Does free will exist?

Discussion in 'Science / Nature' started by HareBrain, Feb 24, 2010.

  1.  
    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    Since there's no philosophy section, I thought I'd stick this here, since it involves neuroscience as well. It was inspired by a comment from Werewoman on the "glorification of killing" thread, where she said "Everything is a choice. Even love". But I didn't want to take that thread off-topic.

    I'm not sure anything is a choice. And how would we know if we were making a choice or not? We can only be said to make a choice if it is possible for us to vary our decision given the exact same circumstances. But the circumstances will never be exactly the same twice, so how can we know that a combination of genetics and previous experience -- nature plus nurture, if you like -- hasn't precisely determined how we go about the decision-making process, and thus hasn't precisely determined exactly what our "choice" will be?

    Going from philosophy to science, I think it's been demonstrated that the neural activity related to a particular decision -- to pick up a card, say -- occurs (or at least is measured as having occured) after the physical activity has commenced. In other words, we consciously rationalise as a decision something that our subconscious has already set in motion.

    It's not a comfortable idea that free will might be an illusion. If it is an illusion, it's one on which the western legal and religious systems are largely based. It might even be one that's necessary for the functioning of society, but that in itself doesn't make it true.

    Actually, I believe that we have the capacity for free will, but that our willingness to go with the decisions suggested to our consciousness by the hidden parts of our minds means that we almost never exercise it. But maybe, if humankind is allowed to evolve, that will change.

    Any thoughts?
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    Karn Maeshalanadae

    Karn Maeshalanadae Why?

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    It's hard to say. Psychology is always a difficult field to prove anything in, and this is where this subject tends to lay. However, I honestly don't think free will is an illusion-people often go against the best genes and upbringing, when they have no reason to, other than the fact that they choose to. And thinking that the subconscious makes it so there's no free will-the subconscious is a part of us. Our deepest parts have that free will, so on the most basic level it would exist. And the nature/nuture thing? Neither come into play in a lot of circumstances. Imagine two siblings, raised in the exact same environment and treated the exact same way by family and others they were around. (Unlikely completely but it happens.) One turns out to become the perfect angel while the other performs deeds that would make Kali cry.


    Subconscious has a lot to do with it I believe, but like I said, it's a part of us and even though it may drive our physical conscious, it is making our decisions and therefore that is the part of us that has our free will.
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    Interference

    Interference Destroyer of Words

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    Something's making me say "Yes".
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    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    When they have no reason to? You mean no apparent reason, otherwise surely they would just be choosing randomly.

    I don't agree. We don't express free will when we breathe or digest. Our subconscious is our instincts, driven by genetics, hormones etc; the subconscious doesn't express any free will at all. It is all about programmed reaction to stimulus. If it did amount to free will, we would have to say the same about animal behaviour.

    But surely (don't worry, I'll stop calling you Shirley soon!) no two people could ever have the exact same combination of genes and experiences. Even if they were twins, they would have read different books, had different conversations, eaten different foods, any one of which would have diversified their sum life-experience to the point where they might behave slightly differently, and once their paths start to diverge, the experiences will diverge increasingly rapidly, and so on.
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    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    I can't decide if this is flippant or darn sophisticated :)
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    Interference

    Interference Destroyer of Words

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    I know. I'm a mystery. It's a life choice thing.



    All right, a tentative stab at another kind of answer:

    In the broad scheme of things (I'm talking about Universal constants and the like) our access to free choice is moderately irrelevant - humans just aren't that important - and in terms of the inexorable path of eternity, I suspect the beginning and end are predetermined while everything in the middle is variations on a theme to lead the Universe to that end.

    So, human freedom of will: Yes, undoubtedly our choices are personal and largely freely made on a day-to-day basis, but I suspect that the overall path of our lives is determined at the outset. The meal is prepared, we choose when to sit at the table, sort of thing. And maybe we can even choose not to eat. But I suspect the chef knew we would ...
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    StormFeather

    StormFeather http://gratefuldaize.blog

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    An interesting thread - and one that prompted me to look up 'what is free will' to see what the general concensus might be, while I try to make up my own mind.

    The first link I clicked on had the first lines from a variety of sites - the one that intrigued me the most was the following:

    from: www.piccolifrancescanispiritualisti.org/nuova_pagina_12.htm

    I haven't clicked on the link - but thought the idea that free will is a sin against the Law of Love might add a certain zest to the debate?;)

    For the interested, the other first lines can be found here:

    define:free will - Google Search
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    Parson

    Parson This world is not my home

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    The Parson rushes in "where angels fear to tread" and says "Yes." Free will exists, but it is also all foreordained/predestined. Logical nonsense, but not all truth is logical.
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    Interference

    Interference Destroyer of Words

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    I think I'd support that as it doesn't conflict with my thesis ;)
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    Dale_M

    Dale_M Another Registered User

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    I believe the answer is yes. Free will for me is the ability to make a decision which flies in the face of all local influences. Most of the time we follow rules, because we know a more successful outcome is more likely if we follow the rules. But sometimes we just don't. It doesn't matter that our free will might be pre-ordained, it is still our will, not somebody else's. We might be living in a four-dimensional sub-manifold of a ten-dimensional space, but we will never experience anything of the other six dimensions; similarly our universe may be ticking to the mechanism of a superior universe in which our actions are pre-ordained, but inside our universe that is as irrelevant as those extra dimensions.
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    The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    There are two aspects of non-free will here, aren't there? There's the religious 'everything is written'** whereby nothing we do is of any use in changing our destiny, in which case we are simply clockwork mice running in pre-ordained tracks (predestinate grooves!***) up and down the celestial clock. Then there's the 'we are simply slaves of our biology' whereby how we react to anything is wholly dependent on hormones/synapses/circuitry/what-have-you boiling through our system at any given time.

    A plague on both your houses, say I.


    ** Parson may be able to hold simultaneously two contradictory ideas but I don't think that's the case for all his brethren


    ***
    There once was a man who said 'Damn!
    It is borne in upon me I am
    An engine which moves
    In predestinate grooves
    I'm not even a bus, I'm a tram.'
    (Maurice Evan Hare)
  12.  
    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    I have, now. Never before have I seen a glossary that might more accurately be called a glossolalia. (Great, the cleverest thing I'll ever write and it's in a thread only ten people will ever read.)

    But how can you know what all those influences are? And if you can't, how can you know that you're going against them? How can you know that some experience you had fifteen years ago didn't rewire your brain in such a way that it is now a determining factor?

    I like this thought about each having our own will, wherever it comes from, but I don't think it then becomes free will. Free will, I contend, is the ability to make decisions whilst being conscious of, and thus able to take into account, all influences on that decision. My contention is that at this stage of our development, we cannot be aware of all the influences, and so cannot free ourselves from their effect.
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    The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    Never mind. It's quality, not quantity, of readership that's important. Well, until you're published, that is...
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    StormFeather

    StormFeather http://gratefuldaize.blog

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    I think it would be a rare entity indeed that could take into account every possible factor that may come into play or come to bear on any decision. In fact, I suspect such an entity might not get round to making the decision at all ;)

    Just an idea/question but . . . .

    Maybe it's only free will when you make what is perceived as the wrong decision? The right decision in many instances would be the one that had many influences that enables you to know that it's correct. By bucking those influences, are you exhibiting your free will to choose a path against your instinct, upbringing, knowledge etc?
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    dustinzgirl

    dustinzgirl Mod of Awesome

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    If it doesn't, then why do we have brains?
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    Ursa major

    Ursa major Bearly Believable Staff Member

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    There are always choices to be made. I think you're disputing who or what makes those choices and why.
    That's more difficult to say, but it depends on the choice. Not all are near-instant (though they can be made so with the tossed-coin trick).
    This is a measurement problem rather than something that tells us whether we are able to make choices.
    There was an Horizon programme in the last few months or so where the researcher (using an MRI? scanner) knew what answer the guinea pig (the programme's presenter) would give seconds before the guinea pig knew. But all that tells us is that it is not always our conscious mind making the decision. But is that any diffrent from a computer programme requesting an answer from a maths chip (integrated or otherwise)?

    Is the legal system really based on this? Does it care what it is inside our heads that makes decisions? Where "faulty" decision making is seen to be endemic (and not just beneficial to the person "making" those decisions), we somethimes declare that an accused is not fit to stand. In other cases, juries (or judges) try to determine what happened, who did it and why (in the external sense). They do not spend much time involved in psychological assessments before judgement (as opposed to sentencing).

    I believe there is free will.



    Oh, and free wills are available on the Internet. (A big boy made me type that, but he's run away into my subconscious....)
  17.  
    dustinzgirl

    dustinzgirl Mod of Awesome

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    Free Willie is available on the internet, too.

    (I typed that all by myself).
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    Interference

    Interference Destroyer of Words

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    LOL - really ;)
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    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    Could you expand on that last line? The way I read it seems to support my case, but since you're arguing against it, it clearly shouldn't.

    I meant sentencing rather than judgement. The legal system is based at least in part on a sentence having a punishment aspect. If free will were accepted not to exist and we were all, in effect, incredibly sophisticated robots, this could not be valid, since no one could be said to be legally to blame for his actions. The punishment aspect would be removed from sentencing, which would become wholly concerned with rehabilitiation and deterrence. (Of course the punishment aspect is part of the deterrence, so that would be hard to disentangle.)
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    The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    If the legal system accepted free will did not exist, then both rehabilitation and deterrence are also non-starters. If it is my fate and/or my biology which makes me steal, then no amount of ordinary rehabilitation or deterrence will stop me or those whose fate/biology is similar to mine. In that event, the only options are (a) taking no action against me, leaving me free to pursue my burglarious career; (b) putting me somewhere for all time so that my fate/biology no longer impinges on others; (c) treating me to make the necessary amendments to my biology.

    The law actually does take into account behaviour which falls short of mental illness of the kind which renders someone unfit to plead. There are defences such as automatism where the necessary mens rea ('guilty mind') is absent trhough no fault of the accused eg sleepwalking. By and large they fall into category (a) in that no further action is taken. Which is fine when there are only a handful of cases each year. If every defendant could claim, then there would be a radical shift in how these cases are treated.

    NB Dr Johnson:

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