Thursday, April 8, 2010

On the Existence of Free Will, as it Pertains to Morality

In a recent posting on the Scientific American website, there is an interesting article about how belief in either Free Will or Determinism affects one’s morality. It seems that when somebody is deterministic, and thus believing that they are not accountable for their actions, they are more likely to behave immorally. It is ironic that the belief that someone has no choice can affect the choices they make. Since it seems belief in Free Will is conducive to morality, I will offer my two cents on the ancient debate on Free Will and Determinism.

First of all, Free Will must be defined. When I say that I have Free Will, I do not mean that my decision making is completely independent of external factors. I do not deny that my thoughts are influenced by factors in my environment. They are also influenced by biological factors, including genetics, hormones, and neurology. By Free Will, I mean that a persons actions are ultimately a matter of conscience choice, and they are therefore morally responsible for those actions.

My critique of determinism will also be focused upon Material Determinism, and avoid the issues of Divine Preordination or Temporal Fatalism. I do not consider the concept of God’s omniscience a contradiction with the idea of Free Will. For example, the past is unchangeable. We know that Obama was elected president of the USA in 2008, and nothing can ever change the fact that he was elected. But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have the Free Will to run for president, or that the American People didn’t have the Free Will to vote for him. God, not being a native of this Universe, exists outside the flow of time, at least as we perceive it. For God, the future is no different from the past. I will also avoid the nature of Time itself, since it is so poorly understood by us Humans that no one is qualified to say whether or not the future is predetermined or if it already exists. Even if the future is already set, I don’t believe this contradicts Free Will any more than God’s foreknowledge of the future does. A fixed future is no different from a fixed past. We can only act in the present. When we made past decisions it was the present at the time, and when we make future decisions it will be the present at the time. For us, the time is always now.

By Determinism, I mean that it would always be impossible for a person to act in any way other than they did in a specific set of circumstances, and so no matter what they do they have no choice, absolving them of moral responsibility. I don’t humour this notion for a minute, as it is completely unacceptable. The main argument for Determinism would have to be that since our brains are physical objects, they must therefore obey the deterministic laws of physics. This argument assumes that mind and brain are the same thing, when in fact they are not. The brain is like a book, and the mind is like a story. A book is a physical object, composed of many pages of bound paper with patterns of ink printed on them, and a book must obey the laws of physics. The story, however, can be about dragons or wizards or any manner of fantastic things with little or no heed for the laws of physics. Such is the case with our minds. Consciousness is an emergent property, and one that is poorly understood. We may never fully understand Human consciousness. But being an emergent property, the mind is more than just the sum of its parts. Neural activity may be deterministic, but mental activity is not. It should also be observed that the laws of physics are not purely deterministic. On the subatomic level, quantum mechanics is only probabilistic. One can never know for certain what a subatomic particle might do. There are those who believe that quantum processes are a vital part of brain function, and if this is true then the brain itself cannot be wholly deterministic. Since consciousness exists above the neural level, and quantum probability exists beneath it, the mind cannot be deterministic, at least not completely.

Mental and neural functions are not wholly binary states. Nothing in this Universe is completely one thing or another. Everything exists on a spectrum, though there are many things that are so far to one end of the spectrum that they are for all intents and purposes one thing or another. Because of the spectral nature of reality, there is some overlap between mental and neural processes. This can create some overlap in conscious and autonomic actions e.g, a person doing something without really thinking about it. There are certain executive functions which may be carried out both consciously and autonomically, and the conscious mind may not always be aware of what the more primitive parts of the brain are up to, but I do not believe that this undermines the sovereignty of the conscious mind, or it’s Free Will.

There are also many people who believe that the subconscious is separate from what you perceive as “you”, and so if you make a decision subconsciously, then it wasn’t really “you”. I disagree with this. My subconscious mind is certainly a part of “me”. There is no clear cut off point between neural activity and mental activity. My subconscious is then the part of my mind that is just high enough above the neural level to count as mental activity, but not conscious enough to normally be perceived by my fully conscious mind. In between these two is the preconscious, which contains all of my thoughts, feelings and information which I’m not aware of right now, but can easily call into my conscious mind. Again, there is no clear division between these three states of mind, but that is all they are: states of mind. I can become aware of my subconscious motivations through sufficient introspection, in which case they are no longer subconscious. Since my thoughts, feelings and knowledge can switch from conscious to preconscious to subconscious, this proves that these three states are all part of a singular mind. So even if a conscious decision is based on subconscious motives, it was still the same consciousness that made the decision, and so the subconscious does not threaten the idea of Free Will.

I do believe that the mind and body are separate, though they are of course deeply interconnected. The body is a physical object, whereas the mind is a pattern in the body, mostly in the brain. I person feels sensations, coming either from the body or even the brain itself, and the conscious mind chooses whether or not to act on them, as well as how to act on them. Say that someone felt an itch, but it was in what’s normally considered a private place in the person was in public at the time. They’d likely chose to ignore the sensation. Or say that someone was hungry, but that person was a Muslim and it was the month of Ramadan, so they waited until after sunset to satiate their hunger. Human beings clearly have impulse control, otherwise we’d act on every impulse the instant we felt it. A person is thus personally responsible when they fail to exercise impulse control and it leads to negative consequences.

Impulses can be visceral, genetic, hormonal, neurological, psychological, subconscious, etc., but ultimately it is the conscious mind that decides if and how they are acted upon, and this evaluation is also influences by all of the aforementioned factors, but it is none the less a conscious choice. All of the above factors merely cause inclinations toward certain behaviours, but they do not cause specific actions. It’s possible to tell from a person’s genome whether they like a certain kind of food, but it cannot be predicted with absolute certainty the exact times that person will indulge that impulse. It is possible that an impulse is so powerful that ignoring it is excruciating, causing a person to act on an impulse when they would otherwise prefer not to it. Nonetheless, it is still a conscious choice, and so does not undermine the concept of Free Will. The person had Free Will, but had insufficient fortitude to exercise it. These non-conscious inclinations are not totally beyond our control either. Like the rest of our bodies, they will atrophy from neglect and strengthen with use. By exercising our conscious volition, our ability to suppress unwanted impulses will grow, and these same impulses will gradually starve and wither.

Some claim that Free Will is an illusion. In 1983, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet asked test subjects to flick their wrists, while measuring the ‘readiness potential’ in their brains. This readiness potential came a few tenths of seconds before the subject said they had decided to move. Libet interpreted the readiness potential as a sign that the decision was already locked in and thus outside of conscious control, but there’s no proof of that. Mental activity cannot be directly observed, only indirectly inferred from neural activity. We should therefore be critical of any interpretations of cognition based solely on brain activity. There are many who believe that the readiness potential may simply represent that the subject was paying attention, or it may simply have represent an impulse to move, which the conscious mind chose to accept. Another neuroscientist named Angela Sirigu has created the impulse to move by sticking electrodes into subjects brain, and when the stimulation is strong enough they believed that they did move. She can also make them move without knowing it. Other scientific experiments using transcranial stimulation has been observed to influence the decisions made by test subjects, but not completely control. I maintain that such cases of neural stimulation merely cause impulses, itches which the mind chooses to scratch. In instances of deep brain stimulation being used to treat certain disorders, the stimulation is relieving neurological impulses, which were a burden to the person’s mind.

Another problem with Libet’s experiment is that flicking your wrist is such a simplistic action. I do not deny that simple actions can and often are controlled by the more primitive parts of the brain. The conscious mind has many concerns, and so surely it delegates the drudgework to automatic processes. The mind will metaphorically ‘push a button’, and everything else is done automatically. It has also been empirically observed that reflexes are faster than conscious actions. If all of our actions are merely instinctive and our conscious control illusory, then why then is there a delay with conscious actions? Are not the vastly complex projects of Human civilization the result of lengthy conscious thought which was then consciously acted upon? Is not this very essay the result of my conscious analysis of information, and a conscious decision to write down my thoughts?

Finally, even if Free Will is an illusion, it is an illusion we are constantly under. Each day we get up and go about our lives as if we have Free Will. Why then should we only choose to ignore it when it exonerates us from our actions? We believe we are in control of our own actions, and that should be reason enough to hold us accountable for them.

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