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January 15, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

Fifteen reasons neuroscience can’t prove absolute determinism or destroy free will

Fifteen reasons neuroscience can’t prove absolute determinism or destroy free will

“We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
— Stephen Fry

1. Influence versus control distinction lost on scientists. This distinction is important (and much of the neuroscience and philosophical theory from determinists around free will likely can’t tell the full scope of the nuance). Further, to suggest that Da Vinci, Einstein, Bach, Lincoln, and the rest of the heros of history are just molecules bouncing around and don’t have meaningful selves….seems to belie both history and fundamental notions of rationality and common sense.
2. Burden of proof on the scientists or philosophers who suggest we are 100% determined, with no meaningful free choice or agency. How much 10%, 25, 50, 75, 85, 95, 100% influenced/controlled by external forces? (how many types of human behavior can we predict? how credible or reliable are those predictions?)
3. Question begging–science isn’t meant to find agency (this is huge–aka the data don’t prove anything about agency)
4. Not mutual exclusive to have atoms bouncing around and for those same atoms to have free will. Like seeing a ship and assuming things about the engine room or the captains chambers without seeing, hearing, and feeling the experience first hand.
5. Determinism destroys ethics and personal responsibility. This is not only meaningful for our notions of retribution and punishment, but also our internal capacity to deal with the world. Without a system of punishment and reward–and one thats “worked” for 2000+ years–we’re left with cultural, social, and personal anarchy.
6. Your studies are flawed. Ask Alfred Mele. And there are many models of human behavior short of absolute determinism (chart here, which emphasizes a high burden of proof for absolute determinists).
7. Your conclusions are flawed. They fit the data like bad suits. The map doesn’t fit the territory (also see #1 and #3). If anything they prove that the universe works in a cause and effect way. Also Thomas Kuhn in the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” answers your argument (its sometimes difficult for 2 worldview modes to dialog).
8. Quantum mechanics answers your misguided neurobiology arguments.
9. Performative contradiction. The act of science is an act of free will.
10. Determinism is a no-win solution. Free will is just better. You have to act like free will exists–its best for action, sanity, purpose, meaning, ethics, and everything human. Humans without prioritization and meaning can’t function (its almost humans without math).
11. Determinism is non-falsifiable. (similar to are we in a dream….as such its not a productive discussion. Or for instance, you could use the allegory of the fish in a stream and have the fish project what they think is outside the stream. this mirrors the boat metaphor ).
12. Motivational & Biases [worldview bias]:
a. money
b. control
c. media and book sales
d. publish or perish
e. agnosticism, atheism, or need to prove the lack of a self or a soul.
13. You give too much credit to science and underestimate the ability of other disciplines to create knowledge. This unicausal framework (particularly when wedded with the bad suit metaphor) isn’t a good way to try to address the most important questions–of human value and sacredness. Plus its toolbox is limited. Would you use a woodworkers tools to attempt to perform mental health or medical health? Generally, in 99% of cases thats probably a bad idea (nails, hammers, and screwdrivers aren’t appropriate or even optimal for solving these problems–and at a bare minimum any solution would come from a fusion of ideas and knowledge–not just carpenter knowledge. My guess is many engineers profit from expanding their wings beyond just the sciences for knowledge, insight, and perspective.)
14. Personal experience verifies the self and choice. The contrast between choice and control and addiction is rather distinct. Disregarding this experience based data is a terrible error, because its the most verifiable. (the feeling and experience of free will is ethically important. and we understand ourselves as selfs. whether you can chart that out like a chemistry chart doesn’t deny that we are selves, and meaningfully so)
15. Brain mapping & fMRI studies are imperfect and flawed (fMRI stands for functional magnetic imaging).
a) Measures indirectly–oxygenation flow–not the actual brain firings:

fMRI is a decidedly indirect measure of brain activity, as it does not measure “thinking” processes or even neural changes directly, but merely oxygenated blood flow. Scientists have even discovered that blood flow through astrocytes, glial cells that are thought to play a largely supportive role in the brain, are the main source of the fMRI signal, not neurons. In other words, the BOLD signal may not be the unquestionably valid representation of cognitive processes that researchers sometimes claim it is.

b) Suffer from circular logic:

The problem arises when researchers then go on to provide their readers with a quantitative measure of the correlation magnitude measured just within the voxels they have pre-selected for having a high correlation. This two-step procedure is circular: it chooses voxels that have a high correlation, and then estimates a high average correlation. This practice inflates the correlation measurement because it selects those voxels that have benefited from chance, as well as any real underlying correlation, pushing up the numbers.

(Jonah Lehrer in Scientific American from the article “Voo Doo Correlations in Neuroscience” available here–to be fair the truth may lie a bit in between)
c) For instance, the fMRI data doesn’t meet lie detection standards yet:

Elizabeth Phelps, a neuroscientist at New York University, agreed there is little evidence that fMRI is more reliable than previous lie-detection methods.
“When you build a model based on people in the laboratory, it may or may not be that applicable to someone who has practiced their lie over and over, or someone who has been accused of something,” Phelps said. “I don’t think that we have any standard of evidence that this data is going to be reliable in the way that the courts should be admitting.”

d) Its application to criminal justice may be more hype than not (particularly with current crude science in its early stages) (link):

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather he determines himself whether he give in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.
By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. Therefore, we can predict his future only within the large framework of statistical survey referring to a whole group; the individual personality, however, remains unpredictable. The basis of any prediction would be represented by biological, psychological, or sociological conditions. Yet one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.
What he becomes–within the limits of endowment and environment–he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Victor Frankl, Professor in Neurology and Psychology
Using life experience, including living in 4 concentration camps as his evidence
Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 131 to 134


Leave a Comment
  1. 72 / Jan 16 2012 12:01 pm

    Why is it that people never strike me as making unexpected choices; why is it that there always seems to be a reason for everything people do? Cause human behavior is predicatable, as in deterministic.. Show me human behavior that needs free will if you want to convince me.

    • compassioninpolitics / Jan 17 2012 11:38 pm

      The Victor Frankel quote answers your concern “Therefore, we can predict his future only within the large framework of statistical survey referring to a whole group; the individual personality, however, remains unpredictable.” Perhaps you should widen your data set, rather than post hoc over-generalization. You couldn’t have predicted Steve Jobs or any of the greats. Commercials, media, and entertainment are based on the unpredictable, unique, and surprise.

      You may be able to prove that human behavior is generally predictable, but not absolutely so. If it were absolutely so, it would be rather easy make money in stock market or in Vegas.

      Your argument about necessity is pretty silly. There is no need for it to be a necessity. Although, the arguments about responsibility, ethics, and goals and purpose–certainly suggest that its a necessity to make sense of our lives.

  2. Dennis Ochei / Jan 16 2012 4:13 pm

    13. How is it outside of the scope of science to determine if biological systems obey the laws of physics?
    9. No, it is not. It is not logically contradictory to do science and not have free will.
    11. Determinism is falsifiable – just bring someone into the lab that can defy the laws of physics
    8. If my choices are 75% determined by the prior state of the universe and 25% determined by the outcomes of random quantum mechanical events, how is that any more free. Lets look at the extreme case, where our choices where 100% the product of QM. I could decide to do one thing and then do another. I’d much rather my future state be determined by my present and past states and not by randomness. Also, the question “How much do quantum mechanical events play into decision making” is very much something science can address.
    5. Retributivism is disgusting. I remember a certain important Western figure saying something like “Not an eye for an eye, rather turn the other cheek.” We should aim at rehabilitation and deterrence, and understanding the neural mechanisms of decision making will help us do just that.
    2. Being determined and being predictable are too quite different things.
    14. Whether human action is egosyntonic or egodystonic has nothing to do with whether it was determined by the laws of physics….at this point I think you are confused as to what determinism is and what it’s implications are for free will. I recommend reading “Revisionism” by Vargas:

    • Nathan Ketsdever / Jan 18 2012 2:21 am

      I actually answer Vargas above on brain science (although I’m reading deeper in his article currently). But moreover, neuroscientists don’t know the substance of thoughts or ideas. They can’t isolate ideas. They can’t identify or isolate choice. Therefore, communal intuition about such things as well as the ethical and utilitarian value of responsibility should trump neuroscientists hunting for oil with hammer and nail. Its an intellectual cul-de-sac.

      His version of criminal justice turns the system into statisticians and insurance adjusters. Sure strict retribution doesn’t look pretty. I think our system modifies it so its better than what it could be–not only in terms of mercy on the front end, but also rehabilitation on the back end.

      Your scenario in 8 is both question begging & rigged.

      Your answer on 11 doesn’t prove anything. Without a clear method to identify choice, agency, or ideas–neuroscience shouldn’t be allowed into the discussion. I think the Victor Frankl quote can be leveraged to answer back all the mathematical and statistical notions regarding neuroscience.

      I’m not sure what the difference between these two are: egosyntonic or egodystonic

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