Free will and scientific abstraction

P.S. Huff was recently shocked when I said that it would make no difference whatsoever for my opinion as to whether humans have free will if some physicist should announced tomorrow, "My model shows the universe is completely deterministic."

Consider New York City and a mapmaker. The city is the concrete reality; the map is an abstraction from that reality. Suppose a mapmaker makes a map of New York and shows it to me and says, "See, your neighborhood is nowhere to be found on my map"? I think the correct reaction is, "Somehow, then it was missed by your abstraction. I live in the neighborhood. I have direct, concrete experience of its existence. The fact that it is missing from some abstraction does not shake my confidence in its existence in the least."

34 comments:

  1. No, you don't live there. Everybody knows that.

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  2. For perhaps slightly different reasons Gene (and this might surprise you) I agree with you. "Free will" doesn't mean unconstrained by physics, it means something (and something hard to define exactly) about mental operations. If my behaviour is modified by my conclusions, desires, fears, and other mental states in a way that seems to me explicable in terms of those mental states rahter than in terms of forces and chemistry, then I have "free will". It matters not if my behaviour is ALSO explicable, even predictable, by someone using chemistry.

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    1. Yes, Ken, that is basically My view.

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    2. As I was careful to specify, I was referring to libertarian free will. There are many concepts of free will, and not all of them would be ruined by the triumph of determinism.

      (Of course, libertarian free will requires more than indeterminism; but the latter is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for the former.)

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    3. No, libertarian free will has no connection to scientific determinism: science is an abstraction FROM the real world.

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  3. What if a (neuro)biologist supplemented the physicist with a similar theory?

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    1. So if I had both a map AND a census that each missed my neighborhood, THEN I should cease to believe it really exists?!

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  4. If free-will in defined in terms of mental states then the physicists model is not going to be inconsistent with this definition.

    If the physicists model was able to consistently predict the outcome of decisions claimed to be the result of free-will then one might however start to wonder whether this way of defining free-will is consistent with the way the term is generally understood.

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    1. I think you are confused here, rob: how exactly is a "decision" even going to make an appearance in a model from physics?

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    2. Perhaps I missed the point of the post.

      I was envisaging the physicist making a claim like "My model is based on purely physical causalities and can model with 100% accuracy outcomes that you claim are a result of free-will". She sets up an experiment where her model indeed accurately predicts the 'decisions' of someone who claims to have free will.

      This person may still claim to have the impression that they have free-will but an onlooker may question how "free" this will really is given that a physicists model had emulated the same result.



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    3. But rob, how are you going to place the prediction of a decision into a model in physics? "Decisions" don't have any place in such a model.

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    4. I believe that when I make a decision there very likely is something at the physical level (movements of sub-atomic particles or whatever) that correlates to that decision making process and that (in theory) could be captured in a model.

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    5. rob, no doubt when I decision is going on certain descriptions of particle movements and so on can be ABSTRACTED from that process. This will be, as you said, a MODEL.

      I could make a model that correctly "captured" certain aspects of you. If that model of you had no internal organs, would that mean that you didn't?

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    6. If the universe is deterministic then in theory a model could be developed that simulated every single particle movement in it including those associated with mental states and decision making.

      If such a model was to be developed and was able to predict the future with 100% accurately then one could still define "free-will" as "the sensation of having free-will" but this might be a definition that would not be widely accepted.

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    7. Determinism is a property of models, rob, not the universe!

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    8. "If such a model was to be developed and was able to predict the future with 100% accuracey..."

      It is this thought experiment that leads me to believe that determinism of this strong (scientific?) sort must be false. Suppose someone provided such predictions to me at time T, it will include everything I will do through T-20. Suppose it predicts that at T + 1 I will take 1 step to the right. I cannot shake the intuition that I would be able to say "f**k you Universe!" and take 1 step to the left.

      Perhaps the reply is "yeah, but maybe the model accounts for this by lying to you about it..." This just suggests that you need to lie to me in order to get me to comply with the predictions, an implicit recognition that determinism of this strong (scientific?) sort is inadequate. [These are naive reflections/reactions, I havent thought engough about free will to feel confident one way or the other].

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    9. I see no reason why the universe could not have the attribute of being deterministic. Why couldn't it ?

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    10. I'm pretty sure if you examine what you are thinking hen you say that Rob, you'll find you are thinking of a model of the universe. (There are certain "states" described by a number of "variables" and the transition between those states is determined by the values of those variables, correct?)

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    11. I'm thinking of the universe itself (not a model) as a sort of incredibly complex algorithmic process where the state at any one moment is pre-determined. This state would include any "mental" or "conscious" processes that happen to be part of the algorithm.

      I'm not saying the universe is like that I'm just saying there is currently no definitive proof it is not. And if it is then our will would not be free even if we experienced it as such.

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    12. "incredibly complex algorithmic process"

      I.e., a model.

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    13. If I execute the algorithm for making a cup of tea do I end up with a model of tea or real tea ?

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    14. Rob, what you did was make tea. "Execute the algorithm for making tea" is a MODEL of what you did.

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    15. Going back to the point of your post... I think it is that as its impossible to build an accurate model of a real thing then any conclusions about the real thing that are based on the model can never be proven to be true as the model may be inaccurate. Is that it ?

      If so then I agree that is true. However a model that is seen to have 100% predictive powers about a real thing is likely to be accepted by most people as accurately representing the real thing. If a model was ever produced that could accurately predict future states of the universe then this would not disprove free-will but it would seriously undermine belief in it.

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  5. Gene, Are you presupposing something here (free will)? Is your conception of free will interpretive in a way that simply cannot be studied empirically/scientifically? These are sincere questions.

    I dont understand your felt-need to use "!" It is not so obvious to me that neurobiology is analogous to a "census" that one should feel the need to "!" I'm simply trying to understand your views on free will. (I have a disposition to reject/mistrust claims denying free will, but I am always questioning myself, and I tend to question most those who posit views closest to my own.)

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    1. "Is your conception of free will interpretive in a way that simply cannot be studied empirically/scientifically?"

      Of course, Hume! If you really know your early moderns, you should know that this is quite explicitly what they said they were doing in defining the "new science": they were walling consciousness off from the "physical universe," that would be the subject of this science's study.

      Of course, once you have walled off consciousness from your study, your study is not going to explain consciousness!

      (Yes, another exclamation mark.)

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  6. "If you really know your early moderns..."

    First, it's 2013. I was asking what you are up to.

    Second, many of the early moderns took "consciousness" as a given and did not figure in their theories as an explanandum in search of explanation. Vili Lähteenmäki has done interesting work on this.

    Third, your response "once you have walled off consciousness from your study, your study is not going to explain consciousness" has a hidden premise [one not shared by all the early moderns (Leibniz)], that the mind is equivalent to conscious thought or consciousness. We are discussing free will, not consciousness.

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    1. "has a hidden premise [one not shared by all the early moderns (Leibniz)], that the mind is equivalent to conscious thought or consciousness. "

      Yes, idealists saw through these paradoxes early on: so you are ready to join me in the idealist revival, right?

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  7. Was my comment lost?

    I was speaking only of libertarian free will in the exchange alluded to in this post.

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  8. I am shocked that PS Huff was shocked.

    I think this is another area where belief in an intelligent God solves the problem. My worldview actually makes *more* sense if the physical universe is completely deterministic, and yet we still have free will.

    If the physical universe is NOT deterministic, that's just another loose joint. There's no sense in which I need quantum uncertainty as a window through which the soul somehow influences events; that doesn't even make sense in terms of quantum theory.

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    1. The point I think is that there IS no logical contradiction, no problem to be solved. There is only a problem if you think free will requires evading physics, but since they are terms at different levels of abstraction about different terms of discourse there is no obvious reason why that must be so.

      Reductionism does not vitiate the concepts of the domain reduced.

      Hence there is no need for a get out of logic jail free card such as the one you mention Bob.

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    2. These threads always get confused. The point I am making in no way at all undercuts reductionism. As many threads have shown I am a hard reductionist. But mind is still a useful idea, as is desire, wish etc. if we have a theory about how those mental concepts interact then an explanation repeat explanation of those interactions in terms of another theory does refute the first. Darwinist reductionists can believe in love and anger too. People project presumed consequences of free will beyond the realm of minds, and that is the obverse error to the one Gene discusses.

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    3. "As many threads have shown I am a hard reductionist."

      So you believe that reality really is just one particular map of reality?!

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    4. Things like minds are aspects of other prior structures. I mean prior literally: there were no minds before animals with minds evolved. That doesn't mean mind isn't a vital concept, or that mind science is necessarily less valid than cell science.

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  9. I would think the response would be, then why do I have such difficulty making decisions?

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