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Do free will and conscious thought exist?

  1. 0 vote(s)
  1. Nov 7, 2007 #1
    "I'm only a high school student, but having recently studied the nervous system I would have to say that there is free will, if free will is defined as the ability for the brain to analyze senses and make create different options, in some cases each with a probability of living, for example if u are on the edge of a cliff, and you look down, ur eyes perceive the depth and height at which you are and this information is transmitted to ur CNS(i'm pretty sure that this isn't an automated response) and you have the choice of going closer, which increases ur probability of falling(which is going to equal death in this hypothetical situation) and backing off which will increase ur chances of survival. So now u make the choice of stepping back, if u did the opposite you are taking a risk factor. Which surprisingly is also a tendency that humans have, since evolutionary speaking living things must take risks to survive sometimes(this tendency is what drives gambling addictions and the rush u get when u win). Now the only reason why you might step forward is because of an advantage you would gain from doing this, such as respect from the community(i.e. your friends being impressed with you). If there is no advantage, then you brain will tell you to back off, and if you do the opposite that usually means ur crazy. I would consider this free will, because u do have the choice. Free will really comes into play in situations where there isn't an advantage, such as taking a left or right at an intersection(and you u don't know where either leads), where u just have to guess, and that is what free-will really is, the ability to take risks and adapt"

    this was another one of my posts pulled from 'How do we define life'. This is just my opinion on free-will, or our perception of free-will.

    I thought it would be appropriate to start a discussion on this. I do have a purpose besides just debate, my teacher has given our AP bio class a project that can be on anything involving the nervous system, I was thinking of doing a topic on this, so if you could please post some sources to help me get some solid sources when I get around to doing the project. Although I'm a little worried this kind of topic would be too advanced...all I really know is the basic sensory/analysis stuff(i.e. action potentials, and I know how most sensory receptors create action potentials, and I know the basic functions of the different parts of the brain, and basic brain anatomy)

    So if anyone has any hints as to where I should look for more info, and it would be cool if I could discuss my ideas with you guys/gals too.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 8, 2007 #2
    It isn't easy to pose questions about consciousness and free will in a scientific way. See David Chalmers' famous paper on the *hard problem* of consciousness for an articulation of most of the reasons why this is difficult.

    I believe John Searle directly addresses issues of free will in one of his newer books. You also might want to look up his well known "Chinese room argument".

    I see you have strong intuitions that consciousness etc. are real. You might want to look at the work of Daniel Dennett for the dissenting view. Particularly his book "Consciousness Explained" (often nicknamed "consciousness explained away").

    For people that directly address the "neural correlates of consciousness" look at the work of Francis Crick and Cristoph Koch. Particularly Crick's book "The Astonishing Hypothesis" and Koch's book "The Quest For Consciousness". I believe if you look up Koch's website there are a series of videos of him discussing these issues posted there.

    For a quick, fun to read introduction to the work of all these people, check out Susan Blackmore's book "Conversations on Consciousness". It is a series of interviews with leading thinkers on this topic including all the people I mentioned here.
  4. Nov 8, 2007 #3
    Free will is a tricky one. There is undoubtedly a powerful intuition about the existence of some kind of link between agency and self-awareness, it is extremely hard to articulate. Most people think that their movements and actions are a direct consequence of what they are consciously telling their body to do, but there is sufficient evidence to think that this is not the case, many experiments show that people often perform movements without actually being consciously aware of it.

    Thinking about it, this should not come as a surprise. If you decide to turn a light switch off, you are not consciously thinking to yourself; i now have to stand up, i have to move my left leg, i have to move my right leg, i have to lift my hand, i have to point my finger, etc. Instead you are only consciously aware of the end goal of your action; the actual process to get there requires no (or very little) conscious thought.

    This means that the vast majority of what we do is predetermined by non conscious input, meaning we are only actually aware of a very, very small amount of our actions. However, it appears that when it comes to major decisions, the brain does give us a free will choice, even if the subtleties of the actions we are performing are predetermined.

    A pathological case that brings out the power of the intuition and complexities of the problems involved in articulating and explaining it is the neurological syndrome labelled 'anarchic hand'. Patients with this syndrome often find one of their hands performing complex, apparently goal driven movements they are unable to suppress (except by using their 'good' hand). Sometimes the anarchic hand interferes with the intentional actions performed by the other hand (it may unbutton a shirt the patient is trying to button up). Sometimes it performs actions apparently unrelated to any of the agents intentions, such as (in one notorious example) a movement resulting in picking up leftovers from somebodies plate in a resturant. On the face of it the patients are not incontrol of, or responsible for, the movements at all. Yet there does seem to be a sence in which the activities of the hand are skillfully controlled; they are not pure reflexes, but clearly devoted to a particular goal. This indicates a certain amount of unconscious control over our actions not determined by our own free will.

    My personal opinion is that we do have free will, but free will is a skill that you have to learn. It is very easy for people to get addicted to repeating certain actions, as every time you repeat an action the neural connection in your brain is enforced, making the experience require less thought, which makes that particular action the most desirable choice over others. This is often what happens to people when they have a mid-life-crisis. They often appear quite satisfied with their life before the breakdown happens, as they have re-enforced their particular views about the world many times in their head making those views the easiest to follow. But, despite this, they get tired of doing the same things as soon as they start to become consciously aware that their life is boring or repetitive, this is what causes them to change their opinions of the world and start new neural connections that did not exist before. People who have had a nervous breakdown at some point in their life often end up far happier people then those who stick to their old ideas. So we all have free will to a certain extent, but it is up to us as individuals to use it to its maximum potential.
  5. Nov 8, 2007 #4
    If you brake down the actions performed by every human being, it all converges to one simple decision everyone makes, no matter how complex. That is, "What's in it for me?"

    That stems from how carefully evolution crafted humans, and essentially all living creatures in order to obtain a resource. You may think you have a free will, but you will always take an option which will benefit you more, whether now, or in the long run. An employee will never ask the Boss to lower the pay raise.

    "If I take option A I will get more chickens to eat, or If I take B I will get a boat from which I can catch large amount of fish."
  6. Nov 11, 2007 #5
    I'm wondering if the definition of free will isn't what you guys think it is, or maybe I'm the one who doesn't know. I just now read the intro to the wiki article, and I think it has promise. Maybe you guys should check it out to get a good foundation for what free will actually is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will

    As for the other part of the title, conscious thought most certainly does exist. You're experiencing it right now (as you read this) so there shouldn't be much question there.
  7. Nov 11, 2007 #6
    This was originally in Biology, i was replying in context of free will in terms of biology.

    In a philosophical context, i just think that the Deterministic view is caused by scientists taking laws of physics too seriously and applying them to human behaviour. The number one problem in physics is that it completely leaves the observer out. You can say "The particle splits in half and annihilates due to quantum mechanics, and I know that because im there and i see it", but you cant analyse the second part of that sentence by applying quantum mechanics to it because it breaks down. Physics keeps the observer outside of the system they are describing, so claiming that our lives are predetermined by these laws, when infact they have to leave the observer out of them to work in the fist place, is taking physics laws too literally.
  8. Nov 14, 2007 #7
    It looked to me that you were defining and talking about awareness of thought. Is that supposed to be the same thing as free will? In other words, can't one be aware of one's thoughts without having free will? I don't see why the concept of free will should change just because we want to discuss biology.

    This just feels wrong. How can you take the laws of physics too literally? Seriously, what does that even mean? If they are right, then they are literally and actually right, and they are applicable wherever they have been shown to be right. Are you saying that the laws of physics don't apply to humans? Is chemistry different in our heads than in test tubes, does electricity flow differently?

    Also, how does QM leave out the observer? Isn't it true that observing a situation affects in in very well known ways, so that QM actually does take into account observers?

    Finally, even if I did concede the notion that physics leaves out observers, why would that matter? Why would that make physics applicable to everything in the universe but our brains? You can't just claim that I'm taking experiementally established theories too seriously because it affects the very thring we're discussing.
  9. Nov 14, 2007 #8
    Ok, i'm seeing how free will and conscious thought are seperate matters. What I was really looking for is how conscious thought happens, biologically. And how this could lead to free-will
  10. Nov 14, 2007 #9
    Consciousness is a process created by an interaction of neurons.
    Freewill is the ability to turn intention into action.
  11. Nov 14, 2007 #10
    That is why we have physics to explain one aspect, and biology the other. They are both valid ways of looking at the brain, and complementary to each other, but both are unique interpretations.

    I was pointing out that from a biological perspective by our very nature humans create neural connections every time we perform conscious thought. Over time as these actions are repeated the connections become enforced, and the person ends up reliving the same neural connections repeatedly, as they are the strongest connections and the easiest connections to adhere to. People who stay stuck in their old ideas, reliving old neural connections over and over, by definition have less free will, as they are not putting any new conscious thought into their actions, they are simply following past neural instructions in their brain. Humans are predisposed to fall into repetitive habits, and the more the habits are done, the less conscious thought is required to perform them. This leads people to not think of new ideas and new concepts, instead they will just follow what they already know, which leads to a decrease in their free will as less conscious thought is being used to actually change their decisions.

    Agents can not exercise control over their actions and decisions unless they are conciously aware of them in the first place to make the change.

    No, they obviously apply in the context that all the particles we are made of obey the laws of physics, as do all the other physical elements of our being, and everything else in the physical universe. Can physics explain consciousness? or the mind? our emotions? the difference between good and bad? no. The problem here is that biology (or any other science) can not explain the nature of these things any more than physics can.

    Thats quite clearly ridiculous

    Quantum theory takes into account the effects that the observers equiptment makes on particles when they are measured. As far as i know there is no part of quantum theory that includes human actions in it. A lot of the "new age" movement have tried desparately hard to connect quantum physics to consciousness, but there has never been any hard science to back this assertion up. QT is a physics theory, and by its nature physics does not take into account human effects on the world, although it describes the world outside of us with tremendous accuracy, when human effects on the world are taken into account there are all sorts of problems that arrise. We dont know as humans how to hook ourselves up with the universe. Our system is brilliant at describing what goes on in the physical world, but when it comes to the effect that our minds and decisions have on the world, physics remains completely nonplussed.

    Of course physics is applicable to our brains, however the human mind and consciousness do not exist in any physical form for physicists to detect and measure. That is the main reason why so far they have been left completely out of science. If you know of any experiments that explain consciousness and the mind in terms of physics, I would very much like to see them.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2007
  12. Nov 15, 2007 #11
    Would I be correct in saying that the physics explains the details of what's going on in our brains at the particle level, and if you take a step back and put it all together you have chemistry to explain what's going on, and if you take another step back and put all the chemistry together you have biology to explain what's going on?

    I added some bold in there. What definition are you talking about? I think we need a clear answer finally since I've been questioning your definition all along: what is your definition for free will? I'd actually be amazed if you could come up with any reasonably accepted definition that stays consistent with your above paragraph.

    Really? Isn't the whole idea of the "we don't have free will" argument that consciousness and the mind are just chemical and electrical reactions happening in our brains, which follow the laws of chemistry and physics? Is this really a bad explaination?

    This was in response to me asking if the chemistry in our brains was different than in test tubes. If it's so ridiculous, then answer the question. If it's not different, then why would you suppose that the simple laws of chemistry affect the test tube while our brains are affected by some mysterious free will?

    You are coming dangerously close to using circular reasoning. If we have free will that operates outside the laws of physics, then QM wouldn't be able to take into account the free will in the human mind since it is only a natural law. If we do not have free will, then the human mind is nothing more than any other observer and therefore QM already takes this all into account perfectly well.

    The only reason you'd need to think that we need to take into account the human mind separately is if you already think we have free will, so this can not be used as a reason that free will exists.

    Don't confuse complexity with unexplainableness (yes, I possibly made that word up). The human brain is too complex for us to fully analyze and understand, but that doesn't mean that we don't think we know the basics of what's going on.

    If I roll a pair of dice in craps, can you use physics to tell me how they're going to land? Well, yes, but the problem is actually very complex, taking into account the velocity and spin with which I throw them, air friction, the surface and walls of the table, bumping into each other, etc. We know that the laws of physics completely determine how the end up, but we simply don't do this problem because it's too hard. Instead, we just pretend that it's random and continue on happily.
  13. Nov 15, 2007 #12
    pretty much, that a nice way of putting it. All levels of reality are true to themselves, but completely different laws applty to them in their own right. At our everyday level newtons laws of motion apply, go down a few scales then electromagnetic forces dominate, at the smallest level atoms and quantum theory dominate. From a biology perspective you have cells, then proteins and peptides, then DNA, then the bodys electric system and finally atoms again. I was trying to look at it from the body electric system level, and not the deterministic physics level of atoms, as that level is not necessarily applicable to other levels above it and so can be treated separately.

    I would say that the last sentence i wrote quite accurately describes free will, which is basically whether people exercise control over their actions and decisions, or whether your actions are predetermined by scientific laws.

    "Agents can not exercise control over their actions and decisions unless they are conciously aware of them in the first place to make the change."

    could you be a bit more specific about what you find wrong with this statement?

    Its a perfectly valid explanation for the brain, as that is what we observe, but when it comes to testing that hypothesis of consciousness, there is nothing there to test. That is the main problem about studying the mind. Thoughts are not made of anything, and so can not be tested. We dont even really know for sure if the brain causes concsiousness, or if it is the consciousness itself that causes the brain. The testable effects would be analogous, as one side of the equation is still completely unknown, no matter how much we study the brain side.

    Something such as consciousness experience, that is not explained by any science, that effects our entire lives in every shape and form, and pervades our very bodies, i would definately describe that as mysterious. Consiousness, mind, and thoughts, are the next frontier for science, but so far they have been extremely hard to interpret in any scientific way.

    I think this is a popular misconception that the 'observer' in quantum mechanics refers to us as biological entities, when it really refers to how the measurements we make effect particles. Our brains obey the laws of quantum physics, but the mind may not as it does not exist in any physical sense in our universe.

    The human mind can be used as a reason that free will exists, as that is a possibility as to how free will would work, as the mind may not be subject to standard laws of physics. We just dont really know yet, no one has 'found' the mind to measure it and test if it obeys the laws of physics.

    you should phone up the oxford dictionary and ask them the add 'unexplainableness' - what a word - takes about ten seconds to work out what it means!

    Quite, we think we know the basics of what is going on, as you said, but we also used to think man would never fly, no one would ever go to space, and the world was flat.

    valid point that physics will beable to predict very, very complex systems in the future. However the laws of physics would not beable to completely determine how the dice will end up if a person came in and kicked one of the dice. That is what physics can not explain, and i dont think will. Physics is for the physical world and the brain, not for the virtual mind and consciosness.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2007
  14. Nov 15, 2007 #13
    I like this statement, really ties in with what is going on in the computer world, with Artificial Intelligence being created for a number of things. Which brings up another question, do you think that robots have 'conscious thought', does their programming compare at all to the neuron pathways in our own bodies?.

    For example Kismet, who can talk and show basic emotions.

    Theres a nice section called: "broader questions"
  15. Nov 16, 2007 #14
    Agents can be consciously aware of their actions and decisions and exercise control over them without having free will. The laws of science can predetermine how one will change and react to their actions and decisions, therefore this isn't enough to say that one has free will.

    This has been my main point --conscious awareness fits on both sides of the table so it can't help the argument for or against free will. If you want to use it in your definition of free will, you'd have to state that it's independent of the laws of science and operating outside of their scope. I haven't seen you say this and nothing you have said seemed to require this, which is why I didn't feel you were presenting the best possible defense for free will.

    Oh well, this is why this discussion ends up in the philosophy section, I guess. We have to work on this experimentation, though. Do you know if anyone's even attempted anything yet related to this?

    I'm not making that misconception. If free will exists, then we both agree that QM doesn't know how to deal with the mind. If it doesn't exist, then we both agree that QM already deals with it just fine (just like any other observer). Are those two sentences true?

    Assuming they are, then saying that QM doesn't take into account the mind will of course lead you down to the conclusion that free will exists since it starts with that premise to begin with.

    No, physics can right now predict very very complex systems. We simply can't work out all the math and stuff. Physics can do it, physicists can not. As long as we have info on the foot or shoe and the force vectors, why can't physics tell us how the dice will land still?

    That last sentence, by the way, presupposes free will. Therefore, it is trivial that it concludes the existence of free will.
  16. Nov 16, 2007 #15

    the nonexistence of freewill does not mean that 'will' does not exist.
  17. Nov 17, 2007 #16
    Prima facia, this statement sounds absurd.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but, aren't we aware now that the current state of the 'mind' or 'consciousness' is actually a result of the current configuration of the 'particles' in the brain? That is, the physical controls the 'abstract' you speak of - thus, lets say in the future if computers are strong enough, we may be able to predict human behavior as well as dice on the table.

    What? You just said might be able to predict the rolling of dice, but not the kicking of dice? I don't understand how you can assert something like this... A foot is just a much as a physical body, as say, the other dice on the table that other dice may collide with.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2007
  18. Nov 17, 2007 #17
    I know, that why I said it. It does well to show that you can claim pretty much anything about something that has no physical existance or detectable properties. It could be true, we just dont know, thats where the mytery of the mind - body relationship comes in.

    I think you fail to understand my example. If someone came in and kicked the dice out of the place it was usually rolled to in the room, and they did this when it was mid way through its roll, the computer would not successfuly predict what the correct end position of the dice is anymore, as the effects the person has on the dice are not included in the laws of physics it is using.

    Maybe i should think of a better one. If a computer is used to calculate the number of molecules passing a point in a stream, it can do that fine. The model could then be used to predict future molecule numbers very accurately. However, if a person comes along and blocks half of the river, it will not accurately predict it anymore, as they have made an unpredictable change to the system. The possibilites of people disrupting the experiment are endless. If there is no conscious input on the system to change anything, then it should work fine. I very much doubt computers are ever going to be powerful enough to handle that many possibilities.

    Particles have nothing to do with the mind, as far as i know. Particles have everything to do with everything physical (ie, your brain, cells, clothes, etc). That seems a typical reductionist perspective of the world. You cannot explain a system completely by only focussing on the product of its smallest components, you sometimes have to consider the bigger picture. You could double the amount of ions in my body right now by charging me up with a van de graph generator, and i would not start to think differently. Particles and physics can not explain human behaviour, they are on a completely different level of truth than us.

    This needs a longer explanation really, i will post it when i have more time.

    If the mind can be explained with particles; at what location do these particles give the information to the mind? and how do they give it this information?
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2007
  19. Nov 17, 2007 #18
    Okay, I understand what you mean by the predicting the kick - you mean that although we can predict the physical course of thoughtless 'things' we can't calculate the 'human effect' that will affect its place. Hell, we can't even predict whether a human WILL intervene in the course.

    I was certain people are aware that our states are just based off the physical condition of our brain. For example, if we damage parts of the brain people's minds are obviously altered, a smart person could be brought to 'retardation.' Also, note the damage to the frontal lobe where emotions could be removed and rational thought disappears. Unless - you mean something different?

    Great conversation by the way, thanks.
  20. Nov 17, 2007 #19
    A persons decision making would be changed, and their reasoning would change, take sociopaths, their brains are only slightly different and it is clear that they feel less emotion, and their reasoning follows a different path than a normal human, but conscience doesn't disappear because of a change in the brain, i think the question really is: at what intelligence level does conscienceness arise
  21. Nov 17, 2007 #20
    This is the entire debate! You can't simply claim that your side is correct if we are to debate it. Those who support free will think your statement is correct, those who don't don't. Without evidence, I don't know how such a claim can just be made an expected to be believed.
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