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Science hasn’t shown free will doesn’t exist

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Hardly for lack of trying among moral entrepreneurs and poseurs. Florida philosophy prof Alfred Mele notes, however,  “no free will” experiments are set up to favour unconscious decision-making, and entirely leave out of account the type of decision-making most of us consider important to free will. For example:

Participants in these experiments are instructed to perform a simple action whenever they want and then report on when they first became aware of an urge, intention, or decision to perform it. In some studies, they are told to flex their right wrist – or click a key on a keyboard – whenever they want. In others, they have the option of pressing either of two buttons whenever they want. Nothing hangs on when they flex or click or which button they press. Any decisions participants make about these simple actions are arbitrary. In fact, participants are instructed to be spontaneous rather than think about what to do.

The discerning reader will have noticed something interesting already. 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. It would not be at all surprising if your conscious reasoning made it highly probable that you would consciously make any decision you made. 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. More.

Lots of people would benefit if the idea of free will could be banished. Too bad they are nearly always the wrong people.

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15 Replies to “Science hasn’t shown free will doesn’t exist

  1. 1
    Acartia_bogart says:

    It would have been nice if the author had referenced the actual research papers he talks about so that we could decide for ourselves, not be told what to think. For example, is this research intended to disprove free will, as the author states, or is it to gain an understanding of decision making processes?

    Free will is not an all or none issue. There are some decisions that are much easier to make. For me, turning down that piece of cake is easy, but for others it is much more difficult. And for people with OCD, changing their pattern of action is extremely difficult. And before people claim that OCD is not real, keep in mind that it is just an adaptive trait that we all have that is taken to the extreme in some (as are many mental disorders). If you doubt me, try putting your clothes on in a different order, or wash your body in a different order the next time you are in the shower. It can be done, but it feels very uncomfortable.

    Another example is sexual orientation. I don’t want to get into the argument about whether you are born with it, but, once developed, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change. Free will certainly comes into play when people act on their sexual orientation. But do they really have free will to decide not to be attracted to the same (or opposite) sex? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect not.

  2. 2
    johnnyb says:

    Acartia –

    I largely agree with you. However, one thing – “Free will is not an all or none issue.” The *existence* of free will *is* an all or none issue. Materialists require free will to not exist. Whether or not free will can be exercised in a particular case and to what degree is certainly an open and interesting question. However, the materialists have, for decades, been trying to make a material thing out of personhood, and in the process remove the concept of a free will. I wholly agree that various things may not be choosable by the will for a number of reasons. But the *existence* of the will, even though it may be highly bound, is what is being fought over.

  3. 3
    Acartia_bogart says:

    Johnnyb, I think that we agree on this for the most part. The reason that I would like to have seen some references to this is that I have no way of knowing if he is misrepresenting (unintentionally or not) the research.

    For example, it talks about brain activity occurring before the conscious decision is made. The implication he was suggesting is that the researcher was claiming that the brain chemistry made the decision before he was aware of it. This may have been the conclusion that the researcher came to but we can’t tell because we don’t have access to the paper. For all I know, the prior brain activity may simply impart an “urge” (mmm chocolate cake..) which the person takes into account when he makes his conscious decision.

  4. 4
    Charles says:

    Acartia_bogart @ 3

    I have no way of knowing if he is misrepresenting (unintentionally or not) the research.

    Well it can’t be intentional misrepresentation because his research proves there is no free will to be intentional, so it must be unintentional misrepresentation, in which case his conclusions are unintentionally incorrect and there is free will, in which case he could have the free will to intentionally misrepresent the lack of free will, so there is free will.

    You can thank me later.

  5. 5
    VunderGuy says:

    Wouldn’t proving that there exists no such thing as free will prove Nihilism?

  6. 6
    Acartia_bogart says:

    I am an atheist, but I believe that free will exists. But I don’t think that it is God given. Or unique to humans. This being said, I think that it is a waste of time to try to Study this scientifically. We make decisions every day. And we make one decision today that is opposite to the one we made yesterday. But on any single decision, can we prove that we really had a choice? After all, the decision has already been made. Science deals well with large numbers and probabilities, it has a very difficult problem with one time, yes no options.

    My cat just decided to lay under my picnic table rather than on the patio. Was that free will or just a response to the heat. My clownfish jumped out of the tank last night. Was that instinct or just a poor use of free will?

  7. 7
    Barb says:

    Acartia_bogart: equating the behavior of animals with that of humans is a non sequitur. Humans make decisions whereas animals act primarily on instinct. Animals don’t seek revenge or comprehend abstract concepts like beauty or art.

    But on any single decision, can we prove that we really had a choice?
    The fact that we had a choice in the first place is evidence for free will. Otherwise, we’d simply be automatons.

  8. 8
    Charles says:

    Acartia_bogart @ 6

    But on any single decision, can we prove that we really had a choice?

    I can.

    After all, the decision has already been made.

    In a repeatable experiment wherein I demonstrate, repeatedly, my ability to make every theoretically possible decision however I choose, in any order I choose, as often as I choose, or not, then I’ve demonstrated complete freedom of choice, and the mere fact that you observe whatever choice I made temporally afterwards in no way disproves or impairs my logical freedom of choice.

    Science deals well with large numbers and probabilities, it has a very difficult problem with one time, yes no options.

    I can choose, entirely of my own free will, to deny, affirm, duplicate or alter the output of a quantum random number generator. Because a quantum random number generator’s output is entirely random, non-repeatable and based on quantum noise, my choices are not determined by the generator itself or its sample but rather my choices are freely up to me, including ignore the generator’s output entirely and fabricate my own output stream.

    While the generator will always produce a random sequence of numbers, I can decide, based on your choice, to modify (or not) any particular sequence of random numbers to create a pattern of your choosing. Or I can ignore you and create a pattern of my own choosing (predicted by me ahead of time or proven after the fact), or I can employ a 2nd generator to modify the 1st generator’s sequence in an entirely unpredictable pattern, however I freely choose.

    These are large, continuous, quantum-event-based random numbers with the kinds of probabilities (100% unpredictable and unrepeatable) that science deals with and even relies on. The generator is 100% nondeterministic in that its output will always be random and only random, it can never generate anything but random numbers nor can it generate patterns or primes etc., yet in that regard it is also deterministic in that it is limited to just random numbers and never anything else.

    My free will, however, allows me to be entirely undeterministic in that I can copy and mimic the generator’s random output or I can be deterministic and output a pattern of my choosing. I can do either at my choosing, or yours or anyone else from whom I choose to take direction. These would not be one-time yes or no decisions, but complex numeric streams, containing random or patterned sequences. Science can measure this empirically and repeatedly, and my output will always be whatever I choose to make it whereas the generator’s output is limited to only and always random and not even repeatable.

    My cat just decided to lay under my picnic table rather than on the patio. Was that free will or just a response to the heat.

    I will concede cats have free will. Dogs, not so much.

  9. 9
    Joe says:

    Does “no free will” = no criminals?

  10. 10
    Acartia_bogart says:

    Barb and Charles,

    My point was that it is pointless to try to examine free will scientifically simply because I can’t think of an experiment that would not be biased. If you can think of one, I welcome the suggestion. More importantly, I argue that even if you could think of an experiment that would conclude that we have free will, that it would also conclude that my cat has free will (but maybe not Charles’ dog).

  11. 11
    Charles says:

    Acartia_bogart @ 10

    My point was that it is pointless to try to examine free will scientifically simply because I can’t think of an experiment that would not be biased.

    There is nothing wrong with a biased choice, nor an experiment that accurately measures the same choice. The presence of bias is not a limitation, it is what underlies the choices we make. We are free to make to those choices in favor of our biases or not.

    If our decisions were without bias, they wouldn’t be free – they’d be limited by other external constraints. A biased choice (as long as it is the bias of the decision maker) is not a loss of freedom, and when the decision is willing made in favor of someone else’s bias (e.g. the preference of a loved one) it is informed choice and still not a loss of freedom.

    The experiment I proposed above permits the entire range of “biases” to alter the output of a QRNG, and I’m free to choose any of them without limitation, according to whatever “bias” I employ to demonstrate any particular degree of freedom, even to the point of reflecting your biases in my choices should I choose to output a pattern of your choosing.

    Only machines (like random number generators) make bias-free selections – they can do no other. We can exercise any or all of our biases, or someone else’s, or none of the above – our freedom of choice is total.

    Choosing is about bias. Freely choosing is about any bias I care to entertain.

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    I predict that one day a scientist will prove that free will does not exist, and it won’t be because they chose to do so.

    I also predict that given the infinite number of universes that must exist, our’s just happens to be the one with free will in it, but we should not be surprised by that, because given that we are free moral agents, what else would we expect to find?

  13. 13
    Tim says:

    First, I’d like to freely offer my apologies to any that would accept them . . . having said that, here we go!

    I liked to watch Flipper as a boy, oh so silly–
    Oh that great moral stage which never grew chilly.
    The dolphin decided
    What the writers had writed–
    Dilemmas for all, dispersed willy-nilly.

    But now that I’m older, a curs-ed hillbilly,
    I’ve narrowed the field. Only humans, no really!
    No “porpoised” decisions
    Made past base conditions,
    Only we get what we get. All hail to Free Will-y!

  14. 14
    Axel says:

    ‘Science hasn’t shown free will doesn’t exist’

    So has my Aunt Fannie….and much more cogently.

  15. 15
    Axel says:

    Oops!

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