Paul P. Mealing

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Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Free will revisited

I’ve written quite a lot on this in the past, so one may wonder what I could add.

I’ve just read Mark Balaguer’s book, Free Will, which I won when Philosophy Now published my answer to their Question of the Month in their last issue (No 111, December 2015). It’s the fourth time I’ve won a book from them (out of 5 submissions).

It’s a well written book, not overly long or over-technical in a philosophical sense, so very readable whilst being well argued. Balaguer makes it clear from the outset where he stands on this issue, by continually referring to those who argue against free will as ‘the enemies of free will’. Whilst this makes him sound combative, the tone of his arguments are measured and not antagonistic. In his conclusion, he makes the important distinction that in ‘blocking’ arguments against free will, he’s not proving that free will exists.

He makes the distinction between what he calls Hume-style free will and Non-predetermined free will (NDP), which is a term I believe he’s coined for himself. Hume-style free will, is otherwise known as ‘compatibilism’, which means it’s compatible with determinism. In other words, even if everything in the world is deterministic from the Big Bang onwards, it doesn’t rule out you having free will. I know it sounds like a contradiction, but I think it’s to do with the fact that a completely deterministic universe doesn’t conflict with the subjective sense we all have of having free will. As I’ve expressed in numerous posts on this blog, I think there is ample evidence that the completely deterministic universe is a furphy, so compatibilism is not relevant as far as I’m concerned.

Balaguer also coins another term, ‘torn decision’, which he effectively uses as a litmus test for free will. In a glossary in the back he gives a definition which I’ve truncated:

A torn decision is a conscious decision in which you have multiple options and you’re torn as to which option is best.

He gives the example of choosing between chocolate or strawberry flavoured ice cream and not making a decision until you’re forced to, so you make it while you’re still ‘torn’. This is the example he keeps coming back to throughout the book.

In recent times, experiments in neuro-science have provided what some people believe are ‘slam-dunk’ arguments against free will, because scientists have been able to predict with 60% accuracy what decision a subject will make seconds before they make it, simply by measuring neuron activity in certain parts of the brain. Balaguer provides the most cogent arguments I’ve come across challenging these contentions. In particular, the Haynes studies, which showed neuron activity up to 10 seconds prior to the conscious decision. Balaguer points out that the neuron activity for these studies occurs in the PC and BA10 areas of the brain, which are associated with the ‘generation of plans’ and the ‘storage of plans’ respectively. He makes the point (in greater elaboration than I do here) that we should not be surprised if we subconsciously use our ‘planning’ areas of the brain whilst trying to make ‘torn decisions’. The other experiment and their counterparts, known as the Libet studies (since the 1960s) showed neuron activity half a second prior to conscious decision-making and was termed the ‘readiness potential’.  Balaguer argues that there is ‘no evidence’ that the readiness potential causes the decision. Even so, it could be argued that, like the Haynes studies, it is subconscious activity happening prior to the conscious decision.

It is readily known (as Balaguer explicates) that much of our thinking is subconscious. We all have the experience of solving a problem subconsciously so it comes to us spontaneously when we don’t expect it to. And anyone who has pursued some artistic endeavour (like writing fiction) knows that a lot of it is subconscious so that the story and its characters appear on the page with seemingly divine-like spontaneity.

Backtracking to so-called Hume-style free will, it does have a relevance if one considers that our ‘wants’ - what we wish to do - are determined by our desires and needs. We assume that most of the animal kingdom behave on this principle. Few people (including Balaguer) discuss other sentient creatures when they discuss free will, yet I’ve long believed that consciousness and free will go hand-in-hand. In other words, I really can’t see the point of consciousness without free will. If everything is determined subconsciously, without the need to think, then why have we evolved to think?

But humans take thinking to a new level compared to every other species on the planet, so that we introspect and cogitate and reason and internally debate our way to many a decision.

Back in Feb., 2009, I reviewed Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer prize winning book, Godel, Escher, Bach where, among other topics, I discussed consciousness, as that’s one of the themes of his book. Hofstadter coins the term ‘strange loop’. This is what I wrote back then:

By strange loop, Hofstadter means that we can effectively look at all the levels of our thinking except the ground level, which is our neurons. In between we have symbols, which is language, which we can discuss and analyse in a dispassionate way, just like I’m doing now. I can talk about my own thoughts and ideas as if they weren’t mine at all. Consciousness, in Hofstadter’s model (for want of a better word) is the top level, and neurons are the hardware level. In between we have the software (symbols) which is effectively language.

I was quick to point out that ‘software’ in this context is a metaphor – I don’t believe that language is really software, even though we ‘download’ it from generation to generation and it is indispensable to human reasoning, which we call thinking.

The point I’d make is that this is a 2 way process: the neurons are essential to thoughts, yet our thoughts I expect can affect neurons. I believe there is evidence that we can and do rewire our brains simply by exercising our mental faculties, even in later years, and surely exercising consciously is the very definition of will.

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