Why you don't really have free will

Anony

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This was wonderfully interesting.
Why you don't really have free will

Perhaps you've chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you're in a hotel, maybe you've decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you'll wear today.

You haven't. You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your "will" had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they're finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.

What is free will?

But before I explain this, let me define what I mean by "free will." I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

Now there's no way to rewind the tape of our lives to see if we can really make different choices in completely identical circumstances. But two lines of evidence suggest that such free will is an illusion.

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the "choosing." And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True "free will," then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain's structure and modify how it works. Science hasn't shown any way we can do this because "we" are simply constructs of our brain. We can't impose a nebulous "will" on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

'Meat computers'

And that's what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject "decides" to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) "Decisions" made like that aren't conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we've made them, then we don't have free will in any meaningful sense.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are also showing that the experience of will itself could be an illusion that evolution has given us to connect our thoughts, which stem from unconscious processes, and our actions, which also stem from unconscious process. We think this because our sense of "willing" an act can be changed, created, or even eliminated through brain stimulation, mental illness, or psychological experiments. The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we're characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we're puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.

Most people find that idea intolerable, so powerful is our illusion that we really do make choices. But then where do these illusions of both will and "free" will come from? We're not sure. I suspect that they're the products of natural selection, perhaps because our ancestors wouldn't thrive in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they didn't feel responsible for their actions. Sociological studies show that if people's belief in free will is undermined, they perform fewer prosocial behaviors and more antisocial behaviors.

Many scientists and philosophers now accept that our actions and thoughts are indeed determined by physical laws, and in that sense we don't really choose freely, but philosophers have concocted ingenious rationalizations for why we nevertheless have free will of a sort. It's all based on redefining "free will" to mean something else. Some philosophers claim that if we can change our actions in response to reason, then we've shown free will. But of course the words and deeds of other people are simply environmental influences that can affect our brain molecules. That's how love begins.

Other philosophers argue that while we may not be able to choose our actions, we can choose to veto our actions — in other words, we don't have free will but do have "free won't." But from the standpoint of physics, instigating an action is no different from vetoing one, and in fact involves the same regions of the brain.

Finally, some argue that we have free will if our actions are consistent with our personalities and past behaviors. But that says nothing about whether we "choose' our actions; only that our genetic and environmental makeup affects our actions in a consistent way. As Sam Harris noted in his book Free Will, all the attempts to harmonize the determinism of physics with a freedom of choice down to the claim that "a puppet is free so long as he loves his strings."

If not, then what?

So if we don't have free will, what can we do? One possibility is to give in to a despairing nihilism and just stop doing anything. But that's impossible, for our feeling of personal agency is so overwhelming that we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose, and get on with our lives. After all, everyone deals with the unpalatable fact of our mortality, and usually do so by ignoring it rather than ruminating obsessively about it.

But there are two important ways that we must face the absence of free will. One is in religion. Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don't freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied "soul" — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

But the most important issue is that of moral responsibility. If we can't really choose how we behave, how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals or reward do-gooders? Why hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions aren't freely chosen?

We should recognize that we already make some allowances for this problem by treating criminals differently if we think their crimes resulted from a reduction in their "choice" by factors like mental illness, diminished capacity, or brain tumors that cause aggression. But in truth those people don't differ in responsibility from the "regular" criminal who shoots someone in a drug war; it's just that the physical events behind their actions are less obvious.
Continued...
 

Anony

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But we should continue to mete out punishments because those are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you'll behave badly in the future. Even without free will then, we can still use punishment to deter bad behavior, protect society from criminals, and figure out better ways to rehabilitate them. What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the "wrong choice." And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.

There's not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It's impossible, anyway, to act as though we don't have it: you'll pretend to choose your New Year's resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of "me" are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we're bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. His latest book is Why Evolution is True, and his website iswww.whyevolutionistrue.com.
Thoughts?
 

Bobbin

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For me this is an old concept as I have already held most of these views for a while.

Firstly though I don't like the phrasing that fate has been determined, rather it is set in motion and plays itself through. But this is subtlety in words.

Secondly while we are slave to fate we must also understand that it is governed by total causality. So by accepting fate you gain more control and understanding even if that in itself is your fate. I like to be reminded of this, it is actually somewhat motivational to me in a sense of getting up and doing something right now will achieve something, sit here and waste time will achieve nothing and affect my standing at a point in future - cause and effect.

The empathy and responsibility and greater understanding of one another, this and the entire article is all or mostly naturalism.
 
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Keeper

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Yep. have also known this for quite a while.

-A person who steals something, does it because of external factors. it's not a choice really.
-You keyed a persons car? well, you were probably driven to it somehow....external force.
-You hungry? yeah, that's not really a choice.... but having debonairs tonight is a choice, right? Oh no.... might be because of that "new promotion" they have.
-Chose to call your dad have you? maybe it's because you haven't called in a while and just saw a sad movie involving a person and his father.


This is all just a simulation, we have the same amount of "choice" as a pinball deciding to hit a paddle.
 

Ekstasis

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Yep. have also known this for quite a while.

-A person who steals something, does it because of external factors. it's not a choice really.
-You keyed a persons car? well, you were probably driven to it somehow....external force.
-You hungry? yeah, that's not really a choice.... but having debonairs tonight is a choice, right? Oh no.... might be because of that "new promotion" they have.
-Chose to call your dad have you? maybe it's because you haven't called in a while and just saw a sad movie involving a person and his father.


This is all just a simulation, we have the same amount of "choice" as a pinball deciding to hit a paddle.
So what are you saying? We don't really make free-willed choices?
 

Keeper

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So what are you saying? We don't really make free-willed choices?
Well I didn't know we could physically predict them 7 seconds in advance, but yes, they are all pre-determined.
Your choices today was over 4 billion years in the making, waiting to be played out.

It's asking whether a balloon has a choice to float upwards if it was filled with helium. it doesn't have a choice, it is governed by external factors and rules.


You didn't WANT to take the R21 today, because it was blocked up yesterday and you thought it would be a traffic jam again today.
You didn't WANT to talk to peter today, because yesterday he saw you fall down the stairs.

what if the R21 wasn't blocked yesterday, or you didn't fall....would you be making those same choices today? No, you wouldn't.
 

Ekstasis

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Well I didn't know we could physically predict them 7 seconds in advance, but yes, they are all pre-determined.
Your choices today was over 4 billion years in the making, waiting to be played out.
this is rubbish...pre-determined??? What are you, a robot?

I do agree with external factors influencing choices (quite logic I think). IMO it's not about choices but rather OPTIONS and which of these options you will CHOOSE / NOT CHOOSE out of your free will.
 

Keeper

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this is rubbish...pre-determined???
Yes. as the article puts it,
"And that's what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output."


What are you, a robot?
Again, as the article states, 'Meat computers', which is really all we are (including any other life)


I do agree with external factors influencing choices (quite logic I think). IMO it's not about choices but rather OPTIONS and which of these options you will CHOOSE / NOT CHOOSE out of your free will.
Like i've said, you may think you are making a "choice" out of free will, but it is an illusion. What do you think is a free will choice? (Please don't bring religion into this, any other "choice")



Btw...pre-determined by what?
Oh there are millions of factors, situations, beliefs, preconceived ideas, opinions, constraints and of course laws....

Cause and Effect is the shortest way to explain it.

You "choose" not to believe in ghosts, because you have never seen one (or, the opposite)
You "choose" to marry a person, because of your past together.
You "choose" have a swim, because it is hot, and you have nothing else that needs doing.
 

Necuno

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Thoughts?
free-will is not the only will one have there are more wills in play depending on your belief and situation. Only can easily toss in Divine Will and True Will over just Free Will. If one can choose you are making a choice, then you already have exercised you will excluding whether or not it was influenced or indirectly already decided for you. Person can always choose that which is bad for himself or others over which would have been more proper and good. This should be looked at with more broader point of view than just tunnelling down onto "Free Will" as the only factor and you don't have it because events can shape it...
 

Elimentals

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You can actually take it one step further:

Happiness is when your "meat computer" can run freely without outside interference, be that money, health to interactions with other "meat computers" in the form of relationships and laws.

You are only happy when the choice depends on inputs stored in it, the moment it has to use data from external sources that's when you become "unhappy"
 

wrathex

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We are part of our environment, and the influence of that environment on us, is constant from the moment we are born.
We are born into a limited environment, yet the limitedness imposed upon us thus, can either be accepted as absolute or not.

The correct thing to say would be: That free will is limited to the options/choices available in a given environment.

Free will is influenced by availability of options. - you cannot breathe underwater.- but you can wear an O2 tank and do it
Free will is influenced by experience. - last time the sun burned you, now you choose to wear sunscreen
Free will is influenced by less or more information.- the more you know - the more choices have

That meat computer cannot exist without external interference - dream on.
That meat computer is not remotely controlled from externally either.
That meat computer is a complex system with some functions automatic and others functions are chaotic - open to interpretation - choice.

We do not have unlimited free will, because we are constrained by the physical parameters of our environment, but through free will we choose to understand this, and thus we choose to make tools to expand our environment, so that we have more free will/choices.

We choose to develop science and technology, because we have free will.
Right now we cannot choose to space travel, but because we have chosen to investigate space, we are making the tools to do it, thus we are expanding our choices and increasing the parameters that limit our free will.
 

TheGuy

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Here is a very good presentation that I think ties into this: [video]http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/dan_ariely_asks_are_we_in_control_of_our_own_decis ions.html[/video]
 

Cloudster

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I don't agree with this article.

It's just overthinking a very simple concept IMO. Like now, I'm sitting by my desk pondering on whether or not I want to get something to eat or if I should just have a bigger meal at lunch time.

Now when the decision is made and I take action, you could say that the outcome as pre-determined no matter what decision I make. If I go get something now then that was pre-determined, if I wait then that was pre-determined.

So lol, anything I do can be interpreted as being pre-determined. But the reality is that I know I'm faced with a decision and I alone will make that decision. The decision must be made and you can always say that I was always going to make that particular decision, because I already made it lol.. but if I made the other decision the exact same could be said.

So ye... don't over think this stuff.
 

cerebus

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It's not a simple concept at all. It's only simple because you don't want to delve into it.
 

Ekstasis

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We are part of our environment, and the influence of that environment on us, is constant from the moment we are born.
We are born into a limited environment, yet the limitedness imposed upon us thus, can either be accepted as absolute or not.

The correct thing to say would be: That free will is limited to the options/choices available in a given environment.

Free will is influenced by availability of options. - you cannot breathe underwater.- but you can wear an O2 tank and do it
Free will is influenced by experience. - last time the sun burned you, now you choose to wear sunscreen
Free will is influenced by less or more information.- the more you know - the more choices have

That meat computer cannot exist without external interference - dream on.
That meat computer is not remotely controlled from externally either.
That meat computer is a complex system with some functions automatic and others functions are chaotic - open to interpretation - choice.

We do not have unlimited free will, because we are constrained by the physical parameters of our environment, but through free will we choose to understand this, and thus we choose to make tools to expand our environment, so that we have more free will/choices.

We choose to develop science and technology, because we have free will.
Right now we cannot choose to space travel, but because we have chosen to investigate space, we are making the tools to do it, thus we are expanding our choices and increasing the parameters that limit our free will.
Best reply in this thread so far. Nice one.
 

Keeper

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Like now, I'm sitting by my desk pondering on whether or not I want to get something to eat or if I should just have a bigger meal at lunch time.
Yeah, that's called a Calculation.

External Factors influencing that calculation is:
- Current Hunger Levels (Did you eat this morning?)
- Time (Do I have more time later on?)
- Where you could be lunchtime (KFC Drivethrough vs lunchbox?)
- Needed Nutrients/Cravings (Does your body need some MSG?)
- Wallet Factor (Can I afford KFC?)
- Genes (Compulsive Eating vs holding out to later)
- etc, etc


your brain is actually performing a complex calculation, to get your answer, aka a "decision" or "choice"

Here is some Pseudo Code that might be going on:

if [CurrentHunger] > 50% Then;
..if [FreeTime] after 13:00 = 30 minutes and [KFC Distance] + [Order Time] + [Eat time] < 30 minutes Then;
....if [LastDateEaten.TowerBurger] > 2 days Then;
......if TowerBurger.Cost < [Wallet.Total] Then;
........PerformAction ##Drive to KFC & Buy TowerBurger##
......Else buy Mini Twister (Not enough money)
....Else Get McDonalds instead (Had KFC less than 2 days ago)
..Else get food from company Vending Machine (No Time)
Else Do not need food (Not Hungry Enough)
End



Ever wonder why some people take some time to make the best decision?
It's their brains doing some calculating :whistling:


People would be SHOCKED if they could see the actual calculation & formulas going on...we do them without even noticing
 
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