Eight Geeks

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Free will...?

I've been thinking about this concept for years now. Science has been able to explain how our mind works using the laws of physics. Our thinking is caused by the firing of neurons in our brains. Every single mental process can be reduced to a pattern of firing neurons. If this is true, then my mind is like a bunch of billiard balls bouncing off each other. How these billiard balls started bouncing around were determined by where I was born, genetics, and a host of other factors.
What this means is that my path in life has already been determined by events that occurred before my birth. That means we only have the illusion of "free will" or the ability to control ourselves, when in reality everything we do is the result of a determined set of conditions. If everything we do has already been determined by things outside our control, then that relieves us of all responsibility. Just because we feel like we're responsible for something doesn't mean we are. Feeling responsible can be no more than an illusion, besides, many people can feel responsible for somebody's death even if there is no rational reason for it. If it is true that our mind can be reduced to the random bouncing of billiard balls, it appears that we have no rational reason to feel responsible for anything.
This brings up another point. Let's say the billiard balls interact randomly. That means that their final state cannot be determined by their original state. Some contend that this opens the door to free will. However, it just means that our mind is reduced to millions of neuronal dice. Instead of free will, we end up with random will. Someone who's decision making is at the whim of neuronal dice is hardly in control of their faculties.
So it looks as though free will is a figment of our imagination. But then I must ask myself, with this insight into human behavior, should we feel responsible for anything since it was outside our control to begin with?


  • We can't say for sure that we have "billiard balls" or "neuronal dice" (nice turn of phrase, btw), though, now can we? Just because you don't know what causes free will doesn't mean that there isn't something. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There could be some as-yet-unknown system or force at work that we just can't see. After all, there is an observed effect: free will. I assert that there must be a cause.

    And I refuse to believe that it is only the "appearance of free will". Otherwise, the question is moot. If you remove responsibility for your actions from your world-view, and then your behavior changes, then it seems to me that there was some sort of control system in place, after all, which would tend to refute your "neuronal dice" argument quite nicely, especially if the phenomenon is predictive.

    By Blogger Coralius, at 2:37 AM  

  • If my world-view changed, I had no control over it changing. The neuronal events in my brain determined that I would change my point of view and realize that I had no free will. If I didn't have control over my world-view changing, then I'm not responsible for changing it. I'm also not responsible for the change in behavior that accompanies my world-view change. I could do nothing but change my behavior.

    By Blogger Philoman, at 8:46 AM  

  • In that case, have another beer.

    By Blogger Ranson, at 12:44 PM  

  • Funny, Ranson. You don't even drink.

    Philoman, the point I'm trying to make is that if there is a predictable change in behavior, then there must be some kind of volitional control system in place. You're still assuming that we know everything there is to know about the hardware and software of the brain. I don't think you can validly state that that's the case, and until you can, you can't rule out free will. You're entire argument is based on the assumption that chemcial interactions in the brain are completely random. But we know that orderly systems can self-organize out of chaos. If that's the case, why can't free will, or consciousness itself, just be a self-organizing system that arises within brain functions, and then takes control of itself. Free will could be the ultimate human expression of emergent behavior.

    By Blogger Coralius, at 2:19 PM  

  • Sorry for the pithiness earlier. It was meant to be a bit humorous; a "Well, I don't crontrol my own actions, so the universe is telling me to get drunk" kind of thing.

    I really feel that free will and/or determinism is the kind of thing that doesn't have to be worried about. If I have free will, great. My life is my own to pursue as I wish. If not, well, hell, there's nothing I can do about it. I can then "choose" not to let it keep me up at night.

    In the end, though, I can't feel that the entirety of human thought has been one inexorable trudge through existence that we have no control over.

    Also, riddle me this:

    If you have no choice in how you think or react, what happens to the neuronal dice when the randomness of mind-altering chemicals are introduced? You may not have had a choice in consuming a drug, but there is no way to predict exactly how the mind will be affected. Now, those random changes have completely and permanently altered the course of your existence, haven't they? So, in effect, you have accomplished a form of free will by adding a randomizing agent into a deterministic system (regardless of the fact it was the system that caused you to ingest the agent in the first place).

    So, again, have another beer, and bask in the free will.

    By Blogger Ranson, at 4:39 PM  

  • Heh. That may be the best excuse for beer consumption I've ever seen.

    By Blogger Coralius, at 11:48 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Aradia, at 1:18 AM  

  • Okay, Philoman, you know I love you, but I am a little confused.

    I find it interesting that you basically describe the lack of free will as a neuron and dendrite salad that is stuck in the salad spinner ... or maybe the salad shooter.

    That doesn't really equate to the typical predestination attitude, as you say: "What this means is that my path in life has already been determined by events that occurred before my birth." Usually people say that this is the result of some greater plan by a higher being. What you say is that everything you do or will happen to you is set from the time you are born. However, that seems a little incongruent with your analogy of bouncing billard balls in your brain. That in and of itself seems to indicate that not only would human behavior be unpredictable but in no way preset.

    By Blogger Aradia, at 7:19 PM  

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