Introduction:

I've grown disappointed with philosophers on the subject of free will. The great philosophers of the past knew nothing about the brain. Modern philosophers contradict each other. What I've been trying to do is to stick with the knowledge we have and avoid philosophical entanglements and conjecture as much as possible. However, certain philosophical conundrums must be addressed, such as: (1) the false dichotomy of free will versus causality; (2) mind-brain dualism; and (3) deliberation versus illusion of choice. Perhaps the greatest obstacle is unlearning the impossible notions of what, exactly, free will is. I claim that we don't have free will. We have limited choice, intent and purpose constrained by the influence of causality. I call this, "self-determinism". There's a lot of overlap with these issues, which makes it hard to lay out a clear and concise argument. But I'll try . . .

(1) The False Dichotomy of Free Will Versus Causality:

The assertion that free will MUST violate causality is simply false. The underlying assumption is that cause and effect is inexorably interwoven into all events and thus all events are inevitable: including our thoughts and actions. The conclusion is that, if causality determines all events, free will is an illusion.

If you define free will to mean doing anything, at any time, within the physical and mental constraints of human ability . . . well then, yes, free will is an illusion. Causality burdens us with a genetic "endowment" that defines our individual biological limits. Beyond that, causality also accrues within us the conceptual limits of experience. We can't act beyond our physical and mental limits, so a completely libertine notion of free will is impossible and must be discarded.

So if causality limits us physically and mentally, what's to stop it from limiting us completely?

Intelligent interaction with causality. That's what. We don't just react to causality; we interact with it. We take advantage of the key properties of causality -- unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability -- to innately understand, anticipate and use causality for our own purposes. We can do this because of 2 key properties of our intelligence: memory and imagination. We learn from the past to imagine a future of our own choosing. Then, with clear intent and purpose, we pursue our plans. The successful execution of our plans is empirical proof of our intent and purpose and our ability to interact intelligently with causality.

(2) Mind-Brain Dualism:

The mind can not be separated from the brain. It is a product of the brain. Any assertion that the mind is some sort of abstract, independent, construct is unsupportable. But the mind is also a product of the external world and of our sensory apparatus (biological sense organs). Just as the mind is inseparable from the brain, it is also inseparable from our senses and the world around us. If we never possessed any of these 3 components: brain, senses, or external world (stimuli), the mind could not exist. The mind is NOT just the brain. It's the brain interacting with the external world (causality) via our sensory apparatus.

The brain does more than merely interact with causality . . . it also remembers those interactions (events) and learns from the experiences of others. Experience is our unique memories of events in our lives. Education is learning through the experiences of others. Knowledge is the combination of experience and education. Humans demonstrate higher levels of brain function, by far, than any other known life form. Is it unreasonable to think that with more advanced functions comes more advanced abilities?

Hard (absolute) determinists refuse to acknowledge the difference between a rock and a brain. They're both just collections of atoms; or so they would have us believe. Good luck trying to understand complex phenomena, like consciousness, using such reductionist mindsets! Life is the difference between inanimate objects and animate beings. Reductionist denial doesn't change that fact . . . it can't even recognize it. Inanimate objects have a purely passive, predictable, mode of response to causality. Animate beings have an interactive, unpredictable, mode of response to causality. Inanimate objects have specific, predictable, reactions (effects) to specific events (causes). Animate beings have variable, unpredictable, reactions to specific events. Mathematically speaking, inanimate objects have a fixed set of 1 specific reaction to any event: animate beings have a variable range or scope of potential reactions to any event. To me, it is intransigent denial to equate brains to rocks.

(3) Deliberation versus Illusion of Choice:

The brain deliberates. That what it does (among other things). I think, therefore I am. We make choices all the time. But hard determinists insist that choice is an illusion: that causal factors are pulling the strings, like a puppeteer, at all times.

If we were inanimate objects, then yes, it would be pretty cut-and-dry: a fixed, predictable reaction to any specific event. But we're animate beings. More precisely, we're intelligent human beings. We have a range or scope of potential reactions to any specific event. And therein lies choice. Causality, via biology and experience, delimit the scope of our response and thus influence our decisions. Causality influences our decisions but it doesn't control them.

How do I know this? Because causality is indiscriminate; it doesn't remember; it doesn't think; it has no intent; it has no plan. Therefore, if causality absolutely controlled us (versus influenced us) we would, like causality, act indiscriminately; without benefit of memory or thinking or intent or a plan.

But we don't. We act with purpose. We are goal-oriented. We make elaborate plans and execute them; adjusting our plans if necessary. Clearly, choice is not an illusion. It takes choice to do what we do. The brain deliberates. That what it does.

Conclusions:

The claim that free will (a.k.a. intent, purpose, self-determinism) contradicts or violates causality is a false dichotomy. It's not a choice of one or the other: causality or free will. There are other possibilities. Self-determinism is a compatibilist worldview which asserts that we interact with causality intelligently and that this is made possible by key properties of causality itself (unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability) combined with key properties of human intelligence (memory and imagination). We recognize, understand, anticipate and use causality to pursue our goals and plans. This demonstrates choice: intent and purpose. Our intent and purpose is made manifest in our accomplishments and progress -- none of which can come from a causality that absolutely controls our every thought and move.  Our accomplishments can only come from our intelligent interaction with causality. The limited scope of our choices might seem meager but it's enough to fly men to the moon, control rovers on Mars and probes beyond the solar system.

That's self-determinism. No mind-brain dualism. No violation of causality. No false dichotomies. No infinite regress. Just the natural properties of human intelligence interacting with the natural properties of causality.

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Tags: animate, causality, choice, consciousness, conundrum, deliberation, determinism, dichotomy, free, illusion, More…inanimate, self-determinism, will

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Comment by John Camilli on December 19, 2011 at 5:36pm

.

(continued...........)

 

I think this process suffices to explain how humans behave in ways which seem pro-active, but which are actually reactive. My mind is not smartly anticipating the consumption of ice cream and preparing itself, it is reacting to the other experiences I have of eating ice cream, part of which has been stored as excess energy in my system. There is evidence showing that the activation of a memory actually alters the memory, which seems to support this conclusion.

 

The important part of this is that it's all out of my control. Even the type of ice cream I pick is caused by my body sampling its memories of different types of ice cream. The current state of my body reacts to those memories, and whichever one creates the most endorphins at the time (or whatever pleasure chemicals ice cream activates) is the one I am compeled to buy. It only feels like I am choosing because I am not able to discern this process. I just look at the ice cream and then feel good about selecting one over the others. I do not recognize the prior external causes that have created the current result, so I might conclude that the cause is internal, or that the effect is simply un-caused. But doing this is actually a form of mind-body dualism because it requires the idea that effects generated by my body are somehow separate from effects generated from external causes. Without a sense of dualism I would only ever conclude that the effect was, however circuitously, generated by some initial external cause. And, personally, that's exactly what I do. I do not conclude that anything I do was an effect that has its origins in me. Rather, the origins of my actions lie with the origins of all actions; all motion - existence itself, whenever that began (if it even makes sense to think of existence as beginning). The chain of cause-to-effect has passed through me, but it does not start with me.

Comment by John Camilli on December 19, 2011 at 5:35pm

I'd like to take a closer look at the intelligent feedback loop that seems to be the crux of your assertion. I already agree with the illogic of "free" will and mind-body dualism, so let's see if we can reconcile our ideas on this other issue.

 

First of all, I think of the intelligent feedback loop in terms of four processes: recognition, retention, recollection and reaction (a quaint alliteration). The first step is recognition, or awareness, wherein various qualia are correlated by a simultaneity of experience. These are the simple word problems we learn as children. For example: the thing called "ice cream" is cold, soft and sweet. These sensations are experienced in close spacial and temporal proximity, so they are correlated in the brain. In biological terms, the experience of "ice cream" activates the brain regions responsible for interpretting these sensations at roughly the same time. The neural pathways that connect those regions are strengthened by the flow of electrical impulses, stimulating the growth of fat around the cells and speeding up the transmission of electricity between them.

 

When we are young, our brains are a mess of interconnected neurons, but over time many of these connection atrophy and whither away from lack of use. The regions which are activated together remain connected, or even form more direct connections. This process of creating and strengthening neural connections is what memories are made of. Retention. Once we have retention, recollection becomes possible. Now that I have associated the sound "ice cream" with the sensations of cold, smoothness and sweetness, the activation of one or more of these sensations can also activate the others, because the electrical impulses flowing to one can now flow more easily to the others. So the feeling of cold can now make me think of ice cream, and the other sensations correlated to it. To me, this explains human creativity. We often have seemingly random thoughts, but I think they result from nueral connections of which we were not aware, or even from sensations of which we are not aware. I might be sitting somewhere thinking about robots, and a slight sweet smell that doesn't even register on a conscious level could vicariously activate the experience of ice cream, and I may then start thinking about ice cream without having any clear idea of why that would suddenly pop into my head.

 

Which brings me to the "reaction" aspect of intelligent feedback. There is plenty of empirical evidence which concludes that memories of an experience are stored in the areas of the body which that experience activates. My memories of ice cream, and yours, are stored in the regions of your brain which interpret the experience of cold, sweetness, smoothness and the sound of its name. And when they get reactivated, the processes going on in our brains mimic the processes that happen when we actually eat ice cream, although the effect is dampened because the recollection is using stored energy while the experience is storing excess energy. This explains why a body can react to an experience before it actually happens. Maybe I'm standing in a checkout line, just about to purchase some ice cream, but I am already salivating and generating endorphins because the cold and visual cues are already re-activating the experience of eating ice cream.

 

(continued..........)

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on December 17, 2011 at 8:56am

Lol! Thanks Matt, I appreciate it!

Comment by Matt VDB on December 17, 2011 at 8:35am

Bah, I would've just watched the Daily Show if I knew that Wanderer would come along and articulate everything more concisely and more accurately than I did :P

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on December 17, 2011 at 7:24am

Very quickly, since I mostly skimmed what you wrote, but I do find disagreement with you on one or two points. First, you started off questioning, doubting really, that there is any such thing as free will, but then it appears you have ended up saying that there is no contradiction between free will and what you call "self-determinism". I'm not buying the way you are framing the issue, but I have my own way of framing it which conflicts with yours. The way I see it, there is no such thing as free will unrestrained by causality. There is, however, such a thing as "will". This is the set of internal motivations which compel us towards such things as decision-making, and inevitably which decisions we actually end up with ("choosing"). So we can get rid of the meaningless terminology "free will", which denies cause-effect relationships in the world and mind. This means we can also dispense with your "self-determinism". We have will, which just means we are motivated and that these are internal motivations rather than external motivations over which we clearly have no control. But we just are what we experience, so that which "we" will is just what defines who "we" are. And to avoid any problems with the word "determinism", I just call myself a "causalist". This means that there is a cause for every effect, and it allows you to skirt the issue of whether everything is strictly determined without admitting of any freedom from causal forces. And it is closer to hard determinism rather than soft, which is essentially self-contradicting, except that it does not force one to say that everything is strictly determined which, if you know anything about QM, does not appear to be the case anyway.

Comment by Matt VDB on December 17, 2011 at 6:38am

That's weird, part of my response seems to have been cut off...

(Continued...)

Put simply, the fact that we are not able to predict what we or other people will do, is not freedom in any metaphysical sense. It could just be our ignorance of the precise causal chain.

Therefore, if causality absolutely controlled us (versus influenced us) we would, like causality, act indiscriminately; without benefit of memory or thinking or intent or a plan.

Again, how do you know this? If you experienced something at young age after dark, and then that memory compels you to never walk alone after dark again, is that freedom?

In the sense that you'll be doing what you want, sure. But it only takes the example of a mad scientist implanting this memory into their head and you then acting on it for the rest of your life, to show that this isn't the only freedom there is.



But we don't. We act with purpose. We are goal-oriented. We make elaborate plans and execute them; adjusting our plans if necessary. Clearly, choice is not an illusion. It takes choice to do what we do. The brain deliberates. That's what it does.

See above: unless these deliberations are under our control in some sense, all the freedom we have is the freedom to follow our will without being coerced. I actually think that's quite some freedom, but I don't see how we're helping anyone by calling this "free will".

So in conclusion, I want to say that I'm not actually deaf to what you call freedom. I do think that doing what we want, is the only type of freedom that is intelligible. But simply the recognition that what we want is ultimately beyond our control, carries all the implications of determinism that we talk about.

We can still fly men to the moon if we want to. But we can never choose what we want. And that is why we are not truly free.

Comment by Matt VDB on December 17, 2011 at 6:27am

I really liked this post, even though I'll now criticize you on some things :P

First off, I'd like to say that even though you seem to criticize philosophers for not grasping some important points, knowing a bit about the philosophical stances on this issue, I don't think you're as innovative as you think. Your self-determinism seems to be classic compatibilist theory.

The only problem with compatibilism, as I see it, is that it muddles the terrain somewhat by introducing a definition of "free will" that -while usually quite valid and realistic- is completely different from what people regularly mean by free will. Perhaps this is necessary in some sense... but the effect it seems to have is akin to someone defining "God" as the laws of nature: needlessly confusing.

We learn from the past to imagine a future of our own choosing. Then, with clear intent and purpose, we pursue our plans. The successful execution of our plans is empirical proof of our intent and purpose and our ability to interact intelligently with causality.

As I said before: no-one would deny this, not even a hard determinist. That we have a will and purposes and intents is simply a set of observable facts. Where things get muddled is the adjective "free". What people mean by "free" in this sense is that they can make decisions which are not causally effected. 

To use an analogy by Sam Harris: suppose a mad scientist was controlling your intentions and plans. In this case you'd be feeling all kinds of impulses to do things (like graduate from college) and you'd make plans to achieve these goals, and you'd likely achieve them. By your admission, you seem to say that "the succesful execution of these plans" is then some sort of free will.

Yet few people will agree with that: if there's a mad scientist at the basis of what you want, then you're not free. Similarly, if what you want is the product of various factors beyond your control, that's not exactly real free will. The only "freedom" here is that you're not aware of your causal factors of your will.

Hard (absolute) determinists refuse to acknowledge the difference between a rock and a brain. They're both just collections of atoms; or so they would have us believe.

That's a pretty gratuitous strawman.

Animate beings have an interactive, unpredictable, mode of response to causality. Inanimate objects have specific, predictable, reactions (effects) to specific events (causes). Animate beings have variable, unpredictable, reactions to specific events. Mathematically speaking, inanimate objects have a fixed set of 1 specific reaction to any event: animate beings have a variable range or scope of potential reactions to any event.

Quite simply: how you do know this? This is simply a whole string of assertions, and more accurately, some pretty vague language. What, exactly, is a potential reaction, and how do we know that we have multiple at any moment?

When I go to a restaurant, I get a whole menu of 'potential outcomes', and I don't think any of my friends will be able to predict my eventual choice; but then, I'm sure none of my friends would be able to predict where a stone rolling down a hill is going to eventually come to a halt. My choice is ultimately going to be the result of what I feel like eating... and that's completely beyond my control and clearly determined.

So am I demonstrating my freedom if I feel like eating salmon and then go order it? Well let's use the analogy again: if a mad scientist plants an impulse in my head to go eat salmon and then I happilly do... is that freedom? In the sense that I don't feel actively coerced, yes. But in any deep sense? Surely not.

Put simply, the fact that we are not able to predict what we or othe

Comment by Daniel young on December 17, 2011 at 5:41am

Given humanities present state of knowledge, I find myself agreeing with you in many ways.

I would like to ask your opinion on a hypothetical question. A thought exercise, if you will.

 "But we're animate beings. More precisely, we're intelligent human beings. We have a range or scope of potential reactions to any specific event. And therein lies choice. Causality, via biology and experience, delimit the scope of our response and thus influence our decisions. Causality influences our decisions but it doesn't control them."

Do you think it would be possible to accurately determine a persons choice on any given subject if enough calculable information about said person was available ?

In other words, If we had an accurate description of the pertinent belief systems, memories (experiences).

Know how the subject perceives their emotions and sensory inputs (biological make-up).

The situation at hand ( the environment, or setting to which the choice is taking place in ).

The ability to calculate without our own biases interfering, could we accurately determine that persons choice?

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