Friday, July 27, 2012

5. Free will?

The first four items on this blog were for introduction. The next items will be connected with the main themes of God/religion, truth/knowledge and ethics/morality. To keep the flow varied and lively I will not exhaust one theme before I proceed to the next, but I will alternate between them. Here, to start, the issue of free will on which there currently is a lively debate. It concerns the themes of both knowledge and ethics.

There is no free will, says brain science. ‘We are our brain’. Our brains behind our backs concoct our choices. Afterwards we contrive reasons to rationalize our conduct and we believe in them because we are not conscious of the processes that in fact determine our choices. The philosopher Nietzsche, and before him Schopenhauer, and before him Spinoza, already said that free will is an illusion. Nietzsche said: the ship follows the stream, not the steering by the captain. If this is true, what remains of responsibility for our actions? What sense remains of reward and punishment?

In the debate there is confusion that can easily be cleared up, as follows. Next to unconscious impulse, conscious thought does have an effect on our actions even if we do not have full free will. One can have influence without being in control. The famous experiment in brain research that triggered the present debate showed that actions preceded awareness of them, and this was taken as the proof of the absence of free will. However, the experiment does not prove that conscious thought has no causal effect. An unconscious impulse to action may previously have been fed by conscious thought, and conscious thought may after the impulse affect its execution. We can consciously execute unconscious motives.

There is extensive experimental evidence in social psychology. While actions may be triggered unconsciously they are often preceded by conscious preparation, in mental simulation of the actions and possible repercussions, including reward and punishment, in anticipation of possible regret, and in reflection on outcomes from past conduct. We consciously analyze the pro’s and cons of an option, explore scenario’s of what might happen if …., discuss it with others, and then leave it up to ‘intuition’ to form a decision. In buying a house we do engage in rational pro’s and cons of location, state of repair, price, sewage, parking, etc., and then ‘after a good night’s sleep’ leave it up to ‘how it feels’. Though conscious deliberation does not clinch the choice, it does affect it. Reward and punishment also affect the development of unconscious impulses for future actions.

It has also been argued that the prime importance of conscious thought is of a social and cultural nature, in the use of language in communication. Unconscious thought can hardly be expressed, and conscious thought is needed for handling series of words in sentences, a chain of logical argument, and a chain of causes and effects.

In sum: We are not in control but we do have influence on the will

1 comment:

  1. How does Goedel's Theorem affect the idea of a machine-like world with no free-will? This paper opposes the analogy between machine intelligence and natural, meaning-based intelligence:

    Guido Fioretti