Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Science And Free Will

There is an article on free will suggesting science has somehow disproved it.
Humans have debated the issue of free will for millennia. But over the past several years, while the philosophers continue to argue about the metaphysical underpinnings of human choice, an increasing number of neuroscientists have started to tackle the issue head on — quite literally. And some of them believe that their experiments reveal that our subjective experience of freedom may be nothing more than an illusion. Here's why you probably don't have free will.

Indeed, historically speaking, philosophers have had plenty to say on the matter. Their ruminations have given rise to such considerations as cosmological determinism (the notion that everything proceeds over the course of time in a predictable way, making free will impossible), indeterminism (the idea that the universe and our actions within it are random, also making free will impossible), and cosmological libertarianism/compatibilism (the suggestion that free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe).

Now, while these lines of inquiry are clearly important, one cannot help but feel that they're also terribly unhelpful and inadequate. What the debate needs is some actual science — something a bit more...testable.
So the biases have been clearly established.  He pretends to understand something of philosophy (he doesn't). Then he declares that science is where we find the real truth. 
And indeed, this is starting to happen. As the early results of scientific brain experiments are showing, our minds appear to be making decisions before we're actually aware of them — and at times by a significant degree. It's a disturbing observation that has led some neuroscientists to conclude that we're less in control of our choices than we think — at least as far as some basic movements and tasks are concerned.
OK, so what is the point? That some choices are involuntary? We have always known that. That our patterns of thought and action are firmly ingrained and are hard for our rational mind to change? We actually know that already too. What free will says is not that we have total control over all our thoughts and actions. It just says we have some control. That our rational, conscious mind can impact what we say and do. It might take effort. It might even take long term training. It can be done.

That is not even the big question with determinism. The big question is whether our rational, conscious mind can be influenced by our souls. Is our rational consciousness just an illusion? Is it really determined by the laws of brain chemistry? Comparing our rational mind with our subconscious mind is never going to answer this question. Nobody questions how we think impacts how we act over the long term. The subconscious needs to be trained but it can be done to some degree. The question is whether we have freedom to think and choose or if all our choices could be predicted by simply knowing the state of all the matter involved and calculating. A complex calculation indeed but not one that can be held morally responsible for anything.  
At the same time, however, not everyone is convinced. It may be a while before we can truly prove that free will is an illusion.
It may be a while? Great that you are not prejudging anything. It may be a while before you can understand the question.

He does quote another article on the brain. It is all quite interesting.
We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other mammals even, even more risky than the brains of chimpanzees, and that this could be partly a matter of a few simple mutations in control genes that release some of the innate competitive talent that is still there in the genomes of the individual neurons. But I don't think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.
Innate competitive talent? Isn't that interesting. That evolution developed this huge complexity that was never used by lower organisms. How does survival of the fittest explain that? It doesn't. Anyway this riskiness is unleashed in humans. It means the brain is way more complex.

Then he trots out Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. I guess this is where moderns go when they want to address philosophy. Dennett is actual in favor of free will. Harris thinks it is an illusion. Here is his Harris quote:
A person's conscious thoughts, intentions, and efforts at every moment are preceded by causes of which he is unaware. What is more, they are preceded by deep causes — genes, childhood experience, etc. — for which no one, however evil, can be held responsible. Our ignorance of both sets of facts gives rise to moral illusions. And yet many people worry that it is necessary to believe in free will, especially in the process of raising children.
Again he misses the point. Showing that a person's thoughts are partly controlled  by genetics, by childhood experience, etc is not enough. It is not even that remarkable. We have always known we are shaped by nature and nurture. The question is can we do anything about it? Are we just stuck with what we are stuck with or is there some point at which we become responsible for our own choices? To show there is no free will you need to show that the outside causes are 100% of the equation. That we control nothing. Harris lowers his burden of proof. He shows that it is more than 0% and then leaps to the conclusion that it must be 100%.
Harris doesn't believe that the illusoriness of free will is an "ugly truth," nor something that will forever be relegated to philosophical abstractions. This is science, he says, and it's something we need to come to grips with. "Recognizing that my conscious mind is always downstream from the underlying causes of my thoughts, intentions, and actions does not change the fact that thoughts, intentions, and actions of all kinds are necessary for living a happy life — or an unhappy one, for that matter," he writes.
So Harris does not really understand what he is saying. He seems to think that having a "happy life" is all that is important. It is enough for chimpanzees. What is your problem? It is like someone running a marathon. If he suddenly comes to know there is no finish line then what changes? In a way nothing. In another way everything.

I can see how someone might feel obliged to face an ugly truth. I can't really see how someone does not see it as ugly. I guess it is just a lack of deep thinking.

The philosophy is bound to make people less able to overcome moral challenges. He mentions raising kids as something people want to do well. What if they are told that they can't do it well or badly? They will just do what their brains are programmed to do. Nothing more and nothing less. That the goodness they see in the act of raising kids is just an illusion. There is nothing noble about being a good parent. There is nothing shameful about being a bad one. There is just nothing there.

Really your whole self is an illusion. That is the bottom line. There is no person making a difference in the world. There is just a biological machine following the laws of science. Maybe Harris is intellectually capable of thinking this through but is morally and spiritually not capable of going there. Maybe he says it is not an ugly truth because it is so ugly he can't say anything else. Who knows?

The reality is that we do have souls. We can choose and we do. If you drill right down it brings back Pascal's wager. If Sam Harris is right then we are all in hell with no hope of getting out. The only bet we can lay is that he is wrong. That is that our moral choices matter. Then we have to deal with the fact that we don't always make good moral choices. So it gets complicated. Still the immaterial world is there and we need to take it seriously because at the end of the day we can't control the laws of physics but we can control our spiritual life.

BTW, Ed Feser has commented on this a few times.

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