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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 21 2012: After reading the all comments below (which took a long time too) I can't answer your question however I can put forward a couple points. Firstly it is incredibly difficult to answer your question since consciousness is not material, you can't touch or see it. You can see and detect neurons however I see those as different to your consciousness. Secondly many people below have mentioned that free will doesn't exist, that conditioning and experience mean that we will respond accordingly to achieve the best outcome for ourselves. My point about that is this; assuming that this is the case then surely we would have no real creativity? We would just improve on ideas that already existed, nothing new would ever be created because all we would be able to rely on was information from sources that already existed. I know that this doesn't answer the free will question but it's my opinion that my point means we cannot use that argument to refute the existence of free will.

    Our consciousness is created from the network neurons in our brains but that doesn't eliminate free will. For your above example, what if somebody had never tried one of those flavors and decided to do so? If all we did was act on previous encounters surely we would just pick the same one every time that we already knew we liked?
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      • Oct 21 2012: "What is the evidence that consciousness creates free will, anymore than unconsciousness,or both?" In my opinion if you compare the two you can see a difference that I would call free will. Say you compare a machine and a person doing a job, you tell the person how to do the job and also have the machine do the job in the same way. No matter what the machine will do that job in that way unless you change it, the machine has no choice and hence no free will. The person might realise there's a different way to do the job they then have the choice to try that different way or continue with the current one. Following on from that example, you could also tell that person to do the job another way, say this other way also happens to be the other way that they thought of. Assuming that they perceive they have to do as they are told, that they have no choice, we can still see a difference between choosing to do that way yourself and being told to do it. This, to me, suggests that we have free will.

        I had another thought after my post above to further illustrate the idea that we aren't simply acting solely on past experience and conditioning. In this society we always teach children to be good and act in a way that is beneficial to everyone else yes? Why then do we still get some people who behave in an undesirable way? Some children still bully others, people who have perfectly normal functioning brains and who were brought up in a normal family will still sometimes grow up to commit crimes. Surely this shows that at some point they made a choice to go completely against their conditioning in early life?
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          Oct 21 2012: budy .that is inertia thinking.can you make a baby that ? you can not,
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      Oct 22 2012: Daniel, your remark on creativity is interesting. Don't you think that we create "new" ideas by association with old ones? In other words, new ideas can be, simply, an association of old impressions with new impressions. The more associations a person can make in his brain, the more "talented" the person appears. Much like biological evolution happens due to combinations of old genes and mutations due to environmental influences.

      In your example with a worker vs. machine, the reason a worker may come up with a better algorithm is that experience may create an association in his brain that would suggest a better solution.

      This does not mean we don't have "free will". We still have capability to change our environment. However, "free" is, perhaps, a poor name for it.
      • Oct 22 2012: Sometimes yes, I agree that ideas are created by associating new information with old information but other times it seems, to me at least, that an idea is created spontaneously without anything similar existing before it. I use the term "idea" broadly however, I realised I might be implying inventions and scientific theories exclusively with that term which do usually rely on improvement of a previous idea. An example, although strange I know, is the game noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe). Why did this game come about? The game itself has been dated back at least as far as ancient Rome, at what point did somebody have the idea for this to be a game to play? I can't relate this game to anything that hasn't stemmed from it myself.

        I also agree that "free" is not a good way of expressing what we mean my the term "free will". This suggests that we have some conscious part of ourselves completely separate from everything else, something not linked to our physical being which I very much doubt is the case.
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          Oct 22 2012: Re: "...but other times it seems, to me at least, that an idea is created spontaneously without anything similar existing before it."

          From what I read in Julian Jaynes's book "The Origin of Consciousness", the process of associating ideas is subconscious. Even when we aware of the association, we often do not consciously create it or recall it. There is also an Internet article by an animal scientist regarding animal thinking (http://www.grandin.com/references/thinking.animals.html) which implies the same:

          "A horse trainer once said to me, "Animals don't think, they just make associations." I responded to that by saying, "If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think." People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations. These associations are like snapshots of events and tend to be very specific. For example, a horse might fear bearded men when it sees one in the barn, but bearded men might be tolerated in the riding arena. In this situation the horse may only fear bearded men in the barn because he may have had a bad past experience in the barn with a bearded man."

          My point is that when an idea appears to be new, it's probably, based on some implicit memory we are not aware of.

          It may be an easy and useful way to think of our mind as separate from our body. It allows us to make a distinction between our ideas and the real things they symbolize. I don't think, there is anything wrong in describing reality that way. Our ideas are always just a reflection of reality, never 100% accurate. So, I don't object to using such concepts as "free will", "mind", "God", or "spirits". None of those concepts reflect reality accurately, anyway. I'm a utilitarianist in this respect.
      • Oct 22 2012: I suppose this is all down to perspective thinking about most of these points now then.

        In my opinion even if all these ideas and decisions are created by the subconscious mind through association the fact that we the consciously recognise the fact that we have an idea or that we have multiple decisions to choose from shows free will exists. I think that if instead we only ever saw one decision for any scenario that this would be a lack of free will, the fact that sometimes we find a decision very hard to make sometimes further reinforces it for me since we, the conscious mind, have to think to make a decision.

        I accept however that others see that since all our thoughts and ideas may in fact be the product of subconscious information associations that this removes the "free will" aspect as we don't control the creation of these ideas.

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