Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Free Will is a Magic Trick

One of the arguments posed by some against the feasibility of creating consciousness in a machine is the claim that the human mind and personality could not possibly arise out of material stuff, atoms and molecules. Since those kinds of things are either random (on the subatomic scale) or deterministic (on the scale of everyday objects), and since human minds are neither random nor deterministic (that is, they operate by free will), QED, they cannot arise strictly from material stuff.

Stated simply, they assert that free will cannot arise from only a material substrate. If not material, then the mind must be immaterial. Hence we are led to the idea of the soul or spirit to explain the phenomenon of mind.

But there is a problem with this reasoning. (Actually there are several, but let us focus on only one for now.) And that problem is that free will is appearing more and more to be a trick, an illusion, albeit a very persistent and convincing one. The illusion is simply the result of an extremely complex system, rather than an otherworldly "soul."

In a wonderful and witty essay, NYT writer Dennis Overbye explores some of the most recent findings on the subject of free will. I'll give you a bit of it here.
Having just lived through another New Year’s Eve, many of you have just resolved to be better, wiser, stronger and richer in the coming months and years. After all, we’re free humans, not slaves, robots or animals doomed to repeat the same boring mistakes over and over again. As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.

Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.

“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.
Experiments have repeatedly shown that the brain signals associated with making any random motion occur half a second before the subject is conscious of deciding to make them. First comes perception of motion, then decision. That's certainly not the order in which we assume things happen.
In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.
Many who vehemently disagree with the conclusion that free will is only an illusion say that if this is so, there can be no moral or legal judgment, since our choices are not really choices at all. How can we castigate Hitler if he never chose to kill six million Jews in the holocaust? This is one of the arguments.

To this I reply: Whether or not Hitler is responsible for his actions is irrelevant. The fact is, for the good of others he must be destroyed. Sexual predators must be isolated. Serial killers must be removed from among us. A mentally disturbed lioness must be ostracized from the pride so that she cannot kill the cubs. There is not a naturalist alive, I would think, who would claim that the cub-killing animal is wicked. Nevertheless, her presence in the pride constitutes a threat to its survival and cannot therefore be allowed.

Even though we may not be morally culpable, the fact of negative, unpleasant consequences to harmful actions will play a part in our future actions, whether we have free will or not. Punishment, or the fear of punishment, results in behavior modification. This does not require the existence of free will.

Does my thinking that this may be true mean that I would not be angry at someone who harmed someone I care about? Don't count on it.
Dr. Wegner said he thought that exposing free will as an illusion would have little effect on people’s lives or on their feelings of self-worth. Most of them would remain in denial.

“It’s an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back,” he said, comparing it to a magician’s trick that has been seen again and again. “Even though you know it’s a trick, you get fooled every time. The feelings just don’t go away.”
I now come full circle back to the thrust of this post: The idea, backed by experimentation, that free will is a useful illusion, allows us to put mind back into the realm of the natural, rather than the supernatural, and therefore there is no impediment to the conclusion that conscious machines are possible.*

* If you choose to argue that conscious machines are not possible, I ask that you do not use classical computers as your basis. We are not asserting that classical computers could harbor consciousness any more than your TV remote could simulate protein folding. What we are asserting is that computer technology will become complex and powerful enough to achieve consciousness within the next 2 or 3 decades.

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Spaceman Spiff said...

Couple things:

1-Not too long ago you offered a criticism of the Bible for condemning homosexuality because homosexuality is not a choice. So you seemed then to believe that moral culpability mattered. What do you think now?

(we should note that I don't believe the Bible necessarily condemns homosexuality, but I also don't think something has to be chosen to be "wrong" though something both chosen and wrong is worse than something less chosen but still wrong).

2-What would science call something if it was chosen freely? I suspect that it would appear a lot like random chance, since it isn't obeying a deterministic law, but instead being chosen in some other way. One suspects that odds could still come into play, but in each individual case it would appear somewhat random. How do probabilistic laws exclude the possibility of free will?

3-No matter what science says (and remembering that science's answers are going to be limited by the tools it uses and the way it frames the question) you will continue to experience life as a series of choices. The belief that you cannot choose anything different than what you chose in the past is unhealthy and poisonous. The reality of your experience remains one of choice, no matter how rationalistic reasoning deconstructs it.

Nothing science has done to this day has undone that truth. That's the one we have to live with.

Spaceman Spiff said...

And also: the believe that our experience of choice is bound up with our physical bodies only does damage to a Platonist sort of view of physical body vs. non-physical soul. Jude-christian thought has generally seen the soul as intimately bound with the body.

Scot McSweeney-Roberts said...

I'm not certain why Free Will needs to involve a conscious action. To me the lack of Free Will implies predeterminism - that the choices have already been made. But I don't believe that that is what is going - to take the chocolate cake example from the article, the decision being taken was decided at lower level than at the conscious level - it was still not predetermined and therefore was an act of free will, just not at the conscious level. Or to take the Hitler example, Hitler is still guilty - because of his whole mind and not just his conscious.

This doesn't mean that a particular mind isn't predisposed to certain choices, but it also doesn't mean that actions are predestined either.

Spaceman Spiff said...

I agree. Freud and everyone after him have at least shown us that the will has to be something deeper and more fundamental than merely the conscious mind.