Archive for November, 2011

Meeting 4.7 11/16/11: Free Will

To get started thinking about free will for this week’s discussion, we read Roy Baumeister’s article, “Free Will in Scientific Psychology.” We first discussed what was meant by the term “Free Will”. We tried to come up with both what we thought the term meant and how we thought it was used colloquially. We came up with the following list and voted (note that each person could vote for more than one definition).

“Free Will” can mean:
– The experience of choice (the qualitative feeling of making a decision) (4 votes)
– Independent agency (classical philosophical definition of “free will” meaning the ability to make a choice independent of underlying biochemistry) (2 votes)
– Insightful choice (1 vote)
– Post facto experience of the contrapositive (looking back and knowing, “I could have done differently”) (2 votes)
– Constrained agency (1 vote)
– Moral responsibility (Theological version of legal culpability) (1 vote)
– Reflective choice (1 vote)
– Control/fate/freedom (1 vote)

To frame our discussion we described some scales with respect to free will. There is a philosophical debate over the extent of will with extremes of “determinism” and “existentialism”. Determinism means that there is no free will, and that everything is already determined. Existentialism is the idea that human choice/agency is the ultimate cause. The existentialist philosopher, Sartre said that we are “condemned to freedom” as a man’s free will is the only cause he can rely upon. There is also a debate among physicists between determinism (causal-there is no casual dualism (see below) or mathematical-there is only one possible future) and indeterminacy. Indeterminacy comes from imprecise perception or fundamental graininess to the universe, which are impossible to differentiate. Nonetheless, overwhelming evidence for stochastic and chaotic phenomena have led mathematical determinacy to fall out of favor for all but the most diehard physicists.

We then explained some of the vocabulary of dualism. While there are several types of dualism, the one we are interested in is the dualism of the relationship between body and mind (physical/mental dualism). Within this category, “substance/ontological dualism” claims that there are different types of substance- one of which is usually matter (physical/biochemical), the other is often mind (Descartes) or soul (Aquinas). This is opposed to “causal dualism”, which asserts that there are two fundamentally different causes for mental and physical phenomena; the primum movens, or first cause (whether it be a diety, an unmoved mover, the source of the cosmos, etc…) is the cause of all physical/biochemical phenomena while personal agency, independent of underlying physical/biochemical processes, is the cause of mental phenomena.

We then proceeded to diagram how different traditions have thought about the psychological structure of the human mind.

In Freudian psychology the “ID” dealt with fundamental drives and emotional motivations, the “EGO” was the conscious ability to override the ID (agency) and the “SUPEREGO” was the internalized social contextual constraints on the “EGO”. The “SUPEREGO” was Freud’s version of a conscience.

The cognitive sciences currently describe two different decision systems. The type 1 cognition system makes fast decisions based on unconscious, conditioned and internalized behavioral patterns. The type 2 cognition system makes slow decisions based on rational and deliberative thought.

In the Eastern Philosophy of Yoga, the “citta” is the mind and is composed of the “ahamkara,” the “manas” and the “buddhi.” The ahamkara is the “I maker” or the narrator in one’s mind. The manas is the sensory and emotional mind. The buddhi is the higher intelligence and rational faculty. There is also a concept of willpower (“iccha”), which must be harnessed to overcome ahamkara.

In the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the “reason” was based on the imperfect knowledge of the sensory apparatus. The “intellect”, which had access to the reason, was based on the perfect knowledge of the conscience. And finally, the “soul”, which had access to the intellect (and in turn the reason), was the keeper of agency and the “will.”

After describing these systems we tried to determine if and when it was appropriate to assign hierarchical value judgments to the aspects of each tradition. While there was quite a bit of debate, it was decided that in case of Freud and Aquinas, hierarchical classifications could be made where higher levels had access to and precedence over lower levels (from higher to lower in Freud: Superego->Ego->Id. In Aquinas: Soul->Intellect->Reason). However, in cognitive science and the eastern tradition of yoga, while attempts were made, a simple hierarchical organization could not be applied.

We then discussed a supposed skirting of the issue of agency by Baumeister in the article. In the article, Baumeister claims that psychological science should not be discussing if free will actually exists, but rather what the human experience of free will entails. He says, essentially, that slow (rational) cognition can override fast (algorithmic) cognition in normal situations, but that slow cognition can be depleted in which case, the cognitive system defaults to fast cognition. When exploring this subject, he has championed the “ego-depletion” theory. Some of us felt that he may have dismissed the concept of agency at the beginning, but still has it in the back of his mind and is trying to sneak agency back into his argument as he discusses “ego-depletion.”

The last topic we got to was necessary and sufficient causation with respect to free will. The specific question we wanted to answer was whether the biological/neurological correlates of decision making were sufficient (we know they are necessary) to describe the experience of freedom of choice. We explored this question by trying to find empirical question and evidence of free will (agency). The concrete empirical question we came up with was: “Given that we accept Aquinas’ reason (imperfect sensory knowledge), could there be any empirical evidence of agency?” The quick answer was “probably not”. However, empirical exclusion of agency is also tricky and can probably only be accomplished using parsimony.

Post Contributed by JL.


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Timothy O’Connor is a philosopher with an expertise the concept of will and a deep interest in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of religion…thus he was intrigued by our forum.

The topic of his talk was ultimately supposed to be how the notion of emergence is connected to free will, and the integration of philosophy, religion, and science of the human person. However, we got a little hung up on the differences between strong and weak emergence.

The world exhibits different characteristic patterns. For example the behavior of fundamental particles is different from that of cellular molecules which is different from human thought progressions. And we can study these phenomena independently—one does not need to know quantum physics to successfully study biology.

However, through modern concepts of reductionism, one could imagine that the workings of biological molecules are the downstream result of the interactions of fundamental particles. Dr. O’Connor uses the example of John Conway’s cellular automaton, the “Game of Life,” to illustrate the concept of weak emergence.

In the game (shown in the figure below), the black boxes behave according to three rules:
1. Birth: a dead cell (white) with exactly three live neighbors (black) becomes a live cell
2. Survival: a live cell with two or three live neighbors stays alive
3. Death: in all other cases, a cell dies or remains dead

Over time, stable clusters appear, persist, and move to congregate with one another and macro-level properties emerge. The initial conditions of the game can change the rules by which these clusters behave and their shapes.

Weak emergence (as defined by Dr. O’Connor) states that the high-level rules are not derivable from the fundamental rules alone (one must know the initial conditions). However, high-level rules do not in any way alter or supplement the basic dynamics that drive the world’s evolution.

To many scientists, the words causality and explanation are synonymous…and many are skeptical of an underlying true causality. In fact, many scientists do not necessarily care about true causation, but philosophers on the other hand care very deeply. This is where the argument about strong emergence largely stemmed from.

In strong emergence, low level rules that make no reference to macroscopic structures do not completely fix all subsequent states, even at a microphysical level of description. Instead, one also requires rules that apply only in certain macroscopically-salient contexts that essentially involve reference to structural properties.

For example, say you are given 1000 examples of life worlds. After examining 100 of them, you can deduce the three fundamental rules. But at example 350, a new property appears. Any six squares that come together to form a cross turn red. This cannot be explained by the fundamental rules of the game, and thus must be a strong emergence property as it fundamentally depends on macro-level behavior.

The skeptics in the group would like to point out that we do not know what the fundamental rules of this universe are, and we are discerning them based on our observations. To make a strong emergence life world, higher level behavior must still be coded in basic units (eg. the cross is made of 6 squares in a certain pattern).

There was an elementary disagreement between scientists and philosophers on the meaning of strong emergence. Both agreed that weak emergence is dependent on local simple rules, but there was an elementary disagreement between scientists and philosophers on the meaning of strong emergence.

Let us imagine we have two shapes, a green square and a red triangle. The interaction of these two shapes forms a blue circle. The scientists believe that this macroscopic property could be reduced to incredibly convoluted fundamental principles of the shapes’ pixels, we just choose not to given the complexity of the explanation. Whereas true strong emergence would imply there is no back step to microscopic rules.

However, our interpretation of human beings as culpable creatures with free will is only amenable if true strong emergence exists. Dr. O’Connor states that we have good reason to believe aspects of the mind are not consistent with weak emergence. He is dualist of the mind. Thoughts and mental states are not the product of lower level properties. And he thinks that scientists who deny the concept of free will must think of themselves while doing science. They expect other scientists to behave as though they had free will and a responsibility to the credibility of their work. The denial of free will is self defeating and like sawing off the branch on which you sit.

Post Contributed by L.B.

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