Modern neuroscience is eroding the idea of free will

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Corlyss_D
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Modern neuroscience is eroding the idea of free will

Post by Corlyss_D » Fri Jan 05, 2007 3:32 pm

Liberalism and neurology

Free to choose?
Dec 19th 2006
From The Economist print edition


Modern neuroscience is eroding the idea of free will

IN THE late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser?

His case dramatically illustrates the challenge that modern neuroscience is beginning to pose to the idea of free will. The instinct of the reasonable observer is that organic changes of this sort somehow absolve the sufferer of the responsibility that would accrue to a child abuser whose paedophilia was congenital. But why? The chances are that the latter tendency is just as traceable to brain mechanics as the former; it is merely that no one has yet looked. Scientists have looked at anger and violence, though, and discovered genetic variations, expressed as concentrations of a particular messenger molecule in the brain, that are both congenital and predisposing to a violent temper. Where is free will in this case?

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were “freely” entered into, then social relations would be very different.

We, the willing

For millennia the question of free will was the province of philosophers and theologians, but it actually turns on how the brain works. Only in the past decade and a half, however, has it been possible to watch the living human brain in action in a way that begins to show in detail what happens while it is happening (see survey). This ability is doing more than merely adding to science's knowledge of the brain's mechanism. It is also emphasising to a wider public that the brain really is just a mechanism, rather than a magician's box that is somehow outside the normal laws of cause and effect.

Science is not yet threatening free will's existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not. But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.

At that point, the old French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” will start to have a new resonance, though forgiveness may not always be the consequence. Indeed, that may already be happening. At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

The coming battle

Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.

Nor is it only the criminal law where free will matters. Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.
http://www.economist.com/opinion/displa ... id=8453850
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Post by Ralph » Fri Jan 05, 2007 9:48 pm

This debate over nature versus nurture ebbs and flows - currently it's a hot topic.
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Post by burnitdown » Sun Jan 07, 2007 10:44 pm

It has never been a matter of debate among our best philosophers. The answer is friggin' obvious.

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Post by Corlyss_D » Mon Jan 08, 2007 3:05 am

burnitdown wrote:It has never been a matter of debate among our best philosophers. The answer is friggin' obvious.
Ah, but when science speaks, philosophy must fall silent. That's why I think studying philosophy is a waste of time. Maybe in Plato's day when there was so little science philosophy had a role to play in describing the universe and man's place in it. But over the last 2500 years, philosophy hasn't acquired any more insights than it had then, while science has pretty much settled all of the questions that rely on observation of the world around us, thus eleminating the need for the tentative and speculative answers that we once looked to philosophy to for.
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Post by burnitdown » Tue Jan 09, 2007 9:16 pm

Corlyss_D wrote:Ah, but when science speaks, philosophy must fall silent.
I disagree. Science is a study of material method. Philosophy is a study of abstract organization, and we need it more than ever.

Even more, as it seems the two are in agreement on this issue, namely that "free will" is wishful thinking. Although Corlyss, you personally may have achieved free will by sheer cheek ;)

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Post by BWV 1080 » Tue Jan 09, 2007 9:33 pm

The fallacy here is that science can empirically prove theories of the mind like free will. We simply cannot observe the inner workings of our own consciousness like we can observe a bacteria or the behavior of matter. For example, Corylss is more than capable of making a free choice to open her mind to Stravinsky :). Even if it is an illusion, the notion of free will is fundamental to all aspects of our civilization.
More Than Good Intentions: Holding Fast to Faith in Free Will
New York Times, Science Times, December 31, 2002

by John Horgan

When I woke this morning, I stared at the ceiling above my bed and wondered: to what extent will my rising really be an exercise of my free will? Let's say I got up right . . . now. Would my subjective decision be the cause? Or would computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld actually set off the muscular twitches that slide me out of the bed, quietly, so as not to wake my wife, and propel me toward the door?

One of the risks of science journalism is that occasionally you encounter research that threatens something you cherish.

Free will is something I cherish. I can live with the idea of science killing off God. But free will? That's going too far. And yet a couple of books I've been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice.

The chief offender is "The Illusion of Conscious Will," by Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. What makes Dr. Wegner's critique more effective than others I've read over the years is that it is less philosophical than empirical, drawing heavily upon recent research in cognitive science and neurology.

Dr. Wegner also carries out his vivisection of free will with a disturbing cheerfulness, like a neurosurgeon joking as he cuts a patient's brain.

We think of will as a force, but actually, Dr. Wegner says, it is a feeling — "merely a feeling," as he puts it — of control over our actions. I think, "I'm going to get up now," and when I do a moment later, I credit that feeling with having been the instigating cause. But as we all know, correlation does not equal causation.

When neurologists make patients' limbs jerk by electrically zapping certain regions of their brains, the patients often insist they meant to move that arm, and they even invent reasons why. Neurologists call these erroneous, post hoc explanations confabulations, but Dr. Wegner prefers the catchier "intention inventions." He suggests that whenever we explain our acts as the outcome of our conscious choice, we are engaging in intention invention, because our actions actually stem from countless causes of which we are completely unaware.

He cites experiments in which subjects pushed a button whenever they chose while noting the time of their decision as displayed on a clock. The subjects took 0.2 seconds on average to push the button after they decided to do so. But an electroencephalograph monitoring their brain waves revealed that the subjects' brains generated a spike of brain activity 0.3 seconds before they decided to push the button.

The meaning of these widely debated findings, Dr. Wegner says, is that our conscious willing is an afterthought, which "kicks in at some point after the brain has already started preparing for the action."

Other research has indicated that the neural circuits underlying our conscious sensations of intention are distinct from the circuits that actually make our muscles move. This disconnect may explain why we so often fail to carry out our most adamant decisions. This morning, I may resolve to drink only one cup of coffee instead of two, or to take a long run through the woods. But I may do neither of these things (and chances are I won't).

Sometimes our intentions seem to be self-thwarting. The more I tell myself to go back to sleep instead of obsessing over free will, the wider awake I feel. Dr. Wegner attributes these situations to "ironic processes of mental control." Edgar Allan Poe's phrase "the imp of the perverse" even more vividly evokes that mischievous other we sense lurking within us.

Brain disorders can exacerbate experiences of this kind. Schizophrenics perceive their very thoughts as coming from malevolent external sources. Those who have lasting damage to the corpus callosum, a neural cable that transmits signals between the brain's hemispheres, may be afflicted with alien-hand syndrome.

They may end up, Dr. Wegner says, like Dr. Strangelove, whose left hand frantically tried to keep his right from jutting out in Nazi salutes.

Perfectly healthy people may lose their sense of control over actions their brains have clearly initiated. When we are hypnotized, playing with Ouija boards, or speaking in tongues, we may feel as though someone or something else is acting through us, whether a muse, ghost, devil, or deity. What all these examples imply is that the concept of a unified self, which is a necessary precondition for free will, is itself an illusion.

Dr. Wegner quotes Arthur C. Clarke's remark that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Because we cannot possibly understand how the fantastically complex machines in our skulls really work, Dr. Wegner says, we explain our behavior in terms of such silly, occult concepts as "the self" and "free will." Our belief in our personal identity and self-control does have its uses, Dr. Wegner grants; without it, "we might soon be wearing each other's underclothing."

Maybe I should lighten up and embrace my lack of free will and a self. That's what Dr. Susan Blackmore, a British psychologist and a practitioner of Zen, advises. In her book "The Meme Machine," she contends that our minds are really just bundles of memes, the beliefs and habits and predilections that we catch from one another like viruses. Take all of the memes out of a mind, and there is no self left to be free.

Once you realize you have no control over your destiny, says Dr. Blackmore, you will expend less energy regretting past decisions and fretting over future ones, and you will be more appreciative of the vital present. Be here now, and so on. In other words, true freedom comes from accepting there is no freedom.

Dr. Blackmore's reasoning strikes me as less spiritual than Orwellian. To me, choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Moreover, our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society.

Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a "God of the gaps," who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.

As I lay in bed this morning, however, my faith in free will wavered. Scanning my mind for something resembling will, I found a welter of roiling thoughts and antithoughts, a few of which transcended virtuality long enough for closer inspection. One thought was that, no matter what my intellect decides, I'm compelled to believe in free will.

Abruptly my body, no doubt bored with all this pointless cogitation, slipped out of bed, padded to the door, and closed it behind me.

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Post by Teresa B » Wed Jan 10, 2007 7:13 am

I agree that at least the illusion of free will is essential to human existence! But that thing about the body actually doing the action before the mind is conscious of it, while fascinating, doesn't prove a thing. Why can't the mind "decide" on an action before the "ego" is aware of it? Intention and conscious awareness of that intention seem like two different events to me. (But that's just my mind talking 8) )

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Post by BWV 1080 » Wed Jan 10, 2007 8:37 am

Anyway perhaps we are neurologically predetermined to believe in free will

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Post by DavidRoss » Wed Jan 10, 2007 9:27 am

Corlyss_D wrote:
burnitdown wrote:It has never been a matter of debate among our best philosophers. The answer is friggin' obvious.
Ah, but when science speaks, philosophy must fall silent. That's why I think studying philosophy is a waste of time. Maybe in Plato's day when there was so little science philosophy had a role to play in describing the universe and man's place in it. But over the last 2500 years, philosophy hasn't acquired any more insights than it had then, while science has pretty much settled all of the questions that rely on observation of the world around us, thus eleminating the need for the tentative and speculative answers that we once looked to philosophy to for.
Uh, Corlyss? Every one of the sciences is a philosophical inquiry. Perhaps you're confusing philosophy for religion...?
"Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." ~Leo Tolstoy

"It is the highest form of self-respect to admit our errors and mistakes and make amends for them. To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character." ~Dale Turner

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Post by karlhenning » Wed Jan 10, 2007 11:30 am

BWV 1080 wrote:The fallacy here is that science can empirically prove theories of the mind like free will.
Another is, taking this one instance of observing the relation between the brain and one pathological behavior, and drawing the curiously universal conclusion, "Look, there's no such thing as free will!"

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Post by karlhenning » Wed Jan 10, 2007 11:31 am

BWV 1080 wrote:Anyway perhaps we are neurologically predetermined to believe in free will
I am neurologically disposed to enjoy that remark.

Cheers,
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Post by lmpower » Wed Jan 10, 2007 1:32 pm

Sometimes what you believe is more important than what's true. It tends to become a self fulfilling prophecy. I think it is better from a mental health viewpoint to get up in the morning acting as if we had free will even though what we will depends on a lot of things outside our control.

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Post by burnitdown » Wed Jan 10, 2007 7:03 pm

karlhenning wrote:Another is, taking this one instance of observing the relation between the brain and one pathological behavior, and drawing the curiously universal conclusion, "Look, there's no such thing as free will!"
I don't think anyone denies there is choice, but the idea of total free will is mathematically unlikely. What you might think of as "free will" is often referred to as "intuition" by great philosophical thinkers.

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