Neither free nor completely determined

in Uncategorized
June 21st, 2011

Free will is a hackneyed topic. Science seems to be telling us that free will doesn’t exist because behavior is governed by the brain and the brain operates on physical rules of cause and effect. There is no such thing as uncaused cause, which free will requires. For some people this is an unbearable notion; these folks hang on to their perceived volition as evidence that they are in fact free to do as they choose, without being constrained by their biology. Others swallow what science has espoused long ago; of these folks, some tend to be pessimistic, thinking that their lack of free will means that everything is pointless and that the best thing they can do for themselves is to blur the line between their behind and a comfortable couch, until scientists discover the new species Homo sofus.

Still others take the absence of free will and choose to not cry over spilled milk. These people don’t allow determinism to lower their outlook on life. Rightly so.

If we grant that we live in a deterministic universe, where the rules of physics dictate that everything has a cause, then free will – defined as the ability to act without prior constraints – is obsolete. But what does determinism actually mean? Just what is the nature of neural processes that act in decision-making? If the brain works by physical rules, shouldn’t we be able to predict with 100% accuracy what effect a certain neural signal will have on subsequent signals?

This is noteworthy because neurotransmission seems to defy these concrete deterministic rules. The probability of neurotransmitter release, for example, is stochastic in nature; given a certain stimulation, it is impossible to predict whether a neuron will release neurotransmitter or not. Only after many experimental stimulations is it possible to find the probability of transmitter release.

The brain makes up for this unreliability with redundant connections, but the question remains whether the concept of stochastic processes may be scaled up to the level of decision-making in the brain. Also, it is not clear if the unpredictability is due to truly random outcomes or some hidden variables that current scientific techniques cannot measure.

This means that not only is the will not free, but that it may also be determined by random events (possibly at the quantum level). One’s actions then are based on genetic makeup, environment and perhaps randomness. I’m afraid this will feed the pessimists’ appetites, but that’s inevitable with every scientific explanation of human nature.

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8 Comments on Neither free nor completely determined

  • There is a small movement within Christian circles that emphasizes divine determinism, based on some of the same points raised here.

    The proper response seems to be continuing to “make” decisions and deal with the consequences regardless of whether or not you actually “chose” them.

  • Unfortunately, Josh, the proper response you proposed does not address many of the issues associated with free will. In particular, one of the main concerns about free will has to do with assigning personal responsibility in social and legal contexts.
    Say, for example, as we’ve already seen in certain cases, a man named Barry commits murder, but does so as a diagnosed, unmedicated schizophrenic. Do we hold him responsible? His defense attorney would likely convince the judge that Barry is not responsible, because his brain has a defect that affects his decision making. So here, we’ve assigned free will, and the responsibility we attribute to free agents, to healthy, non-schizophrenic brains.
    But what if we found that all people who had murdered had a very specific brain abnormality. Hitler, the green river killer, John Wilkes Booth – all of them had the same defect in an area of their brain associated with, say, emotional processing, a lesion which when induced in lab mice led to anxiety and murderous ( if mice can murder?) tendencies. Do we now absolve our killers? Send them from high-security prisons to mental institutions?
    Or, on the other hand, what if we could somehow trace the cause of a person’s decision using some awesome time/space/crazy math calculations? What if you could accurately attribute a specific person’s high GPA to presence of a certain neurotransmitter simultaneously combined with a specific home environment? Can you still call that person “smart”? Do laziness, intelligence, cruelty or compassion still count as attributes of a personality? Or are they now simply phenotypes?

    In short, our notion of free will affects not only the functioning of an individual, but that of society as well.

    Greg is good to point out that scientific accounts of human nature often conflict with and confound other approaches. It’s easy to say that there is no free will, that the Behaviorists are right, and consciousness doesn’t even exist! But it’s important to note that as of yet, science has actually revealed very little about the nature of decision making, consciousness, or even the perception of color. Let’s hope that as we begin to scratch the surface of the mind, there will be reason for optimism.

  • Wow, Greg, I just watched that video you posted that says everything I just said. I am a fool.

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  • The problem for free will is that both determinism and randomness make it impossible. Most importantly, there is no third option.

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