First of all, watch this BBC video about the experiment which seems to pretty conclusively show that real decisions are not done in the conscious mind. It's not even 6 minutes long, so no great commitment After watching, what is your reaction?

The experiment shows that decision-making is done in the unconscious mind up to six seconds before we are aware of it, and not as the result of conscious deliberation.

Bear in mind that decision-making as studied in this experiment differs from other behaviors such as reactions and reflexes, though they also are not really done through a conscious deliberative process. They are situations where time doesn't allow deliberation and your body and nervous system "just do it." Avoiding a child running into the street, for example, doesn't result from a decision-making process but is done as a simple reaction that is not handled in the brain proper but is handled by the nervous system, much the way you don't decide to blink when someone flicks a finger at your eyes.

Tags: free, freedom, haynes, will

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I remember watching this. It's good. There is a link to another page called "50 Brain Biases" worth reading.

Speaking of the 50 Brain Biases article, the first one is called The Confirmation Bias, defined as "The tendency to seek evidence that agrees with our position and dismiss evidence that does not."

One sees this bias at work among those who support theism. 

Depressingly, one also sees it among people who want to salvage free will. They are blind to it, but they are arguing in favor of free will because they don't want to give up the idea, not because they have evidence it is true. 

Now, as for me, it wasn't easy to give up the notion of free will. I really didn't want to. In fact, I didn't until I was in graduate school studying philosophy and took a very close look at the idea.

I still miss the idea of free will. Part of me wants it because, I suppose, my culture tells me I ought to have it and because there's no way to morally justify punishment without the related notion of personal responsibility. At the same time, I know that, rationally, it's a meaningless concept. There's no way to make it make sense without departing from how the term is actually used.

The experiment is the one that pretty clearly shows that decision-making is done in the unconscious mind and not as the result of conscious deliberation.

But my unconscious mind is still part of "me", so I'm constantly learning how to be more cognizant of my lower levels of consciousness. It's probably usually just a sub-conscious to conscious communication, but my conscious deliberation sometimes seems to affect bodily processes. (See below.)

Avoiding a child running into the street, for example, doesn't result from a decision-making process but is done as a simple reaction

I largely agree, but that's not the whole story. When driving, I'm always anticipating the unexpected. Any quick, useful reaction to a situation is not only pre-rehearsed, but very much appreciated when it works properly. Whether that's called free will or not is irrelevant to me, as long as what happens is what I wanted to happen.

a simple reaction that is not handled in the brain proper but is handled by the nervous system, much the way you don't decide to blink when someone flicks a finger at your eyes

Very true. In fact, reflexes below the neck are handled by neurons in the spinal cord, and don't even involve the brain until after the fact. Animals can even retract from pain causing injury before the brain actually feels the pain. I'm happy that free will doesn't interfere with this. But still, one can train oneself to mitigate reflexes, and other unconscious actions. Take breathing. Now, stop breathing. I know you can! But not for long. At what point when holding one's breath does free will give up? It's not a fine line. And it depends on previous, intentional preparation/training beforehand.

So basically, I'm happy just to have what feels like free will, even if all I am is a mortal bag of chemicals.

I still miss the idea of free will. Part of me wants it because, I suppose, my culture tells me I ought to have it and because there's no way to morally justify punishment without the related notion of personal responsibility.

All of me wants it, except in the above examples when it gets in the way of crucial reactions and behavior. Hearing about how drunk people survive accidents more than sober people, I had rehearsed in my head what I'd do if I was ever in an accident.

One day, due to a braking malfunction (and excess speed), I flew off a hill on a motorcycle. I still remember relaxing while tumbling through green tree branches, not feeling pain. When I came to, I was about 75 from the road and feet downhill, hanging upside down from a tree limb with my helmeted head on the ground, neck slightly bent. My right boot was off, and stuck on a higher branch. I know this is anecdotal, but I'm quite certain I'd have spun around more violently through the trees if I was scared and stiff, or could have broken my neck. In any case, whether you define it as a subconscious or conscious or a combination of both, I knew before leaving the road what I wanted to do, and I did it.

I just thought of a similarity between "luck" and "free will". They're both about when preparation meets opportunity. The difference is that the luck feels random, and the free will feels intentional.

There's no way to make [free will] make sense without departing from how the term is actually used.

You're right, and I'm guilty of that in this post. Perhaps the only question that really matters is, what do each of us really mean when we use the word, and how much can we agree on the definition. Congruent with the "purpose" [sic] of brains in nature, perhaps free will is best defined as "the beneficial ability to adapt one's behaviors".

I haven't decided yet.

LOL, nice one. It only confused me for a couple of seconds.

And I just realized (over a week later!)...

It only confused me for a couple of seconds.

... I mean, it only confused me consciously for a couple of seconds.

I wonder if I realized that unconsciously, last week.

This gets complicated, quickly. And slowly.

LOL!
I see what you did there :D

I've uncovered an idea that feels particularly profound at the moment. Maybe tomorrow it'll feel less profound, but here goes.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Before searching for and finding that quote, I forgot it had religious context. That's ok, because now I'll rephrase it.

To varying extents, we each have the wisdom to know what we can, and cannot change. What we can change is amenable to (what feels like our) free will. What we cannot change feels more like fate--subject to external circumstances and/or decisions made beyond our control.

Gray areas in between the black of Can't Change and the white of Can Change are where one's confidence, courage, gut, experience, health, concepts of God (or not), and so on inform courses of action. In essence, "Free Will" is one's ability to accurately assess the black-to-white (Can't vs Can) scale, and adapt accordingly.

Perhaps Free Will is nothing more than the feeling of deciding how to act, given specific circumstances.

And of course I feel free, too, because the real goings-on that determine my decisions go on where I can't perceive them, although a researcher can measure them. So perhaps free will consists in the ignorance that one doesn't have it.

Yes, that's the ticket!

"The experiment shows that decision-making is done in the unconscious mind up to six minutes before we are aware of it, and not as the result of conscious deliberation."

Seconds. You unintentionally conflated the length of the video with the temporal difference between subconscious decision making and conscious 'decision making'.

I have no evidence beyond the "up to 6 second difference" yet but, after seeing the video, I speculate that consciousness is a side-effect of our cognition. Our brains operate, gathering data and making decisions, largely without participation of our 'conscious' mind. Because the data gathering and decision making needs to be done as fast as possible, it is processed then those decisions are shunted into the cul-de-sacs of our minds we call consciousness. From an evolutionary stand point, consciousness at a crucial moment could be detrimental so it is a secondary effect of our brain's operation. Our primary thinking is in our subconscious and our consciousness is the secondary concern, thus the delay.

 

As for free will, I don't know that I ever accepted the magical version of it because it is usually presented with Biblical BS - especially Adam and Eve exercising their "free will" to chose "evil". Frankly I quite enjoyed seeing various documentaries regarding (social) animals showing ethical behavior and/or reactions. It supports something I've felt: that we have an innate ethical compass which knows that stealing and hurting others (of our tribe) is wrong. Which would mean there is no magical "free will", just an ordinary ability to make decisions.   Note: rereading this, it reads like I've left something out but I can't articulate what it is yet so for right now it's staying unsaid.

 

On the "50 Brain Biases" page I found a problem with the entry for "The Just-World Bias" where they say: "We must learn to distinguish between true-karma and false-karma." (italics theirs)

No, we must learn to dismiss the idea of karma. There is no such thing as "true-karma". There are events which we choose to view as 'karma' which might be what they are referring to but those events are not due to some retribution the universe or some god is enacting.

Before that point they were good entries but I haven't read past that point yet as that mistake keeps annoying me.

 

 

 

 

Thanks for the minutes/seconds catch. I've fixed the original post. 

It supports something I've felt: that we have an innate ethical compass which knows that stealing and hurting others (of our tribe) is wrong. Which would mean there is no magical "free will", just an ordinary ability to make decisions.   Note: rereading this, it reads like I've left something out but I can't articulate what it is yet so for right now it's staying unsaid.

Perhaps this is what you forgot: Being the locus of one's decisions, be they thought of as good or bad, isn't the same thing as being responsible for them. Without a notion of personal responsibility, a person may make decisions thought of (by others) as good or bad, but one cannot call the person ethical or unethical because those decisions were not the products of conscious deliberation.

In the end, we do what it is in our nature to do. The people who consistently do good we call good and the ones who don't we call bad. Good or bad, their actions cannot be attributed to conscious deliberation but just acting out their nature. And by "nature," I only mean that which they are, nothing metaphysical or mythical.

Without a notion of personal responsibility, a person may make decisions thought of (by others) as good or bad, but one cannot call the person ethical or unethical because those decisions were not the products of conscious deliberation.

It looks like there's an interesting twist to this notion, in terms of behavior. Daniel Dennett points out experiments on people like the following. One group is in one way or another given the suggestion that there is no free will, and another group that there is. The group given the suggestion that there is no free will consistently lowers their standard of behavior by cheating and lying more, and so on.

Most people are in denial of how peer pressure affects their daily behavior. Just the knowledge that one will be rewarded or punished for certain types of behavior is strong influence on how they behave. It seems the word "responsibility" itself breaks down to "response-ability". At the very least, groups expect each member's behavior to adapt to the group, which is in fact what usually happens. (Especially in non-Western cultures.)

Keeping this on topic... when one session of brain scans leads to a conclusion that decisions are made six seconds ahead of time, it's completely ignoring important human behavior such as face-to-face interactions that occur in split seconds, on a daily basis. Measuring something as trivial as one's supposedly "random" decision-making process of pushing a left or right button should not just be automatically generalized to how we methodically process more significant kinds of decisions, especially decisions made that require consideration of their social context.

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