The Science of Free Will

Via Slashdot:
Do we have free will? Possibly not, according to an article in the new issue of the Economist. Entitled 'Free to choose?', the piece examines new discoveries in the fields of neuroscience and psychology that may be forcing us to re-examine the concept of free will. The specifically cite a man with paedophilic tendencies who was cured when his brain tumor was removed. 'Who then was the child abuser?', they ask.
There is a pretty big leap of logic (also taken by Robert Wright in his book The Moral Animal) from the idea that there is a strong neurological basis for our behavior and the conclusion that we have no free will.

Jewish thought has something called the Yetzer Ha'ra - the evil "inclination". The idea, in short, is that we may be inclined to do something wrong, but we still have the choice not to do it. Although the portrayals of this inclination are often given in mystical and even anthropomorphic terms in the Talmud, I believe these are meant to be purely metaphorical, and that the evil inclination can today be seen as our inherent, genetic traits.

The key point is the difference between inclination and programming. I may not feel like washing the dishes, but I wash them anyway, because I need something to eat off of. That is, I'm inclined not to wash the dishes, but I can still choose whether or not I'm going to.

In fact, Cognitive Science takes this a step further - an alcoholic may desire to drink, but he may also desire to not desire to drink any more. This is called a "second order desire". Keith Stanovich's Robot's Rebellion (which deals with free will) brings in this concept as an example of how our brains are more complex than our simple first order desires (formerly known as the "id").

The pedophile who was "cured" after brain surgery lost his inclination towards pedophilia - there may have been a part of his brain that made him sick, but there were other parts of his brain that countered that. Why should we assume that the pedophiliac part of his brain was insurmountable by the inihibitory parts? I'm not without sympathy for the man - clearly he was cursed - but I think it greatly oversimplifies things to say that the man had absolutely no control over his actions. We should definitely consider his pedophilia as an ailment that needs to be treated, and be sensitive that it's much, much harder for him to avoid illegal behavior than most people, but even so, he still can avoid it, and therefore needs to be held accountable.

Last but not least, if none of us have free will, then what's the point of this stupid conversation? Legislators will write whatever laws they're programmed to write. The people will vote for whomever they're programmed to vote for. The police will arrest whomever they're programmed to arrest. Etc. Etc. Etc. The idea that we can shape public policy around the idea that there's no free will is absurd at best - once there's no free will, no one is shaping anything, now, are we?



Anonymous said...

You people are idiots. You can't cure pedophilea, the guy either ended up getting a knock on the head and is now lying to himself, or just lying to you.

Anonymous said...

the guy is lying. He probably doesn't want to be baggered.

YodaYid said...

I'm not sure who you are referring to when you say "you people", and I have no idea whether pedophilia can be "cured" or not - I'm only quoting the article from the Economist. I think it's perfectly plausible that a tumor might stimulate a part of the brain that make someone desire children, or to damage the part of the brain that inhibits that desire. Removing that tumor might then "cure" pedophilia, or at least reduce it. My argument was that even so, the experiment is still not enough to discard free will.

Anyway, if the guy was lying, and he really still is a pedophile, how long do you really think that's going to last? And how would a "knock on the head" be any more of an explanation than brain surgery?

Anonymous said...

I don't see that making a distinction between inclinantion and action is valid. If I have no inclination then what merit in not acting? What about the strength of the inclination? I can resist the occasional weak inclination to a drink; I fail to resist the inclination to smoke. Further, why shouldn't the ability to resist an inclination be affected by neurology in the same way as inclinations?

My personal position is - there is no free will; good and evil are meaningless other than as personification of actions that are civic or not.

Being an aethiest I will invoke the anthropic principle; we live in a world where the nature of our brains is that which it must be for there to be the civilisation we see. I know that I know right from wrong whilst not knowing how and I'm inclined towards right (in a civic sense). The vast majority of people are the same or we wouldn't have civilisation.


Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention, I read the article and, cravenly, avoided thinking of the implications. I do not believe that the view I expressed above is either a cop-out or a means of avoiding the question of "who am I?, might I grow a tumor and start raping children?" but, luckily, there is no empathy between my emotions and my thoughts.


YodaYid said...

Hi Nick - thanks for writing. You bring up many good points.

First, although I do take (what I believe is) the Jewish approach in the post, I think my argument stands on purely scientific grounds (which is why I quote Robot's Rebellion, a cog-sci book).

Regarding inclination versus action, you yourself are making the distinction ("I can resist the occasional weak inclination to a drink"). If you can resist an inclination, then your actions are separate from your inclination. So I think it's a perfectly valid distinction.

I have no problem saying that the ability to resist an inclination is based on pure neurology. However, once you start talking about resisting inclinations, the picture that starts to emerge is much more complex: there are many, many interactions between different parts of our brains that are pulling us in different directions.

Using the drinking example, one part of our brain wants a drink because we're thirsty. Another part wants a drink for the purpose of social lubrication. Another part doesn't want a drink (i.e. inhibits our desire for a drink) because we may need to drive later on. And on and on - the complexity of the different forces that determine whether we end up taking a drink or not is staggering.

Here's the key - who's to say that there isn't part of our brain that doesn't arbitrate all these different influences and make a final decision? I.e. a part that weighs the different options/influences and chooses? Alternatively, perhaps the interplay between all these forces creates something bigger than the sum of the parts that we don't yet understand? Science hasn't explained consciousness - far from it - so why jump to conclusions as if they have?

Here's a crazy thought: maybe some external, random electrical impulse in our heads push us to behave one way or another. That is, different forces are pulling us in different directions, and a magnetic field in the vicinity pushes the balance one way or the other? Allowing for that means that our actions and decisions are completely non-deterministic. It turns out that this idea is not so crazy - haunted houses are often simply houses with strong magnetic fields inside that make us think it's haunted (link).

Finally, whether a choice is good/right or evil/wrong, and why, is well beyond the scope of this post. I'm simply trying to deal with whether any sort of choice is there at all, which is hard enough ;-)