Sunday, February 4, 2007

Free will and determinism

Do we have free will, or are all our thoughts and actions a result of the physical forces in our universe?

After having taken part in a discussion about consciousness on Furiku's blog I decided to learn a little bit more about the philosophy of the mind which discusses such things as the nature of the mind, consciousness, and free will versus determinism. The audio-course, which I warmly recommend, is from the teaching company (see my previous post about the the teaching company here), and it is called "philosophy of the mind". Teacher is John Searle (see picture) from the University of California, Berkeley.

My experience is that the question of free will versus determinism is a question that many people ask themselves occasionally. Are we free agents in the world or does everything, and I mean everything have a preceding cause. I cannot speak for anyone else of course, but for me it sure feels like I have free will. When I write these words I feel as if I am deciding to write these words, and I can even erase them again if I want to! On the other hand, dwelling further into this I can think of situations in which I have felt as if I had no free will, where I acted contrary to the way I wanted to act. One of my stepchildren exemplifies this point well. In the process of doing something violent to her younger sibling she sometimes says "I just could not control myself", which effectively eliminates the possibility of telling her that "that was wrong!".

I should state here what I believe; I believe that we live in a determined universe, that free will is an illusion (that we are determined to have), and I will now explain why.

We have physical laws which can, with some small exceptions, explain more or less everything that goes on around us. In most chemical and physical systems we can, if we know the current state of the molecules in the system, predict how the same system will look in the future. Our brain is a chemical/physical system (a very complex one), and therefore it should be theoretically possible to predict what our brain will look like in the future, and if we had more knowledge about the relation between the physical and mental state of the brain we would be able to predict exactly, the mental states and behaviors of the individual.

Some people will object to my view by saying that, if I don't have free will, then everything is determined and it doesn't matter what I do. I could go out and rape and kill people and that would have been inevitable. However, if the deterministic hypothesis is true, then you could obviously not decide to go out and kill and rape. If you did go out to kill and rape, it would be because of something, maybe these words (caused by processes in my brain) have had an influence of your brain which makes you go and do this, or maybe you have gotten a tumor in your amygdala, messing up your emotions. A similar objection that I sometimes hear is the following. "How can you (referring to me), believe in such a depressing thing?" Life is meaningless without free will! Of course the answer is the same, if the deterministic hypothesis is true I cannot decide to believe or not believe in free will, my beliefs were determined by the state of the universe when it began. Besides, I don't really feel sad when I think that I have no free will, rather, I think, I am a little bit amused by this thought.

Another objection is that research in quantum mechanics have shown that there is uncertainty in the universe. We cannot tell the exact location of the electron when it is orbiting the nucleus of the atom, hence free will. To me this argument sounds rather far fetched and desperate. There is no plausible reason to suggest that we would be able to control, through our mental activity, where the electron is located, and there is also no good reason (as I see it), why the location of an electron in the orbital cloud should give rise to different actions.

Summing up, I just cannot see anyway around the conclusion that there is no such thing as free will. It free will did exist it would be a big problem for science which rests on the assumption that every process in the universe have a cause. I would love to hear comments on this post, especially from people who do believe in free will...

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

No, but you're right: If there is no God, than there can be nothing of the sort.

Free will would only be pure fairy tale.

As i see it, free will rests on the assumption that there is a supernatural, supreme being (alongside of a personal soul).

Why reward or punish any action then?

z, believer

Anonymous said...

simply put: If one can't "stop" oneself (no free will), then why be punished?

z

rasmussenanders said...

How would a supernatural being give us free will? How we he/she allow our bodies to break the chain of causation?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how that supreme being "gave" us free will, and couldn't explain how "that phenomenon" helps our brains, but i think it does

z

Anonymous said...

i wonder what ground our entire legal system (penalties, punishment, jail, fines) is based on?

I mean, if no one can help it: "it's just me, i couldn't have acted otherwise")

;)

z

rasmussenanders said...

I see that more as a way to protect society from the criminals, make it less profitable to commit crimes (this makes good sense in evolutionary terms), and as a way (ideally) to treat the criminals. However, I am sceptical to prisons and penalties in general, mostly because they do not seem to help the people who get into prison. On the other hand, I cannot think of anything better to do with murderers than to lock them up and hope they get better.

Also, I think we will always have free will as a model in our society. I don´t walk around all days and think everything is inevitable etc, though that is my belief when I reflect on it.

Tobias Malm said...

Great post, and I agree. And i like your blog. I added a link to it from mine.

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the compliment, I will add you to my list as well =).

Anonymous said...

Hejhopp här =) Har sökt svara på ditt inlägg på furiku i tråden om fri vilja (..yoga, homeopatiska medel m.m..);

http://furiku.blogsome.com/2007/02/05/yoga/#comments

rasmussenanders said...

Har redan sett det, och har börjat skriva ett svar, det kommer snart...

Hejhopp said...

Det tycks här råda viss ambiguitet kring användningen av "snart" ;)

Vore intressant att se hur man som materialit & determinist rättfärdigar sina sanningsanspråk, eller få bevittna något så starkt & ödmjukt som ett erkännande av att mckt väger tungt mot att bedriva personlig filosofi eller vetenskap (i dess omfattande innebörd) för den delen på strikt materialistisk & determinisk grund. Speciellt när mer skäliga utgångspunkter finns tillgängliga.

Den insikten, om jag får kalla den så, innebär ett erkännande av också immaterialla tings existens, såväl som ett mer skäligt förhållningssätt till egna känslor, tankar, ja qualia och upplevelsen av att också vara fri och pockar på en lång rad mindre bekväma frågeställningar. Tyvärr så kan dessa inte heller förkastas med grund i att de är obekväma - iaf. inte om man söker upprätthålla en vetenskaplig attityd & metod.

Belöningen är förstås att man blir mer ödmjuk & öppen, jag skulle även säga kritiskt granskande, för & av den mckt omfattande värld vi lever i.

rasmussenanders said...

Har nu svarat på ditt inlägg på furikus blogg...

Hejhopp said...

Såg att du svarat så jag skrev ett svar i tråden (på Furiku, under Yoga..) som i grund & botten handlar om fri vilja (bortser man från den frågan så är vi överens om yoga & placebo - men så är det också en väsentlig skillnad att tro på/inte tro på fri vilja)

Vid första insändandet blev det ngt galet med formateringen av radbrytningar så hoppa över det för längre ned postade jag inlägget en gång till & då gick det bra..

Beda said...

Hi again Anders:

consider the following three scenarios. i) being asleep and dreaming; ii) being awake; and iii) "lucid" dreaming.

In the first, we have conscious experience, yet we typically have no control over what happens in the dream: without resisting, we just do things, and we are like observers to our own actions. When we are awake, our experience is of course more concrete, but we also have a sense of control that we do not when we dream. And indeed, for those lucky (or not!) to dream lucidly on occasion, then you can be in the situation of being in a dream but knowing it, and being able to control what happens.
My point is that there is a definite difference between these three scenarios: and thus we already know what it would be like to live in a world without free-will: it would be like the waking version of a dream. The fact that our waking experience is not like that suggests that there really is something to the degree of control we feel when awake...

beda said...

Anders

I think there are several issues here. First, you claim that the physical laws of the universe effectively preclude free-will. And it is true that we can predict what will happen with a very high degree of accuracy, subject to the constraints, of course, of quantum indeterminacy. But of course one thing we cannot predict is human action. So one could argue that in fact, the laws of the universe do not rule out free will, even if we do not understand why not. One could respond to this by claiming that, in the future, when we have a perfect neurobiology, we will indeed be able to perfectly predict human action. Imagine this to be the case for a moment. The trouble here is that, because humans are countersuggestible, if we knew what the predictions of such a theory were, we would always be able to act against them. So, suppose the theory said "you will now lift your arm". Then you could simply choose not to. The counter argument is, of course, that knowing the prediction would change the brain state. But why should one not be able to take that into account when making the prediction? If not, then one is in the extremely bizarre situation that there would be a unique class of true knowledge about the world - the predictions of such an expanded theory - that humans would never be able to acquire. And why on earth should that be the case? Indeed, by a series of thought experiments, one can show that human brains would have to be extremely odd in order to rule out such an expanded theory. We have no reason to think that is actually the case, or why it should be.
Finally, one could ask how we can be so sure that physics etc rules out free will. This would imply that we have a good account of causality. But we do not. No-one has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the question "what do we mean when we say one thing causes another" - another reason to be very cautious about the claims you make...

rasmussenanders said...

Thanks for your comment Beda,

There are more differences between dreaming and waking states than feeling you have free will.

One important difference is that we have no sensory input during dreaming, and also, all muscles are inhibited - to prevent us from acting out our dreams. So it is very possible that our brain will only give us the illusion of free will when we are actually able to move our limbs and when we have sensory input. I can see no reason why this thought experiment is a valid test of whether we have free will or not...

rasmussenanders said...

Response to the second comment,

The question of whether there is free will or not is one of those questions where you will necessarily run into very bizarre and strange problems whatever you believe in. It would be very strange to be able to predict your own actions and then see them carried out without being able to do anything about it, and you are right, my answer would be that such knowledge would change the brain and perhaps prevent the behavior from occuring.

Another counter argument is that behaviors that seem free to a normal person, such as whether to be aggressive or nice, or to lift your arm, actually are not free. We can see that in people with brain damage who may perform all these actions involuntarily.

About the concept of causality I am aware of the philosophical issues (Hume is my favorite philosopher), however, in a discussion such as this one as well as 99.9% of all discussions in science everyone "knows" what is meant when we say that A causes B. I think that most people have no trouble understanding what I mean when I say that all our behaviors are caused by material processes in our body. Perhaps you disagree there

Beda said...

Hi, and thanks for your responses!

As to the first: well, I don't want to claim definitively that dreaming "proves" we have free-will, only to point out that it is not entirely clear to me that we could never tell the difference. And lucid dreaming- which I have occasionally experienced - is an interesting counterpoint to your suggestion. Ie in lucid dreaming we *know* we are dreaming, and can control what happens, despite the fact that we still have muscle paralysis etc, as you point out. I just wondered if you have ever experienced this very odd state?
I, and no-one else, really knows what they mean when they talk about "free will". But rationality is surely something to do with it. We don't really think that animals really have free will, in the sense that they could act differently to how they actually do: and that is why we don't ascribe morality to them. No-one thinks it evil of an escaped tiger to attack a human at the zoo after all; that is just what tigers sometimes do. Whether animals are rational or not is harder to answer, because one can think up situations where it is reasonable to ascribe at least beliefs to animals (e.g. "the dog thinks there is a bone buried under the hedge"): and this is not just a manner of speaking. But it is hard to square being rational with not having free will of some kind. If we do not have free will, then to say that we truly make rational arguments and are persuaded by them is false: we would actually act because of the physical machinations of our atoms, and not because we are swayed by logic.
I think the trouble is that we can't perceive of ourself as not having free will. After all, one might be persuaded that some of our views are wrong, and thus that we should abandon them - that is the point of science, after all - but in this particular case, we could not possibly do it: it would lead to all sorts of absurd contradictions.
Another point is the evolutionary aspect. Rationality, which if genuine, implies free will I think, evolved. But if it really plays no causal role in our lives - if our rationality is an illusion - then why would it correspond so closely to our ability to act? (I am, by the way, an evolutionary biologist!). It is the same as consciousness. One can imagine it evolving as a sort of side effect of evolution, but why does it tie in so precisely and flexibly with how we act in the world. This suggests that it plays a real role rather than an illusory one.
You are quite right to point out the problems of causality, although I would maintain the view that we do not really understand causality, and thus what a "closed physical universe" is meant to rule out. At some level, we have events in the brain that are correlated with consciousness: and if consciousness, rationality and free will are real, then there must be two-way intercourse between them. But why do you think this is actually impossible?

rasmussenanders said...

Thanks again for your comments,
First of all let me just state that I am not extremely dogmatic on the question of free will. I do recognize that many things would be conceptually more simple if we had it. As you mention you also run into a lot of philosophical difficulties if you deny free will. However, I think that you run into even more absurd problems if you do believe in free will - which seems after all to be the end of causality.

Concerning rationality I don't think that is any prouf whatsoever of free will, rather it is evidence for determinism. To act in a rational way is per definition to act in a way that takes you nearer your goals whatever those are. I cannot think of any behavioral pattern that would be better in evolutionary terms. If people tended to behave irrationaly e.g. not running when attacked by a tiger, that would be evidence in favour of free will.

To be persuaded by something does superficially seem to require free will, but it doesn't. It just means that my brain state is changes in a very materialistic way. Whether I am persuaded or not will depend on the state of my brain prior to receiving the information.

Concerning lucid dreaming I think that I have experienced it, but I do not think that it is evidence in favour of free will either.

Beda said...

On rationality:

What I mean by rationality is that we are able to be persuaded by logical arguments. After all, animals typically behave in ways that will enhance their survival (not always though: e.g. when whales beach themselves, although we can reasonably think this happens when something "goes wrong"). But we do not in general think that animals are "rational":rather, evolution has shaped their instincts in such a way that they behave in non self-destructive ways. Humans, of course, behave like this too: we also have a set of background instincts that makes us eat, jump out of the way of speeding trains, etc.
But our ability to think linguistically also allows us to solve problems logically and act on those solutions. The trouble is that if all our actions are caused by brain states, then it follows, I think, that our rationality is an illusion: the rational belief per se is not what alters our behaviour, but the brain states that lie behind it. In other words, one has a branching diagram where brain state A causes both belief B and action X; the belief and action are correlated because they are both caused by the same thing, but one does not affect the other. One can thus draw a line connecting up brain states without ever passing through a rational belief, which then becomes irrelevant to the causal basis for our behaviour.
But anyone who seeks to persuade, e.g. by writing a book (or a blog!) is implicitly endorsing the other view; that the chain of causality somehow genuinely involves our beliefs, and not just as an epiphenomenal byproduct.
I agree that this seems problematic. But I am not quite sure *why* we think it so problematic. For if it is true that we should seek truth and not allow ourselves to be deceived by illusory states, why is it in this case that, even if the brain state theory is true, that we could never bring ourselves to believe it? After all, if the brain state theory turns out to be true, then we have to accept that rational acceptance is not what causes us to accept it, but just another set of brain states. It seems self-contradictory...

rasmussenanders said...

Hello again and thanks for your comment. So you are saying that we humans are rational in the sense that there is a decision making process involved in any or most actions. I would refer to that process as reasoning rather than rationality since for me rationality is a very behavioral concept.

Anyways, I think that we have an illusion of reasoning. A strong argument in favour of this is the 0.5s lack of consciousness. It turns out that when we are stimulated, we are first made aware of this 0.5s later. In that amount of time our brain will have had time to do alot of stuff. What we perceive as reasoning or thoughts or consciousness is simply an afterconstruction. A perhaps not so good analogy would be that the brain is saying to us what it just did (doesn't really work because we are our brain, but I think you get my point).

When I write a blog I am trying to change the brain state of people. Ultimately that will, if I am lucky, change the probabilities of different behaviors in my readers. It follows from the other things that I have said that I do not really think (on a deep philosophical level) that my readers "decide" whether they think what I write is good or not.

Bizarre and strange? Yes! Contradictory, No, I don't think so.

Bart said...

Ok Anders, one random click wrong and you've earned a spot in my bookmarks list.

Very thoughtful stuff. I thought I would add my $.02.

If we build up consciousness from simple life forms, to complex, we see the gradual differing degrees. They go from biologic creatures that behave totally predictable (worms, sponges, jelly fish) all the way up to higher primates, dolphin, grey parrots, etc. At the primitive end of the spectrum, life behaves in very predictable paths, and typically fills a very specific environmental niche. When removed from that environment, the life form cannot adapt to the new location, and dies attempting to perform the same physical tasks it does in its typical habitat.

Now look at creatures that have higher cognitive skills, and you see adaptations in the brain that allow the organism to evaluate its environment and change its behavior to survive in the new local. These creatures can develop new behaviors to adapt to changed threats, without having to rely on random mutation/natural selection. Change can happen within one lifespan.

As this new adaptation advances, a turning point must be reached. Self awareness. A creature must be able to objectively look at itself to be able to look for new behaviors.

Once self awareness manifests itself, then that opens the door to many other types of behaviors, from cooperative to altruism. Some have made the case that altruism is evidence that we are natural moral creatures. I deny this, and propose a second option. Altruism suggests a new development in the capacity of self awareness. Self awareness has been shown to be extended family, or immediate group. Parents in many different species will sacrifice of themselves to protect their offspring, or other members of their group. I feel that altruism is the next larger stage of consciousness where a being can recognize its species as part of the self. Beyond that might be recognition of all of life being related and dependent on each other.

To bring this all back on topic, a completely deterministic creature will always act in its own self interest. The higher the creature moves up the intellectual ladder, the more it is able to act contrary to its personal self interest to further the goals of the group. To do this, it must act contrary to the inputs from its environment. Observing nature, there are clear degrees of this type of behavior.

A creature may never act in a way that is contrary to its nature, but perhaps free will (as we perceive it) may simply be the ability of one part of a brain to recognize the many possible reactions to specific stimuli. Once a minimum number of possible responses are available to one stimuli, then free will is achieved in the species, just as self awareness is achieved.

You can lift your arm, or stand up. A human can even act contrary to their own well being. I think the ultimate act of free will may be the self mummification of the monks in Tibet. How can those actions be described as deterministic, when they are contrary to all natural instincts?

Free will may simply be the ability to view our deterministic drives, and choose alternative paths.

Anonymous said...

the only way free will is possible is if nonmaterial can effect material somehow, i think it can, since we know that material can effect nonmaterial.

Anonymous said...

i need to know if thoughts feeling and consiousness are matter or not

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the comments everyone.

To the last comment I just want to answer, yes, thoughts feelings and consciousness is matter, though as I have recently learned, matter is an elusive concept. In other words feeelings and consciousness may not be matter in the traditional sense...

I guess what I really want to say is that I think that whatever the laws of physics turn out to be the mind (thoughts feelings and consciousness), the physical laws will apply to it...