AS50: Free Will, Part 2 of 2.5

I continue the discussion of free will, covering a ton more territory. The debate between Harris and Dennett got a little bit hostile and I wish Dennett had written another response to Harris. In this episode I’ve got tons of thought experiments that I think outline the difficulties of the problem. I think I have some novel thoughts about it, but I’ll leave that to my smart listeners to decide!

Dennett’s response to Harris’s book: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will

Harris’s response to Dennett’s response: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-marionettes-lament

9 thoughts on “AS50: Free Will, Part 2 of 2.5”

  1. Completely off topic, but I tried visiting the Imaginary Friends (dot com) podcast, and their site has an “account has been Suspended” message!

    Thomas, Investigate for us!!! did their Deep Pack jokes finally catch up to them? I couldn’t find anything on the net.

    Oh yes, great podcast on free will. Regardless if my brain told me to write this before I decided to, or if I rationally decided to write this, I need to know!

  2. To begin, I am a determinist and I have no philosophy experience. I find the evidence for the existence of free-will to be terrible and a kind of ‘argument of the gap’ or a person’s inability to examine all variables at once.

    In response to your thought experiment of the two individuals who are pushing a button. I would argue the two people can not be the same, prior to pushing the button; one person is missing the parts of the brain processing centers to create new memories. Already, we have variables changing the events that person A is experiencing, that in the end leads them to ‘selecting’ the the wrong button repeatedly. Person B has a different set of variables that lead them to ‘selecting’ the right button, especially after creating memories of the first wrong attempt.

    In fact I don’t think of decision making as ‘making decisions’ but more as a math problem or a machine-learning algorithm. The return values are decisions, the algorithms are thought processes, there are inputs that change algorithm’s state, and the feedback loops are past return values and inputs that are fed into the start of the next algorithm pass.

    In computer science there is a concept known as ‘pure functions’. If you put the same variables in a pure function you get the same answer, over and over. Our universe is governed by immutable physics. If I drop a stone from shoulder height, it will always reach the same speed given the acceleration of gravity. If you don’t believe in dualism or the ghost-in-the-machine, why wouldn’t your mind not be subject to the laws of this universe? How can you will your mind to disregard the laws of physics and make a the sum conclusion of a massive firing of neurons become another value? Given that physics is a reasonable explanation of the universe and our mind is bound within and subject to the universe, you cannot will the sum of your neurons to magically become another value without adding another variable to the equation that you haven’t experienced. Which doesn’t make sense! Everything no matter how small is a variable to your decision making and the conclusions there become input for the next decision, you are always subject to your experiences/conditions.

    I don’t think there is a difference between the calculation done on a calculator and the calculation in a human mind other than complexity. Even though we have complex thinking computers we are still far from understanding the human mind or creating algorithms complex enough, or structured like the human decision making process.

    I think I could write forever on this.

  3. I am sorry if this is an inappropriate comment for this spot, but I been trying to find a place to get in touch with you about some questions I’d like to ask you. I am a high school Theatre, Communications, English, and Speech & Debate teacher, so needless to say it is often hard to talk about things, especially with family. I understand you probably have a very busy schedule, so I will understand if you don’t have the time, but yours is one of the voices that has resonated with me as I have found myself questioning. As a teacher, though, it has been hard, since there is a community involved that often looks down on any sincere search for knowledge and dare I say, truth. This also hasn’t gone over well with family, as much of this was started as I tried my best to help my father until his death last October 13th. So I would appreciate it if you did not use my name here, not that you would. And not that it makes a difference, but your show started at exactly the time. I started this journey, so I have been here from day 1. So thank to in advance for what you do, regardless of whether you choose to contact me or not.
    Sincerely, thank you.

      1. If i know very little of the topic, and Dennett and Harris (who are the two books mentioned on the topic) disagree.; are there other resources that you could recommend on the topic?

  4. I have a lot of thoughts, not sure where to start.

    I think the freewill discussion is really muddied by trying to put a digital solution on an analog problem. Let me try shifting the paradigm a bit here.

    Consider an actor who is about to make a decision between 5 choices. The actor has a strong aversion to 2 choices, and mixed feelings about the other 3. While the actor is, from a deterministic perspective, unable to make any choice other than the one he ultimately makes, we can still say free to choose between the 3, because he will sincerely evaluate them as options. We can call this “range of will.” The two options that will not be chosen due to the actors aversion can be called “exclusion of will.”

    To put this in more practical terms, I want to deny my ability to go on a serial murder spree. The biological systems governing my behavior would likely stop me before I ever got near that point. Serial murder is excluded from my will. However, if I had the right kind of brain injury, serial murder could be added to my range of will.

    As a baby grows, its capacity to take in sensory information improves, its ability to process improves, and the ability to react is also improved. But that’s not to say a newborn has zero range of will, because while baby can do very little other than cry over distress, the baby’s little brain is still churning over the question of whether or not any given moment is the right time to cry. By the time the child is a few months old and can start manipulating basic objects and communicate with rudimentary body language, the range is widening, but still probably not what we would classically call free will. By the time the child is actually walking, we can probably say that the kid has free will, but it’s still really limited, but it will grow dramatically over the next few years, especially once able to pass the mirror-rouge test.

    By this convention, I consider most mammals to have a decent range of will, especially primates, elephants and many large carnivores. I think the behavior of great apes, especially Koko the gorilla and Kanzi the bonobo, shows that whatever it is that gives us our free will, they have it too.

    There are other animals that I really doubt have anything resembling free will. Insects are so driven by simple chemical signals that I doubt they have anything like free will

  5. Hi Thomas,

    I was just listening to and enjoying your commentary on free will. About your thought experiment on whether a person whose memory was wiped clean and was doomed to see the wrong choice as the right one, I thought I would bring up what I believe shows we all have free will – we do not have to make the logical choice. This person whose memory is wiped clean could for a lark choose the wrong thing, the seemingly illogical thing. The other person who from memory knew what the right choice was might out of boredom or curiosity make what they knew to be the wrong choice. This is how we differ from rats or monkeys who might make the choice that gives them the reward every time once they learn it. Humans often choose things without rationality or logic. Perhaps we theorize the wrong choice might be more exciting or adventurous or more interesting.

    Free will is what makes the human species what it is. Through out time we have advanced by making choices that seemed illogical or irrational at the time. Of course the path is littered with people whose choices led to their doom but without the irrational pioneers who bucked the common logic we would never have flown the skies or traveled to the moon.

    Our free will is only limited by momentum. Once something is set in motion we sometimes no longer have the ability to change it or choose differently. A person who jumps off a building may change their mind while falling but their free will cannot change the outcome at that point.

    What makes us different from computers and what shows we have free will and they don’t (and probably never will unless perhaps they start writing their own code) is that we can choose to do the wrong thing. We can have everything lined up to make choice “A”, everything tells us it’s the right choice, all our senses point in that direction; but because we have free will we can choose “B”, simply because we like surprises or on a whim or whatever. A computer however has to choose what the code tells it to. It must go through a logical algorithm which leads to the choice it must select. For example:

    Should I grab an umbrella?

    if it is raining then
    Grab it
    else if the chance of rain > 50% then
    Grab it
    else
    Dont Grab it

    You can throw in a random number generator and add:

    else if random number generated > 50 then
    Grab it

    But the computer still has to follow the result of the code. We humans, however can make a choice contrary to logic therefore we have free will.

    I enjoyed the thought experiment. Love your podcasts.


    Paula

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