Monday, March 12, 2007

Do People Have Free Will to Make Choices?


Granted, on a very low level -- maybe the molecular level -- all inputs into our brains might be transformed into deterministic outcomes. That is: It's certainly plausible that, because we are mobile bags of chemicals, our behavior can be predicted by a ridiculously complex mathematical model that no man nor machine can come close to comprehending.

So, in the most strict biological sense, your wavering between picking the Dr.Pepper or the Mountain Dew might be a "programmed" response comprised of quazillions of miniscule electrical charges and other teencie-weencie microscopic activities that you have no "control" over. In short, some people would say that every event must have some cause -- and that the bio-physical chain of events only gives us an illusion of choice.

All of which is irrelevant to the question.

When you are looking at, say, someone's face, you are seeing what they look like -- and your assessment of the face is based on the composition, expression, coloring, shape, and whatever else. Never mind that what you are really looking at are millions and millions of cells and chemicals and atoms and so forth -- which, when combined on a massive scale, only gives us the illusion of a face. A car's steering wheel doesn't actually turn the wheels; it instead triggers a chain of actions that give the illusion that the steering wheel is turning the wheels. But... you can recognize faces, and steer cars -- even if you don't understand how you got to that point.

You see where this is going.

When confronted with a choice between two beverages, the deterministic bio-physical components (if any), when summed, enable us to select either drink. Similarly, a pitcher and the hitter, trying to outguess each other, are actively making choices. If you've read this far, that was your decision to read.

The fact that no one understands how choices are made at the lowest levels doesn't matter. (Low-level brain activity is all speculation anyway, and no one even claims to understand the process -- if there is one.) Everyone who isn't brain-damaged can make choices. Maybe they make stupid choices, maybe they make seemingly irrational choices, but they can all make choices. Under the right circumstances, with the right incentives, everyone is capable of saying, "I'll take the Mountain Dew".


Xelas said...

Quote: "Granted, on a very low level -- maybe the molecular level -- all inputs into our brains might be transformed into deterministic outcomes."
OK, argument is over. If it is deterministic at the lower level, then that's all we need to know for upper level is just a result. But I will continue. . .

Quote: "some people would say that every event must have some cause". Well, you either believe that or you don't. The whole issue of determinism vs. free will rests on that argument -- cause and effect. On the other hand if you don't believe in cause & effect, the field is wide open to all kinds of fascinating phenomena!

Quote: "All of which is irrelevant to the question." -- Seems very relevant to me!

Quote: "Never mind that what you are really looking at are millions and millions of cells and chemicals and atoms and so forth -- which, when combined on a massive scale, only gives us the illusion of a face. . . ."

All of which is irrelevant to the question -- I heard somewhere. For example, computers -- which are absolutely deterministic (even random number generators are deterministic!)-- present many high level views that hardly reveal their lowest level content, i.e., games & such. That has nothing to say about what is really going on in the computer -- the electrons, the memory cells, the ones and zeros. The fact that I may see it as a game to play changes absolutely nothing about what is really going on.

BTW, computers also use "decisions", both in hardware and software. Even though we call them decisions, a computer never really makes a decision -- the answer and the direction it will go are always predetermined by the conditions that exist when the decision gate is reached.

Quote: "Everyone who isn't brain-damaged can make choices."

Well maybe everyone but me. As for me, everything I am, everything I know, the brain mechanisms that allow me to make "choices" and its quality, and so on, all came from the external world. I can't take credit for any of it.

If I had had choices, I would have chosen to be a lot prettier and a lot smarter. Even a little wealthier would not be a bad choice either.

No, I believe that what I am was determined by the luck of birth. So, I thank goodness I wasn't born to an Iraqi couple -- but I don't really think I can take credit for that "choice".

faQster said...


We don't know what really happens at the molecular level; I was only giving benefit of the doubt that determinism has its origins at that level.

But isn't that like saying that the proverbial "reason" for a hurricane is a butterfly wing flap years earlier -- which "caused" an incomprehensibly complex chain of events that resulted in the hurricane?

And if you accept that, then you have to wonder about what caused the butterfly to flap its wing. And just keep tracing it further and further back to a single-cell organism that floated this way instead of that way.

Similarly, you can trace the molecular "cause" of determinism back to, say, the proteins that evolved to form the molecules. But what would that prove?

The point here is that, unlike computers, humans are conscious decision-makers who have the ability to make choices -- regardless of the cause of the cause of the cause of the cause that resulted in those choices.

The assumption of determinism negates that choice-making ability and implies that people are captive to their immutable biology. To some extent they are (no one had the choice of being prettier), but would you say that violent criminals should be absolved of moral responsibility because they are products of causes that they cannot control?

Put another way, if you can't take credit for anything, then doesn't that imply that you also can't be blamed?

Xelas said...

I just don't see why "not knowing what is going on at the low levels" is relevant. I come from a background in computers and the same situation exists with computer systems. At any one time you can, and people do, view it at various levels -- from flipping of one's and zero's to fantastic simulations of a Boeing 747 landing on an airstrip. It is convenient to shift views back and forth through the various levels.

Nevertheless, all levels are rigidly tied together.

Another example is temperature. To us an object is "hot". But really it is just agitated atoms. Does it matter which way we view hotness? No, both ways get useful results and they are solidly mathematically linked together.

I am not objecting to the claim that we can make decisions (although I am skeptical, in the sense that I think, on average, what we do is very predictable, if you had all the inputs). All I am saying is that to accept that, you have to chunk "cause & effect".

I would be pleased to be shown how a "decision" could be made that violated "cause & effect". I just can't see how it could be done.

faQster said...

I think we might be talking about two different things here:

1. Ultimate cause
2. Proximate cause

When you decide whether to place two or three ice cubes in a drink, it's ultimate cause might be the output of a infinitely complex series of inputs. If that is so, then you have no choice, and your biology is interacting with external factors to produce an outcome of "two cubes".

The proximate cause is saying, "Hmmm...I could go either way...two cubes or three. Not many cubes left, think I'll go with two."

I believe you are talking about the ultimate cause. And I say that this might or might not exist. Or: Just as I can't produce a decision without a "cause & effect"...I would like to be shown how this "ultimate cause" mechanism works.

So...on whom does the burden of demonstration fall? On the person who claims an unobservable "cause and effect"? Or the person who claims that we just don't now -- maybe there's a cause and maybe there isn't. I find a parallel with the existence of God here; i.e., the burden should fall on the person wishing to demonstrate a positive...and not the person who is tentatively rejecting said unobservable positive.

Proximate causes are much easier to demonstrate. If someone says, "I'm a rapist because it feels good", then we know that this person had the freedom of choice to either:

A) Rape someone and feel good, or

B) Show restraint and not feel as good.

When no one is looking, they'll choose (A). And in front of the courthouse, or in front of the victim's armed husband, they'll choose (B).

To me, that says that this rapist has the capability of making choices -- and the criminal choice cannot be defended on the grounds of an uncontrollable deterministic impulse.