overly reductionist. To this accusation, I would make two responses. First, the accusation of reductionism is not an argument. It's an objection. There's no reason that a reductionist viewpoint is inherently wrong. Second, I would say that reductionism need not eliminate broader interpretations of the same phenomena. For example, I can say that a computer program is nothing but ones and zeros, and that is true. This does not mean that I cannot use a computer program to write a book.

The broad point that I'm attempting to make is not that humans do not make choices, or that we are not highly autonomous creatures. I am trying to establish the unavoidable reality that humans do not control brains. Brains control humans. Before I can decide on a course of action, my brain must perceive the situation, and having perceived it, go through the unconscious and uncontrollable series of chemical events that will put me in a state of awareness of the options. Any decision I make is the result of brain activity, not the cause of it.

It might be helpful at this point to think of the brain as a computer. Just as a computer has a series of ones and zeros that “make it work,” so do our brains, only the brain is built on four letters instead of two numbers. The code for our brain is DNA. Also analogous to a computer, our code is set up in such a way that it causes a series of events in the material universe.

Think of a chess playing computer. The binary code for such a program doesn't include instructions for every possible chess scenario. This would take an astronomically large code, and it would be so slow that a single game of chess would take as long as the time our solar system has been in existence, even if we imagine a stupendously fast processor. Instead, the program includes general instructions – rules for piece movement and strategic advice, for instance. It might say something like, “In general, pawns are expendable before queens, but if the payoff is high enough, sacrificing the queen is advisable.”

Of course, all of this is rendered in ones and zeros, and it's not important to explain the exact mechanism by which they translate into a computer program. We all know that this is the way it works, even if we don't know exactly how. Our brains are very much the same way. We are built with simple sets of instructions: Avoid that which causes pain. Seek that which causes pleasure; Attempt to mate. Seek companionship; When your stomach rumbles, eat food; When your mouth is dry, drink water. Of course, in a human, there are far more complex sets of instructions, and many of the instructions clash from time to time. For instance, if one has to reach into a thornbush to get fruit, the instruction to avoid physical discomfort is in conflict with the instruction to obtain food.

If you've ever seen a computer play chess, you know that it can predict its opponent's moves. In fact, if you could bring someone back to life from a time before computers existed, and show them a screen with a game in progress, they would likely swear on their life that humans were controlling the moves. Chess programs give every outward appearance of being sentient because their programming is sufficiently complex to create those appearances. Here, we can ask a very pointed question: Is there a difference between a game of chess played by two humans and one played by two computers? The answer is that there is not. The mechanics of the game are exactly the same, as is the strategy and the outcome. In fact, we could easily build robots to move physical pieces on an actual chess board, and for the purposes of winning a chess game, there would be absolutely no difference whatsoever. A game of chess is being played. There is either a winner and a loser, or the game is a draw.

Humans are chess playing computers. Our circuitry is much more complex, and we are able to do far more than play chess, but that is the reality of it. Our genes carry instructions for building a human being with a brain that causes consciousness to exist. Our brains operate from a set of instructions given to us by the same genes. A brief examination of all the humans we've ever seen will bear out the reality of this. All1 humans do many things in exactly the same way. All humans feel roughly the same set of emotions, and they feel them as a result of roughly the same kinds of events. All humans come with a complete set of plans for understanding and utilizing language.

To put it succinctly, we are sentient, conscious, highly adaptive animals because our genes made us that way. We cannot be anything else. To extend the computer analogy even further, at any given moment, our brains contain an unalterable set of data. When we make a choice, just as when a computer makes a choice, our brain is processing all the relevant data it can access through an algorithm that has been set by the program (genes and binary, respectively). Once the computation is finished, the brain and CPU put their machine into a state that once again, has been set by the program.

Where humans have a distinct advantage over computers is our immense capacity for learning and adapting to our environment. What we must realize, however, is that our adaptability is not limitless. We are still bound by the limits of our programming, and some things cannot be undone. Two sobering examples are sexual abuse and drug use. To put it bluntly, show me a woman who was sexually abused as a child, and I'll show you a woman who isn't over it. Just like the simple animals whose bodies physically change because of external stimuli, so to do our complex human bodies. Particularly during the formative years, when new neural connections are still being formed, our environment has a huge impact on us. Some environmental factors, like drugs, exert their effects regardless of the age of the person. Methamphetamine is a perfect example. Regardless of when a person takes it, there will be permanent, irreversible changes to the brain, which will result in permanent changes in the way the person perceives and thinks.

With everything we have learned about human behavior, we must realize that we are at a milestone of human history. The knowledge of evolution has taken us leaps and bounds ahead of where we were two hundred years ago, but we have been violently opposed to accepting the natural and obvious conclusion evolution gives us about human nature. We are not conscious beings who happen to have a body to go with our mind. We are incredibly complex programs that have the ability to perform remarkable feats of mental computation. We are animals that have evolved so much brain power that we can think of ourselves as having “free will.”

In closing this essay, I feel that it is necessary to refute some of the most common objections to this line of reasoning. The one that comes to mind immediately is this: If we really have no free will, than what justification do we have for laws, or punishment, or rewards, or anything like that? The answer ought to be obvious, but I will explain it for the sake of being thorough. Our programs include self interest and the ability to conceive of strategies that will harm others for our own benefit. Like all animals, we tend to do those things that we can get away with when they benefit us. We are also programmed to be intensely social animals. We are smart enough to realize that without disincentives, some people will take advantage of other people. Laws and jails and social stigma are all disincentives, and they often have exactly the desired effect. People avoid doing things that would benefit them and harm others when they know that they are very likely to be punished. The question of free will is irrelevant.

Knowledge of punishment changes behavior, whether that behavior is motivated by free will or programming. Think again of the computer analogy. It would be easy to invent a computer game in which both players have chances to cheat. It would also be easy to invent periodic “referee checks” in which a third player would check the field for evidence of cheating and penalize the cheater accordingly. Even a modestly good programmer could design code to instruct the computer players in the best way to avoid being punished. As the frequency of referee checks increased, cheating would decrease accordingly. Consciousness is not necessary for this simple set of principles to work.

Another common objection I hear is that scientists cannot prove that humans are not different than the animals. Perhaps we do actually have something that has risen above the level of animal consciousness. Maybe we really are different in kind. Of course, this argument commits the same fallacy as the argument that atheists can't disprove the existence of God. In all cases, the burden of proof is on the claimant, and anyone who claims that human consciousness is different in kind from any other animal has a brobdingnagian task set for himself. Certainly we can do mental tasks that other animals can't, and our powers of abstraction and conceptualization are unrivaled, but this is no justification for the statement that we are not completely under the control of our genes, just like every other animal. We must remember that any mental ability we have is the direct result of our genes building us this way. If we have the choice to act in illogical ways, or contrary to the dictates of our nature, it is because it is in our nature to be able to do so!

When the previous objections fail, people often say that lack of free will makes life meaningless, since we're just mindless robots running around doing exactly what our programming tells us to do. This is a good example of finding the nearest pool and taking a belly flop into the deep end. Our programming gives us consciousness, and our consciousness gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. We get up in the morning because we're programmed to have sleep cycles, but we also get up in the morning because we want to make money at our jobs. We want to make money because we want to have a house and attract a mate and be able to buy status symbols and gadgets to make our lives easier. Purpose comes from living, regardless of what causes us to live.

Finally, I want to address a question rather than an objection. Many people may ask why I am so intent on going through all the trouble of explaining this if in the end, the question of free will is ultimately meaningless. If it doesn't matter that we are programs, and that our programs give us the sense that we are free willed, why bother refuting the concept of free will?

To answer this, I must first say that the distinction is not meaningless. From religion to politics to economics, people make broad sweeping decisions based on the notion that people really can decide anything they want. Personally, I think the flaws in this thinking are most obvious in politics. Lawmakers often assume (falsely) that humans will change their behavior if only the right law is enacted. Even though history demonstrates repeatedly that this is a false assumption, we continue to see bad policies enacted. The reality is that people do not and will not behave outside of their programming. Laws demanding that people not act like humans are doomed to cause suffering.

At the time of this writing, there is a very good example of this kind of thinking in my own city. Over the past several years, the city council has passed several draconian policies regarding the consumption of alcohol by minors and the selling of alcohol to minors. The feeling is that it's an awful thing for college students to drink, and that by punishing drinking severely, they can stop the behavior. Unfortunately, the laws are ill-conceived and doomed to failure. Rather than curb the amount of drinking done by college students, they have forced students to drink in private. Unlike in bars, where bartenders can refuse service to anyone who appears too drunk, there is no supervision at all in private homes, and young drinkers are actually drinking more than they did before. Drinks at a bar are more expensive than bottles of liquor from the store, so for the same amount of money, students are drinking more, without any outside influences to try to slow them down if they're drinking too much.

College students will drink because drinking is fun for humans, and is generally harmless if they don't drive afterward. Trying to stop them is generally futile, unless extremely drastic measures are taken. Rather than enforce a police state on campus and in the bars, a better solution would be to enact policies that encourage college students to drink responsibly. Perhaps an even better solution would be to look at the rest of the world and see that eighteen year olds are allowed to drink in many places, and civilization has not collapsed because of it.

In religion we see another clear example of this faulty concept in action. Abstinence only education, as I've mentioned before, is a monument to the stupidity of trying to get humans to act far outside of their nature. We are designed to have sex, and we're designed to want it most fervently in the years before most people are getting married these days. Still, Christians insist that premarital sex is wrong and that nobody should ever do it. They insist that if only we teach children how to behave, they will behave that way.

The evidence could not be more clear. Abstinence only education doesn't stop people from having sex. It only stops them from using condoms. Humans are literally alive to have sex, from a gene's point of view. That is why humans are obsessed with sex. It's not because we're evil, or that society is corrupt, or that we've gone “away from our nature.” Of course, this is not to say that humans ought to go out and have orgies with complete strangers every night. That's not in our nature either. The fact is, regardless of the laws or teaching policies, people do what people are going to do. I've addressed this at length in the chapters on human sexuality, so I will not belabor the point here.

This brings up a counter-objection. If we can't stop humans from being humans, how can we ever expect to make society better? After all, some things that are perfectly natural for humans are also very, very wrong. Humans are capable of committing rape and murder, and these behaviors are just as natural as giving money to the poor and sending baby pictures to the proud grandparents. To answer this question, I will again point out that recognizing that we are programs does not lead to the conclusion that we can only act in one way, or that we don't have purpose. We do have purpose, and one of the most noble of those purposes is the betterment of society for the good of all citizens. If we decide (because of our programming) that we ought to build a society where everyone has healthcare, then we can do that. The fact that our genes programmed us with the ability to reach such a decision doesn't make the decision any less valid.

Furthermore, the prohibitions on sex and drinking are not based on empirical reality. They are based on a very old religion. Humans have been drinking and having sex before marriage since the invention of alcohol and marriage. Society has not collapsed, and there's never been any evidence that either activity damages either individuals or society as a whole in any significant way. In fact, both sex and alcohol have been important parts of rituals that have cemented various societies for thousands of years. Murder and rape are empirically bad. Murder ends a life and rape causes extreme mental trauma and possibly passes on STDs or causes serious physical injury. As I've explained in another essay, morality is subjective, but it is not arbitrary. With more scientific understanding of what human nature is, we can use our critical thinking to decide what is right and what is wrong based on the results of the actions, and try to mold society in such a way as to reduce the bad and increase the good as much as possible.

Humans have the capacity for good and for evil. They decide which to do because of genetic programming. The environment is the main factor that determines how the programming will manifest itself, just as a chess machine's next move is dictated by the current state of the board. Now that we are aware of these facts, we have, for the first time in human history, the chance to use science to help us predict the best ways to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Rather than taking something away from humanity, the knowledge that we are gene survival machines has given us the chance to mold society in exciting new ways. Instead of trying to metaphorically fit a cube into a round hole, we can now think of how to change the shape of the hole so that the cube will fit. We can flip our thinking around and work towards building an environment that triggers our programming in ways that will improve things for everyone. Science can teach us how to improve society. We only have to embrace the previously discomforting thought that we aren't as free willed as we would like to believe.


 

 

1For the remainder of this paragraph, the word all means “virtually all, excluding those humans with genetic disorders that exclude them from this group.”

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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deludedgod's picture

Quote:Plants, for whatever

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Plants, for whatever reason, never got around to moving very fast

They're phototrophes, they don't need to move.

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Instead, the program includes general instructions – rules for piece movement and strategic advice, for instance. It might say something like, “In general, pawns are expendable before queens, but if the payoff is high enough, sacrificing the queen is advisable.”

This is not quite true. Chess playing computers use brute force. They run through hundreds of billions of permutations and assign numerical values to them. They filter permutations rapidly as most have a low numerical score, and then those which have a higher numerical score are examined in greater detail (meaning they run deeper into the line). Obviously, it is not possible to examine all lines this way since the number of permutations being examined would multiply exponentially as a function of the number of moves in a line being calculated, but they still employ this method. For this reason, chess computers do not have the capacity to think "strategically". I've been playing chess for years and have noticed that there are very different methods for defeating human and aritificial opponents. Beating a human opponent usually relies on having superior tactical ability, using it to win material or create a sharp advantage such as a kingside battery or sacrificing a piece to target the opposing King. Human games are usually decided by tactics. However, the computer will certainly have a superior tactical ability to you, but it is still blind. It only assigns numerical values to moves. I find that the best way to beat the computer is to lock the position (to jam one side with pawn rams), then gain a long-term advantage like an open file or an isolated or weak opposing pawns, grind the position down to an endgame and win by promoting a pawn. Strategic long-term play will usually be noticed and countered by a human opponent, provided their tactical ability is sufficient, but the computer won't notice because it only assigns numerical values to moves.

Quote:

It might be helpful at this point to think of the brain as a computer.

When I was studying neuroscience, I was constantly told not to think of the brain as a computer. The brain is not a computer. It has a feature that no computer has: (actually, I believe some now have a rudimentary version). Dynamism. A computer has a black-box system. The process by which inputs are mapped onto outputs is predetermined. However, in a brain, this is not the case. Neurological structure are said to have dynamic input-ouput. There are two primary components of this:

1) Plasticity and neurogenesis: Neural connections largely depend on stimulus. In a computer, the inputs determine the immediate state. However, in a brain, the inputs determine (a) new inputs and (b) long term outputs. Because of this, the brain does not actually have a machine state. The concept of a machine state was first put forth by Putnam in his paper on Machine-State Functionalism, but is largely considered inaccurate today by most philosophers of mind.

2) Computational dynamism: The stimulus of neurons by other neurons, the rate, pattern, etc. can determined the structural and functional nature of the other neurons. LTP is an example of this.

LTP, or long term potentiation is a remarkable ability of neurons in the hippocampus. It refers to a strongly enhanced response of a post-synaptic membrane to a pre-synaptic action potential that results from repeated rapid firing from the pre-synaptic membrane. This can last for days, weeks, etc. depending on intensity. When I say a strongly enhanced response I mean that the magnitude of the post-synaptic potential increases. LTP will occur on a post-snypatic neuron which is already strongly depolarized and that recieves a signal from pre-synaptic neuron. If any other synapses are contacting the Post-synaptic membrane that are firing at the same time, those particular synapses will also undergo LTP at the surface of the post-synaptic membrane, even if those pre-synaptic membranes were only firing single action potentials. LTP works by the following steps:

The post-synaptic membrane has glutamame gated Na+ channels and NMDA gated channels which are Ca2+ permeable. The first are only transmitter gated, and therefore are opened when a pre-synaptic potential causes the release of glutamate into the cleft. The latter are a rare TVGIC (transmitter and voltage gated ion channel) that therefore integrate two signals. First, NMDA must be bound, or the channel won't open. Second, the channel has a plug in the form of an Mg2+ ion which can only be removed when the NMDA is bound and the membrane is depolarized. The influx of Ca2+ induces a signal whereby more glutamate TGIC are inserted into the membrane. As such, whenever that synapse fires again, the response of the Post-synaptic membrane is greatly enhanced. The loss or destruction of these cells blocks the formation of long term memories but does not impede recollection of pre-existing memories.

The combination of these mechanisms ensure that neurological functioning is several orders of magnitude more complex than machine-state functioning. In a machine-state function, a process maps inputs onto outputs. In the brain, inputs are themselves constantly alterning the function in a variety of ways just mentioned, which means that the brain is not a Turing Machine, thus, the computer analogy does not work. In a computer, the inputs determine the outputs via a function. In a brain, the inputs determine and constantly alter the function, which in turn is based on other functions (like the gene transcription patterns which determine the expression of axon guidance proteins, or the sensory experiences being recieved, etc.) which determines the output. The latter is much more complicated. Cells also display forms of functional dynamism (such as cell memory).

To put it another way, you would be able to construct an injection map between brain states and outputs, but not between inputs and brain states, which means that the brain doesn't qualify as a computer.

Quote:

Once the computation is finished, the brain and CPU put their machine into a state that once again, has been set by the program.

This is also not true because the brain doesn't ever actually "stop" running until you die. Individual neurons work on the principle you just described. After an AP, they are immediately reset by a K+ VGIC-based hyperpolarization burst. As stated above, there is no "machine state" to reset, because the inputs themselves are constantly altering the function.

"Physical reality” isn’t some arbitrary demarcation. It is defined in terms of what we can systematically investigate, directly or not, by means of our senses. It is preposterous to assert that the process of systematic scientific reasoning arbitrarily excludes “non-physical explanations” because the very notion of “non-physical explanation” is contradictory.

-Me

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Hambydammit's picture

Thanks for the comments,

Thanks for the comments, DG.  Let me give you some responses.

Quote:
This is not quite true. Chess playing computers use brute force.

I recognize that the analogy is not quite accurate, but I am using it to illustrate a point, not to explain details.  I think it's safe to say that the rules for assigning values to permutations are close enough to what I'm trying to say, which is that our brains do not have detailed instructions for every possible scenario we might encounter, but instead, a set of broad genetic "rules" which are "programmed" by the synthesis of proteins and then set to run without direct control by the genes.  In any case, I should go back and make it more clear exactly what I'm trying to say with this analogy, and more importantly, that I'm not trying to explain the workings of the brain, only illustrate a principle behind them.

Quote:
When I was studying neuroscience, I was constantly told not to think of the brain as a computer.

I understand that there are severe limits to the brain as a computer, and I don't intend to imply that the function of the brain is technically analogous to the function of a computer.  I probably should make that more clear.  Instead, the point that I'm trying to make is that a computer is a physical manifestation of the laws of physics acting upon complicated "codes" that can be viewed as recipes or sets of instructions in a metaphorical sense.

Quote:

1) Plasticity and neurogenesis: Neural connections largely depend on stimulus. In a computer, the inputs determine the immediate state. However, in a brain, the inputs determine (a) new inputs and (b) long term outputs. Because of this, the brain does not actually have a machine state. The concept of a machine state was first put forth by Putnam in his paper on Machine-State Functionalism, but is largely considered inaccurate today by most philosophers of mind.

2) Computational dynamism: The stimulus of neurons by other neurons, the rate, pattern, etc. can determined the structural and functional nature of the other neurons. LTP is an example of this.

Again, I do understand that describing the mechanisms of brain function is incompatible with a computer metaphor.  The primary purpose of this essay is not to explain the science behind brain function, but to dispel the notions that A) humans have somehow transcended genetic influence because we're so smart, and B) that we are best viewed as minds that control brains.

Quote:

Quote:

Once the computation is finished, the brain and CPU put their machine into a state that once again, has been set by the program.

 

This is also not true because the brain doesn't ever actually "stop" running until you die. Individual neurons work on the principle you just described. After an AP, they are immediately reset by a K+ VGIC-based hyperpolarization burst. As stated above, there is no "machine state" to reset, because the inputs themselves are constantly altering the function.

Maybe I should change the wording here a little bit, as I didn't intend this to be read as a "machine state," but rather as a metaphor, where the body is the machine being controlled by the brain, and a "state" is nothing more than a condition at a given moment.  I should also include explicit mention of the fact that this process is continual, and that a "state" as I've mentioned it is continually being updated moment by moment.

In any case, I'll let this sit for a day or two and then try to edit it for clarity and include significant disclaimers about the extent of the usefulness of my metaphor.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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deludedgod's picture

Quote:I think it's safe to

Quote:

I think it's safe to say that the rules for assigning values to permutations are close enough to what I'm trying to say, which is that our brains do not have detailed instructions for every possible scenario we might encounter, but instead, a set of broad genetic "rules" which are "programmed" by the synthesis of proteins and then set to run without direct control by the genes.

This analogy would still break down because the outputs that result in terms of human behaivor and brain states that result from experiences are determined by previous inputs. Hence, a brain exhibits path dependance which Deep Blue does not. If the human brain did not exhibit this property, it would die in embryonic development.

 

"Physical reality” isn’t some arbitrary demarcation. It is defined in terms of what we can systematically investigate, directly or not, by means of our senses. It is preposterous to assert that the process of systematic scientific reasoning arbitrarily excludes “non-physical explanations” because the very notion of “non-physical explanation” is contradictory.

-Me

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Hambydammit's picture

Quote:This analogy would

Quote:
This analogy would still break down because the outputs that result in terms of human behaivor and brain states that result from experiences are determined by previous inputs. Hence, a brain exhibits path dependance which Deep Blue does not. If the human brain did not exhibit this property, it would die in embryonic development.

So, what I need to do is insert another paragraph stating that the human brain is significantly different from a computer because of path dependence.  Check me if I'm wrong here, but I'm actually recalling path dependence as a function of Game Theory and economics.  It is essentially a method of accounting for the present and future in terms of the past.  That is to say, each action adds to the algorithm for the next action.  Is this approximately analogous to what you're talking about?  You mean to say that the algorithm (for lack of a better word) describing the brain's processing of data is being constantly updated to reflect past experiences, right?

I think what I need to do is be much more clear about the precise point I'm trying to make, and include a couple of clear disclaimers about the severe limits of the computer analogy.  Maybe I can think of a better one than a computer, but nothing is coming to mind at the moment.  I can't think of anything that everyone is familiar with that exhibits lifelike behaviors because of a set of simple coded instructions which provide parameters for operation and adaptation within a given environment.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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deludedgod's picture

Quote:but I'm actually

Quote:

but I'm actually recalling path dependence as a function of Game Theory and economics.

Path dependance is a concept in engineering. Systems which are path-dependant are said to exhibit hysteresis. Engineers refer to hysteresis in different ways. Sometimes, it's a problem (the way that a steel bar is permanently deformed when sufficient force is exerted upon it), and sometimes it's intentional, like the way that heaters still warm a room after being switched off.

The way I would describe it is as follows:

The brain is constantly altering its own programming on the basis of its inputs. By programming I don't mean genetic instructions, which are identical in all cells, but rather, the output which results from a particular input.

PS: Don't use the word "function" loosely, as it has a precise meaning. When you say "path dependance is a function of Game theory", to me, that sounds like:

f(path dependance)=Game theory

Which is obviously meaningless.

"Physical reality” isn’t some arbitrary demarcation. It is defined in terms of what we can systematically investigate, directly or not, by means of our senses. It is preposterous to assert that the process of systematic scientific reasoning arbitrarily excludes “non-physical explanations” because the very notion of “non-physical explanation” is contradictory.

-Me

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Hambydammit's picture

Argh... I'm never trying to

Argh... I'm never trying to talk to you while drinking again.  You're right, of course.  I didn't mean function in the way I used it.  I do need to go back and make clear the distinction between the unalterable genetic code and the flexible "program" it creates.  By "program" I mean the algorithm(s) the brain uses to run our bodies and create our consciousness.  I hope I could use the metaphor of an imaginary highly advanced computer that would have the capability of adjusting its own program.  I realize that current AI models are still working on fixed parameters and only adapting in prescribed ways, so they're not a good analogy, but describing a hypothetical computer that incorporated path dependence would probably get people to understand what I'm saying.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure the path dependence from Game Theory is essentially the same thing you're describing, just applied to strategis instead of physical objects.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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deludedgod wrote: When I was

deludedgod wrote:
When I was studying neuroscience, I was constantly told not to think of the brain as a computer. The brain is not a computer.

I think I'll have to take Hambydammit's side on this, that a computer is valid analogy of the human brain.

There are of course big differences between a human brain and a computer. For instance, the human brain is massively parallel and except for some very esoteric ones,  all computer architectures are serial (or at best mildly parallel.) However, these differences are only architectural and not functional.

The human brain is obviously Turing complete (a human brain invented the Turing machine) and there is no known computational device in existence that can perform a computation that a Turing complete machine cannot. Hence, the human brain is equivalent to a computer in computational ability. In principle, a human brain could emulate a computer and a computer could emulate a human brain.

BobSpence's picture

Computer programs are most

Computer programs are most definitely path dependent, there is NOT a fixed relationship between inputs and outputs - the output for a given input is a function of the inputs AND the current contents of memory. Memory contents are dependent on the path traversed to this state, and are commonly used to determine the way in which the inputs are interpreted, and can completely change the way the system responds to a future presentation of any given set of inputs.

Parallelism is not a fundamental distinction these days, it's more a matter of degree. As I type this, my computer is running 111 processes with a total of 636 threads (sort of like sub-processes within each running 'program' or process).

The important distinction is that brain states are much more fuzzily defined, neuronal firing threshholds are not precisely set, and are affected by many things, like temperature, concentrations of various substances in their immediate environment, both natural ones and stuff like alcohol and other psycho-active compounds. so much harder to predict the outcome for any given input, but still intrinsically an algorithmic process. This makes it hard to accurately simulate a brain in a computer program, since it would require a fairly complex program just to represent the state and response pattern of each neurone.

Another attempt to distinguish brain function from computers is reference to quantum effects. This could introducing a further level of randomness/uncertainty, not fundamentally different from the effects of other un-correlated variables in the brains chemical environment. There is also the suggestion of entanglement causing other unexpected linkages between different elements of the brain, but I'm not convinced this would happen to any detectable degree, or would do more than just add to the 'noise' level affecting the nominal algorithmic interactions.

Another aspect I would like to add to Hamby's OP is that I think these processes like evolution and thought are processes driven by a flow of energy that keeps them from ever really achieving a state of STATIC stability. This available energy is needed to allow the 'system' to move from one semi-stable state to another which may be (temporarily) more stable, but requires the system to pass thru intermediate (transitional) states which may be less stable.

Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

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Hambydammit's picture

Quote:Another aspect I would

Quote:
Another aspect I would like to add to Hamby's OP is that I think these processes like evolution and thought are processes driven by a flow of energy that keeps them from ever really achieving a state of STATIC stability. This available energy is needed to allow the 'system' to move from one semi-stable state to another which may be (temporarily) more stable, but requires the system to pass thru intermediate (transitional) states which may be less stable.

In an updated draft, I have included a paragraph mentioning that because of our high level of path dependency, it is metaphorically accurate to say that we really are a different person now than we were at any time during the past.  I didn't mention this phenomenon specifically (the absence of true static stability) but it is implied.  This essay is part of a project aimed at people who want to know the concept without knowing specific scientific details, so I'm doing my best to keep it as non-technical as possible.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Go Hamby. This a great

Go Hamby. This a great thread. Thanks again you all.

"so I'm doing my best to keep it as non-technical as possible." So Radio friendly!  


  

shelley's picture

thanks :)

Just wanted to personally thank you Hamby for taking the time to put this article together.  I've been having a discussion with a friend about the topic of free will.  The idea that we don't have free will bothers me on a philosophical level - however regardless of how emotionally troublesome I find this, reading your article (three times, sleeping on it, and then going over it twice more) has made me feel a little silly for not being able to reach this conclusion myself.  Thanks Again.

 

Hambydammit's picture

Quote:regardless of how

Quote:
regardless of how emotionally troublesome I find this, reading your article (three times, sleeping on it, and then going over it twice more) has made me feel a little silly for not being able to reach this conclusion myself.  Thanks Again.

You could not offer a better review than this.  I've accomplished my purpose at least once, and that makes me very happy.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Free Will Question

A friend linked me to this article, and we had a discussion over it. He agrees with you, while I still think free will exists, albeit tempered by our past experiences. His position was essentially that our actions are determined by three things:

1 Genes

2 Environment

3 Brain Growth

 

A flaw, I think, with this reasoning is that it doesn't address some cases where people go against their genetics, against their environment, and end up essentially on the opposite spectrum. for example, A friend of mine had what amounted to a no good family, and lived in the ghetto, but he ended up being a very kind and caring person.

He said that it was due to his brain growth, but I think that if we are simply "cause and effect machines", the message we get from our environment and our parents would override whatever differences our brain made. 

Also, if the above three are the causes of our seeming free will, and personalities, than I think that siamese twins, who are genetically identical, and have no choice but to have the same environment, would be basically the same person, but they are not.

Would you be able to clear this up for me? I would appreciate it.

 

Hambydammit's picture

 Quote:A flaw, I think,

 

Quote:
A flaw, I think, with this reasoning is that it doesn't address some cases where people go against their genetics, against their environment, and end up essentially on the opposite spectrum.

So... you're saying that they're genetically incapable of doing what they're doing?  Or perhaps you are saying that they take a genetic path that is very seldom taken.

 

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Hambydammit's picture

 Quote:Also, if the above

 

Quote:
Also, if the above three are the causes of our seeming free will, and personalities, than I think that siamese twins, who are genetically identical, and have no choice but to have the same environment, would be basically the same person, but they are not.

Twin studies are one of the coolest things out there.  I love them.  One of the things that's very difficult to understand is that "virtually the same" is not the same as "the same."  This is what makes twin studies so amazing -- not figuring out how twins are the same, but explaining why they are different.  When we have two people who have a virtually identical environment, it narrows the variables down considerably.  When we know that they have identical genes, we are able to isolate variables in ways that only twin studies allow.

Here's something to consider.  The first twin to affect the other is providing a unique environment.  The first twin has not lived through reacting to the first effect.  The reaction of the second twin affects the first twin in a way that the second twin will not experience.  You can see that this is a never-ending chain.  It may not seem like a lot to you, but consider that the slightest change in a gene expression can have a huge effect.  Do both twins eat exactly the same diet?  Do the parents treat them exactly equally?

If you'd really like to dig into this subject, I recommend The Agile Gene, by Matt Ridley.  It's a very good introduction into the dynamics of environment vs. gene expression.

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Zaq's picture

Quantum?

First, let me clear up a misconception.

 

A lack of free Will does not necessarily result in predetermined courses of action.

 

What free will results in is "uncontrollable" courses of action, and it seems that one of your points is that since there's no nonphysical thing to control the brain, we have no free will.  There is, of course, the question of whether something may become so complex that different parts of it are able to excert control over other parts of it, thus yielding a form of self-control.  This, I think, is what happens in brains and what creates the feeling of free-will.

 

Now let's consider "matter tends towards stability."  This is basically the second law of thermodynamics, and it is probabilistic in nature.  The probabilities are so incredible that it is very nearly never violated, but nearly never is not the same as never.  It is physically possible for all the air in your room to group in one corner, even though that state is unstable.  What thermodynamics says is that it is ludicrously improbable for this to occur.

 

Finally, the essay seems to take determinism as a physical property of interactions between matter.  However, quantum mechanics shows that this assumption may be false, and that even if it is not false it might as well be false.  I won't get into complicated details, but the point is that the universe is either not 100% predetermined, or that even if it, is it is physically impossible to make use of the predeterminism to obtain 100% accurate predictions.  This problem is best demonstrated by the combination of deterministic chaos and the uncertainty principle.

 

In short, the crux of you're argument seems to be as follows (DRASTICALLY simplified).  1 Science (mainly biology, chemistry, and physics) says that matter (ALL matter) interacts in predetermined ways.  2 Therefore we have no free will.  However, 1 is false (or at least indemonstrable).  Mind you, due to my first point a lack of determinism does not imply free will (another option is randomness).  You have a few good points that are independent of determinism, but your argument still relies too heavily on this falshood.

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http://silverskeptic.blogspot.com/2011/03/consistent-standards.html

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Hambydammit's picture

 Part of the problem with

 Part of the problem with this line of thinking is that it would take the better part of a short book to address all of the different ways of looking at it.  I don't really address quantum indeterminacy for two reasons -- damn near nobody knows enough about it to know that they don't understand it, and most people who do understand it well enough to know that they don't understand it understand that quantum indeterminacy almost certainly has nothing to do with the argument for or against free will.

To state my argument more precisely, I'm saying that the "question of free will" is a poorly formed question, and therefore, there is no answer.  On a functional level, the spirit of the free will argument refers to something that contradicts causality on a scientific level, primarily biology, chemistry, and physics.  In other words, it's basically ludicrous to suggest that there is something outside of our brains which is a causal agent for our decisions.  

Does any of this make my position clearer for you?

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Free Will

Hambydammit:

Two or so years ago you banned me from this website for advocating No Free Will. At that time you did not buy my argument. I admit, probably, I was somewhat rude with some members of this site in frustration of their lack of understanding. Anyway, I am happy to see you are now fully convinced of No Free Will. My argument and way of proving it is exactly the same as it was 4 years ago but different from yours. I do not use higher level of genetic, evolution, ant or other examples but just go directly to the bootom most layer of laws of physics. Biology is built on top of laws of physics. therefore why not just use physics and chain of logic to explain No Free Will. And it is much shorter. Below is my way. What is your opinion about my way of attempting to explain No Free Will.



Logical Proof.

In a deterministic world the future is predictable. Obviously, there is no chance of free-will there.

But when you bring in the implication of quantum mechanics that says a single radioactive atom can decay any time. The timing of the decay is unpredictable. Single radioactive atom can decay any time it wishes without any external or internal reason. That makes the universe unpredictable.

But the timing of the decay is not determined by my brain or anything else in this universe. Therefore, even in an un-deterministic universe we do not have free will.

Implication: Learning/understanding the truth that "Free-Will doesn't exist" doesn't change the laws of the countries, morality, ethics, punishment and reward or anything else. Non existence of free-will and morality, punishment-rewards are not contradictory.

---------------------------------------------------------

Accusing atheists/agnostic of inconsistancy in their thought process.

What disappointment me is when an atheist or agnostic claim Free-Will exist. I would expect such a claim from a theist.

Without explicit qualification words: "God", "Allah", "Bhagban" , "Free-Will", "Hell", "Heaven" have some default minimum attributes (and thoughts) attached to it. Some of those attributes (meaning and their implication - chain of logic) are contradictory. None of these words can be defined/understood logically, coherently, consistently and therefore, we are (correct) consistent to reject any and all of these words or thoughts behind those words.

One may try to redefine God or Free-Will in such a way to keep it consistent with the chain of logic but in the process the new milder, compromised, much foggier definition/thought behind these words kills the original concept of God or Free Will.

 

 

Hambydammit's picture

 Quote:Two or so years ago

 

Quote:
Two or so years ago you banned me from this website for advocating No Free Will. At that time you did not buy my argument

I banned you because you were an ass.  We don't ban people over opinions, but the way they express them.  Perhaps you've become less of an ass.  We will see.

Quote:
In a deterministic world the future is predictable. Obviously, there is no chance of free-will there.

By deterministic, I assume you mean that there is no such thing as a random event, and every event is causally tied to the past, right?

Quote:
But when you bring in the implication of quantum mechanics that says a single radioactive atom can decay any time. The timing of the decay is unpredictable. Single radioactive atom can decay any time it wishes without any external or internal reason. That makes the universe unpredictable.

Possibly.  My model of free will does not involve the quantum level, and I'm deeply suspicious of any model that does.

Quote:
But the timing of the decay is not determined by my brain or anything else in this universe. Therefore, even in an un-deterministic universe we do not have free will.

Right... in other words, quantum events are not relevant to the discussion of free will.

Quote:
Implication: Learning/understanding the truth that "Free-Will doesn't exist" doesn't change the laws of the countries, morality, ethics, punishment and reward or anything else. Non existence of free-will and morality, punishment-rewards are not contradictory.

Certainly things are not as simple as Skinner, et al, would have suggested, but yes, positive and negative reinforcement work, regardless of whether we believe in free will.

Quote:
Without explicit qualification words: "God", "Allah", "Bhagban" , "Free-Will", "Hell", "Heaven" have some default minimum attributes (and thoughts) attached to it. Some of those attributes (meaning and their implication - chain of logic) are contradictory. None of these words can be defined/understood logically, coherently, consistently and therefore, we are (correct) consistent to reject any and all of these words or thoughts behind those words.

I need to rework this essay a bit.  Over the months, I've decided that I've not been clear enough on some points, and there are aspects of the argument on both sides that I've not covered.  It's curious because I was actually thinking of beginning my re-write tonight, and lo and behold, here's a new comment on it.

If I had to distill my position into a single sentence, it would not be "We do not have free will."  Instead, I would say something like this:  "Free Will is an incoherent concept, and so discussion of whether or not we possess it is futile."

Quote:
One may try to redefine God or Free-Will in such a way to keep it consistent with the chain of logic but in the process the new milder, compromised, much foggier definition/thought behind these words kills the original concept of God or Free Will.

I agree.  To be honest, I don't recall ever falling firmly on the side of the existence of free will, but perhaps I did.  What I remember is that I always considered the mind to be emergent from the brain, and therefore necessarily dependent.  I do recall saying that free will exists [practically, and I hold to that.  In other words, we perceive ourselves as being "in control" of our minds, and to a large degree, this perception causes us to function as if we have free will.  Perhaps the best way to end all the hubbub is to stop talking about free will entirely and just say that we are autonomous.  That is, nobody else is at the controls besides us.  This admittedly sidesteps the issue of free will, but I think it's something that can be easily dismissed as irrelevant if we just give up the idea that free will is something special.

 

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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I have no disagreement with

 

Excellent.

I am in agreement with almost all of your comments.

 "Autonomous" what does that mean to you?Does it have same foggy concept of Free Will hidden behind just another word?If not then I have no problem.So let's define autonomous first, more accurately let's talk about the thought behind the word "Autonomous"  My point is, by taking a stance so clearly against the concept of Free Will, I am trying to wash out the wishes, the desires, the fantasy, the dream people have in their mind regarding their freeness of decision making. If that idea in people's head is not changed then introduction of just another word "Autonomous", or "Self Regulating Entity" or what have you, doesn't serve the purpose.  Similarly, by changing the word from God to Allah, to Bhagban, Creator, deity, means nothing until the understanding of it changes. 

 

Hambydammit's picture

 Quote: "Autonomous" what

 

Quote:
 "Autonomous" what does that mean to you?Does it have same foggy concept of Free Will hidden behind just another word?

No.  Autonomous (in my usage) is stripped down to the bare essential -- a thing is autonomous when its actions come from within, not without.  A spider, an ant, or a robot can be autonomous, so long as the mechanisms for determining behavior are contained within the entity.

To say that humans are autonomous is to say that their actions are guided internally.  This is consistent with no free will, since we can say that they have no particular "choice" in the matter, but nobody on the outside is willfully controlling their mind.  It's obviously a tricky concept, and I don't have the time or the desire to lay the whole thing out with objections, counter-objections, and all the rest.  That's why I'm going to rewrite this article -- to avoid having to constantly make disclaimers.

Anyway, I'm still toying with the idea, so don't hold me to anything concrete just yet.  I'll get back to you when I've been able to work out some language and conceptual details.

 

 

 

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

Luminon's picture

I'll try to describe

I'll try to describe something which I perceive as a hole in reasoning of the article. The article is concerned with a mechanism of simple action and reaction, which is fine. But the real free will is a thing independent on action and reaction, it appears to be uncaused and/or unpredictable. The free will may not even be a choice. For example, is a creative activity, let's say art, a choice? Why and how the artist did choose the motive for the art and every single hue of color or stroke of chisel? They say they already see the shape within the raw material, which is obviously not a logical answer.
A reproduction of an already existing thing is easily explainable as a reaction on already existing phenomenon. But how does an original, creative thought appear? How can anything appear without having a physical origin? For example, the inventions of modern technics. Some are completely new ideas, they were unimaginable before. Only one man could imagine the technology, a sound recording, let's say, and this thought somehow started it all. Then the thought developed through trial and error and so the physical technology was built, but how the original thought started?

How a meaningful, original information can just appear out of a chaotic, unrelated input which our brains receive all the time? This is a bit confusing. We don't say "now I will invent this and this, but I don't know yet what it will be." So if you describe the brain ONLY as a reacting mechanism, there is no way how such an activity may be done. It is clearly not a conscious process. The subconsciousness or whatever is not an evolutionary machine trying random thoughts and evaluating what of them will be a piece of art or technology which later generations will admire. (or does it?) A meaningful, working object is not a random thing, it must be created according to some laws, which are not known in advance. There always must be a harmony of some kind, but that harmony may be completely subjective. Once thought up, we can decide if we want to realize that idea, we can react on it. But the idea itself appeared whether we wish it or not. So there is indeed no free will independent on brain, my point is that there are a creative, non-reactive phenomena in the mind, that do not count as mechanistic. There is no way how to predict them - mere predicting them creates them. So the intuition itself is free, independent even on humans, their brains and causality. Who's will is that? What does it react on?

Beings who deserve worship don't demand it. Beings who demand worship don't deserve it.

EXC's picture

Luminon wrote:I'll try to

Luminon wrote:

I'll try to describe something which I perceive as a hole in reasoning of the article. The article is concerned with a mechanism of simple action and reaction, which is fine. But the real free will is a thing independent on action and reaction, it appears to be uncaused and/or unpredictable. The free will may not even be a choice. For example, is a creative activity, let's say art, a choice? Why and how the artist did choose the motive for the art and every single hue of color or stroke of chisel? They say they already see the shape within the raw material, which is obviously not a logical answer.
A reproduction of an already existing thing is easily explainable as a reaction on already existing phenomenon. But how does an original, creative thought appear? How can anything appear without having a physical origin? For example, the inventions of modern technics. Some are completely new ideas, they were unimaginable before. Only one man could imagine the technology, a sound recording, let's say, and this thought somehow started it all. Then the thought developed through trial and error and so the physical technology was built, but how the original thought started?

How a meaningful, original information can just appear out of a chaotic, unrelated input which our brains receive all the time? This is a bit confusing. We don't say "now I will invent this and this, but I don't know yet what it will be." So if you describe the brain ONLY as a reacting mechanism, there is no way how such an activity may be done. It is clearly not a conscious process. The subconsciousness or whatever is not an evolutionary machine trying random thoughts and evaluating what of them will be a piece of art or technology which later generations will admire. (or does it?) A meaningful, working object is not a random thing, it must be created according to some laws, which are not known in advance. There always must be a harmony of some kind, but that harmony may be completely subjective. Once thought up, we can decide if we want to realize that idea, we can react on it. But the idea itself appeared whether we wish it or not. So there is indeed no free will independent on brain, my point is that there are a creative, non-reactive phenomena in the mind, that do not count as mechanistic. There is no way how to predict them - mere predicting them creates them. So the intuition itself is free, independent even on humans, their brains and causality. Who's will is that? What does it react on?

Having an 'original' thought is an illusion. Randomness is an illusion. Intuition is an illusion.

Your counter argument seems to be

1. I don't understand how certain things appear in my brain.

2. It seems thought and ideas come from nothing.

3. Science can't explain certain things about how the brain works.

Therefore freewill exists.

So you are drawing a positive conclusion based on your lack of knowledge and understanding. Doesn't your reasoning kind of demonstrate that 'free will' is a result of superstitious thinking? We don't understand something, so we have to invent an explanation.

Creativity does not magically come from nothing. If it did, we would see things like people writing poetry in a language they were never exposed to.

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Seneca

Hambydammit wrote:Matter

Hambydammit wrote:

Matter moves from instability to stability.  This is a basic physical truth.  Sodium is highly unstable, and when it encounters moisture, it changes states rapidly to form more stable compounds.  Rocks last a long time because their atoms have reached a level of high stability.  Eggs fry because the added heat causes their atoms to be in an unstable state, and they naturally move to a more stable state.  Because of the incredible complexity of matter, there are lots of ways that it can be arranged, and because of the incredibly complex systems of movement in the universe and the incredible amount of energy it contains, it's going to take a really damn long time before the eventual state of "complete stability" is reached.  (Assuming, of course, that the universe isn't going to contract again.)

What has this got to do with free will?  Everything.  The first replicator on earth, whatever it was, came to exist because it was following this principle.  The configuration of the first replicator was stable enough that atoms "wanted" to move into it, the same way that salt wants to form cubic crystals.  At each step of evolution, the next level of complexity was reached by the same process.  You can think of it as two laws working together.  The physical law of "survival of the stable" interacted with the mathematical law of "survival of the fittest" which actually ought to be renamed "survival of the best equipped to survive."  It is so simple as to be perfectly obvious when we say it that way.

Anyway, at some point, replicators developed rudimentary walls to insulate themselves from the environment.  Eventually, cells developed.  Eventually after that, some cells developed the ability to work together with other cells, and the inevitable math of Game Theory was set in motion.  What is crucially important to bear in mind is that all of this happened completely without consciousness.  It was the inevitable result of the interaction of survival of the stable with survival of the best able to survive.

Jump ahead in evolutionary history, and you get to a huge moment, where eukaryotes and prokaryotes split from each other.  After that, plants and animals split.  Here's where things started to get really interesting.  Plants, for whatever reason, never got around to moving very fast, or being able to perform what we can call "free movement."  They pretty much just grow.  Animals, on the other hand, discovered the benefit of much faster movement.  The earliest animals (which would have been a lot more like a paramecium than a rat), "learned" how to eat other animals and plants.  Remember, all of this happened without consciousness because matter always moves from instability to stability.  It's really, really important that you keep this in mind.

Soon, through natural selection, some individuals developed very rudimentary senses.  Perhaps it was the ability to detect a chemical in the water which indicated that potential prey was nearby.  Perhaps it was the ability to react to the intensity of light.  It doesn't matter.  What matters is that this was a HUGE advantage.  Through nothing but blind matter interacting with other blind matter, the senses came to exist.  Soon, complexity added to complexity and early versions of what would become nerves developed.  Once animals had muscles and nerves, they were able to perform astounding feats of independent movement.  Their eyes developed into the complex organs they are today.  Their hearts, lungs, and livers all developed in complexity, and one other extremely important organ developed as well -- their brain.

At first, brains were very rudimentary, but the engineering advantage of having a central "control station" are undeniable.  Through millions of years, brains grew in size and complexity.  At each step, the animals became better and better adapted to their environment, still following the principles of survival of the stable and survival of the best able to survive.  The way brains work is really astonishing.  Specialized cells called neurons link with other neurons into long chains, through which unbroken chains of reactions can take place.  You can think of it like a row of dominoes.  An outside stimuli (your finger) knocks over the first domino, and without any further influence, the entire row topples, one at a time. This happens because of the laws of physics. So it is in brains. When light enters an eye, the cells in the eye have no option but to do what they naturally do. Light triggers a change in one cell, which triggers a change in another cell, and so on. The matter which makes up an eye must move from instability to instability, and the only way to do this is to react in the way it has been arranged to react.

The earliest brains didn't produce anything approaching what we call consciousness. They were just control centers made of matter that couldn't help how it had been arranged. However, through the inevitable laws of matter, increasingly complex brains were bound to develop. If it is beneficial to be able to see prey and chase it, it is more beneficial to be able to see prey, chase it, and make rudimentary predictions about its future actions. Such a leap in brain development may seem huge, and perhaps in terms of time, it was. It isn't that hard to conceive, though.

Memory is something that happens in very simple animals. Even simple worms can be “trained” to react to certain stimuli. All we need to do to imagine the birth of memory is to imagine an arrangement of matter in an early animal in which repeated occurrences of the same stimulus would create a permanent change in the animal itself, thus altering the way it behaved. No consciousness is necessary, and the exact mechanism is extraneous to this discussion. All we need to be concerned with is the fact that it's not hard to imagine rudimentary memory coming into existence.

Once memory existed, it is not hard to imagine it becoming more and more complex as brains became larger and more complex. The first predictive behavior, then, is easy to imagine. After chasing several prey animals in exactly the same pattern, a permanent change happened in the hunter such that the next time it chased a similar prey, it “anticipated” the movement, quite automatically.

With memory and prediction came great evolutionary advantage, so it's not hard to imagine these kinds of creatures proliferating. We can imagine two kinds of creatures, however. The first kind of creature could see its prey, chase it, and predict its movements, and would pursue relentlessly, even to the point of exhaustion or death. The second kind of creature, with the same abilities, also had the tendency to stop chasing its pray when its own energy began running low, but before exhaustion set in. This simple modification to behavior patterns needs no grand explanation. Again, all it takes is imagining a small mutation which produced the behavior once. It requires no consciousness, but it is the beginning of something amazing. From this simple change in behavior, the ability to weigh options developed.

Suppose that a creature encountered two potential meals at the same time. It could only chase one of them. Any creature which had a rudimentary ability to judge the chances of success for each of two chases would have a stunning advantage over those which just randomly chased one or the other. This is a big leap in brain development, but again, it does not bring us to the point of consciousness in the modern philosophical sense. These animals were still what Richard Dawkins has called “survival machines.” They were doing what they did because the matter in their bodies (now arranged in staggeringly complex ways) did what it had to do.

Hopefully, you can see where I'm going with this. Each step of brain development happened through the same process of survival of the stable combining with survival of the best able to survive. The discussion of what exactly constitutes consciousness may seem like a huge concern, but it is not. In the same way that there is no such thing as the single ancestor of humans that was the “first human,” there is also no exact divide between consciousness and unconsciousness, at least from a biological point of view. This may seem controversial, but please make sure you understand precisely what I'm saying, and more importantly, what I'm not saying.

Goldfish have memories, and can recognize individuals of their own species, as well as other species. Their brains transmit impulses through nerves in such a way that they can perform feats of apparent purpose like traversing a maze to get to food. I doubt many people would suggest that they are fully sentient beings. One of the main reasons for this is that even though they show apparent purpose, they do so predictably and mechanically. If they're hungry, and food is placed at the end of the maze, they will move towards it and eat. Higher animals, however, show a lot more autonomy – that is, ability to take one option over another based on analysis of sensory data. An ape, by all appearances, spends time “deciding” whether or not to attack another ape, and we can only assume that his brain is processing data from the ape's memory, and is weighing the potential for victory against the potential for defeat, and perhaps even the possibility of personal injury in either case.

While this may be an incredible dilemma for philosophers, it's not that big of a deal to biologists. Goldfish have less complex brains than cats, which have less complex brains than monkeys, which have less complex brains than dolphins, which have less complex brains than humans. The measure of an animal's ability to perform predictive analysis is a measure of their brain's size and complexity. Period. There's no such thing as a really smart earthworm because earthworms don't have complex big brains.

Before we can finally address free will, we must perform a couple of mental exercises. First, think about an ant. Do you have any problem thinking of an ant as a creature that simply reacts to its environment based on its genetic programming? I would hope not. Ants simply don't do things like quit their job or decide to move to another anthill. Ants do what ants do, and nothing else. They do it predictably, and when we do experiments on their genes, we can reprogram them to do other things just as predictably.

Ants have brains that were “designed” just like every other part of their body, as a natural result of the survival of the stable combined with survival of the best able to survive. They are alive, but not sentient, according to every philosopher I can think of. Yet, even these simple creatures show remarkable behaviors that seem “intelligent.” Some varieties of ants engage in “tandem running,” a process by which one ant leads another ant to a food source. It requires many adjustments, and happens methodically, as if each ant “intends” to find food. Still, we can imagine that the ant genes have programmed their carriers to perform this way, and they do so because they have no choice in the matter. They are ants, and their genes, like everything else in their bodies, must obey the law of survival of the stable.

Bees, as most people are now aware, have a system of communication that is virtually unrivaled in the animal world. They do an incredibly complex dance to indicate to their hivemates the distance to food, quantity of food, and exact direction. Still, it is clearly a genetic behavior, for all bees do it the same way, and they do it predictably, without the ability to “decide” to do otherwise. They have genes that dictate their behavior by causing proteins to be built in a particular way, and those proteins, acting entirely according to the law of survival of the stable, react with other proteins in exactly the “correct” way, on up the line of complexity, until the amalgam of all those chemicals, a bee, behaves precisely as it must behave.

At some point, though, we're going to have to address the philosophical leap that comes with the existence of what we call “sentience.” For our purposes, it won't matter precisely what sentience is, but it is important to note something of critical importance. Whatever sentience is, it is that way because there are genes within the sentient animal which, according to the law survival of the stable, caused chemicals to interact in completely predictable ways to “build” a being capable of sentient thought.

The last paragraph is staggeringly important. We must realize that whatever a brain allows us to do, it does so because it was built to do so by genes. Every stimulus that a creature encounters causes a series of unavoidable events to occur. When an eye opens, chemicals react with other chemicals to create nerve impulses that must go to the brain, where the brain must render them as images, and the creature must perceive the external world in whatever fashion it has been built. Once that image has been perceived, the same kinds of neural impulses unavoidably travel through the brain in complex patterns, triggering still more reactions, and still more, until the entire organism can be said to have reacted (in whatever way) to the stimulus.

Finally, now, we can address free will. The first thing we must do to address it properly is to define it. This might prove to be much harder than we first imagine. We can say that free will is the ability to make choices, but this is unsatisfactory. When a spider walking across the forest floor encounters a log, it can either turn left, turn right, turn back, or climb up. Alternatively, it could just stay right where it is. It has quite a few “choices” and will make one of them. It cannot avoid making one of them unless it suddenly dies. Because time moves forward, and there are many potential actions for any creature at any given time, we can say that all creatures make choices.

Clearly, we need to work on our definition of choice if free will is to have any meaning. Perhaps it means taking one option over another based on rational choice, rational meaning “conforming to the laws of logic.” This is also unsatisfactory because many animals who are not aware of the laws of logic do precisely that. Apes, when sizing up a potential opponent, very often make the “correct” decision based on the size and strength of the potential opponent and the “chooser's” memory of previous battles. Yet, most people are unhappy with the conclusion that apes have free will.

Perhaps for free will to exist, the creature must be able to think in the abstract. That is, it must be able to run “simulations” in its brain, and must be able to think of concepts, not just objects or actions. This easily eliminates most creatures from the discussion of free will, although not necessarily all. Dolphins, apes, and even parrots have shown the ability to understand the concept of rational numbers. Dolphins and apes have both demonstrated rudimentary ability to predict the outcome of an action based on abstract thinking, and both have demonstrated the ability to imitate with modification.

In any case, I said that the philosophy behind sentience was irrelevant, and it is. By illustrating the problems with these definitions, I hope to show you that the definitions aren't really flawed. The concept itself is flawed. If you've followed my somewhat tedious tour through evolutionary history, you've realized that at every step of brain development, new abilities were added naturally through immutable physical forces. This is in direct opposition to the spirit of any argument for free will, regardless of the exact definition.

When I speak of the spirit of the free will argument, I mean this: humans possess consciousness and sentience, which allow us to control ourselves in any way we desire, and to enforce our “will” upon the universe. What I want you to see is that this kind of thinking is backwards, for it assumes something existing independently of the law of survival of the stable. For us to be conscious, impulses must move through neurons in our brain. These impulses exist before consciousness. They must. The inescapable conclusion is that our brains cause us to be conscious.

Let's think now about what happens when we humans make a choice. Suppose I am at a restaurant, and am offered the choice of chicken or fish. The waiter asks me which one I want. My ears receive the vibrations caused by the waiter's mouth and vocal cords. Without any external “will” causing it to happen, the vibrations are translated into nerve impulses which travel, completely on their own – because they are obeying the law of survival of the stable – to the part of my brain which, through no conscious will of its own, processes sound. I cannot help but comprehend the waiter, for my brain is doing what it must do. It is sending neural impulses to and from various parts of my brain, all of them unavoidably doing what they must do because they are matter and they are seeking stability.

Once my brain has translated the vibrations into a concept, I cannot help the reality that follows. My brain is now in a state. Either I desire chicken, or I desire fish, or I desire neither. I cannot change this state, for I am matter, and my brain has done what it had to do, and my preference is now a reality in time. I cannot help but move forward in time, and I must act in one the thousands of ways potentially available to me. If you think about it, there are probably hundreds of thousands of things I could do in the next second after entering the state of being aware of my preference.

I will do something in response to the question. Most likely, I will speak, expressing my desire for one or the other. The important question is this: Did I decide to speak, or did I speak because my brain caused me to do so? Here is where the survival of the stable plays its trump card. We really have two choices here. Either my brain caused me to have a preference, and then caused me to speak, or something else caused me to have a preference and then speak.

To suggest that something else caused me to have a preference is to defy time, for we have already recognized the simple truth that uncontrollable interactions of matter happen in the brain and then a state is reached. To put it another way, a “choice” in the religious or philosophical sense of the word would really involve moving backwards in time! First, a state would have to exist, and then act upon the brain in some way so as to put the brain in the chosen state. However, as we've seen, perceptions cause neural impulses which cause brain activity which causes a state.

Perhaps an even bigger problem with the idea of an independent choice is that it violates the law of survival of the stable. If matter is unstable, it must move to stability if that move is available. If several possible stable states are available in the environment, we can predict which one a particular piece of matter will “choose” based on its atomic structure. (For illustration, notice that even though there's plenty of carbon available from the operation of an internal combustion engine, there has never been an exhaust pipe that randomly spewed diamonds instead of carbon dioxide.)

Some might object that I am being overly reductionist. To this accusation, I would make two responses. First, the accusation of reductionism is not an argument. It's an objection. There's no reason that a reductionist viewpoint is inherently wrong. Second, I would say that reductionism need not eliminate broader interpretations of the same phenomena. For example, I can say that a computer program is nothing but ones and zeros, and that is true. This does not mean that I cannot use a computer program to write a book.

The broad point that I'm attempting to make is not that humans do not make choices, or that we are not highly autonomous creatures. I am trying to establish the unavoidable reality that humans do not control brains. Brains control humans. Before I can decide on a course of action, my brain must perceive the situation, and having perceived it, go through the unconscious and uncontrollable series of chemical events that will put me in a state of awareness of the options. Any decision I make is the result of brain activity, not the cause of it.

It might be helpful at this point to think of the brain as a computer. Just as a computer has a series of ones and zeros that “make it work,” so do our brains, only the brain is built on four letters instead of two numbers. The code for our brain is DNA. Also analogous to a computer, our code is set up in such a way that it causes a series of events in the material universe.

Think of a chess playing computer. The binary code for such a program doesn't include instructions for every possible chess scenario. This would take an astronomically large code, and it would be so slow that a single game of chess would take as long as the time our solar system has been in existence, even if we imagine a stupendously fast processor. Instead, the program includes general instructions – rules for piece movement and strategic advice, for instance. It might say something like, “In general, pawns are expendable before queens, but if the payoff is high enough, sacrificing the queen is advisable.”

Of course, all of this is rendered in ones and zeros, and it's not important to explain the exact mechanism by which they translate into a computer program. We all know that this is the way it works, even if we don't know exactly how. Our brains are very much the same way. We are built with simple sets of instructions: Avoid that which causes pain. Seek that which causes pleasure; Attempt to mate. Seek companionship; When your stomach rumbles, eat food; When your mouth is dry, drink water. Of course, in a human, there are far more complex sets of instructions, and many of the instructions clash from time to time. For instance, if one has to reach into a thornbush to get fruit, the instruction to avoid physical discomfort is in conflict with the instruction to obtain food.

If you've ever seen a computer play chess, you know that it can predict its opponent's moves. In fact, if you could bring someone back to life from a time before computers existed, and show them a screen with a game in progress, they would likely swear on their life that humans were controlling the moves. Chess programs give every outward appearance of being sentient because their programming is sufficiently complex to create those appearances. Here, we can ask a very pointed question: Is there a difference between a game of chess played by two humans and one played by two computers? The answer is that there is not. The mechanics of the game are exactly the same, as is the strategy and the outcome. In fact, we could easily build robots to move physical pieces on an actual chess board, and for the purposes of winning a chess game, there would be absolutely no difference whatsoever. A game of chess is being played. There is either a winner and a loser, or the game is a draw.

Humans are chess playing computers. Our circuitry is much more complex, and we are able to do far more than play chess, but that is the reality of it. Our genes carry instructions for building a human being with a brain that causes consciousness to exist. Our brains operate from a set of instructions given to us by the same genes. ...

I'm not buying what I did read.

The several paragraphs I read amounted to something less well founded than Behaviorist bullshit, but as those paragraphs didn't directly relate to what I presume the subject of the thread is ultimately supposed to be about, I'm not gonna sidetrack the presumed subject with tangential stuff.

If you were to concisely phrase the question and definition of "Free Will" I might have something substantive to offer, but I'm honestly not into being blogged to death to ultimately get to the question or subject, with no apparent definitions being offered.

Hambydammit's picture

 You quoted all that, and

 You quoted all that, and all you have to say is that you don't think you agree, but have no particular desire to figure it out or talk about it?

Really?

Why do I get the feeling you're the kind of guy who jumps into other people's photos, just so someone will react to you?  Are you starved for attention at home?  Mommy doesn't love you enough?

What the hell, dude...

(We Now Return You to Your Regularly Scheduled Atheist Forum.)

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

Luminon's picture

EXC wrote:Having an

(double post)

Luminon's picture

EXC wrote:Having an

EXC wrote:

Having an 'original' thought is an illusion. Randomness is an illusion. Intuition is an illusion.

Your counter argument seems to be

1. I don't understand how certain things appear in my brain.

2. It seems thought and ideas come from nothing.

3. Science can't explain certain things about how the brain works.

Therefore freewill exists.

So you are drawing a positive conclusion based on your lack of knowledge and understanding. Doesn't your reasoning kind of demonstrate that 'free will' is a result of superstitious thinking? We don't understand something, so we have to invent an explanation.


No, my argument is that the will can not be effectively predicted, therefore it's free, from our control and control of anything we know of. Unless we apply drastic measures, of course. Reputedly, (wiki) according to several standard interpretations of quantum mechanics, microscopic phenomena are objectively random. The brain is a playground of such a phenomena, it is not a simple computer, as it was demonstrated in the article.
A good demonstration of that is our degree of control. We can limit someone's free will or creativity, but we can't expand it.
If we want to avoid the ex nihilo reasoning, there is a necessary assumption, that the brain is not a closed system, that it is open in more ways than we previously thought of. I can certainly support that.

Btw, how is the intuition or originality an illusion? We have material demonstrations of them, uncomparable with anything before or after.

EXC wrote:
Creativity does not magically come from nothing. If it did, we would see things like people writing poetry in a language they were never exposed to.
Well, I've read about a people in trance state who spoke in languages they never learned before. But not poetry.
Of course the creativity does not come from nothing, my point is, that we can't effectively find a 100% correlation between the brain input and output. Often, the greatest creativity is produced in circumstances of sensory deprivation. For example, Jules Verne kept a very simply furnished room in where he was writing. So far, there were found no impassable limitations of the creativity, just temporary obstacles.

Beings who deserve worship don't demand it. Beings who demand worship don't deserve it.

Hambydammit wrote: You

Hambydammit wrote:

 You quoted all that, and all you have to say is that you don't think you agree, but have no particular desire to figure it out or talk about it?

Really?

Why do I get the feeling you're the kind of guy who jumps into other people's photos, just so someone will react to you?  Are you starved for attention at home?  Mommy doesn't love you enough?

What the hell, dude...

(We Now Return You to Your Regularly Scheduled Atheist Forum.)

 

treat2 wrote:

I'm not buying what I did read.

The several paragraphs I read amounted to something less well founded than Behaviorist bullshit, but as those paragraphs didn't directly relate to what I presume the subject of the thread is ultimately supposed to be about, I'm not gonna sidetrack the presumed subject with tangential stuff.

If you were to concisely phrase the question and definition of "Free Will" I might have something substantive to offer, but I'm honestly not into being blogged to death to ultimately get to the question or subject, with no apparent definitions being offered.

Ham, I take it you're not interested in discussing the topic unless everybody reads your novel.

treat2 wrote:

I'm not buying what I did read.

The several paragraphs I read amounted to something less well founded than Behaviorist bullshit, but as those paragraphs didn't directly relate to what I presume the subject of the thread is ultimately supposed to be about, I'm not gonna sidetrack the presumed subject with tangential stuff.

If you were to concisely phrase the question and definition of "Free Will" I might have something substantive to offer, but I'm honestly not into being blogged to death to ultimately get to the question or subject, with no apparent definitions being offered.

Ham, I take it you're not interested in discussing the topic unless everybody reads your novel.

Of the paraghaphs I read, it's Behaviorist nonsense, and as I'm entirely familiar with the philosophy of Behaviorists, e.g. Skinner, my take on them is that their ideas are (obsolete) bullshit, and I've no desire without further reduction in your blog, to comment futher, nor do I desire to debate about an obsolete school of Psychology.

If you're willing to provide a concise version of it AND respond to my posted question(s), I'll give it a look.

Otherwise, be pissed at your PC. It's not important to me either way.

Hambydammit's picture

 I guess you didn't read it

 I guess you didn't read it very carefully then.  I'm also very familiar with Skinner, and my explanation of the free will question is as far from Skinner as modern evolutionary theory is from Darwin.

If you haven't noticed, I don't talk to people who say they have arguments.  I respond to actual arguments.  This is the last you'll hear from me until you present one.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

EXC's picture

Luminon wrote:No, my

Luminon wrote:

No, my argument is that the will can not be effectively predicted, therefore it's free, from our control and control of anything we know of. Unless we apply drastic measures, of course. Reputedly, (wiki) according to several standard interpretations of quantum mechanics, microscopic phenomena are objectively random. The brain is a playground of such a phenomena, it is not a simple computer, as it was demonstrated in the article.

This sounds like the argument that because fruit flies have a 'randomness' to their behavior, therefore it is free will.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18684016/

But they go on to explain the mathematical function that describes the behavior. It is a mix of a deterministic pattern and randomness. So, this study could imply that there is some type of random number generator in the brain. The fruit flies obey this function. So he contradicts the statement that fruit flies have free will by saying their behavior obeys a mathematical function. Pseudo-randomness is a mathematical function not a source of 'free will'.

It's like if you decided to flip a coin every day to decide to eat eggs or cereal for breakfast. The coin toss and not your free will is deciding what to eat. If the 'coin toss' takes place inside your brain, this still does not mean you have free will. Because you don't see the 'coin toss' taking place, you assume it's your free will. That's the illusion.



Luminon wrote:

Btw, how is the intuition or originality an illusion? We have material demonstrations of them, uncomparable with anything before or after.

We have material demonstration of computers generating art and music. They 'create' something original by using random number generators combined with pattern generating processes. The originality is just part of this illusion of randomness.

 

Luminon wrote:

Of course the creativity does not come from nothing, my point is, that we can't effectively find a 100% correlation between the brain input and output.

We can't measure all the inputs to the brain to say this. We know that minor variation in magnetic and electric fields and radiation can affect neural firing patters. And these minor variations can sometimes be greatly amplified. We can measure this on a few nerve cells in a closed environment. But to measure a correlation for an entire brain is beyond present technologies ability. The randomness could be occurring at the quantum level then manifesting in the nerve firing/repression.

 

Luminon wrote:

Often, the greatest creativity is produced in circumstances of sensory deprivation. For example, Jules Verne kept a very simply furnished room in where he was writing. So far, there were found no impassable limitations of the creativity, just temporary obstacles.

Which only proves the brain is not that good at multi-tasking, we only have limited processing power. But that's true of any computer, if you forced your PC to work on task other that producing art and music. It's not going to produce much art and music. Perhaps this indicates that the random inputs to nerve cells begin to dominate in the absence of sensory input.

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Seneca

BobSpence's picture

Random, even pseudo-random,

Random, even pseudo-random, or chaotic, exploration of the space of possibilities, followed by testing the ideas so generated, is ultimately the surest way to find genuinely new concepts and options. Otherwise we are limited to what can be derived by reasoning and association from our current set of ideas.

That coupling of random variation with selection according to some deterministic criterion is behind evolution, of course. It is also behind the practice of 'brain-storming' sessions to come up with new ideas.

 

Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

"Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings." - Sam Harris

The path to Truth lies via careful study of reality, not the dreams of our fallible minds - me

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Science -> Philosophy -> Theology

Free-will.

 Simple question. Obviously, you believe all of this is true. How do you know that this is true?

EXC's picture

Phoenix wrote: Simple

Phoenix wrote:

 Simple question. Obviously, you believe all of this is true. How do you know that this is true?

Scientific method. Observation, experimentation, verification.

What other means are available to know what is true?

 

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Seneca

Recently discovered flaw.

 I recently read about what is essentially a flaw with your premises.  Essentially the analogy of a brain as effectively a computer breaks down in a more fundamental way at the molecular level.  Computers are more or less predictable in how they handle input and output, and while it is possible for the processor to make mistakes in processing bits these mistakes are likely to lead to fatal errors in how code is executed.  In brains, however, the firing of synaptic action potentials is subject to a voting type system.  Basically the ion channels along each axon are on a hair trigger.  The reasons for this are simple, if the ion channels are too hard to open they may sometimes not open when they really should.  For this reason selection has favored ion channels that open too easily but synaptic action potentials are tied to so-called "voting" so that a majority of ion channels have to open for the synapse to fire.  Physically this means that the opening of ion channels is subject to thermodynamic fluctuations.  In neurons where the axons are particularly narrow neurologists estimate that each axon may fire in the absence of its chemical trigger around 6 times a second.  These areas also happen to be areas of significant cognitive function, specifically regions connecting the two brain hemispheres, and also areas that connect the separate brain regions.  As thermodynamics is effectively random this means that synapses are prone to misfire relatively regularly.  This accounts for some degree of noise in cognitive function which can never be eliminated and can account for some degree of randomness in human cognition, decision making and understanding, etc.  Basically a human brain would be more analogous to a strange computer that had a processor which constantly inserted bits into instructions where they didn't belong.  While computers can't handle this type of event our brains operate on very different principles of input/output which allow them to easily absorb this noise, but it would be foolish to assume it has no effect on our cognitive processes.

 

EDIT: I also wanted to add that evolution doesn't care much about survival only replication.  It's not about survival of the fittest or, as you put it "survival of the best equipped to survive" as it is evolutionarily irrelevant what happens to an individual of any given species once it reproduces.  This is no more apparent than in the admittedly extreme case of tazmanian devils which are currently adapting to a genetic cancer which is causing their numbers to diminish not by selecting against the cancer but by selecting for individuals of the species who reproduce younger.  In fact this evolutionary trend is helping to keep the cancer genes prevalent in the population contrary to common sense.

Philosophicus's picture

...

 

I read The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris this year.  He has a section in there about how we don't have free will.  He mentioned how our thoughts and feelings just pop up into awareness and we have nothing to do with their origin.  Then he mentioned a usual response that he gets from someone who objects to the notion that we don't have free will: "Well, if we don't have free will, then why bother doing anything?  Why not just stay in bed all day if we don't have free will?"  And Harris responded, (and I'm paraphrasing), "You try staying in bed all day.  Eventually you'll find that it'll take a heroic effort to do it.  You'll feel forced from within to get up." 

We can't do nothing because the brain needs constant stimulation, and it'll prod us to at least move our bodies.  This is why people in prison often pace around their cells, or why sensory deprivation eventually causes hallucinations -- the brain forces it for stimulation. 

 

 

 

 

cj's picture

Philosophicus wrote: I

Philosophicus wrote:

 

I read The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris this year.  He has a section in there about how we don't have free will.  He mentioned how our thoughts and feelings just pop up into awareness and we have nothing to do with their origin.  Then he mentioned a usual response that he gets from someone who objects to the notion that we don't have free will: "Well, if we don't have free will, then why bother doing anything?  Why not just stay in bed all day if we don't have free will?"  And Harris responded, (and I'm paraphrasing), "You try staying in bed all day.  Eventually you'll find that it'll take a heroic effort to do it.  You'll feel forced from within to get up." 

We can't do nothing because the brain needs constant stimulation, and it'll prod us to at least move our bodies.  This is why people in prison often pace around their cells, or why sensory deprivation eventually causes hallucinations -- the brain forces it for stimulation. 

 

For another take on whether or not we have free will, see The Social Animal by David Brooks. 

His answer appears to be - yes and no.

 

-- I feel so much better since I stopped trying to believe.

"We are entitled to our own opinions. We're not entitled to our own facts"- Al Franken

"If death isn't sweet oblivion, I will be severely disappointed" - Ruth M.

FurryCatHerder's picture

It would probably be better

It would probably be better to define what "Free Will" actually means than to just keep arguing that people do or don't have free will.

The fact that I can't flap my arms and fly does not mean that I don't have "free will" any more than the Sam Harris example that the mind spends a lot of time wandering around means I don't have free will.

To counter Harris's (paraphrased) example, even a person who only has the room to pace about a prison cell has the ability to decide =how= to pace, and whatever else they might do within the constraint of being in a prison cell.  What he seems to be saying is that because many people don't bother putting in the energy to do something other than breath in and breath out, the rest of Humanity is similarly limited.  No, people who can't be bothered to do more than take up space, eat, and sh*t have exercised their FREE WILL to do nothing more than respond to biological imperatives.

I was talking with someone the other day about my company and when and why I started it.  In the early days of being "unemployed" I talked with a number of other people who were also newly "unemployed".  What I found was that some people chose to do something with their time, other than collect unemployment checks and watch TV, and some people chose to do something, like start a business even if it made very little money and was a huge time sucker.  When I'd challenge one of the check collecting TV watchers, they all had what appeared to be perfectly valid reasons for their behavior.  Obviously I disagreed with the conclusions they reached, but their logic was proper given the beliefs they had.  We only know a posteriori that this was going to be a multi-year economic downturn and that the job market was actually going to be trashed for more than a few months.  Had they been right my efforts would have been a major waste of time and money and I'd be somewhat worse off than otherwise.

"Obviously I'm convinced of the existence of G-d. I'm equally convinced that Atheists who've led good lives will be in Olam HaBa going "How the heck did I wind up in this place?!?" while Christians who've treated people like dirt will be in some other place asking the exact same question."