March 28, 2011

Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will

free will,philosophy — alice @ 9:16 am

S. Nichols
Article in Science

Many philosophical problems are rooted in everyday thought, and experimental philosophy uses social scientific techniques to study the psychological underpinnings of such problems. In the case of free will, research suggests that people in a diverse range of cultures reject determinism, but people give conflicting responses on whether determinism would undermine moral responsibility. When presented with abstract questions, people tend to maintain that determinism would undermine responsibility, but when presented with concrete cases of wrongdoing, people tend to say that determinism is consistent with moral responsibility. It remains unclear why people reject determinism and what drives people’s conflicted attitudes about responsibility. Experimental philosophy aims to address these issues and thereby illuminate the philosophical problem of free will.

Click here for an article on this study in the New York Times.

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March 17, 2011

BBC4′s “In Our Time”: Discussion on Free Will

In a BBC broadcastMelvyn Bragg and his guests Simon Blackburn, Helen Beebee, and Galen Strawson discuss the philosophical idea of free will.

From the broadcast description:

“Free will – the extent to which we are free to choose our own actions – is one of the most absorbing philosophical problems, debated by almost every great thinker of the last two thousand years. In a universe apparently governed by physical laws, is it possible for individuals to be responsible for their own actions? Or are our lives simply proceeding along preordained paths? Determinism – the doctrine that every event is the inevitable consequence of what goes before – seems to suggest so.

Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza regarded it as a delusion. Albert Einstein wrote: “Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.” But in the Enlightenment, philosophers including David Hume found ways in which free will and determinism could be reconciled. Recent scientific developments mean that this debate remains as lively today as it was in the ancient world.”

Click here to listen to the broadcast.

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December 7, 2010

The Same Old Consciousness

From:  It makes sense to paraphrase Einstein’s famous dictum in regard to consciousness. Our problem is the unsustainability of the world we have created, and we should be clear that we can’t solve this problem with the same kind of consciousness that gave rise to it.

But many people try to do just that, even the leaders of the world’s twenty richest and most powerful nations. The November 2010 meeting of the G20 in Seoul gave indisputable proof of it. Not only did the meeting fail to achieve its main objectives (among them rebalancing international trade and reaching an accommodation between the U.S. and South Korea), the objectives themselves proved to be out-of-date. They centered on re-stabilizing the same moribund economic and financial system that made the world unsustainable in the first place.

But why is the G20’s failure due to wrong consciousness? Because consciousness in the social, political, and cultural context is sum total of our view of the world, with its values, aspirations, and background assumptions. It’s the “paradigm” that underlies the way we think and the way we set our priorities. The consciousness of the G20 gives rise to an obsolete view of the world, with faulty values and outdated aspirations. The leaders view the world as the arena for a Darwinian struggle for survival, seen as a competition for growth in the economies of nations. Since assured growth cannot be achieved even by the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world by itself, the leaders recognize the need for some level and form of cooperation—as a means to an end. The end is for the rich nations to make sure that they remain rich.

Click here for the complete article.

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November 24, 2008

The Decider

Informing the debate over the reality of ‘free will’ requires learning something about the lateral habenula.

From ScienceNews: At the end of The Matrix trilogy, Neo and Agent Smith are engaged in one final, interminable scene of surreal combat, a surrogate competition for an eternal battle between humans and machines. “It’s pointless to keep fighting,” Agent Smith declares to Neo. “Why do you persist?”

“Because I choose to,” Neo replies, just before the computer-generated Smith meets his demise in a cinematic celebration of human free will’s superiority to the programming that enslaves machines. Machines are mindless. The brain is a decider.

All very inspiring, except that the brain itself is a machine, a network of cells that computes its choices based on the sum of sensory inputs and their interactions with neural anatomy. “Free will” is not the defining feature of humanness, modern neuroscience implies, but is rather an illusion that endures only because biochemical complexity conceals the mechanisms of decision making.

Yet belief in free will persists as stubbornly as Neo’s resistance to electronic tyranny. Whether supposedly free choice is actually a Matrix-like mirage remains one of the great questions of human philosophical history. For centuries that question was assessed mostly with thought -uninformed by actual neurobiological knowledge. Nowadays, though, the inner workings of the brain are revealing themselves to modern methods of neuroinquiry, and free will seems merely to emerge from electrochemical networks of neuronal interactions. But like tourists exploring a strange city without a GPS map, scientists don’t know how all the neural neighborhoods are connected and occasionally encounter surprising enclaves-such as a place in the brain called the lateral habenula.

“There’s lots of new research showing that an overactive habenula has behavioral effects,” says neuropharmacologist Martine Mirrione of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.

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January 12, 2008

Neuronal correlates of “free will” are associated with regional specialization in the human intrinsic/default network

Ilan Goldberg, Shimon Ullman and Rafael Malach
In press article in Consciousness & Cognition

Recently, we proposed a fundamental subdivision of the human cortex into two complementary networks-an ‘‘extrinsic” one which deals with the external environment, and an ‘‘intrinsic” one which largely overlaps with the ‘‘default mode” system, and deals with internally oriented and endogenous mental processes. Here we tested this hypothesis by contrasting decision making under external and internally-derived conditions. Subjects were presented with an external cue, and were required to either follow an external instruction (‘‘determined” condition) or to ignore it and follow a voluntary decision process (‘‘free-will” condition). Our results show that a well defined component of the intrinsic system-the right inferior parietal cortex-was preferentially activated during the ‘‘free-will” condition. Importantly, this activity was significantly higher than the base-line resting state. The results support a self-related role for the intrinsic system and provide clear evidence for both hemispheric and regional specialization in the human intrinsic system.

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January 4, 2008

Decision making, impulsivity and time perception

Time is an important dimension when individuals make decisions. Specifically, the time until a beneficial outcome can be received is viewed as a cost and is weighed against the benefits of the outcome.

We propose that impulsive individuals experience time differently, that is with a higher cost. Impulsive subjects, therefore, overestimate the duration of time intervals and, as a consequence, discount the value of delayed rewards more strongly than do self-controlled individuals.

The literature on time perception and impulsivity, however, is not clear cut and needs a better theoretical foundation. Here, we develop the theoretical background on concepts of time perception, which could lead to an empirically based notion of the association between an altered sense of time and impulsivity.

Article by Marc Wittmann and Martin P. Paulus in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 12, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 13-16

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June 12, 2007

Latest articles on executive functions and will

The scientific study of choice, aka decision making, willed action or executive functions, has provided plenty of new articles just during the past few weeks. Here we provide some of them.

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April 6, 2007

Film – Victim of the Brain

Victim of the Brain is a 1988 docudrama by Dutch director Piet Hoenderdos about “the ideas of Douglas Hofstadter”. It features interviews with Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. It has never been online before, but is now available on Google Video.

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December 29, 2002

IDA on Will: It’s no Illusion

franklinidaimage.gifThe issue of free will is perhaps the most oft debated single issue in the history of philosophy (For annotated bibliographies see Whether philosophers or scientists, most modern materialists, believe the universe, at scales beyond the quantum, is deterministic. This leads them to class free will with magic. It’s only an illusion.

But it seems abundantly clear from introspection, even to us materialistic scientists, that we do exercise will, even if it’s not free, that is, not magical. We make choices, even if they are deterministic, at least in principle. Sloman has made this distinction between will and free will quite convincingly (1992/3, see also Franklin 1995 pp. 35-40).

However, scientists have also learned not to be too trusting of introspection. There are too many examples of beliefs that are introspectively “abundantly clear” and, at the same time, just plain wrong. In the case of will, this is precisely the contention of D. M. Wegner’s “The Illusion of Conscious Will” (2002). The context of this essay is Thomas W. Clark’s review of Wegner’s book, which recently appeared on SCR.

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