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Science: Free Will Is An Illusion

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The concept of free will could be little more than the result of background noise in the brain, according to a recent study.

It has previously been suggested that our perceived ability to make autonomous choices is an illusion – and now scientists from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, have found that free will may actually be the result of electrical activity in the brain.

According to the research, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, decisions could be predicted based on the pattern of brain activity immediately before a choice was made.

Volunteers in the study were asked to sit in front of a screen and focus on its central point while their brains’ electrical activity was recorded. They were then asked to make a decision to look either left or right when a cue symbol appeared on the screen, and then to report their decision.

The cue to look left or right appeared at random intervals, so the volunteers could not consciously or unconsciously prepare for it.

The brain has a normal level of so-called background noise; the researchers found that the pattern of activity in the brain in the seconds before the cue symbol appeared - before the volunteers knew they were going to make a choice - could predict the likely outcome of the decision.

“The state of the brain right before presentation of the cue determines whether you will attend to the left or to the right,” Bengson said.

And in an email to Live Science, Bengson said: “[Though] purposeful intentions, desires and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment.

“This random firing, or noise, may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio static is used to carry a radio station.”

This latest experiment is an extension of psychologist Benjamin Libet’s 1970s research into the brain’s electrical activity immediately before a decision.

Libet asked volunteers to press a switch in response to a visual signal - but whereas he had to rely on the participants telling him when they made their choice, Bengson explained that the random nature of the new study meant that "we know people aren't making the decision in advance".

"It inserts a random effect that allows us to be freed from simple cause and effect," Bengson said.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/free-will-could-be-the-result-of-background-noise-in-the-brain-study-suggests-9553678.html

 

 

Of course I don't agree that free will Is an illusion.  I think that even if you could drill down to the level of the spirit, one would still find patterns of chemical, electrical, or sub-atomic reactions that one could not explain merely in those terms.

 

Of course one could also say that a believable illusion is as good as reality....

 

 

 

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I have a hard time believing that the ability to predict random meaningless decisions is somehow indicative of a lack of free will.

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This doesn't make a lot of sense as presented. They knew they were in a study to make decisions. Even if they hadn't connected a specific moment with a specific choice, they could still have made a global choice (how am going to approach how i choose) beforehand which may be what made the neural "noise" predictive.

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The argument against free will goes something like this, at least to my non-philosopher, non-scientist mind. Even with our limited tools today, we can do a much-better-than-chance job of predicting how people will behave and where they will end up in life. People's actions depend on things like their personalities, their genes, their circumstances, the broader societies they live in, and so on. If we had a full dataset of the world -- if we knew everything about every hormone, every neuron, every piece of DNA, every atom in every piece of matter in the universe -- we could predict everything. Even if the universe isn't "predetermined" in the sense that someone actually came up with a plan ahead of time, it's predetermined in the sense that the state of the universe today, coupled with the natural behavior of every particle in the universe, determines the state of the universe tomorrow.

 

http://www.realclearpolicy.com/blog/2014/06/24/if_free_will_isnt_real_should_we_punish_less_988.html

 

 

It's like the religious argument that because God knows everything, we have no free will; which of course I believe is not true.

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There actually have been a few studies that suggest lack of free will. For example, timing experiment showing the action potential will ramp up before we become "conscious" of the decision. For me, however, none yet have posed any issue. Free will originates in our intelligence and spirit body, not our physical body (fyi I'm also a free will libertarian in philosophy, though not strictly necessary for Mormonism). Thus, however that primal influence is conveyed to the physical body, I have no problem with various timings being "off".

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My guess would be that pre-decisions we intellectually make train our "action potential" and thus we are masters of the likelihood of certain futures.

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I have a hard time believing that the ability to predict random meaningless decisions is somehow indicative of a lack of free will.

Yeh, and what of the random nature of Quantum Physics, or of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle -- in which the very act of observation changes the results?

At the same time, can a lot of what we do be preprogrammed or instinctive at the genetic level?  And what of training and habituation to Pavlovian responses?  Stage magicians and grifters constantly use such principles because they work.

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It's like the religious argument that because God knows everything, we have no free will; which of course I believe is not true.

The argument is more like, since God is the only prime mover (He is Necessary), and since all else is created by Him (it is entirely Contingent), all decisions and outcomes are authored by God ad infinitum.  This is the standard Muslim-Jewish-Christian dogma, and it leads to the impossibility of free will (except for God), and necessarily blames God for all good and for all evil.  It leaves us as fully mechanistic beings, and makes our salvation entirely dependent on the will or compassion of God.  The Presbyterians tend to go the furthest in arguing for God's sovereignty (and our predestination) in this very manner.

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Yeh, and what of the random nature of Quantum Physics, or of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle -- in which the very act of observation changes the results?

At the same time, can a lot of what we do be preprogrammed or instinctive at the genetic level?  And what of training and habituation to Pavlovian responses?  Stage magicians and grifters constantly use such principles because they work.

 

You may enjoy point #3: http://io9.com/10-scientific-ideas-that-scientists-wish-you-would-stop-1591309822

I may also point out the free will philosophers also note that quantum indeterminism cannot yield free will. Moot for me since I more closely align to the Bohmian interpretation (i.e. a fully deterministic quantum interpretation).

 

The argument is more like, since God is the only prime mover (He is Necessary), and since all else is created by Him (it is entirely Contingent), all decisions and outcomes are authored by God ad infinitum.  This is the standard Muslim-Jewish-Christian dogma, and it leads to the impossibility of free will (except for God), and necessarily blames God for all good and for all evil.  It leaves us as fully mechanistic beings, and makes our salvation entirely dependent on the will or compassion of God.  The Presbyterians tend to go the furthest in arguing for God's sovereignty (and our predestination) in this very manner.

 

Predestination, anethema to Mormon philosophy it may be, is at least philosophically self-consistent. :)

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You may enjoy point #3: http://io9.com/10-scientific-ideas-that-scientists-wish-you-would-stop-1591309822

I may also point out the free will philosophers also note that quantum indeterminism cannot yield free will. Moot for me since I more closely align to the Bohmian interpretation (i.e. a fully deterministic quantum interpretation).

Thanks for that.

I can still hear Einstein's plaintive cry that "God doesn't play dice," which Stephen Hawking sees as part of "a deep emotional attachment to determinism" among some physicists (http://www.hawking.org.uk/does-god-play-dice.html).

Unfortunately, many on both sides of the debate use the concept of "proof" for ideological rather than scientific or logical reasons. This is particularly true in areas of scientific inquiry in which the data and demonstrable extrapolations are sparse. Some want to end the debate before it really gets rolling.

 

 

Predestination, anethema to Mormon philosophy it may be, is at least philosophically self-consistent. :)

Exactly my point, which likewise applies to the self-consistency of Thomism. However, when we examine the real world there are major disjunctures, not the least of which is the problem of evil. How can an omnibeneficient God create evil?!

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It's like the religious argument that because God knows everything, we have no free will; which of course I believe is not true.

Which part isn't true?

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I recommend the book Aping Mankind, which shows a number of the faulty assumptions that can bleed into this, as well as other similar ideas about human existence. 

 

The immediate assumptions that I find problematic in this with a quick look, is heavy reductionism as to what constitutes choice, the definition of "free will" or the false dichotomy between free will and determinism, and interpretations as to what the brain activity actually means as well as the linearity of the cause-effect patterns. We know far less about the brain than we often like to believe.

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Which part isn't true?

 

I am referring specifically to the part about us not having free will.  I believe we have it.  However technically, I believe God knows everything from our mortal point of view yet in reality He does not know everything absolutely.  For example, I believe at every instant in time God knows where we will end up.  But it becomes more of a probability for every future instant.

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I am referring specifically to the part about us not having free will.  I believe we have it.  However technically, I believe God knows everything from our mortal point of view yet in reality He does not know everything absolutely.  For example, I believe at every instant in time God knows where we will end up.  But it becomes more of a probability for every future instant.

Wow, I think Hades just froze over, you have said something I can feel close to agreeing with.

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