Free Will

I’m tempted to write up a Doggerel entry on it sometime, but for now, I thought I’d have a post for discussion on the topic. The big problem I have with the phrase is that a lot of people are way too attached to outdated, incoherent, unfalsifiable, or self-contradictory definitions of it. I haven’t talked about it in any “academic” context, so I don’t want to get caught confusing one type for another. Those of you better read on the history of the concept have my permission to write long comments about the hair-splitting differences.

My general idea of free will would be something along the lines of “able to consciously evaluate possible actions and determine which is most optimal.” In a way, it’s like a computer’s ‘decision’ that results from a deeply nested set of If/Then statements. Humans are “free willed” because we’re capable of a large set of possible decisions and we’re capable, in part, of thinking about how we make those decisions. At the other end, insects generally react to stimuli with little or no thought about the context of their actions. Of course, like consciousness, this would be on a spectrum instead of a strict binary thing, and circumstantially variable within a particular organism: If I see something threatening suddenly rush towards me, I don’t consciously evaluate possible defense strategies so much as blindly react.

One thing I don’t get is the deal with substance dualists, anti-determinists, and “fuzzy” free will ideas. If souls exist, how do they make decisions, and how is it inherently “freer” than a brain making decisions? How does bringing in the stochastic nature of quantum mechanics make decisions “freer” than a deterministic universe? All it does for me is tack on new variables, middle men, and such for no real gain.

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Substance Dualism and the Substance Problem

One of the big problems I have with substance dualism is “how does the soul work?” With monist theories of mind, there are still plenty of unknowns, but there’s a large tapestry of interacting causes and effects we can trace. When someone gets brain damage in region X, it tends to cause problem Y. When there’s an amount of drug X in the system, the production of neurotransmitter Y is inhibited, reducing brain function Z. It’s a complex system, but from what I can tell, it has pretty good predictive value.

Not so much with the soul. It just does complex consciousness stuff without any explanation. You can call that a “mystery” but it says “brick wall!” to me. It doesn’t help that some people misunderstand and abuse Occam’s Razor to claim that souls should be favored as an explanation because they’re allegedly simple. If that were how Occam’s Razor worked, anything could be said to work through “simple” magic, and we’d get nowhere. It’s also heavily against what I’ve seen of the universe: Simple objects have simple interactions. It’s only when you have complex systems that complex behavior results. If you want to assert something so counter-intuitive, you’ll need something other than special pleading to convince me.

One common argument is an analogy: Brain damage, drugs, and such reduce conscious behavior because the brain is like a radio or television, and the soul is like a transmitter, so damage to the radio messes with the reception. I realize this is just an anecdotal account, but that certainly defies my experiences as a conscious person. When medication makes me sleepy, I’m not a fully awake, conscious person in the ether, trying to control a less responsive body, I get sleepy. I’m a teetotaler, so I’ve got to ask: When you get really drunk, are yelling at your body for making stupid decisions?

One persistent annoyance I have is that the non-physical substance posited by dualism is described in terms of what it’s not. Attempts at analogies comparing physical objects to other physical objects, like matter and energy, only serves to spread confusion while allegedly sounding profound. What’s the deal? Opposite that, I’ve seen a lot of assertions that “material” things like brains can’t have consciousness, with no explanation given. Why not? What identifiable properties or circumstances are preventing it?

Substance Dualism and the Language Problem

I’m gushing over Qualia Soup, again, and my last post got me motivated to thinking about a point in his two part video on Substance Dualism: There’s often a shift in perspective we don’t think about when we talk about experiences. The example he gives is someone saying “I decided to move my arm, and then my arm moved.” If you’re not already familiar with the idea I’m talking about, you might not notice the change from first person to third person. That’s what I’m going to be focusing on for the moment.

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Reductionism & Abstraction

Yakaru recently posted the first of a series on Rupert Sheldrake and 10 alleged dogmas of science. I ended up being reminded of some topics, in particular being called “reductionist” by many woos who don’t seem to understand the scientific and skeptical mindset. One troll of yore on my old blog was a woo posing as his straw man view of a skeptic, trying to claim that statements of my emotional state were meaningless because emotion doesn’t exist, only particles do.

I find it disturbing because it’s like they can’t grasp abstraction or choose to be willfully ignorant about the concept to “win” the argument. I’ve heard the phrase “beasts abstract not” used to assert that the big difference between humans and other animals was our ability to think abstractly. Since Carl Sagan was quoting it, he didn’t believe it was an absolute barrier: More likely we just abstract more often and more deeply than other animals. It baffles me that a human can live in a society without understanding something that profoundly affects our way of thinking and interacting, or that a woo can seriously assert that someone carrying on a conversation in a symbolic language about the nature of certain abstractions rejects the existence of abstractions because he chose to explain certain higher level abstractions in terms of lower level ones.

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X-COM: Enemy Unknown… The New New One

I got my PS3 copy on Monday, and so far I’m pretty satisfied.

For the younger readers, the original X-COM was one of the best nostalgic PC games on the market. I never played as a kid, but I got to see its awesomeness through watching various Let’s Plays on YouTube. Even with its flaws, I think it aged well (and it’s available on Steam). The premise: Aliens have started attacking Earth, and you’re in charge of the international organization, X-COM, tasked with countering the alien threat. You get to build your base, manufacture weapons, reverse engineer alien technology, monitor the globe for UFOs and shoot them down.

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Settling for Second Worst

That phrase popped into my head just now to describe an argument that’s popular with religious fundamentalists, misogynists, and other assorted trolls.

One example that’s been in my blogosphere is Amanda Todd, and how a guy calling himself The Amazing Atheist demonstrates that you don’t have to be religious to be an asshole. Amanda was driven to suicide by an online stalker, but apparently we shouldn’t feel sorrow because she had it better than women in radical Islamic countries.

A similar attitude from the opposite direction is an argument from Gary Bauer that feminists should pipe down because they’re better off than Malala, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating women’s education. In another example, a number of bloggers were criticizing an unconstitutional heavily Christian school district, and a troll came in to ask if we’d prefer the school to be heavily Islamic, as if there were only two choices.

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Doggerel #9: “Open-Minded”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Qualia Soup said it better than I can, but I’ll still give it my best shot.

As a skeptic, I’m often told to be more “open-minded” because I question various claims, particularly supernatural claims. The problem with many such critics is that they’re often quite unaware of the fact that I did seriously contemplate the issue with an open mind. I weighed in the evidence available to me, explored several alternative explanations, and settled on the most probable-seeming hypothesis. This review process can be revisited if new evidence comes to my attention or a genuine fallacy in my logic is identified. That’s what I think of as open-minded, and it’s how you’re supposed to think about the issue.

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