Class Warfare Blog

August 5, 2018

Free Will and Neuroscience … at Odds?

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:13 am
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I have written quite a bit about Yuval Noah Harari, who is an Israeli historian who has written the bestselling book Sapiens, which examined the course of early human history. Now that he is a public intellectual of some note, what he says carries weight. In a recent interview in The Guardian, he is quoted as saying:

This is why your feelings are the highest authority in your life and also in politics and economics – the voter knows best, the customer is always right. Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings. But now the merger of biotech and infotech in neuroscience and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process them effectively means we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you. We’ve already seen a glimpse of it in the last epidemic of fake news.

I do not want to address the topic he is zoned in on, just one of his toss off lines, namely “Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will.”

I would hope that this is something an historian might say and a scientist would not. (Actually I hope that an historian would be even more circumspect than a scientist, but that is just me being an eternal optimist.) There is an argument one can make, a fairly strong argument, that free will isn’t free, that we live in a deterministic universe, one full of just causes and effects. But the line Harari uses sounds like a fact, like something proven that we should accept.

I believe that any conclusion, at this point, regarding free will is premature and I offer an example for your consideration.

In the recent conclusion of this year’s World Series of Poker, the finalists played “head-to-head” for ten hours. There were 199 hands of Texas Hold’em played this way. The final nine players played 300 hands to reduce the field to the final two. So, ask yourself: was every decision of the two finalists made deterministically? Did the cards and the situation determine every decision made? If you answer “yes” you are a determinist who believes there is no such thing as free will.

I cannot accept this explanation right now as I have seen a top player throw away the winning hand at one point (he had a flush) because he missed seeing it. So, was the hand determined by the fact that he didn’t see the flush in his own hand? His hand was, I suggest, but what pray tell is the cause of that effect? I think you can speculate for days and not really answer the question. He was fatigued? Maybe. Was he was focused on other things? Maybe. Did his eyes have a glitch in visual processing in his brain? Maybe.

I think the identification of the cause and the effect is at the crux of making a claim of a deterministic universe and I still see this as an inexact procedure.

Most determinists conclude the universe is this way because of problems with the “other way,” the way of free will, being able to decide “otherly.” But that doesn’t automatically make determinism the correct way by default, not unless you can show what determines what in an unbroken chain leading to decisions over and over.

Poker players get the same hand (roughly equivalent to exactly equivalent hands) quite a number of times. Occasionally they get the same hand two or three times in a row. (In Texas Hold’em, the player’s hand is only two cards.) I have seen players play the same hand completely differently, one time aggressively and one time passively. They change their playing persona from time to time (from being “tight” and only playing premium hands to ATC, Any Two Cards will do). They change the conditions they will play hands from time to time. One player of note changes his approach based upon what time it is. There are many subtle things going on, but my point is how to answer the question “what are the causes for each of these decisions?” Is there no room for “the fog of war” in which decisions get made haphazardly? Why are some of the decisions made perplexing even to the players who made them (they cannot explain why they did what they did)? What role does fatigue play? Frustration? Hope?

I am not saying that all of these decisions (200 hands, each player makes 6-10 decisions per hand in the final stage alone) cannot be deterministic but I do not yet see that they have to be.

A basic problem I have is with the microscopic slicing of holistic processes. Consider a golfer’s swing. Coaches, using their eyes and high speed video, have broken down golf swings into finer and finer bits. They talk about the bits ad nauseum. But really, what real difference is there between a back swing to 90° from the ground and one that is 89° from the ground? Each golfer’s swing is unique with common elements, but none of the fine slices is necessary as some very accomplished golfers do without them. If you look at finer and finer slices, you get farther and farther away from things that really affect the outcome.

The same is true for determinists. They talk about neuron A being connected with neuron B and if A is stimulated, then so will be B … see determined. This is too simplistic. Individual neurons in the brain have, on average, 1000 connections to other neurons, even as many as 10,000 connections. This is not like an electronic device in which we can trace the pathways of electrons through the conductive paths. The number of paths for neural impulses is completely mind boggling. The number of connections in a human brain (synapses) is a thousand or more times the number of stars in the Milky Way. One neuron does not lead to the next in an easy to describe chain, it leads to many, many nexts.

So, while arguments can be made that our decisions are determined, that argument hasn’t been completely made yet.

And I really wish public intellectuals would not state hypotheses as if they were facts. Instead of Harari saying “Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will …” he could have just as easily said “Even though neuroscience seems to be telling us that there may be no such thing as free will….”

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March 27, 2018

Determinism and Free Will

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:10 pm
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I have written more than a little about free will and this post is a supplement to that. I have been reading a little about the alternatives to free will, primarily determinism, which is a claim that every decision we make is caused by events outside of our control. I have no problem with that argument, just the driving of it home saying that Determinism Rules, Dude! I think this is yet another example of human exuberance to come up with an answer when we are not yet ready for one. This is my position of free will, too. I think most decisions are made sub- or unconsciously and we understand so little about those processes that to exclude them from discussions of free will thwarts any chance at a reasonable conclusion.

So, are all of our decisions caused? Are our behaviors ruled by the “cause and effect” that works so well in the sciences?

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works. I just finished “Fooled by Randomness” and have started “The Black Swan.” Mr. Taleb (he has a Ph.D. but doesn’t flaunt it) got his start as a financial instruments trader. He points out over and over, that most human activities are ruled by chance, yet we stubbornly refuse to admit that, seeing systems and patterns in behaviors and numbers that we believe show underlying structures that make things like the stock market predictable. He points to daily stock market reports, an example of which is “the market tumbled 1.7 points today, reacting to the announcement that blah, blah, blah.” He says that statements like this makes financial reporters entertainers rather than journalists. The market indices fluctuate during the day and from day to day. All of them fluctuate more than 1.7 points per day, so a change in any index of 1.7 index points cannot be distinguished from noise. Yet we insist on ascribing reasons to these fluctuations. We also know that the ocean’s tides rise and fall twice a day, so measuring the height of the water depends on what time you measure it. We also know that waves create artificial highs and lows that will move a float up and down in mere seconds. No oceanographer would mistake these normal fluctuations for changes that require action (like sea level rise), but we often do in settings like the stock market.

Our brains were shaped by evolution to do some amazing things. Unfortunately some of these things are counterproductive. For example, we judge the likelihood of something happening by the frequency we encounter that thing. This worked really well when we only encountered things in real life, like when was the last time you witness a murder directly, for example? But, we see the evidence of crime after crime on the nightly news day after day and conclude crime is on the increase; it is not; crime reporting on the news is on the increase, crime itself is decreasing and has been for decades. So, it is easy to fool ourselves using our very best mental skills.

One of our strongest mental skills is pattern recognition. It is so strong we see patterns where none exists, even in sets of random dots and numbers. In the case of financial markets we are making an even bigger mistake. In science we postulated first that invisible entities controlled the behavior of natural phenomena (spirits and ghosts). We then had a bunch of people argue that natural phenomena obeyed laws (the law of gravity, conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, etc.) and that the behaviors of physical objects was predictable based upon these laws and so they were! (Damn!) So, we came to believe in physical cause and effect. Now if we apply this belief to social systems, like financial markets and free will, will it also work? Well, the physical laws have an underlying structure that supports those laws existing. Do morals and financial markets and the like have such a basis? I do not think so, but more importantly, if there is it hasn’t been demonstrated that there is. In order to prove that nature was based upon laws, a whole lot of predictions had to be made and prove out to be right before people accepted that a root foundation for physical laws existed and could be relied upon.

But financial markets, well that’s another story. After every catastrophic collapse of some market or other, the market gurus go around and find one of their kind who predicted that the collapse would happen, and hype them as someone with special knowledge. The problem is that at any point in time, every possible outcome is being predicted and no matter what happens, you can find somebody after the fact that will have predicted correctly. This is not a successful prediction. In science, once you work out the laws involved, you can teach them to others and everyone ends up making correct predictions, not just a person here or there.

Human overreach in pattern-recognition puts, I suspect, too much faith in cause and effect, the underlying mechanism of determinism. We know that quantum mechanical effects are far from cause and effect rooted. We know that a great deal is “caused” by randomness. (If you go out to dinner, you are going to eat something. If you go to an Italian restaurant, you are very likely to eat something Italian. If …). Are we ready to conclude that free will is an illusion and all things are determined by cause and effect? I do not think so.

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