Friday, 21 October 2011

Free Will

More from Susan Blackmore's excellent Conversations on Consciousness, and a perennial problem: do we have free will?

As before I will only offer outlines of and quotes from their answers; buy the book for the Full Monty. Be aware that quote context is important, and I'm focussing on those comments that seem particularly relevant to me.

Bernard Baars: not asked.

Ned Block: "Yes...on free will I'm almost exactly of [Dennett's] view [a compatibilist view]. The trouble with free will is that it's both compatible and incompatible with determinism - and it's at once incompatible with determinism and incompatible with indeterminism." Of course, the last line shows that free will (traditional concept of) doesn't exist, since determinism and indeterminism together are jointly exhaustive contradictories. His first remark suggests that he realises that any notion of personal responsibility relies on determinism, so there may be some revised type of free will that can be formulated to account for this.

David Chalmers: "I don't know...[because]...I don't know what it means to have free will." He makes the pertinent observation that we do what we want, but what we want is (probably) determined. But who would want to choose what they want? I would add that if your choosing what you wanted wasn't determined, then why should you be responsible for it? In fact, no-one would be responsible for it, if it's uncaused, by definition, surely. An infinite regress beckons.

Patricia & Paul Churchland Pat - "If you mean 'Are my decisions not caused?' surely not." Paul seems to take comfort from our unpredictability, and the way two similar brains will diverge in their chosen actions due to complexity - "So one mustn't fear the story science seems to tell, that we are just robots."

Francis Crick: He thinks the feeling of will is an illusion, and that free will "must be deterministic."

Daniel Dennett: "Yes...The model that we want for free will is of an agent that is autonomous, not in some metaphysical sense, but in the sense of being able to act on the reasons that matter to the agent, and who's got the information that is needed to act in a timely fashion."

Susan Greenfield: She gives a rather confused answer which suggests she believes in her own free will but admits it might be an illusion. She expresses concern that responsibility cannot be laid if there is no free will, which strikes me as incoherent, and that she believes in a mistaken understanding of responsibility that also leads those of a theological bent astray.

Richard Gregory: Not asked, as far as I can see.

Stuart Hameroff: "I have no choice but to believe in free will!" Hameroff's explanation of free will in his and Penrose's model will appeal to those who see quantum indeterminacy as a factor in consciousness; it will exasperate those who cannot see how it helps!

"...we have quantum computations in the microtubules inside neurons that reaches the threshold for collapse 40 times a second, to coincide with the 40 Hz gamma oscillations that exist in the brain. And the outcome of each reduction is a process of quantum superposition, quantum computation which follows the Schrodinger equation, which is basically deterministic. However, at the instant of collapse there's another influence that enters. This is Roger's non-computable influence which is due to the fine grain in space-time geometry. This has a little influence on the choices, so that choices result from both the deterministic quantum computation and this non-computable influence. The experience of that is free will."

Well. I'm quite willing to believe there's a 'random' effect in there somewhere. The problem, of course, is that this doesn't appear to offer any explanation of the experience of free will. Just as mental content appears to be irreducible to scientific description when we are talking deterministically, so it does if we just bring in an indeterministic element, as Hameroff and Penrose have done. I mean, it's asserting that adding indeterminism is what causes the feeling, but not offering any way for that to achieve the feeling. I might just as well assert that the massive deterministic neuronal computations are what achieve the feeling. Sue Blackmore makes the point in reply, quoting Pat Churchland: "pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum decoherence in the micro tubules." It's hard to see that she's wrong.

Christof Koch: "Probably not...I only mean I am free in the sense that it's not you who is determining my actions; it's not blind force or destiny..."

Stephen LaBerge: He thinks we create an illusory conscious self, and he doesn't think that that 'I' has free will. "But 'Does who I am, and all that I am, decide how to answer this question?', then yes."

Thomas Metzinger: "If I didn't, could I ever have given you any other answer than this one?" His reply highlights a problem with free will; it suggests that people would vary their behaviour even in identical circumstances. If they don't, then it what sense is the decision not determined? This, it seems to me, just shows that the traditional concept of free will is incoherent, and if it were true, would not deliver the results people seems to expect.

Kevin O'Regan: "Yes, everybody does [believe they have free will]. Even robots believe they have free will, even if they don't." Good answer, I think, to a slightly different question to the one I ask above.

Roger Penrose:  "...the simple answer is I don't know." To be fair, unlike Hameroff, he says his non-computational influence is not free will.

Vilayanur Ramachandram: He really only discusses what could be causing the feeling, rather than the philosophical implications. Interesting, for the scientific implications.

John Searle: He points out that free will only makes sense with the concept of self, but thinks the self may be an illusion. It's plain he thinks we must believe we have free will; it's not too clear what his final position is, though.

Petra Stoerig: Not asked.

Francisco Varela: Not asked.

Max Velmans: " sense of being free is, I think, a genuine sense. That's not in any way to argue against determinism in science, but I am the kind of creature that's capable of choices - I can do what I want. But I can't want what I want, so there are deep inbuilt constraints." Echoing the comments by Chalmers.

Daniel Wegner: "It certainly seems as though I do." He notes that we don't have this sense of free will about all our actions, and thinks this may be because sometimes thoughts and actions are linked by our brains, and sometimes not.

These responses reflect the current consensus that we don't have free will, except possibly some compatibilist version. It's good to see that a few articulate the fatal problem it has; the traditional concept is not compatible with determinism or indeterminism.

I should point out that this is not a unanimous view; there are some incompatibilist theories of free will; they seem pretty hopeless to me, but knock yourself out reading about them.


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