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Free will exists or doesn't depending on your scope of definition

A recent thread on Facebook brought up the question of weather or not free will exists. The mention of Sam Harris views on free will (that science has shown it doesn't exist) provided fodder to explain what I've seen as a key difficulty in answering this question that all of the discussants seem to fail to realized. It regards the  MASSIVE misunderstanding between those discussing the subject in academia or as laymen.

I refuse to enter the discussion before creating a solid formal definition of what "free will" is, to some it is the ability to chose your destiny based on your desires in the moment, to others it is a stronger idea of not being tied to the autonomic drives of your physical self that defines the probability cone of what you *may do*.

It is obvious both from the neuroscience and biology proper that it can't be the former, "free will" is about weather or not your substrate bound cone of possibility is in anyway *pre* constrained OUTSIDE of your physical self.

The answer to THAT question is obvious, NO. Because though you are self contained body and brain, your physical unit is embedded in a random soup of possible interactions with OTHER agents (and a more or less random environment bubble as well) where your physical unit has no way of predicting what it will interact with, what resources it will encounter and thus no way of pre- determining what it will chose across any aspect of the emergent cognitive landscape (MIND).

So the answer to why it has been so hard to answer is that there are scopes of observation to define what "free will" is, and the confusion over the different definitions of "free will" that apply scope of observation of "free will" from physical unit TO mind as opposed to from say brain physiological substrate to MIND is where all the confusion comes in. Different people arguing about different conceptions of "free will" but no realizing it.

So wit the definition I described above down, I say there is free will in that scope of observation....but as we bring the cone of observation closer to the mind free will seems to boil down to a finite if large set of "reactions" to a given stimuli that look like there isn't free will but that is only because the randomness of the external physical context is not being accounted for.

In the same way that just 4 base nucleotides can be combined in *infinite* lengths to produce variant proteins and enzymes...so to is this set of possible choice options for cognitive agents infinitely combined to produce unique "choice" interactions...and thus proving that "free will" (secondarily defined as the ability to select from an infinite set of possible choices chains) does exist.

Sam Harris is stuck in the brain, he's not adding in that "physical unit" scope to external environment and so from his perspective all he sees is that subset of "reactions" to stimuli but he misses that those reactions are continuously summable and each unit addition makes a new "choice" possibility, just as each new amino acid added to a protein chain makes it's fold and active site affinity *slightly* different and thus it's bonding activity different.

So, does "free will" exist? If you accept the wider scope view then yes...if you accept the finite subset of "reactions" view, no. It is obvious that we are indeed embedded in a environment of interaction with other individuals that is extremely large if not infinite but constantly changing, in that context then we have practical free will, as no interaction between ourselves and the external environment will ever be the same and our internal reaction to those external stimuli also dynamically varies, so I'll just go ahead and say "YES" with the aforementioned conditions in place.

Comments

Michael Bauer said…
David,

I would like to contest a certain picture you drew of our situation. In your post, you say:

"your physical unit is embedded in a random soup of possible interactions with OTHER agents (and a more or less random environment bubble as well) where your physical unit has no way of predicting what it will interact with, what resources it will encounter and thus no way of pre- determining what it will chose across any aspect of the emergent cognitive landscape (MIND)."

It seems that this is a rather too stark and pessimistic view of our situation. The reson - evolution. Any population able to persist over time in an environment has to exhibit behavior that is adaptive with regard to features of the environment, thus "anticipating" confrontation with that feature.

Through cognition, meta-cognition and especially through concepts gained by linguaform thought we humans are in a uniquely privileged to be able to cognize a vast set of features of our environment, the world we encounter.

Our lower-level biological adaptations and most of all our cognition-behavior allow us to plactically form our behavior to be able to produce fine-grained responses to increasingly abstract and complex features of our environment.

We live in a world where we navigate the most complex social norms and trends, with fashion, music-style, hobbies, cliques, social classes, hierarchies, jobs, economies, educational and political instiutions.

What do you mean when you say that our interactions and environments are more or less random. If you mean that there is nothing which determines (probabilistically or strictly)what interactions we will have, and what environment or Umwelt (since you use the metaphor of a bubble, this seems to be the appropriate term) we will face... then I can't see how that could be true. Each of our Umwelt is a product not just of blind but to a certain degree predictable forces of nature, but also of what Kim Sterelny describes as cumulative cultural Niche-Construction - cumulative downstream engineering of the world we and our descendants inhabit, the experiences that will shape us and prepare us for the world.

And every day we don't die or drop drastically in our probability of successfully promoting our own lineage, we respond adaptively to a vast set of variables in an unimaginable number of dimensions.

We can also actively and consciously seek to improve our ability to understand, predict and respond to factors of the world we experience.

Through our ability to conceptualize, communicate, test and refine models of how aspects of what goes on in the world depend on each other, especially considering what science can do, there seems to be no theoretical upper bound on the number of things about the universe we can "sensitivize" our cognitive and overt behavior to (we did it with genetics, neurophysiology, the higgs-boson, even abstract logical and mathematical truths).


As social animals with highly powerful cognitive faculties, we are best adapted to reading other people's character and minds through their overt behavior. We can make sense of, prepare for and successfully navigate interactions with the world (including other members of our society)

All life depends on being able to "preempt" threats and opportunities in the environment by showing adaptive behavior. Ours in particular does so for an innumerable number of variables in uncounted dimensions.

That's why I think the situation is by far not as bleak as the qouted paragraph suggests.
David Saintloth said…
Michael, you are right in that I failed to provide the proper qualification in that quote. I did not mean to imply (and my writings later in the article) that we had no ability to predict our interactions with our environments...in truth they are for the most part quite patterned and as expert pattern finding machines our brains are excellent at making these type of predictions but what I meant was that from moment to moment as the environment changes (imagine if it did continuously) THEN our ability to predict is put into perfect chaos and our outcomes would be highly NON patterned.

Our cognitive landscape traverses a possibility space that emerges as a combination of the internal configurations of the elements of the brain...the physical construction and cells as modulated by the external stimuli...in so far as they try to model the external...if the external is always novel then the internal systems ability to predict it is *minimized*.

Thanks for noticing and expanding upon my mistake in not fully qualifying my view in that quote.

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