“An argument which proves too much, proves nothing.” ~M.M. Mangasarian
Carl Popper popularized the concept of scientific falsifiability. He asserted that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory is observably valid only if it is falsifiable. This criteria has become a fundamental test of scientific validity. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. That something is "falsifiable" does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it.
Causality, as a proposition, states that every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. This is a falsifiable scientific principle, easily proven by observation or experiment.
Determinism, as a proposition, states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. This is a philosophical assertion that is not scientifically falsifiable for complex organisms, like humans (as opposed to inanimate objects): it can not be proven by observation or experiment. However, it isfalsifiable for inanimate objects.
This distinction between inanimate objects and animate beings is often overlooked (i.e. ignored) by hard determinists. They would have you believe that physics recognizes no causal difference between a brain and a rock: that both are just collections of atoms controlled by causality in exactly the same way. They, in effect, deny possession of their own minds and with foolish certainty sacrifice common sense to the altar of physics.
Knowledge is a relatively safe addiction; that is, until it becomes idolatry. Certainty is an illusion. It's not determinism versus free will; one or the other. That's a false dichotomy. There are other possibilities: ones you're likely to miss if you take the wrong approach. And hard determinists are taking the wrong approach. The fact is, physics is concerned with the inanimate universe. Biology is concerned with animate life. Physics deals with simple inanimate objects. Biology deals with complex animate organisms and beings. Physics is amazing and glamorous . . . but it's the wrong discipline to apply to the question of free will.
Eugene Wigner was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist and mathematician. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for “his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles". Wigner is important for having laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics as well as for his research into the structure of the atomic nucleus. Wigner is also important for his work in pure mathematics, having authored a number of theorems.
In his famous and thought-provoking essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, Wigner mentioned the inanimate nature of physics 5 times:
Note, in particular, that last one (#5). The possibility of understanding the many phenomena of life is a far-off dream and far from assured compared to the progress we've already made in physics. Biology deals with animate, phenomenal, complex systems. Physics (everything else) deals with inanimate, physical, matter/energy . . . not because of some arbitrary classification but because they are fundamentally divergent.
The difference between physics and biology is an important one. Any single cell in your body (of which there are over 200 kinds) includes more processes and performs more functions than any single inanimate object in the universe. Furthermore, our bodies contain more of these cells than The Milky Way contains stars -- and that doesn't even take bacteria into consideration. We are complex systems of complex systems. Animate beings (most notably, humans) are unlike anything else in the universe and dwarfs the inanimate universe in complexity.
Reciprocal causation (a.k.a. feedback) is a fundamental principle of biology found in many processes such as epigenetics and neurophysiology. With reciprocal causation, an action is both cause and effect (Richard C. Francis, Epigenetics, page 124). It is not limited to biological phenomena and, contrary to intuition, is not a violation of causality. Reciprocal causation (I’ll use the word, feedback, from here on out) is central to complex systems and their emergent phenomena such as consciousness and life itself.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines feedback:
Feedback is a process in which information about the past or the present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future. As part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop, the event is said to "feed back" into itself. Ramaprasad (1983) defines feedback generally as "information about the gap between the actual level and the reference level of a system parameter which is used to alter the gap in some way", emphasizing that the information by itself is not feedback unless translated into action.
Conscious intelligence is not “all in the brain” – it’s an amalgam of feedback between 3 components: the brain, sensory organs and environment. If you never had any one of these 3 components, you could never develop consciousness or intelligence.
Triadic reciprocal causationis a term introduced by Albert Bandura to refer to the mutual influence of feedback between three sets of factors: personal (e.g., cognitive, affective and biological events), the environment and behavior. He groups the brain and sense organs under “personal factors” (which also include experience and genetics) but the interplay between brain, sensory organs and the environment are still maintained. Because of triadic feedback, our behavior influences the environment, dynamically altering it – as it alters us – in a perpetual feedback loop.
How accurately any of this reflects reality is a matter of opinion. We simply don’t know enough about the brain to understand even simple processes – much less complex ones like self-aware intelligence or free will. What it suggests to me is that trying to explain biological processes with physics is like trying to observe the moon with a microscope. You need the whole picture: not a narrow focus. The material reductionism of physics is the wrong approach to a complex system; and the human brain is the most complex system in the universe. A neuron may be amenable to physics but a brain is not. Physics can certainly make contributions to neuroscience but, overall, the brain and its attendant phenomena are the purview of biology, not physics.
What I doknow is that the central role of feedback, in life, introduces myriad opportunities for the emergence of amazing phenomena unlike anything else in the inanimate universe: abiogenesis, reproduction, regeneration, replication, respiration, digestion, circulatory and other autonomous systems, motility, reflexes, instincts, epigenetics, sensory perception, symbiosis, immunology, evolution, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will.
Just because the brain is deterministic at the microscopic scales of physics does not mean it must also be so at macroscopic scales. It's not surprising that the potential for emergent phenomena driven by dynamic feedback systems are so easily missed (or dismissed) by the physicist’s narrow focus – a case of not noticing the forest for the trees. Emergent phenomena is a fact of nature -- life itself is a an emergent phenomena -- and the feedback-rich systems of the brain are fertile grounds for emergent phenomena like consciousness, intelligence and imagination: why not also free will (choice)?
The hard determinist’s insistence that free will violates causality and/or determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from the misapplication of physics to biological processes. There are other possibilities. I think the dynamic process of intelligent feedback produces reciprocal causation and enables choice by making our thoughts both cause and effect. Reciprocal causation, is a non-linear mode of causality in which an action can be both a cause and an effect: a dynamic feedback loop that feeds off of itself, like Uroboros: the ancient Egyptian mythological serpent, swallowing its own tail. Such a process is ripe for producing the emergent phenomenon of free will, despite the false dichotomies of physical reductionists who reduce thought to neuronal activity.
If you make the scientifically unfalsifiable claim that free will is impossible because brain activity is causally deterministic at microscopic scales (molecular or neuronal), then your linear thinking is really painting yourself into a corner because ALL brain activity (like memory and reason) are causally deterministic at microscopic scales. If you thus consider free will impossible, then so is reason. And if reason is impossible, how do you know anything at all? That’s just nuts. Remember, an argument which proves too much, proves nothing. I’m suspicious of, and dissatisfied with, any scientifically unfalsifiable claim – particularly one that talks me out of possession of my own mind.
It is with feedback that we are self-aware. Feedback provides context. Feedback informs our decisions. Consciousness and intelligence are impossible without mental feedback. We may not yet be able to prove it but I think reciprocal causation offers plenty of potential for free will to emerge from intelligent feedback – just as surely as consciousness and intelligence do. I mean, it seems like a minor feat compared to conscious intelligence. We are self-determined and responsible for our actions. We are far from puppets on strings.
I face this tension between "control" and "influence" all the time in discussions about free will. There seems to be an all-or-nothing mentality that rules out any middle ground. Why can't we be merely influenced by causality? Must we be controlled by it? Once again, I think this is a false dichotomy. It's not all or nothing. Causality influences us but does not control every aspect of us as long as we interact with causality instead of merely react to it.
Human intelligence demonstrates interaction, not mere reaction. We innately recognize, understand and anticipate causality. We are only slaves to causality when there's no potential for choice. LIke in a car accident or a hurricane or a heart attack.
I think we are influenced. We communicate from a social and cultural toolbox that is limited in size and scope... We can build upon it but have to use the tools that are available to us. The limitations of the tools also limit the range and even the application of the 'free will'.
There have been studies on people with certain biases...and it has been proven that scientists can predict with high accuracy their answers to many questions.. These people think they are coming up with a free will interpretation but their interpretive matrix has been skewed by their environment.
I think we have a limited but calculating free will. How limited that freedom is... I do not know.
I think its possible to make a change in your life.. To go on a diet...to practice yoga.. Something like self-introspection meditation is useful for becoming aware of your thoughts and biases.. This 'conscious' endeavor to get a handle on 'will' shows a kind of 'exercise' of it.
I don't think we have an etched-in-stone determined life ahead of us. I think we can make course corrections.. We can lean one way or the other.. we can press down on the gas or step on the brake. I think there are all kinds of determining factors that play a part of each decision we make along those lines.
LOL I'm rambling
No, Wesley, not rambling at all. I agree with you all the way.
Libertarian free will and hard determinism are the extreme positions on this topic. I think the truth lies between them: probably closer to the hard determinism end of the spectrum.
Causality only works when it applies to the whole system. If it can not apply to the whole system then its not a very good way to predict what happens. Causality is an all or nothing deal. If you have evidence to suggest that humans are somehow above causality, please do enlighten us.
Jeesh! No . . . humans are not above causality. I never said anything of the kind. What I said was that, because of our human intelligence, we INTERACT with causality rather than merely REACT to it. There's no question we recognize, understand and anticipate causality. It's literally a no-brainer . . . requiring no conscious effort on our part.
A big part of interacting with causality is anticipating it. If you can anticipate causality, you have a temporal advantage over it. In general, causality is pretty easy to anticipate because of its regularity. For instance:
If you can anticipate causality and plan accordingly, you're navigating your own course into the future. That is the least you should be able to do if you have a choice about your actions.
A neural scientist would absolutely add that.
Please define free will. You can not put fourth a theory by attacking another. just because we are unable to predict how every single elementary particle will react within the brain as a whole is not a reason to assume their is something extra going on. What evidence do you have to suggest that the universe is not predictable.
"Just because the brain is deterministic at the microscopic scales of physics does not mean it must also be so at macroscopic scales."
No it does not mean it is; but is good evidence that it would be deterministic at the macroscopic scales.
What happens if you do not have free will? Are you not going to feel emotions, will you turn into a computer? Will you do things differently?
How could you read the OP and make that comment? Hard determinism is the prevailing nemesis of free will in most debates, discussions and articles on the subject. Debunking their arguments is a necessary part of advancing an argument for free will.
In the past, I've promoted a form of free will called "self-determinism". This time, I wrote about why hard determinism fails and how there is plenty of potential for free will to arise from the same processes and mechanisms that spawn consciousness, imagination and intelligence -- namely feedback from both external (environment) and internal (memory, deliberation, imagination) sources. The many streams of feedback, in a non-linear process known as reciprocal causation, combine their causes and effects to produce a "homogenized" perception. Our decisions (choices) are then based on those perceptions. In effect, causes and effects integrate and lose their differences. The choices we make are simultaneously causes and effects.
As for how I define free will . . . well, however I define it, you won't agree with it 100%. It seems everybody has a different definition. I believe free will -- at minimum -- is the ability to make choices. However, we don't make decisions in a causal void. We are influenced -- sometimes greatly so -- by causality. The choices you make at your keyboard are dramatically different than the choices you make in the midst of a car accident. Causality exerts its influence capriciously.
If I did not have free will, I would expect to find myself constantly doing what seem like arbitrary things. After all, if some external, cosmic, influence is controlling me then my actions would not align with my thoughts.
But they do align just dandy. I can anticipate my own death and write a will and get my driver's license endorsed for organ harvesting. That is preparing for causality in some (hopefully) far off time and place. Intelligence MEANS understanding and anticipating causality. We have a temporal advantage over causality that allows us to INTERACT with it instead of REACT to it. What exactly do you thing intelligence is?
This is a very well-written and VERY interesting short discussion. To be honest, I lean toward determinism for the reasons asserted in the article. I find it very difficult to suggest that if, in some super advanced world, we had EVERY SINGLE VARIABLE about the molecular makeup on one's environment and self/brain/sensory organs/etc., we couldn't predict the next behavioral response. Laws of conservation of energy and mass, in everything that I have studied, still apply from the neuron and through the brain level. That said, the author of "Wider than the Sky" wrote about the reentrant loops of the brain and the possibility of neural feedback somehow encoding some sort of free will.
I'm still not won back from my thought that all evidence points to the nonexistence of free will while all subjective feeling points toward its existence, but this article has made me think and question that assertion. Well done.