May 2008

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« April Fools Jokes | Main | My Plan for Sainthood »



For the rest of you dinks who didn't catch it- the article was a piece of British Humor (tm)
Go back and read it again; but this time read it in a "Monty Python" announcer's voice. Get it?


Sorry, couldn't help myself. (Or COULD I? :)
Anyone who's ever been married knows that free will is just one of those, whatchamacallits,.... useless ideas.
Who's turn is it to pick up the kids? Why is it a BAD idea to go visit her family for vacation? (!) Public schools are for morons; but our kids might turn out bad; are morons more economically feasible?
Those are the kinds of real questions the rest of us (the ones who get laid) must answer. Free will? I defecate in the milk of free will!


[It's a good thing I never made the argument that the laws of the universe are exact. Randomness is allowed. -- Scott]

Are you actually suggesting that your argument that we have no Free Will isn't linked to the concept of Determinism? Are you saying we don't live in a Deterministic universe, yet our decisions are beyond our control?

Most of the people who argue against the existence of Free Will try to assert that the laws of the universe are exact, and so require our brains to reach the same conclusions given the same inputs every time. If you're arguing that the universe has randomness, but we don't have the freedom to choose between alternatives, then you've created a brand new argument against Free Will (equally naive and invalid as Determinism, but for entirely different reasons).


The only truly interesting thing in that article was the following paragraph:

"Two neuroscientists working in Australia have taken Libet’s discovery one step further. They found that, when asking people to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move."

I, for one, would like ot know more about that experiment and it's setup. I would also be very curious if it could be taken one step further - tell the subjects that their brains are about to be forced to "choose" to move the left hand. Then see which hand moves after the stimulate. Would they try to fight it and still end up moving the left hand and explaining it as "well, I just felt like it"?

Sometimes, once we identify out the sources of some of our choices, we can learn to make different ones. For example I read some time back that our brains release endorphins when we witness someone get their "just deserts" for actions we consider immoral (even if those actions did not affect us personally.) Since then I've been far less quickly to judge people as deserving of [insert terrible fate] for [insert immoral action], since I keep wondering - am I only thinking they need harsh punishment because my brain makes me feel good when I do that?

Of course behind it all free will is still an illusion, I just have a feeling that in lots of cases it's an even better illusion than doubters give it credit for.

Loser of guitar picks

Holy shit, I've been reading the comments, and it's pissing me off! Does ANYBODY even consider the possiblity that free will might actually be an illusion? It seems like everybody rationalizes against it right from the onset. Or maybe none of the smart people like to comment. Or maybe I'm reading all the wrong comments. Whatever, I'll be one of the dumb ones and drop this useless turd on the message boards. I'm bored at work, so fuck it!


Doesn't this all depend on what your definition of "is" is?

Brian Gregory

Have you ever read "Timequake" by Kurt Vonnegut? The concept is that a time skipped back 20 years and everyone way forced to relive everything they did in that time. They new what was going to happen, but couldn't change anything. Interesting thought experiment on free will.

The question I have is would anyone notice a timequake since there's no free will anyway? :)


Scott, you wrote: "[I'll stop when smart people like you stop thinking that labeling a part of the process "emerging properties" is an argument against determinism. -- Scott]"

This clearly demonstrates that you don't understand 'emerging properties' or 'determinism.' In fact, it sounds to us like a Pointy Haired Boss asking "explain the current state of computer technology without all that 'Internet' nonsense."

Once again, please find whomever you feel is an expert (or ask a few so-called experts and get a consensus about who is an expert) and get them to explain it to you. Let your celebrity work for you. Don't stay ignorant! You can do it!



Not to oversimplify the point, but if we don't have free will... who the hell cares?

Caring would just be another chemically induced illusion.

The fact that we can quibble about it seems pretty good evidence that we are free.

If we are forced to quibble about it brain makeup, the wind blowing and through other cause and effect cycles... then I'm back to "who the hell cares?"

The "we're not Really free but it is a compelling illusion" path and answer just doesn't seem to be a good fit for the available phenomena I observe.

What am I missing here? More importantly, why should I care?


If I had free will I would change the way I fart. Yup! That is a real goal for me, or at least it would be if I could actually will it.
Instead of that ugly sound that comes out when I expel gas I would make it sound like the horns that play when a King comes in the room. And it would smell just like the Clean Cotton smell that Yankee Candle makes. People would invite me to thier homes, feed me kielbasa and wait patiently for the show! I would be a celebrity. Why would I not want that? Who would not want that? I would be invited to all of the most important parties.
If I could, I would SSooooooo will that.


"I also wonder how the subconscious plays a role in all of this. It seems the subconscious could tell what we want to do, fire the neurons, then we consciously realize what's happening."

How could it do that? How could it know which neurons to fire?


"[I'll stop when smart people like you stop thinking that labeling a part of the process "emerging properties" is an argument against determinism. -- Scott]"

Happy with that.


I think "a-a-a-almost" proves free will is an illusion is going a bit too far, but still interesting.

I don't think of that as news. I remember hearing something about brains responding "before" eyes see something. In physics class in high school they just told us its the way the brain processes your "inner timeline".

Either way, the author mentions how the lack of free will probably will reform our crime and punishment. But I see petty theft being labeled as "brain damage" and being punished more severly than it would if we assume the perp "chose" to steal.

It just seems people are jumping the shark on something that they would still need a lot of work to do to prove no free will. Contrary to popular belief, a couple physics guys agreeing on something, then acting smug about it, isn't part of the scientific method.

But to answer you Scott, the counter-argument was pretty lame. "Your thing you made up is not true because it doesn't fit with the other thing we made up". If I read it right, that seems like the high school translation of Searle's remarks.


gary larson said in a book once that you can't get away with pictures of people on toilets, no matter how innocent, and so one of his cartoons of a caveman stuck in a chunk of ice on the pot got rejected, but once he closed the door of the outhouse most of the way, so all you could see was a face and a knee, it was acceptable.

similar to your story, i think.


None of the above


Here are my answers to your questions. Maybe not the correct answers, but answers none-the-less:

For Concious vs. Unconcious (subconcious), according to determinism there is no difference here. We have subconcious (reflex like) reactions, and we have concious actions that are a response that we are learning (i.e. we have not yet made it subconcious). But the concious actions are still the result of a unique (to each person) set of brain chemicals and synapses which makes us (for example) start to wear a plaid tie, because the boss likes plaid. In this case we have a predisposition to please authority figures, and we can make simple logical relationships that tell us how to attain that goal. Attaining that goal makes us feel good. After a few months it becomes automatic that we chose the plaid tie, and part of "us". Internally it still makes us feel good somewhere. According to determinism, this is still due to synaptic strengthening and conditioned response. Remember an ape can be taught conditioned response with a simple reward experiment. The rewards and motivations might be more complex for humans, but determinism says they are still there.

For the second question, the cue is in what the people being experimented on said. They said that they chose to raise their left hands, when in fact the researcher chose which hand they would raise. This indicates that the brain routinely tricks us into believing that we have exercised free-will when in fact we haven't. If the left-hand selection was involuntary, and we really had free-will, we would have known that the selection process had been taken out of our hands (i.e. my free-will intended to move my right-arm, but my left moved instead. How did that happen?).

common sense

The first sentence of the article was "If I had free will, I would choose to be funnier."

It just goes to show how incoherent free will is as a concept that people writing articles on it can confuse "free will" with "magic powers".

Ilia "Sunstorm" Jerebtsov

What I find most confusing in this article is that the author seems to be confused between free will and capability. Just because you have some ability to choose your actions it doesn't mean that your choices aren't restricted by the laws of the universe. For example, having free will doesn't mean that you can suddenly come to know things that you previously didn't (in the case of the author, being funnier) just by willing it so any more than you can choose to walk through walls.

The illusion of no free will happens because most of our actions (like lifting an arm) are transparently automated by our brain. If we had to consciously choose to do everything we do, our consciousness would be overwhelmed with information and choices, so for the most part, we are guided by a very complex, mechanical, autopilot. This autopilot acquires new information by itself, and mutates on it's own, based on the information it acquires. It can obviously be influenced by external factors such as suggestion, or even electrical impulses, and it can be damaged by brain malfunction. This is all transparent to us.

But we do have control over our autopilot. Some people have more control over it, others less. This is a matter of willpower. We don't necessarily *have* to control it; it will naturally carry on by itself, following the mechanically predetermined path set to it. And this is for the most part the reason why people appear to be moist robots.

If there was no kind of free will, and the illusion of it was merely there in order to keep us happy by producing chemicals, that ultimately increase our lifespan or boost our immune systems, then why couldn't the body just bypass the whole happiness deal and just automatically pump itself full of the same chemicals, without going through the process of simulating happiness to itself?

By all means, it would make much more sense to evolve consciousness away, if we're not even really using it. Why present this with this tremendous slideshow of sensations, if there's no point of experiencing them? Why did the universe bother?


"almost completely prove.."

Oh dear, almost completely isn't good enough scott - and you have missed the fatal flaw in the article.


I think it's great that you had the chance to rework that cartoon - the second version's even better! "LATER, AT THE LIBRARY" - rofl!!


I guess that consciousness has long-term species survival benefits. The life expectancy of humans has increased enormously over the past hundreds/thousands of years, not to mention the numbers of humans and the habitats they can live in. Development of technologies and long term planning, projects that take many years, generations or even have no end in sight require consiousness.

Richard Hunter

These are geniune questions that I hope someone can answer for me, I know sometimes people make points by asking a question, and then saying 'ahhhh but does it' while stroking their beard, but in this case I really want to know.

- What the article described to me sounded a lot like unconsiuos v concisios. 99% of what we do is made without 'free will' but does it not sound like the 1% is us overriding the concious?
- Why does electrically stimulating the brain to move my left hand rather then my right, prove free-will does not exist? The brain is run by electronic waves, so free will will generate electronic waves, so by artifically overridin those waves.........what does that prove?

I will be interested in the answer

Paul Dove

This has probably been said already in the comments, and I think I said something similar in a previous comment, but I have to say this again - the reported phenomena that "this build-up happens about half a second before your conscious ”decision” to move your arm" has nothing at all to do with free will it’s only to do with when we become conscious of that will free or otherwise.

This is a mistake that both you, and the people who comment, make so frequently that I suspect like many things in your blog it's a deliberate attempt to get a reaction out of readers. For the record: free will is the ability of a system to arrive at a state that is not entirely constrained by, or predictable from, its previous states. And consciousness is the ability of a system to be aware of its own existence introspectively.

And of course it's possible for an organism to have either without necessarily having the other. As far as Searle's argument goes, yes it is pretty bad. Being conscious of our decision making process does have some very important roles in our survival, we just cannot all agree yet what they are. Personally I believe that consciousness is little more than a filter to stop us blurting out the complete garbage that's going on in our sub-conscious mind. Without it our behaviour would make someone with tourettes seem positively friendly.

Are Riksaasen

"Worst argument ever" sounds a lot like Descartes proof of God. He got famous and all that due to his philosophing, but I think it is really crap.


Why health and happiness are linked :


I have always believed that any reasonably intelligent person could kill 50 people, one in each state (in the USA of course), and get away with it. The day that I am convinced that free will is an illusion is the day that I begin to test my theory. And why not?

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