Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Where's my free will?

Since Leighton Smith is discussing free will this morning, and most of his callers have no clue what he’s talking about, here’s a re-post of an old piece on the subject explaining not just what it is, but where exactly the faculty is located.

Where's my free will?

vermeer32     THE LIKES OF BRIAN EDWARDS still argue that criminals “can’t help it” when they do bad things—which means, conversely, that neither do heroes when they do good.
    Tell that to Thomas Jefferson. Or Nelson Mandela.
    But such is the incredulity of the determinist conclusion: that between them nature and nurture determine human behaviour, so humans themselves should be neither praised nor condemned.
    Sounds like horse shit to me.  But then, according to Edwards et al they have no choice about shovelling shit—and nor do you about taking it.
    So much for the nonsense of “hard determinism”—a theory that says man is nothing more than a piece of meat, controlled by forces about which he knows nothing.
Let us take the determinists at their word then: they know nothing—and by their own theory they’re constrained to demonstrate it.
    Ayn Rand used to reckon that the determinist argument—that you’re neither to be blamed nor lauded for your behaviour—is nothing more than “an alibi for weaklings.” 

_QuoteDon't excuse depravity. Don't drool over weaklings as conditioned "victims of circumstances’ (or of ‘background’ or of ‘society’), who ‘couldn't help it.’ You are actually providing an excuse and an alibi for the worst instincts in the weakest members of your audience. . .
    . . . the best advice I can give you is never to regard yourself as a product of your environment. That is not the key to me, to you, or to any human being. It is not a key to anything, it is merely an alibi for weaklings.

Building on Ayn Rand’s observations on free will and the manifest contradictions in the determinists’ arguments, philosopher Tibor Machan points out that since the determinist argument utterly ignores free will—the faculty that allows us to make decisions for ourselves—it ignores the very faculty that truly does determine our character .
    While nature and nurture certainly play a part in forming our talents and personality, he argues, what we do with what we’re given is up to us.  It’s up to our free will-and the choices we make.
    In his argument, nature and nurture build our personality, but using our free will builds our character.
    But where does our free will come from?  Where does it reside?  How does it work?  To answer you, we’re going to have to go back to bed. . .

    THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE through the fog of sleep is a loud, ringing sound. As you rise up through the fog of sleep you recognise it as an alarm of some sort. Your alarm clock. You focus further and realise that it's not going to turn itself off. As you force yourself awake you direct your focus to your limbs, lifting yourself out of bed, and you turn off the clock on your way to the bathroom, making yourself shake the sleep from your mind as you go. It's the start of another day.
    As you shower, you set yourself thinking about what you need to do today and, as you do and as you shower, the scales of sleep slip ever further away. You understand you have an important day ahead, and you feel yourself rising up to meet it. You choose to. In a few short minutes, by your own direction, your mind has changed from an inert unconscious thing, one barely able to grasp what's going on around it, to one that is now focussed upon the events of the day and is starting to make plans to meet them ... and all this even before the first coffee!
    Most of us manage this process in a few minutes. Some take hours. Some will choose to stay unfocussed for days. But everyone who has ever experienced this -- which is all of us, at some time – even Brian Edwards and his criminals--has experienced what it is to have free will.
    Free will at its root is that process of choosing to focus, of deciding first of all to lift our level of awareness from a lower level to a higher one (or to decide not to), and then directing our focussed attention to something on which we've determined we need to pay attention. A lecture perhaps. Our alarm clock.  A book. A piece of music. A blog post on free will. Someone offering us a beer. At each stage of listening, reading, comprehending, trying to grasp a thought (as Vermeer's Geographer is doing in the picture above) we can choose to maintain attention and focus on what we're trying to take in, to weigh the thoughts and melodies and information that is coming in, or we can choose to float off in a vague fog and let everything just wash over us.
    The process of turning off our alarm clock and heading into a lecture shows the process in microcosm: choosing to focus more intensely at each new level of awareness we reach. From the fog of sleep right up to the intense awareness needed to focus on your lecturer (and spot her errors) every step of the way we’re choosing to focus more intensely.
    And even if we choose not to, we still have made a choice.
    The act of choosing to pay attention (or not to) is a volitionally focussed act by which we first say to ourselves, "I need to focus on this, to understand this," and then acting -- choosing to act -- so as to direct our minds to that on which we ourselves have determined that we need to understand.
    Observe your own mind while you’re reading this post. Are you focussing on the arguments in an attempt to understand and address them, or have you already drifted off into non-comprehension and evasion?
    As I've described above, the act of focussing is voluntary, and is almost like continually turning on a car. At each stage we can choose to go either to a higher level of awareness, or not; we can choose to focus, or we can choose to drift back off either to sleep, or into a state of unfocussed lethargy. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Equally, you can lead someone else's brain to stimulus, but you can't make it respond. That person must do that work for themselves.
    Volition is a powerful factor. Thoughts, values, principles aren’t just given to us out of the ether, or imprinted upon us by our genes; rather, they are things to identify and think about and grasp for ourselves. Or not. No one can do the thinking for someone else. With sufficient will we can work towards grasping the highest concepts open to us, or we can even sleep through the warning alarm clocks of our consciousness.
    That choice -- to focus or not; to switch on or not -- is contained entirely within ourselves, and from that choice made by each of us every minute of every day all human thought and all human action is the result. The fact that we are continually making this choice (or choosing not make it) every waking minute of every working day is perhaps why we sometimes fail to see that we're doing it. We've almost automatised our awareness of it, but honest introspection (if we honestly choose to do so) is all it requires to be identified.
   This is the nature of the volitional consciousness that each of us does possess, even Brian Edwards, and is the fact those who choose to deny free will wish to evade: that this great thinking engine resting on top of our shoulders does not turn itself on automatically. We ourselves own the keys to the engine, and it is in that fundamental choice -- to think, or not to think; to focus, or not to focus; to go to a higher level of awareness, or to drift in and out of awareness -- that the faculty of free will itself resides.
    So given that very brief discussion of free will -- to which, if you like, you can add previous similar discussions here, here, here, here and here -- what then do you make of this discussion from the former Sir Humphrey's blog.  Where does free will come from?  From her God, says Lucyna.

_Quote_Idiot "...if there is no God there’s no free will because we are completely phenomena of matter... we cannot be considered morally responsible beings unless we have free will. We do everything because we are controlled by our genes or our environment." [Comments by David Quinn in The God Delusion: David Quinn & Richard Dawkins debate]

Logically, if you are an atheist, you will believe that we are completely influenced by our genetics and environment. That there is no free-will, that moral responsibility has no ability to manifest in any human being. If you don't believe all of that, then you cannot be an atheist and you must have some inkling that God exists.

What do you make of that then? Let’s turn on our brains ourselves and examine it. "If there's no God then there's no free will"? And “If you are an atheist” then “logically” [logically?] you can't "believe" in free will?
    Doesn’t this sound like horse shit too?
    As I've suggested above, we don't need to "believe" in free will in the same way a Christian chooses to “believe” in the existence of a supernatural being; instead, to identify that we do have the faculty of free will all we have to do is introspect—to apply our cognition inwards (to choose to) and watch ourselves making choices.  (Indeed, you can do it right now as you weigh in your mind that last thought, and choose whether or not to accept it -- or whether to evade the effort or the knowledge. And recognise, dear reader, that if you choose not to accept it or to evade it, you've still made a choice.)
    So much for needing to believe in the supernatural in order to "believe" in free will.  As Ayn Rand identified:

_Quote That which you call your soul or your spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call your "free will" is your mind's freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.”

We have consciousness. Consciousness is endowed by its nature with the faculty of free will. What we each choose to do with our own consciousness is up to us -- it's there that the discussion of morality really begins, yet without this recognition, it’s a discussion that could never even get off the ground.

RELATED POSTS: Nature v Nurture: Character is all - Not PC
The chemistry of love - Not PC
The fatalism of entropy. The dynamism of spontaneous order - Not PC
More on value judgements in art - Not PC
Excusing the 'bash' - Not PC

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12 Comments:

Blogger Berend de Boer said...

PC: instead, to identify that we do have the faculty of free will all we have to do is introspect—to apply our cognition inwards (to choose to) and watch ourselves making choices.

What guarantee do we have that the product of blind and random chance will produce anything resembling truth on such matters?

My next free will decision is going to be not to sleep for the next 256 hours.

8/03/2010 12:37:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

"My next free will decision is going to be not to sleep for the next 256 hours."

You've misunderstood free will, my friend. Free will means "choice," not the guarantee your choice will bear any fruit.

8/03/2010 12:47:00 pm  
Blogger Berend de Boer said...

I'm not sure I misunderstood it PC. My next choice might be that God doesn't exist...

But eh, how come we can trust what random processes have brought together?

8/03/2010 12:56:00 pm  
Blogger Lindsay Mitchell said...

I was going to say something flippant about most Most Kiwis thinking free will is something you get from the Public Trust but I got stuck on Berend's comment. What does it mean?

8/03/2010 12:56:00 pm  
Blogger Berend de Boer said...

Why is there meaning Lindsay?

8/03/2010 01:01:00 pm  
Blogger Lucia Maria said...

If we are just physical machines, how could we ever choose anything. Anything we choose would have to have already been pre-programmed by our genetics, so there is no real choice, only programming.

Much like a robot could never freely choose anything thing - any choice would just be a result of pre-programmed choices. Those that weren't pre-programmed would result in error conditions or system shut down.

Of course we are not like robots, and we have the ability to choose beyond our genetic programming, therefore consciousness can't be only physical.

8/03/2010 01:14:00 pm  
Anonymous Ryan Sproull said...

Lucia, whether the agent is physical or non-physical has no bearing on the logical impossibility of free will. Square circles don't exist, whether they're physical square circles or spiritual square circles.

We choose constantly. It's because we choose, and because of the nature of choice, that "free will" is madness. To choose is to choose for reasons. It is absurd to speak of a willed choice outside of the context of reasons for choosing, especially not in the case of moral choices.

No one is saying we do not choose. I'm certainly not in the post to which Peter links. But when we choose, we choose for reasons. Our reasons shape our choices. Some of those reasons will be based in genetic or biological things (we are "programmed", as you call it, to be hungry/want food when our bodies run low on energy), or social (we can be "programmed" by our environment to want to avoid displays of public nudity), or religious (one may want to please God), or whatever.

And we cannot have chosen our reasons. Or, if we did, the question arises: "What were your reasons for choosing to have that reason?"

The question can be asked of any physical agent or any spiritual agent, or any agent at all, because to be an agent is to choose, and to choose is to choose for reasons, and one does not choose one's reasons.

And people implicitly understand that people act for reasons. They just like to believe there's some element of choice that is somehow "free" of external factors which can then be held "accountable" for choosing incorrectly/sinfully. (In actual fact, what we tend to call "morally bad" or "evil" choices are choices mad for morally bad or evil reasons.)

I don't think the impossibility of free will stops us from being able to hold people accountable for their actions, however. Depending on what is meant by that.

8/03/2010 03:32:00 pm  
Blogger Dave Christian said...

PC: If this free will of yours is not part of the physical world how does it influence the physical world? If your free will is part of the physical world, how is it not caused by prior physical events rather than the mystical 'free will' as you claim?

8/03/2010 06:01:00 pm  
Anonymous David S. said...

You haven't explained or justified anything with this post.

Firstly, Your first tirade seeks to use morality to justify it's existence. A is A though, the argument that it sounds like "horseshit" to you because people are not truely "responsible" for their actions if free will does not exist, no more justifies free will's existence any more than the argument that god must exist because without god morality cannot exist. Facts must stand apart from such arguments. Calling people "weaklings" doesn't change reality.

Everything in nature has a mechanism. Determinism simply accepts that fact applies to human decision making. Free will is a concept that implies human decision making exceeds this. If it does exist, it is unique and unprecedented. So what evidence do we have for such a bold claim?

"that this great thinking engine resting on top of our shoulders does not turn itself on automatically."

Sure it does. People may have varying degrees of proficiency when it comes to determining a conscious understanding of their environment, but saying it's not automatic is like saying it's supernatural.

But then, that's exactly what free will is, a supernatural belief.

I think it's reasonable to believe something if the amount and quality of evidence meets the magnitude of the claim being made. If you say your favourite colour is red, I'll probably believe you, it's not that important, the fact that you're telling me it's red is evidence enough. If you tell me there is a god, then give me a 2000 year old book written in a long dead language, or any of the other "arguments" for such a being, I'd say you're deluding yourself.

The arguments for the existence of free will, a claim which is nearly as bold, are pretty weak.

There's the "introspection" argument. "Introspection" is a subjective experience, which for me has only strengthened the determinist argument.

Then there's the ever popular "You're arguing with me therefore you MUST have free will" argument, to which I'd point out that a process of sociological evolution could easily explain why we have debates about the nature of reality, it does aid our own survival after all.

And of course the "But without free will my morality falls apart" argument, which is pretty irrelevant, reality does not bend to our will alone, one of the only things objectivists adhere to which I agree with, yet apparently abandon it whenever it suits them.

We are self aware, but self awareness does not prove the existence of free will. I turn my thoughts inward quite often. What I find when I do so is that I'm often able to understand why I make the decisions I make, which often modifies my behavior. So self awareness does influence behavior, but this does mean that my actions are not governed by a natural process.

Isn't "volitional consciousness" just a fancy way of saying "Free will"? You've just replaced "free" with "volitional" and "will" with "consciousness". I suppose using bigger words would confuse some people, and sucker others into thinking there's a substantiative argument where none really exists.

8/03/2010 07:06:00 pm  
Blogger Sally O'Brien said...

@ David S
PC did not use morality to prove the existence of free will. He was arguing that the end point of the determinist position negating free will and personal responsibility is incredulous horse shit. It is later in his post that he empirically describes the reality of free will.

If it is true that “everything in nature has a mechanism”, is it not also possible that the human neurological system has processes of volitional conciousness that have the faculty of self directed focus of thought and self directed behaviour; that this is among the natural mechanisms that have evolved?
You say “Determinism simply accepts that fact applies to human decision making. Free will is a concept that implies human decision making exceeds this.”
Not necessarily. Human free will may be among the natural mechanisms in existence.
“If it does exist, it is unique and unprecedented”.
Many discoveries are unique and unprecedented.
“People may have varying degrees of proficiency when it comes to determining a conscious understanding of their environment, but saying it's not automatic is like saying it's supernatural.”
Certainly some of our neurological functions are automatic. The non-automatic ones such as deliberately intensifying concentration on a particular issue and self directing behaviour are not necessarily supernatural. We can naturally have the mechanisms that enable us to do them.

You say “I think it's reasonable to believe something if the amount and quality of evidence meets the magnitude of the claim being made.”
And did you come to this conclusion by a process of deliberately focused thought and then opting to support that position? Or was it that “the product of blind and random chance will produce anything resembling truth on such matters” as proposed by Berend?

“If you tell me there is a god, then give me a 2000 year old book written in a long dead language, or any of the other "arguments" for such a being, I'd say you're deluding yourself.”
Are people who delude themselves doing so purely as a result of determined mechanisms?
Can they undelude themselves if they choose to do so?

“We are self aware, but self awareness does not prove the existence of free will.”
PC did not argue that the fact that we can be self aware proves the existence of free will. He argued that we can use self awareness to observe free will in action. Though it is also true that a deliberate effort to introspect is itself and example of an act of free will.

“Isn't "volitional consciousness" just a fancy way of saying "Free will"?”
Hmm, yes I think it is.

8/04/2010 09:48:00 am  
Anonymous Trevor said...

Everything in nature has a mechanism. Determinism simply accepts that fact applies to human decision making. Free will is a concept that implies human decision making exceeds this. If it does exist, it is unique and unprecedented. So what evidence do we have for such a bold claim?


That's rationalism.It does not follow.


"Introspection" is a subjective experience, which for me has only strengthened the determinist argument.


Introspection is not subjective not more than anything else.


We choose constantly. It's because we choose, and because of the nature of choice, that "free will" is madness. To choose is to choose for reasons. It is absurd to speak of a willed choice outside of the context of reasons for choosing, especially not in the case of moral choices.

The argument above just starts with an assumption, taken out of context, which says tthat everthing in nature has a "mechanism." So what? It does not follow that man lacks free will. And again, such a claim contradicts reality.

8/04/2010 12:16:00 pm  
Anonymous David S. said...

"Human free will may be among the natural mechanisms in existence."

So when Rand described it as a none-mechanical process... she was wrong? Or just jumping the gun a bit? If it is a mechanism, then it's deterministic, that's what deterministic means. Determinism means decisions are a result of energy and matter interacting in the same way they do throughout the rest of reality, "free will" says they're made by magic.

As for your other points, mine remains. You are making a very bold claim, trying to prove the existence of something without actually offering any evidence beyond your own feelings and dependence on the concept. Determinism is to free will what atheism is to theism. I don't have to justify anything other than my rebuttal of your evidence.

8/04/2010 07:15:00 pm  

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