My World View – Free Will … A Revisit – Part 4

What follows is an opinion. You can like it or not. If you disagree, I’m open to new ideas or refinement of these. I like to think that this is based on observation and education, something I like to call a hypothesis.

In part 1 I described how the human brain seems to work with an executive process, or what I’ll call consciousness.
In part 2 I described the materialist actions of our brains and how these simple physical phenomena can be used to account for complex brain functions.
In part 3 I described how we experience the world through a simulation rather than directly sensing it.

Mr Harris, what have you done?

Let me be forthright, Sam Harris is wrong. He’s wrong on several matters but here I wish only to deal with his opinion on Free Will.  He has a philosopher’s view of free will, not a scientific view of it. I’m going to rip through his talk that was posted to Youtube on the subject of free will. I’ve listened to it about 15 times, at a guess. When I first watched it I yelled at the computer screen. It made me angry. I was repulsed and could not quite figure out why. I know now.

Harris makes a logical fallacy right up front. I’ll paraphrase, so don’t take the quotes on this next statement as a direct quote from Harris:

I don’t know how the brain works so it must be a kind of magic and we don’t have free will because we can’t explain where thoughts come from or why they occur.

Does that sound familiar to you? It might remind you of this:

We don’t know why there is existence so it’s magic and we can’t explain where existence comes from so there must be a god who did it.  — general religious thinking

Lets define free will before we go much further. Harris doesn’t do much for that part of the discussion though he does spend time talking about what or how we would know we have made a choice and that if we don’t know why it’s not free will.

1 : voluntary choice or decision <I do this of my own free will>
2 : freedom of humans conscious beings to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
To round this out a bit, there are many definitions of free will and they are used in differing contexts. This is generally a sign that there is no consensus and thus no formalized understanding of the topic by all concerned parties which in this case are theologians, neuroscientists, philosophers, and arm-chair geniuses like me among other people. Wikipedia covers a bit of this fairly.   (The red emphasis is mine)

Neuroscience of free will refers to recent neuroscience investigation of questions concerning free will. It is a topic of philosophy and science. One question is whether, and in what sense, rational agents exercise control over their actions or decisions. As it has become possible to study the living brain, researchers have begun to watch decision making processes at work. Findings could carry implications for moral responsibility in general. Moreover, some research shows that if findings seem to challenge people’s belief in the idea of free will itself then this can affect their sense of agency (e.g. sense of control in their life).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will

Some areas of the human brain implicated in mental disorders that might be related to free will. Area 25 refers to Brodmann’s area 25, related to long-term depression.

Relevant findings include the pioneering study by Benjamin Libet and its subsequent redesigns; these studies were able to detect activity related to a decision to move, and the activity appears to be occurring briefly before people become conscious of it. Other studies try to predict a human action several seconds early (with greater than chance accuracy). Taken together, these various findings show that at least some actions – like moving a finger – are initiated and processed unconsciously at first, and only after enter consciousness. The role of consciousness in decision making is also being clarified: some thinkers have suggested that it mostly serves to cancel certain actions initiated by the unconscious.

In many senses the field remains highly controversial and there is no consensus among researchers about the significance of findings, their meaning, or what conclusions may be drawn. Some thinkers, like Daniel Dennett or Alfred Mele, say it is important to explain that “free will” means many different things; these thinkers state that certain versions of free will (e.g. dualistic or magical) appear exceedingly unlikely, but other conceptions of “free will” that matter to people are compatible with the evidence from neuroscience.

What neither Harris nor Wikipedia nor anyone else for that matter are doing is considering how we think. That is to say that they don’t know how to know when we’ve made a decision other than to ask us if we have made a decision. This is not a successful methodology. Libet et al are working on real and effective ways to determine if we’ve made a decision. This is key to understanding why Harris is wrong. His opinion is framed completely in the thought that if we cannot experience something in our conscious mind it is not the ‘I’ for which we talk about free will. That is to say that he works from the position that anything not in our conscious mind is not part of ‘I’ … we react to the world, its events, and the long chain of prior causes as if we have no more input on the matter than an earthworm.

Harris starts by saying that free will is an illusion and that this is a truth. Please note here that this is a truth claim that requires evidence.

He lays out some basic premises:

  1. Our wills are caused by long chain of prior events/causes and we are not responsible for them – or
  2. Our wills are a product of chance and we are not responsible for them – or
  3. Some combination of the two and we are not responsible for them – but

No combination of these gives the common sense free will that we all tend to think of.

Oxymoron Alert – Harris uses, as an example, the phrase ‘generic serial killer’. Generic in the sense that Albert Einstein was a generic genius. I’m all for using edge cases to show where things fall apart, but this is not what he’s doing. He’s using aberrant behaviors to show how normal thinking works. This is a bad idea because it allows him to concludes we are all no different from a serial killer because we don’t have free will and the killer does not either. [There would seem to be a straw man in there somewhere. – MAL] We are not really responsible for our actions. Yeah, it gets messed up so you might want to follow along with the video to catch it all. Harris hasn’t introduced any science beyond that found on the Wikepedia page listed above, nor any evidence. He is simply positing that we don’t have free will and if you happen to be a serial killer then you are damnably unlucky. He later Talks about how Uday Hussein was just really unlucky to be the son of a monster. GAH! That is not even funny. If it was I’d give him wiggle room.

What Harris explains is probably quite true if you are in fact an earthworm. I hold that this is not the case for those animals which are conscious or have a conscious mind. His examples of showing that people generally do not understand why they think what they think (pick any city you like) is the equivalent of an optical illusion. Vision is another part of the brain that we do not have exemplary understanding of even though we understand so much about it. We can explain optical illusions so we do not attribute them to magic. We have understanding of how our brains process visual sense data. What we don’t have is a working understanding of how we think.

His assertion (not fact) that all decisions are based on the long chain of prior causes is misplaced. All prior causes cause interaction in our minds. If we are unaware or have not experienced them they have no effect on our current decision making. Every experience, no matter how slight, alters the information available to us. We use all available information to make decisions. This means that it is nearly impossible for us to make a decision that is not at least partly based on previous events. Harris refers to these as ‘prior causes’ but they are events from the perspective of experience, the perspective that your brain uses as operating mode. Events bring information. This is inevitable. That information will get used in future decisions. This is why Harris can see a long chain of ‘prior causes’ … this chain cannot be avoided. He also has trouble with saying ‘shit happens’ and we have no control over a lot of it. While that attitude seems to support his claims it does not. Understanding that we have no control over much of the world is not to say we have no free will, only that we acknowledge that we are unable to exercise it in a way that would affect these other parts of the world around us.

He does mention that our bodies do lots of things for us: beating heart, making red blood cells and so on but uses this to support the idea that we are not in control, we have no free will because we are not telling our heart to beat or our bodies to create insulin. To Harris anything outside of the conscious mind is outside of free will. This is failed logic. We drive a car where and how we want but we do not have to turn on the water pump or cause the ignition to fire pulses of electric into the cylinders. The car as an extension of our bodies does things just as our body does them and neither the water pump in the car nor the beating of our heart changes the reality of free will – our ability to make a decision. Because we do not decide to make our heart beat yet it does is not to say that we do not have free will, only that our conscious mind does not have to do this repetitive task. It would be a huge waste of time and effort.

Two For One Deal? Maybe More?

Just as thinking to make sure your heart beats would be a waste of resource, so too is it a waste of resource to consciously think about things which were accomplished by the pre-human brain. The ‘tree of life’ shows that we all come from a long line of life. The least of us, such as the earthworm, have brains and nervous systems too. We do not believe that earthworms are conscious, so it is not simply the human brain, but the extra bits that give us consciousness. We also have the same brain functions as an earthworm or dog or whale etc. in terms of general nervous system function. That means what the lower animals do without consciousness, the modern human brain also does without consciousness. All the animals without the big frontal lobe bits don’t have all the stuff humans have but we’ve got what they have is a short way to put it. So we have at least two brains – in a manner of speaking. Evolution bolted on a bunch of extra bits to our generic mammalian brain.

Date image created 2009-12-27; <br />original published in 1913<br /> Source scanned from figure 12 (p. 86) of the book The mental and physical life of school children by Peter Sandiford, published by Longmans, Green and compay, 1913<br /> Author image created by user:Looie496; original artist unknown" class /&gt; Earthworm_nervous_system.png - Wikimedia - This media file is in the public domain in the United States.

I posit that we humans are able to not only do many things better, but that this extra has given us better strategies for coping with change and adaptation. To do this we had to have improved generalization and better meta analysis of sensory data. Therefore I further posit that to accomplish better meta analysis of the data we need to internally model the world around us and use the sensory data to inform that model because there is too much data to analyze in real time. If it were not for our vision system/brain processing visual information before it hits our conscious mind we would have to continuously pick out things to focus on. That is to say that all of the screen would be the same to us. As you read these words, think how much more difficult it would be if you also saw every other word with the same clarity as well as the menu ribbon at the top of the page too. Your eyes are seeing all of it all at once, but your conscious only has to deal with the parts of interest at this moment thus your internal model of the world only needs to be presently accurate with regard to the words you are decoding. Your conscious mind only has to focus on one or two things at a time. We call this multitasking. For Harris idea or definition of free will to be true, we’d have to deal with everything all at once. Jill Bolte-Taylor talks about what that is like. Its a really interesting video. Watch it… NOW!

We do have more than one brain. A conscious brain and a not-conscious brain. This does not remove free will rather it frees up our time to actually think about what we want to do or what is the best way to get more food etc. It is because we do things unconsciously that we have the resources to do things consciously. Free will is not disproved by unconscious activity in our brains. It is in fact because of our ability to do things unconsciously that we have free will. Without the ability to do things unconsciously we would be in a position to do nothing but react to sensory data and being completely reactive we would be much like the venerable (and dare I say it… lovable) earthworm with whom we have commonality.

Conclusions?

The reason that we have free will or even feel like we do is because of the very things Harris claims as proof that we do not. That we experience the world and life/existence through the lens of a simulation running in our brains confuses (in my armchair genius opinion) many thinkers about what is real and what is not. People with brain problems see things in the real world that are not there – or do they? I posit that they are seeing them in their simulation and that is, as I said, how we experience the world so to them it looks as though these extra things they see are actual and real.

Only through shared experience and science (insert long description of scientific method here) can we know that our personal simulation is running and accurate with the real world.

Why yes, this does explain a great many things about religious belief and superstitions. When we talk about people living in a world of unreality or of their own making – well, they quite literally are! So are you but perhaps your simulation is much more accurate than other people’s. I know that it is important for me to have as accurate a picture of the real world as I can. I want my simulation to be one of the best, at least as good as I can possibly make it. Many people are content with ‘good enough’ simulations. It takes less energy and resources if you are willing to accept a fuzzy simulation model – which gives you more resources for that free will processing.

UPDATE: Most of us alive today will be able to say that what we think about The Holocaust of WWII has affected how we think in one way or another or even affected a decision that we have made. The Holocaust had no direct affect on most of us alive today, no physical connection. Only through our understanding of that event(s) does it have impact in our life. If your great grandparents were German or Polish Jews that set of events had direct impact on your life; causal impact maybe. The rest of us? Not so much yet we have incorporated the knowledge of those events into our simulation of the world and use that information when making decisions… when exercising our free will. Just as you had to burn your hand the first time someone said a thing was hot, we learn and use that knowledge to inform our simulations so that we don’t have need of a cause-effect relationship with hot things in the future. In this way we learn about the world and that knowledge, not the events, affects our future decisions.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below… please. Really, go ahead. I promise WordPress will not limit you. Bang away at that keyboard. Tell me where I’m wrong. I need that shared experience thing about now. Thanks in advance.

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  1. Enjoyed this treatment of the issue and its implications.

    • Thanks P&W, I think it will generate the kind of discussion I was hoping for.

      • Yeah, but I didn’t want to get into this. Where the hell is Allalt??

      • I like to see unstated premises teased out and questioned.

  2. Good post but I disagree.
    First Dennett has not shown we have free will but argues that telling guys they don’t have free will is bad for society.
    You have also not shown how we have free will and what type of free will.
    i am yet to read Harris’ free will but i had watched the video and i felt then and now that he did handle the subject well.
    As you say in the conclusion we have an illusion of free will nothing more.

    • I love you, MAL. But, I also disagree.
      Will be lurking on the discussion 🙂

    • Free will, the ability to make a decision about the world around me and to decide how to interact with the world around me. This does not include the ability to interact, only the decision to. Prison, disease and other issues impact our ability to interact but not our decision.

      The default position, it can be argued, is the sense of free will. To argue against this ‘obvious to all’ idea requires showing how it is an illusion and the show part should eliminate questions on how.

      I decided which way I traveled to work. I choose when I have a smoke or a beer, I choose many things in any given day. I choose when I want to wake up etc. The primitive and defining part of those statements is “I choose” …

      Harris argues that we don’t because parts of the decision are made outside of our conscious minds, but this is the very reason that we have the resources to choose rather than simply be reactive.

      Using the internally modeled universe which is informed by our senses explains what Harris called ‘buffering’ and why from some philosophical perspectives it seems that life is a dream/illusion. We do live in a simulation, but it’s our own simulation of the world. It also explain some if not all mental disorders or at least creates a mechanism for them to operate within. This last point is the part that makes this both useful and a better explanation than ‘free will is an illusion’

      • Free will, the ability to make a decision about the world around me and to decide how to interact with the world around me.

        Is this decision independent of other things or is influenced by other things happening before it?

        The default position, it can be argued, is the sense of free will.

        Many theists have argued believing in god to be the default position. If you are talking about the sense of having free will to be default but not having the free will, then we are in agreement since it feels like we have free will.

        I decided which way I traveled to work. I choose when I have a smoke or a beer, I choose many things in any given day. I choose when I want to wake up etc. The primitive and defining part of those statements is “I choose” …

        I think the operative word here should be I appear to choose and not I choose because all the activities you have mentioned have a chain of causal links that we can draw for each.
        That said, I will come back with more. I need to spend some more time on this question knowing you put a hell lot of time to this point.

        • Decisions are made independent of previous events, yet are strangely entangled with any information gained from previous events. That is to say that a decision can be made with regard to knowledge from a previous event(s) in the positive or negative correlation or in fact in total disregard for the previous event’s knowledge.

          There is a subtle but definitely important difference from an previous event causing action (forcing action from a reactionary actor) and from the knowledge gained by a previous event being used by an intelligent actor to make decisions at some point in the future from the event in question.

          When your house is on the edge of a golf course, errant golf shots can ’cause’ your windows to break. However it is the knowledge of this causal effect (among others, such as my handicap) which is used when you decide to move to a location not so close to the 14th tee, rather than bad golfers caused you to move.

        • I just realized I’m explaining things but coloring outside the lines. Each set of data acquired from an event is assimilated into your personal simulation. From within that simulation then each previous event will appear as a causal event for the next decision. Because you choose how to assimilate the information based on all the information available to you, when you use it to make further decisions, it will appear as a causal event. That appears that I just argued against my point but I have not. You could have chosen to ignore the information and not assimilated it. You could have ignored the value of the information when making the next decision (see what gambling addicts do) or you could pay attention and assimilate it to your simulation and use it in a way that appears to be causal.

    • I’m going to shoot this from the hip. Until we can supplement our cognitive efficiency with a computer, we will not truly have free will. Our barrier is our communication style. It’s too expressionistic. If, we could supplement our thoughts with an external/internal processor, then we would be able to trace the roots of our thoughts via code and make more accurate external/internal calculations for the purposes of decision making … C-3P0 style, baby. Maybe Spock, too.

      • This need to map things is being answered by better and better test methods. Think Star Trek here. What is clear to me is that ‘how’ the brain works has more to do with consciousness than philosophy ever can.

        • Oh, fuck yeah, in total agreement. Philosophy is on the verge of extinction. Psychology gonna have to get with the program, too.

          • Yes, I think we will have purely materialistic understanding of the brain soon. Then the gurus who explain stuff by thinking about it will have some issues. Philosophy attempts to explain how we know things etc. Psychology tries to explain how that internal simulation of the universe works without knowing there is a simulation never mind how it works.

            • And I will be right there to make fun of them!!!
              🙂

              • I intend to be there too… I want this to happen in my life time

                • Better cut out them smigarettes, then 😉

  3. Two questions.

    1. Why is this important. Seriously, If we do or if we don’t what would it truly mean to the human condition.

    2. Can’t there be a middle road answer? Is it really the case of one or the other? Could it be the case that the great majority of our lives are lived in a state what we’d consider no-free will, but there are occasions (rare as they might be, or might not be) when we do exercise something approaching free will?

    • 1.) It would matter in our legal systems, for sure.

      2.) I feel like this is where Sam Harris is pointing.

      • 1. How so?
        2. Isn’t Harris going full-hog no free will?

        • 1.)If governments accepted the notion of no free will, then prosecutors would have to argue for “this person needs to be punished” and opposed to “this person is guilty.”

          2.)As atheists, I think we have to consider the positive marketing factor of No Free Will. If we don’t have free will that would DESTROY the foundation of Christianity.

          • OK, I’ll accept point one. Point two is valid but i think its difficult to argue the absolute.

            • I agree about point 2. I’m guessing we are going to see a lot of over-correcting on this subject in the coming years until we reach a technological plateau. A time to breath & assess the situation in a balanced way without major advancements being made in the background. Will that time come prior to AI? Probably not 🙂

              • I did a story last night for NYT’s but didn’t really read it in detail. i probably should have. It was something about a damaged silicon chip which worked out (by itself) how to keep working. Weird. I might go look for it.

                • You did a story but didn’t read it? I’m confused.

                  • Well, i scanned it through my head. We take stories from numerous sources, like MIT, Harvard, Martha fucking Stewart. This was one. I spit them through the Portuguese machines (people pretending to be journalists) then get them back to NYT’s and onto client media companies here.

              • Here you go. It was an MIT article we lifted.

                http://m.technologyreview.com/news/512776/microchip-adapts-to-severe-damage/

                • Wow. Am I a total junkie if my first thought that comes to mind is “Terminator” and it doesn’t frighten me whatsoever?

                  • Question is, is it Free Will? Can the chip decide NOT to fix itself?

                    • I’m going to say no. But, obviously, I’m just guessing.

                    • and you’re drunk

                    • No, but a visit inside my sober mind would probably feel like an acid trip to many.

                    • Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Timothy Leary!

                    • If only I could SELL trips inside my brain.

                      I’ve been told before that the rest of the world works incredibly hard to escape INTO my type of thoughts, meanwhile I’m trying to escape FROM them.
                      Well, I WAS. Just sort of rolling with it now 🙂

                    • Bring that trippy brain with you over here:

                      http://karamazov1989.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/take-hold-of-the-wheel/comment-page-1/#comment-143

                      This guy is a total nutcase.

                    • If the point of proof for free will is a chip that wont’ fix itself when it could, then suicide is a point of proof for free will…. or should be

                    • Great point, but someone like Noel would argue that suicide is not exhibiting free will at all, rather a response to prior events.

                    • and that too is wrong. Suicide is not a response to prior events as that would be a reaction. Suicide is seldom ever done without a great deal of thinking about things. The modeled universe for the suicide victim is not working correctly either from chemical/mechanical failure causing bad decisions or simply bad decision making on the part of the victim. Either case it is not reactive to an event but to a perceived event or events.

                    • But you must admit that prior thoughts and external influences create a sort of mental inertia which is not going to stop unless acted on by an EXTERNAL force.

                    • No, I don’t have to admit that. Do people decide to not kill themselves while they are sitting there with the gun in their mouth? external force might be involved in some cases, but it is not required.

                    • Perhaps “will” is relative to each individual in a similar way as intelligence?

                    • Will is the desire to act in some manner, intelligence it the skill of deciding things in a manner most reflective of success in life.

                    • Even if the perception is in error (a delusion, a chemical imbalance) its a cause in and by itself.

                    • Can you then finely define cause. To perceive is an action, not a cause. As long as there is a perception part in the chain, there is free will. A red barn is not the same color for everyone. Symphonies do not sound the same to everyone. The decision to act is still made by the conscious mind, not a direct result of some cause.

                    • I’d say cause could be and is anything, but i’m neither arguing for or against free will. If i had to make a guess i’d say the great majority of our lives are lived without free will, but that there moments where we break that fabric and fuck up the flow.

                    • Not using it and not having it are two entirely different things. I’d agree that there are a lot of people who could stand to use theirs more. To my thinking, if there is intelligence in the chain somewhere, there is free will.

                      The argument that there is external control has no method of operation, it is an idea which exists as an island. That we only react to things, is something Harris himself argued against. In the video where he talks about laying in bed all day. Unless you are asleep it is difficult to do. Our brains do not idle smoothly, if they idle at all. My definition of intelligence is the ability to choose something. An example of minimalist intelligence is a thermostat. Intelligence is not worth anything if the input data is not constantly changing. The randomness of sensory data and the analysis/meta-analysis etc. ensures that our ape brains will not sit idle. We will always be making choices… choices of what to view in our simulation at this moment.

                    • I can get with that

              • I posit that it will coincide with AI. When we figure out the details of the brain and consciousness, we will have AI right behind it and at the same moment god will become irrelevant.

          • Point 2 is still not necessary as free will defined as purely materialistic also removes god from the equation/question. In fact, if the brain and consciousness are explained as purely materialistic then in fact god is the illusion.

          • 2. I never thought of it in this manner, but you sure have a point here.

            1. It has a lot of implications on the legal system. The question would not be whether one should punished but how well can a person be rehabilitated

        • 1.) This would also poke enormous holes in the “free market” system. It would suggest that it is exceedingly difficult to break free of the social & economic conditions in which one is born.

          2.)I’m trying to stay out of the specifics of this argument, as I am a biased, mindless Sam Harris fan who hasn’t refreshed my memory on his arguments lately. BUT, I don’t think he’s trying to say that we have no influence over our decision making & that we cannot change.

        • I just like Sam cause he’s cute. Oooh. And tough. Mmm. A tough philosopher. Knows him some martial arts too, girl. Head lock, anyone? Rrrrumpf, rrrumpf, rrumpf-rumpf.

          • Bit early for drinking, isn’t it 😉

            • Hah. Just high on life.

          • If I’d known how excited you were by attempts at philosophy and martial arts I would have told you all about my training experiences in Thailand.

            I’m not as cute as Sam, though 😦

            • Haha. Oh well.

              • I’ve decided to get in on this debate, but I just read all four posts for the first time and at once… so I feel like I’ve made an arse out of myself by missing something major.

                Oh well…

                • What was that?

                • No, you jumped in with good feed back. Hopefully my longer answer elsewhere to you helps.

  4. I also disagree (but you knew that, we’ve discussed this before on this post: http://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/freewill-the-neurological-weather-pattern [although I concede I don’t add or alter much to what Sam Harris has to say]).

    My most apparent disagreement is that material things behave in a deterministic fashion (which is to say that if you had all the factors and variables you could figure out the result exactly) and the brain is material. Therefore the brain acts in a deterministic way.

    The actual process of this changes person to person, based on differences in anatomy (which changes hormones and mood), differences in the microstructure of the brain and, of course, a different experience.

    I don’t understand where you get this freedom when you step from the brain to the mind. Chemistry gives you colour (i.e. copper sulphate is blue; unless it’s anhydrous copper sulphate, then it’s white; unless you only shine yellow light on it, then it’s yellow; unless we’re talking about the hydrous form of copper sulphate again, in which case yellow light makes it black). Even the determinism of colour is heavily context dependent, but it is determined. By the same step, I don’t understand the freedom (read: deviation from cause and effect, or from determinism) comes from. And when it’s unaccounted for, it is not rational to accept (somewhere between the default position and Occam’s Razor).

    You model choices on this idea that the mind creates a set of simulations, which are approximate consequential simulations of the universe if you make certain decisions. You then say you are free to pick one of those.

    But why are you free to pick one of those? That is the entire question. That very assertion is question under discussion here. That right there, is the freewill. So your argument begs the question.

    (If I’ve missed something, let me know…)

    • There is only one method known to account for all the contributing factors which affect our decisions – be ‘us’. If I have understood you, the volume of factors affecting what we do next is so large that we cannot get them all in the simulation to see how we had no other choice to do what we do.

      While I will give you that normal daily routine stuff is things that are easy to see might be modelled and thus predicted, it is the edge cases where this is not quite the case. In my life, I know my brain works on problems when I’m not able to do so consciously. When troubleshooting, I’ve heard what some might call the voice of god whisper the answers to me. Really, the answer bubbles up to my conscious and sounds like a whisper – not in my ear, but directly inside my consciousness. I could give hundreds of examples of this. It is not an isolated thing that happened once when I was kind of high on nyquill cold medication.

      This means my sub-conscious mind worked on the problem and told my conscious mind the answer – to my conscious it sounded like a whisper. Now this might appear to support Sam but the prior events in such a case could not have been random, my brain produced a solution to a problem using prior knowledge from previous events which were not directly related to this situation. That is, there is no clear chain of events from start of career to this particular solution which was of a very specific and very technical nature about a type of equipment I’ve had no direct experience troubleshooting, never mind on this particular manufacturer’s equipment. It felt like a wild guess, but it was 100% correct. I do this often… wait for the voice to tell me the answer.

      I’ve ruled out gods. I’ve ruled out having seen it before. Intuition seems plausible but not in all cases, but then what is intuition? The thing I’m left with is that I have collected bits and pieces of information and when faced with a problem my brain does pattern matches till it arrives at a likely solution. This is not done in my conscious mind and I don’t have all the information inside the simulation to do this – but I do have it inside my brain.

      Sam’s ‘pick a city’ experiment exposes our ability to use recently gained information to generate random seeming information to answer queries before doing the energy expensive search of deep memory. Sam opines that all previous choices and experiences lead us to make a choice of city and that we could not have chosen any other. This does not explain ‘second guessing’ which is a problem most commonly seen in test taking but is seen elsewhere. What string of events lead us to change our minds from the correct answer to an incorrect one? Our conscious minds can override that deterministic one that comes from our subconscious mind. The decision to change from right answer to wrong is consciously done… that part of the brain that Sam calls the ‘I’ part. This decision comes at the cost of ignoring what might be argued is a deterministic answer from our subconscious. This demonstrates an ability to freely choose the subconscious mind’s solution to a problem and to do so within the conscious mind.

      Yes, this is anecdotal and certainly not empirical evidence but there are studies in such areas and tests with results and such to lean on and give weight to the hypothesis.

      No, I have not described how the conscious mind makes the decision, only that it does make a free will decision. How is another post (perhaps two).

      • I’m still struggling to see where the freedom comes from. Double-guessing (doubting: to be in two minds) just means there is more than one executive program running.

        Nothing you have presented, as far as I can see, gives freedom from material mechanisms.

        If you mean to say that you can’t see how a deterministic system can leave you in two minds about things, therefore it must be an issue of freewill…
        I hope I’m framed this wrong, because I know you think better than that. But if I have framed this wrong, please expand on what I have gotten wrong; because at the moment it looks like an accurate summary of your argument.

        • Well, it is confusing. I’m not saying there are two executives. I’m saying that Sam missed a few point (for a start)
          – what the subconscious mind feeds our conscious one can seem like we didn’t have to think about the answer
          – it can seem like the voice of god telling us the answer
          – we don’t have to listen to that answer
          – we do in fact make decisions about what Sam says comes from outside of our conscious mind but sometimes we have so much confidence in that information that it doesn’t feel like we made a decision

          In showing that Sam missed a few things I hope to show that his conclusion is wrong. Further I’m trying to describe the framework on which we do make decisions. The process of matching patterns and turning them into data which our mind’s use is not well described. I do think I’ve explained how that can be and where it is noticeable. That we can see ourselves not choosing the ‘external choice’ as Sam describes it and instead making the decision in our conscious mind is to demonstrate that we do have free will, that we do make choices.

          An important point is that information learned from previous experience is not a causal element. Sam conflates information acquired as a causal element. It is not. His idea is that we are choosing nothing more than in which way to be reactive to long strings of events which occur in our lives. We are proactive in many ways and this negates the lack of free will even if you wish to try to describe it in a way that trivializes it to ‘it just seems like free will’ like Sam does. You can choose differently than you do. That you chose as you did is not indicative that you could not have chosen otherwise.

          We make choices based on the information available to us and Sam conflates this as having no other choice yet we routinely ignore the information to choose in favor of outcomes we’d rather see. Gamblers are like this and so on.

          • The problem is that there are these “choices” (like information that we ignore/doesn’t sway us the way we might rationally conclude that it should) and you assert that we are proactive (and not reactive) in the way we respond.

            You have surrounded the issue in a lot of very good context, but when it comes to the actual point of making a decision… you simply assert that we are proactive and no responsive.

            I’d understand if you were arguing a different way to interpret the same evidence Harris presents, or if you were offering different evidence. But you are offering a lot of context, no clear evidence and a different conclusion and (perhaps it is my fault) I can’t follow the journey.

            I’d like to offer another challenge, also. Given that the universe is very well explained by deterministic and causal things, the extrapolation of deterministic explanations to issues of the brain and the mind that emerges from it is the best explanation–in the absence of more evidence.

            I’d also like to point out that there is nothing else we know of with this kind of freedom. Quantum mechanics is statistical, but still not “free”, and classical mechanics certainly isn’t. I agree with Sam Harris that freewill itself isn’t even a coherent idea: that there is a thing that exists somewhere in your mind–and separate from your brain–that is free to behave independent (or only semi-dependent) of the causation of neurological contexts (preferences; desires; wants), brain states, emotions and hormones (and other inputs). If these things conspire to make you choose to eat a digestive biscuit (not that eating a biscuit is the rational thing to do, but that eating a biscuit is the mechanical result of these things) what is the process by which you couldn’t -not- eat the biscuit?

            • These are good points and I appreciate your effort to understand. I dislike when other bloggers say I’ll do another post, but in this case, I think it worth that. More context: what makes humans different? The ability to be proactive.

              I understand that you and others seek an ‘aha’ answer to what makes the mind and my explanation is much longer than a post reply should ever be because I don’t know how to make it a sound bite … yet. I beg your indulgence to allow me to move this conversation to yet one more post on the topic, though I have more posts to go.

              A synopsis is this: our conscious mind is the spot in our brains where we look inward on the decision making processes and analyze them against our goals. This is a confusing thing because you and others will say that fixing hunger is a goal but it is mechanistic. I posit that there is a difference between how we choose and purely reactive action without free will.

              I do appreciate your patience as it will take me a bit to clearly state what I need to for this part of the hypothesis.

              Finally, thank you for your input and the time you’ve taken to give it.

              • My pleasure. I look forward to the rest of the discussion.

  1. April 20th, 2013

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