“Unconscious decisions in the brain”

A new study just reported from Germany concludes that “Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain…. The decision could not be predicted perfectly, but prediction was clearly above chance. This suggests that the decision is unconsciously prepared ahead of time but the final decision might still be reversible.”

This echoes a previous study by Benjamin Libet, which had similar results though with a shorter time interval. Many interpreted Libet’s study as refuting free will, since in some sense the brain apparently decided before the conscious mind did. The current study’s authors are more cautious:

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.”

[From Unconscious decisions in the brain]

Regardless of whether those “prepared” decisions can be reversed, however, free will may still exist. First, there are still massive philosophical absurdities associated with its denial. Bill Dembski just blogged on one of those yesterday. Second, is there any requirement that free choices be entirely conscious choices? Why would that be so? Third, it’s unclear from this report in just what way the unconscious aspects of the decision are fed and influenced by conscious thinking. Fourth, if free will is not operating in the decisions this team studied, just how are decisions made? Do they have any explanation for that at all?

Such an explanation would have to jump a significant hurdle. The one providing it would have to show that he or she believes it not because of deterministic necessity, but because there are good reasons to believe it. The distance between the two is enormous.

Comments

  1. SteveK

    The one providing it would have to show that he or she believes it not because of deterministic necessity, but because there are good reasons to believe it. The distance between the two is enormous.

    I think my two previous comments fit in here somehow even though I wasn’t talking about free will specifically.

    At the very least I’m thinking it says knowledge of the objective, untainted, non-provisional truth can’t possibly come from thinking rationally. Whenceforth doeth it cometh, then? Simple, unthinking awareness, maybe – and is that even possible? Gives credence to intuition and the idea that we just know some things without being able to say why or how.

  2. The Deuce

    From the report’s conclusion:

    “Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain….”

    The problem with this statement is, scientists don’t have the ability to measure when we consciously make a decision, so they’re going beyond what they can know when they state affirmatively that “unconscious” activity preceded the conscious act.

    That’s because consciousness simply isn’t observable or measurable from the 3rd person. It’s only known from 1st person experience. What scientists can see is brain activity that they’ve associated with consciousness. And the way they make this association isn’t by observing the consciousness itself (which is unobservable) together with the brain activity, but by observing the brain activity, and asking the patient if they performed a conscious act.

    So, all that scientists are actually qualified to say is that brain activity they haven’t associated with consciousness precedes brain activity that they have associated with consciousness. Whether the consciousness itself occurred before, during, or after any particular brain state is, frankly, outside the job description of empirical science. Acting as if the consciousness-associated brain activity is consciousness itself is to sneak in a highly questionable philosophical assumption.

  3. Scott

    What constituted “making a conscious decision”?

    If I have two differently colored cups placed on a table in front of me and was asked to pick which one I liked better – the moment at which I vocally state my choice isn’t necessarily when I consciously made that decision.

    If it was something I was really torn over I might consciously change my mind numerous times before vocally stating my option. But, eventhough I felt torn over the decision chances are it was never really a 50/50 split in decision making. We are pressed to make a decision between competing options and we immediately start to consider the consequences of one choice over another. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t consciously decided one option is still better than the other… we lean in favor of ‘A’ over ‘B’, but still consider the possibility of ‘B’, decide that ‘A’ is still the way to go.

  4. Jake

    This article brings up the interesting question of what free will is and whether we can prove or disprove its existence. It seems to me, and I think that most people would agree, that free will involves indeterminism. Those people who deny the existence of free will are those who hold to a deterministic view of the universe, i.e. our thoughts and decisions are completely determined by the laws of nature. The question of free will, then, is directly related to the question of whether anything in the world is truly indeterminate.

    Twentieth century science has not been kind to determinism. Discoveries of the theories of quantum mechanics and deterministic chaos have shattered the Newtonian view of a mechanistic universe. Still, some naturalists insist on clinging to the idea of determinism. For example, although most physicists view quantum mechanics as inherently indeterministic, a few physicists still hold out hope that some “hidden variables” theory will explain quantum phenomena deterministically.

    It seems self-evident to me that it is possible to prove experimentally that something is deterministic, but indeterminism can never be proven. Those who are so inclined can always hold out hope that some underlying physical law will be discovered to explain something that appears to be indeterminate. For this reason, the burden of proof ought to be on those who hold to determinism.

    What does this mean for the free will argument? Our experience of the world is that we do indeed have free will. If we do not, then our perception of free will is just an illusion. Since free will, being indeterminate, cannot be proven, the burden of proof is on those who deny its existence. If our thoughts and decisions are deterministic, it should be possible to prove this experimentally. The Haynes study does not do this, nor does any other neurological study that has ever been done. What would be needed to disprove free will is to make exact predictions of what people will decide in a given situation based on their previous brain states before they have been presented with the situation and begun contemplating it. Don’t hold your breath; such an accomplishment does not seem to be forthcoming.

  5. doctor(logic)

    Here’s the proof:

    i) Everything is either in time or outside of it, dependent on time or time-independent. Constants may be considered time-independent or outside of time.

    ii) Determinism means that an event at time T depends on things that are either 1) time-independent or 2) things prior to T.

    iii) If an event (or part of an event) is not deterministic, then it depends neither on states of affairs prior to T, nor on time-independent states of affairs.

    iv) Such an event (or part of an event) therefore depends on the future after T, or else it depends on NOTHING!!!

    v) Assuming the future does not already exist, that leaves only NOTHING. This makes the event totally, fundamentally random.

    Proofs don’t get much more solid than this. Alternatively, you can just throw up your hands and say that we cannot reason about free will at all.

    As for the studies, they show is that our intuitions about free will are wrong. We decide before we are aware we have decided. This means our intuitions about free will are deeply flawed. We make decisions, and outcomes depend on the decisions we make, but that does not imply indeterminacy.

    Sometimes I might say, “I could have chosen chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla.” This linguistic idiom is sometimes taken to mean that the world and my decisions are not deterministic. But that’s just a foolish instinct. I mean this in the very same sense as when I say that “if the world were different, it could have been snow yesterday instead of rain.” It’s a simple counterfactual proposition. Yet the fact that it could have snowed yesterday instead of raining does not mean that the weather in non-deterministic. In the same way, my statement about flavor choice just means “if the world were different, I could have chosen chocolate instead of vanilla.” It’s not evidence for non-determinism.

    In summary

    a) you have a rock solid proof that all we have is determinism and randomness (not enough for libertarian free will),
    b) you have the fact that nothing in our mental experience is capable of detecting a third option, and
    c) fresh and mounting evidence that many of our choices get made before we are consciously aware of their having been made, and that our intuitions about decision-making are unreliable.

    Gut instincts and linguistic idioms are nothing in the face of logical proofs, and the burden is clearly on the libertarian free will advocates to say why the proof fails.

  6. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Well, of course this proof fails by falling on its own sword. You haven’t begun to address the question I asked at the end of the blog post. Do you believe what you have written for good reasons, or because you were determined to believe it? By your argument, you believe it because you were determined to do so. Where do reasons muscle their way into that? Why do you pretend to show us reasons, when in the very showing you exclude them?

    Now–your argument is also very powerful. Granted. Kant, in his Prolegomena, showed quite persuasively both that determinism must exist and that it cannot exist. From this “antinomy of pure reason” (and from his other work in the Critique) he concluded that there is something fundamentally missing in our understanding of reality.

    I think we must concur. Now, what is it that is missing? I look with terrible suspicion on the no-free-will argument for many reasons. It flies completely in the face of human experience; it makes a mockery of all decisions, including moral ones; and as already noted it makes a mockery even of itself. So I have real trouble concluding that if we’re going to land somewhere, this must be the place.

    Where then do we settle? It seems to me there is a choice to be made, and it’s a choice between two epistemic or logical evils–that of doctor(logic)’s position, and that of the one against which he argues. His position seems the more problematic, epistemically, morally, and existentially.

    So in keeping with a coherent view on the world, I argue for a kind of ghost in the machine; or actually, that the machine assumed in doctor(logic)’s refutation of free will is not the real story. At the foundation of all reality is a Person, One who chooses; and thus choice is part of the substance of reality. How that works out in the physical world is difficult to say, but that much can at least be said, I think, without tripping over itself and dying on its own knife-edge.

    It’s not an easy problem either way, but the problems are less when allowing for free will than when denying it.

  7. SteveK

    Where do reasons muscle their way into that? Why do you pretend to show us reasons, when in the very showing you exclude them?

    Exactly. DL’s proof concludes that his reasoned proof isn’t really a reasoned proof, for there is no room for truth-value, meaning, reasoning, purpose, logic or knowledge – only determined (randomly or otherwise) actions.

    This random, non-telic force has accomplished more than anyone could ever (randomly) imagine. Since the Big Bang it has accidently discovered what it thinks is knowledge and logic, accidently created Polio vacinnes, accidently built space shuttles and it’s on it’s way to accidently (somehow) knowing more about itself than it could possibly know on it’s own. Try and figure that last one out. A-maze-ing!

    From John C. Wright

    Let us assume you had the power, the Thought Control Helmet, to reorganize at will any brain you came across, so that the ideas in that brain would conform to whatever conclusions and ideas you preferred. The moment you use it, you are treating people like rocks: they would for all practical purposes be inert material, robots or animals, things without any moral or human meaning to you. If you used the Mind Helmet on Trilby to make her fall in love with you, it would have no more meaning to you than if you wrote a love letter to your self and forged her name on it. It would not represent any judgment or thought or honest emotion on her part. It would be fan-fiction, but one where you put yourself in as a character and get Uhura to kiss you.

    You would never discuss or debate or disagree with anyone again. Instead of the frustration of trying to make your ideas clear to them in words, you could merely zap them with the helmet-ray, and their thoughts would be whatever you wished. You could perhaps as a game pretend these robot people were real, and let them say and think whatever nature had randomly written into their brain-mechanisms, but it would be you pretending they were human. It would not even be a game. It would be a pastime, like solitaire. Their words and ideas would have no truth value to you.

    But no matter how you treated other people, you could not treat yourself the same way; you would not use your Mind Control Helmet to force yourself to think certain ideas, because the ideas would have no truth-value to you if you imposed them on yourself in that fashion. I am not saying the owner of such a machine might not want to lie to himself in his own thoughts, or bury an unhappy memory–but the utility of ideas qua ideas, the usefulness we seek from the process of reasoning, would be lost.

    Ideas that are imposed on you by the helmet, if you knew they were imposed, would not persuade you that they were true. If you did not know they were imposed, but thought you had reasoned your way to their conclusion, you were merely be deceived and insane. You could no longer trust your own thoughts to be corresponding to reality. If you eliminated from yourself the desire to have trustworthy thoughts or to have them correspond to reality, or if you eliminate your awareness of what you had done to yourself, at that point you are a muppet.

    The reason why materialism is self-contradictory is that you are in effect telling me that your thoughts are controlled by a Mind Control Helmet that runs without an operator, merely Mother Nature blinding sending out unintentional thought-control-signals. But, if you actually believed that, you would conclude that your thoughts have no truth value.

  8. Jake

    doctor(logic),

    Your “proof” doesn’t look so rock solid to me.

    You present a false dichotomy in saying that an event must be either deterministic or totally random. To say that an event is deterministic is to say that it is causally determined, meaning that it is a necessary result of a previous state of affairs; we normally think of the mechanism by which the event is related to the previous state of affairs to be the physical laws of nature. To say that an event is indeterministic is simply to say that it is not a necessary result of a previous state of affairs. That is, given the previous state of affairs the event could not have been predicted with certainty; things could have turned out otherwise. However, clearly this does not mean that indeterministic events have no relation at all to previous states of affairs. It just means that an indeterministic event is not a necessary result of previous conditions. A perfect example of this (leaving free will out of the discussion for the moment) is deteministic chaos. Phenomena that behave chaotically are very much dependent on previous states of affairs, and can even be described by a mechanistic account. But chaotic events are not a necessary result of previous events. They cannot be predicted with certainty because of the extreme dependence on initial conditions. No matter how good our data on an existing state of affairs, the slightest uncertainty will be propagated resulting in an indeterminable event.

    Free will, as well, clearly has some dependence on previous states. If I know Bob likes lasagna then there is a good chance that he will order it at the restaurant if it is on the menu. However, he may not. After all, Bob doesn’t always order lasagna; sometimes he orders something else. The pre-existing state of affairs (Bob’s fondness for lasagna) clearly has some bearing on the event (what Bob orders for dinner) but does not causally determine the event.

  9. SteveK

    Can you purposely put together a video that says “Free will doesn’t matter” without contradicting yourself? Can you further humiliate yourself by attempting to prove – by way of logic and reason – that *you* have no special ability to think logically or rationally?

  10. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    Do you believe what you have written for good reasons, or because you were determined to believe it?

    Now there’s a false dichotomy!

    You can show examples where deterministic causes cause us to have false beliefs, but that cannot prove your case. Your case is that any deterministic cause leads to false beliefs. And if it doesn’t then you have no basis for the claim that determinism cannot be the basis for a rational mind.

    However, I’ll go further than this. Suppose that your observations of the world around you lead you to believe that Socrates is a man, and that men are mortal. Now the syllogism that concludes that Socrates is mortal is time-independent constant. The only way to get the right answer is to be deterministic.

    It flies completely in the face of human experience; it makes a mockery of all decisions, including moral ones; and as already noted it makes a mockery even of itself.

    For my reason above, I disagree. The fact that I perceive a choice, act on my preferred choice, and then see my choice come to fruition (usually in the desired way) constitutes our experience of free will. I simulate the possible outcomes, select the outcome I favor, and act accordingly. This doesn’t contradict determinism at all. There’s nothing in our experience that reasonably leads us to believe that our actions were not some combination of determinism and randomness.

    What my argument does do is invalidate the deontological ethics on which theism generally relies. IMO, this is the real reason that Christians cling to libertarian free will, IMO

  11. Charlie

    Hi DL,

    You can show examples where deterministic causes cause us to have false beliefs, but that cannot prove your case. Your case is that any deterministic cause leads to false beliefs.

    It does not follow. The case is not that deteriminism leads to false believes but that determinism destroys the concept of truth or falsity. The belief can be accidentally true, but it is just that. We saw this earlier – your determinism destroys your materialism.

    Suppose that your observations of the world around you lead you to believe that Socrates is a man, and that men are mortal.

    Your observation did not lead you to this belief. Material in motion did, and the belief is just an acausal free rider on the brain states. Your beliefs have no necessary correlation to the world around you.

    I simulate the possible outcomes, select the outcome I favor, and act accordingly.

    You do none of this as you do not exist. One brain state determines another brain state and all are causally detached from the content or truth of the thought. Matter in motion.

  12. doctor(logic)

    Jake,

    What you are talking about is predictability, not determinism. Classical chaos is deterministic. A chaotic system is hard to predict because it is so sensitive to initial conditions that we cannot measure those initial conditions to enough precision to be useful. But if we did know the initial conditions, it would be totally predictable.

    Likewise, our inability to know with certainty what Bob will order today is not a sign of non-determinism. It is a sign of non-predictability by us.

    The proof tells us that “that which is not determined by the past (or by constants) is truly random.” Your example doesn’t affect this because either 1) Bob is deterministic, but we presently lack the ability to predict his actions, or 2) Bob is partially deterministic and partially random.

    I’ll give you an example of a partially deterministic event. In positron decay, an electron-positron bound-state decays, and the the particles annihilate to create two photons. The energy of the photons is deterministic. The prior state fixes their energy. The prior state can also tell you something about the likelihood that the photons will depart in one direction or another. However, the actual direction of departure is random. So the final state is partially determined by the initial state. The random part of the final state is determined by nothing whatsoever. Certainly, you can zoom out and say that positron decay is not deterministic, but neither totally random. However, this is not helpful. The fact is that part of the decay is deterministic and part is random. Once you have eliminated the determinism, only fundamental randomness remains.

  13. SteveK

    DL:

    You can show examples where deterministic causes cause us to have false beliefs, but that cannot prove your case.

    By definition, belief requires the ability to choose so, no, you can’t show examples of an unchosen choice. You play the same equivocation game when it comes morality vs. preferences. Stop doing that.

    Your case is that any deterministic cause leads to false beliefs.

    Same argument applies.

  14. SteveK

    DL:

    What my argument does do is invalidate the deontological ethics on which theism generally relies.

    Give yourself more credit than that. What your argument *really* does is it destroys all the oughtness of valid arguments, all the oughtness of logical reasoning, all the oughtness of truth, all morality, all humanity to the point where *you* are determined to see yourself as having a real, honest to goodness truth-bearing argument.

  15. doctor(logic)

    Steve, Charlie,

    Just restating your beliefs isn’t going to convince me of anything about free will.

    So go ahead and prove that decisions and truth have no meaning in a deterministic world. Note that you cannot prove this with examples. So don’t cite examples of people overcome with drugs so that they fail to think properly. That would be like saying that cars can’t be deterministic because putting sugar in the gas tank stops them from running properly.

    In order to decide something, I need to be able to predict the likely outcomes of my choices. That means that consequences in the world have to follow deterministically from my actions, and my actions have to follow deterministically from my thoughts. I also need to know my surroundings and my preferences, and this knowledge relies on the ability of the world to deterministically affect my thoughts. If my choice depends on something timeless, like a syllogism perhaps, then that syllogism has to affect my choice deterministically. The more non-determinism you throw in, the less well-chosen are my decisions. This freedom you speak of is freedom from reason, not freedom to reason.

  16. Charlie

    Hi DL,
    I already proved it to you:

    Yay! Yes, so much for my argument. You just proved it and made the exact case I made to you over a year ago.
Nothing was received into the brain to cause this change [feeling of distress when imagining eating spoiled food]. There was no material exchange of goods. There was only “imagination”. Yes, you’ll now beg the question and call “imagination” material, but you lose all grounding in reality as soon as you try to create a causal chain. What particle collision, whether deterministic or random, caused the imagination? Once you boil it down to a particle collision, of course, you destroy any foundation for reason and science as you bury yourself in the completely causally detached cocoon of your own brain. But go ahead, defend materialism all the way into the vat. We know that that conclusion is false. too.

    If your belief is determined by your brain state and your brain state is determined by your previous brain state, and that is, in turn, determined physically then it is only a chance correlation that there was a belief attached to the brain state that caused the second brain state and it is only a chance correlation that that one is attached to the belief in question. There is no causal connection between the beliefs themselves. So much the worse if the brainstate is triggered “at random”, then the belief riding upon it is caused by something already causally disconnected from truth and which is, itself, uncaused.
    Your theory of mind doesn’t work and something has to give. Either your materialism is false (yes) or your determinism is false (yes) or we don’t actually observe and reason in the actual universe (no).

  17. Charlie

    This freedom you speak of is freedom from reason, not freedom to reason.

    Not so. Everybody knows that we dismiss “reasons” when they are predetermined. For instance, you dismiss our reasons to believe in God because you say “you have to believe in Od to explain the design of the universe” except when you say “you have to believe in the design of the universe because you believe in God”. Or “you have to believe that to ground your morality”, except when you say “you have to believe in grounded morality to justify God”. Or “you are a Christian because you were raised in a Christian home in a Christian nation”.

    Freedom to reason entails that thoughts are not mere hitch-hikers upon matter in motion. Freedom entails that thoughts are causal in and of themselves. If the matter of the universe causes the matter of your brain causes the matter of your brain state causes the belief in a proposition then the content of the proposition is meaningless. It could be anything and has nothing to do with the action that that brainstate causes. You have no idea that what you think your are thinking about what you think you are perceiving has anything to do with what you think you think really exists.
    You have removed yourself from the chain of reason and want to insert yourself after it’s already too late.

  18. SteveK

    DL:

    So go ahead and prove that decisions and truth have no meaning in a deterministic world.

    I think Charlie did a good job above, and with his final statement here.

    You have removed yourself from the chain of reason and want to insert yourself after it’s already too late.

    You, qua you, are not doing anything. The atoms and chemical reactions are doing all the work and *they* are responsible for giving you the impression that you, qua you, exists and that you are actually reasoning or choosing.

  19. SteveK

    DL:

    Is there an objective reality? The atoms and chemical reactions give you the impression that there is, but that doesn’t answer the question.

    To answer this question we must expose our chemically-induced impressions to the reasoning process. However, the reasoning process requires the rules of logic. We know that logic isn’t caused by matter and energy so we know that logic has no physical causality.

    A process that includes an element of non-causality (logic) is not deterministic, however it is capable of answering “yes” to the question while excluding “no” as a possible answer.

    A process that lacks this element of non-causality (logic) is deterministic, however both “yes” and “no” answers are acceptable at the same time and in the same way. If logic is causally determined by physical matter then there are numerous, maybe an infinite number, of objective realities.

    Therefore, determinism is false. If it is true, then it is also false.

  20. doctor(logic)

    Charlie,

    If your belief is determined by your brain state and your brain state is determined by your previous brain state, and that is, in turn, determined physically then it is only a chance correlation that there was a belief attached to the brain state that caused the second brain state and it is only a chance correlation that that one is attached to the belief in question.

    Non sequitur.

    If belief is encoded in the brain state, then prior brain states causing current brain states makes sense because prior beliefs inform current beliefs.

    I fail to see what chance correlation has to do with your example, and even if there is some chance, then it would mean that our reasoning would be fallible (which it is).

    Still not seeing any contradiction with naturalism.

    Your view appears to assume that beliefs are fundamental things that can be isolated from their function. But beliefs are just another word for our confidence in states of affairs. If I believe Condi Rice is Secretary of State, I simply mean that I have high (fuzzy) confidence that she is, and that I have confidence that I am likely to find someone meeting her description at the State Department.

    And if beliefs relate to our model of the world (or of potential or counterfactual words), then beliefs as physical brain states makes total sense. Brain states are be affected by the physical world in the deterministic way that they need to be. Moreover, it’s not as though for a given belief there is one and only one brain state. The brain can be in any number of states as long as the function of that state implements confidence in the relevant proposition.

  21. doctor(logic)

    Steve,

    I applaud your attempt to state your position as a proof.

    There are three problems with your proof. First, you seem to think that “logic” is floating out there. Second, you think that logic is something that happens instantaneously in our brains. Third, you invoke physicalism, but my argument doesn’t rely on physicalism.

    Logic is a construction of minds. It is an activity of minds. The physical world appears logical to our minds, but that doesn’t mean logic per se is “out there”. It’s not as if the English language is “out there” in the absence of English speakers. It is an activity of minds.

    What is out there (under, say, physicalism) are laws that are causal and consistent. They are amenable to logical analysis by minds, but that doesn’t mean that logic is causally disconnected. If logic is something that is performed by minds, and minds are physical, then there’s no contradiction.

    Even if you say that logic does float out there in some sense, that doesn’t really help. If I think about a syllogism, I don’t compute the answer instantaneously. My mind has to walk through the proof one step after the other, and this takes time. So even if logic is timeless and somehow independent of the physical universe, the mind has to walk through the proof in a deterministic and timely way.

    The whole thing about naturalism and physicalism is a red herring anyway. Even if we’re dualistic minds, you still have the determinism problem because our minds think in time. When I think “Socrates is a man”, I do that at time T. I think “All men are mortal” at time T+DeltaT, etc. That’s all that is required for my proof.

    Bring in souls if you like, but it doesn’t affect my argument.

  22. SteveK

    DL:

    First, you seem to think that “logic” is floating out there.

    No. I think the rules of logic are immutable and not dependent on the arrangement and/or presence of matter and energy.

    Second, you think that logic is something that happens instantaneously in our brains.

    I didn’t say anything about how it happens. I only said that logic is non-causal (physically) and thus part of a non-deterministic (physically) process that leads to their being one truth.

    Third, you invoke physicalism, but my argument doesn’t rely on physicalism.

    I didn’t invoke physicalism at all. I just showed you that multiple objective realities exist (not one truth) if you assume the rules of logic ARE causually dependent on the arrangement and/or presence of matter and energy.

  23. Jake

    doctor(logic)

    I’m still trying to understand your position. Let’s start from basics, what we know about the universe:

    (1) Some things are deterministic, i.e. they necessarily result from previous states due to the action of physical law
    (2) Some things are indeterministic, i.e. they exist not as a necessary result from previous states of the universe. Although some people (thankfully you are not one of them) deny this and claim that everything in the universe is fully determined, this seems to me demonstrably wrong. From a naturalistic perspective, the initial state of the universe and the existence of physical laws that govern the universe are “brute facts” that are in themselves indeterministic by definition (i.e. they exist not as a necessary result from previous states of the universe). From a theistic perspective, of course, the creation of the universe is an act of God that is by definition indeterministic.
    (3) Some of the things in the universe that appear to be indeterministic (quantum mechanical events) appear to be mathematically random events (although some physicists still hold out hope for a “hidden variables” model that will explain quantum mechanics as deterministic).

    I think you and I can agree on these points. Now, somehow you have gotten from there to the assertion that everything that is indeterministic is random. Then you backtracked and said that some things that appear indeterministic are actually partly deterministic and partly random. I see no reason to believe either of these to be the case, and you have certainly given no “proof”. In fact, I have a hard time conceiving of what we perceive as consciousness or free will as being either random or deterministic events or any combination thereof. What evidence can you cite to make your case? Why can’t there be other types of indeterminstic events?

    I should also point out that your argument, even if valid, actually does nothing to refute libertarian free will. Libertarian free will can be defined (according to Wikipedia) as:
    (a) the belief that humans possess free will, where free will is defined as “the power or ability to rationally choose and consciously perform actions, at least some of which are not brought about necessarily and inevitably by external circumstances”;
    and
    (b) the belief in incompatibilism, which states that an action cannot be both free and physically predetermined in the commonly understood sense
    Now, according to your view our conscious decisions could be some combination of deterministic and random events. If random events are involved, then incompatabilism is certainly true. If you wish to deny libertarian free will, then, you will have to refute part (a) of the definition. That is, you will have to show that we cannot “rationally choose” or “consciously perform” actions through a combination of deterministic and random events. I don’t see any reason why this must necessarily be the case. If all that exists can be explained through a complex combination of determinism and randomness, why can’t rational choice and conscious action (which certainly seem to exist) be explained this way?

  24. Tom Gilson

    I’m picking this up late after a full day of meetings, so I hope this isn’t out of context…

    doctor(logic), you wrote,

    Your case is that any deterministic cause leads to false beliefs. And if it doesn’t then you have no basis for the claim that determinism cannot be the basis for a rational mind

    To add to what Charlie already said:

    If that’s how you took it then you misunderstood or I wasn’t clear enough. It’s not that any deterministic cause leads to false beliefs; it is that beliefs deterministically caused are not accepted on account of reasons. Yet you adduce reasons as if they are intended to cause us to change a belief. If causation is closed, fully accounted for by physical processes, then there is no space left for reasons to cause beliefs. Hence no belief is accepted on account of any reason proferred for it. But this is incoherent, absurd, and self-contradictory.

    Now the syllogism that concludes that Socrates is mortal is time-independent constant. The only way to get the right answer is to be deterministic.

    You offer no reason for this, other than what you have said previously and which I have rebutted previously.

    From what you wrote to Jake:

    Your example doesn’t affect this because either 1) Bob is deterministic, but we presently lack the ability to predict his actions, or 2) Bob is partially deterministic and partially random.

    And is there no third option? How about personally chosen on the basis of reasons? You can think of no physical way that might be possible, but that’s a problem only if you assume there is no non-physical reality.

    Later:

    So go ahead and prove that decisions and truth have no meaning in a deterministic world. Note that you cannot prove this with examples.

    What do you mean, prove it by examples!? What on earth kind of example would you accept? It’s proven by the incoherence of the position. Your follow-on comment regarding drugs and sugar has nothing to do with the issue. Our position has never been that material reality has no effect on thinking, just that it isn’t and cannot be the whole story. You are refuting a position we do not espouse.

    And again later:

    If belief is encoded in the brain state, then prior brain states causing current brain states makes sense because prior beliefs inform current beliefs.

    I’d love to see you unpack that word “encoded” in some coherent manner, and translate brain states to mental states in such a manner that mental states can have causal properties. Because brain states are not produced by reasons, they are produced by electrochemical reactions. If electrochemical reactions exhaust all the causal activity of reasoning, then reasoning has only accidental correlation (if any at all) to truth. I don’t know why that’s so hard to acknowledge!

    Later still:

    The physical world appears logical to our minds, but that doesn’t mean logic per se is “out there”.

    So non-contradiction is mind-dependent? Then we have another theistic proof! Before there were any sentient creatures on earth, could the earth have been round and flat at the same time? The language of logic may be (human) mind-dependent, but the reality expressed by that language certainly is not.

  25. Charlie

    Hi DL,

    If I believe Condi Rice is Secretary of State, I simply mean that I have high (fuzzy) confidence that she is, and that I have confidence that I am likely to find someone meeting her description at the State Department.

    No, you have a brainstate that was somehow determined and is somehow conjoined with a belief. That so-called belief of your so-called consciousness is not caused by any fact about the world but rather by some particular collisions in your brain.

    Brain states are be affected by the physical world in the deterministic way that they need to be.

    That is very hopeful. They are affected by the physical world in the way that a particle crashes into another particle and then another. Whatever illusion becomes associated with these states in your consciousness is irrelevant when all that matters is that state A determined state B. The proposition associated with state A is not the cause of the conclusion B.

    The brain can be in any number of states as long as the function of that state implements confidence in the relevant proposition.

    False. The brain can be in any number of states based upon the determination of previous states. The proposition is irrelevant in determinism and materialism.

  26. Charlie

    Logic is a construction of minds. It is an activity of minds.

    One step closer. Are logical truths objective?

  27. doctor(logic)

    Jake,

    Well, to be precise, I am referring to supernatural libertarian free will.

    To clarify what I have been saying…

    First, chaos is not the same as indeterminism. In classical chaos, if you know the initial conditions with sufficient precision, you can predict everything. The issue with chaos is that you need to know the initial conditions to such high precision that the outcomes are effectively unpredictable. IOW, chaos is mostly irrelevant to the issue of determinism. It’s only relevant in that it can make some deterministic systems appear unpredictable.

    Second, we cannot truly know whether the universe is deterministic or not. We will never have sufficient information to know whether events that appear random are truly random, or whether they are deterministic but unpredictable. What we know is that events involving large numbers of particles are mostly deterministic, and that there is apparent randomness in quantum mechanics.

    Third, and to be technically precise, I disagree with your (2) in the sense that we only know that there are unpredictable things, not non-deterministic things.

    Also, the laws of physics are not non-deterministic “by definition.” Determinism isn’t a word that applies to the laws of physics because the laws are not located in time. Determinism applies to affairs located by a time variable. If there’s no time T that labels the state of affairs, we cannot ask “did the affairs at T depend on the affairs before T or depend on time-independent factors.” Time-independent factors are neither deterministic nor non-deterministic.

    Now, somehow you have gotten from there to the assertion that everything that is indeterministic is random.

    Why can’t there be other types of indeterminstic events?

    We’re dealing with a yes/no question: “Do the time-located states of affairs at time T depend on affairs prior to T or upon time-independent factors?” They either do or do not. We can always say what states of affairs are deterministic and what states of affairs are not.

    Now suppose that a state of affairs at T does not depend on states of affairs prior to T. What other factors can that state of affairs at T depend upon? It can depend on the states of affairs at times after T (the future), or it can depend on time-independent factors (constants). This totally exhausts all possibilities because either a factor is labeled by a time variable or it isn’t.

    If a state of affairs depends on neither the past, nor the future, nor upon constants, then it depends on nothing. Past, future and things outside of time constitute every possible thing there is. Therefore, the complement of determinism is fundamental randomness.

    (a) the belief that humans possess free will, where free will is defined as “the power or ability to rationally choose and consciously perform actions, at least some of which are not brought about necessarily and inevitably by external circumstances”;

    I don’t dispute this as long as there’s a time horizon on what constitutes external circumstances. Who I am is determined by external stuff. In a given decision, I don’t rely only on external circumstances, but on who I am (internal circumstances, e.g., my memories, physiology, etc.). So it is obvious that we make decisions based on internal circumstances as well as external circumstances. Determinism does not remove internal circumstances from the equation.

    If all that exists can be explained through a complex combination of determinism and randomness, why can’t rational choice and conscious action (which certainly seem to exist) be explained this way?

    They can! And I’m glad you concur with me on this.

    What I am objecting to is the idea that there is a third answer to a yes/no question about determinism of a state of affairs at T.

  28. doctor(logic)

    Tom,

    It’s not that any deterministic cause leads to false beliefs; it is that beliefs deterministically caused are not accepted on account of reasons.

    Another non sequitur. Why can’t deterministically caused beliefs be deterministically caused by reasons?

    Forget naturalism for a moment. Presume dualism. Suppose that I decide in the present based on my past experiences, my sensed environment, my anticipated extrapolations of my choices, my preferences, my rational faculties, and by magic ingredient “X”.

    For argument’s sake, let’s assume that memory, sensation, preference, logical reasoning, and expected outcomes are all deterministic. That way, magic ingredient X is the thing that makes my choice non-deterministic, and it can do so by altering any of the aforementioned factors. For example, maybe X momentarily changes my preferences so that I act “out of character”. Or maybe it causes my rational faculties to skip a beat and mis-compute a syllogism.

    What does X depend on? Well, X cannot depend on the past or it would be deterministic, and would be subsumed by the other factors. X cannot be a universal constant outside of time, otherwise it would again be subsumed into the deterministic aspects. It cannot depend on the future without our claiming that the future already exists. So it depends on nothing in time, and nothing outside of time. It depends on an empty set. We end up right back at fundamental randomness, even when we give up naturalism, and assume dualism.

    Because brain states are not produced by reasons, they are produced by electrochemical reactions. If electrochemical reactions exhaust all the causal activity of reasoning, then reasoning has only accidental correlation (if any at all) to truth. I don’t know why that’s so hard to acknowledge!

    I’m not going to acknowledge something which is false. 🙂

    Brain states produce reasons in the same way that the atoms in the Pacific Ocean were produce Monterey Bay.

    It was the kinetic energy of H2O molecules driven by solar and geothermal energy which eroded Monterey Bay. Yet this does not contradict the statement that “The Pacific Ocean eroded Monterey Bay” because the “Pacific” turns out to be the name of a collective state of H2O molecules.

    Similarly, if mental states (correlating to reasons) are collective states of atoms in brains, then the physics of atoms does not contradict the idea that mental states correlate with reasons. Essentially, reasons, as we perceive them, turn out to be names for collective physical states.

    So non-contradiction is mind-dependent?

    Logic and non-contradiction are not the same thing. Every lawful system includes non-contradiction, but not every lawful system includes a mind. In contrast, logic is an abstraction (created by an abstractor) of possible non-contradictory structures.

  29. SteveK

    DL:
    First you said:

    Now the syllogism that concludes that Socrates is mortal is time-independent constant. The only way to get the right answer is to be deterministic.

    Later you said:

    Determinism isn’t a word that applies to the laws of physics because the laws are not located in time.

    If the word determinism doesn’t apply to physical laws then why does it apply to deductive laws?? Both are time-independent so please explain.

  30. SteveK

    DL:

    Essentially, reasons, as we perceive them, turn out to be names for collective physical states.

    If this is true, if all reasons are collective physical states, then what makes one reason invalid and another valid – especially when they are determined by physical laws?

    In addition, you just said the word determinism doesn’t apply to physical laws, and yet these laws fully and completely explain how each brain state came to exist according to your thinking. Where does determinism fit in?

  31. Charlie

    Hi DL,
    Are you inventing a new defintion for what it means for one thing to be determined by another?

    “Do the time-located states of affairs at time T depend on affairs prior to T or upon time-independent factors?”

    Being dependent upon affairs is not the same as being determined by them. My diving into a pool is dependent upon my being on the diving board. But being on the diving board does not determinei that I will dive. I can still climb down.
    Or do a cannonball.

    If a state of affairs depends on neither the past, nor the future, nor upon constants, then it depends on nothing. Past, future and things outside of time constitute every possible thing there is. Therefore, the complement of determinism is fundamental randomness.

    Given the above, you appear to be doing some serious equivocation here.

    And you continue you here, in our response to Tom:

    Well, X cannot depend on the past or it would be deterministic, and would be subsumed by the other factors.

    Depending is not determining. Or is it? Is that all you mean by “determinism”? That the event didn’t just pop into existence with no history?

    Essentially, reasons, as we perceive them, turn out to be names for collective physical states.

    No they don’t. In your Pacific Ocean (non)analogy you talk about a system where physical atoms move from one location to another and affect other physical atoms and have a net physical result.
    No such correlation exists in brain states = mental states = reasons. You keep skipping the step and begging the question.
    If physical affair A causes physical atoms to move into contact with physical atoms in the brain and result in physical brain state B then that is the beginning and end of the causality. There is no role for consciousness or content, and therefore, nor reason. This is the same as saying that a billiard ball had a conscious or rational reason to act in some way. It had no reason (this does not meant there is no reason, don’t waste any time with a silly strawman) it merely reacted as masses react in contact with one another.

    In contrast, logic is an abstraction (created by an abstractor) of possible non-contradictory structures.

    Better and better. Are logical truths objective?

  32. doctor(logic)

    Steve,

    If the word determinism doesn’t apply to physical laws then why does it apply to deductive laws?? Both are time-independent so please explain.

    Minds are not time-independent. Even if the syllogism is time-independent, the process of walking through the syllogism in a mind is a function of time. If it were not, we would prove every theorem in our heads instantaneously. By analogy, physical laws are time-independent, and science (our exploration and understanding of those laws) is a function of time.

  33. doctor(logic)

    Charlie,

    Being dependent upon affairs is not the same as being determined by them.

    Sorry, if you found that confusing. By “depend” I mean “are determined by”, and I should have been more clear.

    If physical affair A causes physical atoms to move into contact with physical atoms in the brain and result in physical brain state B then that is the beginning and end of the causality. There is no role for consciousness or content, and therefore, nor reason.

    What is the content? What does a belief do? What does reason do? These things are mechanisms, an no one says that mechanisms don’t exist just because they are made of atoms. A biological cell doesn’t stop being a cell, doesn’t stop eating or reproducing just because it is made of atoms.

    It seems to me that your argument is based on an example. You know that a simple physical scenario (e.g., billiard balls) contains no reason, choice, belief, etc. You jump to the conclusion that no mechanism formed from billiard balls can have beliefs, reasons, etc. That’s a non sequitur. The fundamental building blocks of a mechanism don’t have to have the features of the mechanism.

    There are cell walls or replicators or immune defenses in a disorganized collection of atoms. But put them together as a cell mechanism and they have those things. So why would you think that individual atoms in brains ought to have reasons and beliefs?

    Do you know what reductionism is?

    Are logical truths objective?

    If you assume the axioms of logic, the theorems are objective. However, the axioms themselves are not formally objective. They are not necessarily subjective, but the distinction does not apply to them. Objective as a distinction is a term that depends on the axioms being true. If there are no rational/logical axioms, then there is no truth, and that would mean there could not be objectivity (or subjectivity) either. So the axioms themselves don’t have objective/subjective status because asking the question presumes the axioms are true.

  34. Charlie

    Hi DL,

    Sorry, if you found that confusing. By “depend” I mean “are determined by”, and I should have been more clear.

    Thank you. Yes, you ought to have been more clear. As it is you have much work to do to remove all of the question-begging and assumptions of your own conclusions in your arguments to Jake and Tom. Saying over and over again that if a thing is determined by something prior then it is determined isn’t very helpful.

    What is the content? What does a belief do? What does reason do? These things are mechanisms, an no one says that mechanisms don’t exist just because they are made of atoms.

    Answer your own question. What is a belief? What does reason do?
    Other than being purposely vague, what does it mean to call a belief a mechanism? In what way is a belief a mechanism? Why is the ‘belief mechanism’ necessary when you already have the mechanism which determines the brain state (particle A rubs particle B)?

    It seems to me that your argument is based on an example. You know that a simple physical scenario (e.g., billiard balls) contains no reason, choice, belief, etc. You jump to the conclusion that no mechanism formed from billiard balls can have beliefs, reasons, etc. That’s a non sequitur. The fundamental building blocks of a mechanism don’t have to have the features of the mechanism.

    Aw, I asked you not to build a strawman and you just went and built another one. The “billiard balls” does not seem to be the basis of my argument but rather seems to be the illustration that demonstrates that your Pacific Ocean example is not analogous to brain-state determinism. The point is not that the billiard balls can’t be be part of a mechanism that has reason and belief but that there is no accounting for reaosn and belief in the mechanism when all the work is already done.
    The building blocks don’t have to have the features of the mechanism. Are you now saying that the belief is emergent from the building blocks of the mechanism? If so, then, again, the belief is a supervenience and is not the cause of the brain state (this, of course, is false, but is the result of your theory). Are you now calling belief a feature of a mechanism or a mechanism itself? You have to decide what you are trying to say.
    You’ve gotten yourself into a quandary by assuming what is true (reasons and beliefs are causal) and trying to shrug this away by saying it is somehow part of the thing you otherwise assume is true (determinism). But only one of these can be true and just assuming the work together does not work.

    There are [no (?)] cell walls or replicators or immune defenses in a disorganized collection of atoms. But put them together as a cell mechanism and they have those things. So why would you think that individual atoms in brains ought to have reasons and beliefs?

    There is no connection here. You may think there is an explanation for how atoms have come to be part of a system of cell walls and replicators but this doesn’t touch upon the question of beliefs. You are whacking away at this strawman for no reason. I didn’t say that atoms ought to have reasons. I said that they don’t. And in your scenario it is moving atoms which cause moving atoms which cause brain states. There is no role in the cause for the belief or thought and you are doing nothing to show that there ought to be.

    Do you know what reductionism is?

    I think so, but I’m certainly open to your greater elucidation. You’ve always been so helpful when you attempt this condescension and expose your own ignorance. Please clear it up for me. What do you know about reductivism that allows that material determines material states but also allows that thoughts and ideas and imaginations (where no physical thing is impacting – as you’ve said) have causal power?

    If you assume the axioms of logic, the theorems are objective. … So the axioms themselves don’t have objective/subjective status because asking the question presumes the axioms are true.

    So if we think, reason, and have thoughts (which we do) then the axioms are assumed true. So they are true. So logical truths are objective. Thank you.

  35. Jake

    doctor(logic)

    First you stated,

    If a state of affairs depends on neither the past, nor the future, nor upon constants, then it depends on nothing.

    Then you stated,

    By “depend” I mean “are determined by”, and I should have been more clear.

    So: If a state of affairs is determined by neither the past, nor the future, nor upon constants, then it is determined by nothing.

    Exactly! It is indeterminate. You don’t really seem to have said much of anything here.

    You state that everything is either deterministic or random. Upon reflecting on this last night, I realized that anything that appears to be indeterministic will always appear to be random. Why? Because an indeterministic event does not necessarily follow from a previous state of affairs, so if we repeat an experiment with the exact same set of conditions and the event we are studying is indeterministic, we might very well get a different result. Repeat the experiment multiple times and you will get a statistical distribution of probable results, thus randomness (definition from Wikipedia: “A random process is a repeating process whose outcomes follow no describable deterministic pattern, but follow a probability distribution”). I get the feeling, though, that you are using the term “random” colloquially rather than mathematically (i.e. as in “lacking purpose or cause”). If you mean “random” mathematically your argument becomes a tautology; if you mean “random” colloquially, then your argument is completely unjustified. There is nothing in what you have said that would lead anyone to conclude that indeterministic events must lack a purpose or cause.

    Finally, why should one believe that things must be either completely determined by previous states or completely independent of them? Why can’t there be causal mechanisms that are influenced by previous states but do not necessarily follow from them in a deterministic way? It seems to me much more plausible to assume that such mechanisms exist, since the world appears to be this way to us.

  36. SteveK

    Based on what DL has been saying here, I think he is dangerously close to being forced to admit that morality is objective per his own standards because everything from brain states to reasons/beliefs are determined and thus predictable.

    I’m going to guess the objection will be that these things (brain states and reasons) are determined and predictable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the physical act itself is moral.

    But isn’t that what Charlie (and others) have been asking all along – how does determinism make room for the connection between determined reasons/beliefs and the truth-value of those reasons/beliefs?

  37. doctor(logic)

    Charlie,

    The point is not that the billiard balls can’t be be part of a mechanism that has reason and belief but that there is no accounting for reaosn and belief in the mechanism when all the work is already done.

    By your reasoning, when we see a cue ball hit the 9-ball, this cannot reduce to atoms because, if cue balls are just atoms, then there is no cue ball, only atoms. There’s no role left for the cue ball.

    Do you know what reductionism is?

    I think so, but I’m certainly open to your greater elucidation. You’ve always been so helpful when you attempt this condescension and expose your own ignorance.

    Aww, how sweet of you. Yeah, I didn’t think you knew what reductionism meant.

  38. doctor(logic)

    Jake,

    Finally, why should one believe that things must be either completely determined by previous states or completely independent of them? Why can’t there be causal mechanisms that are influenced by previous states but do not necessarily follow from them in a deterministic way?

    Let’s look at a situation in which the final state is partially determined. In the positronium case, the final state consists of back-to-back photons with a energy and momentum fixed by the initial state. However the direction of the photons is not determined by the initial state. So positronium decay is only partially deterministic.

    So far we would be on the same page.

    I am asking what the direction of the photons depends upon if not the initial state? The answer is that there is nothing left for the direction to depend upon. So it’s not just random as in “we can’t find the determining factor” but random as in “there is nothing whatsoever that determines the outcome (or this part of the outcome).”

    I am saying that any partially deterministic system can be decomposed into deterministic parts and fundamentally random parts.

    You say that something that is not determined can have purpose or cause.

    Well, if it is caused, then it is determined. The two photons may be caused by the decay, but the direction of the photons is uncaused.

    And if there is purpose, then there is a goal, and I have computed that my choice fulfills the goals better than other choices I have considered, and therefore my choice is determined by my analysis. If my choice were not determined by my analysis and my goals, then in what way is the choice not random?

  39. Charlie

    Hi DL,

    By your reasoning, when we see a cue ball hit the 9-ball, this cannot reduce to atoms because, if cue balls are just atoms, then there is no cue ball, only atoms. There’s no role left for the cue ball.

    You continue to try to reduce my reasoning to these foolish absurdities when you can’t back up your own claims. Instead of this silly answer why not establish how it is that reason can reduce to just atoms at the same time that thought and reason maintain causal properties?

    Aww, how sweet of you. Yeah, I didn’t think you knew what reductionism meant.

    So educate me. Wiki says of reductionism just what I would, so why not tell me what it really means such that it allows that material determines material states but also allows that thoughts and ideas and imaginations (where no physical thing is impacting – as you’ve said) have causal power?
    You were so helpful in pointing out ecosystems, mirror neurons, co-option, etc. (read, “not”) in the past that I look forward to more enlightenment.
    Or you could just dispense with the ad hom and get on with your defence.
    Whichever.

  40. Jake

    doctor(logic),

    Ah, OK, then you are taking random to mean “lacking purpose or cause”. The problem is that you are trying to interpret scientific data using philosophical terms. Science says nothing one way or the other concerning “purpose” or “cause” (unless you take “cause” to mean a previous state of affairs to a deterministic event, in which case to say an indeterministic event lacks a cause is a tautology). Returning to your positronium example, what can we conclude about a “purpose” or “cause” in the fact that the direction of the photons is not determined by the initial state? Is there some sort of overriding purpose in this being the case, or lack of purpose? We have no way of knowing from this experiment. To answer these kinds of philosophical questions we must go beyond science and enter the realm of metaphysics. An experiment can never give us the answer.

    Let me reiterate what science does tell us:

    There are physical laws in the universe that allow us to determine a future state of affairs with a high degree of accuracy from a resonably good knowledge of the present state of affairs for some things. This we call determinism.

    For other things, we cannot predict the future state of affairs from our knowledge of the present state of affairs. In some cases, it may be that our knowledge of the present state of affairs is insufficient, and that an improved knowledge may allow us to make accurate predictions. In other cases (e.g. quantum mechanical events) the consensus among scientists (although there are a few holdouts who would disagree) is that an accurate prediction of a future state of affairs is not possible even in principle. This we call indeterminism.

    There is a third class of events, deterministic chaos, in which events follow deterministic laws but because of the extreme dependence on initial conditions it is impossible for us to make accurate prediction of future states. You stated that if we did know the initial conditions, these events would be totally predictable. However, what you fail to recognize is that if we try to measure with the kind of precision needed we would run up against quantum mechanic phenomena (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). Thus, if quantum mechanics is indeed indeterministic, then classical chaos becomes a sort of “indeterministic determinism”: it appears to follow a precise mathematical relation but in fact is inherently unpredictable and thus indeterministic.

    Do these classifications exhaust all the possibilities of events in the universe? Who knows? We just don’t know enough about consciousness or the workings of the mind to say much about how it works. I would propose that free will may represent a fourth classification of events, wherein the future state of affairs is influenced by previous states but not completely determined by them. I might very well be wrong, of course, but this seems to fit into how we perceive human free will. Perhaps, as you have conjectured, free will could be some complex combination of deterministic and indeterministic phenomena. My point (originally, way back in this thread), is that there has not been any neurological research that casts doubt on the existence of free will. To say that fee will does not exist is equivalent to saying that our thoughts are deterministic. If this is so, science ought in priciple to be able to show it.

  41. doctor(logic)

    Jake,

    Returning to your positronium example, what can we conclude about a “purpose” or “cause” in the fact that the direction of the photons is not determined by the initial state? Is there some sort of overriding purpose in this being the case, or lack of purpose? We have no way of knowing from this experiment.

    This isn’t an issue of what we can know from experiment. This has nothing to do with our present ability to detect whether something is apparently random or fundamentally so.

    Just suppose that an apparently random event is purposeful. What does that mean? It means that the outcome was determined by the purpose, even if we cannot measure it in the lab.

    So even if you think purpose is non-physical, you still run into the same problem.

    If I decide to eat vanilla ice cream instead of my usual chocolate, what was my purpose? Suppose my purpose was to taste a different flavor for a change. In that case, my purpose existed before I acted, and so the action I took was determined by my purpose. That means my action was deterministic.

    However, we now have to ask whether the purpose was deterministic. Where did the purpose come from? Was the purpose purposeful? If the purpose was determined by prior purpose, then we’re back at determinism. If the purpose was not caused my physics or by purpose, then it is fundamentally random (lacks cause and purpose).

    This is not about apparent randomness, about physicalism, or about what we can measure in the lab. This is about the fact that determinism and randomness (lack of cause/purpose) are logical complements of each other, and that the set of things inside and outside of time is exhaustive.

    Maybe you can give me an example of an event that comes about by purpose or cause but which is not determined by purpose or cause.

  42. SteveK

    DL:

    If I decide to eat vanilla ice cream instead of my usual chocolate, what was my purpose? Suppose my purpose was to taste a different flavor for a change. In that case, my purpose existed before I acted, and so the action I took was determined by my purpose. That means my action was deterministic.

    Putting the question of ‘what is purpose?’ aside for a moment, I’m beginning to think you’ve been stating the obvious all this time. I don’t think anyone disagrees that purpose determines action. So what are we arguing about?

    However, we now have to ask whether the purpose was deterministic. Where did the purpose come from? Was the purpose purposeful? If the purpose was determined by prior purpose, then we’re back at determinism. If the purpose was not caused my physics or by purpose, then it is fundamentally random (lacks cause and purpose).

    Oh yes, this is what we’re arguing about. Can I purposely bring about purpose? Yes, I do it all the time. Was it a determined purpose? Yes…determined by me! Who am I? Physical matter and energy in a certain arrangement formed with cause but without purpose, or something more than that? Something more. And so the metaphysical argument continues…

  43. doctor(logic)

    Steve,

    Can I purposely bring about purpose? Yes, I do it all the time. Was it a determined purpose? Yes…determined by me!

    I don’t think you’re following.

    Once a decision and goal has been established, it is obvious that you are determining an outcome. You are compelled to act in accordance with your decision and your desire to fulfill the decision. But where does the decision come from? If your implementation of decision B comes from prior decision A and your determination to implement decision A, then decision B is determined. Obvious. But what about decision A? What about your desire to implement decision A? Are these caused by decision C? If so, the entire chain is fully deterministic.

    Suppose decision A is arbitrary and just pops into your head. You were teetering on the edge between decision A1 and decision A2, and you picked A1 for no reason. (If it were for a reason, then it wouldn’t have just popped into your head, but would have been *determined* by that reason.) If it is for no reason, then it is fundamentally random because it depends on nothing. Just saying that you picked A1 doesn’t make it less random. Just restating that you made the decision and chose A1 doesn’t make the choice non-random.

    Consider a neutron decay now (versus 10 minutes from now). The neutron decay now is not caused by the neutron. The neutron decay ever is caused by the neutron, but not the decay now. There is absolutely nothing that causes the decay now (versus some other time). Likewise, a choice that pops into your head without reason is like the neutron decay. If you chose for a reason, then it is not random, but determined!

    Maybe this will help. Can an agent make a random decision?

  44. SteveK

    DL:

    Maybe this will help. Can an agent make a random decision?

    Don’t think so. A decision requires a conscious reasoning process, even if that process concludes “I choose this for no particular reason”. A list of potential choices can pop into your head at random, but a decision cannot. On the other hand, a person can make a choice without consciously deciding. I don’t know what you would call that. Maybe a conditioned response.

    Just saying that you picked A1 doesn’t make it less random.

    It depends if there was a purposeful, conscious decision made, or if the choice was made without giving it any thought.

    Just restating that you made the decision and chose A1 doesn’t make the choice non-random.

    I disagree for the same reasons already stated.

    But where does the decision come from?

    As far as this conversation goes – the decision either comes from me, qua me, or it comes from something external to me. If it is the former then you and I don’t disagree — and I don’t care if you want to call it random or determined. All that matters is *I* made the choice and free will remains intact. If it’s the latter then we have a big problem.

  45. SteveK

    DL:
    Victor Reppert linked to an article on consciousness by JP Moreland which prompted me to ask you a question about epiphenomenalism (who makes up these words?).

    I think you agree that thoughts, beliefs, purpose, etc have physical causes but are not themselves physical like atoms. I think you also agree that these things, like purpose, determine what happens next (choose vanilla).

    Do you agree with what Moreland says below? How does your brand of naturalism deal with the non-physical causing the physical to react to it?

    JP Moreland:
    Epiphenomenalism is the idea that some phenomenon may well exist, but it doesn’t cause anything to happen. It is causally impotent. The worldview of most naturalists depends on all entities being physical or depending on the physical for their existence and behavior. One implication of this belief is commitment to something called the causal closure of the physical.

    According to this principle, any physical event can be explained by other physical things. In short, physical effects only have physical causes. Rejection of the causal closure principle would imply a rejection of the possibility of a complete and comprehensive physical theory of all physical phenomena — something that no naturalist should reject.

    Thus, if mental phenomena are genuinely non-physical, then they must be epiphenomena — effects caused by the physical that do not themselves have causal powers. But epiphenomenalism is false.

  46. doctor(logic)

    Steve,

    As far as this conversation goes – the decision either comes from me, qua me, or it comes from something external to me. If it is the former then you and I don’t disagree — and I don’t care if you want to call it random or determined. All that matters is *I* made the choice and free will remains intact. If it’s the latter then we have a big problem.

    Then we agree, Steve. When I make a decision, it’s not the tides making the decision, it’s who I am. It’s the things in my head. Whether I was formed from the tides or from something else doesn’t matter. I am the one deciding.

    I think you agree that thoughts, beliefs, purpose, etc have physical causes but are not themselves physical like atoms.

    No, I don’t agree.

    Consider a mousetrap. Obviously it belongs to an abstract class of traps. We would say that the mousetrap is a kind of trap, just like quicksand is a kind of trap. But does the fact that this particular mousetrap is a member of the class of traps mean that the mousetrap is not physical? No.

    What about the abstract class of traps? Is that physical? What could it refer to? Well, it could (for me) refer to the range of possible things that my mind would recognize as a trap. “Trapness” refers to something my mind will recognize. And if my mind is physical, then “trapness” is the range of stuff that my brain would interpret as a trap. There’s no need to enumerate every possible member of trap to assert this definition.

    I think the same applies to all abstractions. We can define an abstraction by looking at the circuit in the brain that admits members to the class of the abstraction. No need for anything non-physical because the language refers to a property of a physical mechanism.

    I am not a proponent of epiphenomenalism. It’s obvious that reason, desire, etc are causally effective. IIRC, the original proponents of epiphenomenalism don’t question this. They question whether our conscious awareness, the qualia of these functional mechanisms are causally effective. So if I decide that I want chocolate, that decision may have been made a few milliseconds earlier than I am consciously aware of it, and the qualia for the decision follow with no effect. I think that a lot of people who make arguments about epiphenomenalism are attacking a straw man because they interpret epiphenomenalism as saying the functional parts of mind (as opposed to qualia) are epiphenomenal. Perhaps Tom subtly acknowledges this in his OP. It’s conceivable that unconscious decisions are not all irrational.

    As it happens, I don’t believe qualia are epiphenomenal.

  47. SteveK

    DL:

    Me: I think you agree that thoughts, beliefs, purpose, etc have physical causes but are not themselves physical like atoms.

    You: No, I don’t agree.
    You: No need for anything non-physical because the language refers to a property of a physical mechanism.

    You sound very much like a physicalist/materialist here – yet you’ve told us repeatedly that you are not one. Please explain.

  48. Charlie

    Hi DL,

    No need for anything non-physical because the language refers to a property of a physical mechanism.

    How about when nothing physical (no “morality wave”) is received into a brain which then, merely by imagination, causes physical, chemical and electrical changes in the brain? You’ve admitted this is a scientific fact. So, as always, what is the physical cause of the imagination? What physical event triggers the cascade in a deterministic, predictable manner? Can you say what physical thing is emitted by an immoral act which then is received by the brain in order that it determined a predictable physical response – while, coincidentally, I guess, triggering an imaginative thought – while defending the opposite view as well, that there is no physical thing emitted by the immoral act?

    So if I decide that I want chocolate, that decision may have been made a few milliseconds earlier than I am consciously aware of it, and the qualia for the decision follow with no effect.

    Please define “qualia” in this use, or give and example of what you mean, if you wouldn’t mind. Thanks.

  49. Gaylen

    I think what is unconscious is not our “decision” but rather, the emotional states motivating decision. We are (as Heidegger would say) “thrown” into the world and thus we do not have a choice concerning our nature. This means that we cannot reasonably expect to have “free will” in reference to our emotions. I cannot always free choose my desires, for example. But experiencing desire is not the same as making a conscious decision. Emotions are complex and can pull me in contradictory ways. A cognitive process of decision must choose amongst a set of often-conflicting desires. Experiments indicating “unconscious decision” are probably evidence, instead, of the unconscious (or “preconscious”) origins of the desires that serve as the alternatives from which consciousness must make a choice. I find it unlikely that the conscious “qualitative feel” (qualia) of making a decision comes after the fact of the decision. I think it makes more sense to say that the qualia IS the physical energy involved in making the actual decision.

    I would also add that strict determinism is dead. There is simply no good reason, either scientifically or philosophically, to believe in it. (Not to say determinism is impossible, but simply to say that there are alternatives, and the evidence for the alternatives is far stronger). Of course, for free will we need more than mere randomness or indeterminism. We need agent causality. Our nature may be assigned by determinism or chance, but our process of conscious decision can still be rooted in agent causality. We really don’t know enough brain science at this point to rule this out. However, since physics as we currently understand it leaves no role for qualia or free will, we can make a very profound prediction: If qualia and/or free will exist, then physics as it is currently understood MUST be inadequate to fully explain brain processes. If it turns out that current physics can some day fully explain collective neural behavior, then qualia become epiphenomenal (at best) and free will would be an illusion. Since I believe in qualia and free will, I therefore predict that at some point neuroscience will be forced by accumulating anomalies to adopt some theoretical new forms of energy or downward causation, or some such revision of physical theory.

  50. SteveK

    DL:

    So if I decide that I want chocolate, that decision may have been made a few milliseconds earlier than I am consciously aware of it, and the qualia for the decision follow with no effect.

    This seems to contradict your statement below.

    When I make a decision, it’s not the tides making the decision, it’s who I am. It’s the things in my head. Whether I was formed from the tides or from something else doesn’t matter. I am the one deciding.

    Going back the first comment above – how can it be said that I decide to want chocolate if the decision is made unconsciously? A decision requires a conscious reasoning (evaluation) process, while an unconscious choice is a reaction – not a decision. When a ball comes hurling toward my face I don’t decide to get out of the way, I react. This reference to ‘unconscious decisions’ is an oxymoron.

    If unconscious matter can decide then we’ve hopelessly distorted the meaning of ‘decide’. Atoms can be said to have decided to group with other atoms, rocks can be said to have decided to roll down the hill. If unconscious decisions are factual, the question just begging to be asked is what roll does consciousness even play, then?

  51. SteveK

    It must be Brain Month at all the science journals. Here’s another study, this time about unconscious knowledge of an impending mistake.

    Activity increased immediately after the individual saw the new information flash onto the computer screen—within 0.1 seconds—before there was time for any conscious consideration.

    This study, announced today and published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, indicates the brain reacts to mistakes before information even gets processed consciously. The scientists call it an “early warning signal” from a lower region of the brain.

    We know the scientist’s brain figured out the results a few milliseconds before the scientist could process it consciously. Consciousness: what’s it good for? Nothing, apparently.

  52. doctor(logic)

    Steve,

    You sound very much like a physicalist/materialist here – yet you’ve told us repeatedly that you are not one. Please explain.

    I am not a physicalist from first principles. I don’t have a prior commitment to physicalism. I have a prior commitment to a form of naturalism, and all the evidence points to the world being physical.

    My point above is that there is a consistent view in which mental constructs (like abstractions and mathematics) are names for physical conditions or abilities.

    Charlie said:
    How about when nothing physical (no “morality wave”) is received into a brain which then, merely by imagination, causes physical, chemical and electrical changes in the brain? You’ve admitted this is a scientific fact. So, as always, what is the physical cause of the imagination?

    The error is in the first premise. There obviously is something physical received. Suppose I see an old lady being mugged. Then I see an old lady being mugged. So obviously I am struck by photons consistent with a mugging. In recognizing what I am seeing, I empathize with the old lady because I imagine situations in which I am the old lady, or the old lady is my mother, etc.

    The issue is whether there is any morality being transmitted from the external event independently of the physical mechanisms of photons, sound waves, etc. There isn’t. The whole situation is consistent with physics alone. If we block the physical waves, then we are unaware of the morality of what is going on. We cannot sense evil if we are blocked from the physical facts.

    Please define “qualia” in this use, or give and example of what you mean, if you wouldn’t mind. Thanks.

    You can read about it on Wikipedia.

    A decision requires a conscious reasoning (evaluation) process, while an unconscious choice is a reaction – not a decision.

    If qualia are epiphenomenal, then you’re wrong. The mind would decide based on the same reasons as appear to you consciously, except that your conscious feelings of “what it is like” to decide this way occur after the fact. Imagine a computer that reasons in the same way that you do, but which has no feeling of deciding. In other words the computer version of you is a philosophical zombie, outwardly identical to you. Obviously, a computer program like this is conceivable. The idea that qualia are epiphenomenal is the idea that you and the robot both decide in the same unconscious way, but you also possess qualia (“what it feels like to be thinking”) in such a way that the qualia don’t alter any of your decisions.

    Again, I don’t think it is likely that qualia are epiphenomenal. I just don’t see the need to bring epiphenomenalism in to the equation at all.

    As I recall, we agreed that there is free will as long as there is something called “you” that chooses between actions based on predicted outcomes and preferences for those outcomes. There is no necessity that, if we rewound the clock, you could make an alternative decision. Do you still agree?

  53. doctor(logic)

    Gaylen,

    It’s not a question of new physics. My argument does not depend on physicalism.

    I think that “free will” in the manner you are using the term is incoherent. There is no third option after determinism and randomness.

    When you make a decision, you make that decision at time T. If any aspect of that decision is not determined by anything before T, and not determined by anything outside of time, then that aspect of the decision is determined by nothing at all. That aspect of the decision, that “agent causality”, is a brute fact of the universe (and of the timeless stuff outside the universe). It is totally fundamentally random.

    Look at neutron decay. Suppose a neutron decays at precisely 12:15am. The time of this decay was fundamentally random. All that was determined beforehand were the decay products and the probability that the neutron would decay at that time. So the actual decay time of the neutron is a brute fact of the universe. That’s what randomness is. The decay is not determined to occur at 12:15am. The time of the event is uncaused.

    The free will that you are promoting is cognitively and experimentally indistinguishable from a neutron decay because it has similar dependencies. The decay time depends on nothing, and the undetermined final decision depends on nothing.

  54. Charlie

    Hi DL,

    The error is in the first premise. There
    obviously is something physical received. Suppose I
    see an old lady being mugged.

    No, the
    error is in your inconsistency. You said that we could
    have moral responses caused strictly by the
    imagination. For instance, you can imagine people
    getting mugged without receiving any “mugging photons”
    or you can imagine people suffering around the world
    and you can “feel distress”. This entails that
    imagination (and not the reception of sound waves or
    photons or anything else physical), and this is a
    scientific fact, causes changes, physical, chemical,
    and electrical, in the physical brain. Non-physical
    affecting physical – no causal closure of the physical
    domain.

    Me: Please define “qualia” in this use, or
    give and example of what you mean, if you wouldn’t
    mind. Thanks.
    DL: You can read about it on
    Wikipedia.

    That’s fine. I’ll use it the
    same way you did.

    You applied qualia to decisions as that part of the
    decision accessible to your conscious mind after the
    unconscious already made the decision:

    So
    if I decide that I want chocolate, that decision may
    have been made a few milliseconds earlier than I am
    consciously aware of it, and the qualia for the
    decision follow with no effect.

    The
    qualia, that which accommodates conscious awareness,
    of the decision has no effect on the actual decision.

    “With no effect”. Just like the reasons, thoughts,
    imaginations, etc. The brain state is determined
    before the mental state. You again demonstrate that
    your theory of mind does not allow for actual reasons,
    actual truth, and actual decisions. Physical
    determinism eliminates truth in correspondence and
    reduces the question to physical states with the
    conscious awareness of the beliefs, reasons, thoughts,
    being mere acausal riders.
    As I said:

    The belief [accessible to the conscious
    mind via quale] can be accidentally true, but it is
    just that. We saw this earlier – your determinism
    destroys your materialism.

    Your observation did not lead you to this belief.
    Material in motion did, and the belief [quale] is just
    an acausal free rider on the brain states. Your
    beliefs [qualia] have no necessary correlation to the
    world around you.

    If your belief [quale] is determined by your brain
    state and your brain state is determined by your
    previous brain state, and that is, in turn, determined
    physically then it is only a chance correlation that
    there was a belief [quale] attached to the brain state
    that caused the second brain state and it is only a
    chance correlation that that one is attached to the
    belief [quale] in question. There is no causal
    connection between the beliefs [qualia] themselves.

    Your error is that you accept the obvious (beliefs and
    reasons and thoughts are causal) and assume, a
    priori
    , the truth of your materialism and
    determinism. Because you think materialism and
    determinism are true, and you know that causal
    efficacy of beliefs and reasons is true, you assume
    one can accommodate the other. But you can’t
    demonstrate this and you don’t argue for it. In fact,
    the more you argue, as above with the non-causality of
    the consciousness in decision-making, the more you
    demonstrate that your views are mutually incompatible.

    I’ll bet you have a definition and explanation of your
    usage of “qualia” as pertains to “decisions” now.

  55. SteveK

    In fact, the more you [DL] argue, as above with the non-causality of the consciousness in decision-making, the more you demonstrate that your views are mutually incompatible.

    This is true. Here’s how I would summarize DL’s model of the brain/mind and the problems associated with it.

    a) thoughts, purpose, belief, etc are 100% physical
    b) one physical thought can create another physical thought
    c) a physical thought or decision can be created in the absense of physical reality (Charlie’s example)
    d) all of this is done before you become consciously aware of each thought or decision
    e) from (d), consciousness doesn’t have any effect on your thoughts or decisions
    f) from (e), the truth-value of any thought or decision is but another thought/decision and so it is unknown to the conscious mind

    Ask anyone and they will say (e) and (f) are clearly false, which means there are some real problems with this model. Science is falling on its sword when they say it’s true that decisions are determined prior to conscious awareness. I’m determined to think it’s not true.

  56. SteveK

    Charlie,

    This entails that imagination (and not the reception of sound waves or photons or anything else physical), and this is a scientific fact, causes changes, physical, chemical,
    and electrical, in the physical brain. Non-physical affecting physical – no causal closure of the physical domain.

    DL, will probably cite his neutron decay example as the explanation. Earlier he said:

    The free will that you are promoting is cognitively and experimentally indistinguishable from a neutron decay because it has similar dependencies. The decay time depends on nothing, and the undetermined final decision depends on nothing.

    There you have it. The timing and outcome of your thoughts, logical decisions, syllogisms, math proofs, etc are random and uncaused. Falling on one’s sword while claiming victory is a reoccuring problem with this theory. I imagine if science ever concludes that DL doesn’t exist, that he’ll spend hours on this blog trying to convince us it’s true. He’s practically doing it now.

  57. SteveK

    DL:

    Me: c) a physical thought or decision can be created in the absense of physical reality (Charlie’s example)
    You: c) is false.

    To clarify, I am talking about thoughts that exist only in your mind. Thoughts not caused by external, objective reality.

    Me: d) all of this is done before you become consciously aware of each thought or decision
    You: d) is not my view.

    You: So if I decide that I want chocolate, that decision may have been made a few milliseconds earlier than I am consciously aware of it, and the qualia for the decision follow with no effect.

    OK, what gives? Is this last comment your view or is it one of those “hey, it’s possible” scenarios? I will ask the same question Charlie asked: Do you believe the unconscious decided before the conscious was aware of the decision?

    I gave the time aspect of neutron decay as an example of a purely random factor, while also explaining that not everything about neutron decay is random. You now jump to the conclusion that outcomes of decisions of physical minds must be random, as if ALL aspects of ALL physical processes are random.

    My bad. You were talking about Gaylen’s version of free will, not your version. I apologize, DL. My smugness was directed at a strawman.

    I think I should have stopped at our agreement that I make choices and don’t really care how I make them so long as I am doing it – and not something else

    Our major points of disagreement seem to center around
    a) What is a thought?
    b) What am I?
    You say both are 100% physical and you used the example of the Pacific Ocean creating Monterey Bay. I don’t think this is a fair analogy.

    A thought is directed toward some other thing, like an apple or a memory. Aside from the first-person knowledge/experience that we all have, an arrangement of certain atoms can’t be directed toward an apple. Of course, you are free to believe otherwise – but then you betray your first-person knowledge/experience. You might as well believe that you are a brain in a vat despite your first-person knowledge against such a “hey, it’s possible” scenario.

    If you want, you can also believe that science can someday prove/falsify this theory you have. But then you belong in the camp of the ID theorist. Hey, it’s possible, right? 😉

  58. Fabio

    I can’t believe it! A Christian blog post debating free will and not a single person has brought up Romans 8 and 9 (which seems to refute free will) or the various Biblical verses that seem to say that free will does exist.

    I don’t know that science can ever prove or disprove the existence of free will, but if it can, here’s what I believe the Bible predicts science will find:

    My interpretation of Romans 8 and 9 is that ultimately free will does not exist. One good example is from this passage (Romans 9:19-24):

    You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

    Even if as Christians we want to explain this away somehow, to include free will, we still have to contend with this: Implicit in our belief that God is all-powerful, is the belief that He is therefore sovereign. And if He is sovereign, we certainly cannot be; if we are not sovereign, we do not have free will.

    That said, I don’t believe that science will ever be able to conclusively prove that we have no free will; it will either show that we do indeed have free will or that free will cannot be ruled out.

    I say this because the Bible (in my view) predicts it in the sense that it talks about free will as if it exists. In other words, we have the illusion of possessing free will, but that illusion is so strong that it is not measurable by science. Yet another way to say it is that the source of our lack of free will is from outside of nature (super-natural); and since science only measures things within nature, it cannot detect that we don’t have free will.

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