Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Free Will - Get Over It. Or not.

So. Do we have free will or not? We (really really)(are totally compelled by the lack of free will to really really) want to know.

We should maybe read all of the very latest highly intelligent totally informed scientifically science stuff about it.

Here you go, then. From the Atlantic Monthly, June 2016:

There’s No Such Thing as Free Will

The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This shift in perception is the continuation of an intellectual revolution that began about 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species.

Shortly after Darwin put forth his theory of evolution, his cousin

Sir Francis Galton began to draw out the implications: If we have evolved, then mental faculties like intelligence must be hereditary. But we use those faculties—which some people have to a greater degree than others—to make decisions.

So our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance.

Galton launched a debate that raged throughout the 20th century over nature versus nurture. Are our actions the unfolding effect of our genetics? Or the outcome of what has been imprinted on us by the environment? Impressive evidence accumulated for the importance of each factor. Whether scientists supported one, the other, or a mix of both, they increasingly assumed that our deeds must be determined by something.

In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment.

But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.

We know that changes to brain chemistry can alter behavior—otherwise neither alcohol nor antipsychotics would have their

desired effects. The same holds true for brain structure: Cases of ordinary adults becoming murderers or pedophiles after developing a brain tumor demonstrate how dependent we are on the physical properties of our gray stuff.

Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.

The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of

ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. 

In principle, we are therefore completely predictable.

If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

So there you go. No free will.

Except. But. There's always a but. From NewScientist, 6 August 2012:

Brain might not stand in the way of free will

Advocates of free will can rest easy, for now. A 30-year-old classic

experiment that is often used to argue against free will might have been misinterpreted ... So what does this say about free will?

“If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will”...

Now, you might say, looking carefully at the dates, that one is 4 years before the other one. So doesn't that mess it all up?

No, it means that the Atlantic writer wasn't paying attention in 2012.

Science is so complicated.

And lo and behold. Check this out from in July 2016:

Johns Hopkins University researchers are the first to glimpse the human brain making a purely voluntary decision to act.

Unlike most brain studies where scientists watch as people respond

to cues or commands, Johns Hopkins researchers found a way to observe people's brain activity as they made choices entirely on their own.

For the first time, researchers were able to see both what happens in a human brain the moment a free choice is made, and what happens during the lead-up to that decision -- how the brain behaves during the deliberation over whether to act.

The actual switching of attention from one side to the other was closely linked to activity in the parietal lobe, near the back of the brain. The activity leading up to the choice -- that is, the period of deliberation -- occurred in the frontal cortex, in areas involved in reasoning and movement, and in the basal ganglia, regions deep within the brain that are responsible for a variety of motor control functions including the ability to start an action. The frontal-lobe activity began earlier than it would have if participants had been told to shift attention, clearly demonstrating that the brain was preparing a purely voluntary action rather than merely following an order.

Together, the two brain regions make up the core components underlying the will to act, the authors concluded.

"What's truly remarkable about this project," said Leon Gmeindl, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the study, "is that by devising a way to detect brain events that are otherwise invisible -- that is, a kind of high-tech 'mind reading' -- we uncovered important information about what may be the neural underpinnings of volition, or free will."

So once again, free will is back. Last month. Next month? Who can tell?

And finally, from the smartest man alive, physicist Ed Witten:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that's what I tend to believe.

I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent.

Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works.

But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious.

I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness... 

The brain, apparently the seat of free will, may forever remain a mystery. Or at least until everyone's forgotten about my having said so.

No comments:

Post a Comment