BBC Horizon: Out of control?


“Science series. People like to think they are in control of their lives – of what they feel and think. But scientists are now discovering this is often simply an illusion”

More about the subconscious than free will or being in control, but still an interesting watch.

For an awesome lesson on how much we don’t notice (ie out much is filtered out and summarized and simplified for us so we can function everyday), watch this awesome ad.

Free Will: Articles and Some Thoughts


I came across this special issue by the Chronicle of Higher Education dealing with the question “Is Free Will an Illusion?” It features 6 short essays on the topic. Pretty interesting, give it a read!

I’ve been vaguely fascinated by the topic of free will for some time. I found myself, through my own random musings, being lead more in the direction of determinism, or denying free will, which at first alarmed me because such a position felt so counter-intuitive; surely most people would reject such a position as ridiculous. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found, upon reading up more on the subject, that this was actually a pretty common position amongst those who have explored these issues!

My thoughts on free will started from thinking about religion and belief. To me, free will was religion’s ‘trump card’, the reason why suffering exists, why God cannot simply pluck us out of disasters, and essentially why I’m going to hell: because I choose to reject God.

I argued that no one chooses that. No one would ever say, “Yes, I know God is my Creator, I know he is Truth and I know the consequence of rejecting Him. But in accordance to my right to free will, I can choose to reject Him, and I do.” No body chooses to reject the truth.

I’ve heard some arguments from the religious about why God doesn’t just reveal himself to all that run as such: If God were to do that then people would be forced to believe in Him, but God wants us to come to Him of our own free will.

So… knowledge eliminates free will but ignorance allows it??

When you say, “I don’t believe in God.”, it hardly feels like a choice. Given my background, the way I approach problems, all that I know and I that I’ve read up till today… couldchoose to say instead, “I believe in God.’? No. The reason why I don’t believe in God is that the concept doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t believe in God, at least not right now knowing and having experienced all that I have. Just take the case of those who deconvert– they certainly didn’t choose to lose their faith, and often times they really, really, really want to keep believing, but found that they couldn’t do it anymore.

I also wondered about when a decision counts as a choice.

If you’re ignorant and have no knowledge–say you’re given three blank doors with no clues as to which contains the prize– is it an exercise of free will when you pick one?

Or when you’re in possession of a lot of information about two different options– say you have to pick between two types of medical procedures– is it an exercise of free will when you weigh all the pros and cons and pick which one you think is best? But given the information that you had, and coming to the conclusion of which looked like the better option, could you have not picked that option?

Maybe free will and true choice only exist when there are no right or wrong implications to the choice, that is, when it is a subjective choice. For example, choosing between vanilla or chocolate ice-cream. Seems I could easily choose one or the other freely. But then again… that’s determined by some sort of internal bias– chocolate tastes better to me, or I’ve subconsciously come to prefer chocolate because there’s a subconscious, cultural implication that vanilla is for girls and sissies. If you hate durian or classical music, can you really choose to love them?

All just preliminary thoughts on a very complex issue. Hope to continue reading more and thinking more about it. :) :)

Although I’m not sure I fully support his dating analogy, the basic message is the same: it’s not a choice and no one chooses to reject God.

Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams


So I watched this today:

 

I felt that Richard Dawkins did most of the talking and that the archbishop didn’t really go in depth into his own views nor really explained or pushed any point. He mostly posed questions, clarified what his views are not, and gave very vague diplomatic sounding answers. At least, vague to me, someone who is not familiar with his positions.

In summary, I have to agree with the top comment on the video: Richard Dawkins made some clear points, the archbishop made some vague points, and they both come across as very nice and altogether too civilized and polite people. Sorry, no locking horns or bloodshed at all.

Some ideas that were discussed and my two cents:

The part I liked was the exploration of the idea of the first human, or rather, the lack of a first human. Highlighting the point that there may not be a distinctive point where are new species emerges. Exactly! Taxonomy, the classification of biodiversity, is an arbitary, human-created system. It’s a classification system created by us to allow us to conveniently describe the world we see. The world, more often that not, tends not to fall obediently into the nice distinct categories we draw up, at least not without plenty of exceptions to every rule.

The part about language was interesting too– whether it was a sudden change in those particular genes, something that arose gradually or arose as a side-effect result of some other ability.

I wish they had gone more into the issue of consciousness though, and I wish the archbishop had elaborated more on his view (I assume?) that science may not be able to explain consciousness. Personally, I don’t see a problem with a gradual consciousness arising from brains. It seems completely plausible and even likely to me that the gaining of consciousness and self awareness (and ‘god awareness’?) could have been a gradual evolutionary process as well.

I mean, we can see all sorts of different ‘levels’ of consciousness and self awareness in the living things around us; From plants (completely unconscious, unintelligent and unaware) to simple organisms to insects (are insects conscious?) to birds and mammals like cats and dogs which have discernible personalities even but probably don’t self reflect too much, to elephants, apes and dolphins that are definitely conscious and probably self aware to some extent at least, even if we can’t tell if they ever reflect on the meaning of life or question why they do things.

I also agree with Dawkins that self-awareness would probably be gained way before we would call it human, and I’d add on that I think any ‘god awareness’ would probably come quite a bit after what we would likely call human.

The archbishop wondered about the problem of getting something non-physical (ie consciousness) from something physical, and coincidentally I had recently discussed some similar ideas with a friend. Again, I don’t see a problem, but maybe I’m missing something, making a mistake somewhere.

I don’t see why what we know about how the physical brain relates to non-physical processes doesn’t solve this problem. When certain physical parts of the brain are damaged, there is a resulting damage to memory, or speech. When you stimulate parts of the brain, there is a resulting sensation. Specific chemicals (neurotransmitters) result in certain feelings or emotions. Doesn’t this close the gap between the purely physical and the non-physical?

Then the question of whether computers can have consciousness and free will.

Dawkins imagines if you were able to programme a computer so well that it could behave as though it were conscious well enough to fool people, and while he hesitate to call that consciousness, it seems like he has to committed to that view.

The response to that was that it’s pretty ridiculous to commit to such a view, since computers are mere tools; they can’t even add 2 and 2 or tell the time, they can only do what you tell them to.

I think an answer such a question depends fully on your underlying assumptions about what consciousness is and how it comes about.

If we were really able to, one day, programme a computer to be so human and life-like, like in science fiction (I, Robot? A.I.?) where computers for all purposes appear exactly like they have a unique personality and free will, then how could you say they weren’t conscious? If we were really able to reach that point, you wouldn’t find it so ludicrous an idea. Of course, if you think they couldn’t possibly be conscious, that would also mean you think it’s impossible for computers to ever reach that stage, that it’s impossible for something programmed by humans to cross that line, to truly have consciousness or free will.

Free will is indeed a tricky one; I think most people would disagree about determinism? and Richard Dawkins is understandably hesitant about his position too. But in recent months, I’ve found myself tending very much towards that sort of thinking: everything that we do or feel happens as a result of millions of factors that we have no control over; from my innate personality or temperament to the weather on a particular day affecting my mood to my education and upbringing that affect the way I think and see the world… is there still room for free will?

It seems incredibly counter-intuitive to think that I do not have free will, and yet maybe that’s just due to… reactionary prejudice to the idea? I mean, saying you have no free will… seems to eliminate self (that we cherish so much) altogether: you’re nothing but a robot or simple animal merely reacting to (external) stimulus in accordance to the abilities and tendencies of  your hardware (ie your brain and body).

Yet, even if I did believe that I don’t truly have free will… the ‘no free will’ universe and the ‘free will’ universe would be indistinguishable– I’d have no way of telling because in practice there are so many billions of factors involved that go into causing any emotion or decision-making in me that the illusion of free will would still remain.

The experiment Dawkins mentions about your brain ‘deciding’ to make a decision before ‘you’ do is interesting, but I think it’s difficult to draw any real conclusions from it. Couldn’t it just mean that there is a time lag between when you actually decided and when you’ve realize you’ve decided? or between when you actually decided and when you’ve managed to convey to the experimenters that you’ve decided. On it’s own i don’t think it really shows determinism, or whether souls exist or not. On it’s own it’s just… interesting.

I don’t think investigating only “small scale, short term and uninteresting decisions” is a problem though, as the archbishop thought it was, unless you mean to draw a distinction that in picking up a glass of water you exercise less free will than when deciding whom to marry, which I don’t think is coherent.

I like the idea Dawkins put forward about the human brain going beyond what one would expect for mere survival, that in order to build a brain to survive in a mundane world, it is difficult to build a brain that is not also capable of doing more advance things like mathematics and philosophy. I’m not sure I agree fully because I think all the complicated bits of our brain could have evolved just like the simple bits: because they DID give us an advantage.

What advantage could the tendency to philosophize about metaphysical issues possibly give to animals whose main concern is to find food, shelter and mates? Well, wouldn’t an inquisitive mind capable of seeking explanations have benefited those that did manage to come up with answers that could improve their hunting abilities or survival? And of course there the social aspect: we’ve evolved to live in groups.  Surely that way of living could results in the selection of much more complicated mental states.

Things the archbishop said that I found surprising

1. Immortality is a matter of faith and not something that can be proven by reason. He even seems to discount near death experiences.

2. I’m not sure if I’m understanding what he said in reply to the question “was the universe designed” but this is what I got:

The fact that there is a universe that is intelligible, that hangs together, that has processes that converge to certain ends is part of what he means when he says that god created the universe and that god is an intelligent god.

Involving god in the micromanagement of the processes is problematic because of the moral question, ‘if god can do that (stop suffering), then why doesn’t he do it more often?’

Is that what he’s saying?

3. There is no first human and no adman and eve.

I suppose I haven’t read up much on views that assume parts of the bible as myths or allegory, so I don’t understand it much.

But the inevitable question is: once you give up the claim of the inerrancy of the bible, once you decide some parts aren’t properly true, then how do you decide which parts are and which parts aren’t? If you can give up the story of adman and eve, what’s stopping you from giving up the story of Jesus’ resurrection? Doesn’t the bible give a genealogy all the way from Adam to Noah? Abraham? Jesus? So if Adam isn’t real, how do you know where ‘real’ starts?

… argh, this post is altogether too long. Xp