Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Tigers, Monkeys and Free Will

Sorry about what follows. I couldn’t help myself :^)

The NY Times published this article last week about the ways current brain science is undercutting the idea of free will.

The experimental evidence of the past decade or so suggests we experience free will but don’t actually act and choose that way. Brain scientists call those kind of phenomenon qualia, where people feel they are experiencing something real and objective in the real world but aren’t.

Color perception is a good example of qualia. The world isn’t really colored—-it just looks that way to us. Our retinas are wired to pick up certain wavelengths of light and then our brain mixes those signals together to create the phenomemon we experience as color. Other animals—like birds—see the sky as ‘purple’ because their retinas and brains work differently. The sky is neither blue nor purple—-it just appears that way to humans and birds, respectively. People debate why we see color—most think it has survival value by organizing and differentiating the world—-but brain scientists think of color as a product of the way our minds work and not as an objective quality of the world outside of our brains.

Anyway, many scientists are beginning to think our cherished concept of free will is like color perception. We experience free will but it may be little more than a useful illusion cooked up by our grey matter. It may be important for us (for various evolutionary reasons) to feel we are choosing freely, but most of the experimental evidence suggests things don't really work that way inside our heads. The article above goes into some of that impressive evidence.

You’ve gotta love some of the metaphors these brain doctors have come up with to explain how human consciousness relates to our actions and decisions. Here are a couple of ‘em:

***The conscious mind is a like a monkey riding on the back of a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories of being in control. Funny and clever.

***The conscious mind is like a man who both watches a film and is a character in the film at the same time. This one’s got sort of a fun Zen/Yoda twist to it, young Skywalker….:^) But if you think of the metaphors used to explain relativity this one doesn’t seem so outlandish.

Of course, if brain science does demonstrate that free will is primarily qualia, those scientists who labored all those years climbing that mountain will find theologians sitting at the peak waiting to greet them. Most of the heavy hitter western Christian theologians through the ages have accepted one form or another of predestination, and I think that’s the consensus among Muslim thinkers as well.

The implications of scientifically chucking free will are huge. It’s the nightmare vision of the future of science that CS Lewis laid out in his sci fi novel That Hideous Strength. (that's your cue, Ruth :^)If we’re just sophisticated meat machines, what happens to moral responsibility or to the idea of a 'spirit' or 'soul?' Some of the scientists doing this research are scrambling to explain how a dialed down version of free will that still preserves moral agency could "fit the data."

I’m guessing this whole issue is going to blow up in the next decade or so. Might eclipse cloning and genetic modification as the next big science and religion controversy. Who would have thought we might return to a time when a whole lot of people would end up fighting publicly about predestination vs. free will?


Anonymous Eddy E said...

Sounds like "the Matrix" is a little bit more real...

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I'm quite skeptical of what has been presented so far. First of all, many (most?) of the scientists involved are likely working from a massive point of bias. Look how they describe even the possibility of a free spiritual life:

“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”

When the entire existence of a spiritual world is belittled as "some weird magical power", and the assumption is made ahead of time that all systems must be physical, then it sounds like they're certainly not giving a spiritual life much credence. On top of that, the scientists involved certainly claim that they're trying to define free will only within the materialistic, physical world, which leaves out any possibility of will of the soul at all.

As far as the experiments go, they seem to leave a ton of room for interpretation. I could be wrong, but it appears that the decision is made 1/2 a second before the person is conscious of making it, but after they've already begun considering the decision. In that respect the decision could still be the result of a conscious process.

It would be interesting to know if the research shows 100% correspondence between what they predict to happen via subconscious brain waves and what actually happens, and how they explain any deviation from that.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

The sky might be a shower of particles that our brains turn into color and beauty. Sort of a half Matrix with a much more positive twist. God still reigns. Just takes some humility to adjust the conservative world view.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Re your comments, Jon, yeah, lots of these guys start with determinism so no surprise they would end there too.

The article didn't go into all the evidence, though. MRI studies and lesion studies (basically, scientists 'turn off' parts of the brain or specific cells)also show that the parts of the brain that control consciousness and our sense of self seem to be a step behind action and decision. Hard to know what to make of it all.

5:19 PM  

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