Thursday, October 25, 2012

Determinism, Neuroscience and Free Will: A Conversation

I've recently been having a conversation with a colleague about implications of recent neuroscience research and free will (and therefore blameworthiness, or responsibility for our actions.)  Thought you might be interested. My colleague is Steven P. Gilbert, Ph.D., ABPP, LP. He is married to Anne Fletcher, who recently published a wonderful new book (more on that in a later post) called "Inside Rehab." If you haven't read it, you'll want to. There's nothing else like it on the planet.



Anne sent me your blog below about the frustrations of appealing to reason in argumentation.  I thought you might be interested in both the column I've included below entitled "Reasons Matter (When Intutitions Don't Object)" and the attached PDF, both by psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

I think Haidt's work is brilliant.  He demonstrates how evolutionary-based instincts shape our morality and thus our politics (see also  How Evolution Has Turned Us Into Liberals and Conservatives<>), and that reason is but a johnny-come-lately to the project.  He uses the analogy of an elephant and a rider -- the rider is our conscious reasoning and the elephant is our evolutionary-based emotions. Mostly, we use reason post-hoc to justify what our emotions "push" us to decide and conclude.

It all fits perfectly with Benjamin Libet's classic research in neuroscience which found that unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject  (disturbing research because it challenges the notion of free will).


Steve, I couldn't agree more. I've always been an "intuitionist," as Haidt puts it, and I've always found much of academic psychology to be sterile and meaningless, in part because of the emphasis on rationality as the basis for decision-making. But my time at NIH is what really convinced me, as I became intimately acquainted with Kahneman's work, among many others, concerning Systems 1 and 2. Many years ago, I concluded that determinism is fundamentally correct, but irrelevant, because we still have to reason and act accordingly, it's how we're made. Also, it's irrelevant because quantum physics tells us that you can't know the precise location, mass and trajectory of every particle in the universe, because there isn't one. Therefore, you can't predict the future, although you could suggest probabilities of various outcomes (50% chance of showers today.)

Another body of work that convinced me of that, although I'm not truly familier with it, is that of social psychologists, who repeatedly find that our "freely made decisions" are strongly affected by our social, internal and external environments, although we are almost never conscious of that. 

That said, I'm concerned about the popularization of what is essentially another metaphor for the id, ego and superego, the idea that we have to tame the reptilian monster through reason and religion. Hair shirts, anyone, or flogging, perhaps?



Your observation the indeterminism of quantum mechanics (which has outsed Newtonian determinism) opens the door to free will  –– is really interesting,  though at the outer limits of my conceptual abilities in both physics and philosophy!  Does knowing that God does in fact play dice, i.e., that there is always the possibility of Heisenbergian uncertainty (that no one can "determine" how I will act), really mean I have free will?    If our actions are caused by chance, we lack control and if we lack control, then we don't have free will, do we?

Re taming the reptilian monster, my readings in evolutionary psychology suggest that emotions are merely "evolution's executioners," to quote Robert Wright.  That is, emotions are essentially motivational dispositions which impel us to behave in adaptive ways, i.e. in ways which increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction (i.e., of having our genes replicated.)  Lust (more specifically, male desires for a partner with physical characteristics that signal health and fertility and female desires for a partner with physical and psychological characteristics which signal skill at resource acquisition and a willingness for commitment), maternal love, drives to understand the world, all  are in the service of our "selfish genes."  Admitedly reductionistic, but true nonetheless, I think!



Re your first paragraph:

My primary point was that IMO the question of free will is moot, because we have to act as if we have it even if we don't in theory. That is, accepting determinism, how does one make a decision? "I" still have to "make a decision," and since no one can predict or understand all the pre-determinants, even if "my decision" was pre-determined, it doesn't change anything. Even trying to implement determinism doesn't work. For example, you could say, "It doesn't matter what "I" think because "my decision" is already determined. Therefore, I will flip a coin for every "choice" that "I" have to make" still doesn't help, because that is a "choice" itself, and "my mind" can (and probably will) change. I don't think there's a way out of this loop. If that's so, then we have "no choice" but to act as if we do have choice and make decisions. I think the recursive nature of consciousness and rational thought (system 2) is an evolutionary development. We don't need consciousness to have language, make calculations, or do anything else. So it could be argued (and has, by Skinner) that consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon, perhaps something that came along for the ride with some other more essential evolutionary development, and that we simply respond to reinforcement. I suspect that consciousness evolved because it does have evolutionary value, probably by monitoring System 1 and allowing non-instinctual decision-making. However, it also unleashed the uniqueness of human evils, by freeing us of the constraints of purely instinctive behavior. Wolves will typically fight fiercely for dominance, but when one of them surrenders, the dominant wolf will generally not kill the other one. Humans feel humiliation and shame, and go on killing sprees to punish those perceived as causing the humiliation. So whether consciousness will turn out to be advantageous in the long run remains to be seen.

Along those lines and pursuant to your second para, I've also come to believe that we are motivated to maintain homeostasis in our interoception, our awareness of our internal state, and that this drives all behavior. Emotions are combinations of thoughts and physical sensations, and there are other internal states This appears to be localized in the insular cortex, but it's not an area we hear much about in terms of research.


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