Oct 23, 2011

My guinea pig wants beer!

Rather involuntary train rides (especially long ones, going to boring places for a boring event) are good for updates on some thoughts lingering in the lower levels of the brain-at-ease.
My latest trip (from Berlin to Bonn) unearthed the never-ending squabble about the elusive 'free will'. Neuroscientists make headlines proving with alacrity the absence of free will by experimenting with brain-signals that precede the apparent willful act - by as much as seven seconds! Measuring brain-activity way before the human guinea pig actually presses a button with whatever hand or finger he desires, they predict with breathtaking reproducibility the choice to be made.
So what? Is that the end of free will?
I am afraid that those neuroscientists would accept only non-predictability as a definite sign of free will. But non-predictability results from two possible scenarios: a) a random event (without a cause) b) an event triggered by something outside of the system (but caused).
Free will arguably is never compatible with randomness but should be reconciled with cause. Why should a random event (like white noise, the result of a lottery, the number of bubbles on my beer…) be a sign of free will? This line of thought (along with David Hume) is called compatibilism - and I haven't heard a convincing argument against it - yet (the comment-function is *on* :) ).
But if a free decision has a cause - how could we distinguish it from an inevitable, compelled decision? (see http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/what-makes-free-will-free/)
It seems inevitable to pull consciousness into the game - as both appear to be intertwined. Accepting an event triggered by something outside of the system does not mean accepting a force outside the material world. An event triggered unconsciously would suffice.
It feels right to claim that a free choice is a choice that happened consciously.
A free decision must have an origin, a cause, that is consciously set (a trigger inside the system). Everything after this initial trigger must be non-random and predictable - as we ruled out noise. So, the interpretation of the experiments hinges very much on the *report of the individual* about when she became consciously aware of the trigger.
As long as the time when the trigger was conscious depends on 'reports' of the guinea pigs, the experiments don't help much.
The conscious act will have to be defined by some measurable quantities (which would allow to actually *prove* if a real guinea pig has a conscious self, experimentally!). Only after that, experiments on free will can be devised in a meaningful manner.
And as long as free will is not defined, the experiments proving or disproving its existence are meaningless in any case.


DHR said...

All well said. Clearly, neuroscientists who are hunting for signs of the free will, hunt in an ill defined territory. It all boils down to the fundamental question of reductionism, if (and how) mental items can be identified with activities of the brain.

Obviously, free will is a mental item. It pertains the ubiquitous experience of making a choice. Everybody goes through this situation several times a day; sometimes it is an easy thing to do, like for instance chosing something to eat from a restaurants menu. Other times, we are agonizig a long time over difficult decisions, eg. pondering about a divorce or quitting a job.

These type of decissions are normally understood, when we talk about free will. They are accompanied by certain emotions and steps of awareness (funnily, there is also a distict urge of "wanting to decide" the issue, which by itself is not a subject of free will).

On the other hand, the connected brain processes (certainly at least as diverse and complex, as the decisions that we are trying to make) give - in the best case - only a description of these mental processes in terms of their chemical/electrophysiological correlates. They can, however, never deny them. Clearly, those mental items exist. Why should we refer to them as illusion? What would be anyways gained by such a description? Why are the mental representations of an electrophysiological experiment (eg. curves, images etc. - which is, what neurophysiologists would like to build their arguments upon) - why should these be more credible, than our everyday notion of a free will?

Neurophysiologists just try to put the world upside down. Its sort of funny. Their experiments are meant to somehow dictate our mental contents. It's be the other way around! They should be able to explain, why we have a concept like the free will. An instructive analogy to the upside-down neurolscientist would be a quantum-physicist, who denies that there is something like e.g. a soccer-game, because he can not find any trace of soccer in his quantum mechanical world.

There is quite a lot to be further said in this issue. But I shut up for now ;-)

S.R. said...

Hi Carsten, this blog post is very interesting! Though I'm not an insider on the topic - and therefore cannot go into points which might deserve it, too - here you are some thoughts of mine:

1) On Free Will:
Despite a strong tendency of mine to perceive "romantic" aspects (in a broad sense) even in everyday life, and putting the following aside in practice - when I take a sharp ratio look at the headline matter, I see determinism at least as a strong paradigm to also choose from.

In my understanding, this means: Not only would anything that exists or is happening have been *caused* by factors, be it in interpersonal relationships, in chopping wood, in natural sciences, in evolution, in brain functionning, or in international diplomacy.

Moreover, finally, after "disaggregating" and disaggregating... at the decisive base of all interplay and phenomena you may arrive at electric currents, substance flows, physical properties etc.

At the same time, our "numb" human senses and observation methods would mostly only perceive the "aggregated" phenomena or superficial structures of life and nature. According to this weltbild, free will would have no place, for everything would be 100% explicable from one or (normally) diverse causal factors, in a row of factors behind - on which level ("nano to makro") these may be situated.

Of course if such a complete determination e.g. of human behaviour existed, it would be *hyperextreme*, i.e. it would not at all be satisfyingly (re-)traceable, isolatable, simulateable, demonstrateable, or falsifiable. How to orient within a universe of Black Boxes?

Science knows little to contribute to the somehow sinister paradigm of determinism. So, luck is on our side.

2) On Your Statement:
"It feels right to claim that a free choice is a choice that happened consciously."

I spontaneously thought "really?". I mean, if you have the objective choice let's say between (1) going home or (2) to the cinema, and you go to the movies without arguing internally or thinking explicitly or even thinking a clear sentence on it;

... but instead decide in an interplay between subconsciousness (a felt "I feel like it") + some fragments of thought swirling in your head, including the vague picture of the cosy seats in the cinema + you're cold (and you don't have to "think" that the cinema is nearer)...

It seeems this mixture of half-conscious thoughts in the form of words, upcoming feelings/intuition, and imagination is too "un-conscious" to be called conscious. It's a more or less "wild", unstructured interplay with inner and outer stimuli, some hidden factors... and nevertheless I would surely call it a *free decision*!

Perhaps, the "indicator" for a free will existing and working may not be found in the quality of consciousness.
It may be worthwile instead to take a look at the potential of *feeling* as an indicator. I have only a 1st thought, of course:

Take a look at the proband *after* his/her decision has been made (for asking at the decisive moment would destroy any unconscious decision-making)- ask him afterwards if (or to which degree) he *feels* he *had had the choice*. This could at least be a - albeit very vague - indicator for a free decision, especially if the proband also has a good internally "consistent" feeling about that choice made - which would not be equally likely to occur if he had felt *forced* to choose that way. Both aspects of course had to be refined and counter-balanced with "tricky" empirical social research questions to at least reduce/control social desirability bias, intervening variables etc.

Anonymous said...

personally i know the experience of listening to someone talk, finding that i don't know what they have just said, asking them to repeat their last sentence - and then, before they even do, all of a sudden i remember exactly what they have just said. the brain works in man curious ways. even if i suppose scientists could measure a "decision" (as such a hint towards free will) and then observe a lag between the decision end its execution, there is no law in this universe that makes that a proof of the deterministic nature of that process. people have all sorts of suppression patterns, many of them self-obtained as a matter of choice (is the ability of humans to spend extended periods of time smiling in the presence of someone they want to beat the crap out of not a clear sign of free will? ) that could stand between a choice and its execution even if the choice eventually prevails (another hint towards free will) The true sadness about this is not the apparently evident absence of free will but the obvious absence of scientific reasoning within an entire scientific community funded by taxpayer's money and obsessed with abolishing responsibility of one's actions from our image of man - the only true implication of any deterministic world view. to their comfort - they are not alone, other scientific disciplines see a large portion of their practitioners on an equally unscientific path, first and foremost economics.

Carsten Hucho said...

Thank you for your interesting contributions!
While I certainly was critical of hastily drawing materialist conclusions from some physiological experiments I am equally hesitant to accept the controversy about the interpretation as proof for the opposite - the dualist view.
In my opinion the base for any experiment is the definition of boundary conditions and, of course, a clear definition of the scientific goal. It has to be crystal clear what to find evidence for or against. There is a huge and very serious community of philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists etc. who work on that - so it would be wrong to assume there is no effort. But it is a problem as difficult as it is exciting - probably the most difficult problem to tackle: is it at all possible for any system to understand itself completely (and not just a subset)? Can we even hope to ask the right questions?
I guess it is misleading and distracting to suggest some inferior aims to the experimental scientific work.
Let me be clear: my critique of the conclusions of the experimental observations can not be seen as falsifying either the dualist or the materialist approach to consciousness or the free will.

Carsten Hucho said...

An interesting view - by Wolf Singer from Max Planck Institut für Hirnforschung - is given here http://dasgehirn.info/aktuell/frage-der-woche/ist-der-freie-wille-nur-eine-schoene-vorstellung/#Antworten (in German).

S.R. said...

Thank you, Carsten. For me, Singer's article represents a good specification and illustration of the complete determinism thesis (also in line with my comment).
At the same time, this mostly seems not to be new, as does his point of human brain's processes being highly complex, nonlinear in nature, resulting in nonpredictability. This is "only" a further, organism-dependent specification of that determinism; it relates to (today's) potential to observe/to trace that determinism (simple organisms) or not (the human brain).
But this last point made me learn: That determinism can indeed be already shown, traced in simple organisms - a basis for climbing on and on?.

Carsten Hucho said...

...what disturbs me in Singers hypothesis is the understanding that anything related to free will is simply ascribed to 'non-determinism' which is set equivalent to randomness. But free will is not just noise or the flipping of a coin!

Sandor Ragaly said...

Hi, Carsten, in my opinion (and after having read Singer's text again to make sure), he is a "wholehearted" determinist! and is answering the question if a free will does exist right in his first sentence with No: "Aus neurobiologischer Sicht: nein, denn unser ganzes Verhalten ist durch kausal determinierte Vorgänge im Gehirn bestimmt. Aber dazu muss einiges gesagt werden, weil es immer wieder zu Missverständnissen kommt." - meaning: he has a clear pro position on determinism (as the following parts show, too), but just wants to shed some light on the debate, especially the measurability, the observability I also stressed in my 1st comment. His main point seems the same as mine: If the human brain is included in an examination of "total causality", the scientist will fail because of the complexity/nonlinearity *observed as unpredictability* - it's a pragmatic, not a general unpredictability. He's not pointing at randomness or non-determinism, but just marking the limits of our means to observe. There's only one side point in which I disagree with Singer, i.e. when he states "In ganz seltenen Fällen kann es dabei vorkommen, dass zwei Folgezustände gleich wahrscheinlich sind und thermisches Rauschen, sprich der Zufall, entscheidet, ob das System den einen oder den anderen Weg nimmt." I'm not an expert but would say that this "very seldom" case he mentions may also be determined by (most subtle) factors. But how ever this may be, this is just a "very seldom" exception he mentions "en passant", not a way to establish a free will factor in the determinist model.