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The Los Angeles/Long Beach Philosophy Meetup Group Message Board › Free will vs determinism (inspired by Spinoza)

Free will vs determinism (inspired by Spinoza)

Gary F.
user 8013679
Los Angeles, CA
Post #: 23
We certainly had a lively discussion on the subject of free will vs. determinism, inspired by Spinoza’s take on the subject. It was similar to a discussion at the April OC philosophy meetup group on Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s book, “The Grand Design”. I’m interested in the interface between science and philosophy (and religion) on this question, and how people decide on one side or the other. It seems that very few people say, “I don’t know”, or state that the question is up in the air. Are we programmed to make a definite decision?

Many neuroscientists believe that we are very complex machines, that our thoughts, emotions, decisions, etc. are dependent on brain activity that is determined by the laws of nature. They can perform experiments in which the brain is manipulated into moving a hand or a finger:


In this case, the subject feels that the limb is moving involuntarily. In another case, the subject feels that they want to move the limb. From “The Grand Design”: “…a study of patients undergoing awake brain surgery found that by electrically stimulating the appropriate regions of the brain, one could create in the patient the desire to move the hand, arm, or foot, or to move the lips and talk.” So with this experiment, if the patient did move the limb or start talking, it would be felt as voluntary. They were doing what they wanted to do! And yet the desire itself could be stimulated by an external mechanical stimulation. Other experiments show that the brain can make a decision up to 6 seconds before the subject is aware of the decision:­

It certainly seems that there’s a great deal going on in our brains that we are unaware of. A book I’ve seen recommended highly on this subject is “The Illusion of Conscious Free Will” by Daniel Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard. The book has won several awards and recognitions in the categories of psychology and philosophy and selected as an outstanding academic work for 2002. I’d love to read it with the group, it would be nice to read something contemporary.

However, I notice that the idea of determinism is not greeted with great enthusiasm by many members of the group. Maybe a book like that would be intolerable on that ground alone. The antipathy is certainly understandable, most people don’t like to think of themselves as very complex machines. Gil even talks about how the broad acceptance of the idea of determinism would be devastating to society, how we could no longer hold anyone responsible for anything. I don’t tend to see it as all that drastic, and I know that neuroscientists probably won’t be able to prove their case definitely in my lifetime. And we probably will never be able to predict human behavior. Again from “The Grand Design”: “While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations.” At any rate, I have no doubt, given the programming of billions of years of evolution, that we will be able to handle the change in intellectual orientation. After all, we got through the devastating and humbling discovery that the universe did not revolve around us, rather we discovered ourselves to be on a planet that revolves around a star just like others. Another example is the devastating and humbling discovery that instead of being specially created “superior” to all the animals, our ancestors were animals. Both these discoveries had the twin effects of taking us down a notch and increasing our recognition that we are a part of nature and not somehow elevated above it. So I have confidence that we will be able to handle this information. Also, there is always the option of simply not accepting the science; there are a few geocentrists and plenty of creationists even today!

At any rate, it would be interesting to hear responses to this. What sort of model rescues free will and will also be able to withstand the current and anticipated scientific discoveries? Compatibilism? Or must one invoke the supernatural, insist that mind is on a spiritual plane that only humans can access? Then what is the connection between the brain and the supernatural? Do animals have free will? Does quantum mechanics save the day? How would an element of randomness produce free will? Since the biochemistry of our bodies is understood in terms of the molecules they are composed of, rather than the subatomic particles, do quantum mechanics even apply?

I’d be interested in exploring ideas on this subject…

Ken D.
user 13900025
Long Beach, CA
Post #: 1

Personally I'm skeptical quatum mechanics (QM) explains free will. As far as I know, quantum mechanical effects appear at the macro-molecular level (the hierarchical level that seems most relevant for the processes that occur in our brains) only at very low temperatues and when special effort is made to preserve quantum phase coherence. I don't claim to be an expert and I realize there are so-called experts who believe QM is the key. But I've never seen any experimental evidence, just speculation (as Spinoza might say, "imagination"). I lean towards an electro-chemical explanation (using only classical physics) of the operation of our brains. The huge number of interconnected neurons creates a very complex system that we are only beginning to analyze.

So, if classical physics can explain the operations of our brains, how does our apparent free-will emerge? Maybe thermal fluctuations (such as Brownian motion) leads to randomness in synapses and the choice of A rather than B. We then learn from our experience (strengthening some neural interconnections) and continue to select A in the future in similar situations (or B instead, if our experience was negative in some sense). I 'm not sure this model really explains our internal sense of having freedom of choice since the initial random choice isn't what we usually mean by free-will.

Ken Daly
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