A sensitive topic, but I have no choice?

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A sensitive topic, but I have no choice?

Postby PCoulton » Mon Jul 30, 2007 6:50 pm

The dreaded FREE WILL issue!

I know it got messy when the NPs tried to discuss this one, but hopefully I'm gonna keep this focused to a specific point. Here we go...

I feel like I make decisions all the time. From whether or not to scratch an itch, to whether or not to kill my noisy neighbour. But here is the problem, in the form of a thought experiment:

Two identical people in two identical universes in two identical situations face the same identical choice.

They each have the same upbringing, knowledge, maturity, brain chemistry, personal preferences, everything is the same.

Can their decisions differ?


If the answer is no, then a persons choice is not free will but simply the result of the state of the collection of atoms that represents that person.

If the answer is yes, then what can account for this difference without resorting to non-naturalistic causes such as the soul?
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Postby DallasHeathen » Mon Jul 30, 2007 7:09 pm

Well, the state of the atoms that are involved in their decision process can't be known with complete certainty (the Uncertainty Principle), so that could account for a difference.
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Postby DallasHeathen » Mon Jul 30, 2007 7:29 pm

Let me add that I don't fully understand the controversy. Wouldn't all rationalist, materialist atheists agree that there is no soul? No little disengaged ghost inside your brain who drives it? That your personality, who you are, is made up purely of the electrochemical process running inside your very material brain?

If someone agrees with all those, I don't see any way to then disagree that Free Will is an illusion. What is the definition of Free Will, if not completely entangled with the idea of a non-material soul?
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Postby Sans_Deity » Mon Jul 30, 2007 7:42 pm

I think there are a few problems with that hypothetical.

First, we already know that the universe isn't purely deterministic which means the answer must be "Yes" - even if we only consider the cascading effects of quantum indeterminism.

I'm not arguing that random (so far as we can tell) fluctuations can fully account for free will. I'm simply stating that I'm convinced that the hard determinism position is false, and soft determinism doesn't necessarily represent an incompatibility with free will.

Second, the hypothetical position confuses "scope" by extending the idea of determinism from the context in which it might apply (particle-level) to a context in which it might not strictly apply (emergent phenomena, like consciousness).

As I said during the Free Will debate, we're forced to describe things from the vantage point we have. Even if we don't actually have free will, we have the illusion of free will and it's indistinguishable from actual free will. As Dennett has pointed out, you can't imagine a will that's 'more free'...but we can certainly identify limitations imposed from without that minimize your freedom - so it seems reasonable to discuss the topic from that point of view, rather than from a pretended omniscience. (We can't ever truly know all of the factors that your hypothetical takes into account - so we can't justify the "no" answer.)

While I find free will discussions interesting (and I've bounced around to different ideas), ultimately I find the issue irrelevant. You might be a brain in a vat - but there's nothing you can do about that, so you live as if you aren't (how would you live as though you were a brain in a vat?)...likewise, we may be pure creatures of determinism and consciousness and free will are illusions - but there's nothing you can do about that either, so you live as if you have free will (and, again, how would you live as though you didn't?).

Third, the hypothetical includes all of the things that make up free will by asserting that "personal preferences, everything is the same" - which means the answer is, as far as I can tell, "No". (Edited this...it used to say "Yes", that was a mistake and it caused confusion. Sorry)

That, to me, seems to be the critical mistake if we're going to try to determine whether or not you could have done differently if you had wanted to. Personal preference isn't a 'known', it's a significant factor in determining what actions one is likely to take.
Last edited by Sans_Deity on Tue Jul 31, 2007 5:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: A sensitive topic, but I have no choice?

Postby fastthumbs » Mon Jul 30, 2007 8:36 pm

PCoulton wrote:The dreaded FREE WILL issue!

Two identical people in two identical universes in two identical situations face the same identical choice.

They each have the same upbringing, knowledge, maturity, brain chemistry, personal preferences, everything is the same.

Can their decisions differ?


If the answer is no, then a persons choice is not free will but simply the result of the state of the collection of atoms that represents that person.

If the answer is yes, then what can account for this difference without resorting to non-naturalistic causes such as the soul?



Considering that we have no access to other universes by naturalistic means (and so far the supernatural means has no credible evidence) the answer would be "UNKNOWN".

However, I submit that our understanding of the quantum world via standard model shows there is an underlying uncertainity as to when/where subatomic events occur, which implies that our ability of making choices (because thinking works via electro-mechanical means on the quantum scale) given your scenerio would not be fixed. Also, considering whether I truely have "free" will or not, as far as I can tell from my POV, >>I<< make choices all the time (although constrained by the properties of the universe and society) so untill objective evidence shows otherwise, I default to the position of "free will".
- Andrew
What you may believe may not be true and what may be true you may not believe! (- My brother)
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Postby Dust » Mon Jul 30, 2007 10:08 pm

I'm not informed enough, on this matter, to elaborate on why, but this seems to be closely related with string theory. In string theory, there is a universe in which the individual will make a different choice. There is a universe for every possible choice that he can make.
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Postby DallasHeathen » Tue Jul 31, 2007 4:35 am

Dust wrote:I'm not informed enough, on this matter, to elaborate on why, but this seems to be closely related with string theory. In string theory, there is a universe in which the individual will make a different choice. There is a universe for every possible choice that he can make.
I tend to follow science news pretty closely, and I have read Brian Greene's book The Elegant Universe to become familiar with the basics of String Theory, and I don't recall any predictions like that. In fact, the whole problem with ST is getting it to make any predictions at all. It's like a highly mathematical version of Sylvia Browne, where a physicist makes a discovery and then an ST person runs in and declares that ST predicts it.

That's hyperbole, but it's true that the best they can do is get it to approximately agree, with many assumptions, with known physics. It may never make predictions, according to Greene.

I came away after reading the book a lot less impressed with String Theory than I was going in.
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Postby imperium2000 » Tue Jul 31, 2007 7:47 am

Before we can even discuss this issue we need to define free will. If you mean free will where we can make decisions based on prior experience and biochemical processes in the brain, it is in essence, free will. There is no external force attempting to subvert our brain's processes. This is freewill. However, if you mean freewill in which we can make a decision, completely arbitrary against, our brain's biochemical processes(eg. we decide to punch someone when our brain from all prior experience had 'decide' not to do so) then no.

In this hypothetical universe, it is impossible to say if both individuals would make the same decision. We do not know at this point, if our brain processes have some effects in the quantum level.
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Postby Carneades » Tue Jul 31, 2007 9:38 am

Sans_Deity wrote:First, we already know that the universe isn't purely deterministic which means the answer must be "Yes" - even if we only consider the cascading effects of quantum indeterminism.

I'm not arguing that random (so far as we can tell) fluctuations can fully account for free will. I'm simply stating that I'm convinced that the hard determinism position is false, and soft determinism doesn't necessarily represent an incompatibility with free will.


Matt, I'm not clear what you mean by "hard" determinism and "soft" determinism. If you only mean that "soft" determinism is one where random quantum effects make neurological behavior somewhat unpredictable, then I can't understand why this would be more compatible with free-will than a universe in which no random events occur.

If my decisions are entirely determined by the behavior of the particles in my nervous system, then by the most common definitions I would lack free-will. The predictability of the particles isn't the issue; my inability to control their behavior is. In either a "hard" universe or a "soft" universe, my behavior would be entirely determined by forces that do not obey my will and so I would lack free will.

On the other hand, if you take a compatabilist view of free will (ala Dennett) then free will is entirely compatible with either the "hard" or "soft" forms of determinism. I tend toward this view myself.

So what form of free will can exist with "soft" determinism, but not with "hard" determinism?
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Postby eebamxela » Tue Jul 31, 2007 12:25 pm

Two identical people in two identical universes in two identical situations face the same identical choice.

They each have the same upbringing, knowledge, maturity, brain chemistry, personal preferences, everything is the same.

Can their decisions differ?


If we're to take this hypothetical in a literal sense then I'd say that the answer is "No". If the universes are strictly identical, then the quantum states of each atom in each of the people's bodies and minds are identical, then it only makes sense that, given identical situations, that their reactions would be identical.

Chaos Theory is a magnificent branch of mathematics. It delves into this sort of thing. If you have two functions that are identical, but you start one off at .00000000001 higher than the other, for a good while the two will behave in the same way. Until one point when they go crazy and are no where near the same. Of course, this is all Dependant on how close you start the two functions. (plotting a differential equation using Euler's method using different "delta t" values gives similar results)

For the answer to this hypothetical to be "No" it is absolutely required that they be 100% identical, right down to the location of the electrons in each and every atom in each and every bit of matter in the entirety of each universe. 4th dimensionally speaking that would sound like you were talking about the same universe. In 3 dimensions only one point can occupy a specific "spot". The same goes for the 4th, 5th and 6th dimension. (check this site out: http://www.tenthdimension.com/medialinks.php)
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Postby DallasHeathen » Tue Jul 31, 2007 1:20 pm

Carneades wrote:If my decisions are entirely determined by the behavior of the particles in my nervous system, then by the most common definitions I would lack free-will.

This is where I'm getting confused. Are there any materialist atheists (I assume that posters here are almost exclusively that) who would argue that there is more to consciousness than the electrochemical behavior of the physical brain?

I guess I need to read Dennett, to figure out how you can have a physical machine called a brain and still keep this Free Will idea.
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Postby Sans_Deity » Tue Jul 31, 2007 5:28 pm

Carneades wrote:On the other hand, if you take a compatabilist view of free will (ala Dennett) then free will is entirely compatible with either the "hard" or "soft" forms of determinism. I tend toward this view myself.


Hard determinism is the position that determinism and free will are incompatible. Soft determinism is the compatiblist's position.

I didn't mean anything else by it. Determinism is the primary issue...and if you feel that determinism and free will are incompatible, that's hard determinism. Compatibilism is synonymous with soft determinism.

That's my understanding, and how I was intending to use the terms.

On a side note...I edited my original post. In the re-reading, I had answered the questions as "yes" in one place where I obviously meant "no". Hopefully this wasn't the cause of a lot of confusion, but I think it might have muddied things a bit. :)

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Postby Carneades » Wed Aug 01, 2007 4:04 am

I see. Then as a compatabilist, I would put myself in the soft determinism camp. But I'm still not clear how the magnitude of quantum effects is relevant to the question at hand, since my will would not be more free just because the forces controlling me were random.
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Postby Sans_Deity » Wed Aug 01, 2007 7:28 am

Carneades wrote:I see. Then as a compatabilist, I would put myself in the soft determinism camp. But I'm still not clear how the magnitude of quantum effects is relevant to the question at hand, since my will would not be more free just because the forces controlling me were random.


I'm not sure if that was all addressed to me, but I didn't claim that random fluctuations can account for free will. In fact, I've repeatedly claimed (in the debate and here) that random=random and doesn't account for free will. I was less clear in this thread (mistakenly assuming that most folks had heard the debate and I didn't want to rehash it all)...

"I'm not arguing that random (so far as we can tell) fluctuations can fully account for free will."

My comment about quantum indeterminism simply addressed the deterministic state of the universe...it was separate from the free will issue.

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Postby Carneades » Fri Aug 03, 2007 2:09 am

Sans_Deity wrote:I'm not sure if that was all addressed to me, but I didn't claim that random fluctuations can account for free will. In fact, I've repeatedly claimed (in the debate and here) that random=random and doesn't account for free will.


Yes, that was addressed to you. I goofed up and erased the part of my post where I quoted you. :oops:

I was less clear in this thread (mistakenly assuming that most folks had heard the debate and I didn't want to rehash it all)...


I was actually confused because I had heard the debate, and I remembered your position as being nearly identical to mine. So I was thrown by what appeared to be a change in your position.

"I'm not arguing that random (so far as we can tell) fluctuations can fully account for free will."

My comment about quantum indeterminism simply addressed the deterministic state of the universe...it was separate from the free will issue.


Now I understand you. :D
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