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Author Topic: Do we have Free Will?  (Read 3749 times)

Offline evan_au

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Do we have Free Will?
« on: 13/04/2013 10:13:29 »
A recent show asked if free will was an illusion - and suggested "Yes": our "decisions" are preprogrammed by our subconscious before we make a conscious decision.

However, lets take it back one step further: Can we consciously reprogram our subconscious so that it makes a different set of decisions, thus reclaiming free will?


 

Offline RD

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #1 on: 13/04/2013 16:50:14 »
Can we consciously reprogram our subconscious so that it makes a different set of decisions, thus reclaiming free will?

Like  attempts to "reprogram" gay people to be straight ? ...

Quote
... convert lesbians and gay men to heterosexuality by techniques including aversive treatments, such as "the application of electric shock to the hands and/or genitals," and "nausea-inducing drugs...administered simultaneously with the presentation of homoerotic stimuli,"
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_therapy

[ That "therapy" sounds more like  sadomasochism  :) ]
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #2 on: 13/04/2013 20:38:12 »
In a book about the brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman compares consciousness to a CEO who makes important decisions or can veto others, but is largely unaware of decisions and actions occurring at lower levels in his corporation. Eagleman discusses processes that are shared by both conscious and subconscious control. For example, you can decide whether to walk across the room, in what direction and how fast or slow, but the control and coordination of all the many muscles involved in walking, balance, and your orientation in space, happen automatically and usually below the level of awareness. You don't, for example, have to tell your gluteus muscle when and how much to contract as you stroll over to the door.

  In describing how the sub-conscious works, many of Eagleman's examples involve the acquisition of physical skills - in sports, or learning to play a musical instrument, or drive a car - skills and motor movements that are at first consciously thought about, but then become almost automatic with repetition. He also talks about the role of the subconscious in perception, structures of the brain that "screen" a huge array of environmental stimuli and send signals to the conscious part of the brain, telling it to to pay attention to any stimuli that is new, unexpected, or threatening, like when a deer runs  in front of your car, or you hear someone say your name in a crowded noisy room. 

At the end of the book, Eagleman proposes that conflicts sometimes arise between the conscious and subconscious objectives, or between two subconscious programs running at the same time. When a person says they are "of two minds" about something, have "mixed feelings", they really do. Part of brain reports the sensation of hunger and says "I need to eat" but your consciousness says "I'm 20 lbs overweight, I don't need more food." One part of brain perceives a threat, but another part says "No, this situation is okay. Nothing is wrong." The brain is not a single united entity, but has parts that operate independently and occasionally reach different conclusions or have contradictory, or competing objectives.

In the past I never had much interest in the subconscious. It reminded me of outdated Freudian psychology - the psychiatrist who asks a patient "Why do you hate your mother?" The patient says, "But I don't hate my mother," to which the doctor responds, "The fact that you are repressing that you hate your mother proves that you really do." If one is by definition not aware or able to control his subconscious behavior, it seems rather pointless to even consider it. 

But Eaglemen says that since many behaviors or motivations are not "either/or" but shared by the conscious and subconscious, you do have some access or control of those subconscious programs that usually operate below the level of awareness.

Getting back to the original question, I think it is possible to alter those subconscious programs, and "stack the deck" in our favour. Two areas of research that support this is work with soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder, and in the area of addiction. Violent, life threatening injuries to oneself or others causes dramatic physical changes in the brain, and therapists work with PTSD patients to change the brain's response to similar environmental stimuli or memories of these events. Alcoholics and addicts know that at certain times they will difficulty overcoming the compulsion to use drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences in the past. Therefore some attend weekly meetings where others share their own stories and experiences with drugs or alcohol, and they recall their own. Perhaps it shifts the balance of power or influence between the part of the brain that is saying "I want to drink" and the part that says, "I don't want to do that anymore." It is, I suppose, a kind of "brain-washing," but it is self-brainwashing that one chooses consciously and voluntarily.

Eagleman seems to believe there is free will, although he emphatically states that there is probably not as much free will as most of us think there is or hope for, and that much of our behavior and choices probably does happen for reasons we are not aware of.

I'm sure some neuroscientists take it a step further, and believe that the conscious "CEO" in charge is just an illusion as well. One could argue that even the decision to "reprogram our subsconscious" has been somehow predetermined. To that philosophical quandary, I really have no answer. Even Steven Hawking said in one of his books, that although the universe is probably determined, "one should try to behave as if it weren't so." I always wondered if he really meant that statement, or it was a kind of physics joke.  But Hawking also said, "I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road."

« Last Edit: 14/04/2013 03:21:59 by cheryl j »
 

Offline evan_au

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #3 on: 13/04/2013 23:03:33 »
So by consciously focusing on a desired outcome (like learning to play a musical instrument, or stop smoking), we can (re)program our subconscious.

That doesn't mean that playing a musical instrument is easy, or that there won't be physical cravings for a cigarette. But it does suggest that we need a set of positive goals in our life for which we can strive, thus taking conscious control of our lives.

I guess the next question is whether society can help provide such positive goals for its members?
...And how do you decide which ones are positive?
 

Offline graham.d

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #4 on: 16/04/2013 17:26:36 »
There have been many interesting debates with regard to free will or whether we are all predestined to follow a particular path. All our decisions are the products of our genetic make up and all of our "inputs" (for want of a better word). There is also a random factor because the brain is not just digital computer (a Turing Machine) but has elements of an analogue computer and can be subject to finite accuracy and occasional errors. I don't think it gets anywhere to say that people have not got free will. Free will is what people have (by definition): it is what they do as a result of all the influences upon them. If you could analyse all the data and anatomy of the brain I expect you could predict a person's response to a set of stimuli to very high accuracy most of the time, but probably, and crucially, not all the time.

This whole subject has been debated at length when considering Artificial Intelligence. Two opposing views on this can be read from the works of Roger Penrose ("The Emperor's New Mind" and "Shadows of the Mind") vs Douglas Hofstadter (Godel, Escher, Bach). All very good reads though can be heavy going - especially Penrose. Hofstadter argues that the brain is just a computer of immense complexity and that it could be emulated by a sufficiently complex Turing Machine whereas Penrose argues that the brain has some quantum effects that play a part to make it different. Both use Godel's Incompleteness Theorem to try to prove their cases.

I expect this is going off subject so I won't rattle on further. If anyone is interested, the Hofstadter is a lot of fun to read and can be read at any level. Penrose's books cover quite a few subjects, including quantum mechanics, and some sections are very heavy going so that I think you have to have a mathematical mind to follow the arguments with heavy use of symbols. But he reasons things through well and it is worth reading and re-reading to understand his points.

 

Offline dlorde

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #5 on: 18/04/2013 01:04:50 »
It is an interesting question, and it hinges on exactly what we mean by 'free will'. We are very complex, and our brains store a lot of influences, preferences, memories, etc. There's a lot of processing going on all the time, whether you're conscious of it or not. Most of it is subconscious, so you aren't consciously aware of all the influences that go into the decisions and actions you take. Nevertheless, it is 'you', as a whole, conscious and subconscious, that makes the decisions and takes the actions. From that point of view you do have free will - your decisions and actions are the result of everything that makes up 'you', they may be influenced by your emotions, or external influences, you may vacillate between one option, path, or choice, and another, before deciding, but it's you that decides.

Form another point of view, looking at the same process, it can be said that you don't have free will because what happens is just a complex series of causes and effects, a combination of internal states and external influences going through complex and extended processing to produce a result. There will be a deterministic events (hopefully the majority) and random events involved. The same set of external influences may produce a different result each time because your internal states are changing all the time. In this view, we're just very complex machines, and the idea of 'free will' is a social convenience to cover our ignorance of the complex details of our internal states and the processing that goes on below and beyond our awareness.

I think both views are valid and it's a matter of personal predilection which view one is most comfortable with. The former is a high-level view, the latter is a low level view. For everyday social purposes, the former view seems preferable. When it comes to dealing with abnormal behaviour the latter view seems more pragmatic.

It's worth considering that even if the universe (including us) was completely deterministic, we would still behave as if we had free will because our decisions and actions would still be the outcome of our complex individual selves (memories, preferences, emotions, etc) and we would still be ignorant of the precise deterministic thread of the thought processes that contributed to them; so it would still feel like free will.

It's a nice paradox - in a deterministic world we have no choice but to act as if we have free will   :)
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #6 on: 19/04/2013 20:21:14 »


It's a nice paradox - in a deterministic world we have no choice but to act as if we have free will   :)

The more one thinks about free will, the weirder it gets, and if it's too weird for Stephen Hawking, it's way too weird for me.

But even if one never figures out the whole predestination question, the interplay between the conscious and subconscious is still intriguing. I read about this one experiment -it was set up like a card game. The people in the experiment had to play a high or low card, depending on what they thought was going to come up in the deck. They weren't told whether the numbers in the deck they were playing against were random or not. In actuality, there was a pattern to the numbers in the deck, and if you figured it out, you could play the right card and "win."  But the pattern was complex enough that most people could not identify it before the game was over. However the researchers discovered that most people got a lot better at the game over time, and won a lot more, even though they said they couldn't see a pattern, or didn't think there was one ("I was just guessing" "I got lucky there at the end"). The researchers saw this as evidence that the participant's brain's had started to figure out the pattern before they were actually conscious of it.

That's rather interesting when you think about it. Math is supposed to be one of those higher level thinking, pre-frontal cortex, tasks along with other kinds of logic and reasoning, not a  "subconscious" activity. The sub-conscious has long been thought of as the domain of primitive, animal appetites and urges, emotions, aggression, neurosis, etc.

But the more I read about problem solving, recognition of patterns and other brain activity below conscious awareness, the more I pay attention to my "gut feelings" about situations, which in the past I had always regarded as irrational or unreliable at best.
« Last Edit: 20/04/2013 05:22:25 by cheryl j »
 

Offline majorminor

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #7 on: 20/04/2013 02:12:10 »

Form another point of view, looking at the same process, it can be said that you don't have free will because what happens is just a complex series of causes and effects, a combination of internal states and external influences going through complex and extended processing to produce a result. There will be a deterministic events (hopefully the majority) and random events involved.

So on some sort of small scale it feels like we have free will and do in that instant, can choose a cake or partner or lifestyle choice but from the Larger scale (looking at the world from outside our universal physical laws)it seems like our choices are pre determined from all the factors mentioned in this thread. Could it be that free will is relative like everything else.
The argument that there is no free will on the small scale  and you were always going to do (or chose) what you did is a bit like someone saying they  knew that you were going to do that always after it happens and has been revealed. When I am making certain decisions it feels like it can go either way right up to the decision, feels like free will. But also many times I feel that I am just doing what is easiest, path of least resistance. So for me , free will is making choices  that take you from the path of least resistance . I like the Hawkings quote (mentioned by cheryl)about the people who believe in deterministic universe still  check for traffic when crossing the road. The whole thing is too complicated so I chose this way to look at it for now :)
« Last Edit: 20/04/2013 02:14:57 by majorminor »
 

Offline dlorde

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #8 on: 21/04/2013 12:03:42 »
But even if one never figures out the whole predestination question, the interplay between the conscious and subconscious is still intriguing.
I think it's misleading to think of it in terms of predestination, at least from a human point of view. Even in a purely deterministic universe (ours isn't, because quantum mechanics is probabilistic), and even if we ignore the uncountable, unmeasurable contributions of subatomic particle interactions that make up macro world events, there are complexities that make things inherently unpredictable; chaos, the effect of nonlinear dynamics, means that even arbitrarily small differences in initial conditions of a system can unpredictably give rise to huge differences in later states. This is 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions', known as the 'Butterfly Effect'.

This means that, for all practical purposes, predestination won't be apparent even in a deterministic universe.

Quote
I read about this one experiment -it was set up like a card game. The people in the experiment had to play a high or low card, depending on what they thought was going to come up in the deck. They weren't told whether the numbers in the deck they were playing against were random or not. In actuality, there was a pattern to the numbers in the deck, and if you figured it out, you could play the right card and "win."  But the pattern was complex enough that most people could not identify it before the game was over. However the researchers discovered that most people got a lot better at the game over time, and won a lot more, even though they said they couldn't see a pattern, or didn't think there was one ("I was just guessing" "I got lucky there at the end"). The researchers saw this as evidence that the participant's brain's had started to figure out the pattern before they were actually conscious of it.

That's rather interesting when you think about it. Math is supposed to be one of those higher level thinking, pre-frontal cortex, tasks along with other kinds of logic and reasoning, not a  "subconscious" activity. The sub-conscious has long been thought of as the domain of primitive, animal appetites and urges, emotions, aggression, neurosis, etc.

But the more I read about problem solving, recognition of patterns and other brain activity below conscious awareness, the more I pay attention to my "gut feelings" about situations, which in the past I had always regarded as irrational or unreliable at best.

The more I introspect about this, the more I realise just how much of what I do is below my conscious awareness, and just how little my conscious awareness is involved in what I do. It's interesting that our language is full of little acknowledgements of this, but we don't generally seem recognise the implications; e.g. "I didn't mean to do it", it was a 'Freudian Slip'", "I found myself... (doing x)", "I just automatically...", "before I knew it, I'd...", "without realising it, I...", and so-on.

You would really enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Blink', which is all about this very subject.
« Last Edit: 21/04/2013 12:05:17 by dlorde »
 

Offline Martin J Sallberg

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #9 on: 26/04/2013 13:23:24 »
As shown in "Mind, Brain and Education" by Kurt Fischer and Christina Hinton, and in "The brain that changes itself", there are documented cases of extreme brain rewiring that classic theory considers to be impossible. There are even people who have no cerebral cortex at all and yet shows no symptoms of brain damage! Those cases are linked to tolerant environments. The role of tolerant environments also means that the example of "conversion therapy" is irrelevant, since it takes place in homophobic (i.e. intolerant) environments, which explains its faliure without invoking any purported "fundamental plasticity limitations".

There is also evidence that evolution can go very fast. Natural selection theory explains this by saying that individual variability that already exists can rapidly be selected on to form group differences. This means that the "evolutionary speed limits" that evolutionary psychologists invoke to declare humanity homogenous do not exist. Therefore evolutionary psychology makes racist predictions which fails to pan out (supposedly racial differences in intelligence and behavior can be ruled out if enough sociological factors are taken into account). The tolerance factor solves the paradox, since racist discrimination is a form of intolerance.

But tolerance alone is not the whole story, as shown by, say, high intelligence in strict asian cultures. What is going on? Well, sufficient strictness makes justifications futile. This is not as good as full tolerance, but better than semi-tolerance that accepts excuses. Justifications obviously paralyzes self-correction. Justification is also influenced by various beliefs and worldviews. For instance, control of "autonomical" functions like heart rate and metabolism is actually common in some cultures (including hindus and buddhists), but virtually unheard of in cultures that believe in pure good and pure evil. Belief in pure good and pure evil of course creates more pressure to justify one's actions.

So the whole division into "conscious" and "subconscious" is all due to justifications. That should not be a surprise. Self-justification, by definition, stops you from changing yourself!

So-called "human stupidity" which causes destruction of the world is, thus, actually justificational stupidity. It is important to stop justifying, and stop exerting pressure on others to justify themselves.
 

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Re: Do we have Free Will?
« Reply #9 on: 26/04/2013 13:23:24 »

 

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