Dancing with Causality: Purposeful Steps

Dancing with Causality: Purposeful Steps

Free will, in the form of self-determinism, is only a big mystery if you allow your thinking to be governed by the centuries of philosophers who have never managed to figure it out. They've been arguing in circles because they've defined "free will" to fit their premises. This is because they didn't know anything about the brain: not even its electro-chemical characteristics.

But that's changing. Neuroscience has found a host of feedback mechanisms in various modules of the brain. It's feedback, in particular, that has led me to an understanding of free will as self-determinism. In a nutshell, our brains use feedback to interact with the world around us (causality); learn from it; understand it; and anticipate it. Our ability to anticipate causality represents a temporal advantage over causality by enabling us to prepare for it on our own terms.

Intelligent feedback works with causality to extend the potential of humans (and many other animate beings) beyond the fixed and predictable action/reaction of inanimate objects. To deny this fundamental difference between rocks and brains is simply ignoring the obvious: animate beings behave variably . . . inanimate objects react predictably. Intelligent feedback is, perhaps, the single most significant component responsible for this qualitatively more complex and transformative mode of response from animate beings: particularly human beings.

Causality determines the SCOPE of our POTENTIAL -- but not necessarily the minutiae of our thoughts and actions. There is variability and adaptability in our choices. We can make up our minds and change our minds. We can modify our own behavior. This is enough, overall, to produce the only form of "free will" we possess: self-determinism.

Another misconception about causality is that it's a continual process controlling our every move. Causality is not usually domineering: it can be, of course, but is usually just "background noise" that our autonomous and subconscious systems handle automatically (like when we're driving, for instance).

Causality is a physical process of action-reaction. Events lead to other events. A photon traveling through space causes no reaction until it impacts something else, like the surface of an object or another subatomic particle. The majority of its existence is in a state of inertia. So, yes, causality is at work at the beginning and the end of that photon's existence but it has nothing to do in between. In the same way, causality works on us through genetics and the events of our lives but, when causality isn't grabbing our attention, we think about those events and experiences and learn from them, then anticipate causality's next moves and prepare for them accordingly. This intelligent interaction with causality extends determinism to self-determinism. It's all part and parcel of causality. By anticipating causality, we dance with it, and move through life with purposeful steps.

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Comment by Atheist Exile on December 11, 2011 at 2:54am


Sorry, I missed your reply . . . which was excellent, by the way.  Those were very good points that I intend to incorporate in my own arguments.  Thanks.  I'll quote what you said, for the benefit of anybody reading this . . .

The issue with causality is it's unidirectionality. Whether one deals with strict causality, if A then B, or probabilistic causality, if A then B1(pB1), B2(pB2)...Bn(pBn), is that one cannot marry this concept with the effect influencing the cause, B having influence on A. However, for sentient/self-aware/conscious beings, the consequence clearly influence the initial choices. For instance, your knowledge of the fact that if you skip work you will get fired leads you to go to work, which means that you don't get fired. An effect which never occurs therefore influences the cause, breaking the causal chain. Likewise, our knowledge of effects may lead us to make certain choices, if you get a degree you will get a job you like better, so you get a degree, thus the effect influences the cause.

The important impacts of paths-not-chosen and self-fulfilling prophesies tends to be forgotten by the advocates of causality.


In my experience, these advocates are quite often hard science focused an of the opinion that the soft sciences have nothing to offer but vague answers and generalities.

Comment by Albert Bakker on December 11, 2011 at 3:13am

"Yet, brain science is showing that our supposedly conscious choices are actually made in the subconscious brain before we are even aware of having made a choice."

Most of it is. The choice between lifting your left arm to protect your face instead of your right arm or to bend or to step to the left, right, forward or backward or do something else or do nothing at all when you see a rock being hurled at you needs no conscious deliberation about possibilities and consequences and it isn't. You don't need to and don't consciously decide when exactly to take a sip of your coffee, much less so in which order and with what intervals you have to move your arm, start sipping, put your fingers around the cup, pout your lips, bend forward a little bit, sense the temperature and so forth. But you do need to consciously decide whether you have the time to finish it or have to go right away to avoid missing the bus again and do.

You don't need to and don't consciously decide when to change gears, accelerate, break or correct your car from drifting off to left or right. You do when it is your first driving lesson. When you're an experienced driver you don't even need to and don't consciously decide when to turn left or right on the same road every day. (That is to say if your experience tells you the road can be expected to be there and largely the same, which is not always the case everywhere in the world.) You do need to consciously decide when to turn left or right to get to a destination in a city where you've never been, even if you already know where you want to go.

Comment by Arcus on December 11, 2011 at 10:22am

When saying "brain science" I presume you mean what can be gathered from mapping blood flow, electrical activity, chemistry, and so forth, and these days it's quite often fMRI studies which are heralded as "proof". However, there is no scientific process available (yet) to measure thoughts, and "brain science" is thus measuring by proxy with all the issues that entails. In my opinion, the concept of "free will" belongs to the realm of psychology and not physics, and using physics to describe psychological processes is as futile as using psychology to describe physical processes.

Since we presumably can agree that we are definitely products of our experiences, whichever field we have spent most time in will tend to influence our opinion on the matter since it's where our personal expertise lays.

Comment by Unseen on December 11, 2011 at 12:11pm

@Albert Bakker  

I was talking about conscious deliberative choices of course, but there's no reason to think that non-deliberative choices are any less subject to causality. Much of what we do isn't deliberate. We have an autonomic nervous system to handle that. It causes us to react without deliberation, but I see no reason to think that it operates free of causal processes. If anything, it is even more obviously the result of causally determined processes in the nervous system.

@Arcus   Even psychology, to whatever degree it can attempt to describe or modify human behavior, has to presume causality. Otherwise, why try?

Comment by Albert Bakker on December 11, 2011 at 12:45pm

I think we all agree that the brain isn't exempt of the same causality and determinism, be it of a probabilistic/ stochastic, chaotic or linear nature we see elsewhere in nature. Where we apparently disagree is whether this exemption must necessarily be achieved somewhere in the brain to be able to achieve self determination in the most meaningful sense.

Comment by Arcus on December 11, 2011 at 12:52pm

@Unseen: In a certain sense it does, of course, but it's completely different than causation as it applies to physics or chemistry, essentially 'A always cause B'. Instead it's focused on correlation and quite often use multivariate and multivariable models, 'A is correlated with B', with a certain explanatory power attached (60% is considered quite good). However, it's dangerous to jump from correlation to causation when it comes to interpreting behavior, and there is no immediate assumption of universality of results.

Comment by Unseen on December 11, 2011 at 2:12pm

@Arcus   The fact that ultimately the world is too complex to know every single cause or constellation of causes of every single event doesn't mean that events are thereby without causes. Indeed, to assume that things have no causes is a null hypothesis because nothing really follows from it. The biggest problem with "free will" isn't the "free" part, it's that what we mean by "will" evaporates as you try to nail it down.

Comment by Arcus on December 11, 2011 at 6:33pm

@Unseen: I personally don't like the "there's more between heaven and earth" blabla (I'm sure you feel much the same) as it detracts from having an actual discussion on the subject. There is a reason "free will" is generally written in quotation marks, it's because there is no good and solid understanding what it actually is, and discussing the semantics of it is a side track which leads to criticizing the words instead of the concept.

Here's my view: We clearly interact with our environment in non-"natural" ways. We inherently know the difference between what nature is capable of and what intelligent life is capable of, which is why for instance the SETI program works by the guidelines it does to separate what is perceived to be intelligent signal from the noise of nature. By having determinism and causation as leading thoughts you are assuming that the whole is merely the sum if its individual parts, which I think is tantamount to not seeing the forest for all the trees. The brain works on physical properties, thoughts are "made" up of brain chemistry, electrical signals, blood flow, and so forth, and we exist in a physical reality. However, we interact with said reality in a way which is not determined or pre-determined, we make choices which cannot be predicted by any physical models, and our thoughts are more than the physical processes which underpin them. This is essentially the separation between what can be explained by hard versus soft science. We are more than the individual sums of whatever make us up, and this "something" is what is referred to as "free will" or consciousness or self awareness or sentience. Whatever it is that makes life different from non-life cannot be analyzed by looking at the individual parts from a bottom up perspective, but rather a top down approach is necessary.

Free will as a concept is a bit like how pornography was once described by the SCOTUS, don't really know what it is, can't really define it well, but we know it when we see it.

Comment by Unseen on December 11, 2011 at 6:59pm

Causality doesn't need to be predictable to be always in play. Assuming that it's not always in play is tantamount to believing in miracles. "However, we interact with said reality in a way which is not determined or pre-determined" simply is contrary to scientific common sense. Like "free will" I'm not sure what "pre-determination" means. It sounds like a religious term to me. I've never encountered a scientist using it in any serious way. There really is no point in talking about a future that hasn't happened yet as though it's already happened. This doesn't mean it isn't inevitable, but "inevitable," or even "absolutely inevitabl," isn't a pure synonym for "pre-determined," which seems to have a subtext of intentionality about it.

I would liken our perception of free will as more like deja vu. In other words, a brain state that seems to have a reality to it, but in the end is illusory.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 12, 2011 at 2:11am

I've benefited from many of your objections and comments and have posted a new blog entry titled, "Self-determinism: Manipulating events". I hope the mods approve it quickly. :-)


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