April 27, 2011

Free Will - Of course we have it! Don't we?

Art by Mark David Dietz, used with permission

Originally published in 2004 in Skeptic magazine, the following article discusses a matter that has been of great importance from ancient times to the present, and resides at the heart of our scientific understanding of Humankind - Free Will:  Zeno's Paradox, and the Problem of Free Will by Phil Molé, reprinted in eSkeptic on April 27, 2011.

Sociobiologists, for example, seeking the biological foundations of human behavior, including thought, argue that there is no such thing as Free Will.  That humans behave within a determined range of behavior because they are material objects made up of elements whose physical and "behavioral" characteristics are known to allow only certain behaviors and not others.  Therefore, they argue, Humans have no Free Will.

There are other behavioral scientists who argue to the contrary that the sociobiologists' limited definition of Free Will does not mean there is no Free Will at all.  They say, in essence, Free Will is is not an all or nothing condition.  To have Free Will does not mean we are free to do anything we want.  It is a condition of existence where we have the ability to choose among behavioral options we can carry out within the physical laws of Nature.  The Human ability to exercise Free Will in terms of "thought" options is unlimited much as is the Human imagination.  Thus our behavior is limited by the laws of the material universe but our thinking is an emergent property with unlimited options.

Supporters of Free Will further argue that in the realm of human affairs, and that of other "higher" animals, non-material factors such as culture allow a transcendence of the material constraints of our bodies, including our brains.  Individual cultures are emergent entities that exist independent of the brain.  When we are asleep, for example, the collective knowledge of Humankind including the content of one's culture, though only accessible to us in the form of dreams as we sleep, does not cease to otherwise exist.  It is recorded in various media and therefore continues to exist limited in quantity only by the material of the media it is stored on, but unbound in terms of our brain's ability to us it to generate options for thought and behavior, though, admittedly, not all options are desirable or possible.

Regrettably, the author of this link does not accept the argument that culture provides a means of transcending the material bounds of the determinists:  "Determinists object that culture has no relevance to the question of free will. They argue, quite correctly, that all choices ultimately stem from cognitive activity in the brain, which remains a material entity subject to material laws. Furthermore, it wouldn’t even matter if culture allowed us to bypass our material structures altogether. If our behavior results from cultural factors, it is still determined by external factors, and we still do not freely choose our actions."

Later in his essay, Molé nevertheless argues that the phenomenon of emergence in complex systems is a game changer in terms of expanding options for behavior:  "An emergent phenomenon is neither a property of any individual component of a system, nor simply the result of summing the properties of all components. Emergent phenomena are novel, and unpredicted by our knowledge of the system." ...  "Some evolutionary biologists think that stable reproductive species in evolutionary history are emergent phenomena, which changed the whole course of natural selection. This illustrates another important feature of emergent phenomena — their tendency to affect other parts of the system that produced them. Genes control the inheritable traits of species, but species take the evolutionary game to a completely new level, and affect the distribution of genes themselves in complex ways. This is a feature of complex systems often overlooked by strict determinist deniers of free will. Emergent phenomenon themselves are not merely affected by their surroundings, but interact dynamically with other parts of the system." ... "By almost anyone’s definition, the human mind is a complex system. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the billions of neuron interactions in our brains, and seems to be able to influence the behavior of these neurons in novel ways. Some of this novelty may also be linked to quantum level uncertainty in the states of the neurons involved."

The emergence of human language and culture in evolutionary history was an emergent adaptation that allowed our species to transcend the constraints of material determinism in terms of giving us a mental, cognitive Free Will that remains unlimited in its potential to help us survive.

Further Reading

Free Will (And Why You Still Don't Have It) by Sam Harris, May 31, 2011
You Do Not Choose What You Choose by Sam Harris, The Blog, June 7, 2011
Neuroscience vs Philosophy:  Taking Aim at Free Will by Kerri Smith, Nature News, August 31, 2011
What Makes Free Will Free? by Gary Gutting, The New York Times, Opinionator, October 19, 2011
Neuroscience: Taking Aim At Free Will by Kerri Smith, Nature News, August 31, 2011
Daniel Dennett Explains Consciousness and Free Will, Big Think, March 9, 2009
The End of Evil? Neuroscientists Suggest There Is No Such Thing.  Are They Right? by Ron Rosenbaum, Slate, September 30, 2011
Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? by Eddie Nahmias, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, November 13, 2011

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