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Free Will Yes or No, Step Two- So What?
Posted: 09 September 2007 05:45 PM   [ Ignore ]
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It seems there are a couple of roughly distinct positions staked out in all these free will threads. These don’t necessarily correspond to traditional categories in debating the subject (for example, no one here appears to believe in counter-causal free will based on a soul or other non-physical entity that gives us free choice independant of the material constituents of our brains). Unfortunately I’m not able to summarize them as clearly as I’d like, but I’m doing so only to get to the next step in the discussion, which as I see it is talking about the consequences of which position one takes. So we have:

1) No such thing as free will, complete determinism; we don’t in any meaningful sense make choices since what we “choose” at any given moment is the only possible action given the state of our physical being that determines our behavior.

2) Compatibilism; in some way, even though determinism is true or likely true, the concept of our deliberating and choosing between alternative actions has meaning in describing how we act.

I tend to fall into the second category. Though ultimately our thoughts, actions, and choices all emerge from a physical substrate subject to deterministic or probabilistic laws of physics and chemistry, the relationship between substrate and the subjective experience and actual expression of thinking and choosing is so complex as to be essentially unpredictable, and this means the model of active free choice is a useful practical device for explaining and evaluating human behavior, even if it may be incomplete at a fundamental level. As an analogy, Newtonian mechanics works on any scale I’m likely to be alive at, so I’m happy to use it as my model for the behavior of objectxs even though at other scales it falls apart. Similar reasoning works for me on the subject of free will.

Anyway, the important thing for this thread is what are the consequences of choosing one of these positions? Stephen said something in another thread to the effect that if we want to treat each other better we have to give up on the notion that anyone is morally responsible for their choices and actions because these actions are not the consequence of free will but deterministic mechanics. Others here have also made the link between rejecting any kind of free will as a necessary step to eliminating such things as a justice system based on punishment and retribution. I disagree . Though I am essentially a compatibilist when it comes to free will, and I think people can be said in a meaningful sense to be responsible for their choices, within certain limits that we may want to go into, I don’t support the notion that punishment for its own sake is a useful or moral response to socially condemned behavior. Anyone care to take a stab at defending or demolishing the notion that one’s free will stance must necessarily determine one’s approach to ethics?

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Posted: 09 September 2007 07:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I believe I fall into the first category. I liked when Einstein said that since he doesn’t believe in free will he feels less inclined to judge improper behaviour. I agree with that. Machines should be fixed, and humans corrected – if possible; they should, however, never be punished.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 05:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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George - 09 September 2007 07:24 PM

I believe I fall into the first category. I liked when Einstein said that since he doesn’t believe in free will he feels less inclined to judge improper behaviour. I agree with that. Machines should be fixed, and humans corrected – if possible; they should, however, never be punished.


Does it make you submissive to evil, somehow? Do you agree that to resist to evil, you need to judge it?

Though from a philosophic point of view, the idea of ultimately free will makes no sense to me, I see that too much empathy and understanding results in submissiveness.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 05:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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As to me, I think that the problem with free will is not neccessarily a scientific one. Even from a psychologic point of view, we obviously don’t always have full control, when under extreme anger for example.  And if we don’t always have the control, then the will is not “free” but dependant on other factors.

[ Edited: 10 September 2007 07:59 AM by wandering ]
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Posted: 10 September 2007 12:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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wandering - 10 September 2007 05:26 AM

Does it make you submissive to evil, somehow? Do you agree that to resist to evil, you need to judge it?

I don’t know. I don’t believe in free will, but I don’t let this belief to dictate my moral opinions. Of course I agree that in order to recognize and resist evil I need to judge it. We judge everything; that’s what the program called ” statistics” in our brain does. That said, it now makes me wonder why we run statistics since we have no free will. Some say free will is a mere illusion. But again, why would evolution design this unnecessary feeling if free will doesn’t really exist? This whole free-will-thing makes me dizzy.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 01:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Yes, George, it is dizzying. But you hit on exactly the point I was making in starting this thread. I think we have a natural tendancy to see ourselves as acting freely and making decisions and judgements, and while this may be an illusion and it all comes down to what the quarks and leptons in our heads are doing, I think it evolved because it is a useful illusion. It gives us a way to udnerstand and organize our behavior. Now I also agree that whether or not you believe free will is an illusion or real, as long as you don’t equate it with a soul striving to follwo God’s law, your ethical and moral judgements don’t depend on whether or not you believe in free will. You will still judge and try to prevent certain kinds of behavior in yourself and others in essentially the same way.

FWIW, I think the idea of the self or unitary consciousness is a good analogy here. We feel like an entity existing in a unitary moment of time and located somewhere in our heads right behind our eyes. Science is getting closer to proving, in detail, something like the idea buddhism promotes, which is that this self is an illusion created by how our brains work. Yet, in order to dispense with this illusion on a visceral level, you have to spend years sitting alone somewhere meditating, and if it’s that deeply ingrained maybe it’s because it’s useful? I don’t want ot get off track here, and this may be another discussion, but it’s just an analogy that I find helpful.

So I think the p;ractical question that Stephan raised and I responded to is can we dispense with pointless ideas like punishment and “justice” (if by that we mean doing evil unto evildoers as a way of balancing some theoretical moral scale) while still holding a compatibilist position that free will, while perhaps an illusion at some deep level, is an adeuqate way of describing how we experience our thoughts and choices, and is useful enough to hang on to at least provisionally.

Great points George and wandering!

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Posted: 10 September 2007 02:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I strongly believe in the first, however, the causes that determine our behavior are so complex and hidden that we cannot know what they are so we have to behave as if we had free will.  If someone commits an evil act, that is, in itself, a cause, and we respond by punishment or, we hope, restitution and rehabilitation.  While we shouldn’t blame and torture the perpetrator of evil, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t a) condition him/her to not do it again, and b) demonstrate to others the negative consequences of them doing the same thing.

I don’t see that we need to resort to the fuzzy ideas of some sort of metaphysical part of our brain that isn’t affected by cause and effect to justify not knowing why people do things.

Occam

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Posted: 10 September 2007 04:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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What I get from discussions with the “there is no free will” crowd is that believing in free will causes people to support capital punishment.

I’m over-simplfying a little, but most of the time this is usually the idea that comes up when consequences come up.

I’d like the “there is no free will” crowd to show the necessary link between belief in free will and supporting capital punishment.

If that is too extreme, then I’d like the “there is no free will” crowd to show the necessary link between belief in free will and treating people unjustly, after objectively defining what it means to treat people unjustly.

My take is that if there is free will, then people can be taught to behave differently in the future when a similar situation comes up that would have led them in the past to make a “wrong” decision. The consequence of determinism is that, if it were true, then it would be impossible to even think about doing things differenlty.

For example: Human evolution eventually resulted in some kind of animal that had a very sophisticated understanding of its environment. But just prior to the emergence of that version of humans, there was a prior version that did not have such a sophisticated understanding and was just as subject to its environment as every other kind of animal on the planet. Somewhere in our evolutionary history we made the switch from “flight or fight” to “anticipate the moves of the enemy and take precautions” including the precaution of anihilating the enemy. No other animal exhibits this behavior. Not a one. No other animal is known to enter an area and hunt down its competitors until every single one is eliminated.

Since no other animal does this, it is a unique adaptation that humans have developed - from what?

There are lots of other behaviors that humans exhibit that are completely unique in the history of life on the planet. For the determinist, because there is nothing now that didn’t evolve from something that was then, it would therefore be impossible for a person to change his behavior in the future. So if determinism is true, then no one who believes in capital punishment could ever be convinced to believe otherwise.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 05:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I think free will is an illusion, but an enjoyable one.  Also, an idea is valid if it either proves true or useful and the free will idea proves much more useful in daily life than the other idea, so, whilst not true, it’s valid.

Wattaquestion, that does not follow at all.  Things that have come from our intelligence and ability to verbalise and reason verbally are developments of reasoning, not of evolution.  The development of this ability and memory are what led to these behaviours of which you speak.  However the behaviours themselves developed through language and experience - e.g. one guy sees another coming back to kill the alpha male after having already been defeated himself but not killed, remembers it when he becomes alpha male, hunts down his opponent and kills him - his intelligence telling him this is only prudent self preservation.  A guy sees and alpha male killed by a gang of his slain opponents family and friends - when he becomes alpha male, he not only kills his challenger, but all of his followers too - these aren’t evolutionary developments, they are strategy developments.

[ Edited: 10 September 2007 06:06 PM by narwhol ]
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Posted: 10 September 2007 06:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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WattaQuestion - 10 September 2007 04:44 PM

What I get from discussions with the “there is no free will” crowd is that believing in free will causes people to support capital punishment.

While I’m of the “there is no free will” persuasion, I’m obviously not part of that “crowd” since I see no necessary relationship between the two beliefs.  If you go back and read my above post I never even mentioned capital punishment.  The punishment to which I referred could be fines, community service, restitution, or a prison stay. 

narwhol - 10 September 2007 05:16 PM

I think free will is an illusion, but an enjoyable one.  Also, an idea is valid if it either proves true or useful and the free will idea proves much more useful in daily life than the other idea, so, whilst not true, it’s valid.

I understand what you are saying, n, but I believe “valid” isn’t the word that fits there since it’s sort of a weak form of “true”, that is, based on the preponderance of the evidence.  Possibly you meant something like “comfortable.”  You know, the same as: although one can’t prove the existence of a god, s/he still believes because it’s comfortable.  LOL

Occam

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Posted: 10 September 2007 06:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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narwhol - 10 September 2007 05:16 PM

one guy sees another coming back to kill the alpha male after having already been defeated himself but not killed, remembers it when he becomes alpha male, hunts down his opponent and kills him - his intelligence telling him this is only prudent self preservation.  A guy sees and alpha male killed by a gang of his slain opponents family and friends - when he becomes alpha male, he not only kills his challenger, but all of his followers too - these aren’t evolutionary developments, they are strategy developments.

But what model is the new Alpha using to base his behavior on? There is some point in history when there was the first Alpha to think it woud be wise to take precautionary actions. Prior to that, no other Alpha ever did any such thing.

What caused the decision to make the strategy developments? Desire for survival? Why did our new Alpha Prime desire survival more than all the others before who never hunted down rivals or their next of kin? And why did the next of kin even care? They’ve never cared before, but were happy to just go along with the new Alpha, what changed their minds when Alpha Subprime came into power?

Stop arguing from your conclusions.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 06:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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No, I mean valid in the same way that say DFT is valid in Chemistry - it gives models that are very close to the true picture and have been validated against experimental evidence in that respect, but they don’t arise from a theory that is true.

In a similar-ish way, on a day-to-day level, when someone says to me in a restaurant “have you chosen?”, I’d say “yes”.  This is close enough to what happened - the idea came out of my mouth and from my brain, but did I really choose it?  Of course not, whatever state the chemicals and electrical and heat energy my that make up the thermodynamic system that is my brain were in plus the memories stored there chose it.  However, given those things have a quality of “me”-ness that the entity that considers itself to be me shares, it is valid against observation, but it is most definitely not true.  The truthful converse of this would be to anwer “no” but then proceed to order anyway.  This would be true, but not awfully valid in some respects.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 06:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Just to reassure you all, that answer freaked me out just as much as it is probably doing to you - do not adjust your set.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 06:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Occam - 10 September 2007 06:09 PM
WattaQuestion - 10 September 2007 04:44 PM

What I get from discussions with the “there is no free will” crowd is that believing in free will causes people to support capital punishment.

While I’m of the “there is no free will” persuasion, I’m obviously not part of that “crowd” since I see no necessary relationship between the two beliefs.  If you go back and read my above post I never even mentioned capital punishment.  The punishment to which I referred could be fines, community service, restitution, or a prison stay. 
Occam

That’s completely the opposite of what I was saying. I wrote that the belief in free will is blamed as being the cause of the belief in the necessity for capital punishment.

If someone is of the mind that belief in free will necessarily leads to unjust treatment of “criminals,” I would like someone to show me the link, because this is the most common criticism of the consequence of belief in free will.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 07:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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WattaQuestion - 10 September 2007 06:53 PM
narwhol - 10 September 2007 05:16 PM

one guy sees another coming back to kill the alpha male after having already been defeated himself but not killed, remembers it when he becomes alpha male, hunts down his opponent and kills him - his intelligence telling him this is only prudent self preservation.  A guy sees and alpha male killed by a gang of his slain opponents family and friends - when he becomes alpha male, he not only kills his challenger, but all of his followers too - these aren’t evolutionary developments, they are strategy developments.

But what model is the new Alpha using to base his behavior on? There is some point in history when there was the first Alpha to think it woud be wise to take precautionary actions. Prior to that, no other Alpha ever did any such thing.

What caused the decision to make the strategy developments? Desire for survival? Why did our new Alpha Prime desire survival more than all the others before who never hunted down rivals or their next of kin? And why did the next of kin even care? They’ve never cared before, but were happy to just go along with the new Alpha, what changed their minds when Alpha Subprime came into power?

Stop arguing from your conclusions.

No, no, no.  Don’t be silly.  The adaptation here is reasoning ability (and within that, the ability to place meaning on memory).  Every thing else, from these primitive strategies are all part of that one adaptaion - each new strategy is not genetically passed on.  Therefore, they’re not separate adaptations, they’re all consequences of the same adaptation.  And (unrelated) you atated earlier on that all adaptations were there to begin with, no they weren’t you are forgetting mutation.

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Posted: 10 September 2007 07:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Wattaquestion - Whoops, I’m sorry. I misread your post and got it backwards. 

Occam

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