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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 22 2012: A couple of points: your mind is not the product of your brain, but your brain is the conduit for your mind. Experients and events showed that people losing even half of their brain m,atter can think as before...or rats with 80% of their brain removed still can find the end of a maze for food.
    2.There are no accidents even when there are 2 possible outcome is presented, nor are coincidences only co-incidences.
    Free will on one hand does not seem free from "today"s point of view, but it is the result of a free will decision we made in the past. Therefore it seems not really free.
    Also it is relative, because we are controlled by our 3D physical bodies, the untrained , separate function of the 2 hemisphere of the brain , environment etc.
    3. Our free will is as free as the scope of our overall depth and awareness of our consciousness
    • Oct 22 2012: Point one is false. Dualism has been laughable in the philosophy of mind for more than a century. It's used as a cautionary tale for not being adequately patient with the progress of neuroscience. The only things which we can contemplate we do so by virtue of the physical structures of our brains. Damaging particular regions or removing a whole lobe of the brain have consequences for the how the individual perceives and responds to the world. People who have hemispherectomies (half of their brain removal) suffer from partial paralysis on the opposite side of their body because even though many functions of the one hemisphere can eventually be adapted by the other hemisphere there is a large degree of lateralization of function between the hemispheres. On a side note, a person in a coma is there because a good bit of their brain has been shut off and if we were to quantify this amount of brain which is shut off it is probably less than 80%.

      Hemispherectomy information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemispherectomy
      Lateralization of Brain function information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateralization_of_brain_function

      Point 2 is also False. An accident is when an intention is undermined by circumstances. Accidents account for a lot of the day to day work for an emergency room doctor. It keeps the insurance business alive. That everything "happens for a reason" is called the principle of sufficient reason. There is no requirement that the reason has to be immediately knowable to humans close to the situation or humans proper, however, and given our limited sensory and critical faculties we have reason to suspect that there are a lot of accidents in our lives we either don't register or we rationalize through a worldview. There should be no comfort in the fact that everything happens for SOME reason, but instead realistic resignation seems more appropriate.

      Point 3: Replace "free will" with choice, and we are probably in agreement.
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        Oct 22 2012: Eric, Veronica, perhaps, refers to the fact that if hemispherectomy is performed on young children, the brain is still capable of reconfiguring itself so that the person grows up to be a normal adult. Here is a quote to this effect from your link to the Wikipedia article you posted:

        "A. Smith 1987, demonstrated that one patient with this procedure had completed college, attended graduate school and scored above average on intelligence tests. Studies have found no significant long-term effects on memory, personality, or humor after the procedure,[2] and minimal changes in cognitive function overall."

        Brain damage in adults has more permanent consequences, because adult brain cannot reconfigure itself and restore all the damaged connections.

        This, of course, does not prove that mind is independent of the brain. Apparently, if the whole brain is removed, the person would die.

        I don't think it's worth to argue whether mind is a product of the brain or brain is a conduit for a mind. Both of these phrases seem like a figure of speech to me.

        Point #2 is, essentially, a "determinism" vs. "free will" argument which is circular at the core. A brief look at this link (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will) shows that this question is fundamentally messed up. I agree with your comment that "free will" is a nonsense term. Essentially, it is a feeling, and we "have" it as much as we have "compassion", for example. This is, essentially, what I tried to understand and confirm, because I hear from materialists all the time that "we can make moral choices without religion" and that puzzled me a lot. Now I, sort of, understand what is meant by that phrase :)

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