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Arkady Grudzinsky


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Is "free will" an illusion?

Can someone explain to me how to understand "free will" from a purely materialistic point of view?

Let's assume that my mind is a product of my physical brain. This means that everything that's going on in my mind is a product of neural activity. Say, I'm looking at a can of vanilla and a can of strawberry ice cream and try to make my choice. WHO makes the choice?

Again, if my mind is nothing more than neural activity, then, perhaps, visual stimulus activates some associations and connections from my past experiences, and I pick vanilla, because it is associated with some childhood memory. This means that our response to every situation is predetermined by the neural connections that make my memories. Right?

Doesn't this mean that "free will" is an illusion? Can we really make decisions or do decisions "just happen"? If not, then WHO makes the decisions?


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  • Oct 18 2012: The problem for free will from a materialist metaphysics is that materialism and physicalism suppose that the universe is causally closed. An example of this principle is the second law of thermodynamics: energy is neither created nor destroyed for a given process.

    Psychology and neuroscience both approach questions about the brain's nature and how our nervous system acts as an interface between the reality underlying the world we inhabit as determined ultimately by physics, but the picture that neuroscience gives us is still lacking in completeness. If the materialism which underlies the natural sciences is correct, however, it is theoretically the case that neuroscience will be able to explain the true nature of our thoughts and behaviors while maintaining parsimony with physics which does not admit of causation except between material bodies. This bears on free will depending on how exactly you understand free will.

    If you understand free will to mean that you can pick from one of several choices, then you have to wonder where the perception of choice comes from. We have the ability to contemplate alternative futures based on our experience and the ability to use abstract analogy in case of events we have not fully encountered before. These abilities arise from the computational and modular nature of our neurosystems, so the will is not free because what you "will" arises from previous experiences stored as memory in the physical structure of your brain and the ability to manipulate that experiential data (i.e. having various components of intelligence) is constrained by the nature of your particular nervous system.

    If you understand free will to mean "Green Lantern" free will, where you just want something really hard then *poof it happens, then simple observation points to the inherent absurdity.

    Regardless of free will's existence, here's the clincher: we will always have to live with the perception that there are choices to be made.
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      Oct 18 2012: Thanks, Eric. Good explanation.

      "Green Lantern" free will is not how I define it.

      I looked at "free will" entry in Wikipedia. Oh, my, what a muddle! There are views directly contradicting each other. Here is what neuroscientists have found: "... studies of the timing between actions and the conscious decision bear upon the role of the brain in understanding free will. A subject's declaration of intention to move a finger appears after the brain has begun to implement the action, suggesting to some that unconsciously the brain has made the decision before the conscious mental act to do so. Some believe the implication is that free will was not involved in the decision and is an illusion. The first of these experiments reported the brain registered activity related to the move about 0.2 s before movement onset. However, these authors also found that awareness of action was anticipatory to activity in the muscle underlying the movement; the entire process resulting in action involves more steps than just the onset of brain activity. The bearing of these results upon notions of free will appears complex." Hmm... Doesn't it? :)
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      Oct 18 2012: Stephen Hawking in his book "The Grand Design" makes an analogy with the Conway's "game of life" where cells have simple deterministic rules of behavior. When multiple cells interact, new behaviors can be observed - e.g., "crawlers", "shooters", etc. These "objects" do not follow from the original simple rules of cell behavior. Hawking argues that when we observe a system that consists of a few billion cells, its behavior may be so complex that it creates an impression that the system has "free will" whereas it is based on deterministic underlying processes. This is all great. But "creates an impression" in whom? A similar system of a few billions cells? What's this "impression thing"? Is it necessary at all?

      It does not look like free will is necessary for life. What is it for? Is it just a byproduct of brain evolution which, along with consciousness, just makes us suffer? If there is no "free will", there is no "sin" as well since we have no choice how to behave. There is also no responsibility for anything. Then, why do we put people in jail?

      I've heard an opinion that religion turns people into puppets in hands of their imaginary God. OK. How exactly is materialism "liberating" people? This appears to be complex, indeed...

      Well, religion has problems too. Consider the Genesis story. Didn't the omniscient God know that humans are going to eat from the tree? If he did, couldn't he, being omnipotent, prevent this accident? And why did he plant the tree anyway? That was a very "pro-choice" decision. This, actually, makes more sense than materialism. It leads to the logical conclusion that love cannot be forced, but must be chosen which is a self-consistent statement and seems to resolve the conundrum. It also implies that we cannot know that we are happy without suffering - which also makes sense. If omniscient God exists, he can still know all our choices. But we don't. And we are doing all this "free will" game for our own sake.

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