Does Neuroscience Threaten Free Will?

15 July 2015

 

Are our choices ever truly free? The philosophical problem of free will is a deep and abiding one that has been around since at least the time of the Ancients. And as our knowledge of the human brain has grown over the last century, the problem of free will has gotten even more complicated.

Some neuroscientists go so far as to claim that there is simply no such thing as free will. The feeling we sometimes have of freely choosing is just an illusion, a trick of the mind, they say. We might think we are making free choices, but, in fact, the choice has already been made before we become aware of it.

But what, you might ask, would a neuroscientist know about the philosophical problem of free will?

Unfortunately, the answer, more often than not, is “not much.” Many seem happy to make these sweeping claims about free will without so much as a thought about what it would take to prove or disprove the claim that we sometimes make free choices, or what it even means to make a free choice, and in what kinds of contexts the question arises.

That’s not to say that neuroscience is completely irrelevant to the problem of free will. Even Descartes, who famously claimed that the mind is an immaterial or spiritual substance, completely separate from the material world, recognized the importance of the brain for our mental lives. He simply thought it was the locus of interaction between these two radically different substances -- mind and body. But today we know that there’s a lot more to say about the brain’s role in our mental lives. So, it makes sense that we should look to neuroscience for answers about how we make choices and decisions. Surely neuroscience has something to tell us about the nature of free will!

But could neuroscience ever prove that our decisions are made before we’re even aware of them? In our subjective experience of ourselves, we appear capable of making conscious decisions and acting on them. For example, you could decide to stop reading this right now, or you could decide to continue. It’s up to you. Maybe there are outside pressures and influences that play a role in your decision, like you’ll be late for an appointment if you keep reading, but ultimately the choice is yours to make. If you keep reading and you end up being late for your appointment, you have to accept responsibility for that because that’s what you decided to do. Your interest in the question of free will might in some way compel you to keep reading, but you could decide that being on time is more important. The decision up to you. Right?

If that's the case, then exactly how could neuroscience ever prove that your subjective experience of freely choosing is just an illusion, that your decisions are made before you even know it?

One of the most famous experiments cited in defense of this radical claim comes from the work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in the eighties. He measured subjects’ brain activity while they repeatedly pressed a button at random intervals. The subjects were asked to make note on a special clock when they first became aware of their intention to press the button. And guess what? They discovered that a couple of hundred milliseconds before subjects became aware of their intention to press the button, their brains were already preparing to move the finger. So, Libet concluded, the brain had already "decided" to move before the subject even knew of her own intention.

Libet's ultimate conclusion from these experiments is that consciousness plays no role in what we decide to do, except perhaps as a veto to the unconscious “decisions” our brain makes. Therefore, free will is an illusion.

If you’re thinking that this conclusion is a tad too quick, you’d be absolutely right. If you had some stronger language to describe the “reasoning” involved here, we could probably compare notes some time. But before we do that, let’s think about what reasonable conclusions we might possibly infer from Libet’s data.

I think the best we can conclude is that sometimes our subjective experience is not a reliable indicator of what’s really happening. This is true for pretty much any perception we have. We make mistakes sometimes, or we’re susceptible to various tricks and illusions. I’m not sure we really needed Libet’s experiments to prove that, but let’s set that aside for now.

In Libet’s experiment, the subjects presumably thought they were freely making conscious decisions about when to push the button, but if Libet’s interpretation of the data is right, then their brains had already decided to press the button before they were even aware a decision had been made. What seemed to the subjects like a conscious decision was really more like a notification of the unconscious decision their brains had made. Hence, the subjective experience of consciously deciding and then acting based on that decision is not always reliable. Sometimes, we think we’re deciding something that has already been decided.

Any student who has taken Logic 101 will tell you that you can't validly infer an "always" from a "sometimes," though you'd hope their critical thinking skills were not so underdeveloped that they needed to be explicitly taught this. Given that, it's somewhat of a surprise that a respectable scientist, like Libet, would commit such a blatantly horrible fallacy.

At most, then, Libet's experiments show that sometimes we don't freely decide when we think we do. But I don’t think even that conclusion is plausible.

For a start, it depends on Libet’s interpretation of the data being correct, namely, that what is measured in the brain a few hundred milliseconds before the subject reports a conscious decision is correctly described as an “unconscious decision.” As Alfred Mele and other philosophers have pointed out, there are clear distinctions to be made between urges, intentions, plans, and decisions, and Libet seems to just assume that what he measured should be interpreted as a “decision” rather than the more probable “urge” (if our conscious minds are able to “veto” it before we act). There is no reason to think Libet’s particular interpretation is correct, and the fact that we might have an unconscious urge or a vague plan to come to a decision before we actually make the decision should not surprise anyone.

Moreover, what does it even mean to say that “your brain has already decided”? Brains don’t make decisions, people do! That may seem like a glib response, but I mean it quite seriously.

In our folk psychological theories, we attribute all kinds of mental states to one another, like beliefs and desires, fears, plans, intentions, and so on. Using these concepts allows us to make sense of ourselves and one another. We can explain behavior by appeal to these mental states.

These are states that we attribute to persons, not specific organs in their body, even when those organs are deeply involved in the person being in that particular state. For example, we might say that Jenny is feeling hungry, but it would be odd to say that her stomach is hungry. The rumbling of her stomach might indicate that she is hungry, but it’s Jenny, the person, who feels the hunger, not her stomach.

Similarly, we might attribute fear to Jenny, but not to her amygdala (the part of the limbic system involved in fearful responses). I doubt if it ever makes sense to say that her amygdala feels anything. Nevertheless, we can recognize the central role it plays in processing and responding to fearful stimuli. But again, it is Jenny, the person, who feels the fear, not her amygdala.

Applying the lesson here to the Libet case, we can say that a subject in the experiment made a decision to move her finger and that a particular part of the motor cortex where activity was recorded was involved in that decision-making process. But does it make any sense to say that the motor cortex itself made the decision? I don’t think it does. Yet Libet just assumes that what we can attribute to a person can just as sensibly be attributed to specific parts of her body.

Even when particular parts of the body are deeply involved in generating the person’s feelings, like the stomach in the feeling of hunger, or the amygdala in the feeling of fear, it still doesn’t make sense to apply these personal concepts to parts of the body. Libet is not entitled to simply assume that the activity he measured in the motor cortex is a “decision.” He would have to do a lot of work to justify this interpretation of the data, whereas instead, he is, apparently, completely oblivious to the problem.

At best, Libet’s experiments show that the brain is involved in decision-making. But who these days would have doubted that?

Clearly, I’m not impressed with Libet. But there have been more recent experiments, like one by Chun Soon, in which so-called “free choices” were accurately predicted up to ten seconds before subjects were even aware of their own choices. Recall, the activity that Libet measured in the brain happened less than half a second before the subject consciously decided, whereas in Soon’s experiments, they were able to predict several seconds beforehand what the subject was going to choose. That may seem to present a stronger threat to the notion of free will than Libet’s experiments.

I don’t want to get into the details of Soon’s experiments, but I do want to end this post with some general comments about what neuroscientists are doing, and what this says or does not say about whether we have free will.

That our mental events have antecedent physical causes is not news for any philosopher who works on the problem of free will. And that’s pretty much all these experiments show. The decisions we make don’t just happen randomly in some vacuum -- they are part of the natural world of causes and effects.

Most philosophers who work on the problem of free will these days are what we call “compatibilists” as opposed to “libertarians” (not to be confused with political libertarians). They think that freely choosing is compatible with a causally determined universe. They understand that our decision-making is enmeshed in a network of inner and outer causes. So, showing that something played a role in causing a decision doesn’t do anything to undermine the possibility of free will. It’s neither here nor there.

Granted, if you start out with a libertarian notion of freedom -- one that asserts our free will, while denying that the universe is causally determined -- then, sure, neuroscience threatens to upturn your applecart.  But who takes libertarian freedom seriously anymore? Neuroscience, apparently, hasn’t gotten the message.

 

Comments (23)


Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, July 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

"Cognitive science" is a

"Cognitive science" is a concoction of disgruntled analytic philosophers as a critique of or alternative to it. I don't know what is meant by "neuroscience". If it is a medical field it behooves it to have the scientific modesty of general medicine, which proceeds on a rough notion of pathology and treatment and does not presume to theorize about what a healthy human being is. A medical field is exceeding its competence if it presumes to define its subject. By doing so it denies it freedom by fiat, not by the evidence. Libertarianism is an effort to justify moral licentiousness. As such it is fanaticism, not a credible theory of humanity. More pertinently, it arrogates a maximal scale of conclusion from what can only be minimal evidence. It is a clumsy mistake to suppose that human insight or free will must be some maximal effect. As if by the sweep of our hand we could reverse tides or make manna fall from the sky, otherwise there is no freedom in the world. The question is, how much divergence from the causal nexus does it take to make freedom real? If you can only expect maximal signs you have already prejudiced the matter against what is plainly more real than the ability to see them so defined. The life of mind is not even glimpsed in the methodology of "neuroscience", whatever the hell it is anyway.

MJA's picture

MJA

Friday, July 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Body and mind are One or the

Body and mind are One or the same. Freedom comes with the wisdom of equality. 
"Free at last" =

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, July 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I am a retire American

I am a retire American science educator, but I would visualize that equipment aren't that different here. We possibly will use different names for possessions, but the principle would be the same. 
Neuroscience is a full-size field. It includes analysis (which requires medical school), psychology (graduate school), neurology (medical school), and lab research in neurobiology.

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Saturday, July 18, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

An intelligent and useful

An intelligent and useful post by Laura Maguire.  Neuroscientists (of which I am one) sometimes feel qualified to pronounce on philosophical questions without understanding the long history of thought and progress on these questions.  The idea of free will they want to dismiss seems, conveniently for them, to be an impossible, almost incoherent one: to have free will, a person must have a god-like inner chooser inside who makes decisions independent of the laws of nature and the person's character and experiences.  It is easy to deny such a thing exists, and in fact its implausibility has long been recognized.  (That concept is also profoundly dualist, which is ironic since those adopting it usually say they abhor dualism.) 
When we speak of people being free in other areas such as freedom of action or freedom of speech, in contrast to freedom of will, there is broad consensus and little philosophical handwringing.  In the area of free action, for example, our actions are considered free to the extent that we can do what we want to do.  Our speech is free if we can say or publish what we want to say or write.  Whether what one wants to do or say arises naturally from her character and experience, in other words whether what she wants to do or say is predictable and deterministic, is not considered relevant.  For some reason never made clear by the free-will-deniers, that criterion of freedom is not sufficient when it comes to free will: for our will to be free, supposedly an inner deity would need to be able to violate the laws of nature.
Writings by these neuroscientists or 'neurophilosophers' often state the criterion of free will this way: "At the moment of decision, could he have decided otherwise?"  That question is the beginning of wisdom, but the question is incomplete.  What needs to be added is, "...if he had wanted to?"  Not an easy question to answer in any particular case, and neuroscience at present usually can't provide an answer, but it is the only sensible question to ask if one wants to ascertain whether a person's will is free at that moment.
- Steve George

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, July 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thank you for your comments,

Thank you for your comments, Steve George! 

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, July 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

One of  the issues Daniel

One of  the issues Daniel Dennett discussed on this week's show is whether anything hangs on the act in question. The actions in experiments such as Libet's, Dennett argues, are deliberately chosen to be as purposeless as possible. These are not the kinds of actions where the question of free will usually arises because these acts are of no consequence in any practical or moral sense. Absolutely nothing hangs on if or when you press the button.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, July 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Mr. George,

Mr. George,
Perhaps you have put your finger on the issue. Reference. Science must assume reference is not problematic. For if it is, then the progression of inference loses its way and fails. Person is the lost referent, and free will is its language. The fact is that there such a thing as mind, and that it cannot be identified or located in the parts we call the brain. But it would be irresponsible of us to suppose that what there is to be investigated is predetermined by our tools of investigation. This does not mean that we are at liberty to invent our subject. But if the rigorous study of reference proves its failure and can, just as rigorously, find its subject in that failure, then it would be just as irresponsible to ignore the finding.
Science is hampered by its tools, as a matter of scale. We can investigate parts of the brain and find real phenomena there that is duly interpreted as functioning in a certain way, but if there is a fundamentally vexed relation between parts and wholes, then such interpretation is hamstrung by its presumptions. I'm not a biologist, but I have done some reading, and I am fascinated by the notion of cell differentiation. What orders this? Must it not be the case that every time a cell divides, at least in an organism which relies on cell differentiation as a means of becoming complex, that the result is two differentiated cells? How differentiated? If the whole point of a complex organism is that each cell is more ordered in differentiation than replication, where is the order of that difference? Might it not be that each cell has as its mission, as it were, to be the most differentiated? And so most conducive to the complex? And if you combine this thought with the matter of the lost referent, where does life begin, if not in a kind of freedom that only a vexed and uncompleted reference between parts and wholes can throw light on?
Gary.

MJA's picture

MJA

Sunday, July 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

"At the moment of decision,

"At the moment of decision, could he have decided otherwise?"  That question is the beginning of wisdom, but the question is incomplete.  What needs to be added is, "...if he had wanted to?" 
"There was a dog, he had two bones, he choose the other, freedom of choice. " Devo 
Wisdom has no beginning or end, it simply is. =

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Monday, July 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Good point, and I think the

Good point, and I think the tasks in these experiments fall short of involving a person's will in other ways besides being inconsequential.  If by "will" we mean what is referred to in expressions such as "willpower" and "strong-willed," it is a decision about a voluntary action, but a particular kind of voluntary action.  Usually it would involve a conscious choice between two incompatible things a person wants, often one with a short-term benefit vs. one with a longer-term benefit.  I want to eat the triple-chocolate pecan pie, but I also want to stay on my diet.  I want to take the easy job that pays a huge salary, but it does nothing to advance causes I believe in, so I also want to take the difficult, low-paying job that has a chance to make society better.  Obviously the experiments of Libet, Wegner et al. say nothing about that sort of willed action. 
To be fair, in order to achieve scientific validity the tasks in those experiments had to be unambiguous, quantifiable, and repeatable, which I'm sure is why they were chosen.  And, if it is true (questions about assessing the timing of the subjects' choices notwithstanding) that specific brain electrical activity precedes the moment when the subject feels he or she is making the conscious choice, it is an interesting finding about the basis of voluntary action.  But, not about free will in its fullest sense.
- Steve George

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Tuesday, July 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

And, if it is true (questions

And, if it is true (questions about assessing the timing of the subjects' choices notwithstanding) that specific brain electrical activity precedes the moment when the subject feels he or she is making the conscious choice, it is an interesting finding about the basis of voluntary action.  But, not about free will in its fullest sense.

I absolutely agree!

connorblum's picture

connorblum

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The question is whether

The question is whether neuroscience is able to resolve the free will debate based on experiments such as the one described in Laura Maguire's introductory essay. A student of philosophy might first ask what the participants in the discussion mean by the term "free will." The ensuing discussion would probably lead to talk about what will is and what does it mean for that will to be free. At some point some participants might fall into the "nothing more than" fallacy of reductionism, which has a long pedigree going back at least to the time of Plato. 
As I see it, the validity of an argument for total determinism is undermined by a kind of Xeno's paradox. If everything we think and do is completely determined (without any chance or random events--a position argued by Laplace), then the discussion is meaningless, because all participants are pre-determined to argue whatever position they are arguing. Insight into the truth of the matter is irrelevant because even our apparent choice to change our mind is an illusion. 
But we have plenty of evidence that randomness is real. Indeed, the whole of evolution (operating under the laws of chance and necessity as Jacque Monod called it) depends on randomness  Mutations are not the linear result of the conditions that preceded them. If they were, they wouldn't be mutations.
If randomness is real, then a simplistic determinism such as that proposed by Laplace, B.F. Skinner, and others is false. Everything that happens is not simply the playing out of a script that was contained in full in the zero entropy event that preceded the Big Bang.
To say that there is no free will must mean, at least, that choice is an illusion. There is no entity that does any choosing, at least not consciously. Why then did consciousness emerge? So that conscious beings could observe what was happening without being able to affect events? That hardly seems plausible. 
We believe that we make choices. We know what it feels like not to be able to choose, to be coerced into a course of action. We know what it feels like to have our will overborne. Why would we have these feelings and belief if the distinction between choice and choicelessness were a complete illusion? 
We hold people responsible for their choices and actions. We call them to account. In some cases people clearly have lost the ability to make responsible choices (insanity, coercion, drug-induced states), and we don't hold them legally responsible. And the list of conditions that severely impair or completely eliminate an individual's ability to control her behavior is growing, particularly through our increased knowledge of brain lesions and other aspects of neuroscience. But we also know that these conditions are aberrations. They are not normal, which is why we make exceptions to the rules for people afflicted by them.
We know that psychopaths, for example, are missing some key features of a responsible personality, including empathy, making it more difficult for them to do the right thing. But we also know, because we have examples, that people with empathy deficiency can learn to behave responsibly, to control their behavior, notwithstanding their lack of empathy. (Empathy helps us avoid hurting others because it literally helps us feel their pain. Those having little or no ability to have empathy lack this inhibitive neural mechanism, but they still have knowledge of right and wrong, particularly an acute sense of when they have been wronged, and are not compelled by dark forces to act like total jerks or worse.
Perhaps I am begging the question at issue or simply asserting the conclusion. But it is a conclusion  that is hard to avoid, one that most people will accept much like Dr. Johnson refuted George Berkeley's doctrine that perception is reality by kicking a rock. 
At any rate, the experiments showing that our awareness of a decision is preceded by neural activity is hardly a compelling case to the contrary. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Free will does not preclude

Free will does not preclude coercion, not even unrecognized coercion. Religions are past mastgers at this, not just magicians. Hell, any grocery store is riddled with techniques of "forcing".
The notion of randomness is way over-used as a dumping grounds for lazy reasoning. In physics nothing is really random, indeterminacy is calculable. In biology it is a feature so regular that DNA can be dated by it. But there is no "mutation" that does not require an active application by the organism to make a viable change in the species. In the brain, there are many more active exchanges than simple electrical impulses. There are exchanges of atoms and compounds, and any electrical charge entails complex features such as electromagnetic energy level, polarity, phase.
But there also are limits to rational deduction that the numbers of events that happen in the human brain must encounter somehow, but that science has not yet developed the intellectual means of recognizing, because no equipment or calculation can reveal it. And it takes a philosopher to point this out.
I wonder how the "slum-dog" managed to beat the "forced" response, choosing "D" when he was directed to "B"? But, I suppose, his answer mattered.

MJA's picture

MJA

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I liked very much Connor your

I liked very much Connor your response to the issue. If I may add some thought again:
Science is in the business of measuring and dividing everything with the knowledge that their measurements are only uncertain or probable at best. But they keep measuring don't they, that is science. Isn't the definition of insanity someone who makes the same mistake over and over again expecting a different result?
Their scientific attempts to measure free will and determinism has led to the same insane problems of measuring a particle of light and its resulting wave-particle duality. Light as is truth is indivisible. To find the truth of the matter, be it light or thought, One must remove any uncertainty, once removed the absolute is all that remains. Measure is the uncertainty that creates these false divisions, remove it and see for yourselves, freedom and determinism are One or the same.
At the end of the tunnel there is a light, not a particles or a wave, not a measurement, nor a division,  only the light of unity, the absolute of freedom. Truth will set you free. 
Thanks,
= is

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks for that thoughtful

Thanks for that thoughtful and interesting post.  Two comments/questions:
(1) How would randomness enable free will?  If someone's mental activity and behavior has a notably random aspect - for example, lurching from one set of beliefs and values to another in a way unrelated to one's previous background and makeup - doesn't that detract from the possibility of exercising the will freely, at least in the sense of being able to will what one wants to will?  Isn't a will that is strong enough to overcome outside temptations and influences, and thus to operate predictably and in a way that is determined by the person's character and experiences, considered more free than a will that changes randomly in inexplicable ways? 
(2) Connorblum posed a good question about our feeling of being free to choose: "Why would we have these feelings and belief if the distinction between choice and choicelessness were a complete illusion?"   Hume gave at least a partial answer to that question that I find intriguing, although I don't know enough about these issues to analyze it critically.  He argued that our sense of a lack of strict cause and effect underlying our freely-made choices results not from the causes being weaker in some way compared to the causes in inanimate nature, but rather from our allegedly mistaken understanding about the strength of the cause-and-effect relation in general.  He says people "...entertain a strong propensity to believe that they penetrate farther into the powers of nature, and perceive something like a necessary connection between the cause and the effect. When again they turn their reflections towards the operations of their own minds, and feel no such connection of the motive and the action; they are thence apt to suppose, that there is a difference between the effects which result from material force, and those which arise from thought and intelligence."   A long argument precedes this passage about the nature of cause and effect, and I don't claim to understand it all fully, but I think there is something to Hume's explanation here!   (online ref: https://books.google.com/books?id=--LdAwAAQBAJ&pg=PT65#v=onepage&q&f=false)
- Steve George

chaos1's picture

chaos1

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

You can't explain away free

You can't explain away free will by saying there is an evil hypnotist taking your free will away because someone could always say that hypnotist has the free will to hypnotize you do do crazy things.  You would need an infinite regress of evil hypnotists to explain away free will altogether, which is really getting nowhere.
Also, being influenced doesn't preclude free will. We can resist influences. We can choose one influence over another.
 
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, July 23, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

It's a question, isn't it?,

It's a question, isn't it?, of burden of proof. We have no right to expect agreement unless we are willing to entertain critical enquiry. Simply endlessly restating what is not true does not earn assent or respect. But it is a serious issue that what defies fundamental assumptions should only be permitted to be expressed or investigated in terms of those assumptions. But it is just as serious a matter that those assumptions be cast into doubt. It requires a serious effort from us to even make a pretense to resolve this. Who do we think we are, in saying there is no free will? But, equally, who do we think we are saying there is? Modesty behooves us. But this is made harder where the other side is immodest. Judgment by fiat cannot be permitted to prevail. I think the moderators of this site might do well to return to basics. But, then, fundamental thinking is so out of vogue these days that it is become virtually taboo. 
Mr. George,
You will find the same argument in Plato's Apology, predating Hume by a bit.

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Friday, July 24, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Gary Washburn - thanks for

Gary Washburn - thanks for the suggestion about Plato's Apology, and for your interesting posts about free will.  I actually couldn't find a reference to something like Hume's argument (that a problem with understanding cause and effect leads to confusion about free will) in the Apology, e.g. the standard translation at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html .  I may be reading it too literally - and what great reading it is!.  Could you point me to the place in the text where that argument is located?  Thanks! 
- Steve George

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, July 24, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I'm afraid my memory was

I'm afraid my memory was playing tricks on me. I was thinking of the passages in which Socrates recounts how Anaxagoras tries to explain volition in purely physical terms, a farcical effort. These passages are not in Apology, but in Phaedo, starting at 96 D. Hume's solution is a kind of coherence theory, with a little behavior-mod thrown in for good measure. But the point is that it is not our ability to interpret accurately what we experience through our senses, but how our recognizing that we do not, that changes the lexical, if not the formal, conditions of experience. Socrates shows us in many places and ways that it is in recognizing that we do not know that we learn and how we respond in this knowledge that we show what it means to be human, to have human traits like reason, volition, moral judgment, freedom, and conscience, as well as what it means to know. We put too much stock in what we can possess and prove, and not enough in our ability to respond. What coincides with expectations doesn't teach us anything. It might as well be a dream. But error and loss wakes us up to reality. Most of the intellectual edifice is sustained as an attenuation of loss, as if time were an undiffering constancy. But what we recognize as real is the anomaly to such stability. There is some sense of this in physics, but in the macro sciences like medicine and neurology there is too much reliance on unexamined fundamentals taken as axiomatic. There are no axioms of time. We learn through confronting error and loss that changes our minds such that the very language of the conviction in constancy is itself inconstant. But if the mandate of conviction is constancy, and the realest term of it is change, it is in the apparently inexplicable alterations in that conviction, short of confronting a more critical reality, that express our truer nature. That is, even the conviction that consistency is rigor must have its moods. And though our moods can lead to changes in us without breaking out into understanding, fundamentals apply. Even ?neuro-scientists? have moods. It is anomalies to our fundamental convictions that generate them. And it is those anomalies that are kept hidden by our conviction that consistency is rigor that supply us with the tools to understand just how inconsistent is that conviction. It is not to abandon rigor, but to push it to completion, that we see what is human in that rigor. This is why we are in need of fundamental inquiry, which simply does not happen these days. Too many of our predecessors made fools of themselves. But fear of this is no alibi for conceit.

RichardCurtisPhD@msn.com's picture

RichardCurtisPh...

Friday, July 24, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I would like to try a little

I would like to try a little analytic move here.  I think the terms are just confusing people.  The show touched on this but did not resolve anything.  I think we are all in agreement (at least the non-dualists are) that what people on the street call free will is an illusion.  The world simply does not work that way.  But we have this whole history of moral language that is necessary to society.  So try this:
When we talk about big issue and deep truths we step outside of the world of experience to take science seriously, that is we talk Outside the Myth of Free Will.
When we want to talk about human things and the ordinary ways in which moral persuasion works, as well as learning, then we are Inside the Myth of Free Will.
This matters -- to answer Dan's question on the show -- because of social systems are a moral disaster that blames people for things that cannot control.  Our economic system and justice system both operate as if the Myth of Free Will is true.  Those institutions ought to operate Outside the Myth and so ought to recognize is as Myth and respond appropriately.  This does not mean that people are not moral beings or do not learn -- what it means is that we need to hold people to account in ways that are justified given what we know about science.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, July 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Calling freedom myth. Some

Calling freedom myth. Some analysis! Economics is myth, it can hardly operate outside its constituting framework. The myth of economics, by the way, is that value is quantifiable. The myth of the quantifier, by the way, is why analysis can never be real. The foundation of logic is the "law", so called, of contradiction, when, in fact, analytical fact, there can be no real contradiction. Only contraries. The proposition is not a disambiguation, it is measure by ambiguity. Science denatures itself, not humanity, when it tries to eliminate its humanness.

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Saturday, July 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

There is certainly a major

There is certainly a major verbal aspect to this issue.  It's reasonable to make the distinction proposed in Richard Curtis' post, but I hate to concede that my belief in my own (occasionally) free will, as I understand what that phrase should mean, is a myth.  If in a particular situation (1) I can will what I want to will and (2) I could have willed differently if I had wanted to, that's free willing according to the meaning of  'free' in every other context - freedom of movement, speech, action, etc.  According to that meaning, if (1) and (2) apply, the will is free whether the person's want to will a particular thing is based on random chance, no cause at all, a totally autonomous inner chooser, one's consciousness resolving a quantum superposition (as some physicists have speculated), or - as I personally believe is most common - ordinary determinism.  Could we agree to call the will "free"' no matter what lies behind what we want to will, but use another word for the supposed special case of the godlike inner chooser, such as "omnipotent will," or spontaneous, uncaused, or supernatural will?   Also, to categorize such a possibility unequivocally as a myth will raise hackles, perhaps legitimately, since I don't think anyone can say for sure that it absolutely never happens.
I'm aware that in Italian, for example, the usual word corresponding to 'free' is 'libero.'  'Free speech' is 'discorso libero.'  However, in the case of free will (as in the phrase "of one's own free will" ) it's called spontanea volontà, somewhat like my suggestion above for a better English word for 'free' when the willing is said to occur non-deterministically.   In German, though, I see references to 'Willenfreiheit' in webpages on Kant, so perhaps German is like English in that regard.  I wonder about other languages, e.g. in language families other than Indo-European.  'Google translate' might render "free will" as the usual word for "free" + the usual word for "will," rather than fluently translating the phrase as a unit.  Any native speakers out there who could knowledgeably translate 'free will' into Mandarin, Navajo, or Swahili and compare it to the use of 'free' in situations other than willing?
- Steve George

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, July 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Mr. George,

Mr. George,
Another Plato dialog you may be interested in is the Cratylus. In response to a question about the origin of the meanings of words, Socrates goes into an extensive, if fanciful, etymology of Greek words. The point, as always in Plato, is not explicit, but intimated. It is that our ability to understand each other derives, not from some pre-existing system or mechanism, but from the effort we make to understand one another. What if freedom is not something I possess as a innate capability or trait, but derives from my need that you be free so that we can come to understand each other? If you are not free to misunderstand me I am not capable of being understood.
Randomness, again? Well, again, nothing real is random. Probabilities are always calculable, or unreal. What is incalculable, where calculation fails, where the lost enumerator is what is real, meaning erupts. And person is its extremity in rigor. It is how we change our minds that measures how human we are and what that means. Science is about how we become fixed in our minds. And so, again, what is needed is philosophy, not "neuro-science".

 
 
 
 

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