Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I'll Be Impressed If Anyone Reads This Whole Post

Yesterday I had a nice debate with my dad.
I don't remember how it started, but we ended up talking about free will.

The argument basically ran like this:
If there was a demon that could know everything about you up until the instant before you make a decision it would be able to predict with 100% accuracy what you will choose.  Most people have a definition of free will that runs somewhere along the lines of "Free will is being able to trick the demon." However, it is impossible to do any such thing.  The reason for this is that our choices are based on our personality, which is based on our history.  This personal history is made up of 3 things: genes (this may not be true, but it doesn't really matter for this argument), memories, and external stimuli.  Memories are simply the storage of external stimuli, so they don't really matter either.  But these forces that are acting upon you (external stimuli: friends, family, situations) to form your personality  are not uncontrollable, but the way they act upon you is. 

At this point my father argued that you do in fact control how your personality is formed.  He seemed to think that you can choose which past experiences you remember, or at least how you remembered them.  However, even if this is true, "you" are making that choice based on your personality, which is once again, based on your past experiences, therefore, not under control by you.  (Even if "you" somehow had control of which memories you store and how you recall them, "you" are still nothing more than a collection of previous memories, and the previous 'you's are simply collections of previous memories.  That causal chain can go all the way back up until your birth, which "you" could not possibly have chosen.  Ergo, none of the choices you make in your lifetime are truly yours.) 

This would usually be an effective disproof of the natural concept of free will, but my dad was not impressed.  I went over it a few times and pinpointed where he was getting lost.  It was around here:
If there were two identical versions of you in two identical universes about to make two identical choices they would always do the same thing.  That was what he didn't agree with.  So we simplified it.  Say there's a neuron that, when it fires, will cause you to blink.  If there were two identical universes with two identical firing neurons in two identical situations you would always blink in both universes.  He agreed with that too.  So I changed it so that the same neuron no longer controls your eyelid, but whether you'll choose toast or a banana for breakfast.  He no longer agreed.  Somehow he thought (and still thinks I would assume) that there's something that allows you to choose the outcome of your physical choices.  He said that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  I asked him how that could possibly happen, and he had no idea, he just knew that it does.  

So basically my dad believes that even though all your choices are based on standard physical processes that occur in your brain, and in any other situation the outcome of these processes would be completely predictable, your conscious decisions are somehow affected by an unknowable, metaphysical force.  So, a soul.  He denies this allegation, but that's really the only thing it can come down to.

How about the one person who made it through this whole post? What do you think?


EddieO101 said...

I not only made it through the whole post, but I reread it 2 times.

Okay, there's a part of me that understands where your Dad is coming from, and wants to agree with him.

On the other hand, I must admit I'm finding it hard to fault your logic. Although, I'm still working on it. Perhaps, I'll sleep on it and read the post again tomorrow.

In the meantime, I can't help but feel this whole question is some kind of elaborate rationalization. A clever attempt to explain why you had No Choice but to get that Damn Tattoo. LOL :)

Callif said...

lol I knew you'd be upset about that tattoo... oh well, I take full responsibility for my actions :D

Can't wait to hear your rebbutal...

EddieO101 said...

lol - You realize that comment acknowledges your sense of free will. :)

Anyway,back to your original post...

I think the problem here is the premise, the hypothetical demon. Demon - What Demon? I asked myself as I got up to pee at 3:18am. I don't believe in demons or devils, anymore than I believe in angels or gods. I therefore don't believe that my free will has anything to do with my ability to trick a nonexistent entity i.e. demon.

(I do this a lot, wake up in the middle of the night pondering some query that has perplexed me during the day. It's the reason I keep a digital recorder at my bedside, so I can whisper my thoughts into it, lest I forget them in the morrow. - I don't know why I whisper. I live alone, perhaps I don't wish to wake my imaginary lover.)

I do believe the choices we make are ours and ours alone. I do concede however, we are influenced by many factors including the ones you have already mentioned. Genes, our DNA is definitely a factor. Life experience, memories and how we "Choose" to remember also plays a role. As do other environmental influences.

Let's not forget Biology though, like pituitary, adrenal and other hormonal fluctuations. Hormones are amazing things that can wield enormous power and influence over our physical/mental well being and decision making. Blood sugar levels and sleep deprivation can also play a role in our mental acuity. Diet, exercise, alcohol, drugs, medications (both Rx & OTC)need also be considered.

What about love, hate, vanity, ego and greed, they can often cloud our judgements.

What about "Need", didn't Maslow's hierarchy of needs show us that the "Self-Actualized" person has entirely different priorities than the "Physiological" person. All of these things can influence and or cloud our judgements.

How many times have I reflected on a decision I've made only to ask, "What was I thinking?". Nevertheless, the decision was still mine. Influenced by a variety of variables maybe, but always mine.

Callif said...

lol, well yes, it is a purely hypothetical demon. Really just an example.

And that's exactly my point. You say the choices that I make are mine... but what does that even mean? If there was a single spot in your brain (or body) where your consciousness resided that statement would make sense, but you are the sum total of your parts. If your left brain tells you to go one way and your right brain tells you to go another way, who ends up making the decision? You also need to remember that personality is in a constant state of flux, so any decision you've made in the past really wasn't made by the same you that exists right now.

I'm not saying that the future is mapped out and we will never be able to escape "fate" (I don't even believe in fate). I'm just saying that everything you ever do and every choice you ever make has and will be influenced beyond your control by factors beyond your control. Sure, "you" still get to make the choices and that might mean the world to you, but philosophically speaking, that isn't freedom at all.

EddieO101 said...

Well first let me say I'm relieved to hear you don't believe in fate. I didn't honestly think you did, but I was beginning to wonder, or worry, or both. :)

As for your other points, I think I was already acknowledging most of them. I realize we are the sum of our parts. That's why I went to great lengths to list the parts, the "Variety of Variables" as I called them.

I further understand that we are in a constant state of flux, hence the "What Was I Thinking" phenomenon. My point is (and perhaps it's yours too) at that particular point in time I exercised my "Free Will", the decision was mine to make and I made it. It wasn't "Fatalism" it wasn't "Determinism" it was "Free Will". Granted the decision may or may not be different, were it made at another point in time. But it would still be my decision to make and an exercise of my free will at that particular time.

As to your final point, I fully agree that we are continually influenced by factors beyond our control. But these factors, by your own admission, only influence us. Influencing us is not the same as controlling us, is it?

BTW - How did your final go?

Also, I don't know about you, but I love this kind of discussion. Most people I know get bored, frustrated or just roll their eyes when I attempt to engage them in this kind of discourse. I on the other hand find it to be very stimulating. It's like exercise for my brain. I'm so glad to have met you Callif, I really am. I guess that's why I'm so addicted to your blog.

Miami is such a vast waste land of ignorance and banality. Sometimes, I really miss New York.

Callif said...

I do agree that it isn't Fatalism or Determinism, but that doesn't make it free will. You say that yes, we are influenced by factors beyond our control, but we still have the opportunity to "choose" and that it would be your choice. But that's exactly my point, that "you" are nothing more than the sum total of your past experiences, and those past experiences are beyond your control... so yeah, I guess it is "your" choice to make, and I guess you can call it free will if you want... But in the end, we're really just glorified machines.

And my final went well, took 20 minutes, didn't need to be fully awake, and I couldn't possibly have failed that class lol.

I'm glad, because I too thoroughly enjoy conversations such as these. Luckily my boss is quite intelligent and also enjoys a nice philosophical debate. Makes work very enjoyable. I actually do a good deal of my blogging here (at work).

EddieO101 said...

So this is where I'm supposed to say, "I guess it depends on your definition of Free Will".
Such an obvious cop out though, so I won't go there. Aren't you glad? lol

"But in the end, we're just glorified machines." - Now that's some food for thought. Sometimes it seems that way, doesn't it?

I mean we're biological entities -Yes. We're carbon based lifeforms - of course. But in the end, we're just Glorified Machines. Wow!??? :o