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
humansconscious beings to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
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).
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.
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:
- Our wills are caused by long chain of prior events/causes and we are not responsible for them – or
- Our wills are a product of chance and we are not responsible for them – or
- 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.
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.
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.