Thursday, January 15, 2009

Episode 29 Free Willy vs The Determinator

Does every person possess an immaterial soul capable of making free choices or are we all just electrified meat--slaves to brute causality? For this episode, the doubtcasters draw upon arguments from philosophy and psychology to make the case for determinism. But if a naturalistic outlook rules out freedom of the will is morality still possible?

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Jeremy said...

Alright, just for the record: the title for this podcast was Luke and Dave's idea.

Fletcher said...

Much as I would like to, I can't take the credit here: This was all Luke's idea.

Yes, I immediately signed on to it, but Luke is the one who came up with it.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys. Interesting show. I've been kicking around a ideas for quite a while about writing a blog post about the problems of dualism and the soul. (But, not on the issue of free-will.) I would also add that there's a lot of interesting stuff that happens to the decision-making process when serotonin levels, testosterone levels, and oxytosin levels are altered. (I remember one case where a female cat who recent gave birth adopted a duckling - probably under the influence of oxytosin.) NPR's This American Life also has an episode called "Testosterone" where a few people talk about how their minds were altered when they received massive amounts of testosterone, or were completely deprived of all testosterone. I think I remember one experiment where prisoners had their serotonin levels altered and it lead to a decline in violent behavior.

Anyway, I think the way dualists would explain it is to say that all these things (hormones, genetics) influence behavior, it doesn't take away free-will or the idea of the soul. So, for example, if a hormone influenced behavior, it was similar to having a friend who suggested you do this or that - and just as a friend could influence a person's behavior (without eliminating free will), the hormones would influence behavior patterns. Ultimately, this means different people would have different levels of responsibility for their behavior (depending on the exact hormonal/genetic influences) - I think that much is undeniable, but maybe not quite to the level of making them 100% unresponsible for their behavior. Or maybe they are responsible for some of their behavior, but not others.

When you hear about all the ways hormones influence behavior, I can't help but wonder: if believers died and went to heaven, would they even recognize each other's personalities after their "souls" have been removed from the influence of earthly hormones?

Personally, I basically lean toward the view that free-will exists, arises somehow from matter, but our hormonal/genetic state influences our behavior. Though, I haven't really given much thought the question of free-will since college (when the idea of no free-will seemed rather dismal).

Anonymous said...

The study regarding the delay between action and the suppose decision to act as enumerated by the internal monologue does not necessarily reduce the internal monologue to after the fact rationalization.

Consider the computer screen. My computer processor is whizzing away doing calculations and the view of those calculations are only visible when viewed through some output device like a screen. One would be foolish to conflate the stream of calculations or whatever being rendered on the screen as the real-time thinking of the computer, they are merely its reflection.

It could be the case that the internal monologue is merely the delayed output of the thinking taking place in some sort of internal mechanism that must go through several layers of abstraction before becoming human readable in the form of the internal linguistic construct we view as thinking. There could be some inner structure that reasons, the response time study merely indicates that the internal monologue is not that structure.

This counterclaim in no way removes the possibility of determinism, it merely points out what I perceive as the limit to this study.

Anonymous said...

Yeah the title was pretty awesome. In the same spirit I'd like to propose the following: I was rather pleased to hear you call for the Pope to step down in light of the crimes committed against children in his organization.
So, I'd like to join you in calling for Pope Benedict to give his "Ratzignation" immediately.

Anonymous said...

yes that is one possible criticism of drawing the conclusion of thought as epiphenomenon in Libet's study. However the more recent work, such as the control of lateralized movement by using transcortical magnetic stimulation is entirely more devastating to free will. In that experiment, as we discussed in the show, the subject claimed to be controlling right and left movement, whereas this was actually under the control of the experimenters with the magnets. Similar to this, work with confabulation on the part of neurological patients, and the work of John Bargh with automaticity and contextual priming adds to the hypothesis that we essentially "tell stories" to explain actions that are in fact under control of other forces.

Unknown said...

Dear Doubtcasters,
first of all, please accept my cordial greetings from Poland, I'm following your podcast for a while and I'm very impressed. It is both informative and entertaining at the same time, good job!
Considering the problem of the existence of free will, you have forgotten about the third option. This option has been proposed by Roger Penrose in his brilliant "The Emperor's New Mind" where he discusses questions on computability, mechanics of human brain, consiousness, and such. His idea is, in my simplistic terms, the following. The mind operates by sending electrical charges between neurons. Neurons have dendrites, terminated by synapses. Between synapses are synaptic clefts, narrow passages through which electric signals propagate. Penrose insists that quantum effects are present during signal propagation. Again, in my simplistic description, at the core of the quantum physics lies the idea that each electron is not a physical tangible entity, but rather a probability distribution describing possible whereabouts of the electron. Which, in turn, means that the propagation of the electrical signal through our mind is inherently indeterministic, because the behavior of electrons is indeterministic. In other words, even if you account for all possible variables defining the state of your brain, at the core of the process lies the phenomenon that is indeterministic in its nature. Of course, that does not imply the existence of the free will in any way, we are 100% guided by our material brains. It just means that the contemporary science leaves room for randomness in our thinking process. Or, in other words, if you could go back to a moment when you had a certain thought, and you could recreate that moment to be exactly the same, with all the atoms of the universe in the same place (which, of course, is not possible), you might still have a different thought at that particular moment.
Best regards, I'm waiting impatiently for the second episode on free will.

mabell said...

I took a Cybernetics course at UC Santa Cruz where I learned a modeling technique that you may find useful in understanding the decision making process of the brain. It's called an artificial neuron or threshold logic. Here's a link to the WIKI page: It's a bit dense, so Ill try to explain.
A threshold element has a trigger value, which is the total stimulus needed to activate the output. It also has multiple inputs, each with a numeric weight. An artificial neural network is a collection of these interconnected elements.
Let's design a threshold element to pick a box of cereal. I'll set the threshold value at 5. Being a child of the 60's, I like my old favorites. So something like Count Chocula would activate the retro input which has a weight of 3. I'm also cheap, so there would be an "on sale" input with a weight of 4. Sugar free would have a weight of -2, as would whole wheat, and fruit flavored would have a weight of 1.
When I look at Captain Crunch on sale, I get retro (3) plus on sale (4) equals 7. Since this is greater than the threshold of 5, I am inclined to buy it.
This is a gross oversimplification, but I think it does a good job of modeling the "gut feeling" decision making process.

Jamie said...

You guys discussed a lot of material that I cover in my Psych of Personality class--loved it!

One of Bargh's studies I particularly find amusing is when he essentially primed people with elderly vs. neutral words and then examined the speed at which participants walked down the hall "after the experiment". Sure enough, those in the elderly condition walked slower.

Luke, there's no scientific evidence that subliminal factors, such as in self-help tapes or "buy x" over a loudspeaker work in everyday life. It's in controlled lab settings such as Bargh's experiments, that people's behavior has been shown to be influenced by these primes.

I believe as a whole you were trying to convey that we don't always know why we do the things we do, and that many factors influence our behavior, but thought I should clarify.

Scott said...

I'm listening through all your podcasts. There's a lot. Needless to say, I can hear your voices in the silence now. Anyways, really enjoyed this one. Hoping there are more on the whole free will stuff.

RJ Purvis said...

Hi Guys,

I am through about 95% of the episodes and for some reason left the "Determinism" episodes to the last as I just wasn't sure that I would understand or get what you were talking about - more afraid that the subject matter would be too deep for me. Frankly, your podcast is one of my favorites because you take difficult subject matter like this (at least for me) and make it palatable, and as importantly, fun to listen to. This partiuclar episode was no exception; it was enlightening to say the least. And if nothing else it totally explains my addiction to the porn! Thanks! I love you guys!