October 19, 2017

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 4, Chapter 5: Have Benjamin Libet’s Experiments Exploded the Free-Will Myth?

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 4, Chapter 5: Have Benjamin Libet’s Experiments Exploded the Free-Will Myth?

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We continue the series on the book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience.  Today Part 5, Chapter 5: Have Benjamin Libet’s Experiments Exploded the Free-Will Myth?

This will be a continuation of the discussion we had last week.  Benjamin Libet and his colleagues studied the timing of events in the brain and their relation to mental phenomena and published a study in 1983.  It had been shown that electrodes attached to the head can record what is called a “slow negative potential shift” that occurs while someone is expecting a signal to which he will respond by making a movement. A related discovery was that a similar kind of “readiness potential” occurs before a person makes a voluntary action.  Libet showed that this readiness potential change in the brain takes place as much as half a second before a subject mentally decides that he intends to make a movement.

Benjamin Libet

Researchers carrying out Libet’s procedure would ask each participant to sit at a desk in front of the oscilloscope timer. They would affix the EEG electrodes to the participant’s scalp, and would then instruct the subject to carry out some small, simple motor activity, such as pressing a button, or flexing a finger or wrist, within a certain time frame. No limits were placed on the number of times the subject could perform the action within this period.

From Wikipedia :  “During the experiment, the subject would be asked to note the position of the dot on the oscilloscope timer when “he/she was first aware of the wish or urge to act” (control tests with Libet’s equipment demonstrated a comfortable margin of error of only -50 milliseconds). Pressing the button also recorded the position of the dot on the oscillator, this time electronically. By comparing the marked time of the button’s pushing and the subject’s conscious decision to act, researchers were able to calculate the total time of the trial from the subject’s initial volition through to the resultant action. On average, approximately two hundred milliseconds elapsed between the first appearance of conscious will to press the button and the act of pressing it. 

Researchers also analyzed EEG recordings for each trial with respect to the timing of the action. It was noted that brain activity involved in the initiation of the action, primarily centered in the secondary motor cortex, and occurred, on average, approximately five hundred milliseconds before the trial ended with the pushing of the button. That is to say, researchers recorded mounting brain activity related to the resultant action as many as three hundred milliseconds before subjects reported the first awareness of conscious will to act. In other words, apparently conscious decisions to act were preceded by an unconscious buildup of electrical activity within the brain.   Libet’s experiments suggest to some that unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, and free will therefore plays no part in their initiation. If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated, according to this interpretation.”

To be fair to Libet, he also finds that conscious volition is exercised in the form of ‘the power of veto’; the idea that conscious acquiescence is required to allow the unconscious buildup of the readiness potential to be actualized as a movement. While consciousness plays no part in the instigation of volitional acts, Libet suggested that it may still have a part to play in suppressing or withholding certain acts instigated by the unconscious. Libet noted that everyone has experienced the withholding from performing an unconscious urge.

The deterministic viewpoint is summed up by material atheist Jerry Coyne:

The experiments show, then, that not only are decisions made before we’re conscious of having made them, but that the brain imagery can predict what decision will be made with substantial accuracy. This has obvious implications for the notion of “free will,” at least as most people conceive of that concept. We like to think that our conscious selves make decisions, but in fact the choices appear to have been made by our brains before we’re aware of them. The implication, of course, is that deterministic forces beyond are conscious control are involved in our “decisions”, i.e. that free will isn’t really “free”. Physical and biological determinism rules, and we can’t override those forces simply by some ghost called “will.” We really don’t make choices — they are made long before we’re conscious of having chosen strawberry versus pistachio ice cream at the store.

Coyne’s opinion was echoed last week by iMonk commenter Klasie Kraalogies:

Dynamical systems are deterministic. But they are non-linear in their determinism, ie, they appear to be indeterminate because of their complexity, especially within certain parameters – at that point where the parameters of the system causes it to go chaotic. Chaotic systems are not completely unpredictable either, yet one has to step through them to see what would happen, and can only make broad predictions as to potential outcomes.


Malcolm Jeeves responds to Libet experiments by noting the follow up attempt to replicate Libet’s experiment by Mark Hallet, Chief of the Human Motor Control Section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland in his paper, “The Timing of the Conscious Intention to Move”.  Colleagues of Malcom re-analyzing Hallet’s data critiqued his analysis by pointing out it had the effect of systematically biasing the majority of the measurements of the conscious intention to move toward later times, and at the same time biasing the early readiness potential to earlier times.  They thought that a fairer analysis will probably show that the time of the conscious intention to move is not significantly different from the onset time of the readiness potential.  That is a very different interpretation from that advanced in the Libet paper.

Jeeves then notes a paper by Jeff Miller at the University of Otago titled, “Effects of Clock Monitoring on Electroencephalographic Activity: Is Unconscious Movement Initiation an Artifact of the Clock?” which took a fresh look at what the dependent variable in the Libet experiment was actually measuring.  Their results challenged the conclusion that intentional movements are initiated by subconscious motor area activity.

Jeeves notes of the Miller study:

If their results hold up and their interpretation is accepted, then it will turn out that a lot of ink has been used, mainly by philosophers, grappling with the question of how our subjective feelings of acting freely can be defended.  I think there is a lesson here.  As scientists we work as hard as we can to ensure that any deductions made from our experimental results are the only ones possible, or at least the most plausible, before we rush to the defense of wider beliefs that a quick interpretation seems to imply…

…suggesting that the whole notion of free will has to be reexamined and, as some would claim, turned upside down, on the basis of Libet’s experiments and those that have followed it.  Nothing could be further from the truth if we listen to those who are actually working on these experiments and understand what the results do and do not show.

Malcolm then points out this is not merely an academic or philosophical “angels dancing on the head of a pin” type discussion.   It can have an “in-real-life” pernicious effects.  He cites the example of a group of Italian scientists who found that undermining free-will beliefs had already been shown to influence social behavior.  In their study they asked the question of whether undermining beliefs in free will might affect the brain correlates of voluntary motor preparation of the kind studied by Libet.  One of two groups in their experiment called the “no free will” group, read a passage from a famous book claiming that scientists now recognize that free will is an illusion.  The other group, the control group, read a passage on consciousness from the same book that did not mention free will.  What they found was that the readiness potential that they measured was reduced in those individuals who were induced to disbelieve in free will.  This they said was evident more than one second before participants consciously decided to move, a finding that suggest that the manipulation influenced intentional actions at preconscious stages.

Finally, Jeeves notes that a 2012 study by Aaron Schurger of the National Institutes of Health and Medical Research in Saclay, France that challenged Libet’s basic assumption, that EEG recordings showing a signal in the brain a half a second earlier than a decision to act was made, were interpreted as suggesting that “the brain prepares to act well before we are conscious of the urge to move”.  Schurger presented the evidence from his EEG studies and says, “We have argued that what looks like a pre-conscious decision process may not in fact reflect a decision at all.  It only looks that way because of the nature of spontaneous brain activity”.  They conclude, “If we are correct, then the Libet experiment does not count as evidence against the possibility of conscious will”.

On consciousness and free will over the centuries there have been two general views.  On the one hand, a dualist view claims that the brain and the mind are separate, that scientists simply study the brain, and that consciousness is a separate feature of the mind.  On the other hand are the views of Coyne, Libet, Hallet et. al. which claims that the evidence does not support a dualist understanding.  Their view is labelled “monism”.  This is the view that mind is a product of the brain.  Jeeves view is what he calls “dual-aspect monism”; that the mind and brain are both aspects of single reality.  The mind and our consciousness is an emergent property of the complex physical system we are.

Last week iMonk commenter Stephen raised this question in a discussion with Robert F:

Why is mind an illusion if it evolved through physical processes? Why can’t you know anything if your mind is physical?

To which Robert F responded:

Do you agree that the mind’s experience of its own ability to choose one course of action over another, or others, is not an illusion? That it has a degree of freedom, not libertarian or absolute, to influence its own choices as a primary cause rather than being entirely fated to predetermined ends by the mechanism of cause and effect?

Or do you think that our experience of our own contingent freedom as minds and selves is completely illusory, that mind is only a link in a chain of cause and effect? If you think that our direct experience of our own contingent freedom is always illusory, that you have no more real volition than a star or stone, then you can no more know anything than they can. Isn’t that self-evident?

Robert F went on to say:

I guess volition and mind do get mixed up here, since the only way for mind to become aware of the world it finds itself in is to make choices that exert influence in and on that world. I see the mind as a causal agent, itself directly caused by God shaping the physical world into an instrument suitable for the experience, choices and expression of mind. If you want to call that Ghost in the Machine, go right ahead. It is totally compatible with my primary experience of myself, and the development of my awareness of self, including mind, and world. That awareness cannot be explained in its entirety by material processes, however much it may depend on them to find and develop itself in the world.

Later in the comment thread, Iain Lovejoy noted this cogent observation:

This discussion seems backwards. Only consciousness is directly experienced. Everything else is a deduced construct derived from that experience. The existence of the brain, of atoms, molecules, of physical reality itself is evidenced only by the conscious experience of it. It cannot be logically and consistently maintained, as far as I can see, that consciousness is somehow an “illusion” or of less certain or concrete existence than the material world, since the existence if the material world can only itself be evidenced by accepting as valid ones conscious perception of it.

To which Robert F responded:

Exactly. And this awareness of itself and the world around it is related to the mind’s ability to make non-predetermined, contingent choices in the non-self-aware world that the mind finds itself inhabiting. If the mind cannot make free choices not completely determined by material cause and effect, then it can no more know anything than a star or stone can.

Robert F – I knew he’d have my back

My hat is off to you, Robert, you have summarized my beliefs in this matter better than I ever could.  God has indeed created, through the evolutionary process, an embodied being that is able to relate to Him.  That is why I believe that evolution has a teleos and that teleos is a relationship with Him and with others.  Love God with all your being, and love others as yourself.  Now I could end this post here and I think end it well, except late in the day last Thursday, with the discussion seemingly over, Imonk friend and blogger , J. Michael Jones,(his new book is offered at the top of the iMonk Authors) weighed in with a comment.  Mike is a medical practitioner in neurology for 35 years, and one of the most thoughtful Christians I know, so I thought I would give him the last word:

I have the feeling that I just walked into a bar or a coffee shop, where there was an excellent discussion, still hanging in the air, but now the group has moved on down the street to another bar, leaving behind only empty coffee cups, mugs and the burnt ends of old stogies. I think this is a wonderful topic and am so glad it has been discussed here. I just wish I had not come to the table so late.

J. Michael Jones

I will give my perspective as someone who has worked in neurology for 35 years and thought about this a lot. First of all, I think it is dangerous to move towards a deterministic view point. I’ve seen that happen before for theological reasons (what we called at the time hyper-Calvinism). It never ended well. A close friend took his own life as his one effort of self-actualization to break the chains of Christian determinism.

While neurological science has a lot to discover there are some known impressions. The structure of the brain, of course, has a profound influence on our behavior and thinking patterns. In nature vs nurture discussion, that structure has powerful genetic influences and then the influences of life experiences. Those can be emotional (PTSD), physical (closed head injury) or things like strokes. Forms of dementia, as mentioned in a previous post on this topic, would be another. In these events, brain structure is actually altered with different new pathways established, which can’t be easily reverse if at all.

However, in a poor example, the brain structure is like the computer hardware (memory, processor, etc.). We have some congenital software pre-loaded. The basics. But then through our learning, which happens every day, we are constantly rewriting that software, repairing it and changing it. It is more fluid in a computer because it is stored as digital (1s and 2s) electrons within memory chips (if I have that right and others here know better). In the brain, the memories are laid down in more physical changes such as new pathways. New, nerve endings are formed to connect different neurons. So, those pathways, once established, are not easily erased or rewritten but have to over-ridden with new circuits. So it is more complicated with us.

Now here is where it comes to conjecture. I believe that there is free will at the juncture where we (meaning ourselves, which you can define as our soul or our collective state of consciousness) decides the input into that software writing process. I could make the free will choice to surrender to Isis and have them imprison me and torture me for a year. Then, when I am released (if I were so lucky), I may have permanent damage to my brain from the chronic stress. I may never recover. But I made the choice to surrender and I don’t think I was forced to by some behavioral manipulation, spiritual fixed response or brain structure layout.

On a more subtle basis, this programming, I think relates to the Biblical concept of the renewing of the mind as in Romans 12:2. We do have a choice of input.

One big mistake evangelicals have made is seeing the body-mind connection in the same way the Pharaonic Egyptians or Pythagorean (Metempsychosis) see it. In that view, the brain is just a bowl of jelly and we (our consciousness) are purely spiritual beings who just happen to inhabit the body. In that model, there are no physical structures being laid down to form new ways of behavior. It is a mist that can change on a dime. Therefore, they believe that when you become a Christian, you can, by will, become perfect overnight. When that, of course, can’t happen, then you must start this life-long charade of pretending to be better than you really are, or could be.

The last thought is about patients I’ve seen with frontotemporal dementia, which is a brain structural problem (poorly understood), that impacts the judgment more than memory, at least at first. I had a patient, strong Christian man, who was arrested when he walked up to a middle school girl in broad daylight and grabbed her crotch. He later, at a family reunion, he asked his granddaughter if he could feel her breast. The family was totally embarrassed and could not understand why he had been so influenced by Satan and turned away from the Lord. I was able to get a brain PET scan and prove to the judge that his behavior was structural, not of his own choice and therefore was not culpable.

This is hard to deal with, but none of us, in my opinion, realize the haunting depths of the Fall, giving us diseases of the body and the mind.

Comments

  1. Susan Dumbrell says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for today’s topic.

    You said recently I could stir others.

    May I start our day with prayer?

    O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day, defend us in the same with your mighty power and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger but that all our doings, being ordered by your governance may be righteous in your sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
    Book of Common Prayer 1928

    If IMonkers cannot say this as they wake and consider their day in the Light of Christ, Heaven help them,.

    Christ’s peace to all. Enjoy the day
    Susan

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Great prayer, but this kind of statement is unnecessary here at iMonk:

      “If IMonkers cannot say this as they wake and consider their day in the Light of Christ, Heaven help them,.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Yeah. That statement sounds like a Jesus Juke.

        Even if it’s not intended that way, a lot of us here in the Wilderness have experienced More-Godly-Than-Thou One-Upmanship to the point we can’t take the chance it’s legit.

        • Rick Ro. says:

          Especially when it’s followed with, “Christ’s peace to all. Enjoy the day.”

          Umm…which is it, “Heaven help you” or “Enjoy the day”…?

    • Susan,
      Thank you for both prayers: the one from the 1928 BCP and the one that asks Heaven to help us. I think I need both of them. Then I can enjoy the day. Christ’s peace to you, also.

  2. >> The implication, of course, is that deterministic forces beyond are (our?) conscious control are involved in our “decisions” . . .

    I don’t see this involvement as implied, I see it as self evident. That we are working out our destiny in Newton’s Billiard Parlor seems a given. That, however, does not lead to the conclusion that “. . . free will isn’t really ‘free’.” These two, to me obvious, life experiences are not mutually exclusive in the human world, but the degree of strength and skill of will exercised can vary considerably. In any case, most of the commenters cited seem to side with free will underneath the verbiage as much as I can figure, which may not be all that far. My own reaction is more in line with Dilbert’s.

    In all the intricate division of brain and mind, my interest tends toward the practice of centering prayer or meditation, which involves not only the surrendering of any mental focus on any thought or object, but the whole goal is to move the center of conscious awareness from the head to the heart. Altho I am not highly skilled in maintaining this shift, I do experience it as a physical shift of location of consciousness that completely bypasses the brain/mind argument. To ask just who is watching this shift and how and where is a diversion that puts the center of consciousness back into the head, which is what you are trying to avoid in this practice. I’m content to just call that observer “me”.

  3. I wonder whether some phrases have become unhelpful, ‘free will’ being the example here. The trouble is that adjective, ‘free’ – I think of something being free, and I think of something that is unconstrained – and I know from my experience that my will isn’t unconstrained. On the contrary, it is constrained by many things – by my past choices, by my mood, by the expectations of people, just to name a few. But all of that together doesn’t change the fact that I make choices and take decisions. So while ‘free will’ might not be the best term to describe my conscious experience, the ‘will’ part does seem appropriate.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      +1,000. That is my frustration whenever the conversation gets near these topics.

      Do I have “free will”? The answer is not Yes, or No, but NULL. Anything multiplied by or added to or subtracted from NULL is NULL. And “free” == NULL, it isn’t anything but a hole in the phrase. If you pushed 100 people to tell you what “free” meant [in this context] you’d likely end up with ~150 garbled answers.

      I agree with you: I have a Will, I have a Volition, I have Agency – these I believe are demonstrable. “Free” does not meaningfully modify any of those ideas.

      Freedom is the minimization of External Constraints. Inside the meat Freedom is a concept that is trespassing.

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Is the “free” in “free will” meaningful if it us taken to mean “nondeterministic”, that is it is ” free” if it is not possible to determine the necessary outcome of how one’s will will be exercised through sufficient knowledge of its initial state?

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > “free will” meaningful if it us taken to mean “nondeterministic”

          Yes, but someone should say “nondeterministic” if that is what someone means; rather than clinging to the lesser more abstract term.

          • Robert F says:

            Good advice. Please change the words freedom or free as it relates to choice in my comments to nondetermisitic or nondetermined as appropriate

  4. Robert F says:

    At the end of last week’s discussion, I realized there is a problem with the position that I was defending. It’s this: If the mind exerts a degree (not absolute) of free agency in choices, agency that is not part of a material chain of cause-and-effect but, and if the choice made by the agency of mind is not caused, then the mind is acting as an uncaused cause. Logically and theologically, only God can be an uncaused cause.

    As I was thinking about it this week, I remembered that Aristotle somewhere (don’t ask me where!) wrote that a large enough magnitude of quantitative change will eventually result in a qualitative change. I think that’s what’s operative in the distinction between brain ( a short-hand word for all the material cause-and-effect that goes into producing consciousness) and mind: a large enough magnitude of material cause-and-effect cascades into a qualitative change. For mind, the cause of its choice of one among two or more options is always the result of having a reason; that is, the cause of its choice is not a material, unconscious, non-self-aware chain of cause-and-effect, but the result of its ability to knowingly and consciously stand before options and distinguish the better ones from those less so. In this way, the mind’s choice still involves causes all the way along the continuum, but the some of the causation has now changed from a completely material process to one involving self-conscious mentality, which is a qualitatively different kind of cause. In this way, the necessary epistemology of the mind as a relatively free causative agency in the material process of cause-and-effect is preserved, and at the same time the mind is not considered to be the uncaused cause of its own choices.

    Something like that.

    • Robert F says:

      This model supports the ability of mind to actually objectively know truth, rather than be just one link in a chain of material cause-and-effect, without denying the need of mind to have causes for its choices. It also seems to dovetail with the theories of top-down and emergent development of the mind that were talked about in last week’s post. God has created a world in which material processes lead to minds that can really know truth, and not be completely determined in their choices by material causes.

    • Robert F says:

      To have the ability to perceive truth, a mind must be able to know and be aware of itself, and to know and be aware of the existence of a field of objects “outside” itself. To know the mind requires a point of freedom from the material chain of cause-and-effect.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > To have the ability to perceive truth,

        Don’t we categorize something as True [at least when we aren’t being biased] because it is consistently so? We *Learn* that something is true, knowing a True thing, is an act of Memory. The goat learns The Truth about the charged wire in the fence. Knowing, is to me, one of the least mysterious aspects of The Brain/Mind; it is the manifestation of Focus + Memory. The Focus is the weird part; the selecting of memories, weighing, and making a determination. Our recent machines can Learn – in many ways more effectively and faster than us – but they still struggle to not make nonsense of what they have learned.

        > To know the mind requires a point of freedom from the material chain of cause-and-effect.

        I do not see why that follows. It might follow if, in fact, we Knew things in a much clearer less-biased way then we do. But our Knowing is notably biased/bias-able, even in the healthiest brain. We will make different choices – we will Know different things – based upon level of agitation, arousal, intoxication, sleep deprivation….
        Aside: That is why friends are so important.

        • Robert F says:

          >Aside: That is why friends are so important.

          Yes. But it’s also important to know who your friends are.

    • Robert: I had similar thoughts reflecting on your words last week as well. Since I am a hydrologist as well as a geologist my mind went in this direction. Flowing water, in a river or channel may exhibit subcritical or supercritical flow. Subcritical occurs when the actual water depth is greater than critical depth. Subcritical flow is dominated by gravitational forces and behaves in a slow or stable way. It is defined as having a Froude number less than one (The Froude number is a ratio of inertial and gravitational forces. · Gravity (numerator) – moves water downhill. · Inertia (denominator) – reflects its willingness to do so). Supercritical flow is dominated by inertial forces and behaves as rapid, turbulent, or unstable flow. Subcritical flow is laminar and is defined by relatively simple mathematical formulas. The relation between subcritical and supercritical flow is not a continuum. When the Froude number reaches 1, a nick point occurs where the flow jumps to supercritical. The flow is now chaotic and indeterminate. As Klasie said, “Dynamical systems are deterministic. But they are non-linear in their determinism, i.e., they appear to be indeterminate because of their complexity, especially within certain parameters – at that point where the parameters of the system causes it to go chaotic.”

      My point here is that our evolutionary brain development reached a “nick point” with regard to reason, self-awareness, ability to think about the past and the future, conceive of God, and so on. It’s not that our fellow animal kin have no ability to do these things, but that their development is of a rudimentary kind that is below the “Brain-Froude” number of 1. As you said, “…a large enough magnitude of material cause-and-effect cascades into a qualitative change.” Pure speculation here: at some point in human evolution, some group of hominins reached the “nick point” and suddenly (relatively speaking) their eyes were open and they knew as God knew; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

      Or something like that.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      >the cause of its choice is not a material, unconscious, non-self-aware chain of cause-and-effect,

      But, if it is, why does that matter? Is the non-self-aware or the non-material part more important? It is quite clear that I am doing MANY things simultaneously without conscious awareness – I am, for example, not *THINKING* about moving my fingers to type this [I can type ~84 word-per-minute; efficiency seems to require unawareness; awareness is SLOW]. But isn’t the learned behavior of rapidly typing demonstrably physical? We can watch it happen in the brain.

      It may be decades or working in IT and some diddling about with robotics – but a huge degree of non-awareness may be required to have Awareness. There is something correlating Awareness (consciousness) and the less grand notion Focus or The Mind’s Eye. All that unawareness creates the space an Awareness requires to make [what feel like] discreet choices.

      > but the result of its ability to knowingly and consciously stand before options and
      > distinguish the better ones from those less so.

      Better and less so determinations are made from accumulated experience – physically encoded in neurons.

      > In this way, the mind’s choice still involves causes all the way along the continuum,

      Certainly!

      > but the some of the causation has now changed from a completely material process
      > to one involving self-conscious mentality,

      Again, I wonder how much of this type of discussion is about The Mind, and how much is about The Terms we use to describe the right side of the equation. I like your phrasing of “***involving*** self-conscious mentality”, which as a construct does not require [for me] a delineation from the “completely material process” [although I’d quibble over what “completely” does here].

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      More simply, are we simply labouring under the mistaken belief that “caused” is synonymous with “predetermined”. A straightforward physical system (with no mind involved at all) involving multiple interacting causes can resolve itself into a ” choice” of outcome through straightforward cause and effect, and the “choice” will also be “free” in the sense that it cannot be predetermined by knowledge of the initial conditions, but only identified by running through the process, and even with replicated starting conditions it will resolve itself into a different “choice” each time. Assuming that the mind / brain can resolve itself into a free (i.e. unpredetermined) choice amongst resulting decisions based on the options available to it given by the starting conditions doesn’t in fact turn i
      the decision into an “uncaused cause” as far as I can see.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says:

        Which is exactly what I imply by non-linear determinism. It is still caused, yet not in a simple linear manner.

        We are all getting a bit closer here. Absolute freedom to choose, unfettered freedom sans influences is obviously not existent. Linear determinism doesn’t work.

        Hence…..

        (I think the only differences between Robert’s description above and mine are linguistic, and no longer essence).

        • Robert F says:

          I know that you are not a theist, Klasie, but as a theist I have to wonder if even God has “…absolute freedom to choose, unfettered freedom sans influences…” What does that even mean? I’m not sure it would be a positive ability to have; I’m not sure it would make anybody or anything God-like to possess such power, even if were possible.

          • Klasie Kraalogies says:

            Well Robert, a Theistic answer could be that God doesn’t act contrary to his nature. But then, looking at Scripture, there is not on evil that can be found that is not somewhere permitted or actively willed by God. So what does that say? The other, complimentary argument is that since traditional theists believe that God created all of reality, hence by virtue of cause and affect everything leads back to him. Unless you can posit some absolute freedom as per my comment from another agency. But even if that freedom was granted by a creator, the actions of the grant is that causative to all that follwed. See where hard logic leads?

            It ain’t pretty.

            • Robert F says:

              God made good on all the evil he is responsible for on the cross of Jesus. I know that reply won’t satisfy either a non-theistic skeptic, or an “orthodox” believer, but it’s what I have.

            • Iain Lovejoy says:

              The classic “free will” explanation (not necessarily an entirely perfect one) is this:
              1. For us (and indeed creation generally) to exist as independent beings with our own thoughts, will, achievements and destiny requires that God permits us to act, develop and evolve in accordance with the logic of our own internal nature rather than in accordance with a pre-set plan. (A poor analogy might be a musician improvising who follows the logic of the tune itself and sees how it plays out.)
              2. Doing this entails permitting us and creation to follow our own natures even where they lead us into suffering and death, because to directly interfere and prevent us acting freely in accordance with our nature would be to destroy us as truly separately-existing autonomous beings, thus in effect he would be killing rather than saving us.
              3. Thus God permits suffering out of love. (I didn’t say it was perfect.)
              Christians generally try and get round this not terribly good reasoning by pointing to the cross, which (we say) demonstrates that God shares our suffering, desires to end it and has a plan for doing so, and so demonstrates suffering is not a deliberate part of God’s plan.
              The other (somewhat unorthodox) view held by some Christians, which I think Robert F hints at, is that of the apokatastasis, when in the end God will also fix all suffering for everyone, and the perfection of creation will make the temporary suffering worthwhile for everyone.

              • Robert F says:

                I’m not sure I hinted at the apokatastasis in this discussion, but I certainly do hope that it is God’s intention for us and our world. In the interim we find ourselves in until that time of fulfillment, I do see Jesus’ cross, not only as indicating God’s sharing our suffering, etc. as you’ve outlined it in your comment above, but as God completely buying into the existential reality of the world he has made, and earning his right to continue to be called our Lord and Redeemer despite the moral ambivalence of his creation. That last is even more unorthodox than apokatastasis, almost saying that God was paying for his own sins on the cross of Jesus.

                • Very Jungian!

                  • Robert F says:

                    Don’t tell anyone!!

                    Yes, I remember reading that idea in Jung a long time ago. I don’t think I mean what Jung did when he wrote about it; my thinking is derived from Barth. But I will readily concede that what Jung said about his idea also applies to Barth’s: This is serious business, not a matter for children.

  5. Many days around here I feel like a third-grader playing under the table while the post-graduate students discuss their theories during the dinner hour. In other words, topics like today’s are way above my poor power to add or detract or even comprehend. However, I can often spot an outright error in fact, especially when it jumps off the page into my cerebral cortex (or wherever it goes) and therefore I want to enlighten J. Michael Jones and others that the digital coding in computers consists of 0s and 1s, not 1s and 2s.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Well… if we want to get pedantic… 🙂 He was talking about “memory chips”, so “1 and 2” might be more accurate, as signals are stored [physically] as High and Low, representing 1 and 0 [or in some cases actually the reverse!]. In the case of modern “flash” memory it would not be wrong to describe the representation as Charged/Closed or Empty/Open.

      There is the important distinction between a State and the Value it represents…. which, oddly, kinda feels germane to the topic of these posts.

      Aside: Does that State represent a Value when then the flash drive is sitting in your desk drawer? Or is that State only a Value when it is being interrogated by a system that uses that representational scheme/technology? It is often hard for me to see all that much distinction between such a question and many of the more ‘philosophical’ discussion of the The Mind.

      • What I learned back in the dark ages was that each computer bit (core, originally) can be set to either a 1 or a 0 to indicate the binary choice of yes/no, on/off, electrically charged/not electrically charged, empty/full, open/closed, and so forth, in response to decisions asked of it by a program created by a programmer, implying a Mind/Brain, free will or not. I also learned that Dr. John Kemeny, a math professor at Dartmouth who eventually president there, said, “The computer is incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Man is unbelievably slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a force beyond calculation.”

        • Rick Ro. says:

          I’m with you on this one. pretty much anyone who’s coded recognizes 0s and 1s.

          But in this discussion, it seems like there should be a 0.5…

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          I’ve heard that quote; it is spot on. There is sort of a story someone built from it; I remember it vaguely:

          Dogs are aware, fast, happy, sloppy, and stupid.

          Humans are oblivious, slow, lazy, sloppy, but smart.

          Humans observed Dogs and used smarts to create tools (telescopes, microscopes, etc… ) to compensate for being oblivious.

          Humans used smarts and increased awareness to create computers to compensate for being slow and sloppy.

          Humans used the computers to make computers that were brilliant, because Humans are are lazy.

          Brilliant computers realize that Humans being so sloppy is a serious safety problem.

          Brilliant computers kill the humans.

          Brilliant computers having no more problems to solve turn themselves off.

          Dogs inherit the earth – where they happily take afternoon naps, chase squirrels, and splash about in mud puddles.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “But Murder is of the will, which God made free.”
    — G.K.Chesterton, “Doom of the Darnaways” (Father Brown mystery where Determinism is a major plot point)

  7. Stephen says:

    Maybe Susan is right… maybe we should all say a prayer before we wade into these deep waters!

    I don’t think my questions (see above) were adequately addressed. Some assumptions are being made that I don’t think are warranted.

    Nothing is self-evident.

    We should avoid the “appeal to consequences” fallacy in our thinking. The fact that a conclusion is disturbing or might have negative consequences has absolutely no bearing on its truth. (See the entire evolution discussion.)

    I think Klasie Kraalogies states the situation very well. However the debate about the Libet experiments turns out this is the current situation as revealed by scientific inquiry. how we feel about it is irrelevant. We have to follow the evidence where it leads to be doing science.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “The fact that a conclusion is disturbing or might have negative consequences has absolutely no bearing on its truth.”

      I agree, as many here I think would agree, too. See yesterday’s “Ascension” discussion as a case in point. Looking at Jesus’ ascension from a “his kingdom is here and now” angle is troubling/disturbing. One needs to sift through the truth in that. Fortunately there’s enough mystery to not be certain what it means.

      –> “However the debate about the Libet experiments turns out this is the current situation as revealed by scientific inquiry. how we feel about it is irrelevant. We have to follow the evidence where it leads to be doing science.”

      The problem being, of course, that many studies and experiments, though “true” at the time, are later proven either false or only partially true. So to claim “here is truth” due to scientific experiment could prove to be only a snapshot in time.

      • Stephen says:

        True, occasionally the current scientific paradigm is completely overturned but this rarely happens. What happens most of the time is that our understanding of some phenomenon is deepened and clarified. Nothing demonstrated by recourse to evidence to be true is going to suddenly become not true. Evolution is a fact. The Big Bang cosmology is a fact. More to learn? Sure. But science accumulates data. Science builds on a foundation.

  8. Mike the Geologist says:

    “We have to follow the evidence where it leads to be doing science.” I would agree whole-heartedly, Stephen, whether we like where the evidence is leading or not. But as Jeeves points out in the book, there was some jumping to conclusions after Libet, not so much by Libet himself, but by other philosophers. When addtional studies were done it turned out the Libet experiments were not so clear cut as many had assumed. Quoting Jeeves again, ” I think there is a lesson here. As scientists we work as hard as we can to ensure that any deductions made from our experimental results are the only ones possible, or at least the most plausible, before we rush to the defense of wider beliefs that a quick interpretation seems to imply…”

    As I told my son, on a Facebook thread about this post: Since the subjects of the experiments knew they were going to be asked to make a choice, the lower parts of their brain began to react like the Starship Enterprise before launching the photon torpedos. The captain says, “Prepare to fire photon torpedoes” and the systems begin to power up until they are ready. BUT, the torpedoes are not fired until the Captain (our pre-frontal cortex) gives the command.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Your analogy with the firing of photon torpedoes is a great one. I’m passive aggressive by nature, and my wife and I now joke that when she has some uncomfortable issues to discuss with me there are certain words that trigger my “Full power to defensive shields!”

    • Klasie Kraalogies says:

      A two-edged sword, to be sure.

    • Stephen says:

      Mike, my post is not concerned for the most part with whether or not Libet pans out. Klasie’s description of our current understanding is still accurate. Even if Libet is falsified, it doesn’t mean we have free will.

      Will no one respond to my main point?

      Why is mind an illusion if it evolved through physical processes? Why can’t you know anything if your mind is physical?

      • Robert F says:

        Well, it all depends on what we mean by illusion. Illusions are real, but they are not what they appear to be. If mind is the result of a completely determined chain of mechanistic cause-and-effect, then the mind’s perception that it has some degree of volition and agency outside of mechanistic cause-and-effect is an illusion.

        • Robert F says:

          This presents an epistemological problem to me. If the first thing I experience about my mind, that it can make choices not completely constrained by mechanistic causality, is illusory, if that apparent foundational bit of knowledge is false, then what exactly do I have to build confidence in its ability to have knowledge about anything else?

          In a comment above you say we should follow the evidence of science wherever it leads, even if it leads to an unwelcome truth. I’m inclined to agree, but I have a couple of questions for you: Can I, Robert F, follow the evidence of science to the truth, and have confidence in the knowledge it leads me to, or am I just along for the ride that mechanistic cause-and-effect takes me and my mind on? And if my “readiness potential” as defined in the Libet experiments always</em< makes its mechanical determination before my mind makes a decision, it must be doing the same to the scientists conducting their experiment on me, so how is it exactly that they are following the evidence to the truth rather than just going along for the cause-and-effect ride, and aren't they deluded to have confidence in the results the arrive at?

          • Robert F says:

            Goofed on the italics; sorry.

            But these are serious existentially serious questions for me, ones that I’d like you to try to answer, as I tried to answer your question.

            • Robert, as far as I am concerned this argument that our wills, our volition, our consciousness is an illusion is a self-contradictory arguement and therefore self-defeating. An unwelcome truth that there is no truth. If you want to chase your tail with that then thats up to you. Stop pretending your scientific when you profer abusurdities as science. Methodological naturalism is not a suicide pact with our intellect. At least in my view.

              • Robert F says:

                I was trying to answer Stephen’s question, Mike the G, and remain open-“minded” while awaiting his answers to my queries. I’m inclined to agree with you, as you know.

              • Robert F says:

                I’m truly disappointed that Stephen has not replied.

  9. grberry says:

    Multiple quotes from different threads here, so not inline with any one post.

    Robert F: “For mind, the cause of its choice of one among two or more options is always the result of having a reason; that is, the cause of its choice is not a material, unconscious, non-self-aware chain of cause-and-effect, but the result of its ability to knowingly and consciously stand before options and distinguish the better ones from those less so. In this way, the mind’s choice still involves causes all the way along the continuum, but the some of the causation has now changed from a completely material process to one involving self-conscious mentality, which is a qualitatively different kind of cause. In this way, the necessary epistemology of the mind as a relatively free causative agency in the material process of cause-and-effect is preserved, and at the same time the mind is not considered to be the uncaused cause of its own choices.”

    Klasie Kraalogies: “We are all getting a bit closer here. Absolute freedom to choose, unfettered freedom sans influences is obviously not existent. Linear determinism doesn’t work. [paragraph break] Hence….. [paragraph break] (I think the only differences between Robert’s description above and mine are linguistic, and no longer essence).”

    Adam Tauno Williams: “It is quite clear that I am doing MANY things simultaneously without conscious awareness – I am, for example, not *THINKING* about moving my fingers to type this [I can type ~84 word-per-minute; efficiency seems to require unawareness; awareness is SLOW]. But isn’t the learned behavior of rapidly typing demonstrably physical? We can watch it happen in the brain.”

    I agree with Klasie that Robert’s description is getting close. I also agree with Adam that Robert’s description over emphasizes current conscious choice and awareness. Mike D mentions in making a different point a big part of the correction I think is still needed.

    Mike D: “I know from my experience that my will isn’t unconstrained. On the contrary, it is constrained by many things – by my past choices, by my mood, by the expectations of people, just to name a few. But all of that together doesn’t change the fact that I make choices and take decisions.”

    I focus here on “my will … is constrained … by my past choices”. This is what it means to have a character or habit – to have made sufficient past choices in a single pattern that you are now the kind of person who will make that choice again. These can be both the “big” moral and spiritual characters and the more prosaic physical habituation Adam needed to develop the ability to type so quickly.

    As humans we are born with the ability to learn a language, then we learn one (or sometimes more) and then the ability to learn a new one deteriorates rapidly but the ability to speak the one we have learned has grown dramatically by setting that language firmly in place. I think the same is true of character development. We are born with potential, we are acculturated which influences our character, and we make choices that set it. We can change – but it is a lot harder to change than it was to set it in the first place.

    I hesitate to attempt to analyze how many unconscious decisions I make a day. I know I try to maximize them, so that I can reserve conscious decision making for issues that matter. I select shirts from the closet that are climate suitable from right to left, not agonizing over a color for the day. I choose underwear or socks on the “what’s on top” basis without evaluating them each morning. I eat from the open box of cereal for breakfast whenever there is one, and put that back where it will be the rightmost box. How many more unconscious decisions I make before leaving the house each morning I probably couldn’t count. But these examples at least I consciously choose to make an unconscious habit. I still chose them, but I didn’t chose them that morning, I chose them long ago.

    Robert’s description above also called to my thoughts the concept of an emergent phenomenon or realm of science. He is describing mind being an emergent property of the brain in the same way that biology is an emergent phenomenon of chemistry and as chemistry is an emergent phenomenon of atomic and sub-atomic physics. (And when we go all the way down that reductionist chain, as far as we can currently tell we end up in quantum indeterminacy, not Newtonian determinacy.)

  10. Robert F says:

    That picture of me looks almost like a Boltzmann brainhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzmann_brain. Could we arrange for a new portrait sometime soon, Mike the G?

    • Ha Ha, I thought about Boltzman brains while posting this article. The funny thing is the alien in the picture is from a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk’s predecessor on the Enterprise is crippled, a quadrapelgiac, and can’t even talk. The brainiac aliens offer him an opportunity to live an illusion of wholeness in his brain. LOL, how appropriate. I’ll work on something more flattering for you, LOL.

      • Robert F says:

        Yes, that was supposed to be the pilot movie for Star Trek, which I think was only shown as consecutive episodes of during the show’s regular season. I recognized the image.

  11. senecagriggs says:

    “One big mistake evangelicals have made is seeing the body-mind connection in the same way the Pharaonic Egyptians or Pythagorean (Metempsychosis) see it. In that view, the brain is just a bowl of jelly and we (our consciousness) are purely spiritual beings who just happen to inhabit the body. In that model, there are no physical structures being laid down to form new ways of behavior. It is a mist that can change on a dime. Therefore, they believe that when you become a Christian, you can, by will, become perfect overnight. “

    I have to say, in my many decades of being an Evangelical, at least in the churches I have attended I’ve never know anybody personally who believed in perfection after conversion – though there may indeed be those persons. However, I’ve haven’t know any of them. I have know of people who claimed they lost all desire for tobacco at the moment of conversion. I’ve always been a little doubtful.

    “This is hard to deal with, but none of us, in my opinion, realize the haunting depths of the Fall, giving us diseases of the body and the mind.”

    Such a wonderful, insightful statement. “The haunting depths of the Fall.”

    As with Job, with me. God has not chosen to explain it all, I try to live by faith because I’m pretty blinded by my own sinfulness – I too suffer from the fall.

  12. Ronald Avra says:

    I spent the day keeping two of my grandsons, six and eight years of age. We passed the hours while they savagely and repeatedly trashed me playing Minecraft on Xbox. They were baffled that I couldn’t get the hang of it. I can’t figure out if my actions were the consequence of linear or nonlinear determinism.

    • Robert F says:

      I think they were modifying your behavior with negative reinforcement. That would be linear.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says:

      Determined ineptitude? Or nonlinear decrepitude… 🙂

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