Thursday, 2 February 2017

On Free Will - illustrating the difficulty scientists have in understanding concepts such as fredom of thought.

On Free Will and Slavish Devotion To Science

by Arthur Foxake

from a Spiked interview with Julian Braggini on Free Will Julian Baggini, philosopher, writer and one-time editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, has come to rescue free will… by burying it, or at least its widespread misconception. Too often, he argues in Freedom Regained, we simply haven’t grasped what it is to be free. Thinkers have tended to separate free will off from the rest of the self, as a controller, a faculty of the will, a part of the soul. More generally free will tends to figure as the conviction that one can always do otherwise, that at every moment, one’s action is absolutely free. And, too often, those sceptical of the idea of free will find such ideas all too easy to dismiss as non-existent, neurological illusions, myths of agency amidst the iron laws of the universe. ‘The commonsense notion of free will is not fit for purpose’, concludes Baggini. ‘It rests on a naive and simplistic assumption that we can rise above our biology and our history to make choices in a condition of unconstrained freedom. The challenges to free will need to be met not by rejecting them wholesale, but by thinking more carefully about what it truly means to be free, rather than what we simply assume it to mean.’ So how does Baggini reconcile free will with biology and history, nature and nurture? Is determinism compatible with free will? And what does Baggini think it means to be free? You can read that interview in full HERE but the fun starts in the comment section when a few science fanboys start trying to claim there is no free will and we are all controlled by The Gods Of Science. 

You will notice in the thread one commenter who repeatedly rants about 'neuroscience' even though it is not the topic of the main post and though the interviewer raises it in one of the questions, Braggini does not actually address it as a significant part of the interview, instead merely reminding his audience that science does not fare well when it tries to answer philosophical questions. 

  • Are we free to be slaves, or are we slaves to freedom?

  • No. 'Consciousness' is no reservoir of free will as Baggini idiotically claims. We have no "executive control". There is no control centre: 'systems biology' shows us this. Baggini is resurrecting 'the little man within the man' to dodge explaining the brain; the homunculus. It's long been shown that we become aware AFTER we make decisions, not before. Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the integration of neural processing. Daniel Dennett tried to argue similarly to Baggini here, that 'Freedom Evolves' (the title of a book of his), but he's wrong. What evolved is the flexibility to ever better express our 'motivational set' ... to ever better actualise our biology, genes, as it were. A quite different thing to any genuine 'free will'. Call himself a philosopher? Baggini is in the philosophy kindergarten judging by this foolishness here. [See my new book, 'Sex Difference Explained' and my paper for Politics & Society journal, 'Culture IS Biology -- Why We Cannot 'Transcend' Our Genes — Or Ourselves'.

  • In using value-loaded terms such as "idiotic " and "foolish" you are implicitly acknowledging that Baggini is a free moral agent capable of making the choice between the right and the wrong path - why would you admonish him thus, if he could do no other than what he did? That's the thing about free-will: even for those who would deny it, it is impossible to have any kind of discourse, or simply to behave, without the underlying assumption that it exists.

    • What?! Baggini's common-animal sort of frailities lead him to such idiocy and foolishness despite philosophy training which should explicitly put him on his guard against committing such faux pas. You make an assertion so groundless that no limit to silliness might be unexpected from you; and, I assure you, that is anything but testament to anything remotely like 'free will' in your possession!

    • Is it not true in our everyday lives, that we believe ourselves to have free will, outside of philosophical or scientific claims. We act as if we have it. Even slaves may feel they have some limited agency. The debate on it's actual existence is another matter. Otherwise we fall into the fatalism of islam for instance where all is pre ordained - inshallah. Regards

    On the contrary, Steve, neural processing is an epiphenomenon of consciousness. Consciousness is not something which can be understood through conceptual thought or scientific experiment - which is why neuroscientists (and systems-biologists :) do not, and will never, understand it.

      Idiocy. Neural processing is easily investigated scientifically and is no epiphenomenon. All that you claim here is scientific and philosophical illiteracy. Your line stems from the usual Christianity-residual ideology that is humanism (human-worshipping): the bunkum of 'human exceptionalism', when in fact humans are not exceptional (other than in degree) in any respect, consciousness not excluded. Other animals are bound to experience an endless feedback looping of the workings of their own central nervous system, just as we do. It won't be as seemingly complex as our experience, obviously, but the difference is not fundamental.

      At its most fundamental, reality is governed by uncertainty and probability. Thus, determinism can never be more than a probability. Free will is the product of many probabilities, none of which can be predicted beforehand due to the uncertainties involved. Is it a man in the mind? No, but it isn't a clockwork universe either. I have yet to read a discussion that properly accounts for this.

      Your last sentence does express a real difficulty in explaining free will, one of a number of issues that are specifically human traits which in an open minded debate tend to be understood between the participants and yet we struggle to find the words and concept to explain definitively. Opponents, shall we say determinists, of all hues then grasp at the straw of stating if it cannot be proven it doesn't exist and those who claim otherwise are tending towards religiosity. That is how absurd it can become, that those expressing the importance of free will and human agency are accused of supporting a supernatural position. The flip side of that is that some attempt to dismiss conscious will by "proving" it is in fact determined by biological, natural, et al, see the posts below as an example and various attempts by neuroscience etc. You do tend to restate the situation by denying there is a man in the mind, Why? and yet also agree it isn't a clockwork universe either. I do tend to agree that reality is affected by uncertainty - not governed by - to deny that would deny the past the present, but is it not then logical that what turns uncertainty into a certain action/decision is the effect that will has in determining the final outcome, probability is just one degree of possibility. Determinism by its definition is the defining if not overwhelming factor and excludes almost entirely if not completely conscious will. Makes you wonder how we built our complex world that no other species has ever achieved doesn't it.

      My rejection of the 'man in the mind' is a rejection of the supernatural, i.e. anything that is not part of the physical universe - a spirit or god. There is just no evidence for anything beyond the universe. On the other hand, determinism that says the future is predetermined in every facet doesn't fit with quantum mechanics or the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, i.e. not only can we NOT determine things with certainty, they CANNOT be defined with all by any means. The human brain is the most complex thing known so maybe at some level it takes into account quantum effects. I just don't know and have never heard a convincing argument about how things can be determined. Why is it my dog seems to have almost as much free will as i do?

    Sorry I misunderstood, I thought when you rejected the man in the mind you were rejecting conscious will, the human agency, perhaps you do as well as rejecting the supernatural. The point is that if we reject determinism in all its forms, and the supernatural, then logically something is affecting the brain that results in human beings making and acting upon the world we live in in a conscious manner, we are not simply instinctive like animals. Unless it is something else in the ether, conscious will is where it all seems to lead to, as I said the evidence of our actions manifests itself in the world we have created. Until - if we ever can - prove this it seems we have two choices, deny it and accept the miserable misanthropic consequences of our future been out of our hands effectively - I am positive the defenders of the status quo and regressives will enjoy that - or keep going forward as humanity has continually done so in our making and of our choosing, despite the mistakes we make. Your dog will never do that.

    Quantum probability still continues to manifest on the level of physics as determinism. The laws of cause and effect are still fully applicable to us, as to everything, in a mechanical universe. All objects exist on a quantum level but we would not argue that maybe "they" all have free will regardless of the observable laws of physics and chemistry.

    Yes. Probability, 'butterfly effect' trajectories, and competing aspects of the motivational set: all combine to make notions of determinism as usually envisaged a caricature. If these were appreciated, then we'd hear less knee-jerk retorts of 'determinism'

    Human beings ARE exceptional. It is not a matter of degree that separates us from animals it is qualitative. Feel free to name the great animal philosophers. It is the inability of to explain the miraculous nature of humans that gives rise to religion. The superstition of religion is probably better than modern neurobollox, and tea-leaf reading MRI scanner results and the like.

      I am no philosopher, and some of these very erudite arguments I'm struggling to fully comprehend, but let's just say for arguments sake we boil it down to the obvious components, i.e. we either have full free will, or we have no free will. So, let's say we accept, just for the moment, there are only two answers. If that is the case, what are the base arguments for free will, and vice versa?

    Evidently you have no understanding of biology. I strongly suggest you go get some. As for 'great' philosophers: there are no human examples. Fatal flaws in reasoning afflict every one of them, and to get to first-base in philosophy is to understand that the 'big questions' are forever beyond human conception; hence the popularity of religion among scientists. Religiosity certainly did not spring from a need to "explain the miraculous nature of humans": universally humans ancestrally saw all creation as miraculous, with humans no exception within it. Your dismissal of neuroscience says it all; you've not even an interest in having an idea about anything, let alone having one.

  • It turns out Mr Moxon os quite a fan of the pseudosciene, Neuroscience (recording electrical activity in neural pathways and inferring from that information what those people are thinking and other information abput their personality. Hos line does not quite stand yp to analysis however. Shaunacy Ferro writes in Popular Science:

    When I was in middle school and high school, teachers loved to impart various tidbits of wisdom about the way students learn during lectures, always couched in such a way as to indicate these were scientifically accepted facts. You know everyone learns differently. Do you think you learn better through words or pictures? Did you know you learn different subjects with different sides of the brain?
    Welp, they were wrong. Many of the theories of "brain-based" education, a method of instruction supposedly based on neuroscience, have been largely debunked by rigorous science. Brain-based education studies are usually poorly designed and badly controlled. Nevertheless, myths about how we learn persist in the popular imagination, and, most importantly, in educational materials and references for teachers. Here are just a few things we usually get wrong about the way the brain learns: Read More >>>

    • I readily admit to having little understanding of how human brains work but I can dismiss neuroscience because I have an in depth understanding of how the scanners used to generate data work. When the atoms in different types of tissue are excited they generate different outputs (this is not confined to animal tissue, it applys to inanimate substances too.) The Fournier transformation turns these output frequencies into data that computers turn into pictures. So the neuroscientists subjectivity plays an important role in drawing conclusions from the data. Which is why a few years ago a rather tongue in cheek neuroscience research project identified meaningful brain activity in dead salmon. https://blogs.scientificameric... To put it in simple form, from your brain scan a skilled user could produce almost any picture they chose.

      More fool you. Neuroscience is one discipline among several pertinent to investigating the brain; imaging is but one methodology; and there are several very different forms of imaging re the brain, measuring very different things -- such as blood flow. That's even if your bald claim had any truth, which obviously it does not, given the great array of practical applications of neuro-imaging; not least aiding rather than (if you were right) killing patients.

      You're obviously a believer Steve so there is no more to be gained by trying to convince you of your folly than there is of arguing with a doorstep evangelist. In defending your position you refer to more of the idiotic beliefs of the Church of Sciencology's Neuroscience sect, the idea that measuring blood flow can tell us something about what is going on in parts of the brain for example. In reality it tells us there is more blood flowing through a certain part of the brain. Anything else is just guesswork and assumptions. Read the link I gave you, it is from a scientific journal and describes in detail and with links how researchers obtained data that showed meaningful brain activity in a dead fish. Then come back and tell us all what kind of meaningful brain activity can be going on in a dead fish (because your comments here are too precious to be left languishing in a comment thread so I will give them a wider audience). Oh sorry, that's blasphemy isn't it. You science fans never look at evidence that might contradict your beliefs do you? Here's a dummies guide to how the Fournier Transform formulae work and can be applied, it should help you understand the technology.

    • Wow, you really are an arrogant one-trick pony.
      Read my reply and then write one that takes it into account!
      Here it is again:
      More fool you. Neuroscience is one discipline among several pertinent to investigating the brain; imaging is but one methodology; and there are several very different forms of imaging re the brain, measuring very different things -- such as blood flow. That's even if your bald claim had any truth, which obviously it does not, given the great array of practical applications of neuro-imaging; not least aiding rather than (if you were right) killing patients.

        I did read your reply Steve, it wasted my time. You just insisted you are right and that proves everyone who differs is wrong. But you offer no evidence to back up your claims, only your belief that the gods of science are infallible. The thing is of course if you did offer evidence I or many others in the thread who challenged you, could easily refute it.
        I notice you did not take up my challenge to explain how meaningful brain activity can be monitored in a dead fish.
        And yes I am arrogant. One trick pony, no. I'm an extremely trick human being who is smarter than you. Not that that is anything to be arrogant about, fortunately I have many other strings to my bow. Now toddle of back to your little safe space on a campus somewhere where everybody worships your gods and no one will ever say anything that makes you risk thinking.

        No, you didn't read it. Try reading: it's good for you, and actually allows debate.
        So here it is again, and with guideposts for you:
        Neuroscience is one discipline among several pertinent to investigating the brain [FIRST POINT: you've no reply to it]; imaging is but one methodology [SECOND POINT: you've no reply to it]; and there are several very different forms of imaging re the brain, measuring very different things [THIRD POINT: you've no reply to it] -- blood flow being but one facet of brain activity that is measurable. That's even if your bald claim had any truth, which obviously it does not, given the great array of practical applications of neuro-imaging; not least aiding rather than (if you were right) killing patients [FOURTH POINT: you've no reply to it].
        [And I reside on no campus, and have no gods of any sort, religious quasi-religious, political, or otherwise.]

        I'm starting to feel sorry for you Steve, you obviously think neurology and neuroscience are the same thing. They're not, there is a vast difference (alike Astronomy and Astrology). In neurology MR imaging is an important tool in studying the brain as a physical organ and thus in diagnosing problems such as tumors. aneurisms, atrophy and developmental defects (some of which ARE KILLING PEOPLE).
        Neuroscience is a pseudo-science the practitioners of which claim they interpret electrical emissions outtput by the brain and draw meaningful conclusions about the likely behaviour of the person being scanned. It is more closely related to psychology (another bollocks science) that medicine. Neuroscience does not stop diseases killing people, in theory it may stop people killing themselves, but there are few if any recorded successes Here's some more good stuff that I know you will not read because your mind is closed to diverse opinions (the definition of a bigot BTW).
        Here's a book, written by an eminent doctor you can buy and study so in future you will have some idea what you are talking about:
        And here's an article by a former colleague of mine which explains things in layman's terms.
        Your point that you claim I have not answered, the stuff about blood flow for example, do not actually refer to neuroscience, they refer to neurology. Talk to a brain surgeon if you want answers to them, my speciality is digital technology.
        I do find it rather irritating that in your irrational rants you keep claiming I have not read your comments. I have, all I learned is that as already stated above, you are way off topic. You on the other hand have not read the links I gave you, had you done so you would have stopped making a fool of yourself several comments ago because you would have known by now that neuroscience and neurology are not the same.
        BTW for someone who obviously thinks he's intelligent, you've been remarkably slow to guess that I'm a wind up merchant. The clue is in the name.

          • One other person is typing…

    “Idiocy.” Cheers, it’s always salutary to be reminded on one’s foolishness :) Neural processing may well be “easily investigated scientifically” but that tells us nothing about consciousness, does it? And neither does scientific literacy. Science has no means by which to explain how sentience is magically conjured out of non-sentient matter. You’re making the basic materialist error, it seems to me, of assuming that consciousness derives from neural activity, that it is a by-product of the brain. Wiser people than you or I have been aware for more than two millennia that the opposite is the case. And while it’s true that humanism may be, as John Gray has persuasively argued, merely a vestige of Christian values, those values themselves, while skewed by temporal self-interest and political expediency, didn’t arise in a vacuum. They're largely those comprising the thread of the so-called perennial philosophy which is woven through recorded human history. The philosophy of the West really lost its way at the time of the amusingly named “Enlightenment”. Theory has become divorced from practice and the hegemony of scientific “rationalism” prevents us from seeing the wood from the proverbial trees. But the eye will never see itself, the knife will never cut itself. (In the field nascent field of neurophenomenology I believe attempts have been made to square the findings of systems biology with, for example, the deconstruction of human cognition in Buddhist metaphysics. I don’t know how fruitful this will be, but science over-conditioned by materialism always risks the danger of straying into scientism - a type of quasi-religious faith that holds scientific knowledge as the only viable knowledge.) I’m halfway through reading your, ‘The Women Racket’ by the way. Interesting…
    see more

      Hi Mr Paradise. Well, we're all idiotic at times, not least myself; so it's not personal! [Re books: my new one is much better re the science: the one you're reading is more a polemic; glad you find it interesting.] There is nothing that is somehow not material. To posit such is simply to state that there is not only nature but also 'super-nature'. That's an anti-science, quasi-religious assertion, isn't it? That a phenomenon is difficult to understand does not mean it's not understandable. That's not to say that there aren't what are for us likely perennial imponderables -- like 'how can there be an edge to the universe?' 'How can there be a point before time?' Good you've read and appreciated John N Gray, but, as he pointedly remarks, what he identifies in Christianity is not common to philosophy across the world. In place of an understanding that all in essence is cyclical, and that things can slip back, Christianity envisages a relentless and teleological progress.

    A couple of points/queries to add: 1) I haven't read about this for some time, but isn't the reliability of experiments that demonstrate consciousness occurring after processing disputed? 2) It is worth remembering that the word "epiphenomenon" doesn't actually provide a physical explanation of events (hence "phenomenon"); it is at best a placeholder for a hoped-for physical explanation.

      Hi Evan. Re your first point: not that I'm aware, and it's a position well-researched and long held. There is nothing inherently intangible about an epi-phenomenon: it is a phenomenon around a different phenomenon which it had been mistaken to be. For example a male dominance hierarchy is an epiphenomenon of the processing of 'winner' / 'loser' effects by an evolved piece of neural kit coded for crucially by the SRY gene of the Y chromosome. 'Consciousness' is a term for how we describe a brain in reflexive feedback looping of its own output.

      No, not intangible, just unresolved in terms of physics. You can, for example, experience the phenomenon of sunlight and theorise about its nature without knowing about photons.

    I agree, morality is also an epiphenomenal illusion, closely connected with illusions of free will and identity, really it is just genetic/ instictive and social determinism. They are unable to see reality in any other terms and they call that "the good and the true." People observably tend to "believe" whatever their society tells them according to the culture that they live in. People "believe" anything. The moral self is epiphenomenal.

      If morality is epiphenomenal, then genius and idiocy are as well. As such, you are implying that your writings are simply afterburps of the big bang. Nothing more. If people believe whatever society tells them, how did you come to a different conclusion? Whither Luther,, Galileo,,Einstein?

    I wouldn't consider the artist to be the archetypal free individual- simply because a person might have a certain amount of freedom from censorship and a certain amount of leeway to make the decisions about what they are going to create but nothing more. So you can have as much artistic freedom as you want, or can handle, but still be no more free than any other citizen. I'd also suggest that artists can tend to be a little self-absorbed, seeing themselves as a bit special compared to the average person in an everyday job. So you might end up with a society that is so focused on self-development, at the expense of all other concerns, that nobody is prepared to give a little of themselves away by helping out with society's chores, like collecting refuse, or 'selfless' jobs, such as looking after older people.

    Redefining determinism as freedom seems like desperate sophistry to me. If you want free will you have to look beyond materialism. And considering that defining consciousness - defining the very concept of subjectivity - in physical terms is (for now at least) impossible, I don't see why philosophers should be so resistant to going there.

      I'm beginning to think that trying to understand or even contemplate the argument of free will or not, is a bit like a 15th century rural peasant trying to understand quantum mechanics. Or something like that. First off, people either over complicate the issue, perhaps for obvious reasons, or over simplify. What becomes obvious to me, is that the argument seems as much about belief and ideology, than it does about hard fact. Indeed, what hard fact is there for either the free will or no free will argument?

    I need to re read this article, but it appears that the author is not allowing determinism off the hook here, or that he is trying to deceive us, is it not more the case he is trying to explain an extremely difficult situation as much more than a black and white issue, there is a lot of grey matter to be considered here, excuse the pun.

    • My problem with the compatibilist line is this: "So, in that sense, at any given moment in time, at the point we make a decision, that decision is going to be based on a combination of nature and nurture up until that point, and, in that sense, it’s going to make the decision inevitable." Nothing is inevitable "in a sense". It is inevitable or it is not. Compatibilism seems to expend a lot of words and energy trying to convince us that the illusion of free will is a serviceable substitute for the real thing. I say either look for free will beyond materialism, or take your determinism neat.

      I think within that quote is an acceptance that we cannot ever be completely free , we are not empty vessels , within our brains in some shape or form, and it is different for each individual, is a certain level of experience, knowledge, history, lessons learnt and conceptualised that we draw on as information and then exercise our will upon. That is not been determinist ,merely acknowledging we have a huge amount of prior information that may affect our judgement if we so choose, but it has an effect either way.

    The grey matter is muddy thinking.

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