Intelligent Design

Free Will: Why reports of its death are greatly exaggerated

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Alfred Mele is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of two books on free will: Effective Intentions (2009) and Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, which is due out in October 2014. In a recent essay on Big Questions Online, Professor Mele defends, as “a definite possibility,” what he calls the ambitious view of free will: the view that when you freely choose between two options (let’s call them A and B), your past history and the laws of Nature do not determine your choice, which means that there is a real chance that you will choose A, and a real chance that you will choose B. On this ambitious view, while there may be a high probability that you will choose A over B, whether or not you actually do so is not settled until the moment when you actually make your decision.

The ambitious view of free will can be described as a libertarian account, in contrast with what Mele refers to as the modest view, which says that “the ability to make rational, informed, conscious decisions in the absence of undue force – no one holding a gun to your head – is enough for free will.” The modest view is fully compatible with determinism, which makes it a rather unexciting version of free will: all of my choices might be pre-determined by my past history, even though nobody is forcing me to act the way I do. The ambitious view of free will challenges this dreary determinism.

Although he defends a libertarian conception of free will in his latest essay, Professor Mele rejects the notion that free will depends for its existence on the truth of substance dualism (the idea that each person has a non-physical soul that interacts with their body). On this point, I think he is correct. As I pointed out in a previous post, titled, Is free will dead?, there are Christians, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who firmly believe in free will but reject the doctrine of an immaterial soul. Such a view is tenable – for instance, someone might believe that human choices are irreducibly holistic acts carried out by the brain-as-a-whole, which can influence local events taking place in nerve cells when they process incoming signals. On this top-down view of causation, I do indeed cause my body to move, and nothing determines what I decide, since top-down causation is regarded as a fundamental feature of reality. Now, I happen to think that a materialistic account of the “self” is demonstrably false: as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is self-evident, from both introspection and the fact that we frequently share our ideas using spoken language, that our thoughts and free choices have an inherent meaning. However, bodily processes such as neuronal firings are not inherently meaningful – indeed, it would make no sense to describe these processes as meaning anything, in their own right. Hence it follows that a bodily action is incapable of embodying a free choice. Again, our mental concepts (such as the concept of a triangle) are abstract and universal, whereas the events occurring in our brains are concrete and particular; hence the former must be distinct from the latter. Nevertheless, the question of the truth or falsity of dualism – whether of the Cartesian or hylemorphic variety is inconsequential here – is logically separable from the question of whether we possess libertarian free will, or what Professor Mele refers to as “ambitious free will.” (For readers who are interested, I’ve described how I believe libertarian free will is possible on a dualistic account, here and here.)

The neuroscientific case against free will

In an essay for Big Questions Online titled, What Are the Implications of the Free Will Debate for Individuals and Society?, Professor Mele takes aim at a neuroscientific argument against free will which has received a lot of free press lately. The argument can be cast in the form of a syllogism containing three vital premises:

1. In various experiments, participants decide unconsciously.

2. Only consciously made decisions can be freely made.

3. The way participants decide in these experiments is the way people always decide.

From these premises, it follows that our decisions are always unconsciously decided, and hence never free.

Professor Mele summarizes the evidence for premise 1:

In some studies, this claim is based partly on EEG readings (electrical readings taken from the scalp). In others, fMRI data (about changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain) are used instead. In yet others, with people whose skulls are open for medical purposes, readings are taken directly from the brain. The other part of the evidence comes from participants’ reports on when they first became aware of their decisions. If the reports are accurate (which is disputed), the typical sequence of events is as follows: first, there is the brain activity the scientists focus on, then the participants become aware of decisions (or intentions or urges) to act, and then they act, flexing a wrist or pushing a button, for example.

Why laboratory experiments fail to rule out either modest or ambitious versions of free will

But as Professor Mele points out, the problem with this account is that “there is no good reason to believe that the early brain activity (measured in seconds with fMRI and in milliseconds in the other studies) is correlated with a decision that is made – unconsciously – at that time.” It’s quite possible that the actual decision itself is made at a later point in time. And in fact, patients in these experiments typically report that they are conscious of making a decision a mere two tenths of a second before their muscles move. By contrast, the brain activity measured in fMRI experiments occurs several seconds before this muscle movement begins. In short: the fMRI experiments are fully compatible with a modest version of free will, which presupposes only “the ability to make rational, informed, conscious decisions in the absence of undue force.”

Still, it might be objected, if an unconscious event occurring several seconds before I act determines the way in which I will move my body, doesn’t this at least rule out the existence of Mele’s “ambitious free will”? On the contrary, argues Mele, it leaves this version of free will very much intact:

In the fMRI study I mentioned, scientists were able to predict with 60% accuracy, about seven seconds in advance, which button a participant would press next. Obviously, this does not suggest that it was determined which button would be pressed seven seconds before the action… In the study using direct readings from the brain, experimenters were able to predict with 80% accuracy, within a window of a few hundred milliseconds, what time participants would identify as the moment at which they first became aware of their intention to click… These findings do not support determinism… Believers in ambitious free will thrive on probabilities of action, and that’s exactly what we find in these studies.

For the benefit of readers who are skeptical that a decision can be genuinely free even though it is highly probable, Professor Mele offers an excellent illustration in a 2012 interview with Richard Marshall, reporting for 3:AM magazine:

I like extra leg room on planes. So right after I buy a ticket in coach on line, I look for an exit row seat – first on the aisle and then next to a window. If I find a seat I like, I snatch it up. I do all this consciously… I know I have a reason – a good one – to select such a seat rather than an ordinary seat in coach. And because I do, I consciously look on line for an open seat in an exit row.

Mele acknowledges that an observer could predict “with close to 100% accuracy” what he will try to do next time he buys a coach seat on a long flight. But that certainly doesn’t imply that his decision was made unconsciously. Nor does it imply that his decision was determined by prior circumstances. All it shows is that Mele displays a consistent preference for exit row seats whenever he boards a plane.

For his part, Mele thinks that “unconscious bias” is the most likely explanation for why the decisions of participants in laboratory experiments can be predicted several seconds in advance, with 60% accuracy. In a recent philosophical article, Mele is more specific: he suggests that Chun Siong Soon and colleagues, who conducted these experiments a few years ago (see Soon, C.S., M. Brass, H.J. Heinze, and J.D. Haynes, 2008, “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain”, Nature Neuroscience 11: 543-545), “are more likely to have detected a slight unconscious bias toward pressing a particular button on the next go than an actual decision (or intention) to press that button.” This kind of bias is very familiar to stage magicians: it explains why, when people are asked to quickly think of a two-digit number between 1 and 100, with both digits odd and both digits different from each other, many will pick the number 37 (see also here). But the existence of such bias, in and of itself, fails to undermine libertarian free will. (I might also add that such the existence of such bias in our impulsive decisions has little bearing on the decisions we typically make, which involve using our reasoning to select a course of action in relation to a long-term goal – a topic which I’ll address below. Hence even if one were to argue that my choice of the number “37” is not truly free, this would fail to show that most of our everyday choices are not free.)

Finally, in a 2013 philosophical article, Professor Mele highlights another problem with an oft-cited study using direct readings from the brain, where experimenters reported that “a population of SMA [supplementary motor area] neurons is sufficient to predict in single trials the impending decision to move with accuracy greater than 80% already 700 ms [milliseconds] prior to subjects’ awareness” (p. 548) of their “urge” (p. 558) to press a key (Fried, I., R. Mukamel, and G. Kreiman, 2011, “Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition”, Neuron 69: 548-562). As the authors of the study acknowledge (pp. 552-3, 560), the subjects’ reports of exactly when they felt the urge to press the key may or may not be accurate. On a minimalist interpretation, all the study really demonstrates is “on the basis of activity in the SMA they [the researchers] can predict with greater than 80% accuracy what time a participant will report to be the time at which he was first aware of an urge to press 700 ms prior to the reported time.” But this laboratory finding, in and of itself, does not tell us about when the subjects’ decision to press the key was actually made.

So far, then, it appears that the laboratory experiments cited by determinists have failed to discredit the libertarian notion of free will.

Free will typically involves reasoning in relation to long-term goals

So much for the first premise of the neuroscientific argument against free will. Professor Mele does not contest the second premise, which states that only consciously made decisions can be called free choices. What about the third premise, which asserts that the way in which participants decide in these laboratory experiments is the way people always (or normally) decide? The problem here, as Professor Mele observes, is that in the experiments described above, “participants are instructed to be spontaneous rather than think about what to do.” For example, participants may be told to flex their right wrist, or press a button, or click a key on a keyboard, on impulse, as soon as they feel the urge to do so. In such an experimental set-up, “any decisions participants make about these simple actions are arbitrary.” Since these laboratory experiments exclude conscious reasoning at the outset and focus only on “here-and-now” decisions (e.g. whether or not to click a key), Mele contends that they have very little in common with the real-world decisions we typically make:

The instructions participants receive place conscious reasoning about what to do out of bounds. The experimental setting is very different from a situation in which you’re carefully weighing pros and cons before making a difficult decision – a decision about whether to change careers, for example, or about whether to ask for a divorce… At any rate, in light of salient differences between an arbitrary unreflective selection of a moment to act or a button to press, on the one hand, and a choice about a momentous matter made after painstaking conscious reflection, on the other, we can’t be confident that all decisions are made in the same way.

Professor Mele has a lot more to say on this theme in a recent philosophical article titled, Free Will and Neuroscience (Philosophic Exchange, Vol. 43 [2013], Iss. 1, Art. 3), which I would recommend to readers who would like a more in-depth understanding of the issues at stake in the free-will dispute.

To sum up: ambitious free will remains an open possibility – a prospect which enthuses Professor Mele:

This is good news, both for individuals and for society. There is evidence that lowering people’s confidence in the existence of free will increases bad behavior – cheating, stealing, and aggressive behavior. And there is evidence that belief in free will promotes personal well-being. If free will is real, beneficial beliefs in it have the virtue of being true, and it’s always nice when goodness and truth are on the same side.

What do readers think?

37 Replies to “Free Will: Why reports of its death are greatly exaggerated

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Of related note, to ‘participants are instructed to be spontaneous rather than think about what to do.”

    Libet, who is often invoke by materialists, would protest the loudest at such a experimental set-up:

    Do Benjamin Libet’s Experiments Show that Free Will Is an Illusion? – Michael Egnor – January 15, 2014
    Excerpt: Materialists often invoke the experiments of Benjamin Libet when they deny free will.,,,
    (Yet) Libet himself was a strong defender of free will, and he interpreted his own experiments as validating free will. He noted that his subjects often vetoed the unconscious “decision” after the readiness potential appeared.
    ,,,”The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as ‘bubbling up’ in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort, with no act appearing.” – Libet
    Libet even observed that his experimental confirmation of free will accorded with the traditional religious understanding of free will:,,,
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....81171.html

  2. 2
    Mapou says:

    Nice article. The way I see it, we live in a Yin-yang universe. Opposites are of the same nature. If something exists, so does its opposite. It is for this reason that both free will and its opposite (determinism?) must exist. Certain behaviors (e.g., being hungry or thirsty, or even recognizing a spoken phrase or grandma’s voice) are automatic and do not require free will. Others, such as our infatuation with abstract notions like beauty and the arts, require an independent chooser because there is no way they can be codified in a formal language and automated.

  3. 3
    Eric Anderson says:

    . . . he calls the ambitious view of free will . . .

    Or what everyone else (who hasn’t imbibed deeply from the dregs of materialism) calls the “common sense view.”

  4. 4
    Graham2 says:

    Vincent: I presume you believe we have free will. If so, could you describe what happens when we make a decision ? Eg: Do I have a coffee now or later ? Could you tell us what agent you believe is finally making the decision ?

  5. 5
    Charles says:

    Scientist: OK, Charles, when you’re ready, just click the + key or the – key, whichever you choose.

    Charles: Copy that.

    Scientist: Let’s begin.

    Charles: Copy that.

    ….

    Charles: (humming a tune)

    ….

    Scientist: Charles, it’s been several minutes now and you’ve not clicked either key.

    Charles: Golly.

    Scientist: OK, Charles, we’ll start again. Just click the + key or the – key, when you’re ready, whichever you choose.

    Charles: Copy that.

    ….

    Charles: (drumming fingers)

    Scientist: Er, ummm … Charles, you’ve still not clicked either key.

    Charles: Boy, you guys don’t miss a thing.

    Scientist: Why haven’t you clicked either key?

    Charles: I didn’t want to.

    Scientist: But our experiment measures your choice to click one key or the other, so you must decide which one to click.

    Charles: Must I really?

    Scientist: Well, yes. We’re measuring if you can freely decide to click one key or the other.

    Charles: Right. Got it.

    Scientist: Start again. Just click the + key or the – key, whichever you choose.

    Charles: Copy that.

    ….

    Charles: (nodding off)

    Scientist: Really Charles, you’re not supposed to sleep, drum fingers, hum, or anything else. You must decide which key to click and then do that, and only that.

    Charles: I seem to have lost the plot. Why again?

    Scientist: (exasperated) We’re measuring your free will to click either key.

    Charles: But I don’t want to click keys. Why don’t you measure which fingers I freely drum?

    Scientist: Well, that’s not in our grant protocol, sorry. + or – key clicks only.

    Charles: So, you’re not really free to measure my free choices, just your free choices?

    Scientist: No. This protocol was decided months ago.

    Charles: Well. Alrightythen.

    Scientist: Ok. Once more. Just click either the + key or the – key.

    Charles: Copy that.

    …..

    Charles: (presses both keys simultaneously)

    Scientist: Charles!!! You are not cooperating.

    Charles: I was, really. You haven’t seen me not cooperate.

    Scientist: But you’re violating the protocol.

    Charles: Yeah, I get that a lot. Still, I like my protocol better, I freely decide what to press, or not.

    Scientist: Nein! Nein! Nein! (throws clipboard) Sie können Ihre eigenen Protokoll nicht folgen!!! Wir haben regeln!!!

    Charles: ‘scuse me???

    Scientist: (breathes deeply). You can’t follow your own protocol. We have rules, you see.

    Charles: Well, no actually I don’t see. My free will, my choices, yes?

    Scientist: No. You only get to freely choose amongst the options we allow.

    Charles: But aren’t you trying to constrain my free will?

    Scientist: Certainly not. You don’t have any free will, we’re just measuring its absence.

    Charles: Ohhhhh. Now I get it. Ok.

    Scientist: Last chance. Just click either the + key or the – key.

    Charles: Copy that.

    …..

    Charles: (hits cntrl alt del)

    Scientist: Aaargghhhhh!!! Wir können nicht weiter!!! Fertig. Kaput! Enter into the log “subject has no free will.”

    Charles: Seriously? That’s a frog with no legs. How’d you reach that finding?

    Scientist: We can only measure free will by clicks of either the + or – keys. Nothing else. Nada. Zilch. You’ve ruined our baseline samples, now haven’t you. How will we ever explain this data….

    Charles: Well… couldn’t you just footnote it in the supplmental information? Something like “subject’s free will always exceeded protocol bounds”

    Scientist: Nie. Wir können das nicht tun!!! The grant was specifically to demonstrate a lack of free will. If we submit this data, we’ll never be published, no more grants, no Nobel prize, no BMW (gazes off wistfully).

    Charles: Aren’t you actually confusing choices with consequences. You can freely choose anything, but you’re still constrained by the consequences of your choices. You’re free to submit the measurements of my free will, you just don’t like the consequences.

    Scientist: But choices are always constrained.

    Charles: Are they? Let’s measure that again.

  6. 6
    gpuccio says:

    VJ:

    Very good discussion.

    However, I definitely contest the second premise too. I believe that a lot of free will is expressed in how we subconsciously (not unconsciously) react to outer inputs at different levels of our consciousness. Those processes are not automatic.

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    lol @ 5

  8. 8
    Upright BiPed says:

    Charles, I hope you had as much fun writing that as I did reading it.

  9. 9
    JDH says:

    I always wonder how the people who are awarded grants to do “free will” research think the granting committee decided to give them money.

  10. 10
    gpuccio says:

    Graham2:

    Vincent: I presume you believe we have free will. If so, could you describe what happens when we make a decision ? Eg: Do I have a coffee now or later ? Could you tell us what agent you believe is finally making the decision ?

    Can I try?

    The perceiving subject, the transcendental “I” who refers to itself all the different modifications in its consciousness, reacts to outer input in ways that are not completely determined by the inputs themselves, and which are not random either. Those responses are in some way influenced (influenced, not determined) by the intuitive connection of that perceiver with a cognitive/moral “field” in the perceiver’s consciousness, a “field” which has purpose and meaning, a “field” which is indeed the origin of the subjective experiences of purpose and meaning.

    Moment by moment, at all times, the perceiver can attune itself to that purpose and meaning in different measure. The result of that different attunement is, in the end, a different output to the outer world, but it all begins in the perceiver’s consciousness and in his reactions to the inputs from the outer world.

    That’s what we call free will.

  11. 11
    Graham2 says:

    gpuccio: I think all that can be summarised as: Our consciousness acts in a way that is a blend of internal influences and external influences.

    So where does the ‘free’ will come in ? If our consciousness (whatever that is) performs this blending operation, the outcome is determined by the rules of that operation: there is no ‘free’ about it. Sure, we can choose some way of doing the blend, but how do we decide how to do that ? Randomly ?

  12. 12
    ScuzzaMan says:

    A friend, a surgeon and Christian, has a novel ‘proof’ of the non-material nature of life & consciousness.

    But another friend, an atheist, insists that everything is biochemically determined and there is no free will, only the illusion of it.

    My problem with the former is that it only really makes sense if you already accept the non-materialists premises. (I do, but that is irrelevant at this point.)

    My problem with the latter is that this friend has formerly been an hedonist, a theist, and now an atheist. When he starts getting preachy about what a great scientist Dawkins is (seriously), I start to wonder what his genes are going to tell him to believe – and preach – next? How can I have any confidence in what he is telling me, when there is – according to his own statements – no “he” to tell me anything?

    He’s like the guy who says to you “I always lie”.

    OK, so your witness is unreliable.

    Noted.

    That is really all the determinists are telling us; they are not reliable witnesses.

    (Parenthetically, the game of “It’s not MY fault!” is a very old one. Determinism is just one of the later versions, imho.)

    I have yet to see any good argument as to why our biochemistry would create the illusion of free will. The notion of biochemical determinism makes us mobile plants. Yes, people have proposed that this illusion must convey some fitness advantage. Talk about begging the question!

    Yet actual plants seem to thrive, apparently without this illusion.

  13. 13
    ScuzzaMan says:

    Hmmm … thinking about that last part again, it seems to me that either (A) my biochemistry stubbornly insists that I not accept certain arguments, i.e. my biochemistry is in some way resistant to creating the illusion that I accept reality as presented to me by determinists, almost as if my biochemistry has a will of its own, or (B) the arguments themselves are just not very convincing.

    But it cannot be (B), because that would imply things, about the freely chosen beliefs of determinists, that the determinists would not like.

    Ergo, I have no free will.

    You know that question about who created God? Isn’t it a bit similar to insist that “I” dont have free will but that my genes make choices for me?

    Is there a Christian gene? A Buddhist gene? A Raelian gene? Oh, a Raelian gene; that’s a good one. Bygones.

    I am pretty sure I exist. I am pretty sure I make choices. I am pretty sure Rene Descarte answered this point a long time ago.

    Apparently my biochemistry is really into creating illusions of certainty, the contents of which are at odds with reality, according to the materialist determinists.

    Dang.

    My biochemistry is compelling me to ask: how does refusing to deal with reality convey fitness?

    My biochemistry will wait …

  14. 14

    God is the uncaused cause. (There has to be an uncaused first cause, because an infinite regress is impossible.) Human beings are created in the image of God. We can thus be uncaused causes of some aspects of our own behavior. (For survival reasons, the rest of our behavior is determined by circumstances plus habits and reflexes, etc.)

  15. 15
    gpuccio says:

    Graham2:

    Please, read more carefully what I have written:

    “The perceiving subject, the transcendental “I” who refers to itself all the different modifications in its consciousness, reacts to outer input in ways that are not completely determined by the inputs themselves, and which are not random either. Those responses are in some way influenced (influenced, not determined) by the intuitive connection of that perceiver with a cognitive/moral “field” in the perceiver’s consciousness, a “field” which has purpose and meaning, a “field” which is indeed the origin of the subjective experiences of purpose and meaning.

    Moment by moment, at all times, the perceiver can attune itself to that purpose and meaning in different measure. The result of that different attunement is, in the end, a different output to the outer world, but it all begins in the perceiver’s consciousness and in his reactions to the inputs from the outer world.

    That’s what we call free will.”

    I have added emphasis to clarify the parts relevant to your questions.

    IOWs, to be even more clear, consciousness is not something which can be explained algorithmically, neither deterministically nor randomly.

    Consciousness is the existence of a subjective perceiver, what I call a “transcendental I”.

    The attunement of the subject with the field of meaning and purpose is, as I have said, an “attunement”: the “I” can, at each moment, be more or less receptive to the values in the field, and that being receptive is its free choice. Therefore, that choice cannot be explained in terms of inner algorithms. That’s why I call the “I” transcendental.

    One of the best philosophical depictions of free will is, IMO, Donald Duck in Donald’s Decision:

    http://www.imdb.com/media/rm4194414592/tt0167901

    The angel Donald and the devil Donald are there. Donald, however, is free to listen to one or the other. So, our consciousness is always intuitively aware of the field of cognition and purpose. While our conscious understanding and will are certainly limited and imperfect, our inner reactions to the inputs from the outer world can, at each moment, be more or less attuned to the intuition of what is true and of what is good. That is our choice, or, like in Donald’s case, our “decision”.

  16. 16
    gpuccio says:

    Sorry for not formatting correctly! Too much bold, that was not my intention. 🙂

  17. 17
    gpuccio says:

    RalphDavidWestfall:

    Very good point.

  18. 18
    bornagain77 says:

    Verse and Music:

    Romans 7:19-25
    For the good that I would do, I do not; but the evil which I would not do, that I do.
    Now if I do that which I would not do, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
    I find then a law that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
    For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.
    But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
    O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
    I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.

    Mandisa – Overcomer (Lyric Video)
    http://www.vevo.com/watch/mand.....UV71301156

  19. 19
    Graham2 says:

    gpuccio: Sorry, repeating it didnt help. Using phrases like cognitive/moral “field” doesnt help. It looks like gibberish to me. What on earth is a ‘field’ ? Does it surround your head ? Is it magnetic ? I will resume the conversation with vjt when he returns. Perhaps he will make sense.

  20. 20
    gpuccio says:

    VJ:

    The only consistent conception of free will is the libertarian (the “ambitious view”).

    The “modest view”, which, if I understand well, is more or less compatibilism, is IMO an intellectual fraud.

    Let’s say that it is some form of intellectual consolation for people who, while knowing that they are free, choose to believe that they are not, and at the same time pretend that they believe they are.

  21. 21
    gpuccio says:

    Graham2:

    OK, it’s fine for me.

  22. 22
    Paul Giem says:

    Free will may or may not exist (I think that at least sometimes it does), but those who think that decisions are made several seconds in advance by the unconscious are naive. They have never played sports.

    If I am playing racquetball, and the ball is coming forward to where I am (say, in doubles), I face the choice to hit the ball hard and try to drive it past my opponents or to dink it short into a corner where they cannot get to it in time. That decision (when I am playing well) is based on where my opponents are and which way they are moving, which can change in less than 1 second. It takes a somewhat complex calculation, and in borderline cases a decision. Furthermore, one cannot split the difference, because a moderate response makes for an easy, and sometimes devastating, return. To claim that I have made up my mind 5 seconds before is frankly absurd, as 5 seconds ago I did not even know that I would have to make the decision.

    None of this, of course, proves that there is free will. But what it does prove is that the decision was not made by my unconscious seconds before I actually acted. If researchers can’t get that right, why should I trust them to accurately portray decisionmaking?

  23. 23
    JDH says:

    The Bible has a very technical term for those who are so committed to the position “There is no God” that they will even deny that they are making a free choice to believe or not to believe.

    The technical term is “fool”. Ps 14:1.

    Oh, also please not that that, IMHO, the Bible gets it right. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

    It seems to me that everyone I have met that denies free will does so for an emotional reason, not a logical one.

  24. 24
    JWTruthInLove says:

    @JDH:

    The Bible has a very technical term for those who are so committed to the position “There is no God” that they will even deny that they are making a free choice to believe or not to believe.

    The technical term is “fool”. Ps 14:1.

    No, it’s not. A “fool” is someone who doesn’t believe in God, is corrupt, has committed abominable deeds, and does no good.

  25. 25
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Graham2,

    You wrote:

    Vincent: I presume you believe we have free will. If so, could you describe what happens when we make a decision ? Eg: Do I have a coffee now or later ? Could you tell us what agent you believe is finally making the decision ?

    That’s easy. I am. Of course, that invites the question: what am I? I am an animal with a variety of capacities. Some of these capacities are vegetative (e.g. nutrition, growth and reproduction), some are sensitive (the external senses, or seeing/hearing/touching/tasting/smelling, plus the internal senses, such as imagining/remembering), some are appetitive (emotions, or what Aristotle called the passions), and finally, some of my capacities are rational (reasoning, understanding and choosing). These rational capacities are higher-level, holistic capacities, and they represent the highest level of control in the human organism, when it is functioning normally.

    I would also add that the acts whereby these rational capacities are exercised are not bodily acts, but purely mental acts, even though they presuppose the occurrence of lower-level bodily acts (e.g. I can’t reason about something without also seeing or at least imagining it, and I need a brain to do that). Or as the philosopher Mortimer Adler put it: “You don’t think with your brain, but you can’t think without one.”

    It is a bit of a mystery how it always happens that whenever I choose [a non-bodily act] to raise my arm [a bodily act], my arm goes up. I would answer: that’s just the way we’re made.

    If you find that account totally unconvincing, you could always adopt the holistic materialism that Christian materialists such as Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in, and simply say that thinking and choosing are higher-level acts of the brain. I find materialism philosophically problematic, but if that’s what rocks your boat, fine.

    Anyway, the point of my post is that whether you believe we are capable of performing non-bodily acts (such as thinking and choosing) or whether you simply regard these as higher-level bodily acts (top-down causation), libertarian free will is still a live option.

  26. 26
    vjtorley says:

    Graham2,

    You write:

    Our consciousness acts in a way that is a blend of internal influences and external influences.

    So where does the ‘free’ will come in ? If our consciousness (whatever that is) performs this blending operation, the outcome is determined by the rules of that operation: there is no ‘free’ about it. Sure, we can choose some way of doing the blend, but how do we decide how to do that? Randomly?

    Not randomly, but rationally.

    OK. I understand that when you wrote: “How do we decide how to do that?” you meant “By what process?” rather than “In what manner?” But what I’m saying is that not every act can be performed by some underlying process, or we’d get an infinite regress of actions. At some point, there have to be basic acts, which are not performed by doing something else. What I’m saying is that thinking and choosing are basic acts. For such acts, all we can ask is: “In what manner are they performed?” rather than “By what process are they performed?”

    To be sure, there are a lot of information-processing acts that I have to perform before I can reason about something, or make a choice about it. But these acts of information-processing are not the act of reasoning or choosing itself: even when they have occurred, the actual thought I have or decision I make is still up to me. My thoughts and choices are not determined by the information I have processed about my surroundings.

    You state: “If our consciousness (whatever that is) performs this blending operation, the outcome is determined by the rules of that operation: there is no ‘free’ about it.” But that’s question-begging. You’re assuming that consciousness is a rule-governed activity, and you’re assuming also that these rules don’t merely constrain our decisions (as the rules of chess do) but actually determine our decisions. Why would you assume that?

  27. 27
    vjtorley says:

    Paul Giem,

    You make an excellent point about racquetball. I agree: to say that all of our decisions are determined several seconds in advance is pretty ridiculous.

  28. 28
    vjtorley says:

    gpuccio:

    Thanks you for your posts. The point you raise about premise 2 is an interesting one. I would agree that sometimes our subconscious reactions can be due to freely chosen acts of ours. This is because we are capable of freely choosing to cultivate good habits. If we keep doing that, then at some point they will become automatic reactions. A lazy person who does not choose to cultivate the virtues will have a different set of reactions.

  29. 29
    Graham2 says:

    vjt: What I was getting at is the fact that, when a decision is made, it is made by some agent (the mind/soul/brain, I dont care), but when the agent finally makes a choice, it must make it based on a criteria. The only alternative is a random act. If it bases the action on a criteria, then it is not free, it is rule-based.

    We are all ‘free’ in the sense that there is no ‘gun at our head’, but we are not ‘free’ to make decisions with no critera, if we did, it is exactly the same as purely random acts.

  30. 30
    Charles says:

    Scientist: Ok, Mister SmartyPants, how would you measure free will?

    Charles: Well, I’d begin by stating the problem as “how to identify the cause of Charles’ decisions”.

    Scientist: (waves hand dismissively) We already know your decisions are caused by the deterministic universe impinging upon your emerged consciousness. How can you possibly measure that?

    Charles: So, that would be like photons and particles ‘n stuff striking the electro-chemical bonds of the synaptic cells in my brain, influencing my choices?

    Scientist: Very well put.

    Charles: And those photons which hit my brain are quantumly entangled with other photons elsewhere in the universe?

    Scientist: Why, yes. That would be correct.

    Charles: And since quantum entanglement of photons is a property of the quantum vacuum, it’s really the quantum vacuum that is causing my decisions?

    Scientist: Well, I, um, suppose so.

    Charles: So quantum vacuum noise disturbs the entangled photons which impact my emerged consciousness, which is why I only think I have free will?

    Scientist: Yes!!! Exactly what we have known all along.

    Charles: And since quantum vacuum noise is perfectly random, that’s why its so hard to measure the cause of my decisions.

    Scientist: Random is as random does.

    Charles: Now I understand why I couldn’t make up my mind which key to click! My poor brain is deluged in a sea of entangled photons triggering my synapses in a myriad random events, and because my consciousness emerged from this random soup, it really is just reacting to chaos rather than deciding freely. And analyzing all that chaos for a cause of my decisions is very difficult.

    Scientist: Uh, of course. Timing + or – key clicks is way more scientific.

    Charles: Au Contraire! We could simply compare my choices to the output of a quantum random number generator which samples the same quantum vacuum noise as entangles my emerged consciousness.

    Scientist: What would that show?

    Charles: Well, theoretically, quantum vacuum noise is the first cause of both my “free will” and the generator’s random numbers. So, theoretically again, I can no more freely decide than can the generator produce a series of prime numbers.

    Scientist: (strokes goatee) Hhmmmmm…. (imagines Nobel prize) How would we write up the grant proposal?

    Charles: Hook up a quantum random number generator. I’ll stand beside it, and for every random number it generates, I’ll choose a prime number. If we’re right, I won’t be able to. The same quantum entanglement that provides the random seed for the generator will make me choose a random number instead of a prime number. Voila! QED! Stick a fork in it.

    Scientist: But that would just prove your mental process is ruled by prime numbers.

    Charles: Ok. Instead of prime numbers, I’ll choose the digits of “Pi”, the lyrics to “Magical Mystery Tour” backwards, whatever, or even my prize-winning recipe for chili, nah I’ll keep that. But I can freely choose more non-random decisions than you can explain by rules. But not to worry, if we’re right and my decisions are firstly caused by the universe, it’ll be like I’m doing a Vulcan mind-probe on the quantum random number generator.

    Scientist: But, but you could just (gasp) lie about any of your choices. How would we prove you’re not lying?

    Charles: Dude! That’s the beauty of it. There’s no such thing as lying, there is only misquoting the universe. I can’t lie because I don’t have free will to defy universal Truth. I am “one with the universe” … (eyes closed, palms pressed together) Owouuummmm… Owouuummmm… (softly) “be the quantum”, Charles, just “be the quantum”

    Scientist: Your, er, protocol, lacks a certain gravitas that grant committees expect. This is well outside the consensus view of deterministic free will.

    Charles: No problemo. As the universe would have it, the grant committee lacks free will too! The same quantum entanglement that directs my choices also directs yours and theirs. The universe has already caused us to choose this protocol. The committee lacks the free will to uncause what the universe has already caused!

    Scientist: (rubs temples) The universe is causing a migrane. I think we’ll stick to + and – key clicks.

    Charles: This is where I came in.

  31. 31
    gpuccio says:

    VJ:

    Your note about cultivating habits is certainly good and relevant, because that is an important way that the conscious mind uses to model the subconscious mind, and therefore has a great relevance in shaping strategies which are important for the conscious control of our destiny.

    However, what I meant in my comment was different. I wrote:

    “However, I definitely contest the second premise too. I believe that a lot of free will is expressed in how we subconsciously (not unconsciously) react to outer inputs at different levels of our consciousness. Those processes are not automatic.”

    And I mean exactly that. I mean that our subconscious processes are not devoid of free will, and do not simply “borrow” it from the conscious decisions.

    I mean that in our subconscious processes we definitely adhere or not adhere to intuitive understandings or to intuitive desires, that those understanding and desires have different values (what I called “a cognitive and moral field” in my short discussion with Graham2), and that therefore our subconscious reactions, adhering to different understandings and desires which have different cognitive and moral value, have different merits or sins. IOWs, they are expressions of free will.

    Our conscious mind, being the tip of the iceberg of our consciousness, has obviously its important part in our decisions too, especially the long term ones. But those conscious decisions too are much influenced by the daily use of subconscious free will.

  32. 32
    gpuccio says:

    Charles:

    How can you deny us, your old friends and fellow IDists, your prize-winning recipe for chili?

    And I would really appreciate “I am the walrus” backwards!

    You can keep the digits of “Pi”, however, they are not so funny after all.

  33. 33
    bornagain77 says:

    Charles, my deterministic brain found your post funny and I had no choice but to laugh 🙂

    Pharrell Williams – Happy (Official Music Video)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6Sxv-sUYtM

  34. 34
    Charles says:

    Sorry all. I have a confession.

    I’m not really Charles. I’m “Chuck” his evil twin. Charles let’s me use his computer while he’s out and I’m a little bored, and the universe just came over me, and, well, idle hands and all that.

    oojak ook ook – surla weht mai

    Thank you, thank you very much. You’ve been great. Don’t forget to tip your server and I’ll be here all week.

  35. 35
    Mung says:

    When the universe chooses + we get Charles, when the universe chooses – we get Chuck.

    As long as the grant money keeps pouring in we’ll soldier on.

  36. 36
    gpuccio says:

    Mung:

    No, no! The choices of the universe are only the random result of the random choices of the meta-universe!

    The problem, I suppose, is that you don’t understand evolution…

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