Monday, April 28, 2008

Common Sense: Both Wrong and Right

When it comes to our “folk” intuitions about the conscious self and free will, they can be wrong on the surface but still correct on a deeper level. I was reading Peter’s post on Conscious Entities about a neuroscientific paper on decision-making and conscious awareness (see additional discussion here). Like Libet’s work, the authors of the study appear to show that brain activity indicative of decision making precedes the subject’s awareness of making the choice. This again suggests the folk intuition that free will takes place at the level of reflective conscious awareness is flawed.

I concur with most of the commenters who expressed the view that this outcome has little bearing on the question of determinism and freedom at the metaphysical level. The human brain/body system is very complex and our higher order introspective awareness is a fragile construct embedded in this much larger context. And a simplistic division of the mind into a conscious and unconscious doesn’t do justice to the gradations of awareness.

When it comes to free will, our most fundamental theory of the natural world is indeterministic --it makes me wonder why we are even still debating determinism. There is no principle of quantum physics that states that indeterminism magically vanishes at macroscopic scales (the fact that we don’t observe macroscopic superpositions is not evidence that the large-scale world is described by classical physics). We may not be free in the way we think, but I think we are correct in viewing the future as open and believing that the sequence of natural events in which we participate is undetermined.

But does this imply that events are “just random”? Free choice on the part of a participating system would look like randomness from a third-person perspective. For a formal argument that there is a linkage between microscopic and human freedom, see this old post on the “Free-Will Theorem”.

[Update 4 June 2008: I changed the title of the post to the one I meant to have in the first place, swapping the order of 'right' and 'wrong']


paul maurice martin said...

Because the course of human events is a one-way street, we can never empirically demonstrate determinism vs. indeterminacy. However, I tend to think there's a preponderance of evidence suggesting indeterminacy - which I don't at all see as the "free will" that religious fundamentalists espouse.

Steve said...

Hi Paul. Thanks for stopping by.

I think we partly agree -- free will isn't what we traditionally thought it was + the evidence points that the world is indeterministic. I guess I feel more strongly though that the fundamental indeterminism fosters a degree of real freedom.