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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Psycasm: And so, in response to Psycasm's post on Freewill, Kate has entered the fray. Click here to find out what's going on.

Next week: Denise and a line of pure philosophy


Thanks to Psycasm for hosting this conversation, and giving me a chance to talk about my very favourite subject, the mind.

Psycasm hits the nail on the head when he says that free will must, at some point, have evolved. This unarguable fact (let’s assume we’re all materialists for now), tells us a great deal about what sort of thing free will is. It is not a mysterious spirit. It is not something one categorically has or doesn’t have. Like the capacity to feel pain, or be aware of your thoughts, it is something which exists in varying degrees, evolved over time, and develops anew in each new child.

The answer to “do we have free will?” is – yes! Of course! We all know this, and the fact that so many people to find it plausible that we don’t just shows how odd a philosophical tangle we have got ourselves into. Let me try to convince you.

The basic theme in the path from swamp mud to human beings is the development of self-replicating devices with increasingly flexible behaviours. There is no mystery in this, it is just that replicating devices with bigger behavioural repertoires get destroyed less often, and replicate more. The first replicants were perhaps something like crystalline structures, which could self-form, and seed more of themselves. They had no flexibility at all, and no freedom from anything, except entropy. Next were single celled creatures, which walled off and protected a tiny bit of the world with their cell wall. With them arose “me” and “not me,” and with it “Good [for me]” and “Bad [for me].” But they too had entirely inflexible behaviours, and were free only from entropy and decay. Then came creatures with cunning reflexes, which could direct their behaviour in ways that avoided heat and cold, sought out food, evaded predators. These creatures began to be free from the tyranny of their environment, and soon there was an explosion of creatures which could respond in increasingly subtle and ingenious ways, until, surprisingly soon, we get to something like a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee has a great deal of freedom – not only from its environment, but even from its own immediate desires. A chimpanzee can, for example, choose to turn down an offer of food right now, in exchange for a larger amount of food later on (up to about eight minutes – Dufour et al., 2007).

We cannot tell whether the chimpanzee thinks or feels anything when it makes this choice, but we can see that there is a trajectory from the first replicants, through the chimpanzee, to us. Our almost unconstrained ability to choose our actions is simply the current state-of-the-art in flexibly-behaving self-replication devices. Yes, you have free will, because “you” are what it feels like to be an arbitrarily-flexible-behaviour-device. Free will is not an optional extra which “we” happen to have; free will is us. (Why it should feel like anything at all to be such a complex arrangement of matter is a mystery for another day.)

“But how can there be both free will, and determinism?” I hear you ask.

The answer is that a system (such as yourself) can be explained equally validly at several different levels. I am going to use Daniel Dennett’s example here: imagine a set of dominos (a big set) laid out in such a way that they form a logical circuit which calculates whether or not an “input” number is prime. I touch the dominos which represent the input of “7”, watch the dominos fall, and then read out the answer from the final domino, which I will call domino 52,627.

Now I can ask “why did domino 52,627 fall?” One answer is “because domino 52,626 fell,” which is true, it being a deterministic system. However, a more satisfying, and equally true, answer is “because 7 is prime.” Similarly, one explanation for why you enrolled in university is in terms of the physical states of your neurons, and could be traced back through the whole prior history of the universe. Another, equally true explanation is that you chose to do that. Trying to explain the behaviour of a living thing without using the “intentional stance” (as Dennett calls it) misses the whole point of what a living thing is.

To put it provocatively: We have free will because we are free will machines.

Dennett, Daniel (2003). Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.

ResearchBlogging.orgDufour V, Pelé M, Sterck EH, & Thierry B (2007). Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) anticipation of food return: coping with waiting time in an exchange task. Journal of comparative psychology (Washington, D.C. : 1983), 121 (2), 145-55 PMID: 17516793

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I was thinking about this a little bit last night and wondering if this free will stuff has anything to do with those random wild animal attacks on TV shows.  You know, where the host is just sitting there talking, not doing anything crazy and then the lion or bear just mauls him for no apparent reason.  Did the animal choose to do this, or was it just acting on some random brain stimulus to feed?

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Free will, as illustrated by random wild animal there's the makings of the world's first popular philosophy documentary....

My guess is it's something like when you suddenly find yourself hitting someone who's angered you...a choice, but on a 'gut' level, not the deliberate, self-reflective choices we tend to think of as free. My general point here is that there isn't any sharp line between "free choices" and "random brain stimuli" (our everday life involves hundreds of actions of each kind) - there are just degrees of complexity with which decisions can be made, and by the time you get up to a decision as complex as a political policy, a career choice, or an experimental design, then it is meaningful to call that choice "free."

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