The free will rebellion

A popular mantra of modern neuroscience tells us that free will is an illusion. An article in the New York Times makes a lucid challenge to the ‘death of free will’ idea and a prominent neuroscientist has come out to fight the same corner.

Neuroscientists began making preparations for the funeral of free will shortly after Benjamin Libet began publishing his experiments in the 1980s showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move.

Since then, many more neuroscience studies have shown that brain activity can precede conscious awareness of specific choices or actions – with the implication that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect that plays little role in our actions and reactions.

The idea that ‘free will is an illusion’ is now consistently touted by neuroscientists as an example of how brain science is revealing ‘what really drives us’ and how it explains ‘how we really work’. But philosophers, the conceptual engineers of new ideas, have started to find holes in this popular meme.

Probably the most lucid mainstream analysis of why neuroscience isn’t killing free will has just been published at The New York Times where philosopher of mind Eddy Nahmias takes the mourners to task using a narrow and largely irrelevant definition of free will.

So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.

Nahmais makes the point that the ‘death of free will’ idea makes a fallacy he calls ‘bypassing’ that reduces our decisions to chemical reactions, implying that our conscious thinking is bypassed, and so we must lack free will.

He notes that this is like saying life doesn’t exist because every living thing is made up of non-living molecules, when, in reality, its impossible to understand life or free will without considering the system at the macro level – that is, the actions and interactions of the whole organism.

Interestingly, a similar point is made by legendary neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in an interview for Salon where he discusses his new book on free will. He also suggests it’s not possible to understand free will at the level of neurons without making the concept nonsensical.

These contrasting concepts about free will may yet be solved, however, as Nature recently reported on a new $4 million ‘Big Questions in Free Will’ project which brings together philosophers and cognitive scientists to work together to understand how we act in the world.
 

Link to NYT piece ‘Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?’
Link to Salon interview with Michael Gazzaniga.
Link to Nature piece ‘Taking Aim at Free Will’.

61 Comments

  1. Mason Kelsey
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, free will, mind, and life are not objects that exist but rather folk psychology metaphors of processes. The problem with free will is that there is a very subjective conflict of interest by the self that claims itself to have free will but supplies no evidence. If free will doesn’t exist the problem of proving it doesn’t exist becomes the problem of proving the negative. So it is no wonder that difficulties exist with dismissing this religious artifact. Instead, it is the responsibility of the believer to prove that free will does exist. And the rest of us can dismiss this chicanery and move on to useful concepts while supporters of free will babble on.

    Please note that the supposed opposite of free will, determinism, is not the opposite of free will. The opposite of determinism is non-determinism. Non-determinism and free will are very different concepts. It is clear that we live in a non-deterministic universe because it is simply too complex to determine. That is, the future becomes defiantly difficult to accurately determine (predict, calculate, foresee) for anything above simple sub atomic particles in isolation. So both free will and determinism appear to be less than useful descriptions of things as they are.

    • mikmik
      Posted December 31, 2011 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      Actually, it is apparent that we have free will; everyone experiences it, so the onus is on free will deniers to prove their belief.
      We can disprove your position by simply making a choice, like whether I will subscribe to this thread after I submit, or not.
      You pretty much have to explain what is going on with how our conscious awareness arises before you can start postulating what it can or cannot do. You aren’t even the slightest bit near to describing the watch, let alone what’s going on inside of it.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted December 31, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        LOL. Well, mikmik, you supply ample demonstration that the self will continue to claim it is in control of its choices, based on its blissful ignorance. Please read Dan Zahavi’s “Subjectivity and Selfhood”, Marvin Minsky’s “The Society of Mind”, Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi’s “The Phenomenological Mind”, Shaun Gallagher’s “How the Body Shapes the Mind”, Eds. Shaun Gallagher and Jonathan Shear’s “Models of The Self”, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Transcendence of the Ego”, and even Daniel Dennett’s “Kinds of Minds” and then get back to me on how convincing your description is of how much the self is in control.

        Your description of the self can be compared to a rag flapping in the wind claiming it flaps because it wants to flap. And your model of the self requires that the rag have an infinite regress of internal rags flapping all the way back to infinity.

        Requiring a complete understanding of consciousness in order to debunk free will is like requiring a chemist to have a complete understanding of molecular orbital theory in order to debunk phlogiston. Confabulation can be shown to be confabulation without understanding the motivation of the liar.

        The way things work in science is that if you want to advocate a particular idea you have to supply some support for that concept. I am simply saying that the only support for the concept of free will is the naturalist argument that people have traditionally felt or believed it to be a valid concept without any evidence. It flatters our self to believe the self is in control. Except we know that is false from extensive experiments and we have known this for a very long time. Even all pre-scientific religions have believed this, knowing how easy it is for the self to deceive itself.

        Because our selves, as you demonstrated, make this false claim a whole new branch of philosophy, phenomenology, was developed to counter the claims of the self. It has been recognized for some time that the closer you get to the self the less objective things become. So making objective judgments, as you did, about the self is completely unjustified.

        The language is tricky. We have to avoid absolutes and any pretense that we can be objective about the self. And, least you think my arguments can be used against me, you need to understand that I am not trying to replace ‘free will’ with anything that is not transparent or needs justification. Determinism, for example, is often incorrectly thought to be the opposite of free will. But, as I have shown in other posts to this thread, determinism is also an invalid concept as we live in a non-deterministic universe. The opposite of free will is non-free will, which makes about as much sense.

      • Miek
        Posted December 31, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        It still fascinates me how convinced you are of something (free will doesn’t exist), even if the scientific world isn’t convinced of the non-existence of free will too. The experiments that supposes to show free will is not existing, in fact don’t show that. These studies are telling you can see ‘the outcome of the decision’ in the brain (when someone takes a decision) x (milli)seconds before the person realises what he will choose. But they don’t prove free will doesn’t exist.
        – First: the prediction of what the person will choose is far beneath 100%. So the prediction is far from good (but something better than ‘at random’). There are much more situation in which their prediction was wrong (if we take in count that, by chance, 50% of the predictions will be correct).
        – Second. The experimental situations don’t even look like the decisions we make every day. Like almost everytime, the experiments were lacking on external validity.
        – Third. It’s totally normal you see a uncounscious signal in the brain before something comes clear to a person. The only thing it is telling us is that, before something becomes clear for a person, there is a moment of uncounscious action in the brain that prepares the act of ‘becoming conscious’. That’s of course not the same as: free will doesn’t exist.

        It’s a pitty you don’t see that you too, are not free of biases. You continue to claim that other people, who know it’s not clear yet if free will exists or not, are wrong and make mistakes in their claims. But, you don’t see your own biases, like a confirmation bias, oversimplification, experimenter’s bias & the overconfidence effect.

        Of course we’re not totally free in our decisions. The books you’ve cited also don’t tell there is not room for a free will, but I suppose you just wanted to tell that we are influenced by a lot of situations/ stimuli by this books. That’s true. I didn’t read in the post of mikmik, that he denied that.
        Most of the time it’s not all or nothing, Mason. There can be a gradation in the degree of free will too.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted December 31, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        I thought that I was clear in saying that it is the responsibility of those who claim some phenomenon exists to verify that it exists. This is how science works. Once again, any first year philosophy undergraduate knows you cannot prove a negative, that is you cannot prove something doesn’t exist, if it doesn’t exist. So I have been clear in stating things that way, and, unfortunately, others have been clear in ignoring that and claiming I am doing the opposite. Scientists do not verify that things don’t exist.

        Perhaps some might see that as an out, that they have the liberty of making claims that unicorns or free will exist but, sadly for them, that is not the way, I repeat, science works. And I insist that this is a science issue and not a religious one where we can believe any unverifiable thing we wish.

        What I do suggest is that if free will is an obsolete model then those ideas that require its existence are probably also useless and misleading and that we need to do some house cleaning to get the cobwebs out of our minds.

        Finally, your last sentence “There can be a gradation in the degree of free will too.” makes me wonder if free will is like gradations of being pregnant? Why would you suggest that except as some rearguard action. Why not be bold and throw in your losing hand?

  2. Raine
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I was looking for a word, and free willy came to mind… I guess what I’m trying to say is that inside my very own mind, i have many things that I want to do, and in wanting to write “free willy” i was encouraged on one side, and discouraged on the other… both have their reasons… so, yes, a complicated story if one wants to say yes, there is free will, or, no, there is no free will… i think it’s all a matter of looking at the “thing” that man created: his “robots”… indeed, it is likened unto his thinking and wishful thinking at the same time, that he can “programme” a task and it will be done… so, in thinking patterns, one can only determine for one’s self whether there is a free will in “performance”, or there is “programming”… Man can programme himself, or he can be programmed by another man in many ways… so, I’m programming myself to tune out now coz I’m rambling, and as always, in two minds: raine :-}

  3. kalitor
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    No will would simply equate to the non assertion of choice……..with an overabundance of evidence to the contrary, its incontrovertibility is just as fallacious…

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:36 am | Permalink

      Not sure which “it” is incontrovertible, will or no will, and it is not clear which you think has an overabundance of evidence. Heresay is usually not considered evidence.

      Will is an old fashion term that has been replaced with the concept of “intention”. But the term “free will” has survived mainly because of its common usage, not because it is all that meaningful, and because we have specifically been unable to justify punishing people for crimes without assuming responsibility, and harsher punishments for those who deliberately desired and willed to commit the crime. What this means to me is that our legal system is still outside the purview of science and still wallows in the contradictions of folk psychology. Bless thou, Patricia Churchland.

      But whether we call it “will” or “intention” we have to realize we are not talking about anything beyond a concept, as we have nothing to point to and say “there is a free will”, unless we are also prepared to also describe its color, weight, and whether it stinks.

      • kalitor
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:32 am | Permalink

        “Heresay is usually not considered evidence.” Thanks for preferencing your comments thus. I’ll dispense with puerile pedantry you seem to relish an simple offer that your very reply to this post is evidence enough for the assertion of will.

        Time to step out of the semantical haze. You seem encumbered by false representations of religious dross you find contemptible. I’ll not rain on your little parade of knowledge; or should I say precipitate?

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:13 am | Permalink

        “…should I say precipitate?”

        Coagulate might be a better choice of words.

        Seriously, go play your one-ups-manship games with someone else.

        You are using circular reasoning if you think any reply is evidence of free will. For example, you are not even aware that “I” passed the Turing Test. For a computer program, I do fairly well.

      • kalitor
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:34 am | Permalink

        …then I take great solace in the fact that you haven’t the slightest inkling of what you’re talking about…..showdowns bore me, and for the record no one asked you the fuck what you thought about theirs or your unqualified opinion for that matter….so long wanker.

      • Posted February 10, 2012 at 2:52 am | Permalink

        Describe the color, smell, visualizations, abstract conceptualizing by smell, length width height – but they happen.
        Determinism, you have to realize we are talking about nothing but a concept… one that doesn’t account for, what really boils down to being, us.
        You are worse, you say I and brethren, are unable to explain what qualia and awareness is, but are unable to explain them physically, but also why they are there, in our head, the thing that is ‘us,’ our awareness.

        We only make decisions when we are conscious, we only experience the qualia of sensory input when we are conscious (think anesthesia), we only plan and operate executive functions when we are conscious, and all of these conscious activities are inseparably intertwined with decision making and planning, and responding to complex situations which require processing very complicated and subtle communications and observation, which we can only make sense of consciously, yet you claim the only thing that can be important about our survival as an mobile organism, choosing how to behave in a manner the enhances survivability, moving and analyzing, is now become a worthless illusion.

        Give your head a friggin shake, I mean it, what do you think, I’m stupid?

        We analyze relevant and available options, imagine how they will result in the future, we add more thinking and creatively derived scenarios, and when we have gotten an appropriate emotional signal, least anxiety, most security, most or least dangerous – then we initiate movement.

        Yeah, it’s an illusion.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted February 10, 2012 at 4:10 am | Permalink

        No, Mikmik, I don’t think you are stupid or anyone else on this forum. But I wonder why you don’t depend on a method that has worked in the past to determine how things work in this physical universe, called the scientific method.

        In this recent post, you insist that all decisions are made at the conscious level but I see no testable hypothesis from you or a test that could verify that is true. I have seem good evidence to the contrary. You believe it to be true, so for you it must be true? Please grant me the license to question the validity of your method of belief in determining what is reality, especially since you never move beyond stating your beliefs.

        As I have suggested several times in this forum, if you want to ensure there is such a thing as free will then you have a scientific and ethical obligation to provide a testable hypothesis and test it to establish in a scientific manner that there really is something called free will. Just believing there is something called free will is not sufficient to move free will out of the category of things that might seem to be true to some for whatever reason, although not to others, myself included.

        So in summary, it seems you have to do two things: 1. Verify that all decisions are made at a conscious level, and 2. Verify there is something called free will (other than just two words that refer to nothing in our physical universe). You have your work cut out for you now. Good luck with your tasks that so far everyone before you has failed at.

      • Posted February 10, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

        (Okay, I hope this appears in the correct place)

        In this recent post, you insist that all decisions are made at the conscious level but I see no testable hypothesis from you or a test that could verify that is true. I have seem good evidence to the contrary

        When you are asleep, you cannot decide to go to the store.
        When you are in a coma, you cannot decide to do anything at all.
        We only ‘consciously’ evaluate and decide, when we are conscious.

        I have seem good evidence to the contrary.

        Okay, what evidence? Sleepwalking? Talk to someone sleepwalking, and have an intellectual conversation with them. It doesn’t happen, in fact, I cannot conceive of any possible evidence, let alone god evidence, for your claim

        You believe it to be true, so for you it must be true? Please grant me the license to question the validity of your method of belief in determining what is reality, especially since you never move beyond stating your beliefs.

        I wouldn’t have it any other way. That is how we test our beliefs to see if they are true. If we make predictions based on our beliefs, and they obtain, that indicates they are valid in those situations. If you question my beliefs, you must state why they are invalid, you cannot just go ahead and insist they are false, or inapplicable, until I prove them 100%.
        For that matter, you cannot back up your belief, for you propose no way in which to test it’s veracity, so as far as I, and every major philosopher I’ve read, has seen.
        You only propose the ontological argument that determinism is always true, but it is shown to be false sometimes, and indeterminable some other times.
        A quote: “Bertrand Russell famously argued against the notion of cause along these lines (and others) in 1912, and the situation has not changed. By trying to define causal determination in terms of a set of prior sufficient conditions, we inevitably fall into the mess of an open-ended list of negative conditions required to achieve the desired sufficiency.”

        And this also shows the unprovability of determinism:
        “Generally, as John Earman quipped (1986), to go this route is to “… seek to explain a vague concept—determinism—in terms of a truly obscure one—causation.” More specifically, neither philosophers’ nor laymen’s conceptions of events have any correlate in any modern physical theory.[1]“

        So, you expect me to propose a test, yet your position is dubious, scientifically and philosophically, from the outset. You have no empirical evidence at all, and I have, not only my own observations, but the billions of observations made every day, and in fact, it is impossible NOT to perceive our behaviors as anything other then voluntary and intentional.

        So far, I can see justification for your assertions of your beliefs to be true. You have to show how causal determinism applies to our conscious awareness, and you can start by describing our consciousness, qualia, and abstract thoughts as being ordinary states of matter and energy that behave in ways that can be manipulated like objectively real ‘things’, such as gases, liquids, and solids, and/or quantifiable and measurable like fields and forces.

        How do you propose to do that?

        You assert that our minds are determined like ordinary, everyday events, with ordinary, common, 3 dimensional objects and substances in objective space, yet our minds are clearly not the same.
        There is no conceivable way to propose how our conscious minds arise, or obtain, physically.
        There are examples of other situations in reality that are not understandable to us classically, including but not limited to, virtual particles, lower limits to units of size, time, forces, that are not arbitrarily close to zero, quantum effects, like liquid helium, which has zero viscosity, being spun in a container the size of a small(perhaps one ounce/30 ml) cup, in a small cup that displays quantum states, ie. the spinning liquid is perfectly flat and level in the cup, even as the rotational speed is increased, it does not start to get higher against the edges of the container AT ALL.
        Then, as the speed increases, it instantly assumes the shape we would expect spinning water would take with more liquid piling up against the edges.
        The liquid helium ‘advances’ by discrete, instantaneous steps, with zero intermediate transition between the different states of centrifuge.

        Now, dark matter is 75% of the mass of our universe, and it either spills out from empty space, due to expansion, or it ‘pushes’ out from absolutely nothing, and causes empty space/time to be created along with its emergence.

        I will easily keep going, there is lot’s more, even bizarre conceptual situations, that we cannot, even in principle, understand classically, and one of these is the presence of qualia, the awareness of experience, the complexity of the physical brain.
        There are 100 trillion connections between neurons in our physical brain. I am not saying our minds are anything but physical, but only in ways we do not, and can not, understand and conceptualize classically.

        There are millions of billions of obtainable states in our brain, layers upon layers of 3 dimensional networks of 100’s to millions and even billions of nodes that fluctuate and change size and active state on millisecond time scales.

        I dare you to define the one instant, the one transitional state, that also includes in its description, the physical properties of the ongoing thought and awareness of qualia events transpiring.

        If even come within a couple of orders of magnitude of defining this state, only one of an innumerable states that exist microsecond by microsecond as the event known as a decision transpires, I will check myself into a psychiatric emergency treatment center, as if I maybe shouldn’t be considering that right now, already, LOL.

        I will wait, it is your turn to propose a plausible explanation for how this physically indescribable situation somehow creates a classical evolution of events that also explains why our perception of free will would be an illusion when it maps perfectly to objective reality just as all our perceptions and thoughts do virtually all of the time.
        But, more than that, you must explain what exactly that illusion is, how it can be exactly correlated to physical brain states like the rest of our thoughts that allow us to 8understand and relate to physical reality good enough to build 27 kilometer diameter particle accelerators and colliders to understand and study exotic states of matter at energies approaching those when the universe was dominated by radiation.
        That is how well our perceptions map to reality, exquisitely and sublimely, yet our most powerful perception, the one that defines who we are, is an allusion.

        That, my friend, seems to me, to be a non sequitur.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted February 10, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        What you supplied is not evidence or only evidence in the most superficial manner. Where is your hypothesis? Where is the test? Giving the example of a sleepwalker who doesn’t communicate doesn’t verify that the activities of the brain that are beyond the field of view of consciousness do not influence or dominate how choices are made.

        If you read other posts I have made to this topic, you will find that I have explicitly argued against determinism and showed why free will, if it existed, is not the opposite of determinism. Rather non-determinism is the opposite of determinism and, yes, we clearly live in a non-determinist universe, simply because of its overwhelming complexity. But free will and non-determinism really have nothing to do with each other. So using an argument against determinism is no support of free will.

        Likewise, I have never argued against intentionality or voluntary behavior. I accept John Searle’s ideas about intentionality, only as a metaphor. To be fair, you really ought to supply the source of any quotes, although it appears that you cut those quotes off of some Wikipedia page.

        You then propose I prove my “beliefs”. And I have argued that cannot be done because, as I showed in other posts to this forum, that you cannot prove something doesn’t exist if it doesn’t exist. You cannot prove a negative. And the reason why is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So, no, you didn’t relieve those who believe in free will of proving their belief, and, no, you didn’t successfully lob the ball back into my side of the court.

        By the way, I would be very careful in using the words “belief” or “believe”. I personally try to avoid those words as it is never clear what a person means when they use them, even in context. I only used them in this reply because you want to frame the issue as conflicting beliefs. For me, belief is usually a mild insult that indicates a lack of insight, a declaration of membership, or a superficial substitute for knowledge that is, at best, a clever attempt to pretend to be knowledge that somehow escapes the need for justification or verification. I don’t “believe” free will doesn’t exist. Rather I see no evidence that it does, and until I see any real evidence, as a responsible scientist and philosopher, I dismiss it as some of the ancient conceptual baggage left over from the dark ages when people believed in ghosts and magic. Ghosts and magic make great, entertaining fiction but they are not cognitive science and neither is free will. That said, I am comfortable with the compromise that people have the *belief* or *sense* of having free will simply because the ego/self is demonstratively very good at confabulation.

      • Posted February 11, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Hi, Mason, I’ll put your words in bold, my responses I leave plain text.
        Sorry about the links, I am worried that my comments will get filtered as spam if I include very many links. It’s presumptuous of me expect others to assume my sources are valid, though, I can include them as text, using [.] as necessary.

        Where is your hypothesis? Where is the test? Giving the example of a sleepwalker who doesn’t communicate doesn’t verify that the activities of the brain that are beyond the field of view of consciousness do not influence or dominate how choices are made.
        Actually, I do think dreaming may be a sort of internal consciousness or mindfulness, and I also realize that not remembering what you’ve done isn’t a valid test of whether you were conscious, or not, but, by definition, conscious awareness means responsive to sensory/environmental stimuli, lucidly. http://en.wikipedia%5B.%5Dorg/wiki/Consciousness

        So using an argument against determinism is no support of free will.
        Yeah, you are correct, and I just assumed you’re determinist. I am, though! Compatibilist.

        you cannot prove something doesn’t exist if it doesn’t exist.
        Only if by definition it isn’t detectable, which renders the explanation meaningless anyway.
        You can prove something doesn’t exist by proving the opposite exists, and that is what you must do. Think of lumeniferous ether, phlogiston, etc.
        You can also prove something doesn’t exist by showing that it isn’t possible for it to exist, and that is exactly what you are trying to say, that free will isn’t possible.
        Isn’t it? It sure looks like it. However, I also must prove my belief, to prove that yours false, and neither one of us can do that.
        It is not valid for you to say that until I prove otherwise, your opinion reflects reality, yet mine does not.
        AFAIK, determinism is the only defense for the non-free will view, and I know that because the universe is not deterministic, cause and effect still is, and for all intents and purposes, every effect has a cause, our will, free or otherwise, has a cause, and that naturalist reductionism implies, and basically proves, that each cause has only one possible effect, and each specific effect has only one specific cause.

        But the reductionist view is overly simplistic, and you concede as much by stating the universe isn’t deterministic precisely because of its complexity, so now I don’t understand, don’t you think our brain is complex enough?
        See, my argument is that because the brain is so complex, we can’t tell how it works with confidence, and because we don’t even understand how it works is even possible, eg. the Hard Problem of Consciousness, that obviously we cannot state anything about it with any reliability, as far as to how consciousness developes and operates.
        We do have consciousness, so it must be usefull somehow, don’t you think?
        The only new usefullness it introduces to survivability is what it indeed seems to be doing, and that is that it is able to weigh and reject or accept various alternatives before making a final decision.

        That’s a very strong case ‘for’ free will, I think, and to say that not only is the perception of what our consciousness is used for, wrong, that it, in effect, it is useless to begin with!, which reductionism ‘proves.’
        Now that is something that really, very truly, does not make sense.

        By the way, I would be very careful in using the words “belief” or “believe”. I personally try to avoid those words as it is never clear what a person means when they use them, even in context. I only used them in this reply because you want to frame the issue as conflicting beliefs. For me, belief is usually a mild insult that indicates a lack of insight, a declaration of membership, or a superficial substitute for knowledge that is, at best, a clever attempt to pretend to be knowledge that somehow escapes the need for justification or verification. I don’t “believe” free will doesn’t exist. Rather I see no evidence that it does, and until I see any real evidence, as a responsible scientist and philosopher, I dismiss it as some of the ancient conceptual baggage left over from the dark ages when people believed in ghosts and magic.
        Well, that’s all fine, but for one thing, all we hold are opinions and beliefs, and as a scientist you should know that nothing is 100% objective, no matter how many people agree it is. ‘You’, are inside a brain in your head, and ‘you’ can only form beliefs about objective reality, based on empirical evidence.
        Furthermore, that’s what science IS, a tool to test whether our beliefs are true or not.
        Science is a system of knowledge about reality, one that I happen to think is the only one that works, and that it can explain everything completely.
        So, I am sorry, but I don’t use the term ‘belief’ with a hidden agenda to belittle your opinion what so ever, I actually apply it to myself in order to enhance my objectivity. It believe it is true for everyone, it makes us all equal; the validity of yours or my beliefs is at question, not that they are beliefs.
        Now, as a philosopher, I believe you should know that saying, “I dismiss it as some of the ancient conceptual baggage left over from the dark ages when people believed in ghosts and magic. Ghosts and magic make great, entertaining fiction but they are not cognitive science and neither is free will.” is a meaningless statement, and invalid logic as it is pure assumption what reasons people have for doing anything.
        The onus is certainly on you to prove your assertions, to begin with, and also as a philosopher and scientist, you should know that argument from authority is a logical fallacy, a bad one, and invalid one scientifically, and that employing it is a sign of a lack of anything relevant to say on the part of the individual using that tactic.

        That said, I am comfortable with the compromise that people have the *belief* or *sense* of having free will simply because the ego/self is demonstratively very good at confabulation.
        It is very good at confabulation in regards to the abilities of the self, that I agree with, and I would stipulate that that is exactly what you are doing, trying to rationalize your invalid, or weakly supported, opinion. I even have good evidence that that’s what you are doing here, because by asserting that ‘most peoples’ reasoning is due to ‘x’, you are implying that you have a superior perspective, and you are, again, stipulating a demonstrably false and/or invalid supposition about what you cannot conceivably know.
        This is an arrogant, and pedantic, and pompous statement: I dismiss it as some of the ancient conceptual baggage left over from the dark ages when people believed in ghosts and magic. Ghosts and magic make great, entertaining fiction but they are not cognitive science and neither is free will.
        And neither is your opinion scientific nor learned, but that is my opinion.

        So I conclude, now, that you are another example of how weak the support for the non-free will opinion is, but I am strongly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and I have never come close to obtaining a representative sample.
        But, as a scientist, you would know that.

        That’s another very strong sign of ego defense, BTW, your selective application of rules to others and not employing them yourself.

        Now, would you please, at least, propose a reasonable scenario for our perception of free will to be false, yet sensible, both rationally, and psychologically? No more biased comparisons between the ability of various parties to develop and employ valid arguments.

        BTW, I am a heroin addict and alcoholic, I never graduated high school, and have no secondary training or education, so now, we have two examples of appearances being deceiving ;)

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted February 11, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        Tushcloots wrote, “You can prove something doesn’t exist by proving the opposite exists…” Actually that doesn’t work in a lot of cases. True, I can prove you are not at home if I see you at the grocery store. But we can run into problems when my sister can be hot in the same room I am cold in.

        If I assume that “xyz” exists, you might assume that you can prove that “xyz” doesn’t exist by showing that “not xyz” exists. But if “xyz” doesn’t exist, does that mean that “not xyz” must exist. No. If “xyz” doesn’t exist it is entirely possible that “not xyz” doesn’t exist also.

        And the reverse of that is equally problematic. The lack of presence doesn’t prove something doesn’t exist. If I see no apples in front of me or anywhere I go, can I conclude that apples don’t exist? Of course not. Well how about imaginary things like unicorns? No, I cannot prove there are no unicorns just because there is an absence of evidence for unicorns. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Everything I see is NOT a unicorn. Not a unicorn is the opposite of unicorn, wouldn’t you agree? Have I proven unicorns don’t exist then? Hardly. How about our favorite, “free will”? Can imaginary concepts have opposites? Especially as poorly conceived a concept as free will which would make any attempt at conceiving an opposite equally challenging.

        So if I have the concept of “not free will” and cannot show that it exists, what have I shown? It appears that nothing has been accomplished. It is possible that “free will” and “not free will” are both silly fantasies, if both are just meaningless words. If something doesn’t exist, its opposite cannot always be expected to exist. Requiring me to prove that “not free will” exists is a fool’s errand.

        Look, we are simply recycling through our arguments now and nothing new is being said.

        Perhaps I should summarize my position and leave it for others to consider.

        One of the issues of cognitive sciences is what concepts are useful and what should be abandoned for whatever reason. For example, should “souls” be a serious study of cognitive science? If so, it would seem that we should verify that souls exist. It is in that sense that I treat “free will” as something that some should first verify that there really is such a thing/process as free will. As far as I can gather, Shaun Gallagher, a leading phenomenologist, accepts the idea that we have a *sense* of free will, while leaving the question of whether it is an illusion or real for others to determine. I hope I am not putting words in his mouth. As I mentioned, I accept that we can have a feeling that something exists even if there is no reliable evidence one way or the other. For many the feeling they have free will is all they believe they need to substantiate its existence. I don’t agree. Many claim they have a soul for similar reasons but none have ever been able to verify that.

        Are free will advocates fighting a rear guard action to defend souls? History does show us the intimate relationship between advocates of souls and advocates of free will, with a soul being the agent of free will. (Today the “self” is often substituted for “soul” in an attempt to modernize “free will”. Is the “self” the new “soul”?) So it is not unnatural to suppose there is some association going on. (Is this a result of the German language using the same word for spirit and mind?) Belief in souls, or selves, and in free will may continue to be entertained by the average believer while being set aside as useless, or meaningless, by most cognitive scientists because all concepts, objects, and things studied using the scientific method require verification of their existence but NOT the verification that they don’t exist. In part, as I’ve argued, this is due to the fact that you cannot prove a negative, so the responsibility always falls on the shoulders of the person using the term and never on the person questioning its existence. It may be irritating to people who believe in souls that they actually be required to verify that souls exist, but if they want to be scientists that is a requirement. It is the same for “free will” or any other concept we have either inherited from the past or invent today. So this issue extends far beyond the question of free will. And the fact that issue extends beyond free will is why I have taken the time to use free will as an example of how to address concepts old or new in cognitive science.

        That requirement of verification is something that appeals to most people as it is an honest request and helps scope in the limits of what any science includes in its purview. If theologies want to continue accepting free will they are welcome to do that but they clearly violate what is an ethical rule of verification if they do and pretend they are speaking with any scientific authority, and run the risk of becoming irrelevant, if not laughable and irreverent by their own standards.

        Unless someone has some new idea to add to this conversation, I have nothing more to say.

  4. Posted November 14, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    How cann we deny something, if we don`t understand it? Very often it`s supposed that everyone knows what we`re talking about. My question do we know?

    In my opinion it`s different to figure out a straight lexical definition about free will. But I think it`s a phenomenon of our daily life we all try to give a name. “Free will” stands obviously for a common individual life experience. Simple spoken it is the ability to do sometimes as you really want.

    It was well said, that determinism isn`t the sontrary of free will. Constraint is the opposite for free will. The meaning is, not feeling free because of constraints. sometimes we feel forced to something by the parent, the society, the friends etc.

    The main point of experiencing free will as a human means not, that there are preconditions for our wishes and beliefs; it`s more the fact that people do have choices and are capable of determine their own actions.

    A simple example for free will: Immagine you`re smelling delight food and you really like to eat, because you`re starving. Nevertheless you are on your way to a date with your Girl-friend. In that situation it is possible to choose not to eat right now. Instead you have the ability to wait and diner later but together with your girl friend.”

    Someone could feel the lack of free will in this case because he feels constraint no to eat, because otherwise his girl friend would be mad at him, cause she cooked a wonderful meal for them. Free will is an human ability. therefore we are sometimes able to do as we really want and otherwise we don`t. that`s a question of the degree of ability not of the existence of free will.

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink

      Your example doesn’t seem to survive any thorough analysis. The “choice” between delightful food and a delightful girlfriend can be explaned on nothing more than a pleasure-pain principle. I don’t see any free will necessarily there. But I do agree that free will is an amorphous concept that is vague at best and possibly meaningless. Just because some believe in it doesn’t make it a fact. Belief is not verifiable knowledge although there are many who make that error.

      We have to look at why we have the concept at all. What does the concept allow and imply? It seems to have had its origins in religious beliefs to justify some people going to hell and others to heaven. When we dismiss heaven and hell as nonsense, free will seems to evaporate with them, even if the illusion we have free will is still asserted by the self.

      But then we might want to invent the concept to justify a court judging someone of a crime and administrating the proper punishment. Can society justify its institution’s treatment of individuals without the fiction of free will being treated as fact? It would seem that is a must have for a rational society.

      What I propose is that human society is a far more conforming place than that supported by a concept such as free will. What we do and why we behave the way we do rarely supports the idea of free will. People do what they have been brought up to do in their culture and society and rarely exhibit the free will to deviate from it that free will would imply is possible.

      • Posted November 19, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

        I read your posts and I still do not agree, that free will is an illusion. Maybe i can get it clearer, if i discuss some main points.

        1. causality implied by the determinism is not the contrary of free will.
        What does it mean? It does mean that freedom of the will is not an absolute freedom. Absolute means unconditioned by anything and therefore an empty concept. Well defined freedom presuppose conditions, so we are able to figure out, what Freedom really means. You can say Freedom is the possibility to influence or do something. It is the free space under certain given conditions, by which the frame is given.

        2. Constraint is the contrary of free will.
        That there are preconditions, causal chains and external factors is not an argument agianst free will, because empirical determinism as principle of causality is not the opposite of free will.

        The reason for that misunderstanding is the concept of the traditional view of free will. accordingly free will meant for traditionalist something like “I could have done otherwise, if I had wished not to do x.”
        If we look back we would say you would have made the same decision given under the circumstances. This is empirical determinsm, the law of causality. How could i have done otherwise? We are determined by different factors. So we don`t feel a lack of Freedom, because we can not fly.
        We can not do everything, but we can control to a certain degree, whether we drink or not, when we`re thirsty, sleep or work on. That is our freedom of choice the space of possibilities, which are dependent of our decisions, that means in our control.

        We could sit down like a fatalist, if everything is pre-determined we don`t need to do anything. I think it`s like Libet interpreted his own experiment. He admits that there are action potentials but there is a time period about 300 ms, in which we can claim our veto.

        3. Why free will is important to life

        1. As we feel love, we can enjoy free will. Because there are constraints by laws, parents, friends etc. For example someone doesn`t feel free, because his mother forces him to play piano, you have to wait till you`re allowed to buy alcohol etc. Someone could feel happy, because he became an artist instead of a lawyer like his mom wished. So it makes a difference for everyone, whether someone does what he wants or is forced or feels constrained to do something. Therefore everyone has in some degree responsibility for his own life in respect to his own life. So it`s not responsibility for punishhment, what describes free will. the justification is to infer from the thought of a community, in which citizens live togehter.

        2. Free will stands for the capacity of persons to decide and evaluate the consequences of their own actions and take responsibility. Free will is an essential attribute of human beings. we humans as persons are able to interpret, analyse and adapt to their environment. It is the self-reflection, that allows to overcome pure causal behaviour and thinking as a kind of critical verifying device.

        4. A definition of free will
        The phenomenon experiencing free will as feeling to do, what one self wants and not others or society like social expectation etc.
        Free will means the property of human cognition to reflect and overthink natural impulses and external stimuli with the goal to be flexible and adaptive by understanding and using the environment for own advantages.
        Free will as the capacity of human beings to reflect and re-evaluate own beliefs, opinions opinions, to reconsider and calculate actions describes a subjective phenomenon of our human existence.

        Assumption

        Free will can`t be proven in an objective way, because it`s an essential disposition of humans. Because of that reason free will stands for an function not an existing entity at all. The Lack or joy of free will depends of our effort and conviction. Free will allows human to determine in certain degree their own life. Decisions and Actions are responsible for the man, someone becames. We are able to reflect to re evalute and question our own actions and decisions in that manner how we train our principal ability of using free will.

        Finally a further misunderstanding objective means independent of the subject. that means a description that doesn`t depends at all of subjective Qualities. How can we as humans describe things objectively, that means independent from observer,if we want to explain a circle to an alien, if he is fully different in his subjective i.e. observing being.

        Hope the length made some issues clearer

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted November 20, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

        No. Your post simply demonstrates that “free will” is an amorphous concept that is associated by customs to emotional values and stock cliches embedded in the traditions of folk psychology. Your explanation doesn’t provide any new validity for “free will”. But thanks for trying.

        The points I’ve tried to make are:
        1. Free will originated as a religious concept to justify the fates of souls.
        2. Free will continued into modern society as a justification for social responsibility and criminal punishments.
        3. But free will is basically a social metaphor that has no real substance to it. No one has shown that it exists in any physical sense.
        4. Human nature is far more complex than the concept of free will would allow. Free will is conjectured as an aspect of the consciousness with conscience somehow involved. This ignores that greater part of the brain’s activity that is not part of the consciousness nor the conscience.
        5. The concept of free will attempts, without any validity, to become an attribute of the self, the supposed agent that has free will.
        6. There is no scientific evidence that the self is more than an epiphenomenon, which it must be, be in control, if free will has any meaning. This realization flies in the face of our common but incorrect perception that the self is always in control of everything, even though it continually makes that claim to itself. The scientific evidence for this is building
        7. There is resistance to the idea that free will is a myth because people believe that our behavior has to be socially accountable and they mistakenly believe that free will must be assumed otherwise we lose that accountability.
        8. We don’t need to justify social accountability by assuming we have a self in control or that the self has free will. We don’t need to pretend these myths have any substance to them to have social responsibility. We don’t even need to assume the person who must be accountable has any consciousness or conscience.
        9. All social laws apply equally to regular humans, sexual preditors, sociopaths, crazy people, muggles, wizards, vampires, as well as to hypothetical zombies. You can get a ticket for running a red light no matter what mental problems you might have. The social question is not whether you were free to do it, but whether you did it. Motivation, intention, or will are unimportant.
        10. So the idea of free will is archaic, excess baggage that we don’t need to carry as if it were valid. It is an false answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.

        I feel that people are simply rehashing old prejudices now and not providing anything new to the discussion. So with this last post I am going to bow out of the discussion.

      • mikmik
        Posted February 10, 2012 at 3:06 am | Permalink

        Belief is so verifiable, what are you talking about?
        How well our conceptualizations map to objective reality and promote our well being, I wonder if that is a reality check that happens every single time we ‘decide’ to move, or act?

        Exactly how simple and accidentally obtainable to bloody think the process of consciousness is, anyways?
        You act so aloof about the most complex assembly in the universe, by effing far, and absentmindedly brush away the product of that ‘machine+awareness/thinking/qualia’ as a mere illusion, a virtually mistake of happenstance?

        Yeah, it’s an illusion, an illusion that gives us the brute power to eliminate every species in existence with the flick of a switch.

        Pretty fucking fortunate illusion, I’d say.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted February 10, 2012 at 4:26 am | Permalink

        Mikmik wrote, “Belief is so verifiable…”

        How can you verify that? I don’t know of any way to do that. I mean I can verify that a person has a belief, but I don’t see how belief can be used to verify something believed in. In fact I’m pretty sure belief qua belief is not a method that can be used to determine the truth about anything.

  5. Ivory Lady
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    As long as there’s a body we have to sustain, our will can’t help but be influenced by this need. But the whole debate sounds nonesense to me. The fact that neuronic procedures precede our wish to do this or that doesn’t necessarily predict whether we’ll eventually do what we wish. Nor does it imply that just because it takes some time for some processes to be detected by our consciousness, our consciousness has no word on the manner in which these processes eventually modify our behaviour.

    • Broheim
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      Agree…

      People have the choice to react to situations or needs, in the case of basic physical needs it’s not surprising that we would choose the mechanical reaction in order to meet those needs. But in more complex situations it’s not as simple as either a mechanical reaction or a thoroughly analyzed reaction, this seems to be what free will really is: the best combination of instinctual and intellectual reactions to attain an individual’s wants and needs in any given circumstance.

  6. Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    When do you know you have made a decision? It can only be after the event. There can be no debate about free will as a process because, by definition and by logic, we cannot know our decisions until after they have been taken.

    If we do have free will then it cannot be due to simple processes. It cannot be due to simple steps such as “if x and y then z”. See Conscious free will

  7. Charlesgres
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Methinks it is a fallacy to only consider our conscious thought as the ‘controller’ of our actions, and by consequence the seat of our will.

    Rather, I think you have to see the brain as a complex decision-making machine, that observes itself in doing so, but can only do so partially. That is, our conscious thought is what we can observe, our sub-conscious thought is what we can’t observe, but they are not two separate things. We have our thought which controls our actions, but only some of that thought is visible to us.

    As such, the fact that some or part of our decisions happen outside of our introspective light, does not mean that our brain is not in control of the decisions it makes, and it does not mean that the decisions are not free.
    In fact, conscious or not conscious is an irrelevant distinction when it comes to free will.

    So, I don’t agree with the free-will deniers that the fact that we become conscious of a decision after it has been made, is proof that ‘we’ have no say in the decision. I disagree because our sub-conscious thougths are also part of our ‘we’.

    But neither do I agree with Eddy Namhias, because he too seems to assume that non-conscious means not-under-our-control. He too seems to limit our ‘we’ to our conscious thought.

    It is as if, when we shine a light in the dark, and only see our feet, that we draw the conclusion that ‘we’ are only a pair of feet.

  8. mike
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Correlation does not imply causality.
    For example, the fact that there is a correlation with brain activity before you are conscious of it does not mean you didn’t choose the activity that lead to the brain activity or don’t have some other influences on your mind (that were the result of a conscious effort) that triggered the “predetermined” result.

    Additionally, if we define consciousness as “self awareness” every molecule has a small degree of consciousness or is governed by a consciousness or electrons wouldn’t be self aware enough to avoid collision into each other or into other nearby atoms. By this definition we could say that it is only because of the stimuli that resulted based on conscious effort on something or someone that the subconscious were activated. Conscious actions lead to the resulting stimuli that imposed an effect by conscious cause.

    If you subscribe to a holographic universe theory based on interpretations of quantum mechanics, then it’s quite possible that “consciousness” is only a reflection or projection of the individual collective awareness of the individual molecules, and that as individuals quite possibly we could either project or reflect a shared “universal consciousness” Afterall E=MC^2 proves that the amount of energy in a single atom is absolutely incredible. Some might even theorize that each atom is a universe within a multiverse system and is vibrating between a blackhole and whitehole as the resonance phases in and out of other universes defined by our collective consciousness, and that the universe we live in is simply a “universal consciousness” of all atoms projected into this one and that all multiverses then project or reflect infinitely larger, and that all atoms as universes can exist within the same structure infinitely smaller.

  9. mike
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    That is my beef with science. It may be the best we have now for practical application, but it makes such drastic assumptions even when intuitively it does not seem correct. Sometimes you have to TRY stuff and see if it works. If you consciously intend to do something and you can do it and repeat the conditions and not do it, certainly there are things that influence your thought process but intuitively it seems we have free will.

    Theory and reality are often two different things.

    If we had a perfect model it would be MATHEMATICS not science, and science is nothing more than observing what may SEEM to be true by the same people that share the same exact biases that are defined by being human and having 5 senses.

    The scientific method does everything to remove individual “conscious bias” out with double blind studies, it also tries to eliminate EVERY SINGLE variable. But I believe science itself introduced “synergy” which essentially is when 2 or more factors in combination are more powerful than the whole. 2 pieces of wood binded together that individually support 100 pounds of weight now support not 200 but something like 210, 250 or 300 depending on how great the synergy. This blows up the entire idea of “eliminating variables” out the window. The world is too complex and dynamic to be reduced to a single variable and repeated tens of thousands of times.

    Even with removing “conscious bias” science can’t even explain what makes us conscious to begin with.

    Scientifically consciousness hasn’t been proven to exist or located in any specific brain location, but everyone who is conscious know it does exist. Additionally if consciousness means “self awareness” than ELECTRONS are either conscious or governed by a conscious force or else they would collide into each other at some point.

    Another problem with science… it is a shared group of left brain beliefs reinforced by similar left brain thinkers based on what our 5 senses tell us all based on the electromagnetic brain signals (which cannot be trusted if matter and collection of what we define is real is 99.999% empty space) starting with the beliefs that cannot be proven such as “matter cannot be created or destroyed” (tell that to neutrino reactions) “Things are appearing more and more random in the universe”(easy to say if you rule out consciousness and HUMANS nature to organize).

    When you define a set of parameters (a left brain belief system) and form an entire field of study around the core ‘beliefs” out of something which may be wrong, everything else could be way off somewhere down the line. But we can’t ignore the practical application it seems to have, I just think in the future we will be able to find something much better.

    The context is formed from the beginning “that matter cannot be created or destroyed” already starts with an atheist bias that rules out the possibility that “it got here somehow” and immediately implies that life must be an illusion because how else can there be a big bang in the “beginning” if it “always was”, and without an equal and opposite reaction to cause the universe to expand.

    So the idea of a holographic reality although I subscribe to the possibility may be just a function of the parameters set by science.

    Scientists then start to think of ideas of parallel universes and multiple universes, back holes and white holes, and infinity within finite spaces, but none of which can describe life as anything but an illusion unless of course the original premise that “matter cannot be created or destroyed” is wrong.

    Of course if the universe was created by God, what created God?

    If you start to pose too many questions you become philosophy and “why” becomes not only the question, but the answer to reflect and project in an infinite feedback loop.

    It would be conceivable though that if there were a being capable of creating the universe, or multiverse, that he would have to exist on a higher dimensional plane where the same rules and laws of physics do not apply and cannot be measured by a mind. As Einstein said “problems cannot be solved by thinking on the same level that created them”. There is no way for us to think on the same level of a God or multiple Gods that we are aware of scientifically.

    Even with removing “conscious bias” science can’t even explain what makes us conscious to begin with. Well if there was a conscious creator that projected his consciousness into a universe and it too reflected itself into individual atoms which reflected at levels we still are only now trying to understand and we are a reflection of a greater universe that decided to both reflect and project itself including it’s own ability to reflect and project it would certainly explain consciousness better and we would project our collective consciousness to god who would reflect it back and the information contained in an atom would contain all the information in the universe, which would explain the large amount of energy described in E=MC^2

    In the future I believe we will try to mirror individual behaviors and use advanced computers to come up with mathematical algorithms to model it as closely as possible, then combine them and mirror both the entirety and the individual behaviors and we will continue to modify it and combine it with MORE variables, not less until it all fits together. Then we will have something FAR superior to science.

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Your rambling account rehashes a lot of high school level stuff. Please don’t be offended as the best analysis is not much above that even today. But some progress has been made. The field of phenomenology in philosophy was developed in the early 1900s to address some of the questions you raised. Clearly the classical scientific objective view of the mental is inadequate when the only tool we have to explore consciousness is the self. The closer we get to the self and the subjective the more biased our observations become. That is why the development of tools like the fMRI is so exciting. Like all new tools it becomes easy to get ahead of ourselves and draw conclusions that on more careful analysis can be shown to be an overreach.

      In regards to “free will” I haven’t seen any serious attempt in the posts to this thread to scientifically define what it is. It remains a nebulous term, a ghost, that had its origins in religion, which automatically qualifies it for rejection as a meaningful term in science. We might as well be trying to detect “sin” using the fMRI. Simply put, cognitive sciences are not likely to observe or measure anything but the illusion of free will and not its soul.

      • Miek
        Posted November 19, 2011 at 12:51 am | Permalink

        So, because one can’t give a scientifical definition of what free will is, it doesn’t exist??? That’s rubbish! The only thing it means is that it can’t be researched in a scientifical manner. It does NOT mean that it doesn’t exist.
        There are a lot of things that can’t be described scientifically, which only means that it can’t be described as something you can measure. But it’s totally wrong that those things don’t exist. Like someone said, we can’t even measure consciousness, but there are few people who say that consciousness doesn’t exist.
        Science has its limits, that’s no problem, but if one denies that, he’s really narrow minded & blind for the real life.

        By the way: why is it so important for you to impose to everyone (here) that there is no free will & that it’s only something of our religion? And that you have the absolute prove you’re right?

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted November 19, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Not sure why someone would say you cannot measure consciousness. Perhaps that is because people have not tried because of the past dominance of behaviorism in psychology. But the recent methods for measuring degrees of vegetative states have produced some excellent ways to measure consciousness. Consciousness exists on a continuum and we can clearly observe and measure it and accurately show where on the continuum it is for each case.

        I am also puzzled as to what exists that we cannot observe or measure. Physical existence appears to mean that an object has attributes or properties that can be measured. Are you talking about qualia, such as mentally ‘seeing’ red? I would suggest that if something cannot be observed and measured then it might “exist” only as a concept or metaphor, which is not a physical existence independent of the thinker.

        Please note that we muddy the water when we equate the existence of concepts with the existence of objects, where the word “existence” is used in two very different ways. The existence I am talking about is independent of the thinker, and, according to Anselm, is superior.

        Observation without measurement does not assure existence of what we think exists because we might be experiencing an illusion. But we are observing something and that exists. It just might not be what we suppose it to be.

        Perhaps to further this discussion you could come up with a list of things you think exist that we cannot observe and measure? I think I’ve eliminated “consciousness” from your list. Perhaps “free will” is at the top of your list. It is useful to distinguish between objects and processes. For example, “love”, which is a process, is often used as an example of something that cannot be measured but that example is false since love can be easily observed and measured. When people feel “love” measurable changes occur to their body. The problem with such a list is that it would require some verification that the items on the list exist in some tangible way, which means measurable, beyond being mere concepts like unicorns? How could that be done? I think such an effort would fail as it would require measurements to verify the existence of the unmeasurable.

    • Lyndon
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Mike,

      You say:

      “If you consciously intend to do something and you can do it and repeat the conditions and not do it, certainly there are things that influence your thought process but intuitively it seems we have free will.”

      If all you are saying is that the action (the free choice) you take is based on your brain/mind, then hardly anyone subscribes to the denial of such.

      The important consideration for many people is that the conditions cannot be repeated. Assuming some kind of simple behavioralist or learning structure to the brain, and that the mind is only the brain, when you “repeat the conditions” you are not actually repeating the conditions- your brain has been significantly changed, structured by the previous event. The decision that such a brain/mind/person makes the “second time around”, if it is different, as you claim, is not surprising or useful knowledge, and does not show that you had some radical capacity of free choice the first time around.

      Your conscious self which is blind to the vast majority of brain structures (and mental structures, the unconscious) and felt it self forced to make a decision, and has modelled the counterfactuals that are open to the self in this situation, posits a type of power of freedom and power of choice that is only an illusion- the power to stand outside of such structures.

  10. Raine
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    mmm… just popping around with my coffee and ciggie and had a thought… LOL!!! How does addiction fit in with the FREE WILL thing? I think if I knew the answer, I’d be able to quit in an instant… Addiction takes away free will, so, what gives free will? Mmmm… The opposite of what we are addicted to… Now what is the opposite of that? mmmm… I’ve heard it SAID that giving up smoking is all very well, but five years later, you could still be longing for one… mmmm… so there’s bondage everywhere… like gravity… what a grave situation to be in: is there Free Will? I think it’s a cul de sac… and it’s entirely up to the Thinker to decide whether the mind or body is acting freely or in bondage… That’s where I gotta leave it for the meanwhile… Still thinking… LOL! :-}

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      Raine, you have put “free will” squarely in the realm of the pleasure-pain principle. If addictive behavior take free will away, what about the innate but intense desire for sex? According to your analysis free will can only exist for eunuchs, or at least a person with virtually no needs or desires. While this might work for a Buddhist monk, it means that free will for the typical Westerner just doesn’t exist. Yet Westerners are the only people whom seem to think free will is an issue.

      As you can tell from my other posts I think the concept of free will is an absurd and useless concept. We can play games with inventing concepts to associate with free will all day, but does anyone know what they are talking about?

  11. Raine
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    … i’m still thinking… but good thought there… perhaps there is no free will, but that INSTINCT rules us all, and then we have to wonder: what is instinct… mmmm… still thinking…. (By the way, abstinence from an addiction does not mean that there is free will, but only the free will to abstain)… so there’s no FREE in the will… coz the instinct still takes place in the brain, even if the body is overriding the will of instinct… mmmm… sorry, it’s way passed my bedtime and I’ll come back to this thought process when I have some spare moments… Nitey nite :-}

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

      Well, if you trade “instinct” for “free will” all you have done is to trade one cloud for another. They are both meaningless concepts that in view of the findings of modern cognitive science mean practically nothing.

      My recommendation is that we drop all folk psychology terms unless they are necessary to convey some important aspect of behavior that we need to pay attention to.

  12. Posted November 19, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I´ve answered Mason Kelsey above as a reply. there i give my answer, why free will is not an illusion and not meaningless for our daily life.

  13. Raine
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    I have thought: it’s entirely up to you whether you believe in free will or not, and if some one contradicts your beliefs, that’s their free will – gotta compromise in this varied life… For me, I believe that I have free will to treat others as I would have them treat me (one action leads to a reaction, or something like that) and live within self induced peaceful constraints … Peace to you and yours… :-}

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted November 22, 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

      Belief is not knowledge. It continues to amaze me how many otherwise intelligent people don’t have a clue that when they say “I believe…” that they have said nothing of any significance with the pretense that they are saying something about which they know, but in fact know nothing about. People are saying more if they say “I have an itch.”

      • Miek
        Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        And for me, It’s always amazing to see how some individuals are really sure of something, even if science isn’t sure about it itself. So if I see how people only believe what science has ‘proven’… Science can’t even proof that I was thinking, a moment ago, about my mom. They can see on a scan thàt I was thinking, but they can say nothing about my thinking. So, because they can’t see that, it can never be true that I was thinking about my mom?? That’s what you try to tell us!

        It’s really dangerous if people take religion as a science, but it’s just as dangerous if some (!) people are sure that something can never exist, because science isn’t capable (until now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) to measure it. Luckily, most scientists know the limits of their scientific research, so they are not so dogmatic as some people are.

        This bias of thinking of these dogmatic people is the perfect way for other people to laugh at science. And that’s really a pity, because science is valuable.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted November 22, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        Your argument is that because an fMRI cannot detect a particular thought about your mom then your thoughts about your mom cannot be determined. Actually it is possible to determine you were thinking about your mom by simply asking you questions about your mom. Using that simple method it can be determined that you were thinking specific thoughts about your mother. The questions themselves ensure that you will think about your mom, just as certainly as telling you not to visualize a “pink elephant” will cause you to do that. Just because the fMRI cannot detect a particular thought, doesn’t mean that observations and measurements of your thoughts are not possible.

        Much of your thought process is involved in recalling associate memories. As people tend to store memories differently (this can be verified), it is most likely that a common algorithm will never be possible for determining specific thoughts using an fMRI. So the big, bad fMRI is not our enemy and big, bad governments will never be able to have a brain monitoring device to keep track of what people are thinking.

        I’ve not said that things we don’t know about don’t exist. How could I? How could I know that, if I don’t know that? But knowledge depends on verification and if verification doesn’t exist, for whatever reason, it is not knowledge but rather a mere wish, desire, feeling, untested hypothesis, assumption, or belief. All of these certainly exist (as concepts) but the things they pretend to refer to do not necessarily exist, which is the point I am making.

        What you are doing is confusing beliefs with knowledge. You want there to be things that we can know (unverifiable belief) and yet not know (verified). You are using the word “know” two different ways without realizing it. And it appears you are claiming that to understand what knowledge is and isn’t is to be dogmatic. You are correct that people who do not understand what knowledge is do tend to laugh at science. But a faith based science is a bigger joke.

      • Miek
        Posted November 22, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

        1) This method you describe (asking the person what is was thinking about) is not reliable enough and so the validity is not so well. Especially if you ask this to people who want to lie abouth their thinking. So no, you still can’t know what I’m thinking about. Not with the best fMRI and not with asking it. So my statement is not changed:
        ‘Because scientist can’t know what I was thinking about, it can never be true that I was thinking about my mom. That’s what you try to tell us!’

        2) You wrote: ‘As people tend to store memories differently (this can be verified), it is most likely that a common algorithm will never be possible for determining specific thoughts using an fMRI.’
        I totally agree with this. But it only defends what I was saying: Some (thought) processes exist, even if science can’t prove it exist up till now.

        3) Your words: ‘All of these certainly exist (as concepts) but the things they pretend to refer to do not necessarily exist, which is the point I am making.’
        That’s really nice to hear! Here you’re telling that free will doesn’t NECESSARILY exist. That’s totally different than what you were saying above:
        ‘It remains a nebulous term, a ghost, that had its origins in religion, which automatically qualifies it for rejection as a meaningful term in science. … Simply put, cognitive sciences are not likely to observe or measure anything but the illusion of free will and not its soul.’
        Here you’re telling free will IS an illusion. Now you’re telling it doesn’t necessarily exist. I don’t agree with the first, but I do agree with the last. I’m not saying free will does exist, I’m saying that it is dangerous if (I’m quoting): ‘people are sure that something can never exist, because science isn’t capable (until now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) to measure it.’

        4) Your words: ‘And it appears you are claiming that to understand what knowledge is and isn’t is to be dogmatic.’
        Nope, It’s dogmatic if people don’t even know anymore the limits of their method (here: scientific method), but claim that if their methods fail to show the existence of a process, it never can exist. Science is doing very well and it’s the best method we have for the moment to do research on something, but even science has his limits. Science is evolving and now we can measure processes that we couldn’t even measure 40 years ago. So people who were blind for the limits of science could tell that these processes didn’t exist for sure, 40 years ago. But now we know they were wrong, even if they used science like it was prescribed then.
        Especially neuroscience is a very young science. There are a lot more things we don’t (yet???) know about the brain, than things we know about it. So it’s really risky here, to claim: free will doesn’t exist, it is only a result of religion.

        The moment scientists are not capable anymore of feeling a bit of humility about science, it becomes dangerous. Luckily, I know that a lot of neuroscientists really know their research is still in his first stage.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted November 22, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        1. If you are thinking about lying about your mom you are still thinking about your mother. I wasn’t concerned about your truthfulness. So you have not refuted my comment.
        2. You wrote, “Some (thought) processes exist, even if science can’t prove it exist up till now.” True. And we agree. If we don’t know something we simply don’t know it exists. But that is different from coming up with a term (God, soul, free will) that doesn’t appear to refer to anything we can demonstrate exists, while pretending it exists just because we have a word. This was the error that the Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong made of assuming that if we have a word for something then it must exist in some sense. This led to Bertrand Russell’s famous refutation, “On Denoting”. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Denoting one of the most important papers in the 20th century in philosophy.
        3. I wrote, “All of these certainly exist (as concepts) but the things they pretend to refer to do not necessarily exist, which is the point I am making.” And you replied, “Here you’re telling that free will doesn’t NECESSARILY exist.” The term “necessarily” is a philosophical jargon term that means, in so many words, that there is no logically compelling reason that something is true, which is compatible with my assertion that the term ‘free will’ doesn’t appear to refer to anything real. I am willing to suppose it is an illusion since so many people insist that they have free will, even if none of them can show what they mean or where this free will hides. But I’m insisting it is an illusion. It could just be a silly bit of nonsense.
        4. You wrote, “It’s dogmatic if people don’t even know anymore the limits of their method (here: scientific method), but claim that if their methods fail to show the existence of a process, it never can exist.” Well, then you will be happy to know that I don’t make that claim. I only claim that if we don’t know something exists we cannot know it exists, which must be true since it is a tautology. To know if something exists we must be able to verify it exists, otherwise it is not knowledge but a belief or one of the other things I listed. I strongly defend the idea that beliefs are not knowledge. This may be a subtle difference to some but it is an important difference. For, if beliefs are knowledge, then faith based science is all we need to fly men to Mars, cure cancer, and read minds about mom.

        Finally, least I continue to be accused of being dogmatic, if, in the future, any reliable, reproducible scientific evidence is produced that free will exists, then and only then is it reasonable to consider it to be a topic worthy of consideration and study by reputable scientist. I am certainly open to that but warn believers in free will that whatever concept of free will survives scientific scrutiny it will most likely not be one to make them very happy.

  14. Dave Rickey
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    I think the degree that we have free will depends on how much time we have (and use) trying to reason our way past the lower-level interrupts. Sexual and combat behaviors have a lot of handles on us, and an extensive ability to motivate us (or even create cognitive dissonance and simply make us narrators).

    We don’t have nearly as much as we think, simply because our consciousness is often reduced to retconning an explanation for why we “chose” to do something we were actually driven to do.

    –Dave

  15. Jonathan Lyons
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Mason, Charles – Agreed.

    Philosopher’s explanations for how there could still be free will in the face of what we know about the brain are becoming increasingly convoluted.

    First of all, there’s a deliberate misreading of cognitive science. Nobody is saying that “rational thought and deliberation” play no part in decision-making. They play a huge part, clearly. But who says rational thought and decision-making are somehow privileged, ‘free’ or spontaneous processes that happen independently of the physically deterministic machine they reside in? Rational thought and decision-making are still clearly mostly localized to the frontal lobes. Working memory, executive function, etc, are all neurochemical processes happening in these portion of the brain. So, at bottom, these too are chemical reactions, despite being able – at times – to consciously reflect and rationally “override” the rest of the brain’s more primitive urges.

    Charles has a great point when he says that the main difference between rational and unconscious deliberation isn’t that one is free and one is not free. Rather, it’s that we have qualitative experience of one whereas we do not have qualitative experience of the other. That doesn’t make these processes any less deterministic.

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted November 28, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      In regards to decision making, what studies have repeatedly shown is that people make up reason why they chose what they do. If nothing else this shows that people really don’t know why or how a decision was made by their selves and they naively resort to confabulation.

      From a purely dialectic point of view any examination of “reasons” in decision making leads to an infinite regress. These red flags, infinite regress and confabulation, show that something is wrong with this approach, if not with the folk psychology concepts of decision making, free will, and determinism.

      I have argued againt “free will” but I also argue against “determinism”. I consider determinism just as much a flawed concept as free will, although for different reasons.

      Why is it flawed? Because if we consider what the determinism means, that we can determine everything, then it is obvious that not only can we not do that now, we will never be able to do that. The simply fact is that we live in a universe so vast and complex that it would take far more time to determine the future from the present states than there is left in the life of the universe in one hundred trillion plus years. Our determination would only be for one small part of the universe. And it would only be an approximation for something long past and forgotten, where “42” is as good an answer as any other answer.

      We live in a non-deterministic universe. That is, except for very limited cases – mainly from very specific scientific laws with very limited scopes, we cannot determine/calculate/predict the future.

      Of course, if we make our predictions vague enough, such as “Something will happen”, we can “predict” the future. But the prediction is worthless or trivial. The product of the specificity of a prediction and its accuracy is a constant.

      • Pawel
        Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        Why do people insist free will is a problematic term?

        Here is the Oxford dictionary definition:

        the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own

        There is nothing nebulous about it.

        Now many people today will have you believe that Libet’s experiments and experiments that were follow-ups to it prove decisions are rendered before we are conscious of it, proving there is no free will. Neuroscience here presupposes decision process homogeneity, veracity of subject reporting and by the former neurological correlation of decision making. Which renders any conclusions about “free will” to be a leap of faith rather than what would logically follow from an experiment and determinism.

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        With the definition, “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; …”, please note that the definition does not state what has this power of acting. There is an assumed “self” acting, but which self? The unconscious body/self or the conscious mental/self?

        If the unconscious body/self, how can we say something that is not conscious is free from its biological nature? Are you proposing that like blind sight we also have blind thought? While that is a tempting idea, what else would we then think is blind? And how would blind thought or blind choices be any different than the biological processes that are their parts? And if they are blind are they also free?

        If it is the conscious mental/self, which part of that self is free? The sense of agency, ownership, possession, identity, or some other aspect? You might be assuming the self is a monolithic thing, but that cannot be true, or rather their seamlessness is an illusion.

        And the second definition, “the ability to act at one’s own”, is a diluted definition that is synonymous with volition, intention, health, conscious, independence, and several other concepts that have little or nothing to do with “free will”.

        The term just creates more confusion. It solves no real scientific problems. It answers no scientific question. Only if you insist on the existence of souls and sin, both of which cannot be scientifically verified as they are beliefs, does free will have a place. But in that religious reference we realize that free will is just another belief, an unverifiable belief, and nothing more. The fact is science doesn’t need “free will” any more than we need phlogiston. Let’s shed this worthless concept. Free will is to cognitive sciences as creationism and intelligent design are to evolution.

  16. Raine
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t help myself but had to come back and let you know that I find this conversation is so confusing/amusing and i applaude all who comment here of their own free will, but as I wrote, I couldn’t help myself… LOL!!! To trace that impluse back to its origin is where I will see where the free will comes from, but quite honestly, I’m too bushed… maybe at a later stage… Guess it’s like the computer trying to fathom out why it did a particular function… best as always to all, raine

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      And like several of the arguments here your reasoning is circular. Free will, it appears you claim, must exist by implication of a name because you can write, “i applaude all who comment here of their own free will” and blithely give no verification for free will. Sorry, that is not how science or philosophy work. We are here because we are here, not because free will drove us here. Bertrand Russell drove a stake through the heart of your implied argument over 100 years ago with his Theory of Descriptions. Assuming something exists just because we have a name and ignoring the need for verification does not do make you right. It just makes you annoying. Is that all you want? Then you don’t trivialize my argument but merely yourself.

      Free will is dead.

      • Miek
        Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

        Free will is dead? No.
        It’s dead for you, not for me and many other people. I’m sorry, but you have not convinced me, because there is no study until now that proves free will can’t exist.

        So be it.

      • Raine
        Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

        Thank you so much for all your comments… I was getting really hot-under-the-collar with the question… Rome was not built in a day, so I will still sleep on this question for months and probably years… I know for a fact that when one gives up one’s “free will” to a higher power then THAT IS KINDA PROVEN… What I mean is that I did it and was “moved around”… But once the desired affect was achieved, I regained my “sense of freedom” but can’t quite come to a defnite YES or NO yet regarding the question here… At the moment, I fully believe that FREE WILL exists, but is not freely attainable… if that makes sense… anyways, back to the drawing board for me… sorry to be annoying and all that other stuff… but please, don’t stop mind hacking… it works very interesting muscles of the brain… and we are naturally interested in how we “work”… and here on the internet, we are not bound by walls and doors and paperwork and time zones, etc., and the big plus is that we are all here because we want to be here and are able to be here… not prisoners under a microscope… :-}

      • Mason Kelsey
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:16 am | Permalink

        Miek wrote, “…there is no study until now that proves free will can’t exist.”

        In philosophy that would be called “proving the negative”. If something doesn’t exist you cannot prove it doesn’t exist. But the burden of proof or verification rests on the shoulders of the person using the term to prove or verify that free will DOES exist. Until you can do that free will has the same status as unicorns or gold at the end of the rainbow.

        Again, what you are doing is not how cognitive sciences work, or any science. We cannot simply be stubborn about using concepts that we cannot justify by evidence. This is what Frederick Albert Carl Gren did in supporting the concept of phlogiston until his death. No one but a few historians of science have ever heard his name because of his adherence to a concept which also suffered the problem that no one, in his time, could prove phlogiston didn’t exist. Gren even attempted to suppose that gravity differed when phlogiston was involved to explain why some substances gained mass and other substances seemed to lose it when burned. He tried to move a mountain to avoid moving the pebble. But we remember the name of Antoine Lavoisier, who used the discovery of oxygen, which he named, to explain what happens when substances burn in air and made the use of the concept of phlogiston obsolete because it was not needed to explain anything.

        In society free will is seen to add weight to arguments concerning social responsibility and religious beliefs. But it loses weight in matters of scientific examination. Just like phlogiston it seems to need to move the mountains of science understanding to avoid moving the mustard seed of belief.

        What we need in cognitive sciences is a similar paradigm shift away from obsolete religious and folk concepts like free will, et al. We cannot build cognitive science on concepts that are not supported by our reproducible experimental data. If we cannot “see” free will in understanding the workings of our brain, that doesn’t mean our methods or understanding are wrong but that concepts like free will are very old friends, but imaginary, that need to be put to rest.

        I recommend a bit of circumspection and self criticism by all who believe free will to exist, for it is only a belief and nothing more. There is little room for beliefs in science. But more importantly, ask youself, “What evidence do I have beyond my personal feelings, biases, folk lore, and traditions that free will exists?” “What cognitive science problem do I think I am solving by believing in the necessity of free will?” “What part of scientific understanding would we be deprived of if we abandon the concept of free will?” Who know what you might find? You might even discover you agree with me.

  17. Raine
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    IN RESPONSE TO MASON KELSEY: I have written and deleted and written and deleted – most annoying… please don’t get annoyed… THE QUESTION IS: Does free will exist or not, and I believe there are many different answers to this question, and I was just popping by my favourite MIND HACK… to see how the conversation was going… Sometimes very interesting remarks and stories… Sometimes very disturbing… :-}

  18. Miek
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    @Mason: you wrote:
    “In philosophy that would be called “proving the negative”. If something doesn’t exist you cannot prove it doesn’t exist. But the burden of proof or verification rests on the shoulders of the person using the term to prove or verify that free will DOES exist. Until you can do that free will has the same status as unicorns or gold at the end of the rainbow.”
    Right! So science can NOT even do research about free will. So I wonder why so many scientists do studies about it (while their method is not able to detect in detail a lot of mental processes, until now) And I don’t understand why they think their conclusion is the right one. Science is not the method to study free will. From the moment science accepts this limitation, the discussion is over. And on that very moment you come to the conclusion: we don’t know if free will exists. That’s the only right answer. So be it. Maybe this changes over 100 years, I don’t know, but if one can’t accept the limitations about their method of research, it’s a pitty.

    Before we had the technology for seeing the details of a human cell, I suppose you would have claimed that a cell had no ribosomes or something like that? Or you would have claimed that there was nothing in a cell? Your reason would have been: we can’t detect something in it, so it doesn’t exist! So, yes, we have proven that a cell is ‘empty’!
    And years after that, the technology would come to do better research on a cell. What would you have claimed then?? Oh… sh*t, no I have to admit there IS something in a cell? But wait, I’ve said that I was sure a cell is ‘empty’… what now?
    If you’re a scientist, you have to know you can’t prove a lot of things. The only thing you can say is: ‘with the maximal knowledge we can have nowadays with the scientific method, we don’t find a prove for the existing of the free will’! But it is possible that this will change if we have other technology in the future.
    That’s all you can tell now about free will & I suppose you know that very well.

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Sure, although your scholastic implication that some other method outside of science might study free will is amusing, since science is the only reliable method of examining physical phenomenon and there is no evidence that our universe is anything but physical. Just talking about free will as if it existed doesn’t cause it to emerge ex nihilo to acquire existence as if to exist were some ordained property.

      So the burdon of proof for the existence of free will still remains on the shoulders of those who insist it exists, no matter what scientists don’t know. And since this is a science forum and there is no good reason to suppose free will exists, then we can, it seems, as we did with phlogiston and unicorns, drop it from all future conversations.

      I realize you and a few others want to defend the concept of free will. Fine. The best way to defend free will in cognitive sciences is to supply an experimental test for a testable hypothesis. So do that and let me know what your results are. And then we can debate the merits of the experiment and the interpretation of the results. Otherwise you are going no where with any defense of free will.

      It would seem that any possible test would need to first verify that the conscious self was really making the decisions and that it somehow made decisions independently of its biological nature and also free from any control by supernatural or mental forces. We would have to answer the question is free will a physical, a mental, or a spiritual phenomenon? This might depend on some sort of dualism, which is rejected today by most philosophers and virtually all scientists. Consequently, the dualism might present a problem in coming up with a testable hypothesis. We would also need to know what is really happening when people say they have made decisions. Tests for confabulation would also be needed. Starting to sound very Ptolomaic and convoluted. But I’ll let you guys design the hypothesis and test.

      Eagerly awaiting the results although I expect that ex nihilo nihil fit.

  19. Jackson
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    if my brain is causing an activity, i am doing it because my brain is part of me.
    No other individual external to myself is making me do it.
    in moving according to the unconcious dictates of my brain i am still excercising free will.
    stop.

    • Mason Kelsey
      Posted December 10, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Jackson wrote, “…i am doing it because my brain is part of me.” Your post illustrates some of the profound, seamless illusions that the social, conscious self has constructed. The sense of identity, agency, and control, the “i”, the sense of ownership and possession, “my brain”, and our sense of independence and volution, “No other individual external to myself is making me do it.” And all of them are conceptual illusions.

      It is amusing that the self or “i” can claim that that the brain is a *part* of itself, “me”, when it is clear that the self is one feature of many of the brain’s activity. But it is common for the self or “i” to make absurd claims and cannot be trusted as a reliable source of information about itself. Whether it is confused in its use of words, or free will is an incoherent concept, or why the self really believes the brain is under its control, yet is its source is worth study. This is why we have a branch of philosophy called phenomenology to attempt to work around those issues that are close to the self that distorts our knowledge of everything about the self and the world.

      One of the problems I’ve not mentioned before is that if we claim the self has free will, what caused the self to make the choices it makes? Is free will merely appetite? For if the self is forced to make a choice where is the free will? Choices made out of thin air with no cause also seem as untennable as to find a cause that contradicts any sense of free will. No matter which you use to explain our behavior there doesn’t seem to be any free will there beyond our assigning that paradoxical term.

      Yes, you can call whatever you want ‘free will’. But all you have done is perpetuate a meme that you cannot verify simply on the basis that it seems to be true. Or we assume that since we have the term it seems to refer to something that exists. It is in the seemings where the deceptions occur. If we want to scientifically understand what is going on we have to do better than to use terms that were invented by medieval religious philosophers seeking to save the soul.

      For more ideas and arguments you can read http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

  20. mikmik
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Once again, any first year philosophy undergraduate knows you cannot prove a negative, that is you cannot prove something doesn’t exist, if it doesn’t exist.

    Wrong. Fail. You’re saying that I cannot prove that, for instance, that our eyes don’t emit light if they don’t emit light? Or because you can’t prove our thoughts don’t exist, therefore they don’t exist?
    You are nothing but a fallacy. You equate generalities with specifics. You are saying that if something doesn’t exist, it can’t be proved so.
    Some negatives are unprovable, and from that you get all negatives are unprovable.

    Requiring a complete understanding of consciousness in order to debunk free will is like requiring a chemist to have a complete understanding of molecular orbital theory in order to debunk phlogiston.

    But you do need and understanding of the chemistry – These are often divided into bonding orbitals, anti-bonding orbitals, and non-bonding orbitals. A molecular orbital is merely a Schrödinger orbital that includes several, but often only two nuclei. If this orbital is of type in which the electron(s) in the orbital have a higher probability of being between nuclei than elsewhere, the orbital will be a bonding orbita – to show how burning occurs, and you do indeed need quantum mechanics to calculate why these reactions are exothermic.
    To restate your analogy correctly, you actually <do have to understand the intermediary process between air + fuel and combustion. You have to have precise measurements of the originating constituents, the sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species, and a minutely detailed analysis of the products.
    All you have as a starting principle is a general macroscopic approximation of the brain, and you have zero measurement or even an wild guess as to the resulting product cognition.
    Our mind is completely beyond explanation given your general parameters, yet you are 100% confident that an apparent property of the product is inconsistent.
    I got news for you: the product itself(mind) is inconsistent with your starting conditions, so unless you have the slightest idea, or even then wildest and most capricious guess, as to what our mind is, then you can hardly claim to know that part of the product is an invalid illusion.
    Tell me where this illusion is, what is its functionality and purpose?
    Why is it necessary? I mean, your whole process of step by step transformation, from physically describable system -> unknown phenomenal manifestation, breaks down/fails. You don’t know what our mind is, let alone if it is an artifact or not.
    You are assuming an entirely presumptuous position by positing a direct cause-effect relationship when you don’t know what the effect is, certainly not in the same manner as your causative agent.
    Your theory is inconsistent because you cannot equivalently describe both sides of the equation.
    No, this is a proper analogy: 1 + 1 = ένα συν ένα άλλο. The product is gibberish in terms of the initial statement – a mathematical relationship.
    If your complete understanding of reality can be described with just english and math (and that’s not far from the truth), then you don’t know if ‘ένα συν ένα άλλο’ makes sense, let alone if it is true or not.
    I leave it you to find out if it is true, but keep in mind you know that both sides of the equations are similar in ways that our physical brains and our awareness of cognition are not. Basically, if instead of using ‘ένα συν ένα άλλο’ for the answer, and instead tried to explain what I am seeing inside my head for an answer(the color reddish ultraviolet, combined with a strange smell), that would be more completely analogous with your physics leading to phenomena description of the cause and effect relationship between our brains and our cognitive process.

    Here’s a thought: What if there is no Higgs particle? That would mean that the Standard Model(key word: model) of reality/nature is at least badly incorrect, if not completely.
    Then we’ll revisit the ‘brain/illusion of will’ duality you expound.

    I don’t have the patience to go through every incongruency you exhibit, so let’s just stick with one simple question: what are qualia composed of?
    Everything else is a red herring, a false equivalence, bullshit.

  21. Oleg
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    When you show me you’re not made of The same stuff as the sidewalk (think elementary particles) then I will concede your defiance of physics


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  1. [...] will in the last few days; here’s one in Salon, here in Scientific American, and here from Mind Hacks, which also links to an October article in the New York Times and August article from [...]

  2. [...] a Mind Hacks’ post called The free will rebellion I saw this article in the NYT — Science and Free [...]

  3. [...] will does not really hold up to what is happening in our brains. I have come across an interesting blog post, that describes the whole situation briefly: The idea that ‘free will is an illusion’ is now [...]

  4. [...] http://mindhacks.com/2011/11/14/the-free-will-rebellion/ [...]

  5. [...] that free will is highly unlikely, if not impossible, and is only a self perceived illusion. At the Mind Hacks blog, one such discussion is taking place. I responded to a particularly dogmatic ‘free will [...]

  6. [...] mindhacks, a discussion from months ago that I just revisited and started dribbling my opinion, as usual – this one [...]

  7. [...] Mason Kelsey and I continue at mind hacks (no more for now, I have shit to answer for from two earlier threads) when I am asked to explain myself. Always a bad idea, I end up writing another chapter for my book I didn’t realize I am writing. Well, we are writing. [...]

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