Saturday, August 24, 2013

Free Will an Illusion? Very Likely!

Perhaps the most daring and provocative renunciation of free will emerged in Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Rosenberg bases his claims on documented experiments, such as those by  Lüder Deecke  and Hans Helmut Kornhuber in 1964, showing that all human actions precede conscious decisions to perform them.

For example, Rosenberg argues, in his discussion concerning neural time delays, that a simple action like flexing a wrist can’t be done at the instant one consciously thinks of doing so . Instead, there’s an inevitable time delay of about 200 milliseconds from conscious willing to wrist flexing and finger pressing.(Rosenberg, p. 152). He adds that the cortical processes responsible commence 500 ms before that!

The obvious implication: Consciously deciding to do something is not the cause of doing it. The “free will” you believe determines your assorted actions is really a fiction. Or, conversely,  if there is no such thing as free will, there can be no willpower to exercise control over it. Rosenberg adopts this as a grounding for his notion that we are beings entirely governed by blind sight- i.e. all our sensory outputs are based on ex post facto- conducted neural process corrections to much earlier sensory inputs.

The point is, humans aren't equipped to gain real time access to anything in their world! What actually happens in vision, for example, is that the brain must perform tricks to first erect an image that appears inverted on the retina. The process takes time and processing via the optic nerve is also needed. Thus, in Rosenberg’s parlance, vision turns out to be hindsight not foresight. Rosenberg’s inescapable conclusion is that because of this we are victims of a monumental illusion condemned to live our lives through rear sight, not foresight or will. This transfers to his Chapter Eight, in which we are shown The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About It At All.

There can be no aboutness for introspection or description of any meaning, according to Rosenberg’s perspective, since introspection is an illusion given the fact our brain doesn’t really think. We only think it thinks. All these words I’m writing (or any other blogger's, or tweeter's)? Meaningless gibberish! Shakespeare’s work, The Tempest? Doggerel and drivel! Einstein’s original paper on special relativity? A product of human imagination run riot.

 Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness? A delusional, solipsistic voyage that could as well have been produced from LSD ingestion! Basically, all our fine cogitating, ruminating and writing translates to a torrent of meaningless effluent. All our millions and billions of volumes of books, e-books and scientific or other journals amount to culminations of massive forest destruction or wasted bytes. With no introspection, the products of human thought have no interpretative dimensions. They’re merely elaborate chemical-physical automatons operating under the illusion of genuine personhood.

 Now comes a perhaps less radical declaration that free will is overstated in the excellent Mensa Bulletin article ‘Will Power’ ( July, p. 24) by member Mark Chmielewski. According to Mark, our belief that we’re actually determining our actions in real time is an illusion generated by recourse to a set of pre-programmed algorithms in the prefrontal cortex. He observes:

 “The main functions of the prefrontal cortex involve planning responses to complex and difficult problems. It takes past events stored in those billions of neurons and present experiences, runs them through brain-created algorithms and sends a response to the body – which acts accordingly.”

He goes on to note that the brain occupies its first 10 or so years learning by “creating synapses for everything in the person’s life”. The brain then takes those synapses and fine tunes behavior, emotions and planning over the next 10-15 years. What’s the final product? Well, it’s an “electrical-chemical computer that runs the body both consciously and unconsciously”. This enables the person to react to real time situations based on brain responses using input from previously created algorithms.

In other words, no individual is capable of just randomly making a decision. The bottom line:

 ”every living human being’s decision is based on past information assimilated by the brain. The responses come from the brain based on the perceived situation.”

The author then finally arrives at the only acceptable definition of free will, which is one with which I can also concur: “Free will is decision making absent past brain input

As an example of genuine free will being exercised according to this definition, consider a fundie creationist who'd always blogged or written about his shtick then  suddenly writes a tract in defense of atheism and Darwinian evolution. THAT would make a novel break from his past algorithmic programming and mark the exercise of true free will. Another example would be that of a hate blogger suddenly killing his whole hateful series of past bigoted posts and replacing them with tolerant ones, evoking a genuine love of humanity. To do that, to make that choice, he'd have had to step outside of his racist,  pre-programmed brain algorithms and reactive -emotional behaviors. Clean out his brain, in other words!

Chmielewski adds: “Free will no longer needs to be a discussion topic in philosophy because it is a nonexistent entity”.

Bravo to Mark for a thoroughly rational take!


Douglas J. Bender said...

"Free Will an Illusion? Very Likely!"

I can't help but disbelieve this.

Copernicus said...

Why do you disbelieve it? If past conditioning and memories lead to programmed (and hence, limited) choice of behaviors, then novelty or novel choices can only occur in real time. I.e. dependent on no past inputs.

To me it makes eminent sense. Perhaps this is another aspect showing how the brain can delude us into thinking we're acting a autonomous agents with our own will - but really aren't.

This certainly has to give propagandizers and PR manipulaters lots of confidence.

Douglas J. Bender said...

Why do I disbelieve it? Did you not read the article?

Copernicus said...

Yes, I did read it and see no problem with it. Unless you elaborate on WHY you disbelieve it, we are at a moot dead end. Or, left to guessing games.

Since I am not a mind reader - though I wish I were- I need you to explain yhour problem with it.

Copernicus said...

Ohhhhhh.....I'm informed by Mr.Bender there's a "joke" in his comment, which is why he should not have to elaborate. Alas, he chose to broach it to a humor-challenged individual. So, it will have to remain a private "joke" - known only to him.

C'est la vie!

Copernicus said...

Aw, ok, I concede there's a cute take in his original statement....along the (self-reference) lines of the old 'Cretans are liars' paradox. But I don't regard it as a "joke". More a play on words.

Douglas J. Bender said...

Sorry. I wasn't trying to be obtuse or clever or anything. Basically, my original post, in which I replied to the title of the article by saying, "I can't help but disbelieve this", was pointing out that if one took the article seriously, and followed it to its logical conclusion, then one's opinion ABOUT the veracity of the article is a foregone conclusion -- thus, I "can't help" but (in my case) "disbelieve" the article. Basically, I pointed out that if the article is true, people will form their opinions about it not based on "free will" and rational judgment, but merely upon "past conditioning and memories".