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Author Topic: Does Free Will Exist?  (Read 15904 times)
mjhewlett
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« on: March 28, 2012, 5:44:41 PM »

In the March 23rd Chronicle Review Forum (“Free Will is An Illusion”), the consensus is presented that free will does not exist.  Indeed, in the opinion of Jerry Coyne “your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.”  As a molecular biologist I certainly understand the data that so elegantly describe the neurochemistry of our CNS.  Just for argument, let’s assume that the consensus and Dr. Coyne’s opinions are correct.  As a result, we can dispense with free will as well as with the existence of God.  Would it not be equally as logical to say that these conclusions are simply the results of chemical and electrical impulses in the brains of these experts?  Would it not be the case, by this model, that the different positions of the theist and the atheist are merely differences in brain states in these two individuals, dictated by genetic and epigenetic influences on their separate neuroanatomy?  How then can we accept the validity of one conclusion over the other?  Perhaps a more reasonable position is that these are really meta-questions for biology.  It may be the case that, while using our neural system as the physical structure by which we exercise our rationality, we cannot, in fact, draw the conclusion that our rationality is simply that physical structure itself and nothing more.  We may need other tools to further this discussion, beyond functional MRI and PET scans.
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oldfullprof
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« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2012, 12:10:19 PM »

The pixils are not the picture.
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tinyzombie
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« Reply #2 on: March 30, 2012, 12:11:56 PM »

Does your professor know that you're posting here instead of Blackboard?
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spinnaker
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« Reply #3 on: April 16, 2012, 9:49:01 PM »

In the March 23rd Chronicle Review Forum (“Free Will is An Illusion”), the consensus is presented that free will does not exist.  Indeed, in the opinion of Jerry Coyne “your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.”  As a molecular biologist I certainly understand the data that so elegantly describe the neurochemistry of our CNS.  Just for argument, let’s assume that the consensus and Dr. Coyne’s opinions are correct.  As a result, we can dispense with free will as well as with the existence of God.  Would it not be equally as logical to say that these conclusions are simply the results of chemical and electrical impulses in the brains of these experts?  Would it not be the case, by this model, that the different positions of the theist and the atheist are merely differences in brain states in these two individuals, dictated by genetic and epigenetic influences on their separate neuroanatomy?  How then can we accept the validity of one conclusion over the other?  Perhaps a more reasonable position is that these are really meta-questions for biology.  It may be the case that, while using our neural system as the physical structure by which we exercise our rationality, we cannot, in fact, draw the conclusion that our rationality is simply that physical structure itself and nothing more.  We may need other tools to further this discussion, beyond functional MRI and PET scans.

How can you be sure? I would say instead that all we are certain of is that your decisions coincide with a molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.
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macadamia
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« Reply #4 on: April 17, 2012, 4:02:20 AM »

Sure, the decisions result from molecular interactions, but that does not mean that free will does not exist for a reasonable interpretation of free will.

"I could have decided otherwise." is a definition of free will that does not survive well, but it actually does not survive even without neurobiological details.
Yeah, you could have decided otherwise, if you had wanted to, but what does this mean that "you had wanted to"?
Your preferences are based on your personality and past experiences.

Neurobiology just enlightens us *how* this past experiences and personality lead to the decision.

Decisions that are not based on past experiences and personality are not "free will" in any reasonable sense, they are random.

A more reasonable definition of free will is that one could decide in absence of external and internal constraints (where an internal constraint is something like obsessive-compulsion or addiction that is not experienced as integrated part of your personality but as part of you that stops you from fulfilling your desires).

Why someone feels better when they tell themselves that their neurons are actually puppeteered by a non-material soul that mysteriously has to follow all material restrictions of neurons and cannot do empathy anymore if this part of the brain is destroyed is puzzling to me (ok, I get the nice part about the soul being immortal).
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spinnaker
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« Reply #5 on: April 17, 2012, 9:29:56 PM »

This is not my field but I'll venture an observation.
There's no way to capitalize on the knowledge that we don't have free will, is there? Even if you consider it proven abstractly, you would still deliberate over an urgent moral or practical dilemma as though your decision must be weighed with all of your mental or moral ability.
So this isn't like, for example, deciding that most likely the earth is not flat. It's more like deciding something is true that you are not capable of believing.
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lerasmus
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« Reply #6 on: April 18, 2012, 1:05:27 AM »

Derk Pereboom's Living without Free Will is an essential read on this topic. There's also a youtube video interviewing evolutionary biology historian William Provine, an outspoken atheist and denier of free will. These two are the main scholars who attempt to understand how to maintain a moral system that is not fundamentally based on Kantian ideas of freedom. So in response to spinnaker, Pereboom and Provine would emphatically disagree, the purpose of moving beyond free will is specifically to find ways of capitalizing on such knowledge.
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larryc
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« Reply #7 on: April 18, 2012, 1:22:12 AM »

Of course free will is an illusion, and of course we must all pretend that it does exist anyway.
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melba_frilkins
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« Reply #8 on: April 18, 2012, 3:52:08 AM »

Believe it or not, I had to answer this question as a teaching demo in a job interview.

I got the job.

No, I won't tell you my answer.
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eulerian_ta
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« Reply #9 on: April 18, 2012, 11:00:39 AM »

Why someone feels better when they tell themselves that their neurons are actually puppeteered by a non-material soul that mysteriously has to follow all material restrictions of neurons and cannot do empathy anymore if this part of the brain is destroyed is puzzling to me (ok, I get the nice part about the soul being immortal).

It's called dualism.  What we call cognition is dependent on both physical and metaphysical processes.

By the way, for the all the physicalists out there, I'm still waiting for that glorious future where computers can replace the entire workforce and can in turn make even smarter computers that can solve all of the world's problems.  How long do we have to wait for the silicon analogue of a human brain? The fastest computers are running at 100 trillion FLOPs.  What's the holdup?  Cognition and consciousness are just the result of communication between neurons, right? 
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baleful_regards
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« Reply #10 on: April 18, 2012, 11:18:13 AM »

Read some Damasio. Then read Dewey.

It is all connected.
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navydad
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« Reply #11 on: April 18, 2012, 3:42:21 PM »

Does free will exist?

I'll think about it and then decide.
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neutralname
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« Reply #12 on: April 18, 2012, 3:54:23 PM »

In the March 23rd Chronicle Review Forum (“Free Will is An Illusion”), the consensus is presented that free will does not exist.  Indeed, in the opinion of Jerry Coyne “your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.”  As a molecular biologist I certainly understand the data that so elegantly describe the neurochemistry of our CNS.  Just for argument, let’s assume that the consensus and Dr. Coyne’s opinions are correct.  As a result, we can dispense with free will as well as with the existence of God. 

There's your first mistake, on both counts.

Would it not be equally as logical to say that these conclusions are simply the results of chemical and electrical impulses in the brains of these experts?  

No.

Would it not be the case, by this model, that the different positions of the theist and the atheist are merely differences in brain states in these two individuals, dictated by genetic and epigenetic influences on their separate neuroanatomy? 

No.


How then can we accept the validity of one conclusion over the other?  Perhaps a more reasonable position is that these are really meta-questions for biology. 

The free will issue is not a question for biology at all.  It is irrelevant to biological inquiry. 


It may be the case that, while using our neural system as the physical structure by which we exercise our rationality, we cannot, in fact, draw the conclusion that our rationality is simply that physical structure itself and nothing more.  We may need other tools to further this discussion, beyond functional MRI and PET scans.

Duh. 
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luckychance
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« Reply #13 on: April 19, 2012, 7:12:03 AM »

Of course free will is an illusion, and of course we must all pretend that it does exist anyway.
That's my exact view too. That said, I find that those on both (or actually all) sides of the matter tend to disagree on nothing more than the definition of free will.
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macadamia
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« Reply #14 on: April 19, 2012, 9:06:06 AM »

The fastest computers are running at 100 trillion FLOPs.  What's the holdup?  Cognition and consciousness are just the result of communication between neurons, right? 

The holdup is twofold:
The complexity of the brain (number of connections and additional chemical feedback) is still much bigger than the biggest computers and then there's the billions of years of evolution.

The speed that you cite is several magnitudes below anything that could make up for the billions of years.

An evolved artificial intelligence would change people's worldview, but it would not mean that we have understood how intelligence and consciousness work.
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