Class Warfare Blog

May 6, 2019

A Minor Thought on Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 11:57 am
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I have been reading Robert Wright’s wonderful book “The Moral Animal,” which I recommend to you as a source book on evolutionary psychology. (I haven’t finished it, so no book report, yet.) Here are a couple of excerpts:

“One could go further and suggest that folk psychology itself is built into our genes. In other words, not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion (as is suggested by other neurological experiments as well); it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims. (This is in a chapter on deception and self-deception. SR).

“For centuries people have approached the philosophical debate over free will with the vague but powerful intuition that free will does exist; we (the conscious we) are in charge of our behavior. It is not beyond the pale to suggest that this nontrivial chunk of intellectual history can be ascribed fairly to natural selection—that one of the most hallowed of all philosophical positions is essentially an adaptation.”

This just reinforced in my mind the problem with all discussions of free will. The vast majority of the claimants are talking about conscious free will while the vast majority of our behavior is unconsciously governed.

Some of the free will advocates offer that if our will isn’t consciously free then we are just robots, with all of our behavior degraded down to chains of stimulus-response. I expect that this argument is simply a yearning for souls and being “special” and unfathomable. If we do, indeed, live in a material universe, then all human behaviors must break down into such chains, otherwise there would be no connection between our behavior and the environment around us. (Think of my people, out of touch intellectuals, who live in a world created entirely in their heads. How successful would such a being be biologically? Not at all I suggest. Such beings are only supported through the sacrifices and protections of others.)

This fear of having a robotic nature, I believe, is a failure of our imagination. We identify as “I” only our conscious thoughts because those are the only ones of which we are aware. In reality I think we are sub/unconscious beings with a conscious overlay, the existence of which offers benefits but whose origin is not completely explained as of yet (or if it is, I have not yet found it). If “I” is my subconscious or conscious plus subconscious minds, then I have free will . . . I think. (I think it is too early to conclude anything. We have talked about the topic for millennia; we are just now starting to understand what we are supposedly talking about.)

We are just starting to understand unconscious mental processing and until we do, no answer is in the offing to the question of whether wills are free. I think we can conclude that our wills are not conscious nor are they consciously free. But even that conclusion is shaky. For example, we are aware of our conscious thoughts . . . but where do they come from? Do we create them consciously? I don’t think so. This is a little like the paradox of our sense of sight. We see by means of light, but light itself is invisible (you cannot see a light beam from the side; e.g. a beam of blue light is invisible when view from a side, that is the light is not blue in itself). We think consciously by means of conscious thoughts but those thoughts are basically invisible/unsourcable, at least for now.


December 21, 2018

Update on Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:29 am
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Currently I am reading two books by authors with similar names neither of which I had heard before. I have already commented on Sam Pizzagati’s The Rich Do Not Always Win, an history of the early twentieth century that resulted in the largest middle class in American history. I strongly recommend this book as the rhetoric on both sides of the “wealth inequality” debate is quite illuminating.

The second book is by Michael S. Gazziniga entitled Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. This book is fabulous as it is written by a neuroscientist, one who is taking his fellow scientists to task in the free will debate.

I have previously argued that it is far too early in the scientific investigation of free will to come to any conclusion, certainly not one with such large ramifications as whether we have free will or all of our decisions being determined by physical causes. This author provides a piece of this discussion that I had not heard before and it is a lollapalooza.

He starts with addressing free will in the context of responsibility, the primary question is “Can we hold people responsible for their decisions?” (If not our criminal justice system is far worse off than it already is.) This is enough of a foothold on free will to proceed. After going over the neurological research that seems to apply to the question he makes the following argument: consciousness is an emergent property of brains possessing enough connections. This is not a revelation, most people buy into this conclusion. He then goes on to claim that emergent properties represent a disconnect from the basic physical conditions that create the property in the first place! If this holds up, then determinism is done for, toast, kaput, won’t apply, because there are quite a few layers of emergent mental properties stacked up that the basic physical entities (atoms, molecules, DNA, genes, etc.) will not be able to get through.

He gives as an example the building of a car. A careful designer can create a car with its engine, transmission, differential, wheels, tires, electronics, etc. that will perform pretty much exactly as designed. (I have just finished reading a book on the design of the most recent iteration of the Ford GT race car. It was designed to win the 24 Hours at Le Mans race … and did. This is an example of determinism, the whole being the sum of its parts.) But … you knew that was coming, didn’t you? … but none of a car’s physical parameters, its specifications, can explain … traffic. When you take automobiles and roads, traffic shows up as an emergent property and traffic cannot be predicted from nor can it be determined by any car’s design! And if this weren’t enough, the author claims that the emergent properties affect the original vehicles through feedback. For example, this souped up race car might overheat badly in beep and creep traffic, so has to have to be modified or just garaged and not driven on normal roads. (I haven’t finished this second part of his argument but basically he argues “that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, constrains the brain.” The mind constrains the brain. Think about that. (There are many examples of this happening, but like I said I haven’t finished this part yet.)

This argument about emergent properties blocking deterministic causes seems to blow the argument of free will v. determinism out of the water with determinism the loser. We have to wait and see if it holds up.

So, what do you think? Is consciousness and therefore free will determined such that we actually have only the illusion of free will and making our own choices, or is making conscious choices an emergent ability not determined by physical inputs to our brains? (The author explains why we all have the perception of an “I” making decisions by the way, even though “I” does not exist.”


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….”

June 21, 2018

Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will, and God?

The above title is that of an article in Scientific American (July 2018) by no one less than the inestimable Michael Shermer. The subtitle is “Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?”

Even more fascinating is Mr. Schermer’s answer: yes!

Actually, this answer is quite puzzling. In his piece Mr. Shermer quotes British biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar who wrote: “Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” This, I think is correct. The scientific ego is boosted by actual results and so scientists shy away from problems deemed intractable, unsolvable. But, until one tries to solve a problem, how does one know whether it is beyond them? And, even if it is beyond us now, how can we know it will be beyond us forever?

I am of the camp that we will understand all three and, in fact, have good starts on all three questions. The problem is not the issues themselves completely (labeled as “final mysteries” by Shermer), but involves the attitudes of the audiences receiving the conclusions.

For example, if you came up with an ironclad proof that the Christian/Jewish/Muslim god did not exist, how many people would say “Well, dang, and all along I though God was real. Foolish of me, don’t you think?” And how many would say “I don’t not believe such secular nonsense!” (Go ahead, guess; I dare you!)

The audience here has a different standard of proof than scientists have. If you accept something as proven only when it reaches the standard of a mathematical proof, no scientific proofs could be had at all, but if you establish the level of proof to be as good as “the sun will come up tomorrow,” then the Christian, etc. god is proven to not exist already (in short, the claimed supernatural powers are in conflict with one another). This level of proof is good enough for scientists who use no divine mysteries in their works, even though they may still participate in their local church communities (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the existence of any god or gods).

Similarly, the general public will never accept the idea of a deterministic universe as they feel, that is feel in the first person, that they are “free” to make their own decisions. The idea that we are not free to do just that undermines all religions, social justice structures, etc. so do not expect the general public to accept that there is no such thing as free will. (I do not accept the deterministic arguments at this juncture as there are any number of problems with the current deterministic interpretations, including a signal-to-noise problem of immense size.)

It is rare that I find myself in disagreement with Michael Shermer, but one of the rock bottom principles in science is that authority has no place. So, in this case, our opinions differ.

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.

December 17, 2017

More on Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 10:48 am

Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago argues that “determinism rules human behavior, and our “choices” are all predetermined by our genes and environment. To me, that means that the concept of “moral responsibility” is meaningless, for that implies an ability to choose freely.”

He goes on to argue “Nevertheless, we should still retain the concept of responsibility, meaning ‘an identifiable person did this or that good or bad action’. And, of course, we can sanction or praise people who were responsible in this sense, for such blame and praise can not only reinforce good behavior but is salubrious for society.” (His blog is well worth following for the topics of atheism, evolution, and society.)

I have commented before that I think discussions of free will are stunted by limiting them to conscious free will and that things will be very different if one includes subconscious and unconscious thinking into the mix.

Most people think of “free will” being demonstrated through choices we make that we could have made otherwise. So, we could have chosen A, B, or C and we chose B … but could have chosen A or C. Dr. Coyne argues, as do a great many other academics, that this is an illusion and that our choices are determined by outside stimuli and basically our brain structures that were developed through evolution/genetics.

I will now make an argument against this conclusion, but not in the normal way. I am going to make a legal argument that their conclusion is unwarranted. I will not say it is wrong, just that it is not yet acceptable.

When a case is made in court, or so I believe, based upon circumstantial evidence (and a great many are, contrary to popular belief), a valid defense can be  made by providing a different interpretation of the facts in evidence that is equally plausible, but different from what the prosecution claims. So, claiming a unicorn with a fairy riding it while toting an AK-47 as a competing narrative in the case of a shooting, has a complete lack of plausibility which rules it out, as would be “mysterious strangers did it” defenses. (This is the subject of a great many books, movies, and TV shows: e.g. The Fugitive. I think this is because we all can put ourselves in the position of someone unfairly accused, especially if we grew up with siblings.)

But if you can build a plausible case that counters their plausible case, so there is nothing to distinguish the one from the other, so “case not proved” is the verdict.

So, here is my argument. The determinists claim that if you are offered a choice between vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream for dessert, and you choose one, this seems like a free choice to you. In actuality, they say the decision was already made by your brain, based upon your heredity and life experience. (Obviously if you have never had ice cream before, the situation would be quite different, so we assume here that you are aware of the flavors of the three choices.)

I offer a different scenario. Subconscious thinking is the “fast thinking” of Daniel Kahneman’s book: “Thinking: Fast and Slow.” For our purpose, I will avoid nuances and psychological professional distinctions and just characterize subconscious thinking as mental processing, aka “thinking,” of which we are unaware. So, when offered the choice, our subconscious mind processes memories to recall the flavors and assorted connected events associated with the three types of ice cream and comes up with a choice. It sends its verdict to us as a “hankering” or a desire for the choice we end up choosing. I have no idea how this processing is done, but I suspect it uses the same channels that are used for conscious thinking (the visual cortex for images, etc.) but uses a different “band” for those signals. (Scans show the same brain areas are activated when we imagine things as when we actually experience them, so there is some basis for this.)

I also do not know the criteria the subconscious mind uses for making its preference, but it does not matter, the choice could even be random. But it is entirely reasonable that this is not a stimulus-response function. This could be characterized as a choice, especially if when offered that choice in the past, the other choices were selected from time to time. (In my case I have selected all three at various times and places, and yes it does take into consideration the quality of the ice cream maker. Killer strawberry ice cream is scrumptious, mundane strawberry ice cream is atrocious.)

Would not the same choice be made over and over if it were simply a matter of a genetic predisposition for, say strawberry ice cream. Even if as a child I experienced a traumatic event that I associated with strawberry ice cream and hence never chose it voluntarily, there are myriad cases of people overcoming such hardwired dislikes.

Even if the choice is made randomly by one’s subconscious mind, this could very well be a free choice. Our subconscious minds are used to making such decisions, many times a day. Even the most rational decision making processes end up being made subconsciously. I remember researching stereo components ad nauseum. I think I enjoyed the process. But when it came down to making a buying decision, I jumped at one I could afford. I didn’t have any complicated tradeoffs such as 10% of bass response could be traded for 5 watts of amplification power (nobody does). We look at the data and then we decide on which choice feels the best. I have a hard time believing I have a genetic predisposition for stereo components, but let’s say I have a genetic predisposition for liking amplifiers that come in a nice wood cabinet rather than a stamped steel case (an aesthetic preference). How is that balanced out against having a Dolby Sound processor hardwired in? This is the problem with rational decision making: if there are genetic predispositions involved, that we have no control over, which of them trumps the others? What is the hierarchy? How does A get favored over B and C, D, E, F, G, H … when there are multiple stimulus-responses involved? We end up with a general “feeling” of “B is the right choice” but having a deterministic process for that seems hopelessly complicated.

I suggest a simpler process. Your subconscious mind simply keeps an emotion meter running while you examine the data of your choices. It then forwards the summary of such “feelings” to your conscious mind and a decision gets made … which, as Daniel Kahneman points out, can be overruled by “slow” thinking (but usually is not). Just how this is all deterministic is beyond me. (Critics of my argument will reply: obviously.)

So, my legal argument is that our subconscious mind, which is ever so much more capable of handling multiple inputs than our conscious minds (two, count ‘em, two things max can be juggled consciously—our conscious minds are like a dog with two tennis balls, occasionally it can get both in its mouth at once, but usually the act of picking up the other makes it drop the one it has), makes the decision and hands it to us. Since we do not know that subconscious processes are deterministic, then we cannot conclude the whole process is.

July 29, 2016

Free Will … Redefined

Most discussions of free will get up to their hips in philosophical fine points rather quickly, which is fine by me as I am somewhat of an armchair philosopher (even took some courses in college so I am a partly-trained real philosopher). But the author of God’s Gravediggers: Why no Deity Exists (Raymond Bradley) turns this on its head, very productively, I believe.Gods Gravediggers Cover

Many have pointed out that if free will doesn’t exist, then our criminal justice system has a big, big problem. If we are deterministically programmed to do certain things, either by our genetics or our upbringing or by the laws of nature, whatever, then we can’t be held responsible for our actions. Sure we killed that person, but they had abused us as a child and we suffer from an abuse syndrome (don’t know any impressive names for one, but I am sure someone out there does).

Mr. Bradley does us a service and turns this around. He suggest that our definition of free will should be the judicial one, not a philosophical one. When a judge says “You are free to go,” after being arrested and put on trial, you can choose what to do and nobody will stop you unless you violate some other law or tread on someone else’s prerogatives. While in custody of the authorities, your free will was significantly truncated. You could decide what you wanted to eat, but were limited to an “eat or don’t eat” choice of what was being served in the prison meal room. You could decide to exercise any time you wanted, as long as you could pull it off without disturbing your cell mate in the space provided (no touch football or soccer, for example). Yes, you still had significant parts of your ability to decide for yourself, but many other parts that you once had were taken away.

If a jury decides you are guilty of killing your neighbor’s dog, they are saying you had the ability to choose otherwise and did not, that your will was free.

In a number of cases, such decisions are not so easy. People with diminished mental capacities and people who have been treated abusively their whole lives are sometimes found to be not guilty because of either temporary or permanent insanity. That is they were judged to no know the difference between right and wrong, and free will or no, they can’t be held accountable for their actions. In other words, their wills weren’t really “free” in this case.

This is to be expected because when it comes to any aspect of human behavior or abilities there are no sharp dividing lines. The law allows for decisions to be made in such circumstances, philosophy not so much. Philosophers, especially logical philosophers, want nice sharp lines of demarcation. Imposing such a requirement on a discussion of free will at best will result in a stale mate. Looking at things more pragmatically (we all think we have free will, therefore we do) may be much more productive. At least at first glance, it is.

I have been promising you a review of Everybody is Wrong About God by James Lindsay (which will be coming in parts) but one of Mr. Lindsay’s arguments is the battle over whether god (any god) exists has been settled and god lost. If you want confirmation of that battle and its outcome, read God’s Gravediggers. The author gives you both laymen’s (aka short) explanations as well as brick-by-brick tightly reasoned arguments for why even the concept of a god doesn’t hold water (or souls, or angels, spooks, pixies, gremlins, etc.). He also seems to cover all of the ground involved.

June 8, 2016

The Problem of Evil and Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:34 am
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The topic of free will is being much discussed of late. Partially this is because of new scientific findings, but which is all to the good as it helps us understand who (or what) we are. However I am somewhat dismayed at the level of thinking employed. For example, one common use of the concept of free will is to provide room for “god” to wiggle out from under the Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil, if you are unaware, is this argument: if God is good (the Perfect Good), why does evil exist? It was given a strong voice by Epicurus as: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?

This argument is one of the strongest against the existence of a Judeo-Christian type god.

The wiggle room provided by religious apologists is that evil exists because their god wanted us to have free will. I will explore the motivation for that later, but currently the argument is: if we are not to be automatons, we must have free will and if we have the freedom to do good, then we must also have the freedom to do evil. (This is a variant of the “blame the victim” approach of many religions.)

This argument is quite bankrupt. Why, if their god was good and perfectly so, would he go out of his way to invent evil? Consider what the world would be like if the choice to do evil things were not available to us. Would we be deterministic puppets? Instead of us having myriad choices every day, half good and half evil, we would only have myriad good choices, no? Is this being a puppet? I would venture to say that you actually know some people like this. These are kind, gentle people who would not hurt a fly, are willing to help anyone in need, and never have an ill word to say about anybody. The idea of them making a choice that is evil is unthinkable. And they have the freedom to do anything that comes into their little minds, evil things not being among them.

Were the world to be so constructed, would we bemoan the lack of opportunities to do evil? I do not think so. There would still be any number of unfortunate happenings: forest fires, earthquakes, floods, landslides, shark attacks, dogs digging holes in your new lawn, etc. Misery and pain would not disappear. (Some apologists argue that pain has a biological function and if evil were not to exist, we would be imperiled because of the lack of pain as a guide. This is blazingly idiotic.) Compassion and generosity would still be choices we would need to make. Deliberate acts of humans to cause unnecessary pain and anguish, though, would not exist.

So, how would this diminish “God’s Plan”?

The inherent problem here is obscured by the apologists, partially because, I think, they find the missing part quite natural. The missing piece in the discussion is actually the unnatural part: according to them humans were created to worship their god, full stop, end of story. Some obscure this by saying, no we were created to “give God glory.” Of course, “glory” means “praise of a god or goddess.” In simple terms, we were created to be cheerleaders by a god with low self-esteem. We are needed to buck up the sagging ego of an all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural entity! And, we need to be able to choose to do that because if their god had created us to do that with no choice being involved on our part, well that would be too narcissistic! OMG!

My argument is simpler. we have free will (not limited to conscious decision making) because it is demonstrably one of our faculties. Why we have free will is kind of a silly question. Why can we think? Why can we fart with gusto? Why do Claussen Deli Style Hearty Garlic Dill Pickles taste so damned good? The unfortunate thing about philosophy is it is basically thinking about thinking (an inevitable consequence of sentience?). What we choose to think about is up to us. The fact that many cannot think their way of a wet paper bag is lamentable, though.

May 18, 2016

A Follow-up to the Post “Free Will and the Perfect Pool Table”

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 9:12 am
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I got many interesting comments on my free will post, including a link to an article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “There is No Such Thing as Free Will.” This reminds me that communications about complex topics, like chemistry and free will, often lag behind the subject by many years. This may or may not be the case regarding free will as many seem to be perfectly happy making profound conclusions based upon simple experiments. I warn my archer students about this failing all of the time: “Beware of conclusions based upon small data sets.” Those students are archers who shoot two arrows, both of which are a tad below the spot they wanted to hit and conclude that “something is wrong.” I, on the other hand point out that those shots are within the typical range of the landing points of their arrows and they may have just come before the higher shots that would balance out their group of shots. There are some archers who can conclude something from just one or two shots, but my students aren’t one of those … yet.

So, while people are going overboard interpreting just a few studies on this topic, I probably err on the other side. Thinking too much and doing too little to make a dent in this topic.

I think but cannot prove that there is another problem with the definition of free will and it has to do with who has that will, or rather what. Throughout Western history, we have cultivated the idea that human beings were “special,” that we had the likeness of a god molded into us and also we had a divine spark or soul/spirit that inhabited us and differentiated us from other animals. In fact, they thought and still think, that that soul is them and it will live on even when their bodies give out.

Scientifically, we seem to be, instead, an organized set of cells of various types, the nervous ones being partly organized into an organ that can think and is self-aware. Your brain is 100 billion neurons and each of those neurons has multiple, often many, connections to other neurons. Also, the brain’s tissue seems to be organized into substructures designed to process certain kinds of information (visual, tactile, olfactory, etc.) plus we have a massive (proportionately) cerebral cortex that seems adept at higher levels of thinking.

The physical bodies that support these brains can be damaged severely without the loss of life. We can lose a finger or a hand or an arm and still live. We can lose an arm and a leg and still live. We can lose both arms and both legs and with assistance from others, still live. But there are critical aspects to this organization. Organs like our hearts we cannot do without. If our brains are severely damaged, we can live on but our life is not necessarily still recognizable as obviously human. We can go on in a vegetative state, again with the help of others.

No divine spark or soul seems readily apparent in this picture. But the idea has a residue. In discussions of free will, experiments show that our genes, inherited from our parents, determine some of our behaviors. Other studies show that our brain’s neurons seem to be acting before we are consciously aware that a decision to act has been made (sometimes by multiple seconds of time!). This leads some to deny free will, saying that we are being “controlled” by our genes like the programming of a robot, or that our brains are responding to some stimulus in a deterministic fashion, indicating behavior that physically or socially is hardwired in. “We” are not responsible for our behavior because of these mechanisms.

Apparently these folks think that “we” does not include our genetic or cultural heritages, that our mental programming is not a part of us. That “we” are somewhere off to the side and these things are controlling us … rather than “are us.”

We now know that as we experience the world outside of us, our brains are restructured. Our brain structures are malleable. That memories are invested in certain neurons and how they connect with one another. That we to some extent create “ourselves” through these interactions with the physical world and other humans.

Personal anecdotes are of little use in such a debate but I will share a couple in any case. My father had a temper that flashed from time to time (he was never abusive, just loud). As I became a young man, I too had a temper, an extravagant one. (I blamed it on my red hair and Irish heritage!) At some point I felt this was inappropriate and decided to change myself, and I did. While I still have an observable temper, it is no longer extravagant. This I did quite a while ago.

While in my 40’s I took some personal transformation courses to heart and in a sit down conversation with my boss he shared with me that I was forcing him to change his viewpoint regarding people (and he was a very astute observer of people). His prior contention was that people never changed, you could always count on them “being themselves.” I, on the other hand, was a counterexample to his hypothesis. He had seen me substantively change who I was. And the changes I went through were small compared to some others I have read about.

It turns out that we have control over bodily processes we though were completely automatic. We have some control over who we want to be. I cannot decide to be taller or shorter, but I can decide within the framework of my physical structure, to be more … or less … kind or more understanding, or a more loving person.

This I call free will. It is not limited by my conscious mind, nor is it based upon some vague notion of who “I” am. “I am” a collection of cells arranged a particular way, dictated by my genetic structure and what I have learned from the world and other people in it. To quote Popeye, “I am what I am.”

May 17, 2016

Free Will and the Perfect Pool Table

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 11:49 am

pool_table_3Being of a philosophical bent, I enjoy discussions of philosophical concepts such as free will. Recently I had a reverie that shows to me that we do have free will, even though there are a great many people who claim that free will does not exist and that it is only an illusion. My reverie began with a pool table.

In physics we can make great progress in a situation by removing extraneous factors, solving the situation without them and reintroducing them while making corrections. So, to begin with, our pool table has all of the accoutrements: felt, bumpers, pockets, pool cues, ordinary pool balls and a cue ball, etc. Allow me to remove the felt and replace it with a frictionless surface, something infinitely slippery. The bumpers have to be replaced also and are replaced with perfectly elastic bumpers. These bumpers return every erg of energy transferred to them by a colliding ball, back to the ball. The pockets have to go (for now) and the balls have to reconstituted with some also perfectly elastic material of exactly equal mass and size and shape. (Ordinary cue balls are ever so slightly larger than the others and they will have to be made equal to the others (in all ways) for a time.)

Now, once these ball are set in motion, they never stop. When they collide, momentum is conserved, momentum being the product of the mass and velocity of a moving object. So, if one ball hits another and some speed is transferred, since the balls are of the same mass, the amount one ball slows is equal to the amount the other speeds up. This is true even if one ball hits two others simultaneously, the total speeds lost equal the total speeds gained.

This situation is analogous to a sample of gas trapped in a bottle. The gas molecules are analogues of the balls and the bottle is effectively the bumper. As long as the bottle and gas are the same temperature and that doesn’t change, the analogy is perfect (albeit the molecules are much smaller, move much faster, etc.). We can describe this state mathematically perfectly and we can predict any particular situation in either the past or the future of such a system (where the molecules are, how fast they are going, etc.). This is a fated or deterministic mini-universe.

But now let us add the real-world pool table items back in. If we were to just add the pockets back, some of the balls would leave the table by falling into the pockets and the balls that remained would have to have paths that repeated themselves and which didn’t involve colliding into a pocket. If the felt is added back, so is friction and the balls in motion will then stop at some point due to that friction. Also, the not perfectly elastic bumpers will absorb some of the energy of the balls colliding with them. We end up with an imperfect, non-deterministic game, one in which the result of any balls being set in motion becomes quite uncertain. The only thing we can say for certain is the balls will come to a stop after each “play.” The motions are somewhat but not perfectly predictable, which allows for the skills of elite pool players.

Every time the cue ball is struck (the cue ball being made slightly larger than the other balls so it strikes them ever so slightly above the equator, minimizing the chances of a ball being hit slightly below the equator which can result in the struck ball flying off of the table (now you know)), the table ends up in a new state, that is the positions of the balls involved in collisions is almost guaranteed to be different as well as somewhat unpredictable.

So, as a player of any pool game, you must make decisions based upon the state of play. Some of those games require the balls to be sunk in numerical order (they are numbered to facilitate this) while others just require the balls be nudged into any pocket through a collision with the cue or other balls in any way one can. If a ball is sunk during a play, another turn is earned. So, decisions have to be made. Should I try to sink this ball or that ball? If I sink that ball, will the cue ball be in a position to sink another ball (or the next numbered ball in the sequence) and, if it won’t be properly positioned, can I make it properly positioned by some skill of my possession.

All of these “decisions” involve free will. I make this claim because two different pool players will sometimes play a particular situation differently. It is not the case that the “state” of the table determines the next play. The skill set of the player is involved. One is better with short shots, another excels at longer shots. One player can make very fine massé shots, another not so well. One player excels at bank shots, etc. So, the universe cannot dictate how a table will be played, and a player cannot either. Even giving a player’s particular skill set, occasionally they will play a shot that invokes a weakness rather than playing to their strengths time after time. When queried about that “decision” later, they invariably acknowledge the multiple approaches they were considering. And occasionally state that “they don’t know why they chose the route they did” or they felt more confident “in the moment” in that path, or…. And sometimes they get frozen in a state of indecision, that is they have two paths forward that they cannot distinguish between and they get “stuck” not being able to decide. And other times we make decisions to be perverse out of a desire not to be predictable (e.g. a chance averse golfer taking a big chance to win a tournament).

I think much of the debate about the existence of free will is based upon a faulty definition. Most people describe free will as a conscious decision making ability. But many, many of the decisions we make are subconscious, that is we are not aware which of our thoughts or feelings added up to the decision involved. Such decisions come up most obviously when we struggle with making a decision consciously and go with a “gut feeling.” Your gut may have a great many neurons, but I doubt it thinks per se.

If one uses a definition of free will that includes both conscious and unconscious decision making, I think it is quite clear that we have free will, that we can choose to do things one way and when faced with the exact same situation again, choose to do it differently.

The reason free will is important is that if we do not have the ability to make our own choices, that our response to situations was either hardwired into our brains or programming in by social conditioning, then we are not responsible for our actions, our engineers and programmers are. How could we punish criminals or send sinners to Hell without them having the ability to do other than what the situation triggers? How indeed?

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