Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Don’t Trust Your Instincts About Free Will Or Consciousness, Experimental Philosophers Say

It seems obvious to me that I have  free will. When I have just made a decision, say, to go to a concert, I feel that I  could have chosen to do something else.  Yet many philosophers say this instinct is  wrong. According to their view, free will  is a figment of our imagination. No one  has it or ever will. Rather our choices are either determined—necessary outcomes  of the events that have happened in the  past— or they are  random.
Our intuitions about free will, however, challenge this nihilistic view. We  could, of course, simply dismiss our in-tuitions as wrong. But psychology suggests that doing so would be premature:  our hunches often track the truth pretty  well [see “The Powers and Perils of Intuition,” by David G. Myers; Scientific  American Mind, June/July 2007]. For  example, if you do not know the answer  to a question on a test, your first guess is  more likely to be right. In both philosophy and science, we may feel there is  something fishy about an argument or an  experiment before we can identify exactly what the problem is.
The debate over free will is one example in which our intuitions conflict with  scientific and philosophical arguments.  Something similar holds for intuitions  about consciousness, morality, and a host  of other existential concerns. Typically  philosophers deal with these issues  through careful thought and discourse  with other theorists. In the past decade,  however, a small group of philosophers  have adopted more data-driven methods  to illuminate some of these confounding  questions. These so-called experimental  philosophers administer surveys, measure reaction times and image brains to  understand the sources of our instincts. If  we can figure out why we feel we have free  will, for example, or why we think that  consciousness consists of something more than patterns of neural activity in our  brain, we might know whether to give credence to those feelings. That is, if we can  show that our intuitions about free will  emerge from an untrustworthy process,  we may decide not to trust those beliefs.

Unknown Influences
To discover the psychological basis  for philosophical problems, experimental philosophers often survey people  about their views on charged issues. For  instance, scholars have argued about whether individuals actually believe that  their choices are independent of the past  and the laws of nature. Experimental  philosophers have tried to resolve the debate by asking study participants whether they agree with descriptions such as  the following:

“Imagine a universe in which everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. So what happened  in the beginning of the universe  caused what happened next and  so on, right up to the present. If  John decided to have french fries  at lunch one day, this decision,  like all others, was caused by what  happened before it.”

When surveyed, Americans say they  disagree with such descriptions of the  universe. From inquiries in other cou-tries, researchers have found that Chinese, Colombians and Indians share this  opinion: individual choice is not deter-mined. Why do humans hold this view?  One promising explanation is that we  presume that we can generally sense all  the influences on our decision making— and because we cannot detect deterministic influences, we discount them.
Of course, people do not believe they  have conscious access to everything in  their mind. We do not presume to intuit  the causes of headaches, memory formation or visual processing. But research indicates that people do think they can access the factors affecting their choices.  
Yet psychologists widely agree that  unconscious processes exert a powerful  influence over our choices. In one study,  for example, participants solved word  puzzles in which the words were either  associated with rudeness or politeness.  Those exposed to rudeness words were  much more likely to interrupt the experimenter in a subsequent part of the task.  When debriefed, none of the subjects  showed any awareness that the word  puzzles had affected their behavior. That  scenario is just one of many in which our  decisions are directed by forces lurking  beneath our awareness.
Thus, ironically, because our subconscious is so powerful in other ways, we  cannot truly trust it when considering  our notion of free will. We still do not  know conclusively that our choices are  determined. Our intuition, however, provides no good reason to think that they  are not. If our instinct cannot support the  idea of free will, then we lose our main  rationale for resisting the claim that free  will is an illusion.

Is Consciousness Just   a Brain Process?
Though a young movement, experimental philosophy is broad in scope. Its  proponents apply their methods to varied philosophical problems, including questions about the nature of the self.  For example, what (if anything) makes  you the same person from childhood to  adulthood? They investigate issues in  ethics, too: Do people think that morality is objective, as is mathematics, and if so, why? Akin to the question of free  will, they are also tackling the dissonance between our intuitions and scientific theories of consciousness.
Scientists have postulated that consciousness is populations of neurons firing in certain brain areas, no more and no  less. To most people, however, it seems  bizarre to think that the distinctive tang of kumquats, say, is just a pattern of neural activation.
 Our instincts about consciousness  are triggered by specific cues, experimental philosophers explain, among  them the existence of eyes and the appearance of goal-directed behavior, but  not neurons. Studies indicate that people’s intuitions tell them that insects— which, of course, have eyes and show  goal-directed behavior—can feel happiness, pain and anger.
The problem is that insects very likely lack the neural wherewithal for these sensations and emotions. What is more,  engineers have programmed robots to  display simple goal-directed behaviors,  and these robots can produce the uncanny impression that they have feelings,  even though the machines are not remotely plausible candidates for having awareness. In short, our instincts can  lead us astray on this matter, too. Maybe consciousness does not have to be something different from— or above and beyond—brain processes.
Philosophical conflicts over such  concepts as free will and consciousness  often have their roots in ordinary intuitions, and the historical debates often  end in stalemates. Experimental philosophers maintain that we can move past  some of these impasses if we understand  the nature of our gut feelings. This nascent field will probably not produce a  silver bullet to fully restore or discredit  our beliefs in free will and other potential illusions. But by understanding why  we find certain philosophical views intuitively compelling, we might find ourselves in a position to recognize that, in  some cases, we have little reason to hold onto our hunches.



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