Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience. Continue reading

The Science and Philosophy of Free Will

Among scientific, theological, and philosophical circles, the issue of free will – what is it, does it exist, is there any reason to believe it does or doesn’t, etc – has become an increasingly hot topic. And why wouldn’t it be? Whether or not we have any real capacity to make free choice in our lives without external constraints matters a lot. It probably always will, given human nature and our various goals, desires, beliefs, and other higher-thinking that leads us to want to act and exert control in the world (albeit it often terrible ways).

The Center for Inquiry, a think tank primarily concerned with skepticism and secular humanism, held a conference last month between philosophers and scientists on this very topic. It’s an hour-and- a-half long, but its a very engaging discussion almost the whole way through (though its easy to get a bit overwhelmed by all the implications of the arguments put forth). This really gets at the heart of how complex and variable the idea of free will can be. Even the semantics of it is often an issue of contentious (how do you define free will? what constitutes it?).

Just for your information, here is the info and introduction:

Are advances in the scientific understanding of the human mind shaping our conception of free will? If so, how? Are the cognitive sciences revealing that free will does not exist, or are they merely shedding light on the inner workings of agency? And do the answers to these questions have implications for moral responsibility?

On Nov. 6, 2011, the Center for Inquiry-New York City explored these and related questions by presenting a panel discussion featuring:

* Hakwan Lau, Columbia University.
* Alfred Mele, Florida State University.
* Jesse Prinz, City University of New York.
* Adina Roskies, Dartmouth College.
* Massimo Pigliucci, City University of New York.

This event was held at the Auditorium on Broadway. It was the second in our “Science and Philosophy” series. The first event focused on consciousness.

For more:

There is so much I’d love to say on this topic, although I’m sadly too pressed for time to give it the attention and detail it merits. I will say that I lean more towards determinism, although I’m ultimately agnostic about such a vast and metaphysical issue. I also find it difficult to imagine we’ll ever be able to settle for any one answer, especially given the abstract nature of the whole discussion (as far as the average person is concerned).

In any case, Jerry Coyne, over at his blog Why Evolution is True, posted about the same video, complete with some engaging questions of his own to consider. Since he largely did my job for me, I’ll just share his reflections.

1.  What do we mean by free will?  So many people who discuss free will don’t begin by defining what they mean by it. That’s a problem, for instance, with Roskies’s paper.  Although she notes that the term could mean many things, she repeatedly argues that the findings of neuroscience do not “undermine the existence or efficacy of the will” nor contradict “traditional views” of free will, without saying what she means by “free will.” My own definition is that if one reran the tape of life up to the moment of “choice,” with every physical atom and electron in the same position at that moment, there is free will if one could have chosen otherwise.  (I exclude different “choices” based on things like quantum indeterminacy.)

2.  Is there a mind/brain duality?  To me, and to many people, the “classical” notion of free will involves us being able, at a given point of time, to choose freely between alternatives, and that “choice” could not rest on any random indeterminicies of physics (e.g. quantum behavior of electrons).  Pigliucci asserts, correctly, that “nobody any longer seriously defends a notion of free will that relies on dualism or, a fortiori, even more metaphysically suspect concepts like souls.”

That’s all well and good, but I don’t think that message has trickled down to the layperson, especially to those of the faithful who think we have a soul.  A soul, of course, must be a nonmaterial entity, since it survives our physical bodies, and so could be the vehicle for free will.  More of us expound the message out that neuroscience gives no evidence for a soul. Sam, whom Pigliucci scorns, has been especially good at promulgating the “no-soul” data.

But if there’s no mind/brain duality, then our will must reside solely in the physical substance of our brain, and that raises the next issue:

3.  Are our decisions completely determined by the laws of physics? I don’t see how the answer to this can be anything but “yes,” barring those decisions that could be affected by true indeterminacies, like those involved in quantum mechanics. (I think the data now show that there really are true indeterminacies in physics—things with no deterministic “cause”. One of these, for example, appears to be when a specific radioactive atom decays.)

But some physicists, Sean Carroll among them, don’t think that this kind of indeterminacy affects our behavior, and thus can’t affect even the appearance of choice.  And even if it could—even if, say, the movement of a specific electron really could affect a decision—that isn’t what we think of as part of a “free choice.” (Further, even if there are true quantum indeterminacies, the fact that arrays of particles adhere to well-defined probability distributions may rule out any effect of indeterminacy on our behavior.) Massimo recognizes this.  But he’s not convinced that determinism holds even on the macro level, and in his latest post declares himself “agnostic” on determinism.

Massimo’s “A handy dandy guide for the skeptic of determinism” lists several reasons why he isn’t convinced that the laws of physics on the macro scale are deterministic. I strongly disagree with his take on this, but since I’ve discussed the issue with Sean Carroll, who knows a lot more about this than do I, and because Sean promises to post on physical determinism very soon, I’ll leave the physics stuff to him.  But I can’t resist noting that Massimo uses the newest post to take yet another swipe at me and Sam Harris, as well as at Alex Rosenberg.  Pigliuccci simply can’t help flaunting his credentials by impugning ours; as he says:

I got so sick of the smug attitudes that Rosenberg, Coyne, Harris and others derive from their acceptance of determinism — obviously without having looked much into the issue — that I delved into the topic a bit more in depth myself. As a result, I’ve become agnostic about determinism, and I highly recommend the same position to anyone seriously interested in these topics (as opposed to anyone using his bad understanding of physics and philosophy to score rhetorical points).

Oh, Massimo, I much regret that the laws of physics have made you such a pompous fellow.

As for Pigliucci’s physics and philosophy on this issue, I disagree that “if you believe in laws of nature you do need to come up with an account of their ontology.” Nope, all we have to show is that those rules hold ubiquitously, universally, and enable us to make predictions that work. (His argument here resembles that of theologians who impugn science because we can’t explain the usefulness of science without God.)  We don’t need to come up with any stinking ontology to accept strict physical determinism at the macro scale.

And I don’t understand this argument of Pigliucci at all:

And one final point: particularly when it comes to discussions of free will, we keep hearing that the latter is impossible because in a deterministic universe the past determines the future. But as Hoefer points out (and he has expanded on this in a 2002 paper: Hoefer, C., “Freedom From the Inside Out,” in Time, Reality and Experience, C. Callender (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 201–222), the “laws” of physics treat time as symmetrical, which means that the present and the future “fix” the past just in the same way in which the past “fixes” the present and the future. No particular area of the time axis has priority over the others. Chew on that for a while.

Maybe I am unsophisticted, but I don’t see how time symmetry has any bearing on whether the future is determined by the past and present.

4.  Is our future behavior completely predictable from the present and past?  This question differs from that above because even a completely deterministic system may not be predictable.  We can never have perfect knowledge of all conditions, and, as advocates of chaos theory (a deterministic theory) know, even tiny differences in initial conditions—differences that may be too small for us to measure—can produce radically different outcomes.  Therefore, even if determinism reigns (and, if it does, there’s no free will under my definition), that doesn’t mean that we can predict our future behavios from what we know now.  But it does mean that there is only one set of behaviors that we can evince in the future: that is, we can never do other than what we do.

5.  Does free will require that we be conscious of having made a decision? In light of the results of studies by Libet and Soon et al. that decisions appear to be made long before we’re conscious of having made them, we need to discuss the relationship of consciousness to free will. This is one area that seems ripe for a confab between philosophers and neuroscientists. I would claim that in many cases yes, we must be conscious.  When you choose a flavor of ice cream at the ice cream counter, if that decision can be predicted an hour in advance, when you first decide to go to  the shop, I would argue that that choice is not “free,” at least in the conventional sense.  Certainly the predictability of decisions made under experimental conditions undermines our traditional notions of free will (Roskies argues otherwise), and philosophers have to take that into account.  Pigliucci and several panel members appear to wave this problem away, saying that free will can involve unconscious“choice”, but I don’t think the problem is so easily dismissed.

6.  If our choices are determined, or at best are subject to the deterministic and indeterministic principles of physics, how can our will be “free”?  This is the big problem that compatibilist philosophers are dealing with, and I won’t reprise their many arguments here.  Pigliucci offers one solution (he appears to be a compatibilist, that is, someone who thinks that free will is compatible with physical determinism):

Many philosophers have located freedom of the will in the ability to choose freely [note: this doesn’t mean “a-causally”] which intentions to form.

That’s a solution I don’t understand, for I don’t know what he means by “choose freely” if the choice is completely caused by physical conditions. What does “free” mean then?  By “choose freely,” Pigliucci mean “the appearance of having chosen freely”?

I have read a lot of compatibilist philosophy, and none of it has convinced me. It all sounds too much like rationalization of what people want to believe a priori.  I am a big fan of Dan Dennett, for instance, but I’m not on board with the solution he offers in Freedom Evolves.  One can, of course, redefine free will so that we have it despite complete physical determinism, but that seems to me a cop-out.  Better to get rid of the term than redefine it in a way that doesn’t comport with how regular people conceive of it, or how it’s been used historically.  That would be like redefining “God” as “the laws of physics”—it completely finesses long-standing discussions of the problem.

7.  If our choices are completely determined by our genes and environments, according to the laws of physics, are we morally responsible for our actions? Again, this is too big an area to cover, and depends on what one means by “moral responsibility”.  My own view is that holding people “responsible” for their acts, whether good or ill, is something that we need to do to preserve an orderly society. (I’m not sure we should consider this a form of “moral” responsibility.) But we should certainly inform our system of justice, punishment, and reward in light of what neuroscience tells us.  We already do this, to some extent—mentally ill criminals are treated differently from “normal” criminals—but we need to do more.

It’s my contention that, in light of the physical determinism of behavior, there’s no substantive difference between someone who kills because they have a brain tumor that makes them aggressive (e.g., Charles Whitman), and someone who kills because a rival is invading their drug business.  We need to reconceive our judicial system in light of what science tells us about how the mind works. And that’s why discussing the bearing of neuroscience and philosophy on free will is far more important than our usual academic discourse.

As Coyne alluded to towards the end, the implications of a deterministic world would be vast. We’d have to change the way we view crime, criminal behavior, and socioeconomic ills. Our notions of individual responsibility and accountability would be completely moot. Our entire economic and political system would likely need to be discarded, as free choice forms the foundations of democracy and capitalism. For these reasons alone, I could see why many would rather avoid the topic in the first place, much less try to wrap their heads around its vast consequent paradigm shift.