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Wednesday, August 7, 2019
Brain / Mind ... Philosophy ...

The Nautilus web site is usually a good place to find deep and interesting thinkers at work. I came across a recent Nautilus post by Brian Gallagher regarding free will, where Mr. Gallagher wonders if neuroscience can help us to understand it. Free will is a very confounding topic that elicits a wide variety of opinion as to what it is, and even whether it exists or not. To what degree is “free will” a useful and accurate concept, given the realities of our bodies, brains and minds?

So, can neuroscience help us to get a better handle on free will? To date, there have been a variety of studies identifying brain structural features and flaws that affect mental states and human behavior. There is even evidence that brain lesions in various brain regions can predispose people to criminal behavior. Researchers found that crime-related lesions all fall within a unique, functionally connected brain network that is thought to be involved in moral decision making. A 2016 research paper noted that people who have behavioral-variant frontotemporal dementia “develop immoral behaviors as a result of their disease despite the ability to explicitly state that their behavior is wrong.”

OK, but these situations are exceptional, and sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the rule. So what is the rule? When our neural wiring isn’t out of whack, is our will “free”? Can neuroscience answer that? Well, not yet, but stay tuned. Mr. Gallagher tells us about a group of neuroscientists and philosophers who recently announced that they’ve received $7 million to study and define the nature of free will and whether humans have it, or to what degree they do.

But in the interim, we are told of a 1983 thought experiment from a philosopher named Gregory Kavka, which Mr. Gallagher finds to be quite informing on the topic. It involves a situation where someone is paid to have a mental intention to do something harmful, e.g. they will drink a very sickening poison tonight just after midnight. So long as they intend to quaff it down come midnight, they will be paid the next day. It’s OK if they didn’t actually drink the stuff, so long as at the stroke of 12, they really, really, really intended to do it. According to this thought experiment, some sort of sophisticated brain scanner will be set up to detect if the subject intended to drink the bad stuff come midnight.

According to Gallagher,

Kavka’s thought experiment shows [that] we don’t have much control over our thoughts. Take this article I’m writing: The words I’m committing to print pop into my mind unbeckoned. It’s less me choosing them and more them presenting themselves to me. The act of writing feels more like a process of passive filtration than active conjuration.

However, I myself am not convinced that Kavka has proven that our thoughts are beyond control. To me, Gallagher’s interpretation just kicks the can down the road. Just what is presenting the words to the writer, however “unbeckoned”? The words themselves? I’m dubious of that proposition!

Gallagher implies there is some sort of “black box”, perhaps unconscious or sub-conscious, that dictates its own decisions to the conscious/sentient realm of the brain-mind. So, it’s not the conscious portion of our minds that is running the show (this idea is called “epiphenomenalism” by philosophers who study the issue of consciousness). But even if that is true, another question remains — does the “black box” itself have “free will” in the sense of a unique and persistent identity that it asserts in its decision-making; or is it simply another input-output transducer like any other modern computer, programmed by evolution to maximize reproduction?

As with most discussions of free will, this article doesn’t do a good job of trying to nail down a clear usable definition. The author touches on the problem of criminal responsibility, although concludes that such responsibility is not really a problem, given that social needs will always dictate that you be held responsible, whether or not you could have done otherwise.

Free will never really was the issue in the criminal area, actually — a criminal act is usually a sign of bad character, an erroneous behavioral decision; and the State provides sanctions to discourage such character, except in rare cases where sanctions clearly could not modify the person’s future behavior because of severe brain defects.

Kavka’s thought experiment goes nowhere with me. You can’t fake a mental intention. You can’t plan to intend to do X until 11:59 pm, and then change intention to Y instead. The overall plan itself is your intention all night long; the machine will detect that and deny you any cash. This says nothing as to whether that plan was arrived at via free will or not. Now, it may be possible for a person to fully convince themselves that they will drink the poison at 12:10 am, and at the last minute spontaneously get “cold feet” (however they don’t form those sub-conscious second thoughts until after the brain scan at midnight).

In fact, given human nature, we might expect that quite frequently! What I think would probably happen would be that some people would start having sub-conscious second thoughts before midnight (and thus not get any money), some would have second thoughts just after midnight (and thus get paid), and a few brave souls will just drink the stuff and ride it out, no looking back. Everyone is a bit different. But what does that say about free will? Differences between people do not guarantee personal agency, but they also rule out the notion that we are all ultimately mass-produced automatons. I don’t see how this scenario says much of anything about free will. It might argue in favor of epiphenomenalism, it might affirm that much of our decision-making is sub-conscious and only appears to involve the process of consciousness. Fine, but that doesn’t mean that free will cannot exist in the sub-conscious.

I believe that this matter is strongly related to the question of “emergence”, specifically strong vs weak emergence. (Some general, everyday examples of “emergent phenomenon” are traffic jams, bird flocks flying in formation, and ants forming a colony; the highest, most complicated levels of emergence are probably found in the human mind and human societies.) If you think that strong emergence is real, that complex systems take on their own characteristics in ways that can’t be explained as mere sums of all inputs, that the whole is bigger and different than the sum of the parts, that each system is strongly determined by the path by which it arrived into the present versus “same either way”, then free will is easier to swallow. If emergence is weak, if the inputs yield predictable outputs and any seemingly unique characteristics are just a chimera or unimportant side-effect, then the will is also weak.

I view the free will question as a matter of degree regarding “strength of emergence” — how much uniqueness does your “character” have, relative to all of the external inputs over your lifetime that have shaped your mental character? To what degree is it determined? To what degree is that determination relevant? In the end, each person may be left to make up their own mind on free will (although it will be interesting to see what the $7 million study comes up with). Science and logic do not seem to give us a clear definition of just what free will is and what the idea is being used for; the various definitions proposed and the various conclusions that result from such definitions themselves appear to be very subjective. (I suspect that the results of the big study will be largely dependent upon how the problem is defined at the start).

And that in itself hints to me that there is something unique about each person’s character; knowing everything about that character, you may be able to predict quite accurately how a person with such character will respond to a given situational input. But you can’t accurately predict just what character will emerge over a lifetime. There are too many random (maybe even quantum) factors, too much “butterfly effect”, too much chaos and complexity at work in the recursive feedback processes involved.

The bottom line for me is this — we are generally “free” to become who we are, to gain the “will” that we have, even is such will lies buried in the unconscious and is not always known by the conscious mind (hey, if this were different, then psychotherapists would be out of a job!). Even if we are physically the sum of our inputs, even though in theory, those inputs are unique and non-reproducible, they become part of a long story, our story. And that story is manifested in who we are. Perhaps it is a matter of language; instead of “free”, maybe it’s more important to say that we have “unique” will, to do the job that the notion of free will was intended for.

And that’s what should be respected and protected, each person’s right to a unique will. Each person’s right to be who they are (so long as they don’t exploit others in doing so). To say that I will run away if I hear a rattlesnake in the bushes, thus I am perfectly predictable in behavior — that is true! But so what? You might know my response to every imaginable situation, you might have a list of millions or billions of situations and my own responses. And guess what? That list is unique. It’s like a snowflake. No one else has it or will have it in the future or ever had it in the past. Or even if they did – all you’d have to do is to expand the list, add more situations, and at some point the two seemingly similar situations would become unique.

To me, that is important. It gives each of us a story, a dignity, a value, maybe even a reason to be. It gives us a right not to have our story and our decisions “molded” by a stronger authority, unless absolutely necessary for the freedom and dignity of others. This was once the credo of “liberal government” – that even though humans need social guidance and incentive via rule of law, such guidance and incentive should be as minimal as possible. Freedom should always be preferred, human uniqueness and individual dignity should always be respected. For me, this is a “good enough” notion of free will, good enough for daily life. Even though sophisticated philosophic arguments might still be made that under a strict and stringent definition, we are not free. Personally, I will take the “good” and leave the “perfect” for another life!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:11 pm      

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