I participate in a local reading group that is currently exploring Incognito by David Eagleman. It has opened quite a can of worms about free will and/or conscious control. I've also been recording some of this at my blog, where Andy Smith got into this contentious debate. Below I've cited some of that debate from 3 thread posts: 1) review of Libet and recent research; 2) Patricia Churchland on free will; 3) more on Churchland. From 1):

theurj: So let's review the last few posts on Libet and recent research challenging one aspect of his research. He noted a readiness potential that occurred before the conscious awareness to move, and the latter occurred before the movement. And from that research the reductionistic determinists found support for their “hidden ad hoc assumptions,” assumptions that Libet himself did not share. To the contrary, Libet found that the conscious awareness of the movement indeed supported free will, despite the apparent earlier unconscious response.

Now the latest research shows that this precursor to conscious awareness has nothing to do with either the conscious awareness or the movement, and that the consciousness and the movement are virtually simultaneous. This would seem to support or at least suggest the controlled choice indicative of at least some degree of free will. Since it seems every naysayer of free will has used Libet's precursor neural response as evidence of their agenda, and that vestige of supposed proof has gone poof, it will likely prove most interesting and delightfully entertaining to see their them gasp and groan and flail and kick in the death throes of their cherished fantasy. I for one will revel in the spectacle.

Andy: We really don’t need neurophysiological studies to demolish the notion of free will. It just isn’t coherent. From a physical point of view, every action either has a cause, or occurs randomly. If it has a cause, then the cause determines the action, not free will. If it occurs randomly, then it may not have a deterministic cause, but neither is it the product of free will.

Even if one doesn’t accept the physical argument—which means, in effect, one is a dualist, and believes that free will operates independently of the physical world--the concept is still incoherent from a psychological point of view. The point of doing anything is to achieve some goal, which means to satisfy some desire. That desire is the motivator of the action.

Try to imagine yourself with free will. By definition, free will implies choice, because if there isn’t more than one option, there is nothing to be free about. Why then do you choose one action and not another? If you act rationally, then rational considerations are the cause of your action. If you act irrationally, that is, not entirely logically, you are still choosing based on some desires. If you act “spontaneously”, which is to say, not according to any rational considerations or any desires, then like a random physical occurrence, it isn’t a product of free will.

Rather than spend so much energy trying to defend the existence of free will, people might better ask themselves why they have so much invested in this belief. Therein lies the path to freedom. Not freedom of choice, but freedom from choice.

The way we normally act, certainly in all the most important and critical parts of our life where we would most expect to exercise free will if we had any, is to weigh a large number of factors, and come to a conclusion about which factors are most important.

There is no room in this process for free will. The whole point of making a decision is to weigh these factors as carefully as possible, and this means that the decision is determined completely by these factors. If it were not, then the decision would be counter-productive. In evolutionary terms, it would not maximize the possibility of survival.

theurj: If I understand you, making a choice of any kind is the cause, and that's what I mean by free will: having some (not complete or total) choice on one's actions. I don't know what you mean by the expression. I could ask you the same question, on why you must defend determinism. Seems adherents are afraid to accept responsibility for their actions.

I might also add that the above is entirely bodily-based, not dualist. Take Lakoff's work, for example. While he acknowledges the cognitive unconscious, which handles most of our action and behavior, can nonetheless to some degree be trained and redirected. I.e., we have some control over it and can make some choices.

Andy: You say you mean by free will "having some (not complete or total) choice." Who is the "I" that "has" this choice? Unless you can identify such an "I", independent of the physical world (this is dualism), these “choices” are completely explained by physical processes. The only “I” that makes sense is something that does not own or “have” these choices, but is these choices, that is, identifies with them as they are made by physical and biological processes. This is not free will in any meaningful sense, it’s just something that is along for the ride.

It’s not a matter of being afraid to accept responsibility for actions. It’s a matter of not being inconsistent with logic and facts. As I said before, the notion of free will is incoherent. How could any choice be made except by weighing various options, a process that is completely explainable in terms of physical and mental processes? Free will implies that one does not have to act according to weighing various options.

Lakoff’s work is irrelevant to the discussion of free will. You seem to assume that conscious actions are an exercise in free will. But conscious actions are just as much a matter of physical and biological processes as unconscious ones.

theurj: Actually it is you who are irrelevant here. One does not have to identify an "I" independent of the physical world to have decision and choice. Lakoff's work is entirely relevant, since this "I" and its rational choices are indeed embodied in the brain and culture, but are not completely determined by it. Our individuality, and its choices, are obviously constrained by body-brain-culture, but also something novel emerges that cannot be reduced to it. That's the whole point of novel emergence, since the physical parts cannot predict what will emerge. And also the point of neuroplasticity, that we can consciously change not just our choices but our actual physical brains and cultural programming, as neuroscientific studies of meditation and leaning attest. There's an entire field now called decision neuroscience. Perhaps you should check out some of the links and articles I've cited.

And it is also interesting that you completely sidestepped the latest neuroscientific study that challenged and overturned an aspect of Libet's reseach, research that the determinists have been using to support their agenda since that research came out. I'm not surprised, for there is no good answer to it at this point.

I'd also suggest reading the book The Neurobiology of Free Will, the subject of a recent post. I've also highlighted some of the articles from that book in recent posts. They provide ample empirical evidence of how emergent structures not only exemplify an unexpected novel occurrence but also how they exert top-down causation on the parts. They grant the predecessor constraint but not their complete determinism, and if fact how emergent structures 'determine' and change the parts to some degree.

Andy: Emergence is not the same thing as free will. If it were, you could conclude that because a cell emerges from molecules, has novel properties that the molecules don’t have, and exerts downward causation on the molecules, that it has free will. A cell is just a much more complex result of causal processes, and so is an organism.

Yes, I’m aware that supporters of free have referred to Libet’s work, but as I said before, it’s unnecessary.

I'm really surprised that anyone with any spiritual experience would be hedging on this issue. One of the first and most important lessons on the spiritual path is that we are asleep, which means we have no free will.

theurj: Another tenet of spirituality is that we can indeed wake up and be liberated, to some degree. I will continue this in the "more on Churchland" thread.

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Yes, I think he means the self by that expression. As to the second question, my guess from the above info in this thread is both a return via the 'witness' which then integrates/coordinates brain systems.

Related to the last quote, recall this from Churchland in this post:

"But what is the 'self' of self-control? What am I? In essence, the self is a construction of the brain; a real, but brain-dependent organisational network for monitoring body states, setting priorities and, within the brain itself, creating the separation between inner world and outer world.... Does that mean my self is not real? On the contrary. It is every bit as real as the three-dimensional world we see, or the future we prepare for, or the past we remember. It is a tool tuned, in varying degrees, to the reality of brain and world."

Also see this post from the states of consciousness thread, a good summary of much of the above.

I appreciate Bryant's post on free will. Well, it's actually about Occupy Wall Street, but free will comes into it. Using Dennett's Freedom Evolves he notes that if one believes they have it they will get off their asses and do something about a situation. Whereas those that don't believe will just accept their fate, that they are powerless to change anything. There is causal power in the belief. And this is why I get so emotionally involved in the topic, for I see the reductionists as those that just accept defeat, that we are powerless and may as well crawl in a corner and die. But not until after we submit to the powers of corporate capitalism and live out the lives of indentured slaves.

Now Bryant goes on to note that it takes more than this belief, that it requires taking effective action. Hence OWS is not effective, since they aren't disrupting the power lines of corporate capitalism. Just bringing attention to the injustice isn't enough. It would require something like a national strike, where all or at least most business shut down, to motivate the money grubbers. And of course doing something like that would require incredible sacrifice on the part of the slave, since they'd have no money. And to do something like that would of course bring us back to a belief that was strong enough to endure that kind of sacrifice for grand ends. The American revolution required, and delivered, that sort of belief and commitment, and lives were given for that freedom. And that kind of belief, commitment and sacrifice are required again, and it will never come without the causal power of self in coordinated, effective action with many, many other selves.

PS: As previous posts including Damasio prove, the self is not just a belief but a neurobiologically based, real entity.

Some more from Self Comes to Mind:

"Still, most important decisions are taken long before the time of execution, within the conscious mind, where they can be simulated and tested and where conscious control can potentially minimize the effect of nonconscious biases. Eventually the exercise of decisions can be honed into a skill with the help on nonconscious mind processing, the submerged operations of our mind in matters of general knowledge and reasoning often referred to as the cognitive unconscious. Conscious decisions begin with reflection, simulation, and testing in the conscious mind; that process can be completed and rehearsed in the nonconscious mind, from which freshly selected actions can be executed" (288).

Sam Harris has entered the fray with a book called Free Will. Granted he assumes this means the very type of idealistic notions that I am not promoting. But further, at least from one of his blog posts on the subject, he seems to be much more of an eliminative determinist than Churchland, for it doesn't seem he allows much, if any, conscious decision-making ability. He grants the following:

"I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort."

It's just that there were many other factors like genetics, environment and culture that made that opportunity possible which are not at the behest of one's decision to become a surgeon. But that is one of my points, that we can decide to do something about every one of those things, to change one's environment with policies that give economic opportunities to the poor, that provide adult education in child-rearing to give them the necessary tools to get ahead. And we can even now manipulate bad genes. And all of those require some degree of deliberate, self-conscious decision-making of those who have been given every opportunity, like our politicians, to bring that opportunity to everyone.

And all of the above can be from a empirically grounded knowledge that there is no idealistic self apart from our bodies and brains. We don't have to assume that some degree of conscious choice must come from such ridiculous models. We can have embodied, real selves validated by empirical neurological evidence, limited as they are, still produce choices that are not the result of all the lower parts that compose us. Even Churchland will grant this, the supposed queen of eliminative determinism.

I guess part of what I'm getting at above is that many of our unconscious mechanisms controlling much of our lives are not written in stone. We can change them. If we know anything about our brain it is that it is plastic, malleable, can change and be re-programmed. It can grow and evolve. And that requires some very conscious decision-making which can then enlist our very autonomous, unconscious programs to achieve our conscious goals. We are not stuck with what we are given.

In this post Harris elucidates some more in relation to Dennett's position. They agree that the 'conventional' meaning of "free will" makes no sense. And Harris admits that "choice, reasoning, discipline, etc., play important roles in our lives despite the fact that they are determined by prior causes" which leads to cultural progress. But he maintains that this doesn't add credence to the "traditional idea of free will."

He then criticized Dennett for changing this definition, as discussed briefly above. And that something in changing the definition, in grounding it in neuroscience and embodiment, still somehow contributes to or "lends credence to" the 'conventional' notion and thereby aids and abets its agenda. I'm not following (agreeing with) his argument here.

In the local discussion group referenced previously, as well as dialogue with Andy Smith on free will, it occurred to me that I am quite offended by the notion that by maintaining consciousness is not an epiphenomenon or illusion it is somehow akin to believing in a supernatural God or Cartesian dualism. I too am most interested in providing empirical evidence for my interest in consciousness, hence I'm using the work of neuroscientists like Damasio, Churchland and now Schurger and Dehaene. These are folks that do not accept any sort of Cartesian ghost (quite the contrary), ground their hypotheses in empirical evidence, and provide mounting experimental data to support their theses. Which is, of course, the scientific method, to take what you already know, make educated guesses about the next step, device experimental methods to test it, and to use those results to either confirm or refute the guess. And that is exactly what the above scientists are doing and making considerable progress. I just cannot see how this is holding to some kind of illusory or delusional 'belief.'

With that in mind, let's recall the New Scientist article that made us aware of this new research on Libet. Schurger was quoted as saying the following, but I don't know the source, since it is not in the referenced paper:

"If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will," says Schurger.

Granted I'm not sure if that particular experiment by Schurger et al. determined whether the act of moving a finger in response to a command proved if the "intention" was conscious or nonconscious, since it is obvious we can have controlled, nonconscious perception and action. But more complex perception, planning and action does seem to involve consciousness, and this is what the likes of the recent articles by Schurger and Dahaene are exploring with experimental tests. (And Damasio, btw, has done numerous of his own experimental tests and published them in highly regarded scientific journals. Again, no pulling illusions out of Cartesian theaters here).

In reference to a more recent article (2011) from Dehaene, he has conducted a number of experimental tests on his hypothesis from 2001. He also provided considerable data from other researchers into the topic, then compares the results to this theory. This is science, and these scientists, are not searching for God or disembodied, ideal minds; they are searching for empirical evidence to explain the phenomenon called consciousness. And which explanations and evidence is not only mounting in support of its thesis, but can be highly useful for helping a lot of people with a lot of problems.

Check out Evan Thompson's You Tube series called "Neuroscience and free will": part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6. From part 1, quoting William James: ""Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will" (7:10). From the conclusion of part 6: "Free will then is not exempt from causes and conditions but is rather the flexible coordination of attention" (4:05).

The Neural Basis of Free Will is the title of a new book by Peter Tse (2013, MIT Press).

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