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Free will

Is free will real or is it an illusion? This question ponders neuroscientists and they greatly disagress upon the matter. Recent studies show that we, at least in som cases make decisions before we are 'conscious' about it.

More than 20 years ago the American brain scientist Benjamin Libet found a brain signal, the so-called "readiness-potential" that occurred a fraction of a second before a conscious decision. Libet’s experiments were highly controversial and sparked a huge debate. Many scientists argued that if our decisions are prepared unconsciously by the brain, then our feeling of "free will" must be an illusion. In this view, it is the brain that makes the decision, not a person’s conscious mind. Libet’s experiments were particularly controversial because he found only a brief time delay between brain activity and the conscious decision.

In contrast, Haynes and colleagues now show that brain activity predicts -- even up to 7 seconds ahead of time --  how a person is going to decide. But they also warn that the study does not finally rule out free will: "Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought. But we do not know yet where the final decision is made. We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed."

Source: Science Daily April 15. 2008

So is free will as it is normally understood an illusion? And what implication might this realisation have moral, on religion, on society?

I just read this piece by THHuxley_Redux on FFI and thought it was relevant to this thread and very interesting

Determinism and Free Will

It is common for traditional theists confronted by the contradiction between omniscience and free will to try and shift the debate away from that contradiction to another one; that between determinism and free will.

The core of the argument rests on the correct understanding that if mental processes are entirely physical phenomenon (i.e. if “mind is” what “brain does”), then they must be determined by the laws of physics which are, as we know, invariant. In this view, there is ultimately no free will, since all our “choices” are determined by the particular causal processes that led to the specific constellation of forces and particles that existed at the moment of that “choice.” In such a universe, human behavior is governed by physics rather than genuine volition.

In an attempt to score additional rhetorical points, these traditional theists then go on to argue that such determination renders any concept of human justice, punishment or reward illegitimate. After all, goes the argument, if our behaviors are determined, what right do we have for punishing someone for an act that ultimately “was not their fault.”

This essay is designed to address those issues. I will attempt to demonstrate the following two things:

1. The argument is first and foremost a red herring. The contradiction between omniscience and free will only matters in a context that presumes eternal reward or damnation as the end result of personal choice. If there is no “heaven and hell” then “free will” is rendered inconsequential as a human capacity. It simply would no longer matter one way or the other.

2. Any such determination of human choice poses no challenge whatsoever to the concept of human justice. This is because justice, as properly understood, is not about punishment at all. It is about the utilitarian protection of the community.

Part One: The Argument is a “Red Herring”

It is important to remember that the context of the original discussion is the “salvation scheme” that characterizes human existence as a “test on earth,” the ultimate purpose of which is to sort out the eternal fate of individuals; either eternal reward in paradise or eternal punishment in hell.

For such a “test” to be just, it requires that reward and/or punishment be earned based upon the moral choices of the people being rewarded/punished. An individual cannot be held morally responsible for the choices of anyone other than themselves.

But if individuals have no “free will,” (i.e. if they are not actually responsible for their own moral choices) then any differential treatment based on those choices is rendered unjust and arbitrary.

Atheists and non-traditional theists are aware that anything in the traditional theist’s belief that denies “free will” is a contradiction that is more than merely troubling. It compellingly undermines the entire foundation of both orthodox Islam and orthodox Christianity. In the words of the wag, it reduces god to a “small boy playing with an ant farm.”

It is curious, therefore, that the traditional theistic response is so often “well, if you are correct, then in a deterministic universe there is no ‘free will’ anyway.”

How would such an alternative (if true) solve their problem? The original challenge was to the rationale for their salvation scheme. This alternative destroys that rationale as completely as the other one did. It still requires that their faith be false, and that their respective salvation schemes be labeled as absurd.

On the other hand, for the challenged opponent there are no similar undesirable consequences of such an alternative. The opponent posed no eternal consequence of moral choice requiring free will in the first place.

In other words… even were we to fully concede the diversionary argument, the argument leaves the theist in exactly the same position he was placed earlier; residing in a universe in which any eternal salvation scheme is not just bad farce, but gratuitously cruel farce at that.

Part Two: Human Justice in a Deterministic Universe

Let us again concede, arguendo, that human behavior is ultimately determined by laws of physics rather than unconstrained human volition. Would such a reality render human justice as farcical and arbitrary as eternal divine justice?

The answer is patently, “No.” To understand this, we must give some thought to the interaction between individuals and communities.

The human individual is the result of a vast number of different inputs and their effects. We are each for starters physically different, with unique and unrepeatable patterns of neural connections and cerebral structure. Some of this is driven by genetics, and some of it by environment… but even identical twins will not have identical brains. As the embryonic cells that eventually will become our neurons reproduce and connect, each pattern will be different even if arising from identical genetic instructions.

Second, we each encounter different experiences that are formative of the filters we employ in our decision making process. Our behaviors change as we learn and each of us learns different things. And all humans (other than the autistic) assemble specific filters based on those experiences to drive efficiency in attention and decision making. Many of our behaviors are not conscious “choices” but the results of the automatic application of specific filters appropriate to the moment.

Finally, the immediate circumstance of any instance of “choice” will uniquely modify those filters. An example is the “urgency threshold.” Given an immediate, life threatening situation we will make decisions based on far less information than we would feel necessary were the situation not so pressing. Such thresholds will subtly alter the outcomes of otherwise very similar decisions.

These three components insure that individual behaviors are exactly that; individual. And such behaviors will be normally distributed (as in the “normal distribution” of a bell curve) just like any other outcome in the physical sciences. Most humans will make similar choices close to the median of that distribution, while increasingly smaller numbers of individuals will make choices that stray to the tails of the bell curve.

The locations of the medians on those normal distributions are not arbitrary. They are the results of millions of years of natural selection regarding behavior. They are centered on the specific behaviors that have proven over the millennia to have the greatest survival value for our species.

Note: Not the greatest survival value for any individual. But the greatest survival value for our species.

Any behavior that benefits the individual at an overwhelmingly larger cost to the species will not sustain itself as a normal behavior in the population. Each and every individual behavior is vetted by natural selection so that “normal behavior” eventually represents what is objectively good for the community.

(It does not escape the author that this is arguably the foundation of altruism and morality. But that is a discussion for another day.)

In counterpoint, “abnormal behavior” is potentially a threat to that community. And the human capacity for learning has created the almost unique circumstances in which humans consciously vet those behaviors in parallel with natural selection. Our unique intelligence allows us to respond to abnormal behaviors in a manner much faster than natural selection can. We can do what natural selection cannot; anticipate the negative effects to our community of “bad behaviors.”

This is the role of our system of justice, jurisprudence and punishment. The purpose of punishment is primarily to protect the community from further “bad behavior” by individuals who have demonstrated a tendency to stray so far from the “normal” that it threatens that community.

It does not matter if that behavior is “determined” or “volitional.” It only matters that the community has an interest in protecting itself from that behavior… and from the individuals who tend to demonstrate it. It does not matter if that person has free will or not. Their tendency to behave a certain way for whatever reason something deserving of suppression.

A good analogy would be that of asteroids. Most asteroids orbit the sun in a diffuse belt between the planets Jupiter and Mars, and these “normal” asteroids are no threat to life on Earth.

But a small number of them have eccentric orbits that cross the orbit of the planet Earth. These “near Earth asteroids” are a threat to life on this planet, and should one threaten an impact (of the sort that wiped out the dinosaurs) it would be reasonable for humanity to take steps to protect ourselves from such impact.

Asteroids are not “volitional.” Their behavior is governed explicitly by the laws of physics. Those that behave “normally” are no threat to our self interest. But some of them behave in an “abnormal” way that warrants our communal response to protect ourselves from them.

The “free will” of asteroids is not relevant to our response to them.

What is critical here is the stunning difference between human justice in the form of a penal system, and “divine justice” in the form of eternal reward or suffering.

The first balances (or at least attempts to balance) the competing interests of individual and community, and make decisions based on utilitarian outcomes. It does not matter if “free will” exists or not, only if a threat to the community exists or not.

The latter is, frankly, simply gratuitous. What competing interest does eternal suffering balance that eternal oblivion would not accomplish without the needless cruelty? Who or what would a “god” be protecting by repeatedly burning a person’s skin off, or forcing them to eat burning coals and drink scalding water? People with eternal life in paradise would already possess transcendent reward. The suffering of others could not add to that.

In this way we understand that divine justice and human justice are completely different things, and only the former requires any consideration of “free will” whatsoever. A deterministic universe is still one in which humans can anticipate the results of behaviors and respond preemptively… and so we do. Even if that anticipation is ultimately determined.

If “free will” does not exist, that poses a challenge only for divine justice, not human justice.

Closing Thoughts: The Need for Libertarian Bias

I wrote earlier of the “normal distribution” of behaviors established and refined by natural selection. I wrote also of the near unique capacity of humans to anticipate the effects of “abnormal” behaviors and thus preemptively seek to control that threat.

But the “filters” that humans apply to the assessment tend to have at least one major drawback. It is a common error of human assessment that “abnormal” behaviors are generally threatening, while in fact many “abnormal” behaviors are actually neutral. Human systems of justice have tended over time to criminalize behaviors just because they are “abnormal,” without a full consideration of their actual potential for harm.

Humans, having evolved in small hunter-gatherer clans, are not very good at assessing risk in communities that now measure in the multiple millions. We do not intuitively understand the sort of long term tradeoffs that natural selection would ruthlessly account for over long periods of time. Natural selection would, if left to its own devices, eventually account for the interests of the community over the individual. But modern human society is not as capable accounting for the interests of the larger community over the smaller.

Our biggest challenges from war to global warming come from too great an identification with our smaller communities over our interest as a species. It is our adherence to religion, or nationality or ethnicity that allows obscenities like terrorism to flourish with such disastrous consequence.

Among our “normal” behaviors is the tendency to follow leaders like sheep. As a result, we are too quick to accept the imposition of religious or secular laws that actually make no sense and serve no genuine purpose… just because our leaders assert them. The imposition of “law” should instead be carefully reviewed to insure it genuinely is protective of the community… or of the species. Otherwise, any infringement on individual prerogatives is both pointless and doomed only to create criminals out of good people.


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