Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


Free Will vs. Meat Machines

A recent science article in The New york Times Free Will: Now you have it now you don't looks at recent work on the concept of free will. The article says,
A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.
The article quotes Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania as saying,
If people freak at evolution, etc. how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?
The article goes on to say,
How comforted or depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.

At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.
The problem started in the 1970s when Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock. The article says,
Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them. The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.

In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.
The article looks at Free Will from other angles and largely sees it as a "convenient illusion" and takes the perspective that "According to deep mathematical principles, they say, even machines can become too complicated to predict their own behavior and would labor under the delusion of free will."

The dillusion works something like this according to Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
There are no shortcuts in computation. That means that the more reasonably you try to act, the more unpredictable you are, at least to yourself. Even if your wife knows you will order the chile rellenos, you have to live your life to find out.
If you are intrigued, you'll want to look at the full text of the article: Free Will: Now you have it now you don't which does a better job explaining itself than my digest above.

Tomorrow, I'll touch on Calvin and Armenius who give us the two dominant Christian views about Free Will. But the short version is that you have to be predestined to be a Calvinist, but you can choose to follow Armenius.

The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor


  • At 1/04/2007 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is too deep for me at the moment. So, today, I will pray to the Lord to allow me the opportunities to do His will, or mine, or whatever...

  • At 1/04/2007 6:41 PM, Blogger Robin D. said…

    Silberstein & Libet, I know these guys!!! We used to make these arguments at 25-Cent-Pitcher night at Shannon's Pub!

    It's good to know that they are making money off of those beer-soaked philosophical debates.

    So essentially this is the argument, Does God know everything including what you are going to do in the future? If he does know your future actions doesn't that knowledge in and of itself stymie your free will?

    So, theoretically, if anyone is a good enough mathematician then he becomes God.

    If you can imagine something, it must exist somewhere in an infinite Universe. Douglas Adams wrote, somewhere there is a planet where screwdrivers are fruit on a tree and mattresses live in a swamp and are hunted and dried for sale.

    He also wrote that there is a theory that if anyone discovered the True Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything; the Universe would instantly cease to exist and be replaced by something more inexplicable

    These guys are getting paid to be fertilizer salesmen.

  • At 1/05/2007 8:09 AM, Anonymous kenny said…

    "These guys are getting paid to be fertilizer salesmen."

    Yeah. What he said.

    It does seem amazing to me that these people who are paid to be so smart are arguing against their means of livelihood. Either that or they really do believe they are a different species from the rest of us who never actually had an original thought.

    Ayn Rand set up her antagonists with philosophies remarkably similar to these in "Atlas Shrugged". She pretty effectively destroyed them as well.

  • At 1/05/2007 8:51 AM, Blogger King of Peace said…

    "paid to be so smart are arguing against their means of livelihood"

    Kenny, Were they given free will for the purpose of determining that there is no such thing? Or is their subconscious—against their own will—deciding that they have no free will?


  • At 1/05/2007 9:11 AM, Anonymous kenny said…

    It all goes back to your definition of free will and intelligence. If you start with the idea that we're all animals then you wind up with the idea that there's no such thing as choice (makes me wonder what the pro-choice abortionists would say but that's another argument.)

    If we really do have choice then we have to act like it and be accountable for our actions to God and each other. If not, then pretty much my whole religious philosophy comes crashing down. And if we don't, then can we really determine whether we do one way or the other?

    I don't think so, so we'd just as well act as if we do.

    Ultimately, the answer is probably that human intellect is far more complex than we've been giving it credit for being. We've spent so much time on scans of the brain we think we've got it all figured out from a mechanical perspective. I also think God's got a few more surprises in store for us.


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