Experience Machines

Where We Experience – HW and Black Dog alone on a gravel bar

A correction to my last post. The part of the human brain that directly receives sensory input is the thalamus, not the pre-frontal cortext (PFC). It would have been more correct for me to have said that the thalamus is like the Grand Central station of the brain, not the PFC, in the sense that it functions as a relay to other brain regions for the sensory inputs coming in (sight, sound, etc.). One of those other brain regions is the PFC. However, even though the PFC is not the first stop for input signals, it is still true it’s a busy part of the brain, it does regulate emotion, and modulating the PFC’s activity through meditation is an important goal of the therapy. How that works at the molecular level is poorly understood. But millions of practitioners of meditation can’t be wrong in that it does in fact work.

OK, now on to another matter, one I’ve struggled with for quite a long time.

Have you thought about or discussed with someone the long-standing problem of Free Will (FW)? I don’t mean the simplistic conception of Free Will known as Libertarian Free Will (LFW), which is where a willed action is defined as “free” if it is taken absent any force or coercion by one or more external agents. LFW doesn’t interest me because I don’t disagree with it

LFW synopsis: The act of paying tax to the government (writing a check) is done in the context of coercion – failure to comply will likely lead to bad consequences for the taxpayer. Hence, while writing the check is a willful act, it is not an act of free will in the libertarian sense. Choosing which flavor of soft serve you want in your waffle cone, however, is an act taken free of any force or coercion, and so this action is an example of LFW. Note there’s an important difference here between force or coercion, and a fixed constraint. It’s completely consistent with LFW that one is free to step off a high building to get to the sidewalk below, assuming no other person tries to stop you or talk you off the ledge. Sure. But obviously gravity is a constraint on the will, one is not free to step anywhere they want without consequence. In this way constraints are just like coercion and force, they curb the unfettered exercise of free will, but different in the sense that constraints obtain via the laws of physics, not via volitional actors, who use force or coercion to inhibit Free Will. No one’s action – any action – is free from the laws of physics. Hold that thought.

As I said I have no problem with the concept of LFW. It makes complete sense to me, so far as I understand it. Unpacking what I do struggle with begins with understanding what is intuitively assumed by most people to be both obvious and true. To wit: “Because I have free will I can think and act on my own, I’m responsible for me – duh!” But here’s the crux of my struggle – even absent all those exceptions to LFW I noted above, the average person, I submit to you, believes he directs his own thoughts. He makes his own choices. He chooses strawberry over vanilla or chocolate at the ice cream store. His actions, absent force or fixed constraints, every single one of them – from the simple scratch of his nose up to and including if and who he marries – arise directly from his exercise of his free will. Everyone is free to make, and is responsible for, his or her own actions! Again, I submit to you this is the conception of Free Will that seems both obvious and true to most everyone on earth. Hell, it seems1 this way to me, too. Many many years ago I sat alone in a bedroom mulling over the options facing me, apply to college and get an education or… well, I didn’t know what else at the time. But surely, once I made that seminal decision to go to school, that was all me, right? I mean the choice was a product of my own mind, an exercise of my free will, wasn’t it? Or was the immediate cause of those thoughts something else?

Fair warning, potential heresy ahead.

Let me further unpack where I’m going with this with a return to the ice cream store. You’re at the counter, nobody forcing you or coercing you in any way. No fixed constraints (machines are in working order, supplies fully stocked, etc.). There are three flavors of soft serve on the menu. You pause briefly to consider before speaking your order to the cashier, “I’ll have a single serving of the strawberry in a waffle cone, please.” That’s an example of free will, right? The thought – I want strawberry today – was a product of your mind, translated into speech, delivered through your mouth. What’s the problem?

First of all, what do people who hold this absolute conception of Free Will claim their will is “free of,” exactly, if not force/coercion or fixed constraints? What else is there to be free of? I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to that question (and it isn’t for a lack of trying, which I did for years in the distant past on Internet newsgroups). Second, what is meant by I, as in “I want strawberry today?” So far as I know there is not a single brain autopsy that has ever turned up evidence of an “I” in the brain. Something that hard cynics of Free Will mockingly refer to as an homunculus. Think of it this way: The brain is an organ, unique in its function, sure, but in every other way similar to the heart, kidneys, liver, etc. Have you ever heard anyone claim “I freely choose what my heart does, I will it to pump blood,” or “I will my kidneys to action, what they filter and when,” or “I choose what my liver metabolizes and how,” etc. No, you’d dispatch the Paddy Wagon for such a person. Yet when it comes to the brain organ, somehow it’s self-evidently true that each of us directs our own thoughts. And like I said above, it seems1 this way to me, too. It seems to me that there is something like an “I” in my brain calling the shots. I talk that way, I write like there is. If I claimed it wasn’t really me (I) that chose to type these words, you’d be loading me into the Paddy Wagon. But here’s the rub: there’s not a lick of physical evidence of a material “I” in the brain. Insisting there is, boils down to an argument for a ghost in the machine. But I don’t believe in ghosts, and therein lies my struggle with the common conception of Free Will.

OK, I admit I’m a thoroughgoing scientific materialist. I want to see evidence for things. On an Internet newsgroup I participated in many years ago, a wise guy once concluded: “We (humans) are nothing but meat that thinks.” It was his way of saying we’re really no different than other life forms; materially speaking we’re also just cells made of protein (meat), except, of course, for the properties of consciousness, self-awareness, and the capacity for introspection and thoughtful planning. That’s a BIG exception! But consider: none of those exceptional properties have a material basis in the brain. Just as there’s no homunculus (“I”) in the brain, you won’t find evidence of introspection or self-awareness or consciousness in there either. Nothing a pathologist could point to and say, “See class, there it is, consciousness.” Yet no one – not even Free Will cynics – would argue these properties are not real. (At least, I don’t think they would. Otherwise, maybe call that Paddy Wagon back?). That same wise guy also once proposed that the word “mind” merely refers to the aggregate outputs of the brain, i.e. what the brain is doing, its activity. That made sense to me, because obviously there is no material evidence for a “mind” either. No, the mind and the rest of those properties are meta-physical, real, observable, and measurable properties of actual material stuff, yet not physically material in and of themselves. So it set me to thinking, maybe the self-evident feeling of agency that we all report we have, the “I”, is merely another emergent property of a functioning brain. No need to believe in ghosts!

Still, as valid an explanation as that may be, alone it doesn’t rescue a belief in Free Will. It merely serves as a non-mystical referent for human agency. To the next guy who says, “I chose strawberry, dammit, of my own free will!” we may now compassionately nod and understand what he really means – what any of us really means when we say it – which is that my brain, this organ between my ears, in that moment at the ice cream counter produced the thought “strawberry.” That’s it. But in terms of what actually occurred in the brain, the irreducible chain of cause and effect of physical chemistry that gave rise to the thought “strawberry,” is anyone’s guess at this point. Because it remains true that the activity in the brain, just like all other organs, is 100% caused by external stimuli in the real world, not the “I”, not your will. Because remember, those are meta-physical referents of what the brain is doing, not a materialistic explanation of how the brain works. Is how it works complicated and complex? Surely. Highly variable across genomes? No doubt. Variable across time and space? Probably. Ultimately mystical? No.

Let’s review. We have an organ, the brain, that expresses meta-physical properties, one of which makes us feel like we have agency. The feeling that there’s an independent “I” inside the brain directing its activity. Being a meta-physical property doesn’t mean it’s phony, any more than other meta-physical properties of the brain, widely accepted as real (if not also unexplained), are phony (consciousness, introspection, etc.). Although I admit this concept of the brain being aware of itself does tickle my spook detector. But prima facie it doesn’t strike me as absurd. Where does this leave Free Will? Illusory, that’s where. I get how strong the feeling of self-determination is that pretty much every human being has. I really do. I feel it strongly too. But neuroscience has come a long way since the dark ages. There’s a ton of stuff to work out in detail, no doubt, but there’s no evidence of a material “I” in the brain. All the evidence points to external stimuli causing brain activity, acting through physical chemistry and intercellular interactions to produce thought and action. All of it. In that sense, none us directs his thoughts and actions, we are merely Experience Machines, as are all other living organisms. File all this as Confessions of a Strict Materialist. I admit believing in ghosts would be so much easier.

What are the implications to human life and the nature of being if Free Will is really an illusion? To be continued

1. I once heard it suggested humans have a sixth sense. Something called our seemings sense, which simply describes how features and phenomena in the real world seem to us after aggregate processing through our five common senses. Our seemings sense creates a first order approximation to understanding the real world. When that approximation turns out to be wrong on closer inspection, we are victims of illusion.