Archive for 05/02/2010

An old argument

The question of freewill is an endless philosophical argument. Are our actions completely predetermined or completely free? Each side has painted the other into an impossible corner. I want to forget this argument and just try to understand how we actually act. When we understand how we act then both sides will say, ’see I told you so!’, and their disagreement will continue. This is because it is fairly predictable that we will find that decisions between courses of action actually are made and on the other hand those decisions have non-random causes. Thus the decisions are both freely made and causally determined.

The place to start is to get rid of dualism. We each have one brain and the functioning (perception, cognition, motor control, memory etc.) of that one brain gives us one mind. That brain creates a model of the world and a model of ourselves in that world. An edited version of that model is created for memory storage, sharing and perhaps other functions. The sharing of this version of the model is what we call consciousness. So lets suppose we have one brain, one mind, one model, one consciousness.

Next let us think about different kinds of decisions. There are decisions that are made without any part of the cognition entering consciousness. They ‘pop’ into consciousness fully decided. Then there are decisions where portions of the cognition enter consciousness. Why the difference? The decision may take longer; it may require sharing within the brain of the conscious kind; it may require memory and predictive modeling using the mental apparatus of consciousness; it may require a particular use of working memory or attention; or perhaps something else. Whatever the reason, we are not ‘making a conscious decision’, we are simply conscious of parts of the decision process as they are modeled by the mind for conscious awareness.

To the extent that our brain/mind recognizes action options, it is free to make decisions between them. To the extent that our brain/mind is a material biological system, its actions have causes. Before a decision is made it is impossible to calculate what the decision with be (just too big a calculation to accomplish in this universe). After the decision is made it is impossible to imagine it as outside causality less you want to introduce magic or the supernatural. This is simply how it is with extremely complex but material systems – you have both freedom and determinism.

The question we should ask about our decisions is not whether they are free or not. We should ask whether they are appropriate and relevant to the situation. Whether they are good decisions.

Here is the abstract from a paper by R. Baumeister, Free Will in Scientific Psychology (here):

Some actions are freer than others, and the difference is palpably important in terms of inner process, subjective perception, and social consequences. Psychology can study the difference between freer and less free actions without making dubious metaphysical commitments. Human evolution seems to have created a relatively new, more complex form of action control that corresponds to popular notions of free will. It is marked by self-control and rational choice, both of which are highly adaptive, especially for functioning within culture. The processes that create these forms of free will may be biologically costly and therefore are only used occasionally, so that people are likely to remain only incompletely self-disciplined, virtuous, and rational.

I would use different words and ideas but he is trying to get past the old and sterile argument of freewill vs determinism.