Sunday, February 08, 2009

Free Will Redux

Q: What are the consequences of accepting the proposition “There is no Free Will” as true?

DrC: Immense.

Q: Of course you must explain yourself.

DrC: I’ll try. But first let me refer you back to a series of posts, initiated as a reply to Felix Grant’s comments on information handling in robots, that attempted to show that decisions made by a human could be narrowed down to the firing of a single neuron. These comments were much discussed in 2007 and a list of the posts can be found at:

This firing of that neuron could be further narrowed down to one, single chemical interaction (the closing or opening of an ion channel). That interaction could be finally narrowed down to the statistical chance that a bimolecular reaction would exceed the energy barrier (Gibbs Free Energy) of the reaction and go to completion. This initiated a chain of reactions which resulted in an action (muscles contracting). We used the example of General Loan.

Since all of these processes are based on classical molecular chemistry and do not involve or invoke the uncertainties of quantum mechanics (e.g. tunneling), it is difficult to conceive how this framework could be influenced in any way by some non chemical, perhaps “spiritual or psychic” force. Such a force would invoke interactions with classical, chemical reactions that have not been seen in any other system.

An important observation by neuroscientists that inflects on this scheme is that it can be shown that humans, when they make a decision, have already initiated that decision before they are conscious of it. (These observations come from observations of subjects picking between alternatives while being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging or PET scanning.)

Q: So, Dr. C., you would propose that if you were a LaPlace Demon you could predict the decision of any human being? That is, if you had instantaneous knowledge of the status of every ion channel of every neuron in the cerebral cortex, and you knew the neural pathways of every reaction circuit in the same, you could predict what any human would do in any situation?

DrC: Yes.

Q: Does that mean that, when confronted with any decision, that a human will choose that path which is determined by the electrochemical state that exists in the brain?

DrC: Yes.

Q: So, back to the original question, how does this proposition impact our conception of human behavior?

DrC: This proposition impacts every area of human behavior in the legal, political, social and personal spheres. It is hard to imagine an area that it does not impact. While I cannot speak to civilizations other than the Western (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, etc.) and then only minutely, the concept of Free Will is integral to our current society in America.

Q: That is a rather dramatic assertion, Dr. C. Could you give us some examples.

DrC: I’ll try. Think for a moment about our legal system. This system is based entirely on the proposition that a human has “responsibility” for his or her actions. That when confronted with a decision, e.g. whether to steal a loaf of bread from a bakery, that we pick to do so even though we know that it is “wrong.” What is “wrong” is codified in Laws, which often have to do with property rights. Society, using the instruments of the police and courts, will apprehend us and punish us for committing a crime. A rather dramatic scenario of this situation is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

While the Courts will frequently try to determine “motive,” it is still felt that the human has a free choice when confronted with the decision. In the case of Jean Valjean, he stole the bread because his sister and her children were starving. We would argue that Jean Valjean did not have a choice in the matter. The decision was automatic and would have been made in this case no matter what. The information from Valjean’s senses (eyes, ears, etc.) interacted with the underlying configuration of the neurons in the cerebral cortex to produce the response. A Laplace Demon could have predicted it as Valjean stood outside the shop window looking at the loaf of bread within.

Q: That is an interesting contention, Dr. C. But surely you are pulling at our heart strings as did Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. You can’t possibly mean that there is no personal responsibility, can you?

DrC: Yes, I do believe that, in the way that we view it, there is no personal responsibility, even though I try and act as if there is so in my daily life. That is, if I perform an action that is detrimental to society, I should be held accountable. But this is not because I am personally to “blame” for the action. It is simply necessary for actions that are detrimental to be corrected, otherwise society could not function. I would ask you to look overall at our legal system, particularly in the United States. We have more people incarcerated per capita than any other place in the World. We also are the most litigious society and, until recently, the most wealthy. In order to keep such a structure functioning, there has to be an extraordinary amount of legal action. Do Americans have the same Free Will as everyone else? If so, why so many crimes? If Free Will were intact, every single instance should be a de novo assertion of this in the decision making. The only argument that will not assign personal responsibility (i.e. not guilty vs guilty) is insanity. And insanity assumes that the subject does not have free will, a circular argument. Yes, judges may use mitigating circumstances (upbringing, first crime, etc.) to determine the degree of punishment, but no one would currently argue in court that a sane person did not have free will.

Q: In what other instances do you see the impact of your proposition?

DrC: Well, the most contentious, of course, will be religion. And, in spite of the American Constitution definitively separating Church and State, this separation has been extensively eroded in recent years. At the very core of many Western religious sects is the assertion that man freely chooses to believe in a non-material godhead and, in many cases, a human emissary (Christ) who may or may not have been divine. Since these beliefs are illogical, one has to choose to believe them based on faith. But, again, the choice to believe, i.e. the exercise of Free Will, is felt to be available to every sane human. Furthermore, as in the legal system, if one does not choose to believe, one might well wind up experiencing eternal punishment. (the sort of proposition faced by Calvin and Hobbes.)

Once again, as in the legal system, a human is assumed to arrive at the decision to believe in a pristine state. That is, no account is taken for the commitment to be made under mitigating circumstances (e.g. children raised in an agnostic environment). A person is felt to be entirely responsible for their decision to accept or reject salvation at every instant this proposition is made. If one “accepts Jesus as your personal Savior” then one doesn’t have to go to the bad place after death. Interestingly enough, there is no talk of someone later “rejecting Jesus as your personal Savior” since the overwhelming majority of people in the World could care less. (Note to self: is the plethora of religions in the World, all contending their validity, an argument against Free Will?)

In the end, Western religion is deeply tied in with personal morality. This is almost certainly a result of the Jewish God Yahweh or Mony Python’s Jehovah Who definitely liked things to go His way.

Other religions, e.g. the Greeks, seemed to take a more population based stance vis a vis the gods. Since there was more than one god, and it was the population that was under consideration, the idea of a personal morality wasn’t very important except for occasional guys like Prometheus.

I guess one could make an argument that Socrates was leaning towards personal morality as he appears in some of Plato’s more moral dialogues. Perhaps I should reread Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics
including the pursuit of Eudaimonia, i.e. the good and virtuous life. Eudaimonia is constituted, according to Aristotle, not by honor, or wealth, or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. This, throws another clinker into the argument as we wonder whether rationality demands Free Will.

Q: All this is really hard for me. I don’t know what the words “responsible, guilty, conscience, virtue, grace, right, wrong, blame or sin” mean anymore. Do I need a new dictionary?

DrC: You betcha.


Julie Heyward said...

I have only read through your post once and am mulling it over.

I'd like to mention, without stating an opinion, that punishment can be considered as backward-looking and/or forward-looking. The latter is more complicated with reference to free will. Also, game theory experiments have shown that retributive punishment has beneficial effects in subsequent contribution.

There is a quite readable review at the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Four Views on Free Will, that I think you might find interesting. Here is one bit, for example:

"If the agent is trying to decide whether to help a crime victim or make it on time to an important meeting, we can imagine that her internal tension about the matter creates a kind of chaos at the neural level -- as the interaction between the network associated with her deciding to help and the network associated with her deciding to go to the meeting brings about (or constitutes) a state of affairs the outcome of which is genuinely indeterministic. Though the agent will now have to "push through" the indeterminism to make her decision, this special obstacle might also allow her to be the author of her "self". In virtue of the agent's dual processing, whichever decision she makes will be one that she was trying to make. In short, Kane claims that indeterminism arising from this sort of system will permit the agent to perform a "self-forming action" that can function to ground basic desert-entailing moral responsibility."

The description of Vargas's theories is also tantalizing.

Julie Heyward said...

I'll add a bit of my own personal fruit-loopery that I enjoy thinking about. By doing this, I hope I won't be disrupting a serious discussion.

First, it seems to me that no matter what the philosophers do, you can't escape the fact that everything was caused by something. In the quote given in my previous post, for example, Kane's neural confusion is beside the point; the person's choice was still caused by something which was caused by something, etc.

Therefore, what needs to happen is for us to kill causation. What if causation were fractal? In other words, are causes infinitely caused (can it be broken into multiple smaller causes which can in turn be broken into multiple smaller parts and so on); if so, the whole concept of linear causation evaporates.

Then what? Good question.

Second nutty idea: Random choice escapes determinism but is not free will; quite the opposite, as I'm sure you know. With that in mind, could you posit a theory of subtractive causation in the sense that ones choices are random but the size of the deck of cards (for analogy) is not; it can be varied via free will. In other words, if you don't particularly care one way or the other, the size of the "cause deck" is determined by environmental conditions, but if you care greatly about something, then you can, by choice, make the deck smaller. (You'd have to explain the cause of your "caring greatly" but ... see #3, below.)

Third, How about a mixture of, first, random choice, and then, after that, free will choice that is built on/from (caused by) those prior random choices? With an ongoing sprinkling of random choices to keep things interesting?

Dr. C said...

Julie, I can't argue with you on the value of punishment. It seems to me, though, that punishment for a crime can easily be separated from responsibility for said crime. The only thing that would have saved Timothy McVee from the death sentence would have been insanity. It is sort of like the inquisition where they killed you no matter what. Mind you, I am a fierce opponent of the death penalty.

The first author in the NDPR piece, John Kane, I think has a very unclear conception of neural processes. In particular he takes no account of the limbic system which contributes all the emotion to decision making (our old primitive brain that makes sure we get enough to eat). In any case, he continues to look at the process in the macro rather than the micro or atomic scales.

I, of course, cannot agree with the next author, John Fischer when he says "[o]ne of the main virtues of compatibilism is that our deepest and most basic views about our agency -- our freedom and moral responsibility -- are not held hostage to views in physics" (p. 81). I can't agree because that is exactly what I propose substituting chemistry for physics.

The next, Dick Pereboom, started on a good foot but then suffers from the same macro view of the others. We will never solve this problem if we talk about the actual behavior of a human because the details have been so blunted by the complexity of the biology. Pereboom also refuses to face the consequences of his "hard incombatilism."

Finally, your friend Vargas. What on earth is our "folk concept of moral responsibility?" Something by Joan Baez?

I guess I fall into the "naturalistic evidentialism" bucket in the end. And I certainly want to stay far away from "moral conservativism." It sound way to much like "you know what."

Re your fruit loops, I agree whole heartedly that "the person's choice was still caused by something which was caused by something, etc." All I've tried to do is relate this back to the basic biochemistry of what I understand is going on the in the deciding brain. The proposition that it is one single neuron out of the 100 billion or so that determines an ultimate action is at the basis of this view.

Furthermore, having competing processes in the brain is fine. In the end there is a final, common pathway leading to an action. As Felix and I discussed back in another era, the nerve action potential is an either/or phenomenon. (Thank you Mr, Kierkegaard).

Hmm. Fractals versus linear. Hmm. You still have a problem with Time. Mere reality is linear because mere reality exists in Time. I don't doubt that there are other, more exciting realities (and no, I never took LSD though I came close. Did smoke a joint or two.) However, this is one to ponder.

Hmm squared. Not sure what to make of "random choice." This still postulates a person inside our brain making the "choice" (a teeny weeny homunculus). I'm more at home with my chloride ions.

Julie Heyward said...

[I am smitten by the fact that you read my linked page. So rare! Thank you!]

Oh, man. There is just so much here that I want to answer and I have no time. I'll try to give you the briefest possible core nugget of what I'm after.

Here's what I think is the basic conundrum: to have free will, you must break determinism, but to have free will, you must have causation (randomness is not choice). Causation would seem to require determinism.

It is my understanding that there is (slight) variation in the threshold point at which an action potential is triggered. In other words, the same molecule (or number of neurotransmitters received at the other side of the synapse) that triggers the nerve signal one time won't do it the next.

This does not change causation for each single event -- which either happens or not -- but it does break determinism. If you also consider the immense chain of nerve events necessary to perform any action, such possible tiny variations can amount to a change in outcome -- sometimes... and sometimes or any time is enough to break determinism.

Now that determinism is broken, we need to get it back, at least on the level of local causation, in order to have free will (randomness being the opposite of choice).

What I am speculating about is a sort of constant dance between broken determinism and free will correction subsequent to or even in response to that broken causation. Such correction would itself be subject to deterministic causation, but would also, itself be subject to random "mutations" if you like.

It's a dance between a broken determinism trying to restart on a new set of givens, and my posited "free will" exerting choice in the direction taken in correction -- at that point; at multiple points, at millions of points.


Not to get into the punishment issue, but I will point out that on the subject of capital punishment, there is a catch 22. If you claim that actions are determined, that may excuse the past event, but it then predicts that they will surely do it again.

As in this article (very long and you truly don't need to read this one...):

"Studies have shown that capital juries often regard evidence of future dangerousness as the most important aggravating factor in their sentencing calculus. In fact, it has been observed that even in those jurisdictions that do not explicitly direct the capital jury to consider future dangerousness as an aggravating factor, jurors do so anyway."

Felix Grant said...

This is o big a subject that, whenever I look to enter it, I feel worn out.

Two shards, possibly (I believe so, but...) linked:

(1) The nature of a chaotic system involving something on the order of 10^11 components, 10^14 linkage points, considerably better than a googol of interconnections (not to mention continuous terabits per second influence from mindbogglingly large numbers of external chaotic systems on multiple scales) is the basis of my uncertainty about the concusiveness of an argument based on individual biochemical gates.

(2) I'm not entirely convinced that a higher order system can replace a lower order one upon which it is constructed ... chemistry being a special case of physics.

I don't know the answers or necessarily disagree with you ... I'm agnostic.

There is also another issue ... it seems that olfaction may utilise not just classical biochem mechanisms but some quantum elements as well*. Which raises the spectre of quantum aspects being discovered elsewhere as well ... which places the whole free will question even further beyond this particular bear of very little brain!

- - -

*Jennifer Brookes et al, “Could Humans Recognize Odor by Phonon Assisted Tunneling?” Physical Review Letters 98, 038101 (2007).