Here is a rebuttal I put together in a discussion of Free Will with a friend who read Sam Harris’ work, Free Will. I reference the book using bold letters and my friend’s paraphrased questions about my proposition of free will are in italics. There is also a video available on YouTube which is an almost verbatim repetition of his book and that can be found here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g. I reference it in the following and suggest that it is watched before reading the following article.
I'm posting it here because I would value 1) feedback on my interpretation of Oist epistemology, and 2) if I've made errors, to be corrected.
I cannot overemphasize this - I have paraphrased my friend's questions and propositions, so they bear very little resemblance to his original wording. Also, if I'm not referrencing material correctly, please let me know and I will correct my mistakes. This is my first posting of this type.
Sam Harris points to two studies in his book Free Will. “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 - 545 (2008) (Soon, Brass, Heinze, Haynes) uses fMRI technology to predict human actions. “Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition” Neuron 69, 548–562 (2011) (Fried, Mukamel, Kreiman) actually measures the function of individual neurons to predict human action. These studies show very clearly that free will can be predicted scientifically and through such predictions, it proves that free will does not exist.
It is a mistake to approach the science at all because Free Will can be validated philosophically and introspectively without the use of science. BUT the science is on the table because Sam Harris makes a point of bringing it up in the book. From 2004 to 2006, I spent two years studying and reading papers that dealt with neurological functions, and since then have kept a casual eye on the state-of-the-art in terms of modeling and understanding brains.
So when someone talks about a study whereby they are predicting, with accuracy, human action based on the current brain mapping techniques, it makes me curious why the world has not been turned upside down by this discovery, and how I didn’t hear about it before Sam Harris.
As best I can tell, after looking deeper into it, the 2008 study “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” is one study we’re talking about, and you are correct in that it uses fMRI. My observation in the earlier e-mail is that we still aren’t anywhere close to neuron decoding. Neurons being the building block of grey matter, I believe that neuron decoding will be the first step on a long journey to decoding thoughts. In that regard, fMRI is like trying to ‘decode’ the letters on page of a book from a mile away without a telescope.
fMRI is a low resolution tool to map functions in the brain. You mentioned a 2-3mm window – the study used a 3mm x 3mm x 3mm resolution fMRI device. What makes 3 cubic millimeters low resolution? Consider common estimates of neurons in the brain at 10^11, and common estimates of synaptic connections between those neurons at 10^14. This is generalization, but Inside a 1,400,000 cubic millimeter (1.4 liter) brain, that puts 3 cubic millimeters at 215,000 neurons, and 1,500,000,000 synapse connections. These numbers are staggering, and you may want to reconsider what is really being seen from the results of an fMRI reading.
In the later experiments (2011) they had the subject look at the clock once they knew which choice they were going to make, and eliminated the time it takes for electrons to get a muscle ready for a response, and that is a more direct evaluation of the agent making the decision.
In the 2008 experiment, the subjects recalled the ‘letter on the screen that they were staring at’ once the decision was made to pick a left or right button. Further, of the 36 subjects tested, 12 didn’t go through the fMRI after the first round of testing because they were acting in a way that screwed up the left/right randomization that the experimenters were looking for. Of the remaining 14, 2 had their data thrown out and of the remaining 12, only 8 participated in the ‘control’ experiment (yet all 12 fMRI test results were compared against the 8 participants control results). They were to perform the left or right button press based on the first option that popped into their head, and not to question it. In fact, the 2 that had their data thrown out showed signs of not playing along (one picking ‘right’ too often, the other taking too long after consciously picking a side). When Sam Harris discusses it in his video, he makes it appear that the subjects were meant to wrestle with which side to pick, and then make a decision - that is NOT the case.
In the 2011 experiment, they actual do get down to the single neuron level, but it’s a somewhat randomly chosen neuron in a given area of a brain, and the scientists are taking advantage of a known property of neurons called Neuron Recruiting – the firing of one neuron will cause synaptic responses in those around them. The ‘single neuron’ that they are recording is just ‘going along for the ride’, though it may be inconsequential to the actual outcome of brain activity – it’s not like they’re looking at ALL the neurons and saying that of the 10^14 neurons in the brain, these are the neurons responsible for making the decision. It is more accurate to say that the neurons that are firing are in an active portion of the brain, not necessarily neurons that are necessarily involved in the decision making.
The point is that, for either of these experiments, there is a measured period of time between the ‘urge to press a button’ and ‘finger presses the button’ (this time is outside the muscle buffer response time you mentioned.)
How can we interpret these experiments another way? I suggest that as we are watching the subjects, they are concentrating at the task at hand. They will pick one button or the other (otherwise the results of the test aren’t useable and truly aren’t used in the test), and that between their first instinct to press a button and the finger press, there is a time where another choice can be made.
The subjects are focused on performing the goal of the experiment, and they have only one of a select set of outcomes to achieve. However, in 2008 none of these experiments asked the subjects to wrestle with which button to press, in fact they explicitly told the subjects NOT to wrestle with it, but to press a button based on their first instinct. From the study: “It was stressed to subjects that the time and choice of movement was completely up to them, but that it should be executed without hesitation once they made the decision which button to press. They were also asked to avoid any form of preplanning for choice of movement or time of execution.” Knowing this, can we say that the study predicted the choices, or simply observed the subjects going through the motions of the experiment?
We have no idea what the 2011 experimenters told the subjects, as very little is recorded about this topic in the study.
At the end of the day, this data is not relevant to Harris’ argument. He even admits that too much is being made of the data, and even if urge and action were instantaneous, there would still be no room for free will. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g, 17m 30s). (So, Sam Harris, why bring it up?) In a sense I have to agree that too much is being made of the data (obviously): Who says that consciousness can even be measured by the measurement of electronic signals between synapses? Or by blood flow in certain areas of the brain? The experimenters are making implications that I don't think are accurate. I don't think that their work is useless - we need to go through these steps to learn more about the brain, and they are adding to the body of knowledge, but I think we need to analyze the results more closely.
I would suggest maybe going over Harris’s argument together as he makes his sequential arguments and we can identify specifically where you find his premises problematic.
I think that’s a great idea, and we see very early in the book how Sam Harris approaches the topic:
Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.
Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (p. 5). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Harris offers us two alternatives, and offers no room for free will based on these alternatives. I agree that, if these are our only two alternatives, then there is no free will. However, he is offering us only a false alternative, and picking determinism ultimately.
His first offering is that our wills are determined by prior causes.
Consider Harris’ experiment: “Name a city.” (NB: In his video lecture, Sam Harris asks people in the audience to perform a self-experiment, to “pick a city”.) Several cities get served up by the subconscious, and I pick Fremont from the list of San Francisco, New York, and Fremont. Why didn’t my subconscious serve up Cairo? Was I ‘free’ to choose Cairo if it was not served up by the subconscious? No. My brain is not omnipotent, or instantaneous. In the amount of time I was given to come up with a city, my subconscious went about retrieving a number of examples of ‘city’, and after I had three I arbitrarily decided not to think of any more cities, but to pick Fremont. But I picked Fremont. I had alternatives, and choices were made. The fact that I didn’t have Cairo in mind does not make a case against free will, it only says that I am not omnipotent or infallible, or that I don’t have a brain that instantaneously recalls every piece of information it ever came across. I have a brain, and it requires both time (to produce information from my subconscious) and effort (I have to focus on the task at hand for the subconscious to pull up the right data). Then is Sam Harris' definition of free will: “One must have instanteous and equal access to all the data in the brain, all the time”? Says who? Why does free will means unlimited will?
Could I have picked Cairo? Maybe eventually. If I chose a level of focus to run through every country I've ever heard of, and then list the cities in them, then maybe Cairo would have shown up on a list. But I chose the level of focus and how long I was going to spend on the task, so I decided not to put that much effort in. I chose that I would stop the experiment after thinking of three cities.
First and foremost, I perceive making a choice. This is not trivial. I trust my perceptions because I must necessarily trust my perceptual faculty. Everything I know comes first through my perceptual faculty. My ability to reason then is based on this perceptual faculty. To invalidate the senses invalidates reason. Consider that point as my Reason #1 that validates Free Will.
I would like to offer up another alternative: There are aspects of our consciousness that are automatic (perception, subconscious, emotions), and there are those that are volitional (the choice to focus, and other choices that follow from it). This would account for how 'cities' are served up from my subconscious when I chose to think about the topic. I consciously choose to think of cities, and my subconscious gives me some answers, of which I can select the right one. If I choose to think more about it, I get more answers, sometimes in an organized way (the cities of Italy, for example) or not, depending on my level of focus.
The argument I am making (and you should be making as well) is the same thing you have been hearing since grade school; if, when picking between two objects A or B, and Object A is your answer, show your work!
When you author anything using conscious/intent then you have a starting point which you expand on and can eventually trace your line of thought, and ultimate conclusion, back to said origin. This sounds deterministic because the method is completely causal, each idea was brought about from a previous one, and so on. So now let’s examine the root cause, or first idea. I am simply asking to show your work, which you should be able to do if you authored the “choice” of picking the said Object A. However, you responded with something like, “I just made the choice.” If we look at this description of how you came to Object A, it sounds just like any other idea generated from your subconscious, thus outside of your conscious self that can usually trace back its ideas through the causal train of thought (described above).
It is common, as we noticed in psychology, that people often make the choice in experiments, in which they were primed subconsciously to make a certain choice, and give reasons for that choice that have nothing at all to do with variables that influence normal decision making and never even account for the primer. [ I don’t have any of my Sam Harris material on me, I lent it to a few friends, but I am sure you do… so you can wait for me to get the material and send you the studies or look it up yourself. It is also on the lectures he gave] These people feel as though they made the choice, but we knew what they would be because we primed them for a certain outcome without their conscious self-knowing it, thus it’s not their decision but it feels like it was. The argument being made by Harris is that this is an example of how all thoughts, inclinations, ideas eventually derive if you trace them back far enough to their origin (or at least in the attempt to trace them back). Still, there is no room for free will here.
My introspection is as follows: everything starts with a choice to focus. Credit goes to the objectivist thinkers on this one for pointing me down this path. Every choice I make and decision I have starts first with a choice to focus on the topic. I cannot find a point before I decide to focus, and then focus on something. I can either sit there, mind drifting as thoughts fly in from my subconscious or I can direct myself to think about one topic over another, and direct my subconscious in a direction about what information needs to be served up. (For example, I'm sitting in my friend's living room and he's talking the biking we're about to do, the fact that this song playing reminds us of crazy Stephanie Pozguy in high school, etc, etc, etc... but I am consciously focused on formulating my response to you in between his interruptions).
Why did I choose to focus? You can ask that question, but it does not have an answer. Focus is the precondition of thought. You must first be in focus to have that thought. Focus is THE first step to thinking – by its definition, it must exist before you can make any other choice. The choice to focus is the choice to think; the choice to think is the choice to use that faculty which allows man to pursue life. In this sense, you may be able to see that it is a choice to focus. There is ALWAYS a reason to focus – but there are times when you are not in focus.
“Why did I choose to focus?” is like asking, “Why does the universe exist?” Existence is axiomatic to the universe, and irreducible. Focus is axiomatic to thought in the same sense; it exists and is irreducible.
Now we are left with discussions on input and how much input you think you might control. Another interesting point to make regarding input would be the fact that the illusion of controlling your input doesn’t begin at birth or brain formation, but it begins later in the child’s life as their brain develops. All the while their brain is developing they don’t have much, if any, control over their input nor the cognitive tools an adult does to even critically evaluate said input. In addition to this perspective, we do not control our genes and thus the eventual mapping or architecture of our brains themselves, which plays a major role in cognitive functions, moods, and the illusive choice. Still I see no room for free will in this scenario.
I think this is a topic we can approach later. I think there are moral implications above that don't affect the fact that I, a grown adult, have free will. Free will is not affected by the content of my mind, but it can mean that I have different choices to make. If I have never heard of Cairo because my parents kept me out of school, I cannot use Cairo in a 'name a city' experiment. I can't choose to start thinking about a topic I have never been exposed to.
Every action of a person came from a prior thought or action and so on, until we reach where/when the input was received. Even the input you think you intend to obtain is driven from inclinations that are subject to an eventual causal chain that ends with another input that will eventually be out of one’s control due to nature or nurture. So the “I just made the choice” statement aligns well with this perspective given to you in Harris’ explanation of cause and effect on the brain. This is why it’s called an illusion, it is perceived one way and our understanding of the objective reality thus far says otherwise.
The causal chain you're talking about, where every action has a cause, is the standard definition for causality. A determinist (correct me if I'm wrong) sees this as: if we knew the current and prior state (location, velocity, temperature, etc) of every one of the tiniest particles, then we could predict exactly what they would do next. Every action is preceded by prior events which lead us to our current state.
I think that this definition applies to a number of Newtonian level observations. This is how billiard balls work. But it is not an accurate model for every observation we have, including the observation of free will.
Consider that if determinism was correct, I'd have no way to verify if you were right or not. You are not responsible for how thoughts are formed or memories are stored in your brain. You are not responsible for the input into your system, your level of focus, or the output. You cease to have choice which means that you no longer can weigh the validity of competing ideas. You can't choose "correctly", or at all. It means that the complete random combination of events has led you to believe that determism is...right? ...accurate? Against what standard? How could we tell? You told me yourself, in your last e-mail: Let’s stick to critical thinking and evidence, the usual method of discourse. How do you propose that we can be critical thinkers or evaluate evidence? What choice can we make in determining what is right or wrong? And how would we know that choice is correct?
So, where is the room for free will in the determinist model? There is none. If you are a firm, hard-line determinist, then there is no room for making choices. And there is no room for logic in determinism. If you are the sum of trillions of billiard balls acting in a direct cause-and-effect collision system, then the result will be that you are just a recording mechanism for deterministic processes.
I think that causality is better defined as follows: All entities act according to their nature, and the nature of human beings is that they are volitional. (Again, credit to objectivism for the definition.) Because the fact is that I can observe myself being out of focus for a period of time, pulling myself into focus, reaching conclusions, verifying my conclusions against reality (i.e. making comparisons), and determining validity. Is there a mechanism in determinism that allows for this, and for the consistency with which I do it?
Compatibilism is simply the perspective that determinism and free will can work together. Yet you say you are not this, so are you saying you do not believe in cause and effect? Does cause and effect not play a role at all in you “free will?” if it does, then I would urge you to look more into why you think you are not a compatibilist. See Daniel Dennett for this topic if you would like a better explanation. He Is always a great read.
Determinism is an overarching philosophy whereby ALL events are linked in a strict physical cause-and-effect chain. If that is the underlying theory to compatibilism then I see no way to reconcile that with free will, except to say that a conscious human has free will, and bowling balls do not. Free will and volition are different than bowling ball interactions. And if there is ANY free will, then there IS free will.
How is this possible? How is it that matter, which has predictable properties, can lead to something like volition? I would point to the concept of emergent properties. Things in different configurations can have different properties than their constituents. And knowledge of the constituent parts does not necessarily lead one to know about the properties of the greater configuration. A few examples come to mind (you may be an emergent properties expert, so bear with me if this is all review).
1) Diamonds and steel. Diamonds are insulators, see-through, etc. Steel is a conductor, does not allow for light transmission, etc. But the constituent particles are identical! Protons and neutrons and electrons, and even their sub-particles, are identical from one atom to another. It's their arrangement that leads to further properties not-definable at a lower hierarchy of observation - the properties only come about in arrangements on a macro scale. The properties that make steel and diamonds different are emergent properties of their constituent parts. You can reason about the properties of combinations of carbon and iron atoms, but the properties do not exist until the combinations are formed.
2) Life is an emergent property of some forms of matter. Again, looking at a single quark, you cannot observe the properties of a cell without many, many quarks making chains of molecules of all varieties, resulting in cell walls, DNA, mitochondria, etc... leading to a live cell. Further down that chain, groups of cells form organs, organs pump blood and do other biological processes, etc. Again, you can reason about the properties of combinations of atoms and molecules but studying them at the fundamental level, but the properties do not exist until the combinations are formed.
Let's add to the list:
3) Volition is an emergent property of the neurons in our brain and nervous system. I want to be clear about this: I'm not saying that the mind and the body are two different things. The mind, our thoughts, our volition… these require the brain and the nervous system to function. But by looking at the spikes of 256 neurons and proclaiming that volition is absent is a preliminary conclusion. This might not be satisfying, especially if you hold a billiard-ball model of the atomic structures underlying neuronal activity. I have this argument given to me (most recently from the aforementioned friend): "Well, if thoughts are from the brain, then they are physical, and therefore measurable, and therefore subject to the laws of physical cause-and-effect actions." That doesn't necessarily follow. Is it that some sort of arrangement of atoms can give us a property of the nervous system that allows consciousness? What if atoms themselves are emergent properties of the (non-matter) quantum fields that make up matter, as some physicists propose? That would elegantly solve the problem of the matter/spirit duality that comes up in these conversations.
Let me repeat this for effect:
Determinism is an overarching philosophy whereby ALL events are linked in a strict physical cause-and-effect chain. If that is the underlying theory then I see no way to reconcile that with free will, except to say that a concious human has free will, and bowling balls do not. Free will / volition are different than bowling ball interactions. And if there is ANY free will, then there IS free will.
I introspect it, and so does Sam Harris in his book:
Certain states of consciousness seem to arise automatically, beyond the sphere of our intentions. Others seem self-generated, deliberative, and subject to our will. When I hear the sound of a leaf blower outside my window, it merely impinges upon my consciousness: I haven’t brought it into being, and I cannot stop it at will. I can try to put the sound out of my mind by focusing on something else— my writing, for instance— and this act of directing attention feels different from merely hearing a sound. I am doing it. Within certain limits, I seem to choose what I pay attention to. The sound of the leaf blower intrudes, but I can seize the spotlight of my attention in the next moment and aim it elsewhere. This difference between nonvolitional and volitional states of mind is reflected at the level of the brain— for they are governed by different systems. And the difference between them must, in part, produce the felt sense that there is a conscious self-endowed with freedom of will.
Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (p. 31). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
In this very paragraph, he perceives focus, and in the rest of his book, using reason, says that perception is faulty and reason doesn’t exist by way of humans being a recording mechanism for deterministic processes. His faculty of reason and faculty of perception led him to this conclusion – he is using the very faculties he is disproving to make his point!
I have to end here… I could spend weeks perfecting this (and I have spent a lot of time throwing out what I wrote and rewriting parts) but I think a conversation would be more beneficial to go over some of the things I didn’t touch on but that you mentioned.