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Need a New Year’s Resolution? Choose to Believe In Free Will!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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We’re approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another, when people resolve to quit smoking, swill less booze, gobble less ice cream, jog every day, or every other day, work harder, or less hard, be nicer to kids, spouses, ex-spouses, co-workers, read more books, watch less TV, except Homeland, which is awesome. In other words, it’s a time when people seek to alter their life trajectories by exercising their free will. Some mean-spirited materialists deny that free will exists, and this specious claim—not mere physiological processes in my brain–motivates me to reprint a defense of free will that I wrote for The New York Times 10 years ago:

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

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

The chief offender is The Illusion of Conscious Will (MIT Press, 2002), by Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. What makes Wegner’s critique more effective than others I’ve read over the years is that it is less philosophical than empirical, drawing heavily upon recent research in cognitive science and neurology. Wegner also carries out his vivisection of free will with a disturbing cheerfulness, like a neurosurgeon joking as he cuts a patient’s brain.

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

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

He cites experiments by psychologist Benjamin Libet in which subjects pushed a button whenever they chose while noting the time of their decision as displayed on a clock. The subjects took 0.2 seconds on average to push the button after they decided to do so. But an electroencephalograph monitoring their brain waves revealed that the subjects’ brains generated a spike of brain activity 0.3 seconds before they decided to push the button. The meaning of these widely debated findings, Wegner says, is that our conscious willing is an afterthought, which “kicks in at some point after the brain has already started preparing for the action.”

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

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

Brain disorders can exacerbate experiences of this kind. Schizophrenics perceive their very thoughts as coming from malevolent external sources. Those who have lasting damage to the corpus callosum, a neural cable that transmits signals between the brain’s hemispheres, may be afflicted with alien-hand syndrome. They may end up, Wegner says, like Dr. Strangelove, whose left hand frantically tried to keep his right from jutting out in Nazi salutes.

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

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

Maybe I should lighten up and embrace my lack of free will and a self. That’s what Susan Blackmore, a British psychologist and a practitioner of Zen, advises. In her book The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 1999), she contends that our minds are really just bundles of memes, the beliefs and habits and predilections that we catch from one another like viruses. Take all of the memes out of a mind, and there is no self left to be free.

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

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

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

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

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


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science, 1996, re-published with new preface 2015; and The End of War, 2012, paperback published 2014. Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rloldershaw 10:51 am 12/28/2012

    Probably the truth lies somewhere between absolutely no free will and complete free will.

    The empirical evidence, as you discuss in your post, favors the idea that we have much less free will than we think we have and we would like to have.

    However, we are not robots. Since the brain has feedback loops we can change our behavior given trial-and-error-and-correction processes (sometimes it takes many errors to motivate and reinforce change).

    I like the line from Slaughterhouse 5. Someting like: ‘a billion planets in the Galaxy and only on Earth does one hear the phrase free will’.

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  2. 2. naya8 3:00 pm 12/28/2012

    We are biological robots.We and animals are products of evolution. Animals’s behavior is an outcome of instincts, then they are biological robots. We are the same like animals in biology of brain ( more than 95% DNA similarity),we bahave out of instincts too, but we have more complicated brain; that is all the matter.Brain is formed by evolution to function trough interacting with environment, this interaction will lead to decisions that are parts of brain function. Then we are no more than a biological organ that is (in a meaning of short term period) inherited from one generation to others like any other organ.We inherit brain from our parents and my investigation conclude that it is inherited according to Mendil’s laws.Our brains and their function=bahavior is determined by genetics and biology and only according to that biology it interacts with environemnt.Humans can’t accept the fact that our brains are biologicaly determined and then we don’t have free will.How we have such a free will if neurones and transmitters make the decisions for us? Brain is exactly like a computer,there are inputs that are then translated to outputs, brain gets the information from outside and then it make its interpritations and make desisions.Why we decide that all our organs like eye;heart;intestine, antibodies and liver all function regardless of our well but cant allow to assume that our brains can’t do that? Brain is a mere biological organ that function according to physical laws, and one of its functions is to decide but we insist to call it a “free well”,for one reason: we are “thinking” animals and can’t allow anything to take our freedom even if this was our brain!!

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  3. 3. abramswp 3:37 pm 12/28/2012

    I believe that the first comment is correct for two reasons. First, historical evidence suggests that questions phrased in such simplistic terms (free will or not) rarely have such simple answers. Second, there are too many decisions in life where the correct decision is not clear. The ‘thinking animal’ has to make a somewhat arbitrary decision. Third (yes, I know), people seem to be able to change their behavior if they decide to do so but it is not easy. I hope I am around to see biology come up with evidence for this. Of course this sort of free will is not what most people want. Many (even most) of our decisions are probably made by some part of the brain we would not consider our ‘self’.

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  4. 4. jerryd 5:47 pm 12/28/2012

    some people have free will and others outsource it to others.

    Myself I’m clearly in the free will camp as I make my choices without regard of what others think but chart an independent course.

    I think the problem is what I call layers between one’s real self and that we in many cases fool ourselves into thinking we are.

    I on the other hand keep the real me and the one I think I am very close together. This causes a lot less problems in the long run.

    An example is an ex friend who thinks he’s a nice, great person who actually is mean, a bully and thinks everyone is trying to get his stuff. He thinks whatever he does is great and a lot even though he does little for others even though they help him a lot. He thinks others actions helping him are worth little. I tried to help him see this but got tired of giving without even a thank you. So he is getting more alone as he drives people away but doesn’t understand why. Fact is he just doesn’t understand what friendship is so he is losing those who try to be his.

    He is actually deluding himself with many layers of excuses, denials, etc into thinking he’s a good person.

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  5. 5. rloldershaw 5:48 pm 12/28/2012

    People with a serious addiction like heroin addiction have an extremely compromised ability to make free choices, at least regarding drug use.

    Yet I know of many cases where people who were slaves to alcohol or drugs broke free and did not go back to their old lifestyle. Sometimes it took many failed efforts, but they eventually changed their lives.

    Feedback loops allow for such change. A lot of “free will” is not required. What is required are parts of the brain that can understand causal relations, and parts of the brain that can envision different possible outcomes, and parts of the brain that can influence (be it ever so slightly) which way we go at a decision bifurcation, based on what we have learned from past mistakes/successes.

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  6. 6. Quentin 5:49 pm 12/28/2012

    There is another dimension to consider here. If we accept that, for the most part, our decisions at the time of making them are caused, we still have the capacity to choose the kind of person we want to be – and to develop the corresponding habits that lead to us making decisions in line with that kind of person. Virtue Ethics, initiated by Plato and Aristotle – and currently much in fashion – focuses not on the quality of an action but on the character of the actor.
    Don’t bother your head about Libet; no one takes him seriously as evidence.That spike is just the noise caused by the brain preparing for our minds what we need to make the decision.
    And remember, anyone who claims that there is no such thing as freewill is, by that very claim, telling us that we can ignore his opinion since it is the outcome of causes over which he has no control.

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 6:07 pm 12/28/2012

    Would an accurate summary of this article be;
    Our free will originates in our subconscious and transitions to conscious thought in around 1/10th of a second.

    I am not aware of the functioning of my kidneys but they are still my kidneys. I see no reason why my brain should be any different. When my kidneys work, I pee. When my brain works I decide or learn things. Why raise a fuss over minor details?

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  8. 8. tharriss 8:34 pm 12/28/2012

    Nice one, bucket!

    While I agree that many things people think they are freely choosing are actually prompted by their biology, “many” is not the same as “all”, and “prompted” is not the same as 100% controlled.

    We do a lot of things on auto-pilot (and perhaps explain these actions in retrospect as if we had consciously thought about them… ie, “confabulations”), but when we focus our consciousness directly on things, we then can actually choose (ie, exercise free will). Confusing the things we do when not fully focused with the things we can do when our consciousness is pointed at something (and is taking account of our biology/society programmed biases) explains the bulk of the confusion on this topic.

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  9. 9. Vee En 4:42 am 12/29/2012

    Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility

    Determinism is bound to remain one of the more intriguing problems in philosophy as well as science. As the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy says: “… there is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false) and what the import for human agency would be in either case.”
    The determinist position is that, in a universe governed by the strictest natural laws, all events arise naturally and inevitably from causative factors which follow these laws. Determinism, thus, affirms the inevitability of the actual. It is difficult to see how this can be disproved conclusively – even in theory.
    As far as the physical-inanimate – world is concerned, the determinist position has been seriously challenged by the discovery of indeterminacy at the level of subatomic particles. But this seems to be in respect of what can be measured and what can be predicted. But what actually happens, whether or not we are able to predict or measure it, is the crucial issue. Refuting Einstein’s famous saying that God does not play dice, Stephen Hawking has this to say: “But even this limited predictability disappeared, when the effects of black holes were taken into account. The loss of particles and information down black holes meant that the particles that came out were random. One could calculate probabilities, but one could not make any definite predictions. Thus, the future of the universe is not completely determined by the laws of science, and its present state, as Laplace thought. God still has a few tricks up his sleeve.” It would be rashly presumptuous of a layman to question Hawking, but one cannot see how the inability to make definite predictions can affect what actually happens. Determinism is about what actually happens.
    Extrapolating from the behaviour of subatomic particles to the phenomena of the macro world does not seem to be justified. But extending indeterminism to mental events – leading to free will – can plausibly be justified on the grounds that all mental events involve subtle events at subatomic levels. The question of free will leads to issues of moral responsibility. And these two issues are of direct interest to Humanism. There are those who believe that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. As Kant: says: “If our will is itself determined by antecedent causes, then we are no more accountable for our actions than any other mechanical object whose movements are internally conditioned.” But David Hume, a leading proponent of the “compatibilist” position, held the view that freedom and moral responsibility can be reconciled with (causal) determinism.
    Bertrand Russell’s view on determinism and moral responsibility (from his Elements of Ethics) are worth quoting at length. “The grounds in favour of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a
    brief indication of these grounds. The question I am concerned with is not the freewill question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism.” He goes on: “… among physically possible actions, only those which we actually think of are to be regarded as possible. When several alternative actions present themselves, it is certain that we can both do which we choose, and choose which we will. In this sense all the alternatives are possible. What determinism maintains is that our will to choose this or that alternative is the effect of antecedents; but this does not prevent our will from being itself a cause of other effects. And the sense in which different decisions are possible seems sufficient to distinguish some actions as right and some as wrong, some as moral and some as immoral”. Finally: “It would seem, therefore, that the objections to determinism are mainly attributable to misunderstanding of its purport. Hence, finally it is not determinism but freewill that has subversive consequences. There is therefore no reason to regret that the grounds in favour of determinism are overwhelmingly strong.”
    Galen Strawson has another view. For him, whether determinism is true or not, no-one is ever ultimately morally responsible for his actions, His ‘Basic Argument’ is:
    1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
    2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are – at least in certain crucial mental aspects.
    3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
    4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
    Among Humanists, opinion about determinism seems to be divided. In Corliss Lamont’s 10 Points for Humanism listed in his ‘Philosophy of Humanism’, the fourth point is: “Humanism, in opposition to all theories of universal determinism, fatalism, or predestination, believes that human beings, while conditioned by the past, possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are, within certain objective limits, the shapers of their own destiny.”
    Barbara Smoker, on the other hand, believes that most Humanists are determinists. “Believers in a good and almighty god generally believe in human freedom of will for how, otherwise could human beings be given total blame for their ‘sins’, let alone for the evils of the world? Most humanists, however, insofar as the old ‘free will/ determinism’ argument lingers on are determinists. This does not mean that they deny all human freedom and responsibility, but it does mean that we are less free than we feel we are, since our actions are determined (caused) by the genes we were born with (heredity) and the things that have happened to us in life (environment) for what else is there to cause them?”
    What do we mean by free will? Is there any action that can demonstrate the existence free will? All creatures act to follow an impulse. Is a moth circling a flame acting freely? “Spinoza compares the feeling of free will” we are told by Will Durant “to a stone’s thinking as it travels through space that it determines its own trajectory and selects the place and time of its fall.” One has to accept Galen Strawson’s contention that there is a fundamental sense in which free will is impossible. By “fundamental sense” most probably he means that it is impossible to establish free will by objective criteria.
    The important thing is to recognise the essential subjectivity of free will. A person is convinced that his actions follow his own decisions and impulses; he is not aware of any outside forces pushing him. In instances where he acts ‘in spite of himself’ – as in cases of compulsive disorders – he cannot be said to be exercising his free will.
    Lastly, no serious discussion of determinism can be complete without taking a view about the nature of time. “Physics, particularly 20th century physics, does have one lesson to impart to the free will debate; a lesson about the relationship between time and determinism”. Newtonian time, the time of our everyday experience, has been superseded, but no universally accepted model seems to have emerged so far. Einstein says to a friend: “ People like us … know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In this picture of the universe – Einstein and Minkowski’s block universe – the past, present and future, as perceived by us, exist together in another dimension. In Einstein’s words: ‘From a “happening” in three-dimensional space, physics becomes (…) an “existence” in the four-dimensional world.” Like the frames in a celluloid film, the past, present and future already (if that is the appropriate word) exist. Each observer’s ‘now’ travels along the film to create his particular experience of time. Our universe is inescapably indexical.
    This picture of time is highly repugnant to those who see it as negating free will. “And if I am going to be told”, protests JB Priestley, “that my idea that I make choices, take action, interfere, possibly change the future, is all an illusion, then I shall want to know how this block universe, this frozen history, came into existence, who coloured it, and what is the point of this vast, idiotic conjuring trick. A consciousness that is no more than a policeman’s lantern moving along a back alley – and indeed much less, because no action can follow from it – is not worth having.” Maybe there is no point – or it is up to us to see the point.
    Humanists, as rationalists, believe in the Sovereignty of Fact. But where the fact is not ascertainable, rational and constructive assumptions have to be made. One might call it the Regency of Assumptions. Since neither determinism nor free will can be proved to be a fact, Pragmatic Humanism, must assume that every person bears moral responsibility for his or her actions. Any other course is bound to have disastrous social consequences.

    Vir Narain

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  10. 10. naya8 5:17 am 12/29/2012

    Vir Narain
    Determinisim is a proved fact.I have done a scientific research wich establish the heredity of our mental traits according to Mendel’s laws.Mental traits found in parants were passed by 50:50 to their children; what is this if not determinism?

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  11. 11. jayjacobus 12:03 pm 12/29/2012

    Perception follows a deterministic process. What a person perceives follows a mechanistic/neural path. The brain transforms the neural inputs into mind senses which are intangible. Finally, the inner self experiences the mind senses.

    I know what another person experiences if I experience the same environment as he. I cannot examine his mind perceptions but I “know” that my own mind perceptions are “compatible” to others.

    After perception, comes cognition. Another person’s cognition may differ from mine. This may come deterministically or purposefully. I can change my perspective if I want, I can concentrate if I choose or I can simply experience my perceptions.

    In a determistic being, there is no need for mind senses because the being can simply react to the mechanistic inputs caused by reality. Cognition turns into neurological switching a brain function rather than a mind function.

    In this case there is no reason for a mind. All action proceeds from the brain.

    But I do have a mind and all people, that I have met, act like they have a mind as well.

    From an evolutionary perspective the mind must have followed the evolution of cognition. Oherwise the mind would not have evolved at all.

    Cognition is evidence of free will because I can change my perspective if I want, I can concentrate if I choose or I can simply experience my perceptions.

    There times, however, when I become fixated. This state is probably the brain overpowering cognition.

    I conclude that will is free, but is not always in play.

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  12. 12. RockyBob 12:44 pm 12/29/2012

    What an incredibly silly discussion! Where might “free will” come from if not from biological processes within the brain? The actions for typing this response come entirely from within the electro-chemical processes within my brain (and musculature required to press keys). They do not come from any external source. So where oh where would this “free will” come from except the ultimately deterministic structure that is the result of my genetics, epigenetics, and the cumulative effect of a lifetime of environment on those items? Are we talking la-la? Theism? The seventh dimension?
    Just because I perceive “free will” does not make it so. The illusion comes about because I have no awareness of the myriad of neuronal firings that precede each action, but the evidence is clear from fMRIs that actions and thoughts that we experience are simply the result of same.

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  13. 13. jayjacobus 2:31 pm 12/29/2012

    It could be that free will comes from biological processes within the brain if the inner self is an effect of neural processing.

    But the inner self could come from some other biological process or even some natural phenomenon. I think that external manipulation can influence what the inner self experiences but that does not mean that the inner self is an external phenomenon.

    You chose to write a comment and you chose to dispute free will. This evidence that you know how to choose.

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  14. 14. Daniel35 2:32 pm 12/29/2012

    The universe was programmed since the Big Bang, and maybe before. The seeming freedom of quantum particles is actually in our inability to observe carefully enough. But also, I’m free to do whatever I “want”. The catch is that my wants are also programmed by the universe.

    Be here now,
    Observe the past,
    Create the future.
    Only these are needed;
    Only these are possible.

    Be the proxy between the past and the future you’re programmed to “desire”.

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  15. 15. jayjacobus 2:43 pm 12/29/2012

    People who believe in determinism have a weak position in that their thinking is neural mechanically based.

    Those who believe in free will come to the issue through cognition and choice. Their conclusions are backed up by logic, not deterministic neurology.

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  16. 16. gesimsek 7:59 pm 12/29/2012

    According to Islam, our essence is created morally pure and wants to be with the source of everything good, like the Zen’s point of non-duality. However, with the gift of free-will and the development of self, we can create our own identity and actions according to dualities and start to worship the images of our own making.

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  17. 17. RockyBob 12:08 am 12/30/2012

    A thought experiment to consider — imagine two individuals that are completely identical in every respect and have had exactly the same experience. Not twins, more identical than that. Every epigene, every experience is absolutely identical down to the most minute, atomic level. Imagine at some point in these individual’s timeline that there is a first occurence of some “free will” different choice between the two; one picks a Ceasar salad and the other picks soup of the day. Given, as postulated, that up till that point everything has been absolutely identical, neuronal firings have been identical, what is the mechanism for the different choices? Remember, this is a thought experiment, and up till that point there have been no differences. We can no more step away from our genetic and environmental “self” than a computer can produce a different output running the same program with the same data.

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  18. 18. voyager 4:13 am 12/30/2012

    I believe you’ve put up a straw man. If you’ll refer back to jayjacobus #11, he proposes a cogent idea of how a facility for free will developed in our brain’s evolution, and why it’s logical to think it did. That is, if all we are wired for, and all that survival has selected for, is deterministic response, our larger brains would be wired for instant retrieval and application of all experience relevant to a decision in hand (like Spock), and we’d act reflexively not reflectively, without all this havering and ruminating we do.

    Put another way, the reflective mind produced by our brains is a hugely expensive and detrimental evolutionary detour if determinists are right. So if neither determinism or free will can be proven right or wrong, which is the one Occam insists you…choose?

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  19. 19. jayjacobus 9:22 am 12/30/2012

    Deterministic potential is embedded in the present and comes from past. Free potential does not come from the past. Free potential includes random events.

    At one time in the distant past there was no embedded potential. The only potential was free (unbounded) potential. Logically deterministic potential must have arisen from free potential.

    What science explains the evolution of deterministic potential?

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  20. 20. IslandGardener 4:43 am 12/31/2012

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

    This is the experiment which keeps getting quoted by people who say they believe in determinism as ‘evidence’ that there’s no such thing as free will.

    Maybe for many of the things many of us do every day this may be true – we may be running on ‘autopilot’.

    But how meaningful is it to compare a pointless ‘decision’ with no consequences, like pushing a button that affects nothing, with a decision that actually matters, the kind of decision that takes a huge mental effort to make? What evidence is there that important decisions are ‘programmed since the Big Bang’ as Daniel35 says he believes?

    Two philosophers whose views on free will are worth considering are Rene Descartes and Mary Midgley.

    Rene Descartes had many views which I find objectionable, but his most famous saying is worth remembering. He wanted to build philosophy on firm foundations, so he spent time thinking about what he knew for sure. He concluded that he knew he was conscious, and that this was the most basic fact he could be sure of.
    ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’).

    Mary Midgley
    gives a superb defence of free will in ‘Science and Poetry’.
    In Chapter 9 she says ‘the imaginative picture which has shaped our supposed modern picture of free will shows human life, no longer as a drama where active people struggle against difficulties, but as one where they do not exist as distinct entities at all, only areas of matter which are passive cogs, parts of a vast alien machine…
    ‘This kind of image, however, is not one that could be literally believed in. It belongs essentially to third-person talk. It is a way of thinking devised for describing other people. There is no way in which we ourselves could set about living if we really envisaged ourselves as cogs or vehicles…
    ‘Sentient life is essentially active. That, indeed, is why it has to be conscious in the first place.’
    In Chapter 10 of ‘Science and Poetry’ Mary Midgley explicitly discusses how a scientist does research and writes up that research. She asks people who say they believe in determinism to consider how that scientific paper includes one experiment rather than another, or a quotation from a particular page of a particular scientific paper, if not by conscious choice. She says that if we want an explanation of the scientist’s actions, the only place where we can find it is in thought.

    What I find interesting in all this is why on earth some people want to believe such patently ridiculous things as the notion that their consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenon’, or that they have no free will. What psychological benefits do people get from choosing to say they believe such unbelievable things?

    I suspect it might be that they are all too aware of the frighteningly huge possibilities and responsibilities of free will. Perhaps people who say they believe in determinism are motivated by the same fear that turns other people into religious fundamentalists, desperately seeking certainty.

    So here’s a new year’s resolution for me. I’ll get out my copy of Erich Fromm’s ‘Fear of Freedom’ and read it again…

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  21. 21. IslandGardener 4:51 am 12/31/2012

    There are some excellent thoguhts form Mary Midgley available from ther Guardian at

    One that’s relevant to this discussion is at

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  22. 22. IslandGardener 5:01 am 12/31/2012

    Sorry, folks, – version without typos:

    There are some excellent thoughts from Mary Midgley available from the Guardian at

    One that’s relevant to this discussion is at

    Link to this
  23. 23. RockyBob 11:42 am 12/31/2012

    Such nice phrases — “deterministic potential”, “embedded potential”, “free (unbounded) potential” and “evolution of deterministic potential”. Not sure there is any consensus on what any of them might mean.
    I would, however, take issue with the statement “free potential includes random events.” What do you mean by “random”? If by random you mean “not influenced by previous cerebral actions”, on what basis, other than unsupported belief, would you say that “free potential” is random? Your “free will” decisions, I’d argue, are completely bound to prior brain activity. Any coherent thought obviously is directly tied to all sorts of language, reasoning and motor activities that already exist in the brain and is not some free floating entity.

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  24. 24. jayjacobus 12:43 pm 12/31/2012

    At one time there was nothing. Then there was something. The new something did not arise deterministically.

    Evolution is a theory based on many observations. But the first gene arose without a predecedent.

    The theory of determinism is based on a fixed future that comes from the past. The calculation of the path of a comet comes from the current position, deceleration, speed, gravitation pull and debris in the way. If a scientist knows all the variables, he can calculate where the comet will be at various times. One might say that all the potentials are known or as I said embedded in the present potentials.

    On the other hand, a genetic mutation may be caused by a random event or a random result from a knowable event. While evolution is deterministic, mutations are random.

    Why are different kinds of monkeys? Not because of evolution but because of random mutations that changed each type of monkey in different ways.

    Does determinism imply that potentials are fixed? I think so.

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  25. 25. jayjacobus 6:26 pm 12/31/2012

    The determination of an illusion can be subjective. Those who see free will as real are some religious people, some philosophers and some pragmatists. Those who see free will as an illusion are some scientists, most people involved with artificial intelligence and atheists.

    But the identification of an illusion should not be subject to perspective. The illusion once revealed should be obvious to everyone.

    For the free will illusion, most articles start out by examining optical illusion, sound illusion and taste illusions.

    This seems to set the reader’s perspective to doubting his own judgments. If the articles then focused on the illusion of determinism, the reader would be led to that conclusion. But the articles focus on a different illusion, leading the reader to a different conclusion.

    Idealism focuses on the illusion of reality but that illusion is rejected by all pragmatists not by logic but by choice.

    So the suggestion to choose free will is a pragmatic decision and the case for determinism should be left to illusionists and provacateurs.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Albert Fonda 3:24 pm 01/4/2013

    Everyone is to a degree correct, but only partially correct. I plan to make the case at book length (in publication) that determinism does NOT contradict free will, it IMPLEMENTS it. We proprioceptively review deterministic memories as if in a kaleidioscope. (Snip) “The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.” Our neural system deterministically considers and tests each combination for likely success given present needs and initiates action. Our confabulated label for what results is “free will” – - because it indeed seems free, and it is indeed ours. We are merely in psychological denial of that deterministic process when we logically deny it and instead believe in ourselves as supernatural (contra-causal) “first causes.” Which for all practical purposes indeed we are; but that’s not how we actually function. Look for my name if and when I publish the full explanation.

    Link to this
  27. 27. treeshark 8:35 am 01/9/2013

    If freewill is an illusion then who or what is being deluded? In order for there to be an illusion that I would feel presupposes an entity to be misled which has obvious logical problems. But maybe I am deluded in this…

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  28. 28. jayjacobus 4:50 pm 01/9/2013

    If the Mars rover was independent of human technicians and it took deliberate actions, it would seem to have free will. But the actions would be explained by the electro-mechanical controls and software that were built in.

    But scientists who work on artificial intelligence promise to free the machine from any controls. The machine will learn what it can and cannot do by trial and error or by following external instructions.

    Even so, the machine may not have free will if it cannot be convinced to follow orders in a humanistic way. In this case the machine’s will does not exist. Instead it follows its purpose in a deterministic way. There is a built-in controller but the control is inflexible.

    Also the machine may act reflexively to inputs. This means that there are switches which are automatically thrown.

    In people there seem to be logical switches that get thrown automatically, but not all the time. When learning to do something, the person concentrates. But after a number of trials, the action becomes automatic. The automatic switches are set after the person becomes proficient.

    Moreover, the neuro-chemical action of the brain is never consciously realized. The person does not react to light, sound waves, chemical molecules, surface conditions or injuries. Instead the person reacts to images, sounds, smells, tastes and pain.

    Free will is a function of the inner self. People who say that there is no free will, do not seem to understand human cognition and choice.

    In other words, I am with you. I don’t understand why free will is an illusion. Sometimes if people cannot explain something, they say “It must be an illusion”.

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