Saturday, December 22, 2012

Man or Puppet

One of the most enduring and controversial philosophical questions ever is the issue of whether or not humans have free will. The importance of this controversy emanates from its personal association of ego and the nature of societal evolution. Unfortunately there are times when the controversial nature of this question experiences an artificial increase in controversy due to ineffective comparison values based on the points of arguments. Basically there are times when appropriate boundary conditions are not applied and arguments boil down to comparing apples and oranges creating confusion and inconsistent conclusions. Therefore, it is important to state in clear specific language what definition of ‘free will’ is being utilized when arguing either in its favor or opposition. Note that the terms unconscious and subconscious will be used interchangeably.

Typically there are two legitimate definitions regarding free will: 1) The ability to choose between a set of options with the potential of develop different outcomes that can shape the future stemming from that choice. 2) Everything in 1) with the additional ability to formulate the set of options from which the choice will be made. Note that these definitions do not include weight or power in the decision making process. Just because an individual does not have significant influence to directly create a different outcome does not mean that the individual does not have free will.

For the purposes of this discussion ‘free will’ will be acknowledged as the cause of the action both in origin and execution, i.e. the second above definition. Note that it is not appropriate to view free will as “the ability to select an action which leads to the fulfillment of a desire” or “selecting based on existing values and characteristics to achieve a desire.” The reason is that such definitions are limiting because they does not contradict with determinism by identifying whether or not the person was actually in control of the decision-making, thus undercutting the chief issue of debate regarding free will.

What is the argument surrounding this definition? Realistically the question of free will is derived from two aspects of human thought: creation of choice and selection of choice (action). Thus, human thought can be broken down into three different constructs: 1) Using sensory, biological and quantum information an individual can consciously create a list of options regarding a given situation and then make a decision from those options. 2) Subconscious thoughts using sensory, biological and quantum information create a list of options that are then ‘transferred’ to the conscious mind and then a decision is consciously made from those subconsciously created options. 3) Both options and decisions are significantly influenced by the subconscious mind in such a way that free will is basically non-existent. Some would argue that there is a fourth option in that all choices are created and all actions are based on randomness, but discussion of such an option makes little sense because nothing substantial can come from it due to the inelastic nature of the argument. A side question also exists in that suppose option 2 or 3 is correct, can conscious decisions (even at low influences for 3) influence the subconscious created list?

The chief camp opposed to free will, determinism, would be best classified as aligned with option 3. Determinism concludes that all actions are predicted with the present dictating the future entirely and necessarily (every occurrence results from prior events), thus free will does not exist because no conscious choices exist because no alternative options exist, only one path is ever taken. When viewed through the lens of a math problem free will can be regarded as x + y = z where x is positive and z is greater than 5 (some boundary conditions exist for one cannot execute any desire action) whereas determinism can be regarded as past and existing conditions demanding that x = 2 and y = 4 thus one will always choose z to equal 6.

Some determinists even extend the argument to that because physics is reversible one could argue that all effects create their initial state causes; however, such a mindset is only technically correct not practically because spill one billion cups of coffee and never will the coffee ‘magically’ jump back into the cup from the floor even though it is theoretically possible. For humans all actions are traced back to biological events in the body and brain through sensory and information processing beyond conscious consideration. Determinists also like to point out that if determinism is false then actions are random and the randomization of actions also eliminates the existence of free will.

The nature of thought is an important consideration when discussing free will. What makes up a thought? Some determinists argue that free will does not exist in part because a vast majority of the information processed in the brain is unconscious. Therefore, how can free will exist if a majority of the methodology that governs the choices one makes operates outside of consciousness? Support for the above belief is drawn from one of the most famous neurobiological experiments thought to concern free will. In the 1980s Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment to observe the readiness potential in relation to perceived conscious thought. After the conclusion of the experiment it was determined from EEG recordings that the readiness potential occurred, on average, 350 milliseconds before a subject had the conscious inclination to act.1

Based on this information Libet and his supporters argued that the brain had already decided to act on a subconscious level before consciousness had determined to act, thus it was extrapolated that any action should have this same subconscious action component so no action was based on conscious decision-making making free will an illusion.1,2 However, Libet did not totally forsake free will despite what some may think. Due to a 100 to 200-millisecond separation between conscious recognition of action and the actual physical action, he concluded that humans had a conscious ‘veto’ power with which they could prevent actions, thus maintaining an aspect of free will. Some reinforce this empirical evidence of unconscious processing with the mindset that one cannot know until one knows. Basically a person cannot know what a thought will be until it occurs and this mindset is established by unconscious elements along with other physical and mental elements that are beyond the conscious mind.

However, there are interesting side questions to this issue both regarding the readiness potential and the so-called ‘veto’ power. Incorporating how the brain creates thoughts is necessary to deducing the validity of free will. It is not appropriate to presume every depolarizating neuron in the brain is akin to a thought. From a neurobiological level thoughts are created when a large enough depolarized neuronal network has been created throughout various locations in the brain. Therefore, in the nature of information processing it seems inappropriate to associate all neuronal firing that fails to create a thought as ‘evidence/support’ as information processing for a deterministic worldview. Thus, this so-called pre-conscious decision making process associated with the readiness potential may simply be spontaneous brain activity.

One aspect of consideration is to suppose that subconscious information processing is not able to produce the necessary depolarization cascade to produce a thought without an associated conscious addition. For example one may need to apply 10 psi to crush object A, but hand A can only produce 7 psi. No matter how long hand A applies pressure to object A it will never produce enough pressure to crush it. Therefore, hand B will have to be applied to produce the additional required pressure, just like a conscious thought may be required to depolarize enough neurons in the proper areas of the brain, either through elimination of inhibition or additional depolarization, to produce a given thought. There is belief that consciousness is dependent on information feedback between different regions of the brain versus an activation hierarchy. If this is the case one can argue that consciousness produces all thought because without consciousness there would be no thought, just incomplete information processing, and with no thought there would be no action.

Libet and other have also considered this conscious component (referred to as a ‘trigger’), but he and others more preferred veto ability. Unfortunately there are two major elements to veto theory that raise concern. First, if the action is entirely based on unconscious signaling (outside conscious control) then how could the consciousness “know” what to veto? In some context consciousness has to almost guess what action to stop. From Libet’s experiment there is a very small window (100-200 millisecond) in which the conscious inclination is developed regarding the action before the action actually takes place, but it is difficult to reason that a consciousness could identify the exact type of action and inhibit it in such a short time frame. Granted the lack of knowledge of brain leaves the possibility open, but it does seem unlikely. Another option may be consciousness having some ‘universal veto’ ability that is able to inhibit any unconscious provoked action.

Second, there seems to be a conscious inconsistency with a veto power. The veto power is associated with consciousness, but principle action is unconscious, which implies a sense of randomness associated with existing conditions. However, people do not tend have perceptions consistently pop into their heads like ‘Don’t wave my left arm’, ‘Don’t stomp my right foot’, ‘Don’t smile’, etc. Would such behavior in conscious context be expected of a conscious veto?

However, despite the ‘trigger’ or ‘veto’ it can be argued that conscious control does not govern all aspects of thought. Two separate types of thought can be expressed. The first type of thought can be classified as stray thoughts, those without rational cohesion. These thoughts spontaneously appear in the consciousness, but are improperly constructed and typically do not make sense. For example the thought of a purple dragon that blows cotton candy instead of fire appearing in the mind. These types of thoughts can also be associated with typical dream states and epiphanies (like the famous example of the aromatic structure of benzene being thought of as a snake eating its own tail.) The second type of thought can be classified as cohesive thoughts. These thoughts are triggered by conscious involvement and make much more sense than stray thoughts. Due to the involvement of the conscious mind cohesive thoughts involve better understand of how a person perceives and responds to the existing surrounding space (self, inanimate objects and animated objects).

Others would counter such a claim by asking where is the origin of the conscious aspect of thought if it does not derive from the unconscious aspect. That question is the big question and is currently unanswerable based on current neurobiological knowledge, but there is precedence for the elastic nature of the unconscious/involuntary mind. Zen monks, through a strict meditation regiment, are believed to be able to develop the ability to voluntarily influence previously involuntary biochemical and neuronal processes in the body.3,4

In addition one point of contention with individuals who claim that either alien hand syndrome or anarchic hand syndrome supports a lack of free will is that these conditions are products of a broken system (damaged brain). It is not appropriate to draw conclusions about a working and functional system by observing the behavior of a broken system. To the point of conscious requirement for movements, theorized above, being disproved by these syndromes again the broken system could remove conscious or unconscious inhibitory controls that would originally prevent the movement, which would require conscious intervention to overcome (primary motor cortex relationship with premotor cortex).5 Eliminate this inhibitory action through breaking the system and conscious intervention is no longer required.

It would be similar to having a sluice controlling water flow through a dam and then punching a hole in the dam. After creating the hole the sluice does not have much of a purpose anymore with regards to controlling the flow of water. There is evidence to suggest that the unconscious behavior is the result of autonomous activity in the primary motor cortex with a lack of input from the premotor cortex, thus offering an explanation for unconscious actions in these situations.5,6

Likewise it is not appropriate for individuals to claim that after the application of an external electrical stimuli to the brain results in some form of involuntary movement supports a lack of free will. The brain functions through sending electrical and chemical signals between neurons to culminate the production of thought and action. Typically the applied electrical stimuli in these experiments are of significant magnitude that they create a large enough signaling depolarization cascade that normal operations can do little to stop. It would be akin to stating that sea walls do not function as designed on any level when a 10 ft. wall fails to stop a 30 ft. tsunami. Also when the electrical stimulus is applied there is no direct application concerning whether ‘unconscious’ or ‘conscious’ neurons are chiefly influenced due to a lack of knowledge.

Another argument made by determinists is that the existence of free will is an emotional reaction by individuals who must be ‘reassured’ that their interactions with others and society make logical and emotional sense, especially in the context of morality. Unfortunately this position is not a useful point of argument because it does nothing to address the question of whether or not free will exists. Whether or not someone believes something exists has no influence on whether or not it actually does exist on an absolute level. Although it is understandable why such a mindset would be naturally occurring in most people.

Others argue that determinism is essential because if one is responsible for actions taken/decisions made in one given situation then one must be responsible for how one is as a person. However, it is argued that this premise cannot be correct because at one point there must have been an origination of the person being that person. Basically humans cannot create him/herself or mental states ex nihilo. However, this belief seems to be dependent on the assumption that free will exists from birth… what if that is not the case?

Can one claim that an individual has free will upon birth? Based on the first definition provided above the answer could be yes depending on one’s personal viewpoint regarding choice selection. Based on the second definition provided above it is difficult to conclude yes because without having an understanding of self one cannot understand the rationality behind the choice offered, thus one cannot influence those choices with the conscious aspect of the thought. No infant upon birth has an understanding of self, thus no infant can have free will based on the second definition. Until that recognition of self occurs free will cannot exist. Upon recognizing self one creates conscious influence on existing boundary conditions and can exert influence on both choice creation and choice action. Self in this situation could arise from the principle of emergence based on a maturation of neuronal processing.

One confusing aspect of determinism is the attempt to argue that fatalism is not an inevitable response. Determinists like to argue that people confuse fatalism and determinism. The argument is that individuals become skeptical that they can control their desires and motivations, thus they elect to not even try. Another means to state this issue is that those suffering from fatalism believe that their choices have causes, but no resultant effect thus they have no influence or power. However, the only difference between fatalism and determinism is state of mind. The reality for both determinism and fatalism are the same, one is powerless to create a different future from what is already determined by the existing conditions created by past events. The details regarding whether the inevitability of the future is due to causality or not is rather irrelevant.

The problem with attempts to differentiate determinism and fatalism is that they do not make any sense. If determinism is correct then individuals cannot control what happens, so it does not matter whether or not they try to apply effort to influence their actions because those actions occur anyways. Also even in fatalism an individual’s choices have causes and effects because the basic concept of determinism is built upon that reality. Suppose John wants to give flowers to Suzie so he orders flowers from Delivery Company A (Action 1). Delivery Company A assigns the flowers to be delivered by Jason. (Action 2). Jason delivers the flowers and Suzie gives John a kiss (Action 3). Even if Jason has no choice in the matter (action 2 must be taken) the completion of action 2 is required for the execution of action 3 at that particular moment, thus action 2 has a cause and an effect. Granted Jason still is powerless, but his ‘choice’ is required for the world to function, thus Jason makes the choice to deliver the flowers no matter what because that is what the past and current boundary conditions force him to do. Overall based on existing empirical evidence and logic it is difficult to conclude that determinism, as a matter of direct influence of choice, is a serious threat to the existence of free will.

However, removing the threat of determinism from choice selection is not the only barrier to supporting free will. For the purposes of this debate only option 1 corresponds to free will. Almost immediately option 2 could create a problem for those believing in free will. A more extreme position on free will is taken by Descartes and John Paul Sartre claiming that humans have a form of ‘absolute freedom’ where the only restriction on a free will is that it always must be free. This position does not appear to be correct based on how information is processed in the brain because there are unconscious inputs that more than likely will always remain unconscious and thus cannot be influenced by the conscious mind. These unconscious inputs will place inherent boundary conditions on the means in which free will can operate limiting the number of choices that can be created even if the conscious mind can create the choices. Realistically the only way to agrue a position of ‘universal’ freedom for free will is to believe that free will is driven by an element that exists beyond these unconscious processing factors, a soul for instance.

Some liberalists (free will advocates) argue that just because free will is not absolutely free that fact that people can make choices still means that free will exists. It is similar to saying that something is not true because there is a lack of absoulte knowledge. This statement can be divided into two different aspects. First, absolute freedom means the ability to do anything even if it violates the laws of physics. Clearly it is inappropriate to take this definition when regarding absoulte freedom. Second, absolute freedom means the ability to do anything within the boundary conditions created by uncontrollable elements like the laws of physics, chemistry, etc. The concern with this explanation is that can something really be considered free will if the available choices one can choose from are created outside of that freedom?

Some attempt to provide support for an unconscious choice creator by demonstrating the dominant role the unconscious mind plays on behavior. The interesting aspect of this argument for the unconscious role is that the unconscious mind does not come into being as a complete rigid entity, which cannot gain new information processing abilities or capacity as one ages. Like the conscious mind, the unconscious mind grows and learns over time, most likely with a heuristic processing methodology. It could be reasoned that this learning method could be influenced by conscious action through either the expansion of existing ideas into new previously unconsidered ideas (spark of inspiration) or through continuous specific decision making invoking greater long-term potentiation (LTP) probability. Countering the determinist mindset of ‘one cannot know until one knows’ LTP actually can create higher probabilities of knowledge prediction. In one respect through LTP conscious decision-making could influence unconscious choice creation to a point where it becomes more conscious than unconscious based on ‘rigging’ the heuristic processing of the unconscious part of the mind.

Libertarian free will supporters also attempt to break through determinism by arguing that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics creates sufficient randomness so that past elements cannot have only a single outcome condition and without determinism free will exists by default. Ignore for the moment that this randomness does not address the potential choice creation of the unconscious mind, determinists also raise the question that if quantum randomness exists then how can one conclude that this randomness is not the governing factor in decision making and action versus the individual actor? Some even go so far to suggest that any real randomness would make the whole world independent of any earlier states.

The problem is the anti-randomness group only seems to focus on the extreme aspects of randomness. This belief is silly because the world does not exist on a string of numerous random elements placed together. Instead random events can occur, but the extent of those events is controlled by various existing boundary conditions, which are established by past events/action and existing conditions (including one’s brain function). To John Fiske and others these boundary conditions are what prevent a sane mother from strangling her first-born child. Note that whether one wishes to suggest that these boundary conditions forgo real randomness is a matter of question. Is real randomness the possibility that everything could happen or that something (but not necessarily anything) randomly happens? Free will is based on the notion of option two; for example mental illness could be viewed as the loss of the conscious second parameter of choice, thus random actions are taken within the boundary conditions available.

Finally between the determinists and liberalists are the compatibilists who maintain that determinism is compatible with free will. Sadly compatibilists are rather pointless players in the real debate regarding free will because they do not seem to actually want to debate the existence of free will. Compatibilists define free will as “the freedom to act according to one’s determined motives without hindrance from other individuals.” Recall earlier that such a definition was viewed as inappropriate because it does not influence the nature of the debate on the existence of free will. The concern with the compatibilists viewpoint is that they appear to only care about free will as a relative concept not an absolute concept. Take David Hume who states that the concept of free will spoken of by compatibilist should not be viewed as an actual choice, but instead the person will always make the one decision that he/she is required by the universe to make based on the existing conditions. Basically compatibilists believe that all that matters is that people think they have free will not whether or not they actually have it because in absolute terms they don’t because it is a deterministic world.

Daniel Dennett exemplifies this viewpoint where he states the only well-defined things are “expectation”. Without total knowledge individuals have the ability to act differently from what anyone expects, which demonstrates free will. In some context this viewpoint is such that free will exists because humans do not know enough to say that it does not exist, but that is not addressing the real question of whether or not free will actually exists. Compatibilists are determinists who, for what ever reason, do not have the capacity to accept the ‘lack of control’ consequences of determinism and instead take a position that is basically a cop-out refusing to address the real nature of free will and its validity. The only way this position is not a cop-out is making the argument that humans will never know, within reason, if absolute free will exists and making such a statement is not wise as the history of predicting the future has demonstrated. For example in the 1910s one could suggest that no one would ever know what it was like to walk on the moon and almost everyone asked would wrongly agree.

On a side note regarding the Newcomb paradox, it does not appear to be paradoxical on its face. The paradox appears to be derived from inconsistent definition of the initial conditions and power of the predictor. For example the paradox stems from a perceived conflict between two decision making strategies derived from two separate philosophical arguments: 1) Past events cannot be affected so future action cannot influence a past event; 2) The prediction of the Predictor establishes equivalence between the choice and the content of the opaque box which is determined by the prediction of the Predictor. Therefore, the choice in the future affects the past prediction.

There are two questions that influence this issue, one directly and one indirectly. The direct question is whether the dominance principle or expected utility hypothesis is the superior choice. The indirect question is whether or not free will exists. Addressing the first question the obvious choice is to select only box B (expected utility). The logic of this choice is demonstrated through mathematical probability payout. If the Predictor is correct selecting A and B will only net $1,000 whereas selecting only B will net $1,000,000.

If the Predictor is incorrect then logic entails that selecting A and B is the best course of action netting either $1,000 over $0 or $1,001,000 over $1,000,000. However, this second reasoning is flawed because it does not take the probability of Predictor accuracy into account. Instead it only uses standard game theory reasoning at a basic single action level (similar to the simplest Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario). The key element to this issue is the predictive capacity of the Predictor. If one believes that the Predictor has an accuracy capacity rate exceeding approximately 50.05% selecting B makes more money. Normally one could conclude that because there are more possibilities below 50.05% than above one should select A and B, but the paradox presumes the Predictor is very accurate, if not completely accurate, therefore the probability that its accuracy capacity is lower than 50.05% is zero. The problem with invoking the viability of the dominance principle in Newcomb’s paradox is that the dominance principle is flawed on its face because it does not consider scale relative to probability of occurrence.

The indirect question in the Newcomb paradox of the existence of free will or not is not applicable. The reason for this irrelevance is because the issue of free will is entirely defined by the predictive capacity of the Predictor. If the Predictor is flawless then no free will exists because the Predictor is an agent of determinism, which uses the past events and current boundary conditions to define the near future. If the Predictor can be incorrect then free will can exist because there are elements that can influence events that cannot be predicted through deterministic processes. However, in the paradox the individual outlining the boundary conditions when stating the paradox determines the predictive capacity of the Predictor. Therefore, the issue of free will is completely determined by the bias of the individual introducing the specific parameters of the paradox. To those who argue that free will is defined in the problem even if the Predictor is always right, that “free will” is relative free will not absolute free will (basically the individual making the decision does not realize that he/she has no choice in the decision).

Largely the question of free will boils down to the expected definition. Based on what is known biologically it is difficult to argue that determinism eliminates the ability to choose and for those choices to impact the future in such a way that different outcomes would fail to emerge. It seems that most determinists focus on demanding that liberalists have the burden of proof aspect where both sides actually have to prove their position for there is no suitable default position. However, there is an issue with the nature of the legitimacy of free will being defined in how choices are created in the first place. It stands to reason that the conscious mind is not exclusively responsible for all of the information processing that allows for the creation of existing choices. The question is how much conscious thought must go into the creation of the choice(s) for it to be judged as ‘created by consciousness’ over unconsciousness? The difficulty of that question makes it difficult to conclude in either the affirmative or the negative about the validity of free will. Overall for all of the semantics that are used about free will answering the question of choice creation, not choice action, appears to be the most important question of all.


1. Libet, B, et Al. “Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activities (readiness-potential); the unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act.” Brain. 1983. 106:623-42.

2. Libet, B. “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action.” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 1985. 8:529-566.

3. Dooley, C. “The impact of meditative practices on physiology and neurology: A review of the literature.” Scientia Discipulorum. 2009. 4:35-59.

4. Carruthers, M. “Voluntary control of the involuntary nervous system; Comparison of autogenic training and siddha meditation.” Experimental and Clinical Psychology. 1981. 6:171-181.

5. Assal, F, Schwartz, S, and Vuilleumier, P. “Moving with or without will: Functional neural correlates of alien hand syndrome.” Annals of Neurology. 2007. 62(3): 301–306.

6. Kayser, A, Sun, F, and D'Esposito, M. “A comparison of Granger causality and coherency in fMRI-based analysis of the motor system.” Human Brain Mapping. 2009. 30(11): 3475–3494.

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