philosophy science theology

random choice

Scenario 1: After instructing a person to make a random choice between two options in front of her, a computer detects brain activity in a human subject before she clicks the button to communicate her choice.  The experiment conductor, upon repeats of the same experiment, can predict her choice seconds before she is aware of it.  It is still a choice, for although the choice emerged from brain processes, she was not told which one to choose.

Scenario 2: After asking her son to choose between strawberry or vanilla ice cream, a mother detects a facial expression on her son before he verbalises his choice.  The mother, upon repeated instances of this scenario, can predict his choice before it is communicated.  It is still a choice, for although he has a tendency to choose vanilla, both flavours were on offer.

Scenario 3: Having eternally given to creation (humans in particular) the freedom to move toward good and order or evil and chaos, the omniscient Creator has full knowledge of the direction taken before, after and during the moment (from their perspective) it is made.  The Creator, in all places and times, can predict the direction taken.  It is still a free initiative, for although the result was known, both were live options.

20 replies on “random choice”

*facepalm* this old debate is exceptionally semantical..

You’ve opted (OR HAVE YOU) for the re-conceptualizing ‘free will’ as ‘freedom from coercion’ option.

What is ‘it’ doing the choosing if not the brain? And if the brain can be predicted to make a choice before ‘it’ is cognitively aware of making a choice (before engaging the pre-frontal cortex), then how is this even a choice; moreover, how is it free? It seems pretty convincing to me that there is nothing ‘free’ about this choice in the sense of ‘given the identical situation, the choice made could not have been different than the one actually made.’

To think of this a little differently, imagine a car arriving at a ‘T’ junction. There appears to be a choice for it to turn left or turn right. It seems to the casual observer that all arriving cars have the option to turn either way, and seem ‘free’ to do so. Studying the movement of cars, however, reveals something startling: we detect patterns that successfully predict which car will turn left or right. How is this possible if each driver is ‘free’ to choose?

This is the way those who support ‘free will’ see the evidence for choice – by conglomerate appearances alone rather than by independent individual actions – but fail to account for the predictive quality of which ‘choice’ will be made. It isn’t until we step closer and understand what’s going on that we begin to see the different lines on the road, the printed arrows, the overhead signs, the cement dividers, the warning signs and advance lights, and so on, and we begin to see that what appears to be a ‘free choice’ from far away is no such thing up close; once the individual car approaches the ‘T’, we already know which car will turn which way. In other words, the appearance of choice is not sufficient to explain what is actually going on, why we can successfully predict which car will ‘choose’ which way to turn. In fact, the word ‘choose’ clearly is a misnomer because the factors leading up to a turning decision may have had nothing to do with the individual driver (acting not as a ‘free’ agent but as a delivery driver) following orders quite independent of the driver’s preferences.

Now remove the individual drivers from the scenario entirely and automate them to represent thoughts we have about decisions we have already made and we’re getting a bit closer to what we are talking about regarding ‘free will’, which seems to be neither free nor a will independent of neurochemical interactions.

That’s a potentially helpful metaphor, though I think it’s weakness is that it has prescriptive pressure and habit built into it already. Technically, one remains, in that scenario, free to be a) ignorant of the road rules, b) chasing someone, James Bond style, the other way, c) asleep, or otherwise. To translate this metaphor back into the experiment, it would be like showing the subject two road-rules scanarios (pics of roads and arrows denoting where they cars travel) and asking them to ‘choose’ which one obeys the road rules. Their ‘choice’ in this case is prescripted. A well designed experiment would filter out all preference, habit, prescriptive pressure – a tricky job as some might well have (very subconscious!?) preferences for even ‘left’ square or ‘right’ square.

The choosing human agent is thoroughly embodied, and equipped with brain, facial expression, etc. So nobody here is denying that choices (indeed real, actual choices) are independent of neurochemical interactions. And nobody is denying that choices can very often be predicted. Indeed, much of life (driving would be a case in point) is better when we don’t over-think it! Much of life flows better with some degree of ‘auto-pilot’. I don’t think it’s meaningful to say that we ‘choose’ to take each breath we take, we just ‘do’ it or we’ll die. But even though other choices will have identifiable influencing factors on them (i.e. life stress influencing someone to commit suicide, starting their car in their garage – door closed), it IS meaningful to call that a choice, in a sense that it is not for ‘choosing’ to breathe. Yes, there is a momentum of biological and cultural pressure upon our choices, but it is fallacious, in my view, to reduce all decision making to this. Individually and culturally, we are able to act and choose against the momentum of bio/cultural pressure.

But again, slipping beneath the surface of discussion, is the simple fact that the subject is told to ‘choose’. The time it takes, and the mere fact that the choice can be known by another (by an experiment conductor, a mother or an omniscient being) before the subject chooses, does not make it not a choice. I fail to see the logic that it does.

Well, this is the really thorny problem with asserting that people exercise free will; first, we have to understand what it is we’re talking about so that we’re on the same page and, second, we have to answer the question, “Given the identical situation, molecule for molecule, could we have done otherwise than ‘choose’ the choice we actually made?” This is a very difficult question to answer with any kind of confidence because the fact of the matter is that we don’t have anyway to know!

Using the analogy, once a car turns left, does it serve any kind of evidence for choice when we say it could have turned right… simply because we – from our bird’s eye view – can see that that was an option… not taken. Why wasn’t it taken?

Again, from our bird’s eye view, we see that two options are available for turning. It seems intuitive that half the cars should turn left and half turn right. But is this what happens? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? There are all kinds of factors that come into play, factors we really must account for if we are going to stick with the notion of ‘free’ to make the choice. But the closer we look at how this supposedly ‘free will’ was exercised, we find less and less freedom and more and more determinism by the factors… right down to the neurochemical processes entirely independent of any cognitive function we can associate with ‘choice’.

This leads us back to the question of figuring out if, in fact, we could have chosen differently other than what our neurochemistry actually determined! And this leads us back to being much more discriminating about the terms ‘free’ and ‘will’ when we are really talking about deterministic brain function. Given certain conditions, we can predict to a very high degree of accuracy what you ‘free will’ will choose, and this does not bode well for those who are convinced that we have any such ability.

Of course, from the chirstian perspective, there is a requirement for free will to be exercised in order to make some sense of having a ‘relationship’ with a creative intervening personal god who allows global suffering from a prey/predator design. But this metaphysical requirement doesn’t seem to fit the reality we share of how the brain actually functions to make what appears to be unencumbered choices about faith-based beliefs. And a pretty good hint about the truth-value of any religion is revealed rather rudely when we find out that geography – and not what’s true – plays such a central determining role in who believes what. Does a child raised and indoctrinated within a devout family really have much ‘free will’ in assuming faith-based beliefs to be independently true in reality? I think such factors really do play a very deterministic role that is only later examined and tweaked to enhance confirmation bias (or sometimes rejected outright if the same intellectual honesty is applied to faith-based claims that is applied to all other claims about reality).

We can affect our deterministic brain by creating new neural nets, new pathways so to speak, and applying different processing rules – whether this is done to promote new sensory paths, done in response to psychological therapy, or to learn and incorporate a different methodology to our decision making. We may not have free will but we do have the power of evolution for how we think – including the power of change over time.

not avoiding a reply, but I did a more detailed post here, which I think does address the obvious facts of pressure upon our choices (i.e. geography > religion), but also notes that we can resist or transcend this pressure.

It’s not so much that we exercise decisions that have the appearance of choice that bothers me so much; it’s this notion of ‘free’ somehow attached to ‘will’. It makes no sense. Free from what? Free of what? That we act or do not act meets the description of choosing (as seen from a distance), but I cannot for the life of me figure out what people are talking about when they describe this process as being ‘free’, as if there are no deterministic factors in play when even a cursory glace at the issue of exercising decisions incorporates consideration for exactly these factors and how much weight of importance we grant to them.

Even if there is indeterminate choice (which I don’t believe), then there’s nothing ‘free’ about it.

(this has to be my only comment here today – my will is not free to spend more time commenting today :P)

Indeed the question of ‘free’ from what is key. Certainly, nobody is claiming that the appetites of our wills are free of any relationship to our bodies (and the influencing pressure from others and circumstances and the momentum of the past, etc.). But I’m yet to see any reasons that the mere presence of pressure upon our wills makes them wholly and permanently enslaved to this pressure. Indeed, our unique capacity for self-determination as humans means that whilst our brains are ‘reaction machines’, it’s not an either/or between ‘reaction’ and ‘decision’, for we are perpetually aware (unless drugged, drunk or unconscious) of a range of ways of reacting. Basically, the sense of ‘free’ I’m using is not a strange weird sense such as us being free to fly or free from any influence from any ‘other’, but simply that we have the ability to ‘transcend’ these influences as free agents. Indeed, apathy, alchohol, depression, sleep or unconsciousness (or being told to make a ‘random choice’ in an experimental, and thus rather artificial setting!?) are things that tilt us more toward ‘auto-pilot’ mode, but this doesn’t mean we’re slaves – all the time.

“Indeed, our unique capacity for self-determination as humans”.

False. Various other animals are capable of decision making when presented with two or more options.

So stop using words like ‘unique’. Stop tooting humanity’s horn. As a unintentional product of nature’s ebb and flow, we are nothing special.

you gots anthropocentricismophobia mate :) psychologically, a hesitance to acknowledge one’s ability is fear of mis-using it. none of the animals are having this conversation, and it’s not anthropocentric to acknowledge the points where are are unique. but honestly, this convo passed the ‘agree-to-disagree’ point a while back. we can both use our time better than this methinks :)

haha just like you’ve got agnosticismophobia I suppose. Obviously I am aware that we are a superior species when it comes to life on Earth – but I don’t go giving myself divine purpose or pretending I’m the most important of all ‘creation’ now do I..

well, the things humans say and do belie an assumption that we have both purpose and tasks that are important. And fwiw, I think viewing oneself as “the most important” is a quite sharply sub-Christian attitude. There’s nothing in the Bible or Christian doctrine through the centuries that requires believers to hold some strange view that the existence and purpose of, say, alpha centauri is singularly and solely ‘for humans’. Creation is for the Creator, not for humans. Interestingly, the whole enterprise of science fits within the larger ‘job description’ of humans to govern and name everything in creation. But this hardly means that it is ‘for us’ in the bizarre sense above.

We can give ourselves purpose and tasks to do. Sure. But there’s simply no reason to believe there’s an ultimate purpose given to us by an ultimate god.

topic: -> free will
relevant sub-topic: –> unique ability
less relevant question —> ‘special’ or not
even less relevant question —-> divine purpose > …

me thinks keeping it to topic and relevant sub-topics is a good rule without being too much of a topic nazi. i’d prefer other topics discussed on other posts (and I’ve posts on many of the other topics if you can be bothered searching)

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