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My very own Natural Disaster
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Porn: A force of Mutual Benefits
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What Your Voice Says About You
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Little kids, little minds...
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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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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What is this all about?

See Part 1

See Kate's response, Part 2

See Denise's response, Part 3


In addressing the question ‘Do we have Freewill?’ we all took a fairly softly-softly approach. I will certainly admit to this; being the first to post I just wanted to test the waters, see what would fly.

While my position of ‘I’m not really sure’ still holds I am going to take a more concrete position, if only to play the devil’s advocate, and if only for my own entertainment.

Here it is – We don’t have freewill. It’s an illusion, and not even a very good one.

Kate used Dennett’s example that xn domino fell because xn-1 domino fell, because xn-1-1 fell... This was due to some input that hinged on a prime number. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but it’s not the input that matters, it’s the consequences. The input should be almost be arbitrary, and necessarily variable.

I have spoken to Kate to clarify exactly what she meant:

"My point is just that things being "determined" - i.e. having trivial immediate causes (this neuron fires because the one next to it fired; this domino falls because the one before it fell) - doesn't preclude them also having larger, more 'meaningful' causes. In the case of the dominos, the larger rationale to why the particular ones fall that do fall has to do with the pattern having been set up in a particular way to perform a particular calculation. In the case of us, the larger rationale to why particular neurons fire has to do with the sort of program they are a part of - "I", "you", etc.

... I'm arguing that systems can be understood equally validly at multiple levels. You can explain what my computer does in terms of electrical gates, or in terms of machine code, or in terms of software and user input, and I'd say that all of those are sensible ways of describing the system (and that the higher level descriptions are actually more informative). Likewise, yes, everything that happens in me can be explained in terms of action potentials, but that doesn't mean that it's not meaningfully (and more informatively) described in terms of the 'software' - i.e. thoughts and desires."

Here’s an example of elements within a domino system falling… if only for my own entertainment:


Now I’m not accusing Kate or Denise of this, but I feel that a lot of people misinterpret the idea that a lack of freewill, usually described as some shade of determinism, is the same as predetermination. I suspect that this is not Kate or Denise’s argument, but the video above is essentially predetermination. The outcome is set, and the determined input in known. If the system should be interrupted, or initiated at some midpoint then a sub-optimal outcome is achieved – either the whole system is aborted, or the end is achieved without domino xn-y fallings despite the designers intention that it ought to.

Human freewill is more like a squash court full of mouse-traps.


[You can ignore most of what the guy says, it’s an ad for something or other, but it’s actually kinda interesting that he says ‘a single idea can spark hundreds’.]

Now an infinitely long chain of dominos is doomed to predetermination, each domino falling in its place and at its time. The next point appears meaningless, but will become relevant soon. If each toppled domino stands back up ready to re-fall at some input, well… then all we have is a repeat.

An infinite field of mousetraps, on the other hand, is a far closer approximation to the manner in which we interface with reality - in my opinion. It doesn’t matter where the first ping-pong ball falls, only that it does. In this example the first ball represents information into the system – a problem to solve perhaps, something that we our sense of agency feels compelled to address. There is no guarantee that every trap will be triggered after the first input, and it’s almost guaranteed that every trap triggered triggers more than one other trap. The system cascades. Furthermore, unlike the dominos, tiny variations in the environment can influence how it cascades. Finally, if the traps re-set after each triggering then a re-triggering by some second, third, or nth input does not guarantee the same series of cascading events.

Let’s work this metaphor to death…


What is the Domino? What is the Ping-pong Ball?

Each are components that belong within the system. Perhaps each individual piece can represent a neuron or a gene, or some other kind of concrete element. There’s no question each of these elements act on each other in an incomprehensibly complex way, and that environmental influences also play a role, but the domino represents a kind of hard-determinism that dooms each individual to a predetermined outcome. Environmental effects be damned.

Pingpong balls, on the other hand, can equally represent neurons or genes, each triggering others until the system is exhausted (not necessarily comprehensively). Environmental effects may play a huge role… a slight breeze, for instance, might bias the entire system (let us assign to this breeze culture, education, priming, acquired physical conditions, blah blah blah). A slight breeze on the dominos has negligible impact. For this reason I argue that this metaphor is superior.

When either system is exhausted let’s call that a decision. Freewill (or the sensation thereof) is the awareness that the system has been triggered.


… The exhausted system

If we actually had freewill we could discard individual elements within the system, by virtue that we’d be aware of what they are and we would then be able to evaluate them accordingly (perhaps setting off ever more deeply embedded infinite fields of mousetraps). I say ‘nope’ - there’s just one field + environmental influence. In typical person there’s just one awareness and one process.

Here’s what happens when you literally cut someone’s brain in half:


'So what!?', you may say. That guy just lacks access to something. Vision isn't about choice. Vision isn't about evaluating concepts. Vision isn't about Freewill.

How about God?

For all my searching I couldn't find a paper describing this particular case. I would love if someone could point me in the right direction.

Okay, so what does this mean? Can freewill be split, like a star-fish, to a point where a single individual can have two Freewills? Granted, we don't know what degree of reasoning each hemisphere is capable of, but I do believe it is fair to assume some degree of reasoning ability does exist.

So, can we have two freewills? Can we have more?

I say no; I say the illusion of freewill is a global product of the brain. You cut it down the middle and you disrupt global processing. It's a wonder of nature that the brain is so plastic that it will continue to function in a manner that's almost outwardly indiscernible. What we have is not two instances of freewill within one agent, but two separated domains each containing a unique combination of previously united faculties.

And here's my point - most of us are aware most of the time of most of the processes that contribute to a decision. Split-brain patients are people who, all of the time are only aware of no more than half of the processes that contribute to a decision. Their decisions fork; a giant glass wall has been erected in the pingpong field. Each hemisphere submits to a stimuli and each reaches a conclusion, sometimes congruent sometimes not. Split-brain patients do not have the illusion of complete freewill, half of their will is literally beyond access; and yet they continue to act on cognitions (i.e. drawing pans, etc) for which they have no conscious access.


Making decisions is hard

Making decisions is a freaken' mess. The question 'what do you want for dinner tonight' is a chore for me to answer, but a suspect a delightful proposition for JaySeeDub. If it were up to me I'd cook up a big bowl of fried-rice each sunday night and eat it for the rest of the week - thus avoiding the arduous task of evaluating my options each and every day.

I would like to say the faculties we use to make decisions are employed sparingly. I couldn't find evidence for that. The strongest statement I can make is the faculties we employ to make decisions are not employed consistently over time.

We fall into habits. We use heuristics to evaluate the world around us, and we use stereotypes to classify people. Not all the time, but frequently.

Here's an abstract from a paper which, arguably, lends to support to my proposition that we defer making decisions where possible. Once made we tend to re-engage with the same decision unless there is some external input. And following on from my original proposition, that first decision was not made freely (but only appears so). If that's the case, we are equally free when we access the successful habit that was the outcome of the first decision.

This study tested the idea of habits as a form of goal-directed automatic behavior. Expanding on the idea that habits are mentally represented as associations between goals and actions, it was proposed that goals are capable of activating the habitual action. More specifically, when habits are established (e.g., frequent cycling to the university), the very activation of the goal to act (e.g., having to attend lectures at the university) automatically evokes the habitual response (e.g., bicycle). Indeed, it was tested and confirmed that, when behavior is habitual, behavioral responses are activated automatically. In addition, the results of 3 experiments indicated that (1) the automaticity in habits is conditional on the presence of an active goal (cf., goal-dependent automaticity; J. A. Bargh, 1989), supporting the idea that habits are mentally represented as goal—action links, and (2) the formation of implementation intentions (i.e., the creation of a strong mental link between a goal and action) may simulate goal-directed automaticity in habits.

Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000

This makes sense, right? Things we are required to do frequently under unchanging circumstances ought to be delegated to automaticity, it frees up our capacity to process novel things which need access to our decision making faculties. My argument is that since one is essentially beyond conscious access (the automatic habit) and could arguably be put beyond the realm of 'freewill', why then should we assume that the initial decision - the application of those faculties - is anything more free? It would be parsimonious to say that we are simply aware of them with no more direct control over them than the habit.


Environmental Influences

So a slight breeze picks up on the metaphorical field of mousetraps. The pingpong balls gently trend with the flow, leading to a decision different from one without a breeze.... Perhaps it's raining, so I don't ride my bike to uni. I catch the bus (which, interestingly enough, probably doesn't require much processing... it's just a decision previously made which is the automatic fallback).

Let's get a bit more subtle. Sometimes we have feel as though we're making a decision but are actually being influenced by things beyond our awareness.

Did you know that you eat more, and eat for a longer period of time, after being exposed to TV junk food advertising?

You'd think that hunger and satiety would be something you could consider and evaluate. Well, it's not a concrete process.

When evaluating how attractive you think someone is, you can be influenced to evaluate them more positively if they're wearing the colour red?

Now surely most of us would claim that's a fairly explicit process, how much we would like another person?

The act of washing our hands influences the way and manner of moral judgements.

Ahhh, moral judgements (which Denise brought up) are almost the pinnacle of the exercise of a free will. And yet they too are subject to environmental influences.

My point is that many things we consider acts of free volition are infact subject to influences beyond our awareness. If the decisions and actions are determined in part by things we cannot know then how can we be said to have a will free to act in any manner we choose.



So my arguments may be a little tenuous, a little stretched. I wanted to put forth the idea - or at least challenge your preconceptions - that freewill is most definitely not as free as you'd like to think. I'm not advancing a hard determinism, but only suggesting that the processes we consider free are not, and that we frequently bypass the decision making act altogether. The environment, too, plays a crucial role in the formation of decisions - or even whether to engage in the decision making act. I argue that our sense of agency is really just along for the ride, and the decisions which we do create are subject to incalculable interactions between parts of ourselves (our faculties, or biological predispositions) and everything else. We, however, do not really engage with it.



Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2000). Habits as knowledge structures: Automaticity in goal-directed behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (1), 53-63 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.1.53

Harris, J., Bargh, J., & Brownell, K. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 28 (4), 404-413 DOI: 10.1037/a0014399

Zhong CB, & Liljenquist K (2006). Washing away your sins: threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science (New York, N.Y.), 313 (5792), 1451-2 PMID: 16960010

Elliot, A., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men's attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1150-1164 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.5.1150

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Many valid points. I agree the mousetrap metaphor is a more accurate one, but there is no qualitative difference between it and the domino metaphor. One is a more chaotic system, but both are equally determined.

As with all arguments about free will, I think the sticking point is that we each have something different in mind when we use the term "free will."

To directly respond to a few quotes:

1. "My point is that many things we consider acts of free volition are in fact subject to influences beyond our awareness."

Yep, of course.


2. " can we be said to have a will free to act in any manner we choose?"

Of course we can't. No one has ever reasonably been able to argue that. That's what I mean when I said in response to Denise that we obviously don't have Kant's perfect Rational Will, etc. As long as there have been people, it's been obvious that what people do is on the whole a product of habit and early learning.


3. "The processes we consider free are not, and that we frequently bypass the decision making act altogether."

Again, I wholly agree. But the important thing isn't whether we always or even usually exercise free will, but whether we have the capacity for it.


4. "...our sense of agency is really just along for the ride"

Here is where I wholeheartedly disagree. It doesn't matter whether I'm usually wrong that what I'm doing is a result of conscious activity. All that matters is whether conscious activity can influence behaviour - whether some of the necessary causal links in the field of mousetraps (whether it be the initial ping pong balls or a subsection of the field of traps) are conscious deliberation.

When you tell me to talk about free will, I have the sensation of deliberately trying to talk about free will (and certain behavioural effects manifest, like these words, which wouldn't otherwise have manifested). Nobody knows what sort of physical process constitutes "me trying to do x", but I am certain that that physical process is necessary for the subjective and objective consequences that seem to follow from it. There are some things which just do not ever happen unless I consciously try to do them (which is my guess as to why dogs don't build transistor radios - because building transistor radios is the sort of thing that can't be done without "consciously trying to", and dogs can't consciously try to do anything).

You can certainly observe that the conscious process of deliberation is a physical, determined process - but I don't think you can sensibly argue that that process (which has the subjective quality of "striving to exercise one's will") has no capacity to influence behaviour. I'd wager its sole evolutionary point is to influence behaviour.

You can say that the Self is an illusion (or at least it's quite different from what we usually think), but you can't say that the "process which feels itself to be a Self" doesn't influence the organism's behaviour through a process which seems to it to be the exercise of will.


...hehe, it's so hard to speak correctly about these things. A helpful quote:

"It is false to say 'I think'. One must say 'It thinks me.'" ~ Rimbaud

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Im glad you disagree. I suspect denise does too. ... Now for the fireworks ;)

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Enjoyed the whole discussion.  Especially liked the second video of the split brain person.  Intriguing.

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great set of posts lots to ruminate over

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There are a lot of aspects in this discussion that are dependent on definitions, as expected in something that has part philosophy, part science on it.

I would suppose that Psy is trying to convey that the way the we have structured our society and most of our societal interactions depend on a definition of free will that is a lot more like the fabled perfect rational will, than what it is actually (as known by the cognitive sciences).

A problem with kate's point ("wheter we have the capacity for it") is that conciousness by itself can trick you into thinking that you did it (you have the capacity for it), when it actually it is only the concious perception/interpretation of something that you did subconciously. So how to decide in that case that YOU had the capacity for it?

I think it also has to do with the fact that we, for whatever sociocultural reason, consider our automatisms, habits, subconcious reasoning, etc as a lower level "reasoning" than our "concious" reasoning, therefore giving our "superior" reasoning magical characteristics that it doesn't have it. That it is different than our subconcious...yes, that it is better? I think the answer there is very context dependent.

Considering both as part of "us" changes somewhat the fun discussion of freewill

Or maybe it doesn't, but some sociocultural factors have made me think like that Laughing

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I certainly recognise that the fact that I'm utterly and inescapably convinced that I caused something by my deliberate volition does not in any way mean that I did. Conscious agency could be a complete illusion. It's a viable empirical possibility, certainly. It's just that I wager it isn't ;-)


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Those severed corpus callosum cases still have other bridges of connectivity like the anterior commisure.

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