Monday, June 14, 2010

Episode 69 Determinator 4 - Rise of the Machines

Through billions of years of evolution, small molecular machines have acquired an amazing range of abilities including the capacity to think, feel and change. For this episode the doubtcasters once again return to the subject of determinism--answering questions from our listeners about Jeremy's debate with Don Johnson. Also on this episode: a witch hunt in Nigeria targets young children, Muslims consider creative ways around Sharia law, and we'll explore the connection between atheism and Asperger's syndrome for this weeks installment of God Thinks Like You.

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Dan said...

I'm about half way through this one, but I have to raise one (light-hearted) objection to what was said: I don't think it's difficult to understand words like "choice" and "options" in the context of determinism. It certainly shouldn't be today.

We live in a world with computers, and those computers do things like play chess. I'd bet money that if you took a survey, the majority of people would say that, on its turn, the computer chooses among options about what moves to make. Those are probably the words they'd use, or others like them, despite the fact that the computer is operating according to a deterministic (or possibly probabilistic, with some source of random numbers) algorithm.

Perhaps I'm biased, because I have training in computer science, but the above seems pretty mundane to me. People may feel uncomfortable thinking about themselves as computers, but the box on your desk is at least a physical example that it can be sensible to talk about choice even under an assumption of determinism (because we do talk that way). I'd probably suspect that anyone stubbornly failing to admit even that base point as having some considered, prior commitment to libertarianism (perhaps that's too stingy, though).

Fletcher said...

Gotta say, Jeremy, I love the picture for this episode.

TV's Mr. Neil said...

Determinism: When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Brendan said...

I'm really glad you guys did a follow up to the episode from last week, as I found it very helpful in understanding some of the more complicated points on determinism (in particular the issue of responsibility/morality and trying to see those words like 'choice' and 'options' in a different light). It's certainly helping me reevaluate my thoughts on the subject, so thanks!!!

Davo said...

I'm impressed that you guys had the courage to approach the subject of determinism at all. The emphatic responses should tell you how necessary it was. One of the first precepts of a naturalistic worldview, if there are any is to be unafraid of following the evidence wherever it leads. I'm a teacher and this reminds me of one of those topics that are so controversial that an inferior teacher will often purposely leave to the end of the semester in the hopes of avoiding it. Whoops, sorry folks we're out of time. Reprehensible but I've seen it happen many times in all disciplines. Thanks for a consistently intelligent podcast.

Danielle said...

I'm sure you guys have covered this already, but I can't find it -- can you recommend some books on determinism?

mormonITC said...

Let me run this up the flagpole and see who salutes.

Maybe a better analogy for determinism instead of Dominoes or thermostats would be the weather, and weather forecasting. The weather in my current location is 80 degrees with a slight wind from the east, bright and sunny. The conditions for today in my locale are made up of thousands of individual factors outside of and inside my current position.

The forecasters got this day right, and they are getting it right more often than not right now. I remember in the 70's and 80's it was a crap shoot, they never got it right. It was horrible. Now we have forecast for my particular small area code. The reason we are getting it right now is because we have better instruments, more information, better information processing capability, and more knowledge about what factors go into weather predictions.

Similarly, we are getting better at predicting what an individual will do by measuring all the inputs to the brain, understanding the individuals past etc, etc. So now predicting behavior is coming into maybe where we were in the 70's with predicting weather.

I don't know if I am explaining myself very well, and I am not sure that it really applies but maybe you all can help flesh out the analogy better.

Aaron said...

The follow up show helped me understand your perspectives better.

I understand why you think the domino analogy is too simplistic to account for all the factors that influence us. Still, I think the domino model shouldn't be avoided because it does depict the overall reality of determinism - that the choices we make can all be traced back to the first atom that started rolling - and that if we could go back and set it up the exact same way, everything would turn out exactly as it is now.

Maybe dominoes aren't complicated enough to explain the micro-choices of life, but on a macro scale, the principles of dominoes and determinism are the same.

It doesn't matter if you add 100 rows of dominoes or 1000 rows. It doesn't matter if you make the dominoes funky shapes. It just makes it a more complicated game of dominoes. The principles remains the same.

What humored me was that you guys tried to show the shortcomings of dominoes by suggesting a scenario where you could stop the dominoes and push over a new line. However, in the domino model, the mind and the environment can simply be represented by more dominoes. They become more pieces that move our choices in one determined direction. Your suggestion that you could step outside the game to alter the dominoes' path is actually symbolic of free choice - that of being able to step outside of the physical game. But when the 1000's of pieces represent all the various natural environmental factors - stepping outside these factors is impossible if determinism is true.

And yes, I think determinism is unfalsifiable. What evidence would convince you that it isn't true? You suggested maybe an experiment where you found out that people weren't influenced by specific physical stimuli like everybody else was. But, you could easily say that the man who didn't want a Coke after his electric shock was determined by other factors to not like Coke.

Admittedly, Christians hold to things that are unfalsifiable. There isn't any evidence that can prove that God doesn't exist either.

R.L. McVicar said...

I think the problem that people have with the argument really is semantic. I think using the words "freewill, determinism" are just utterly inadequate for describing the process of human decision making.

While it is my understanding that decisions must for the sake of sanity be causal and made because of "reasons". To refer to the immense complexity of human cognition as being "free" or "determined" is to call the vast ecosystem of the Atlantic Ocean "wet".

No wonder people are so rightly confused and frustrated when trying to understand their sense of choice this way. I’ll just chalk it up to 2000 years of western philosophy ingraining the phrases into culture at the behest of religion.

Anonymous said...

I would also love some book recommendations dealing with free will and determinism. Sorry if you already mentioned them at some point.

Anonymous said...

Its Luke here.
I recommend to anyone "The Illusion of the Conscious Will" by Daniel Wegner. it explains all the psych research about how we can have the feeling of volition but are not "choosing" actions.

Anonymous said...

Or "Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconsious" by Timothy Wilson

Anonymous said...

Or Daniel Wegner's "The Illusion of Conscious Will," 2003 I believe. It's kinda thick, but def. worth it

TheBigBlueFrog said...

I think you made a valid point in one of the determinism vs. free will shows, that we have to operate within the illusory framework of free will, even if we live within a deterministic universe. Therefore, our "choices" are no less valid, because they are based on the framework we are given. However it does, as you say, have to inform our ethics re. crime and punishment.

GWD said...

@ Aaron

It’s impossible to falsify determinism now. Our knowledge isn’t complete.

In the future, naturalistic determinism can be theoretically falsified. We should be able to assign a physical cause to any action taken by a brain, and we should be able to at least account for anomalies. So we get ten people in a similar brain state and ask them to choose between coke and diet coke. If nine choose coke and one chooses diet coke, we should know why. If we can correct that variable, we should be able to get all ten to choose coke. If we have complete knowledge of the brain, but still fail to accurately predict its behaviors, then naturalistic determinism must be wrong. There would have to be another agent, exempt from the mechanisms of the brain, making decisions.

That’s really the only prediction determinism makes – if our knowledge of contributing factors is complete, we should always be able to predict the outcome. Demonstrate that this isn’t the case and you’ve killed determinism.

The god hypothesis, on the other hand, makes no predictions.

astrondew said...

Bimble, Bomble. Bimble, Bomble.

Free Will, Determinism. Free Will, Determinism.

You've covered it now, lads. Move on.

Jeremy said...

To astrondew and other comments like his...

I understand some are fed up that we have another episode discussing determinism. However, the vast majority responses have been from people thanking us- saying they are new to the subject and wanted to learn more. If a particular episode is not doing it for you, then please let us know. But when deciding on the tone of your comment please keep in mind we dont make this show for any one person. And the opinions of people who characterize our discussion as "bimble bomble" are given little weight.

Anonymous said...

Do you guys ever think that you will return to doing one show a week? I have no doubt that you all are busy, but I was just curious since this is my favorite podcast :)

Jeremy said...

Sorry Anon for the bad news, but no. I would love to make a show per week but its too much work. In fact its more likely to get worse than better. I'll be going back to school, Luke wants to work on a book and Dave is going to have yet another child to feed.

Sorry. I wish this wasnt the case

R.L. McVicar said...

Jeremy what can we do to help? This is my favorite podcast "don't tell Skeptics Guide" and I want to see you guys do well for having worked so hard at this.

Where can we donate?

Jeremy said...

Thank you McVicar,

We will have a donate page up by the next podcast. I will say that money is not whats keeping us from releasing more often. Time is the number one constraint. Still we've dumped a lot of cash into equipment and if our listeners are willing to help us with that, its about time they have the chance.

Andrew Ryan said...

I agree with Dan that bringing up a programmed machine is a good rebuttal to the complaint about using the word choice. We can coherently talk about a machine making a 'choice' between options based on its determined programming.

I'll add my voice to those saying that Jeremy did a much better job than he feared. He only started to sound really narked near the end, when he started telling Don and the co-host that they were essentially uneducated on this subject, and I think by this point it was justified.

I was particularly pleased that when they tried to catch Jeremy out on meta-ethics, he gave my own favourite reply, which is to point out that positing a God makes no difference to the 'grounding of ethics' question.

Generally, when someone tries to move the argument onto a meta level, it's a concession that they can't gain any ground on the non-meta level.

My only objection? Jeremy saying 'irregardless'!

And guys, don't regret that you can't do more shows, when it's for reasons as good as having another kid, getting more education etc.

Love the show, and this was a great one.

Andrew, UK

Neece said...

My first introduction to Determinism was through your podcast. I have listened to each episode you've done and I think I'm finally starting to get it.
I just wanted to let you know I'm glad you did this one too, because it answered a lot of questions I still had.
Very interesting stuff. Don't think you're boring us with revisiting old issues, if the information is new and will help us understand.

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