January 28, 2015

Free will, a confabulation? Or "mu," part 4

I've written two previous, or even three, blogposts on saying "mu" to the old, tired ideas of "free will versus determinism." (That doesn't count a sidebar piece.)

Now, per a new piece at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon, and comments there, including from Massimo, to whom I may not be as close on these issues as I thought a year ago, it's time for No. 4.

And, evolutionary psychology (done right, and not close to Pop Ev Pysch) is going to be even more part of the issue than in previous posts.

I want to pick up further on the issue of “confabulation” and free will.

The evolution of the brain to produce “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” could also, whether as a spandrel, or a deliberate add-on for better running of the pattern and agency “programs,” have also created the idea of free will.

Per the likes of Elizabeth Loftus, on things like memory, our brain is a great big confabulator. Along with that, why wouldn’t we also confabulate our own sense of agency at times? In short, that “agency inputer” of evolutionary psychology fame may be imputing agency to ME, myself, as well as YOU.

Simple, simple concept. But, again, one that traditional defenders of a more robust version of free will might not like.

Wikipedia's piece on the neuroscience of free will addresses this, this issue of post-temporal confabulation, to some degree. Specifically, it's under the section on "retrospective construction," if one wants something more scientific than "confabulation."

It also leads into robust defenders of classical free will seemingly wanting to say that Benjamin Libet's famous experiments have very little to do with issues of free will. And, to keep on saying it, and saying it.

They are true to a degree. But not the degree that they believe, and would have others believe.

In one response, I've said it before and will say it again now. I think at least some of Eddy Nahmias’ claims are overstated. As part of that, I’ll stand by my idea that, at a minimum, Libet has shown (along with others, such as Daniel Kahnemann from psychology with his "fast" and "slow" thinking systems, and others with similar ideas) we need to narrow our ideas about the amount of human mental activity that is fully conscious.

So, for Massimo and others who look at free will to fair degree through the lens of consciousness, he and follow-ups do make a degree of difference. That’s especially true per my idea of self-imputation of agency, above.

This, in turn, is another reason I say “mu” to the issue more and more. Consciousness is of course not the same as free will. But, they are entangled enough that lack of knowledge in consciousness affects lack of knowledge elsewhere.

I think until we know more about the details of how tasks that start becoming habitual are eventually pushed into semantic memory to be run automatically, we should be a bit leery about talking about free will and conscious vs. autonomic, or subconscious or whatever term you prefer for less than fully conscious behavior.

Also, given the amount of follow-up experiments to Libet’s originals, and the interest in them by philosophers, too, I think this claim of commenter David Ottlinger:
It’s the the common opinion of philosophers that Libet is very little obstacle to free will.
Is overstated. I've said that before, too, and noted that I've tussled with Massimo over this issue before, too.

On my essay, I used the phrase “free willer of the gaps.”

As for the fact that Libet and post-Libet experiments only cover a limited range of actions? Well, that’s about current limitations in neuroscience research; it doesn’t mean that what Libet found is guaranteed to only apply to such a limited range of mental actions.

And, again, let’s note that phrase “post-Libet.” Per Wiki, there has been a lot of additional study here. A lot.

Defenders of a robust version of "classical" free will who say the "Libet experiments" don't prove much? Libet's initial experiments are 30 years old. Even with neuroscience still being limited, even only in the Early Bronze Age today, it has still built on that — including with research experiments that have addressed the issue of whether people had enough time to "decide" to undertake an action.

Beyond that, I’ve read Daniel Wegner and others who have built philosophizing ideas about free will on post-Libet experiment findings.

First, as for the issue of consciousness?

To riff on the New Agey mantra, while we use much more than 10 percent of our brain at a time, the amount of our brain that is engaged in conscious deliberational processes may be closer to 10 percent than 90 percent, and surely isn’t 90 percent.

This relates to issues of free will as choice, and choice based on modeling alternative behaviors and their likely playouts.

First, of course, we often don't have time for such detailed modeling.

Second, when we do, if the situation's not totally novel, the modeling is usually at least in part subconscious.

I think much of the “choice” being made is not at a fully conscious level. Modern psychology would indicate this is certainly true in things like habitual behavior, which somewhat shades into my article here (thanks for the link) about psychological determinism.

Per that, and bringing in the evolutionary angle, we know that our brain tries to automate, or at least semi-automate, as many processes as it can, to save energy consumption. And, this process results in some of this modeling being done at a less than fully conscious level.

Libet-type experiments, as I note, yes, have their limitations. That doesn't mean they're foundational limitations; they're quite possibly just structural limitations of the current level of research ability. As for those structural limitations, per the fact that we're 30 years on from the actual Libet experiments, when neuroscience was, if not Paleolithic, then Mesolithic, says something. The Early Bronze Age of today may not sound fantastic, but it's steps forward.

(After all, did we reject Dalton or Mendeleev because their theories about periodicity in chemistry had structural limitations?)

Martin Seligmann would try to rescue free will with the idea of prospection, back-formed off retrospection. Big problems, though, as I see it.

It's heavily invested in teleology, which is no wonder he's getting Templeton money for it. Beyond the religious overtones of Templeton, not to mention the fundraising overtones (and other ethical issues in his past) of Marty Seligmann, I have non-religious issues with teleology.

In ev psych done right, while we may have evolved "pattern detectors" and "agency imputers" hundreds of thousands of years ago, I doubt that we have evolved "teleology focusers" before the last 100,000 years, if we have at all. I think homo sapiens would have had to evolve not only at least a firm level of second-order thought, but even a tentative degree of third-order thought, for such. (A blue jay may be able to think about another blue jay stealing nuts, but not (at least not non-instinctually) about how it should try to prevent that in a goal-oriented way. In turn, this is why, although I have no problems seeing some degree of consciousness in many "higher" mammals and birds, I don't see something like volitional action in most of them.

A rise in third-order thinking among humans would then likely have gone hand in hand with, among other things, a rise in teleological thinking. But teleological foci wouldn’t have happened before that, I don’t think.

Of course, these are all just speculations on my part; fMRIs of animals that can't communicate with us avail nothing, and while old fMRIs showed action in the brain of a dead salmon, real fMRIs, should we find the brain of a dead Homo erectus, will show us nothing.

That said, if neuroscience can't necessarily tell us a lot about what IS involved with issues of volition in general, and what variety of free will, or something like free will, we may have actually evolved, before that, it can tell us more and more what varieties of free will we don't have.

And, to riff on Dan Dennett, it can tell us about what varieties of free will, or something like free will, that we may actually have, whether we consider them "worth having" or not. It will certainly contribute, per a blog post on this issue a month ago, about the varieties of free will worth discussing.


Finally, and once again, none of these critiques of current ideas of free will mean that determinism is “the default option.” Again, let’s please stop thinking inside old two-position polarity boxes. And, let's not forget that determinism, as classically stated, is simplistic in the extreme and has worse issues than classical versions of free will.

This cannot be stressed enough. The limitations in various ways of current theories on free will have nothing to offer to boost the viability of determinism.

Nothing. Period.

Another way of putting this is that determinists are like Jesus denialists. They think that every brick removed from the wall of classical versions of free will not only proves classical free will in its various incarnations wrong, but proves the possibility of anything like free will wrong, and proves determinism right.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth.


Alan said...

Entertaining, but ... Benjamin Libet's famous experiments have absolutely nothing to do with issues of free will – that confusion is a complete category mistake. Once you grasp the experiment, it supports free will, not determinism.
David Ottlinger’s comment ‘It’s the the common opinion of philosophers that Libet is very little obstacle to free will.’ Is understated if anything.

To warm up, ‘research experiments that have addressed the issue of whether people had enough time to "decide" to undertake an action.’ Are testing rate, not technique. A complete category mistake to apply to free will. Muscles do not ‘act’ save for a neural ‘decision’.

You are moving in a positive direction with: ‘First, as for the issue of consciousness? … the amount of our brain that is engaged in conscious … processes may be closer to 10 percent … and surely isn’t 90 percent. … we often don't have time for such detailed modeling. …
Second, when we do, if the situation's not totally novel, the modeling is usually at least in part subconscious. I think much of the “choice” being made is not at a fully conscious level.’
‘… we know that our brain tries to automate, or at least semi-automate, as many processes as it can, to save energy consumption. And, this process results in some of this modeling being done at a less than fully conscious level.’

Now I think Libet, et al did show that much of this decision process was subconscious, as well as very fast. This last challenging your minor point ‘to save energy consumption’ – I will suggest it is done to save time. Let’s clear up another point you touched on: ‘if the situation's not totally novel’. If a free will decision was made a year ago, and has become a habit, that ‘habit’ is not determinism, but a time saving expedient. Similarly, every habit you parents acquired has the option of being taught to you. The effect or impact of free will spans generations which adds to the deception that there is some determinism where it really does not exist.

Gadfly said...

Alan, assuming you're coming from SciSal, I never said Libet "disproved free will." I've always said what I've said here, or similar, that it has seemingly undercut "robust classical ideas of free will" or something similar.

As for David's contention that it actually supports such ideas, I simply agree. (I see him as defending such "robust" ideas.)

And, I've stated here and there we should talk about Libet-class experiments, not Libet, as his original was more than 30 years ago.

I've long been moving in the direction of all three "mu" posts, just further developing ideas every time that we need to keep saying "mu" to "classical" ideas of "free will versus determinism" and related issues.

Alan said...

It sounds from your response that I wrote the wrong tone into my comment. I recognized you were not supporting determinism, I just thought you were using week or the wrong arguments.
Consider, if you will, the following:

Demonstrating free will should be extremely trivial if the test is appropriate and appropriately interpreted. You make issue with the ‘old’ Lipet test and how much things have advanced in 30 years. No advance in the last decades appear to be really relevant yet, and the advances necessary to decide this question have been in place over 30,000 years – since the development of modern human language. The only real advance to how we might understand the significance of the free will question is from Darwin. Evolution sheds little light on IF we have it, just how or why we do (evolutionary theory requires free will – but the educated among us have known for 3,000 years that we have it, so nothing new there). Evolution tells us quite clearly why we have free will: The Ultimate Cause of free will is the competitive posture it provides. All that remains is the detailed Proximate Cause, for which we must wait for neuro science to sort out.
Free will is so basic to our brain operation that it drives virtually every decision we will ever make to include our very ability to walk or talk. Consider the so-called feral children, who through childhood neglect, will never be able to stand upright nor converse. The real distinctions will be in the decisions. At a first cut, do they follow a strict pattern laid out by heredity, or is every/nearly every decision unique and tailored to the circumstances? To list just a few of the disconnects between Lipet and determinism we have: Students pushing buttons, sitting in chairs and at desks. Putting labels as ‘A’ and ‘B’ on buttons and thinking that meant anything. Asking questions of ‘Students’ that involved something other than dealing with food, shelter, mate selection or predators.
The next big clue is in the learning process. With a determined system, you upload a table of conditions and the required response. We cannot do that with brains, but we do present problems and challenges which each individual must then analyze, experiment with and ultimately solve for them self. Starting with waving our arms, feeding ourselves (with parent provided food) and soon walking and talking.
This basic process must have started early in the evolutionary landscape as such was varied and unpredictable – as was each individual born or hatched. Critters with brains navigate their environment. Variations in each individual, both birth by birth, and through life as they grow and mature cannot be predetermined. Similarly, every individual is born into (if only slightly) different landscapes with different resources and different risks. There was never a chance for nature to collect enough information about the conditions any animal would face to construct a ‘deterministic’ brain that would allow for competitive behavior. Think of the challenge to a runner through a mile race. Every neuron controlling each of the muscles in his body: toes, feet legs, trunk, neck, face, arms and hands must adjust constantly through the race as fatigue builds, when a pack of competitors must be navigated, a divot in the track and a lost shoe must be avoided. I haven’t mentioned eyes, ears and the other senses offering feedback. All our neurons are constantly adjusting to solve a new set of problems – and then your wife and kids start throwing around questions …
Determinism never had a chance. Only libertarian free will can handle a day in any life, and far less than 1% of that ever makes it to your conscious awareness.