In this the third part of a look at what science has to say on the concept of free will, we will delve into the relationship between volition and consciousness. And it gets weird. I won’t even rag on William ‘Lame’ Craig this time, though it is always tempting. One thing I should say before continuing is what version of free will I am rejecting: the traditional contra-causal free will which is a consequence of discredited dualistic notions. Tom Clark puts it this way:
If you imagine a situation in which you are behaving and you make a particular choice, many people suppose that given that situation exactly as it transpired you could have chosen something other than what you did. But a science-based naturalism looking at the situation as it arises will see the choice as a function of the exact conditions that were present at the time. So if you play that scenario there is no reason to think that anything else would have happened. Many people think, in supposing that they have contra-causal free will, that had they been in that situation even with the same desires, the same exact circumstances inside and outside themselves, they could have chosen or done something other than what they did. And this is what [naturalists] are denying. This is what I think a thorough science-based naturalism challenges is this idea of a causally-autonomous, metaphysically-autonomous self that somehow gets to cause things but is itself not fully caused1.
There are some types of free will that are compatible with determinism and we will get to those later. True contra-causal free will just has too many issues associated with it to be a viable concept. One I have alluded to before, that we would be paralyzed into inaction if a large part of our everyday actions weren’t calculated at a subconscious level. There are just too many choices at every moment. ‘Walking across the street’ is a high-level intention, but each individual step requires a decision to place the foot calculated from terrain, balance, etc. If you have to think about it, you will simply fall over. Second is that contra-causal free will means that people would be far less predictable than they are, which is not a good thing.
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In the first installment, wherein I bashed William Lane Craig (as I do at every opportunity – he’s a terrible philosopher and I’m not sure he is even a good person, what with thinking genocide is okay if it is ordered by god) and presented evidence which suggests that the classical version of free will, which relies heavily on the discredited concept of mind-brain duality, should be discarded. Instead, the only model which makes sense of these data is the computational model of the mind. (For those interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of this way of looking at consciousness, I highly recommend Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works.) Perhaps I should clarify my position on philosophy a bit, since I ragged on it in my last post. I don’t think philosophy useless. But a philosophical argument in a vacuum is not evidence (listening, Craig?). The argument must have a context within it is couched. Indeed, philosophy in the absence of at least some form of verification simply underscores its impotence. Craig is an extreme form of this, making the claim that “verificationalism” (is that even a word?) has been discarded.
If by “verificationalism” he means we demand that claims be verified, then, my response is this: “Says who, Brylcreem-boy?” Without verification, one can believe anything, like some dude turning water into wine or such. Has he never heard the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”? According to Craig, historical claims can’t be verified. Well, a little evidence would be nice, wouldn’t it? Craig’s view of science is that we use only our senses to find explanations for phenomena. Horse manure! We accept historical evidence all the time! But the quality of historical evidence matters to a skeptic. Francis Collins defends this same position in Religulous, where he makes the claim that nonbelievers set up an impossible standard of evidence for Christianity to meet. I don’t think so at all. I think my standard of evidence is quite reasonable. That the evidence for Christianity fails to meet this standard is not my problem. Craig and Collins seem to think that we should lower our standards that have worked well enough for everything else, but that is just so much special pleading. Do that and you will accept anything at all, like homeopathy or iridology. I don’t play that, and both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves for trying to make excuses for belief in the face of a paucity of evidence. If they want to believe, believe! But don’t try to snow me….
Schematic of a model for volition (reference 1).
Well, now that I got out of my system, let’s get back to free will and the idea of using the computational model of the mind to make decisions. When viewed in this manner, it is possible to construct a testable model of volition. Volition is modeled “as a set of decision processes that each specify details of an action.”1 The final decision of whether to perform an action (called the ‘whether decision’) is a combination of early and motivational components, with a final predictive check. Each process specifies particular kinds of information that determines our actions, and thus volition can be looked at as a form of decision making. We shall look at what each of these processes supplies in turn.
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Ever had the question, “If you don’t believe in God, how do you explain ‘free will’?” The question itself presupposes that the asker actually knows what ‘free will’ is. Indeed, just as we have a strong perception of the dual nature of humanity, we have this strong perception that we have ‘free will’. Long considered the domain of theology (and later philosophy), science has been reluctant to answer questions regarding ‘free will’. I’m not one to take philosophy in the absence of evidence in support seriously at all. My mantra has always been “Show me the evidence, or go home!” I don’t give philosophy alone the time of day. Some, like William Lane Craig, consider philosophical arguments as the gold standard and that it is up to others to prove his philosophy wrong. Phah! That’s just a burden of proof shift. It’s up to him to provide evidentiary support for his arguments. Craig is a good debater, but as a philosopher he’s a failure. How much of a failure? When I mentioned his name to a colleague at a CFI meeting, a member of the faculty of philosophy at the local U, her response was delicious: “Who?” (I had to put a dig in there on Craig. Anyone who can justify genocide is going to get hounded for life from me.)
But perceptions can be deceiving, and the perception of ‘free will’ is no exception. We have this belief that we control our actions which are initiated by conscious decision making processes. But, at the risk of lapsing into philosophy, consider what would happen without a huge amount of background processing by the brain. We would all be paralyzed into inaction by the sheer number of choices we would make in actions we don’t even consciously think about. The act of walking in bipedal fashion is a marvel of real-time sensory feedback processing only now being duplicated in robotics (and not all that well, either). Why on Earth would we be so arrogant as to believe that decision making isn’t just as automated?
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