Bryan Caplan  

Free Will and Behavioral Genetics

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Behavioral geneticists (BGs) don't like to be called "genetic determinists."  "No, no, no," they protest, "all we've shown is that genes exert some influence.  Twin and adoption studies show that environment is important, too." 

But what would they say if you replied, "OK, so you're a genetic + environmental determinist.  Same difference"?

Most BGs would probably reluctantly accept the charge.  After all, what else is there besides genes and environment?

If you take a closer look at BG research, though, you'll notice something interesting.  Virtually every BG study partitions variance into three sources: genes, shared family environment, and non-shared environment.  Typical estimates are something like 40-50% for genes, 0-10% for shared family environment, and 50% for non-shared environment.

And what exactly is non-shared environment?  Everything other than genes and family environment!

Why do I bring this all up?  Well, suppose human beings had real, honest-to-goodness free will.  If it made a difference for behavior, where would it show itself?  In the BG framework, it would be filed under "non-shared environment."

OK, now let's get Bayesian.  If you could fully account for a person's choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, you'd count it as a confirmation of determinism, right?  Well, if you buy this argument, you also have to buy its mirror image: The harder it is to account for a person's choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, the stronger the case for free will.

From this perspective, the large empirical estimates of the importance of non-shared environment are noteworthy.  Identical twins raised together are still, in many ways, very different.  The believer in free will can simply say, "The good twin and the evil twin just made different choices."  The determinist, in contrast, can only ask for a blank check: "One day, we're figure out the hidden forces that caused them to be so different.  Until then, bear with us."

Let me hasten to add that the magnitude of non-shared environment in BG research is not the main reason why I believe in free will.  In my view, free will is a fundamentally a modal claim, not a predictive one.  You can know with overwhelming certainty that I won't shave my head tomorrow; it doesn't change the fact that I could shave my head tomorrow.  And the main reason why I believe in free will is introspection, not any fancy argument. 

Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that if non-shared environment's contribution to behavioral variance were a lot smaller, determinists would be heralding the result as "proof" of their position.  And if this suspicion is right, it's only fair to ask them to reduce their confidence in light of the findings of BG research.


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The author at Brad Taylor's Blog in a related article titled Free Will writes:
    Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on the philosophical problem of free will and behavioural genetics. OK, now let’s get Bayesian.  If you could fully account for a person’s choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, y... [Tracked on April 20, 2009 8:31 PM]
COMMENTS (37 to date)
Daniel writes:

Given that there's good reason to think that fundamental physical laws are indeterministic, it would be very surprising if we could predict behavior perfectly based on coarse grained genetic and environmental factors.

But indeterminism isn't enough to get you free will--a radium atom may not be determined to decay at any particular time, but that doesn't mean that it freely chooses to decay at the time it does. Randomness is just as inimical to free will as determinism.

While it's not obvious to me what evidence (if any) would settle the free will debate, the fact that human behavior isn't highly predictable shouldn't move us much one way or the other, once we expect nature to be indeterministic.


Jason Malloy writes:

If you could fully account for a person's choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, you'd count it as a confirmation of determinism, right? Well, if you buy this argument, you also have to buy its mirror image: The harder it is to account for a person's choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, the stronger the case for free will.

Not at all. The falseness of uncaused (or "self-caused") will has nothing to do with behavior genetics. It's not an empirical truth, it's a logical truth. "Free will" defined as something neither random or mechanistic is simply incoherent.

The anti-materialist free-will argument you are implying is identical to the Intelligent Design argument of "Irreducible complexity": Point to a hole in current understanding, suggest, erroneously, that it can't be solved, and thus the scientific answer for the puzzle is... magic! (i.e, a extra-materialist cause for the natural phenomena in the case of "intelligent design," and a extra-materialist cause for human behavior in the case of "free will".)

We're back to the "a miracle happens here" Far Side cartoon. It's not illuminating, and it's pseudoscience.

Gian writes:

Does belief in Free Will implies belief in a Supernature or one can be believer in Free Will without any supernatural beliefs?

PS Defn of Supernature
____________________
Nature is the interlocked system of cause and effect. Supernature is something from outside this system that may intrude upon Nature eg a miracle or an act of knowing or reasoning.

Quatum mechanical indeterminantcy is preferably understood not as Supernature but as subnature, in this picture.

So if you think that Free Will is emerging from QM then you need not be a beliver in Supernature, otherwise I see an implication.

Would be glad of your views.

H writes:

From Caplan's essay: The denial of our freedom leads to the denial of virtue and vice, individual responsibility, and the value of political freedom.

Why would anyone freely choose to do evil? It seems to me that evil choices can be made only by those who are already evil.

You can know with overwhelming certainty that I won't shave my head tomorrow; it doesn't change the fact that I could shave my head tomorrow.

Yes you could, but only if something suddenly makes you want to shave it. Maybe you want to test your free will. In that case, what made you want to test your free will?

The sun could explode tomorrow (it is physically possible), but it won't happen spontaneously. Something has to cause it.

Robin Hanson writes:

Unless your theory is that humans somehow have some special additional free will not held by all other stuff or even all other life, it seems silly to focus on human behavior for tests. It is far easier to instead test electrons or amoebas.

Troy Camplin writes:

The indeterminism of quantum physics is erased at macrophysical levels.

But that aside, think about it this way. Suppose we were able to construct two identical living cells so they were identical at the atomic level -- even every water molecule is in the same identical location. And we put them both in identical environments. Again, every molecule is placed in the same, identical location throughout their petri dishes. What do you think would happen once we let them go. Would they continue to grow and move in precisely identical ways? Determinism tells you they absolutely should, but your gut tells you they absolutely should not. The fact is that both are in fact right. For a while, they will act and move in identical ways. But after a while, they will diverge in behaviors and growth. Why? It has nothing to do with quantum indeterminacy. It has to do with the fact that a cell is an emergent entity with behaviors that derive from, but are not perfectly determined by, the molecules which make up the cells. There are certain laws of chemistry that cannot be derived from quantum physics, and there are certain laws of biology that cannot be derived from chemistry. Not only do the molecules in a cell create cellular structure, but the cell itself affects cellular structure and the chemical reactions within that cell. There is top-down as well as bottom-up determinism, and the feedback loops generated make the cell free in a real sense.

We can then apply this to the embodied brain. Genes and environment create neurons and neural pathways. The interactions of our neurons with each other and the body and the environment create behaviors, including the minding function of the brain. The mind is an emergent entity of the embodied brain in the same way the cell is an emergent entity of the biochemical cycles within it.

I recommend to everyone Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred."

Peter Twieg writes:

So to me this says is that as long as there's some uncontrolled residual, that this residual provides evidence for free will. Which is strongly reminiscent of a "God in the gaps" argument against determinism. Even if a Bayesian concedes that holes in his account of determinism (or macroevolution) exists, and that this means that he has to have some marginally weaker belief in the given theory than he would otherwise... this margin might be very very small for good reasons.

I think most determinists recognize that human beings are complex enough that it's difficult to predict their actions using a reasonably finite set of known variables about an individual and their environment. Thus it's easy to chalk up the residual to complexity rather than free will.

And even if free will did exist, is it being implied that free will would express itself, by definition, in a way which is unpredictable? If a person has a personality trait X that leads them to make choice Y, and we have a good idea of the circumstances under which a person will possess trait X, does this intrinsically mean that Y is no longer the product of free will? I find that uncompelling, but it seems to be implied by this argument.

Arare Litus writes:

H,

I suspect people choose to be evil by convincing themselves that it is not actually evil.

Jason,

" "Free will" defined as something neither random or mechanistic is simply incoherent."

Is it? Consider the world you know - both subjective & all the complex interactions that make up society - now consider an atom.

In the case of an atom we can see very complex behaviour, but we can determine the action from the environment and the nature of the atom (the only indeterminate component is wavefunction collapse, but even there "we" (i.e. people trained in this) can determine the envelope and probabilities). Looking at some basic properties, and forces between atoms, we can find the trajectories and future (as well as past), limited only by numerical precision and computational resources (which are pretty strict limits actually).

For individuals, the "strait-jacketed" action is gone. It defies any sort of logic to think that you are reading this blog, and I, and Bryan is writing it - after reading, thinking, and working and interacting to get an university position, based on molecular trajectories determined by gravity, electromagnetic, and other forces. Why would the atoms clump in such a manner? Why would should *meaningful* outcomes - in a totally consistent manner - and persist? Why would clumps of atom called people "trick" themselves into thinking they had free will and ability to choose?

There simply is no need for subjective feelings in a determined/random world, and the meaning that is obvious on a moments reflection that is layered on each and every interaction and action we take only makes sense from a free-will perspective.

Arare Litus writes:

Robin,

"Unless your theory is that humans somehow have some special additional free will not held by all other stuff or even all other life, it seems silly to focus on human behavior for tests. It is far easier to instead test electrons or amoebas."

I'm not sure of the motivation for this comment. But it is far easier to use thought experiments, introspection, reason, and previous data.

Since we are interested in humans, and have data on them (including the twin studies), it makes sense to leverage this knowledge for all it is worth. We also have self knowledge.

And, as you know, testing electrons & amoebas is not "easy" and the easier is somewhat questionable - it will depend on the specific test one is doing. It is pretty easy to do a poll (perhaps not well...), it is pretty hard to to ultracold STM of atomic junctions. While this is not connected to free-will, perhaps you can describe an experiment on electrons/amoebas that is easier than using thought experiments and discussion which makes some contribution to free-will considerations? If not, how is this "easier"?

Albert writes:

Bryan,

I would love to see you comment on the studies of Benjamin Libet, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Libet#Volitional_acts_and_readiness_potential, who showed that unconscious electrical processes in the brain precede conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts.

Albert

Meng Bomin writes:

If we use your definition of "free will":

It is the freedom of the mind from causal determination, not the freedom from physical constraints or threats of violence.

I'd say that free will is gobbledigook, worthless, and a hindrance rather than a benefit. Causal determination allows one to have some semblance of control over themselves. Without it, one's decisions would be held completely to chance and not to any quality of the person supposedly making the decisions.

Causal determinism is not a cage and I wish that people wouldn't treat it as such.

J Cortez writes:

Interesting discussion on free will.

Arare Litus writes:

Meng,

I think you are misinterpreting what free-will is, it is the ability to make choices. That choice can, and often is, of self control. In fact, "control over themselves" is only meaningful in a free-will framework.

Causal determinism *is* a cage, by definition, as one is locked into a DETERMINED structure.

Nathan Smith writes:

Now this is odd. I find myself in complete agreement with Bryan here. Both his conclusion-- that there is free will-- and his grounds for it-- introspection-- are perfectly correct. What is strange is that I first learned these arguments in the book *Miracles*, by C.S. Lewis, in which he makes the famous Argument from Reason which refutes materialism and affirms God. Although the arguments come in quick succession, it is probably possible to detach the argument for non-material causation from the argument for the existence of God. Nor, for that matter, do I wish to say that Caplan is making exactly the same argument as Lewis. As someone who accepts Lewis's argument more or less in full as well as his theistic and Christian conclusions, it is pleasant and strange to hear this sort of argument from an anti-religious writer like Caplan.

But it raises the question: why stop there? If there is supernatural free will, why not a supernatural God?

Since I agree with Caplan I'll contribute to the cause by answering some of his critics.

Jason writes:

"The falseness of uncaused (or 'self-caused') will has nothing to do with behavior genetics. It's not an empirical truth, it's a logical truth. 'Free will' defined as something neither random or mechanistic is simply incoherent."

As Jason makes no further defense of this claim, the answer is simply that since it is not at all self-evident, the burden of proof rests on him, and he has not discharged that burden. As an aside, the idea of randomness seems at least as logically problematic as free will, it seems to me, yet it is generally credited. Jason goes on to make a completely different argument:

"The anti-materialist free-will argument you are implying is identical to the Intelligent Design argument of "Irreducible complexity": Point to a hole in current understanding, suggest, erroneously, that it can't be solved, and thus the scientific answer for the puzzle is... magic!"

But Caplan is making no such argument. He makes it clear that *introspection,* not the existence of gaps and residuals in the data, is his basis for believing in free will. And he has also pointed out the error in the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose game the determinists like to play:

"The believer in free will can simply say, 'The good twin and the evil twin just made different choices.' The determinist, in contrast, can only ask for a blank check: 'One day, we're figure out the hidden forces that caused them to be so different. Until then, bear with us.'"

Exactly. Determinism is a sort of fideism. It illegitimately transforms a necessary postulate of scientific research (for the 'laws,' so called, of nature must exhibit a high degree of consistency for experimental or, more generally, inductive methods to be of any use) into a truth, dogmatically believed, and treated as a *conclusion* of science rather than, what it really is, an assumption.

A 'God in the gaps,' or 'free will in the gaps,' argument should indeed be prepared to retreat in the face of decisive evidence that the gaps are explicable. A theist who had pointed to miracles as evidence for the existence of God, and who is then confronted with a scientific explanation of the supposed miracle by natural causes, may legitimately say, "While I concede that, in light of this discovery, the evidence for God is somewhat weaker than I had supposed, I still think it is dominant." But if he is wholly unmoved by the discovery, we are justified in doubting his intellectual honesty. A believer in free will who uses the lack of deterministic explanations for some mental events as evidence should concede that his case has been weakened if deterministic explanations come to light.

But what we are faced with here is something quite different. There are still plenty of unexplained mental events, yet the determinists critique 'free will in the gaps' arguments (whether really made by or merely imputed to their opponents) on the grounds that science will presumably someday come up with deterministic explanations of such events. I am not sure what to make of the rather rare situations, e.g., hypnosis, when deterministic processes seem to operating in or at least influencing human behavior where I would have expected free will to be at work. I am not sure if a comprehensive success by science in explaining human behavior would disprove free will or not. What is certain is that science has not comprehensively explained human behavior, or come anywhere close to it.

Peter Tweig writes:

"So to me this says is that as long as there's some uncontrolled residual, that this residual provides evidence for free will."

But again, Bryan is not, I think, making this argument.

Meng writes:

"Without it, one's decisions would be held completely to chance and not to any quality of the person supposedly making the decisions. Causal determinism is not a cage and I wish that people wouldn't treat it as such."

No, free will is not the same thing as chance. This is based on introspection and commonsense: to say "he did it on purpose" or "he chose to do it" means the opposite of "he did it by accident" or "by chance."

Robin Hanson writes:

"Unless your theory is that humans somehow have some special additional free will not held by all other stuff or even all other life, it seems silly to focus on human behavior for tests. It is far easier to instead test electrons or amoebas."

Troy Camplin writes:

"The indeterminism of quantum physics is erased at macrophysical levels."

No, it is not. Think of a boulder exactly poised at the top of a hill. It may roll to the left or to the right, and the tiniest force can upset the balance. There is no limit to the degree with which micro causes can lead to disproportionate macro events.

Daniel recognizes this ("we expect nature to be indeterministic"), but makes a different mistake:

"But indeterminism isn't enough to get you free will--a radium atom may not be determined to decay at any particular time, but that doesn't mean that it freely chooses to decay at the time it does. Randomness is just as inimical to free will as determinism."

No, randomness is not "inimical" to free will; it is *different* from free will, to be sure, but there is nothing inconceivable or improbable about a universe in which both free will and randomness exist, are fundamental, and interact with each other in complex ways. In fact, that is more or less the world of commonsense.

Robin Hanson writes:

"Unless your theory is that humans somehow have some special additional free will not held by all other stuff or even all other life, it seems silly to focus on human behavior for tests. It is far easier to instead test electrons or amoebas."

But *obviously* the theory is that humans have free will, not that everything does. That is clear enough based on the evidence to which Bryan appeals, namely, introspection. Bryan is a human being, not an electron or an amoeba. His introspective evidence for free will pertains specifically to human free will.

Bryan presumably can't spare the time to respond fully to every commenter on his blog, but it's pretty clear he could emerge from this debate with flying colors. But I would push him farther. If there is free will, must we then reject the impoverished ontology of materialism, with its unwarranted assumption that the entities we encounter in everyday experience can be reducible to those described in physics textbooks? If we reject materialism and accept a richer ontology in which there are such things as rational wills, does it not seem likely that there are rational wills other than those attached to human bodies? In particular, does not the hypothesis that there is a supreme Rational Will which is the source of all others become plausible if not compelling?

H writes:

Arare Litus,

Why would the atoms clump in such a manner?

It took billions of years of natural selection to achieve such complexity. It wasn't a single event.

Why would clumps of atom called people "trick" themselves into thinking they had free will and ability to choose?

This is a question of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology etc. We don't have to possess free will in order to think that we possess free will. The illusion of free will may have been useful in itself or it may be just a side effect of some other adaptation.

Arare Litus writes:

H,

Natural selection has a view of "free will" structured universe - a molecule, and eventually life form, changes and is then acted on by nature. It is a decoupled process, where the agent and the environment are considered two different decoupled entities that interact in a very weak manner (in a sense). I am pointing out that this entire perspective, and the outcome, does not conceptually make sense from a "determined by outside forces" viewpoint.

The same goes to "thinking" we have free will - there is no *use* for this at all if we are determined by structure and forces; the whole question of "useful adaptation" or even side effect makes no sense at all, as there is no gain by this in a determined universe.

From the Occam's Razor perspective assuming free will is the only reasonable option - everything we observe about ourselves and our lives makes sense from a free will perspective, almost none makes sense from a determined perspective. In fact, since we are often slowed down "thinking" there is a detrimental aspect. Same goes for the will to live - simply not needed in a totally determined universe.

Seriously - consider the fact that language evolved, that you learned it, then how to write, then how to type, and then typed your reply to my reply. All of this dependent on a huge network of other agents acting as if they have free will, and believing they do. Even considering a single book, or the making of a pencil, or anything *anything* in our lives: consider everything lying behind it - does anyone seriously believe that this is an outcome of external forces and lumps that just happen to come together in something that is layered, absolutely slathered, in meaning? It is frankly unbelievable that free-will does not, to some extent, exist.

I am always amazed that some do not "believe" in free will, as to me this is the thing that we have the best evidence for.

We lack good language to argue these points, don't get me wrong I "believe" in evolution, but consider the complexity - it is insane, wild, crazy, we can hardly imagine even a little bit of it. And it makes sense - !!! - from a subjective free-will perspective. It really is a marvel.

Nathan,

"If there is supernatural free will, why not a supernatural God?" ...

"If we reject materialism and accept a richer ontology in which there are such things as rational wills, does it not seem likely that there are rational wills other than those attached to human bodies? In particular, does not the hypothesis that there is a supreme Rational Will which is the source of all others become plausible if not compelling?"

There may be, but from Occam's Razor again - free will collapses & makes sense of everything we know, there seems to be no similar gain from assuming a God. In fact, based on the descriptions that religions have of God it makes much more sense that that type of God does not exist. The apparent fact that we have free will in no way make it seem likely there are other rational wills not attached to humans, it says nothing about this, only that the universe is one crazy amazing place. As for the supreme Will - push it back one step, what causes "his" free agency? The meta-god? Nothing "follows" from the existence of free will, in terms of existence of other things.

All we know is that we are, and we can choose, and some other limited observations. Many people don't even think we can choose (though they sure act like they believe this, which is to say - they believe we can choose).

Nathan Smith writes:

Arare Litus writes:

"The apparent fact that we have free will in no way make it seem likely there are other rational wills not attached to humans, it says nothing about this..."

In a strictly logical sense-- in the sense in which the fact that the sun has risen the past 10,000 mornings does not mean it will necessarily rise tomorrow-- I sort of agree with this.

But consider the following analogy. You describe to me a strange type of building, with a circular base and a pentagonal second story, pink covered with blue stars interspersed with pictures of animals, with fountains shooting off the top and landing in a moat roundabout, and lots of other weird details. You ask me the subjective probability that there is such a building somewhere in Los Angeles. I say the probability is pretty low.

Then you tell me that such a building exists in Fairfax, VA. I doubt you, but you drive me a few blocks down Main Street and sure enough, there it is. Now you ask, what is the probability that a similar building exists in Los Angeles? Surely my subjective probability will rise a lot. I don't know why the building is there, but if someone had some reason to build one here, it seems not terribly improbable that the same motive, whatever it was, induced someone to build one in Los Angeles.

It just so happens that intersubjectivity among humans is mediated exclusively through the physical world. If there are nonembodied rational wills, we cannot experience them intersubjectively, that is, any personal experiences that we or others have with them cannot be intersubjectively confirmed, at least not in the usual way. It does not follow that such rational wills do not exist, any more than the non-existence of the strange building in LA follows from my being unable to afford a plane ticket to get there.

Occam's Razor is at most a rule of thumb, and it is often misapplied or over-applied. Materialism is one misapplication: "Explain the facts with the most parsimonious ontology," the materialist exhorts, and then demands that we accept an ontology so sparing that he cannot even pretend it is adequate to explain the facts (at least, "not yet," he justifies himself with his inexplicable fideistic confidence). So here. Most of mankind for most of history has believed in nonembodied rational wills (e.g., pagan gods, angels, devils, etc.) and many, many people in the past and today have reported personal experiences with them. I am by no means saying that all of this should be credited; but any claim that the mere Occam's Razor principle is sufficient to dismiss it it exceedingly odd. It seems to suggest that we can fully explain mankind's preoccupation with the supernatural without conceding its existence. I submit that this is hardly the case.

Kerry writes:

I am puzzled by the rapidity with which everyone, including Bryan, jumps from "non-shared environment" to "free will". The context here is twin and adoption studies, so the "non-shared environment" is exactly what it says: environmental factors not shared among siblings. Even in the cases of twins there are substantial differences in the environment that each twin is exposed to. For a trivial example, most twins do not use the bathroom together. Perhaps the actual extent and effects of the "non-shared environment" should be studied before jumping to conclusions that support your preformed beliefs. I see the hand of conformation bias here.

Urstoff writes:

Let's not equivocate indeterminism with freewill. There's obviously a lot more to the folk notion of freewill than simply not being determined by the physical world, and we need good reasons to believe in the more robust concept of freewill rather than the innocuous notion that some events may have an indeterminate causal history.

And, of course, that's where everybody fails; there is no coherent concept of freewill to be had if we ask for more than causal indeterminism.

Aside from that, I really don't even understand the claim from introspection. When I choose things, I usually do them for reasons. Could I have done otherwise? If I had different reasons, maybe, but probably not if I had the same reasons before me when I originally decided. Besides, if having freewill means we don't decide due to reasons, then it's not really something worth wanting in the first place.

fundamentalist writes:

Hayek: “…while we can give an explanation of the principle on which it operates, we cannot possibly give an explanation of detail, because our brain is, as it were, an apparatus of classifi cation. And every apparatus of classification must be more complex than what it classifies; so it can never classify itself. It’s impossible for a human brain to explain itself in detail …” Taking Hayek Seriously web site.

The human mind cannot understand itself. It needs something or someone greater than itself to explain it.

Jason:"The anti-materialist free-will argument you are implying is identical to the Intelligent Design argument of "Irreducible complexity": Point to a hole in current understanding, suggest, erroneously, that it can't be solved, and thus the scientific answer for the puzzle is... magic!"

That's a very poor straw man you made of ID. In the first place, you're talking about Creation Science, not ID. ID is the search for objective methods to determine whether a structure occurred by natural processes or involved a designer. That's all.

On the other hand, creation science doesn't try to fill in the gaps in scientific knowledge with God. Creation science improves on the sloppy science of evolution and demonstrates that the theory of evolution is junk science filled with circular reasoning, dodging of important scientific facts, contradictions and a complete lack of evidence.

Finally, it's interesting to me that all posters dodged the issue of what determinism does to morality. Can you really punish someone for acting in a particular way when they had no choice in the matter? For example, should be punish lions for murdering and eating antelope?

fundamentalist writes:

PS, following up on the Hayek comment, how do we know that free will is not just an illusion. Someone else mentioned this, too. If as Hayek wrote the brain cannot possibly understand itself, how can we trust that appendage when it supposedly evolved by the accidental accumulation of mutations from an animal without free will and containing so man contradictions?

Urstoff writes:

That Hayek quote clearly shows that he was not a cognitive scientist.

Steve Roth writes:

This is a great discussion that I unfortunately don't have time to engage with fully.

Obviously, indeterminism (i.e. developmental noise making identically-gened twins different from each other) does not satisfy as an explanation of free will. The weather system does not have free will. Need to look elsewhere.

Just to point to a couple of insights from Daniel Dennet in Freedom Evolves.

1. If humans truly do have a kind of free will that other animals (and inanimate entities) don't, it seems likely that it's related to another unique ability: the ability to explain our reasons--to ourselves and to others. So the cognitive machinery associated with language could be key to this understanding.

2. Somebody that he cites (don't have time to look it up) suggests that consciousness and (the impression of) free will evolved essentially as a user interface for a very complex machine. That's not fully satisfying, of course, because it leaves the "user" intact. In our case--if this idea is safe--the user *is* the interface (or vice versa).

Sorry, just loose ideas, loosely presented. But they're both important pointers in my ongoing thinking on the subject.

Steve

Arare Litus writes:

"mere Occam's Razor principle"

Think about anything you know - I am sure it is accepted by you as it passes the "mere" Occam's Razor principle. The fact is we know very little "for sure" and we must make various assumptions - basically we must live by Occam's principle.

Abuse of Occam's principle says little towards its validity, or lack there of.

"Most of mankind for most of history has believed in nonembodied rational wills (e.g., pagan gods, angels, devils, etc.) and many, many people in the past and today have reported personal experiences with them. I am by no means saying that all of this should be credited; but any claim that the mere Occam's Razor principle is sufficient to dismiss it it exceedingly odd. It seems to suggest that we can fully explain mankind's preoccupation with the supernatural without conceding its existence. I submit that this is hardly the case."

How about "man evolved as a social animal, all social animals have an "alpha", it is therefore hardwired in our brains to look for alpha - primative people call this "God" ".

Humans are also preoccupied by fantasy & fiction of all types, even (especially?) knowing that it is *fiction*, we do not have to hypothesize a platonic realm to explain that...

Isak writes:

Bryan finds it more emotionally satisfying to believe in free will, and since he believes there are no costs to doing so, he indulges. Zing?

H writes:

Can you really punish someone for acting in a particular way when they had no choice in the matter?

The punisher has no choice either, unless determinism applies only to the actions of criminals.

Jason Malloy writes:

A choice is not a self-caused cause. Humans have a more sophisticated machine for making choices (in the form of higher intelligence), but those choices are no more uncaused than the choices made by a fruit fly or by the poor man's Deep Blue chess program I can play against on my Mac. Intelligence makes it a difference of degree, not of kind. A choice algorithm is calculating the best move in service of a goal.

Further, while I don't think an executive consciousness would support a magical will, I think the subjective feeling of an executive consciousness is paired with this misleading feeling of unfettered choice.

But the cognitive science is not consistent with our subjective experience of a centralized executive will: decisions appear in the brain before we are consciously aware of them; split-brain experiments suggest that our consciousness narrates our actions, rather than orchestrates them, as experienced.

hacs writes:

Genotype is not only about probability measures associated with phenotypes, but about attributes triggered by external stimulus. Several mental diseases are triggered of that way (it's not deterministic but the probability is very augmented by events as stress, dysfunctional families, etc.), and cancers too. So, someone genetically prone to those diseases can never manifest any symptom of them. My point is how do they separate what is genetic and what is environmental? Besides, the genotype of someone can be perfectly mapped, but the monitoring technologies are extremely imperfect and not reliable to mapping the environment (for a very simple example, child abuses by her/his parents are severely underestimated because of the lack of denunciation). That bias any estimation of the comparative importance of the genotype versus the environment.

Matthew C. writes:

How refreshing that some human beings brought up in cultures adhering to the dogmas of reductionism are still able to introspect without blindly regurgitating what they have been tought to believe.

Hard-core reductionists have simply lost track of the basis of their own ontology.

Quite simply, the universe is built out of subjectivity from floor to roof, the only place "objectivity" exists is as a (subjective!) concept appearing within a nexus of subjectivity we call a human being.

Reductionists have completely misplaced the nature of their own being, they have become convinced that the map of concepts they are staring at so intently is in fact the territory.

Sure, a map can be useful, but it makes a poor substitute for the whole of reality. That is all that objectivity is -- a model for predicting subjective occurrences -- very useful in some circumstances (such as predicting the subjective experiences of spilling boiling coffee on your lap), worse than useless for others (read this as an example of where a thoroughgoing objectivity-faith is very likely to lead).

Kudos to Bryan for flushing that rot into the septic tank where it belongs. . .

Jason Malloy writes:

Speak of the devil, the new Economist reports on yet another study demonstrating the illusion of executive conscious will:

In the 1980s Benjamin Libet of the University of California, San Francisco, showed that simple decisions, such as when to move a finger, are made about three-tenths of a second before the brain’s owner is aware of them, and subsequent work has found that the roots of such decisions can be seen up to ten seconds before they become conscious. But this is the first occasion that such a long lead time has been shown for more complex thought processes.
This finding, combined with Libet’s, poses fascinating questions about how the brain really works. Conscious thought, it seems, does not solve problems. Instead, unconscious processing happens in the background and only delivers the answer to consciousness once it has been arrived at.

Troy Camplin writes:

Symmetry-breaking is found at all levels of reality, and is not caused by quantum fluctuations (considering the universe was created due to symmetry-breaking, it in a real sense precedes quantum physics).

Again, here is the answer: top-down causality is the same thing as free will. The action of th brain creates the minding function of the brain, causing the creation of the emergent mind, whose action on the activities of the brain is commonly known as free will.

The "unconscious processing" reported in the Economist article does not disprove the existence of mind or free will -- it just shows that it is not quite working as we imagine it to be. What happens when someone acts on an unknown command? We know that neurons begin to act even then prior to the command. Does that mean the brain is psychic? Of course not. Neurons begin firing in anticipation. One has to have such anticipatory firing to get the system ready to go. So all the evidence suggests to me is that the brain is anticipating-predicting when something will happen, and is prepared for it. That way precious moments aren't wasted.

All of this is different from many of our other processes, such as our moral instincts. Still, we can train our moral instincts and our emotions so that we react better than we previously did. What do we make of that fact?

Jason Malloy writes:

The "unconscious processing" reported in the Economist article does not disprove the existence of mind or free will

Read my first comment, I already stated this; the argument against so-called "free will" is logical, not empirical.

What science contradicts is the conscious self as the executive will, which is used as the fundamental evidence for "free will" by its proponents. See Dr. Caplan's poorly argued linked essay where this is stated explicitly.

In that sense "free will" is an already intrinsically illogical argument justified by empirically false claims.

It's fine to claim that human beings have "free will," as long as we are willing to concede that the chess-playing program on my Mac has just as much of this "free will" as human beings. The chess program unconsciously makes intelligent decisions, exactly like the human brain. The difference is degree, not kind.

hacs writes:

First, I believe in free will as an important factor in human choices.

Second, free will is not supernatural as a few have written ironically, but it is an emergent aspect of a complex machinery called brain, so, biochemical unbalances or defects in the brain affecting the manner as a person thinks, fells, learns, reminds, between several other cognitive functions, can affect her/his free will, inclusive determining some choices which in a healthy person are actively blocked by remorse or moral sentiments. So, for me free will is an important factor in mentally healthy people.

Third, even AI experts do not think that a human mind operates as a computer or any software programmed in a PC (or even in a supercomputer).

Troy Camplin writes:

The supercomputer can make a "decision" within the confines of explicit instructions laid out by the programmer. But does it have awareness? Let alone, self-awareness? These are related to the issue of free will. Awareness of your own mind and that others too have minds are necessary aspects of free will.

Jason Malloy writes:

Let alone, self-awareness? These are related to the issue of free will. Awareness of your own mind and that others too have minds are necessary aspects of free will.

Autistic people lack a theory of mind-- they are "mind blind" -- and yet make the same full range of decisions as other people. To suggest they are robots, while you are not, despite all the same complex human behaviors, makes your idea of what's "free will" look empty and ad hoc. Might as well claim that only people with brown hair truly have "free will".

And a theory of mind isn't even necessary for self-awareness and other awareness. If a machine is sufficiently intelligent to construct categories, then it should be just as able to construct special categories for individual people (including self) as it is individual trees and individual houses. Even dumb pigeons have this kind of self-awareness, because pigeons can learn categories.

It looks like the subjects in the experiments purporting to show the absence of free will are asked to make a decision at random, i.e., a decision made for absolutely no reason whatsoever. (I think they decided to study that based on the school of thought that holds that actions by people who have an real reason for acting, e.g., private-sector employment, are not truly free but the actions of performance artists who live on NEA grants to come up with pointless art are free.) All they have shown is that pointless decisions are not made by free will. Pointless decisions are made by looking at the brain’s random-number generator and that takes a few seconds.

I see no reason why that should have anything to do with real decisions.

Troy Camplin writes:

That is a theory of autism. People with autism also seem to have ape-level numbers of mirror neurons rather than much higher human levels, so it may have more to do with that. But even those we do not consider to have awareness of other minds are able to interact in a social manner, suggesting they have something akin to a theory of at least someone other than themselves. Animals aren't robots, either, but they don't have free will in the human sense. At least, those without self-awareness don't. So don't hang your belief that animals are mere robots on me. I know better.

The ability to learn does not imply self-awareness. There is awareness, awareness of others, self-awareness, and awareness that others have self-awareness. With each step, you have feedback loops resulting in greater complexity of awareness. You can teach a paramecium categories, if you use paramecium awareness in the experiment. But you wouldn't say such a creature has self-awareness. Most wouldn't even say it has true awareness.

So if free will, as you seem to be suggesting, it the mere ability to make a decision, then what animal doesn't have it? But nobody is talking about that when they are talking about free will. Theory of mind has always been a part of it. And that does not make it either empty or ad hoc. It makes it within the actual tradition of discussion of free will. That may be its weakness, but you have to deal with the idea as it is actually understood.

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