Tag Archives: free will

Fictionalism of Free Will and Morality

In a recent opinion column William Irwin professor of philosophy at King’s College summarizes an approach to accepting the notion of free will rather than believing it. While I’d eventually like to see an explanation for free will and morality in biological and chemical terms — beyond metaphysics — I will (or may, if free will does not exist) for the time being have to content myself with mere acceptance. But, I my acceptance is not based on the notion that “free will” is pre-determined by a supernatural being — rather, I suspect it’s an illusion, instigated in the dark recesses of our un- or sub-conscious, and our higher reasoning functions rationalize it post factum in the full light of day. Morality on the other hand, as Irwin suggests, is an rather different state of mind altogether.

From the NYT:

Few things are more annoying than watching a movie with someone who repeatedly tells you, “That couldn’t happen.” After all, we engage with artistic fictions by suspending disbelief. For the sake of enjoying a movie like “Back to the Future,” I may accept that time travel is possible even though I do not believe it. There seems no harm in that, and it does some good to the extent that it entertains and edifies me.

Philosophy can take us in the other direction, by using reason and rigorous questioning to lead us to disbelieve what we would otherwise believe. Accepting the possibility of time travel is one thing, but relinquishing beliefs in God, free will, or objective morality would certainly be more troublesome. Let’s focus for a moment on morality.

The philosopher Michael Ruse has argued that “morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes.” If that’s true, why have our genes played such a trick on us? One possible answer can be found in the work of another philosopher Richard Joyce, who has argued that this “illusion” — the belief in objective morality — evolved to provide a bulwark against weakness of the human will. So a claim like “stealing is morally wrong” is not true, because such beliefs have an evolutionary basis but no metaphysical basis. But let’s assume we want to avoid the consequences of weakness of will that would cause us to act imprudently. In that case, Joyce makes an ingenious proposal: moral fictionalism.

Following a fictionalist account of morality, would mean that we would accept moral statements like “stealing is wrong” while not believing they are true. As a result, we would act as if it were true that “stealing is wrong,” but when pushed to give our answer to the theoretical, philosophical question of whether “stealing is wrong,” we would say no. The appeal of moral fictionalism is clear. It is supposed to help us overcome weakness of will and even take away the anxiety of choice, making decisions easier.

Giving up on the possibility of free will in the traditional sense of the term, I could adopt compatibilism, the view that actions can be both determined and free. As long as my decision to order pasta is caused by some part of me — say my higher order desires or a deliberative reasoning process — then my action is free even if that aspect of myself was itself caused and determined by a chain of cause and effect. And my action is free even if I really could not have acted otherwise by ordering the steak.

Unfortunately, not even this will rescue me from involuntary free will fictionalism. Adopting compatibilism, I would still feel as if I have free will in the traditional sense and that I could have chosen steak and that the future is wide open concerning what I will have for dessert. There seems to be a “user illusion” that produces the feeling of free will.

William James famously remarked that his first act of free will would be to believe in free will. Well, I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it. In fact, if free will fictionalism is involuntary, I have no choice but to accept free will. That makes accepting free will easy and undeniably sincere. Accepting the reality of God or morality, on the other hand, are tougher tasks, and potentially disingenuous.

Read the entire article here.

You Are a Neural Computation

Since the days of Aristotle, and later Descartes, thinkers have sought to explain consciousness and free will. Several thousand years on and we are still pondering the notion; science has made great strides and yet fundamentally we still have little idea.

Many neuroscientists now armed with new and very precise research tools are aiming to change this. Yet, increasingly it seems that free will may indeed by a cognitive illusion. Evidence suggests that our subconscious decides and initiates action for us long before we are aware of making a conscious decision. There seems to be no god or ghost in the machine.

From Technology Review:

It was an expedition seeking something never caught before: a single human neuron lighting up to create an urge, albeit for the minor task of moving an index finger, before the subject was even aware of feeling anything. Four years ago, Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, slipped several probes, each with eight hairlike electrodes able to record from single neurons, into the brains of epilepsy patients. (The patients were undergoing surgery to diagnose the source of severe seizures and had agreed to participate in experiments during the process.) Probes in place, the patients—who were conscious—were given instructions to press a button at any time of their choosing, but also to report when they’d first felt the urge to do so.

Later, Gabriel Kreiman, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston, captured the quarry. Poring over data after surgeries in 12 patients, he found telltale flashes of individual neurons in the pre-­supplementary motor area (associated with movement) and the anterior cingulate (associated with motivation and attention), preceding the reported urges by anywhere from hundreds of milliseconds to several seconds. It was a direct neural measurement of the unconscious brain at work—caught in the act of formulating a volitional, or freely willed, decision. Now Kreiman and his colleagues are planning to repeat the feat, but this time they aim to detect pre-urge signatures in real time and stop the subject from performing the action—or see if that’s even possible.

A variety of imaging studies in humans have revealed that brain activity related to decision-making tends to precede conscious action. Implants in macaques and other animals have examined brain circuits involved in perception and action. But Kreiman broke ground by directly measuring a preconscious decision in humans at the level of single neurons. To be sure, the readouts came from an average of just 20 neurons in each patient. (The human brain has about 86 billion of them, each with thousands of connections.) And ultimately, those neurons fired only in response to a chain of even earlier events. But as more such experiments peer deeper into the labyrinth of neural activity behind decisions—whether they involve moving a finger or opting to buy, eat, or kill something—science could eventually tease out the full circuitry of decision-making and perhaps point to behavioral therapies or treatments. “We need to understand the neuronal basis of voluntary decision-making—or ‘freely willed’ decision-­making—and its pathological counterparts if we want to help people such as drug, sex, food, and gambling addicts, or patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder,” says Christof Koch, chief scientist at the Allen Institute of Brain Science in Seattle (see “Cracking the Brain’s Codes”). “Many of these people perfectly well know that what they are doing is dysfunctional but feel powerless to prevent themselves from engaging in these behaviors.”

Kreiman, 42, believes his work challenges important Western philosophical ideas about free will. The Argentine-born neuroscientist, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, specializes in visual object recognition and memory formation, which draw partly on unconscious processes. He has a thick mop of black hair and a tendency to pause and think a long moment before reframing a question and replying to it expansively. At the wheel of his Jeep as we drove down Broadway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kreiman leaned over to adjust the MP3 player—toggling between Vivaldi, Lady Gaga, and Bach. As he did so, his left hand, the one on the steering wheel, slipped to let the Jeep drift a bit over the double yellow lines. Kreiman’s view is that his neurons made him do it, and they also made him correct his small error an instant later; in short, all actions are the result of neural computations and nothing more. “I am interested in a basic age-old question,” he says. “Are decisions really free? I have a somewhat extreme view of this—that there is nothing really free about free will. Ultimately, there are neurons that obey the laws of physics and mathematics. It’s fine if you say ‘I decided’—that’s the language we use. But there is no god in the machine—only neurons that are firing.”

Our philosophical ideas about free will date back to Aristotle and were systematized by René Descartes, who argued that humans possess a God-given “mind,” separate from our material bodies, that endows us with the capacity to freely choose one thing rather than another. Kreiman takes this as his departure point. But he’s not arguing that we lack any control over ourselves. He doesn’t say that our decisions aren’t influenced by evolution, experiences, societal norms, sensations, and perceived consequences. “All of these external influences are fundamental to the way we decide what we do,” he says. “We do have experiences, we do learn, we can change our behavior.”

But the firing of a neuron that guides us one way or another is ultimately like the toss of a coin, Kreiman insists. “The rules that govern our decisions are similar to the rules that govern whether a coin will land one way or the other. Ultimately there is physics; it is chaotic in both cases, but at the end of the day, nobody will argue the coin ‘wanted’ to land heads or tails. There is no real volition to the coin.”

Testing Free Will

It’s only in the past three to four decades that imaging tools and probes have been able to measure what actually happens in the brain. A key research milestone was reached in the early 1980s when Benjamin Libet, a researcher in the physiology department at the University of California, San Francisco, made a remarkable study that tested the idea of conscious free will with actual data.

Libet fitted subjects with EEGs—gadgets that measure aggregate electrical brain activity through the scalp—and had them look at a clock dial that spun around every 2.8 seconds. The subjects were asked to press a button whenever they chose to do so—but told they should also take note of where the time hand was when they first felt the “wish or urge.” It turns out that the actual brain activity involved in the action began 300 milliseconds, on average, before the subject was conscious of wanting to press the button. While some scientists criticized the methods—questioning, among other things, the accuracy of the subjects’ self-reporting—the study set others thinking about how to investigate the same questions. Since then, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to map brain activity by measuring blood flow, and other studies have also measured brain activity processes that take place before decisions are made. But while fMRI transformed brain science, it was still only an indirect tool, providing very low spatial resolution and averaging data from millions of neurons. Kreiman’s own study design was the same as Libet’s, with the important addition of the direct single-neuron measurement.

When Libet was in his prime, ­Kreiman was a boy. As a student of physical chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, he was interested in neurons and brains. When he went for his PhD at Caltech, his passion solidified under his advisor, Koch. Koch was deep in collaboration with Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, to look for evidence of how consciousness was represented by neurons. For the star-struck kid from Argentina, “it was really life-changing,” he recalls. “Several decades ago, people said this was not a question serious scientists should be thinking about; they either had to be smoking something or have a Nobel Prize”—and Crick, of course, was a Nobelist. Crick hypothesized that studying how the brain processed visual information was one way to study consciousness (we tap unconscious processes to quickly decipher scenes and objects), and he collaborated with Koch on a number of important studies. Kreiman was inspired by the work. “I was very excited about the possibility of asking what seems to be the most fundamental aspect of cognition, consciousness, and free will in a reductionist way—in terms of neurons and circuits of neurons,” he says.

One thing was in short supply: humans willing to have scientists cut open their skulls and poke at their brains. One day in the late 1990s, Kreiman attended a journal club—a kind of book club for scientists reviewing the latest literature—and came across a paper by Fried on how to do brain science in people getting electrodes implanted in their brains to identify the source of severe epileptic seizures. Before he’d heard of Fried, “I thought examining the activity of neurons was the domain of monkeys and rats and cats, not humans,” Kreiman says. Crick introduced Koch to Fried, and soon Koch, Fried, and Kreiman were collaborating on studies that investigated human neural activity, including the experiment that made the direct neural measurement of the urge to move a finger. “This was the opening shot in a new phase of the investigation of questions of voluntary action and free will,” Koch says.

Read the entire article here.

Addiction: Choice or Disease or Victim of Hijacking?


The debate concerning human addictions of all colors and forms rages on. Some would have us believe that addiction is a simple choice shaped by our free will; others would argue that addiction is a chronic disease. Yet, perhaps there may be another more nuanced explanation.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

Of all the philosophical discussions that surface in contemporary life, the question of free will — mainly, the debate over whether or not we have it — is certainly one of the most persistent.

That might seem odd, as the average person rarely seems to pause to reflect on whether their choices on, say, where they live, whom they marry, or what they eat for dinner, are their own or the inevitable outcome of a deterministic universe. Still, as James Atlas pointed out last month, the spate of “can’t help yourself” books would indicate that people are in fact deeply concerned with how much of their lives they can control. Perhaps that’s because, upon further reflection, we find that our understanding of free will lurks beneath many essential aspects of our existence.

One particularly interesting variation on this question appears in scientific, academic and therapeutic discussions about addiction. Many times, the question is framed as follows: “Is addiction a disease or a choice?”

The argument runs along these lines: If addiction is a disease, then in some ways it is out of our control and forecloses choices. A disease is a medical condition that develops outside of our control; it is, then, not a matter of choice. In the absence of choice, the addicted person is essentially relieved of responsibility. The addict has been overpowered by her addiction.

The counterargument describes addictive behavior as a choice. People whose use of drugs and alcohol leads to obvious problems but who continue to use them anyway are making choices to do so. Since those choices lead to addiction, blame and responsibility clearly rest on the addict’s shoulders. It then becomes more a matter of free will.

Recent scientific studies on the biochemical responses of the brain are currently tipping the scales toward the more deterministic view — of addiction as a disease. The structure of the brain’s reward system combined with certain biochemical responses and certain environments, they appear to show, cause people to become addicted.

In such studies, and in reports of them to news media, the term “the hijacked brain” often appears, along with other language that emphasizes the addict’s lack of choice in the matter. Sometimes the pleasure-reward system has been “commandeered.” Other times it “goes rogue.” These expressions are often accompanied by the conclusion that there are “addicted brains.”

The word “hijacked” is especially evocative; people often have a visceral reaction to it. I imagine that this is precisely why this term is becoming more commonly used in connection with addiction. But it is important to be aware of the effects of such language on our understanding.

When most people think of a hijacking, they picture a person, sometimes wearing a mask and always wielding some sort of weapon, who takes control of a car, plane or train. The hijacker may not himself drive or pilot the vehicle, but the violence involved leaves no doubt who is in charge. Someone can hijack a vehicle for a variety of reasons, but mostly it boils down to needing to escape or wanting to use the vehicle itself as a weapon in a greater plan. Hijacking is a means to an end; it is always and only oriented to the goals of the hijacker. Innocent victims are ripped from their normal lives by the violent intrusion of the hijacker.

In the “hijacked” view of addiction, the brain is the innocent victim of certain substances — alcohol, cocaine, nicotine or heroin, for example — as well as certain behaviors like eating, gambling or sexual activity. The drugs or the neurochemicals produced by the behaviors overpower and redirect the brain’s normal responses, and thus take control of (hijack) it. For addicted people, that martini or cigarette is the weapon-wielding hijacker who is going to compel certain behaviors.

To do this, drugs like alcohol and cocaine and behaviors like gambling light up the brain’s pleasure circuitry, often bringing a burst of euphoria. Other studies indicate that people who are addicted have lower dopamine and serotonin levels in their brains, which means that it takes more of a particular substance or behavior for them to experience pleasure or to reach a certain threshold of pleasure. People tend to want to maximize pleasure; we tend to do things that bring more of it. We also tend to chase it when it subsides, trying hard to recreate the same level of pleasure we have experienced in the past. It is not uncommon to hear addicts talking about wanting to experience the euphoria of a first high. Often they never reach it, but keep trying. All of this lends credence to the description of the brain as hijacked.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of CNN.[end-div]

The Illusion of Free Will

A plethora of recent articles and books from the neuroscience community adds weight to the position that human free will does not exist. Our exquisitely complex brains construct a rather compelling illusion, however we are just observers, held captive to impulses that are completely driven by our biology. And, for that matter, much of this biological determinism is unavailable to our conscious minds.

James Atlas provides a recent summary of current thinking.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

WHY are we thinking so much about thinking these days? Near the top of best-seller lists around the country, you’ll find Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” followed by Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” and somewhere in the middle, where it’s held its ground for several months, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Recently arrived is “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior,” by Leonard Mlodinow.

It’s the invasion of the Can’t-Help-Yourself books.

Unlike most pop self-help books, these are about life as we know it — the one you can change, but only a little, and with a ton of work. Professor Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economic science a decade ago, has synthesized a lifetime’s research in neurobiology, economics and psychology. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” goes to the heart of the matter: How aware are we of the invisible forces of brain chemistry, social cues and temperament that determine how we think and act? Has the concept of free will gone out the window?

These books possess a unifying theme: The choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system. Not only are we not masters of our fate; we are captives of biological determinism. Once we enter the portals of the strange neuronal world known as the brain, we discover that — to put the matter plainly — we have no idea what we’re doing.

Professor Kahneman breaks down the way we process information into two modes of thinking: System 1 is intuitive, System 2 is logical. System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” We react to faces that we perceive as angry faster than to “happy” faces because they contain a greater possibility of danger. System 2 “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” It makes decisions — or thinks it does. We don’t notice when a person dressed in a gorilla suit appears in a film of two teams passing basketballs if we’ve been assigned the job of counting how many times one team passes the ball. We “normalize” irrational data either by organizing it to fit a made-up narrative or by ignoring it altogether.

The effect of these “cognitive biases” can be unsettling: A study of judges in Israel revealed that 65 percent of requests for parole were granted after meals, dropping steadily to zero until the judges’ “next feeding.” “Thinking, Fast and Slow” isn’t prescriptive. Professor Kahneman shows us how our minds work, not how to fiddle with what Gilbert Ryle called the ghost in the machine.

“The Power of Habit” is more proactive. Mr. Duhigg’s thesis is that we can’t change our habits, we can only acquire new ones. Alcoholics can’t stop drinking through willpower alone: they need to alter behavior — going to A.A. meetings instead of bars, for instance — that triggers the impulse to drink. “You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine.”

“The Power of Habit” and “Imagine” belong to a genre that has become increasingly conspicuous over the last few years: the hortatory book, armed with highly sophisticated science, that demonstrates how we can achieve our ambitions despite our sensory cluelessness.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

Free Will: An Illusion?

Neuroscientists continue to find interesting experimental evidence that we do not have free will. Many philosophers continue to dispute this notion and cite inconclusive results and lack of holistic understanding of decision-making on the part of brain scientists. An article by Kerri Smith over at Nature lays open this contentious and fascinating debate.

[div class=attrib]From Nature:[end-div]

The experiment helped to change John-Dylan Haynes’s outlook on life. In 2007, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters1. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise.

“The first thought we had was ‘we have to check if this is real’,” says Haynes. “We came up with more sanity checks than I’ve ever seen in any other study before.”

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person’s actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. “We feel we choose, but we don’t,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.

You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. “I’ll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this,” he says. “How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Nature.[end-div]

How Free Is Your Will?

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

Think about the last time you got bored with the TV channel you were watching and decided to change it with the remote control. Or a time you grabbed a magazine off a newsstand, or raised a hand to hail a taxi. As we go about our daily lives, we constantly make choices to act in certain ways. We all believe we exercise free will in such actions – we decide what to do and when to do it. Free will, however, becomes more complicated when you try to think how it can arise from brain activity.

Do we control our neurons or do they control us? If everything we do starts in the brain, what kind of neural activity would reflect free choice? And how would you feel about your free will if we were to tell you that neuroscientists can look at your brain activity, and tell that you are about to make a decision to move – and that they could do this a whole second and a half before you yourself became aware of your own choice?

Scientists from UCLA and Harvard — Itzhak Fried, Roy Mukamel and Gabriel Kreiman — have taken an audacious step in the search for free will, reported in a new article in the journal Neuron. They used a powerful tool – intracranial recording – to find neurons in the human brain whose activity predicts decisions to make a movement, challenging conventional notions of free will.

Fried is one of a handful of neurosurgeons in the world who perform the delicate procedure of inserting electrodes into a living human brain, and using them to record activity from individual neurons. He does this to pin down the source of debilitating seizures in the brains of epileptic patients. Once he locates the part of the patients’ brains that sparks off the seizures, he can remove it, pulling the plug on their neuronal electrical storms.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]