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Wayne L. Klein, PhD

Neuropsychological Assessment of Children & Adults; Couples & Individual Psychotherapy Offices in Franklin, MA & Spaulding Center for Children, Sandwich, MA
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Free will
Q: Isn't this an ancient philosophical question, an idle question?
A: Resolution of the nature of Free Will is is not an idle philosophical question, it is one of the greatest challenges facing western civilization, impacting law, education, child rearing, psychiatry, medicine and the daily lives of individuals. How this is resolved will have immense impact.

A: An important if not essential factor in a person's capacity to control a behavior is belief that one has the capacity to control the behavior. The single greatest predictor of success in many situations is ones sense of self-efficacy. Nothing reduces motivation like the message that the task is hopeless.

A: Minimization of human agency contributes to the following trends:
The use of drugs to influence behaviors as diverse as weight control, mood, anxiety, children's compliance with adult commands and paying attention in class. Soon neurological techniques such as magnetic stimulation of neural pathways will compete with medication.
On the other hand, blame and punishment for behavior outside the control of the individual has produced untold suffering. The trick, as always, is knowing what can be controlled and what can't.

A:Depends who is writing the history. Darwin's theory of evolution was initially deemed impossible by mainstream physicists. The argument was that the earth could not be as old as Darwin's theory required because the sun's supply of flammable gas was not that vast. The evidence of geology in support of a very ancient earth was rejected for the same reason. Physics was wrong. Biology and geology were right. The error of physics was that an entirely new phenomena was unknown. This would be corrected with the discovery of nuclear energy. Only then was physics reconciled with an earth over 100,000 years old.
My history of science sees no reason to give physics hegemony over the other sciences.

A: If every cause is determined by a prior cause, then Free Will appears unlikely. If some acts are random, this transfers causation from prior causes to random events - again making Free Will appear unlikely. However, both examples are based on an assumption of classical physics that everything has a cause. The core issue is whether everything has a physical cause.

Q: Is acausality a possibility?
With quantum physics we fall down a rabbit hole. Phenomena such as entanglement bring all assumptions into question. Einstein called entanglement "Spooky action at a distance." Two subatomic particles appear to influence each other at a distance instantaneously. Then there are small issues such as dual nature - a photon being both a (wave and a particle, or a photon going two difference paths simultaneously. Not to mention observation changing reality. How about time travel. Physics is simply too undeveloped to claim authority to rule in conditions ruling out Free will.

Q: Why are you talking about effort?
A: As a general rule, easy is automatic and outside of awareness. Difficult involves consciousness and effort.
A: Conscious effort involves going against the grain. Efort may be increased by an alteration of attention to increase motivation. This may involve imagined carrots or imagined sticks. In both instances it is likely to involve transcendance of the present situation for the sake of some imagined future.

A: There is over 75 years of research into quantitative self-report of perceived effort during physical activity. Self-report is a reasonably good predictor of objective physiological variables such as heart rate and blood lactate levels.

A:I would not go that far.There are layers of complexity. For example, there is expended effort, effort to expend effort (cognitive strategies) and perhaps effort to expend effort to expend effort (metacognitive strategies).
Q: What is determinism and what are the implications?
A: The determinism is the notion that every event is caused by prior events all that way back to the beginning, if there was a beginning. This means that there is and always has been only one possible outcome now and going forward. The future is determined. Any free choice or exercise of will is also determined.

A: Then free choice is determined by chance.

A: As impossible as Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection appeared to be until science disocovered that the solar system could be as old as evolution required. This required the discovery of a new force - nuclear energy.
Making statements about free will based on our very limited understanding of the physical universe is the height of hubris. For starters, we must first understand how consicusness is produced by matter. Then their are issues in physics such as entaglement and the nuber of dimensions.

A: Speaking in terms of motives, not merits, since the deterministic argument against free will emerged in the minds of Greek philosophers millenia prior to the advent of science, and also appeared in the minds of some theologians, and since the notion is so alien to typical human experience, I find it unlikely that the idea has purely logical roots.
I think it likely that the notion of determinism first emerged in neuroatypical minds. An important feature of Asperger's and High Functioning Autism is hypersystematizing at the expense of the capacity to take the perspective of others. Theory of mind is under developed in these conditions. Using modern metaphors, people are viewed as machines, machines with invariant behaviors, not machines with shifting goals. The thinker with Asperger's or Autism would naturally dismiss the idea of a free agent.

A:Biological evolution progresses when transcription accidents, mutagenic chemicals and random radioactivity produce new genes, a minute fraction of which are actually viable and beneficial. Analagously, neuroatypical thought processes can contribute to the evolution of ideas. It is likely that the first minds to develop determinism were neuroatypical and, like a virus, the memes spread. Such ideas are likely to well received in the highly systematic minds of scientists and analytic philosophers, especially as they are still fighting the last war - the war against theology.

A: Since most behavior is automatic, and we become conscious of precisely the situations where there is the experience of free will, free will and consciousness would likely be related.
Other claims of emergent properties appear bogus. In contrast, consciousness appears to be an honest to goodness emergent property of some parts of some brains (and perhaps some future computers?). Emergent means that the properties are not predictable based on their origins. Lack of predictability means that onsciousness escapes the bounds of determinism right off the bat.
Consciousness may be a new phenomenon that transcends the determinstic universe.
Illusion of Will
A: There is a literature arguing that conscious will is an illusion. This is unrelated to whether or not will is free. The argument is based several points including the tendency to percive that one willed an act when one didn't and brain activation studies showing prepartion for an action before consciousness of it having been willed.

Q: What about false perception of the source of behavior?
A:Yes, it is possible to create conditions in which we think we willed an action when we didn't. The apparent fact that we are designed to assume agency may just as easily suggest that we usually do. How could false information about who caused the event be helpful? The fact that illusions of willing can be produced no more invalidates willing than does the phenomenon of optical illusions invalidate vison as a reasonable replica of the world.
Q: What about execution prior to conscious decision?
A: Try this with chess and tell me that conscious thought is irrelevant. However, even here, nonconscious limbic input may come into play just prior to the decision. Still, this does not support the implication that the neocortex is out of the behavioral loop. This huge energy guzzler must earn its keep, and just generating the illusion of conscious will would be a slim contributi9on to human survival.

A: Yes. Conscious decision making and working memory (I prefer the term working consciousness), are very limited resources. Routine behavior quickly becomes automatized, which conserves resources. Only important decisions reach full consciousness.

A: The American president, who is generally considered to be the most powerful man in the world, makes a limited number of decisions. A huge bureaucracy is put in place and then functions largely automatically. Legislation is sent to congress, where it is modified and decided upon and then the president claims legislative success which is analagous to the illsuion of conscious will. Demonstrating the absence of direct immediate control is to set up a straw man.
Three Front Attack on Free Will
Theological attack on Free Will
The basic reasoning is that if God is omnipotent and omniscient, then your every action must be known in advance and under the control of God. In Christianity, this notion is found most famoulsy in Calvinism. Similiar ideas may be found in brnaches of the the Hindu and the Moslem traditions. Some theologians have attempted to reconcile theological determinism with free will via compatabililstic arguments that might be recognized by modern philosophers.

Romantic Humanism: Don't Push the River, it Flows By Itself

The second front on the war on Will comes from a very different tradition. This is the romantic notion that human behavior should be natural, whole, organismic; therefore, there is no need for part of the self to control another part. And anyway,when I control myself, who is doing the controlling? This tradition does not does not necessarily argue that we do not have Free Will, rather, it is bad to exercise Free Will. Just be free.

Animals are endowed with emotional systems well adapted to their circumstances; therefore, they do just fine without exerting effort to regulate their behavior. In sharp contrast, by virtue of our huge neocortex, in interaction with culture that has evolved over tens of thousands of years, humans have stepped out of nature. Just as our occipital lobes process light, our temporal lobes process sounds and our parietal lobes process spatial relations, kinesthetic and tactile sensations, our frontal lobes process possible futures. Relative to animals, we are hyper alert to imagined futures. We must be to survive because few of us can find food and shelter in nature - when we are hungry, wet or cold. We must think ahead. To survive we must often transcend the whims and urges of the moment. There are times when the neocortical frontal system must over ride the emotional systems. Failure to do so will result in negative consequences.

Scientific-Philosophical: Free Will is an Illusion

With incredible hubris, a little weak data and the occasional influence of Asperger's disorder, modern science and philosophy have declared Free Will an illusion. At the heart of the theory is the assumption that since everything has to have a cause, mental events must also have a cause; therefore, Freedom of Will is impossible. We are marionettes controlled by a chain of events extending back to the beginning of time. And for good measure, mental events are epiphenomena incapable of impacting the brain. This view would have it that you are a machine. Your conscious experience is meanigngless, has no impact on your behavior and serves no purpose. The claim is made that thinking occurs after the neural machinery has already been set in motion to execute the behavior.


Learning of Free Will


Think back to childhood. Most of us can recall instances in which we were taught that we have Free will. My sentinel moment was first grade. It was during nap time that Daniele, in an act predictive of her future personality, commanded Orlando, the kid who was always getting into trouble, to pull down his pants. He did. He was caught. Orlando used the Nuremberg Defense, arguing that Daniele had told him to drop his drawers. Spotting a teaching moment, our teacher beloowed "Nobody can ever make you do anything!" that was my introduciton to the concept of Free Will. As babies our hands move on their own. We may even poke ourself in the eye. Eventually limb and hand movements beco9me regulated and we acquire a sense of agency over some aspects of our bodies. Through both spontaneous experience and explicit teaching, we learn to believe that we are in control of our actions.