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Sober Thread: Free Will

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by JoeCanada, Sep 24, 2012.

  1. JoeCanada

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    I'm no philosopher, but I do enjoy pondering life's mysteries every now and then. One topic that I've been interested in lately is free will, and whether we actually have it or not. Like many people, I never gave it much thought because I just figured of course we have free will. We're thinking and making choices literally all the time, isn't that proof right there?

    But then I started to think about how all matter is subject to the laws of physics. If you put salt in water, it will dissolve. Not sometimes, not most of the time, but every time. That is simply the unavoidable outcome of combining those compounds. So then if our bodies (and our brains) are made up of atoms and molecules just like the ones we see around us, and are following the same laws of physics at all times, where does the possibility of different outcomes come from?

    I just finished reading a very short book by Sam Harris called (any guesses?) "Free Will." He basically makes the argument that we are not, in fact, free in the sense that we think we are, and that every thought we have and every action we take is the only outcome possible given all of our experiences leading up to that moment.

    From the book:
    "Not only are we not as free as we think we are--we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedon results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion."


    Focus: Does free will exist? If not, what implications does that hold?
     
  2. DrFrylock

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    No it does not. Ain't that a bitch?

    My metaphor for life is that we're all standing on the back end of a train, facing away from the direction of travel. You get to see all this great scenery, and by looking around you have some idea of where you are and where you might be going, but ultimately the direction, speed, and safety of the train are out of your control. It could derail at any minute and you'd never see it coming, and you have no control over it.

    I saw James Watson (the DNA guy that isn't dead) give a talk once. It was the kind of retrospective "everyone wants to hear the DNA story so I might as well tell it" talk that you can give when you're James Watson. At the end, he concluded with some remarks that were probably true, but totally politically and socially inept. The quintessential "oblivious scientist" sort of comments. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like:

    "Maybe, in the future, if we as a society understood genetics better, we would be more understanding of each other..."

    (good so far)

    "So if we see somebody, and he's a little slow, or he's kind of rude, or he's bad at his job, we won't hate him for it, we'll just say 'well, that's just the way Carl is, and he can't help it.'"

    He got fired for making comments like this (and some that were more politically incorrect and perhaps less justifiable) a couple months later.

    Not believing in free will (or rather, accepting the fact that free will is an illusion) is really this sentiment to the Nth power. You have to accept that your favorite Uncle, Bob, got sick and died and there was absolutely no other way that could have happened. You have to accept that people's choices are dictated not by some "inner willpower," but by a combination of circumstance, environment, and previous experiences.

    You also start asking yourself questions about things like blame. If your cousin the Night Stalker murdered five people, could he really have helped it? Did he make a choice to do that? If you had his brain structure, were in his place, and had the same experiences he did, wouldn't you have done exactly the same thing? If so, would it be OK to lock YOU up for that? Is it right to lock people up for illusory choices they didn't really make? Maybe it is - but only because it achieves the practical end of preventing them from having the opportunity to make similar illusory choices in the future. The mind boggles.
     
  3. Trakiel

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    This is a bunch of bullshit. I can make a choice right now: Do I have a piece of toast before I go to bed or not? The primary factor affecting whether or not I make that choice: Am I hungry? If I'm hungry there's a greater chance I'll eat the toast than if I'm not hungry, but there still comes a point where I have to consciously decide whether or not to have the toast. That conscious choice is my free will.

    If you want to make the argument that all the factors influencing my toast/no toast decision are what's going to determine whether or not I eat the toast and therefore, I have no free will - as it appears what this argument of yours is doing - than your apparent definition of free well - the ability to make a choice without being influenced by external factors - is meaningless. The only way such a definition of free will is if you were the only being in existence - but if that were the case, then free will would be meaningless.

    Such a philosophically useless definition of free will has no interest to me. I believe we do have free will, to differring extents, depending on our invididual circumstances, because we are always faced with choices and at some level we decide how to face those choices. I think the best definition of free will is that it exists on a continuum, not as a binary absolute.
     
  4. DrFrylock

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    You feel like you're making a conscious choice, but could you have done anything other than what you did? That is, could you have made the opposite choice?

    You are a big bag of molecules operating under the same rules of physics as every other bag of molecules in the world. The physics for your molecules may be more complex than for other objects, but they're still physics. Does a ball blown by the wind up a hill make a conscious choice to roll down the hill when the wind stops blowing?

    I argue that there are (only) wholly natural factors influencing your decision. You are a phenomenon of the laws of physics. Even if you were the only being in existence, you would still have only the illusion of free will. If you think of the worst person you can imagine, making what you assume to be the most horrific decisions ever - if your molecular composition were identical to his, and your birth and path through life were identical to his, you would make identical decisions and do things just as horrific. If you "rewound" the universe to any point in the past and hit the play button again, it would play out in exactly the same way.

    "Decision" is a physical process. Just like gravity. A ball doesn't "decide" to roll down a hill any more than you "decide" to eat toast or not eat toast. If the ball were somehow complex enough to be self-aware (and we have so little research into the internal lives of balls that we can't really be sure they're not), then if it announced to you that it rolled down the hill on purpose, would you believe it?
     
  5. Trakiel

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    Call me Caitlyn. Got any cake?

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    So if I understand you correctly, then everything that happens is fundamentally due to molecular interactions governed by physical laws? Couple issues with that:

    1. Even if everything you say is completely true, how can you be sure that a model for free will can't be compatible with the laws of physics?
    2. Even existing known laws of physics allows for ambiguity and unknowns; case in point the uncertainty principle.

    Given these two premises, you can't assert that physical determinism precludes the existance of free will.
     
  6. JoeCanada

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    Fair enough. So let's say you decide to have a piece of toast. It seems as though you could have chosen not too, but exercised your free will and did, in fact, have some toast.

    But let's say you took a time machine back in time 10 minutes. This time machine allows you to be a ghost and simply observe, while not disturbing so much as a single molecule in the air. You watch yourself decide whether or not to have a piece of toast, and you keep going back in time and watch yourself do this again and again.

    Do you always have the toast, or do you sometimes just go to bed? Did you truly make a choice in the sense you mean, or did your accumulated experiences up to that point mean that you were inevitably going to "decide" to have toast?

    I think it's interesting that most people tend to think they have free will, but most contradict themselves with time machine thought experiments. If you go back in time then you can't touch anything, otherwise history will happen differently; but if free will exists, it would happen differently anyway because everyone would make all different choices.


    EDIT:
    I am curious about this. Randomness is a principle I really can't wrap my head around, but apparently it exists in quantum mechanics? My quantum mechanics is a little rusty. As in I got a B in physics 11 and then stopped taking physics.

    However, Stephen Hawking doesn't believe in free will, so there is that.
     
  7. DrFrylock

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    Well I can't be sure-sure, of course, anymore than I can be sure that there isn't a teapot hiding on the back side of the sun right now. But determinism is all around us at the macro-level (we'll get to quantum in a moment). The world, and all our inventions, work because of deterministic physics. It's special pleading to argue that you, a being that exists at classical (i.e., non-quantum) scale, are somehow exempt.

    Yes, and many woo-woo new agey believers attempt to tie quantum phenomena to free will and consciousness for exactly this reason (i.e., they don't want to accept a world where free will doesn't exist, and at the quantum level it seems that probability rather than determinism reigns, therefore consciousness and free will must have something to do with quantum effects.) But in order to successfully make this argument, you have to integrate these subatomic quantum effects up into real macro-scale entities (like people) and phenomena (like their decisions). And there is basically no way to do that, at least right now. Not that people haven't tried. Sure, we MIGHT find one someday, or it may be so complex that it is effectively unknowable/un-model-able. But right now, I don't think you can make a convincing argument that, since electrons are best modeled as probability patterns instead of discrete Newtonian objects, you have the ability to fundamentally decide whether to eat toast or not.

    The other problem with theories like quantum mind is that, since we don't really know how these things work down to the subatomic/quantum level, it's entirely possible that the universe is not deterministic and we still don't have free will. Let's say there's some element of randomness down there. So maybe the universe flips a coin to decide whether you ultimately eat toast or not. But you don't flip the coin, and you don't have conscious control over the outcome.

    There are all kinds of weird theories to create a loophole that gets you out of what we reliably observe as a complex, but ultimately deterministic, existence. You can find people who will argue that consciousness is a (or perhaps the) fundamental element of the universe, with everything being subordinate to that.

    No, but I can certainly say that it makes it bloody unlikely.
     
  8. rei

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    Alright I used to be a philosophy major so I'm going to stay out of this thread a fair bit for fear of crazy flashbacks to some of the most insufferable people I've ever met


    By and large most determinist arguments tend to fall back on the assertion "there was a prior cause so all your decisions are a product of causality, there is no free will as you can just trace back the causes that made this happen"


    On a physics standpoint - quarks have demonstrated to work on random patterns, and if the fundamental building blocks of the universe can work in an arbitrary manner than causality cannot be constant as a random act on the quantum level is by definition 'uncaused' - that pretty much undoes hard determinism.

    Getting into soft determinism a la Hume is interesting (and creates a compelling argument for determinism with some aspect of choice), but I think science has simply won this round with the existence of true random events.


    JoeCanada - your time machine example is fundamentally broken for two reasons
    1: By observing something you have by its very nature changed it, but ignoring that brokenness
    2: If you are unable to alter the past, the past will not be altered. This is not an argument for or against free will as much as it is a bi-product of a poorly engineered scenario. If you are literally observing something that already happened, it's going to play out the same way every time regardless and free will doesn't factor into it- I've never rewatched Return of the Jedi and suddenly found Wookiees instead of Ewok's because that's how it went down already. I think a "time machine creates new universe or scenario" thought experiment might bang out the point you're trying to make better, but that ceases to be a clear and colourful example; Free will does not mean "I will always change my decision on a pre-occuring event" - if free will exists I'm still likely going to jerk it before bed every night regardless, and going back in time to verify this is fruitless (and pretty gay). Introducing theoreticals on time travel to prove a point on free will seems pretty fundamentally broken, as we need to learn and consider what rules govern time travel as well as free will.
     
  9. Noland

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    So because I chose to have toast rather than go to bed makes not having toast an impossibility and the entire universe even down to the most mundane actions, such as having toast before bed, is predetermined somehow? Choices aren't really choices; I just think they are choices? This is the argument?

    So if my decision to have toast before bed was already made for me before I had even formed the thought who or what made it for me and when was it made for me?

    If you can't tell from the sarcasm and disdain dripping from the above words, I find this entire line of reasoning nonsense.
     
  10. Rush-O-Matic

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    Well, duh. Of course it exists. Pfff.



    You can say that free will doesn't exist because you're a bag of molecules reacting in a way that your particular bag will react; but, relative to the bag's understanding, free will does exist. In other words, I think I can choose to stay on that speeding train looking backwars, or I can get off at different stops along the way as those stop options are presented to me. I can't control the train, and the stops it makes, no. But, I can get off that train and get on another. And, even if that decision is one made simply based on the laws of physics, my bag's relative understanding of that choice makes my bag think I have free will. And, that's okay with my bag.

    The anarchist, then, will come in an try to impact the other molecular bags around him - he can encourage other bags to take certain stops along the way, or he can even blow up the train to try an influence where it stops.
     
    #10 Rush-O-Matic, Nov 8, 2012
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  11. ghettoastronaut

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    "Of course we have free will; we have no other choice." - Christopher Hitchens
     
  12. Misanthropic

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    It is nonsense. Because folks are confusing factors that influence their decisions with factors that determine their decisions. There is a huge difference. Evolutionary biologists, behavioral psychologists and physicists can all describe well-established factors which influence choice. But these factors don't determine choice.
     
  13. Binary

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    That's really the point, though. You say that, but we really have no idea.

    The people who claim we have no free will are saying there is no difference between the influence and the determination. The biological/cosmic/whatever influence is determination. Not in the generic, "I'm hungry and that influences my choice to eat" but a more specific scenario: "I'm hungry and my particular bag of molecules is vibrating in a certain way, with the universe aligned in a particular manner, such that I will decide to eat right now."

    I don't buy it, myself, but as time ticks along we find more and more actions, previously thought to be choices, that have a biological component. That tabula rasa is complete bullshit and that many of our behaviors are genetic or biological in cause. The proponents of determinism are just taking that to an extreme.

    Of course, there's also the question of why this makes any difference. The feeling of free will is strong enough that it doesn't really matter if it's an illusion or not.
     
  14. Juice

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    People that don't believe in free will cant prove that another choice couldn't have been made, People that believe in it can't prove that there could have been.

    There is no concept of free will or the predetermination, just like there is no real concept of time other than what we made up. There is no past, no future, and no present because the moment you conceptualize the present, it's in the "past" which doesn't exist.

    Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
     
  15. Misanthropic

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    Some proponents of the multiverse theory believe that there are an infinite number of universes, and that every possible permutation of every possibility has occurred in one of these universes. In other words, in some reality Noland made his toast, in another he didn't, in another he burned his house down trying to make toast, and in another he shoved a loaf of toast and the toaster up an elephant's ass while singing a Justin Beiber medley.

    Now - is that determinism? Or do you have the ability to choose, via free will, which scenario you will play out?

    The elephant, for one, really wants to know.
     
  16. effinshenanigans

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    I have a hard time believing that when I'm hungry, the many molecules in my body are vibrating me towards a food source--presumably with its own attractive vibrations--and that's why I choose to eat. Moreover, in that same scenario, when presented with multiple choices--say, in line at a fast food place--that the vibrations controlling my actions are so astute as to choose a chicken sandwich over a burger, or to just say fuck it altogether and grab a milkshake.

    I'll admit that my knowledge of the physical/biological aspects of our activities is limited at best. But the notion that at such a small level, things are coordinated and choreographed so precisely that the eventual effect is that, today, I'm going to have my eggs poached, rather than over-medium, is simply removing choice entirely. That not only were eggs predetermined for breakfast, but their desired presentation and style at that point as well. That some force conceived of that scenario before I got out of bed that morning.

    Nah.

    Biology may have determined that I'm hungry. I picked what kind of eggs I wanted.

    Maybe I picked them because I remembered that poached eggs were good when I had them for the first time a few years ago, and maybe that memory in my brain is nothing more than bits of bioelectricity buzzing around in my head, but my original choice to try them years ago still stands as the catalyst for my future actions.
     
  17. lust4life

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    I have it on DVD. My daughter loves it. I prefer Jaws, though.
     
  18. ODEN

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    It's an interesting premise but I have a question for those that are true believers in the non-existence of free will:

    If an individual doesn't believe in free will in every sense of their own self-awareness, is guilt or any other emotion that stems from an action still something that they feel or merely just part of the predetermined action?
     
  19. MoreCowbell

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    This has been partially handled so far, but I'll add to it:

    This is a fairly typical reaction. It's also misunderstanding what is being said, since it misses the nuance. Frylock is suggesting that your choice was illusory, and that there was no possible world where, everything else being equal, you do not eat that toast.

    You did eat toast. This everyone can presumably agree on. Frylock is suggesting that your choice was illusory, and that there was no possible world where, everything else being equal, you do not eat that toast. It's the exact opposite of the concept in sci-fi and philosophy of "many worlds."

    Your taste preferences, the stock of your kitchen, the contents of your stomach, what you had previously consumed, and the nutritional needs of your body (i.e. "We need sodium/we need calories/we need iron") are all preset facts about the world.

    Free will only exists in so far as another set of affairs was possible. Frylock is suggesting that it was never possible that you would not eat that toast, and that given sufficient data before hand (hypothetically, not that it is practical), it could have been predicted with certainty that you'd eat the toast.

    In Frylock's mind, saying "I could have not eaten the toast" is like saying, in light of the Big Bang, the Earth could have not had 75% water.
     
  20. Jimmy James

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    I think the real question here is who the fuck eats toast before bed? What a weirdo.