Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryFree will

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fork in the road in forest at storm weather at night, concept of insecurity of future

My Reply to Free Will Deniers: Show Me

It is helpful to consider the question in this way—not “do we have free will?,” but rather “what does it mean to believe we don’t have free will?”
No humans live as if we doubt free will. Free will denial is just a way for materialists to advertise themselves, like a political yard sign. Read More ›
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Choosing the High Road or Low Road

How Neuroscience Disproved Free Will and Then Proved It Again

In this excerpt from Minding the Brain (2023), neuroscientist Cristi L. S. Cooper discusses the discovery of “free won’t” — the decision NOT to do something
Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet was skeptical of claims that he had disproved free will, so he continued to experiment and found that he hadn’t after all. Read More ›
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AI chatbot robot assistant sitting at desk using computer as artificial intelligence. Business concept

Once a Supporter, Science Writer Airs Doubts About Free Will

ChatGPT has set John Horgan thinking about whether he is just "ChatGPT-Me" himself

Earlier this month, prominent science writer John Horgan posted entries at his blog Cross-Check (here and here), defending free will in light of Robert Sapolsky’s recent no-free-will book, Determined. But two weeks later, he has suddenly begun to air doubts about free will because of concerns about… ChatGPT: I’ve aggressively defended free will lately. Writing, I argue here and here, exemplifies the conscious deliberations and decisions that constitute free will. But in the dead of night, hell, in the cold glare of morning, I fear I have no more free will than a mindless machine-learning program like ChatGPT. … What am I but a program that reflexively turns prompts into all-too-predictable responses based on my prior experiences? My program is Read More ›

Independent Thinking

The Free Will Debate Really Heated Up This Year

Many commentators are weighing in; surprisingly, perhaps, well-known materialists are disputing the claim that there is no free will

The two big books of the season on free will are primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s Determined (Penguin 2023), which maintains that there is no free will, and neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell’s Free Agents (Princeton University Press, 2023), which maintains that evolution gave us free will. Prominent cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argues that Sapolsky is wrong to say there is no free will because 1. Levels of analysis. The fact that individual neurons are deterministic doesn’t mean that an intricate assembly of billions of neurons is deterministic. Matter is mostly empty space, but that doesn’t mean we can walk through walls…. 2. Determinism in the technical math sense (input perfectly predicting output) is false when applied to human behavior. Identical twins reared together Read More ›

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Divergence of directions. A wide path in the park is divided into two alleys leading in different directions in the rays of sunset.

Why Free Will Denial is Self-Refuting

If free will deniers are right, their denial of free will is just a biological ink stain.

Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne has doubled down (it’s more like quadrupled down) on his denial of the reality of free will. There are abundant reasons to affirm free will — e.g., it is the lived experience of every psychologically normal human being throughout history, it is the foundation for most of our religious traditions as well as the foundation for our systems of justice, our systems of government, our conventions of morality, it is the foundation for every aspect of our interpersonal relationships (does your spouse really choose to love you, or is she a meat robot compelled to do so by her molecules?), and there is strong neuroscience evidence for the reality of free will as well. The only Read More ›

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a hand drops a ballot into a transparent plastic ballot box on election day at a polling station. the will of the voters. free elections. Generative AI

Can Evolution Create Free Will? A Neurologist Says Yes

Could the impersonal natural force of evolution shape hierarchies in the human cerebral cortex so that we have the free will that it does not itself have?

The traditional materialist stance, one that neuroscientist Sam Harris, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne endorse — along with many thinkers past and present — is that in this universe there can’t be free will. Albert Einstein (1879–1955) expressed the basic view in a 1932 address to the Spinoza Society where he stated,””Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.” Now a debate seems to have started up again. From one corner we learn that free will could possibly exist, provided that it is materialized or, if you like “evolutionized.” A new key player is primatologist and Stanford professor of neurology, Robert Read More ›

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Synaps with neurons in the background, neurotransmitters in synaptic junction, information transmission in the brain

Neuroscience Has Never Provided Much Evidence for Materialism

In a chapter of the new book, Minding the Brain, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out that many great neuroscientists were non-materialists

Over the past century, philosophers and philosophy connoisseurs have had a great time making fun of dualism. It was so easy. The human mind, we are told, is just the ghost in the machine, something that, as science will prove, doesn’t really exist. We are just bodies with brains. Life is all material. An early warning that things aren’t as simple as that should be the outcome of the wager between prominent neuroscientist Christof Koch and dualist philosopher David Chalmers. After 25 years of search, Koch conceded to Chalmers because no consciousness “signature” had been found in the brain. Was it just a ripple effect of that outcome that, shortly afterward, many leading neuroscientists denounced Koch’s well-regarded Integrated Information Theory Read More ›

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Hands of a man tearing a piece of paper with inscription free will

Free Will: What Are the Real Reasons to Believe in It?

Some say that free will might be a useful delusion but neuroscience provides sound reasons to believe that it is real.

University of Missouri psychology professor Kennon Sheldon’s message is neatly summed up in an opening statement: “Regardless of whether humans do or don’t have free will, psychological research shows it’s beneficial to act as if you do”. The author of Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live (Basic Books, 2022) responds to philosophers who say that we do not have free will: All my life, I’ve struggled with the question of whether humans have ‘free will’. It catalysed my decision to become a psychologist and continues to inspire my research to this day, especially as it relates to the kinds of goals people set for themselves, and the effects of goal-striving on Read More ›

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Lonely man in red jacket standing by the lake in winter, with transparent woman figure standing next to him

Escape from Spiderhead and the Question of Love

Is love more than a chemical reaction and are humans more than machines made of meat?

Brave New World, a speculative work by British writer Aldous Huxley, explores a society where people are conditioned via drugs and genetic engineering to live stable, highly pleasurable, but totally meaningless lives. One pop of a pill, and negative feelings like sadness, anger, or envy vanish. In the brave new world, “everyone belongs to everyone else,” and pleasure supplants purpose. A Story for Our Age That book was written in 1932. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and another fictional work, albeit shorter, goes arguably even deeper than Huxley’s magnum opus. The short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders is about a group of inmates being tested by mood-altering drugs in a facility nicknamed “Spiderhead” for its nebulous layout. Read More ›

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Sculpture portrait of Aristotle

Sean Carroll: “How Could an Immaterial Mind Affect the Body?”

The well known physicist thinks free will is nonsense. But has he investigated the classical understanding of causation?

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University who takes an atheist and materialist philosophical perspective on nature and on science. I have disagreed with him often — I’m in no position to judge his scientific acumen, but his philosophical acumen leaves a lot to be desired. An example of this is a question he asks in a recent documentary about free will (which I haven’t watched yet). In the trailer for the movie, Carroll asks, How in the world does the immaterial mind affect the physical body? Carroll’s denial of libertarian free will is based on this question, and of course, he believes that the immaterial mind does not exist and, if it did exist, could not Read More ›

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Guilty dog and a destroyed teddy bear at home. Staffordshire terrier lies among a torn fluffy toy, funny guilty look

Do Animals, as Well as Humans, Have Free Will?

One can make a case for animal free will in the strict sense that no life form is bound by complete determinism because it doesn't exist

In 2009, University of Würzburg biology professor Martin Heisenberg wrote a defense of animal free will in Nature, basing his argument on the behavior of flies: For example, my lab has demonstrated that fruit flies, in situations they have never encountered, can modify their expectations about the consequences of their actions. They can solve problems that no individual fly in the evolutionary history of the species has solved before. Our experiments show that they actively initiate behaviour4. Like humans who can paint with their toes, we have found that flies can be made to use several different motor outputs to escape a life-threatening danger or to visually stabilize their orientation in space. Heisenberg, M. Is free will an illusion?. Nature Read More ›