Posts Tagged ‘Determinism’

Free Will

July 13, 2015

On the last day of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) convention I attended a session on the general topic of free will.  One of the papers analyzed choices people make as a source of data, which is very close to the approach advocated in a book I had recently read.  I recommended this book to the presenter.  He thanked me as was unaware of this volume.  I decided that a review of this book would be more informative than a discussion of the papers at this session.

Free Will is an important philosophical topic and is also the title of the book by Mark Ballagher in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  He is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles.  He is the most remarkable philosophical author I have ever read.  In my experience philosophical writing involves making the same point with the most subtle nuisances over and over again to what is, in my view, beating a dead horse.  I think in many cases Cliff Notes will suffice and one need not suffer the abuse of philosophical writing.  Mark Ballagher is  an exception.   He is writing is highly readable and to the point.  He allows the horse to live.  He neatly dissects the topic and makes his points concisely.

In the case of free will he dismisses arguments that justify free will on external basis not relevant to the philosophical argument per se.  For example, arguing that free will is necessary or there would not basis for law and punishment.  Ballagher states up front that he has no religious beliefs and does not believe in God.  So those issues are out of the way.

He argues that the big problem with the classical argument against free will is that it just assumes determinism is true.  That makes it easy.  But what makes determinism true? Determinism is still an open philosophical and scientific question.  Quantum physics undermines determinism because it entails uncertainty, but there are still clever arguments that attempt to deal with this uncertainty in undermining free will.  But these are arguments, not compelling arguments, and do not disprove free will.  Philosophical arguments against free will do not hold up  to Ballagher’s analysis.

Then he addresses the scientific argument that there is empirical evidence against free will.  Psychologists might argue that subliminal perception and the fact that the vast amount of mental activity is unconscious (see the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  But to argue that we are unaware of some, even most of our mental activity, does not mean that we never control or make decisions on the basis of mental activity.

Evidence from neuroscience appears to be stronger.  There is LIbet’s experiment that there was neural activity indicating the action before we decided to perform the action.   Ballagher does not mention this, but I believe that LIbet himself did not believe this, although many have used his data to make the argument.  Haynes’ studies appear to be a more successful attempt to debunk free will, but Ballagher digs into the scientific data to reveal its flaws.

Ballagher even criticizes philosophical arguments for free will, for example Hume’s compatabilism.  Ballagher gets to his point by asking what is meant by Free  Will actually.   It is true that most of our information processing  occurs below our level of consciousness.  Ballagher introduces the notion of torn decisions to explain what he means by free will.  Examples of  torn decisions are which restaurant to go do, which movie to see, which college to go to, and so forth.  One can still argue that these decisions are made subconsciously, but this is an assertion, not proof.  Ballagher would not claim that he has proved the existence of free will.  Rather he has defended it from those who attempt to debunk free will.

It is impossible to do justice to Ballagher’s dissection of this topic.  For those interested in this topic, I strongly recommend reading the book.  I would also recommend reading this book to see how informative philosophy can be when incisively analyzed and concisely written.

I would close by providing my reasons for believing in free will.  I am sure that Ballagher would disagree with what I am about to write on philosophical grounds.  Also it is important to realize the Ballagher makes no attempt to prove the existence of free will.  Rather, he is debunking arguments that attempt to disprove free will.  I would argue for believing in free will on pragmatic grounds.  The basic concept of mindfulness is that we have enough control of our conscious minds to modify our behavior and emotions.  And there is much evidence that mindfulness works for those who believe in and practice mindfulness.  If one does not believe in free will, then there is little basis for trying.  If we are without free will, then we are stuck sitting in front of a television set with no ability to change channels.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Nature vs. Nurture: Genetics, Environment, and Cognition

June 17, 2014

This is the title of Chapter 12 in Greenwood and Parasuman’s Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind. They begin the chapter with a quote from Rene Dubos, So Human an Animal. “Genetics and experiential factors shape the biological and behavioral manifestations of human life, but they do not suffice to account for the totatality of human nature. Man also enjoys a great degree of freedom in making decisions; he is par excellence the creature that can choose, eliminate, organize, and thereby create.”

It is unfortunate but all too often the nature vs nurture issue is regarded as a deterministic dichotomy. Behavioral geneticists have done studies, identical twins have been frequently used, to estimate topics such as how much is IQ determined by genetics and how much is determined by the environment. What these studies neglect is the interaction between genetics and the environment. Neither exists in isolation from the other. Behavior and performance are the result of the interaction between genes and the environment.

Fortunately molecular genetics provides an alternative approach to behavioral genetics. The molecular approach allows for the study of specific genes and their alleles. This research has found that a particular allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene is a major risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s. Pay attention to the term “risk factor.” Rather than causing Alzheimer’s this particular allele increases the risk of suffering from the disease. Moreover, it is possible that age-related cognitive decline may occur only in those who possess one or two copies of this allele. It is estimated that this could include about 14% of the US population.

The weight of evidence from research on this allele suggests that this risk factor interacts with lifestyle factors. Carriers of this allele obtain a greater benefit from exercise than non-carriers for late-life cognitive functioning. This benefit is most strongly evidenced when the exercise is carried out in mid-life. Cognitive experience also confers stronger benefits on allele carriers than people who do not carrier the allele. Understand that cognitive experience benefits everyone, but it is even more beneficial for those carrying this threatening allele.

So no evidence has been found that condemns any of us to Alzheimer’s or dementia. The activities covered in Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind and the healthymemory blog should be undertaken by all of us. This advice is further underscored for those with risk factors.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Consciousness and the Association for Psychology Science (APS) Keynote Address

June 19, 2013

I need to preface this blog post with an overview of the status of the concept of consciousness in psychological science. Today the prevalent view seems to be that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. That is, it is unneeded, because all our actions are determined before they enter consciousness. This flies in the face of common sense, because our “folk psychology” believes that our consciousness, our minds, determine what we do. Although there might be factors of which we are unaware, nevertheless we are in charge.

Obviously psychologists who practice “talk” therapy do not subscribe to this, but many academics in the more scientific areas of psychology do. The reader should also understand that for a large portion of the twentieth century behaviorism was the dominant methodology of experimental psychology, and behaviorism focused on behavior and speculation about thinking and the mind was prohibited. Although cognitive psychology emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century, it was still wary of speaking of a homunculus in the head, and the role of consciousness, if any, remained ill-defined.

Gazzaniga‘s Keynote Address was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” He was speaking of the brain consisting of modules performing different functions, and interacting and reorganizing themselves. It reminded me of Minsky’s “The Society of Mind,” except that Minsky was not writing about modules and Gazzaniga was certainly not talking about the mind. He gave examples of how these modules cued each other. He had videos of some of his split brain subjects. When told to do something with the hand controlled by the hemisphere that understood the instruction, the hand was able to do it. However, the hand controlled by the other hemisphere was not able to execute the function without looking at how the hand that had performed the function and then mimicking it. He also showed video of an orchestra performing without a conductor, the message being there is no one in control of our minds. This demonstration would have been more compelling if it were followed by a series of orchestras firing their conductors.

I found Gazzaniga’s address disappointing because someone of his stature could make a strong statement about consciousness, but he didn’t. I think scientific psychology is falling behind the times. Just last year the neurosciences made a statement that on the basis of the necessary brain structures, all mammals, birds, and octupi were conscious (See the healthymemory blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals). A reasonable view is that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges when the nervous system reaches a certain degree of complexity. That is, consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that has emerged with a purpose, to manage a highly complex nervous system.

Fortunately, there was a later presentation by Edwin Locke of the University of Maryland, “Whatever Happened to the Consciousness Mind.” For Locke, the existence and function of consciousness is an axiom that needs no proof. This is similar to Descarte‘s “I think, therefore I am.” But this implies Cartesian Dualism, which is out of favor in philosophy and psychology. This is unfortunate as it ignores both common sense and contradictory evidence. Meditation can have profound effects on the body. It can allow the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, a capability that I was taught didn’t exist as a graduate student in spite of the existence of meditators who were able to do control their autonomic nervous systems,

I think this shows the immaturity of academic psychology. This period is analogous to the imperious reign of behaviorism. But for cognitive psychology to advance it must embrace the concept of mind and how the mind can affect behavior.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

We Are the Law: The Human Mind, Free Will, and the Limits of Determinism

June 8, 2011

The title of this post is identical to the name of the presentation Michael S. Gazzaniga gave at the recent annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). Some are convinced that the world, indeed the universe, is deterministic. Albert Einstein did not believe in free will. One of the founders of the DNA helix, Francis Crick, does not believe in free will. Richard Dawkins, the ethologist, evolutionary biologist, atheist, and author of The Selfish Gene, does not believe in free will. Benjamin Libet conducted experiments in which he demonstrated that measurements in the brain indicated that the action to move a finger occurred before the individual realized that her finger was moving. Some have taken this as proof of determinism, that there is no free will, and that consciousness is only along for the ride. It is interesting to note that Libet himself did not take this position. He spoke of free won’t, in which consciousness can reject an action proposed by the brain. That is conscious volition is exercised by the power of rejection.

Results from brain imaging research also can be interpreted as being supportive of determinism. For example, juvenile impulsivity can be attributed to the low level of utility in the medial prefrontal cortex. So are delinquent juveniles to be excused on the grounds that their medial prefrontal cortices are not performing correctly. Actually, one can go further than this. The medial prefrontal cortex does not reach its full maturity until the mid to late twenties. By this time, most of us have already needed to make important decisions that could have adverse effects on our lives. Do we all have this excuse for the poor decisions of our youth?

On the other hand, there remains much to be said for free will. Although Einstein with his deterministic bent said the “God does not play dice with the universe” findings in quantum mechanics by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg indicated that quantum mechanics did behave in a probabilistic manner and, at least at the subtomic level, God did play dice with the universe.

There is also the notion of emergent properties. These are properties that occur as a result of underlying processes. So consciousness can be regarded as an emergent property that emerges from the underlying psychophysiological processes. In the case the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and consciousness can exert its effects on underlying psychophysiological processes.

Gazzaniga’s own work with Roger Sperry on split brain phenemona support this notion. In these split brain studies the corpus callosum is split (for medical and not research purposes). Because of the wiring from eye to brain, stimuli can be selective presented to the respective hemifields that go to the left or right hemispheres. So different stimuli can be sent to the left and right hemispheres. Under normal viewing circumstances this does not present a problem as the different stimuli would go to both hemisperes. But in the experimental condition the two hemispheres are unaware of what the other has seen. In this situation the experimental participant is asked what is seen. Different reports will be made for each hemisphere. No matter how bizarre the differences, the experimental participants are able to make sense of what they have seen. In other words, consciousness is making sense of the different reports of each hemisphere.

Gazzaniga notes that cognition is both parallel and distributed. Cognition is also modular, yet it is modular with apparent psychological unity. He also noted that there exists innate notion of fairness. This has been demonstrated with experiments involving infants.

Gazzaniga concludes that the notion of free will is a bad idea. He asks “Free from what?.” He notes that while brains might not be free, people are free. There exist notions of fairness and responsibility and that we need to have a contract with our fellow humans.

Essentially Gazzaniga is a pragmatist. William James, the famous psychology and philosopher, was also a pragmatist. He also believed in free will. When free will is contrasted with pragmatism, it is clear that free will is the more pragmatic notion. It is much better to adopt the belief in free will and believe that we can affect our brains and our lives via the exercise of our free will. Determinism can promote passivity via the belief that consciousness is only along for a free ride.