Neurocognitive basis for free will set out for the first time

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Do human beings genuinely have free will? Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this question for centuries and have set out the 'design features' of free will—but how do our brains actually fulfil them?

A University of Warwick academic has answered this question for the first time in a new paper published today [31] in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Professor Thomas Hills from the Department of Psychology set out to bridge the gap between the philosophical arguments for free will and the neurocognitive realities.

In philosophy, elements of free will include the ability to do otherwise—the 'principle of alternative possibilities'; the ability to deliberate; a sense of self; and the ability to maintain goals – 'wanting what you want."

Drawing on examples from making a morning coffee to taking a , and considering organisms from human beings, e-coli, cockroaches, and even robots, Professor Hills argues that our neurocognitive abilities satisfy these requirements through:

  1. Adaptive access to unpredictability
  2. Tuning of this unpredictability to help us reach high-level goals
  3. Goal-directed deliberation via search over internal cognitive representations
  4. A role for conscious construction of the self in the generation and choice of alternatives.

Commenting on his paper, Professor Hills said: "Neurocognitive free will—the free will that we have as humans—is a process of generative self-construction. I demonstrate that effortful consciousness samples from our experience in an adaptively exploratory fashion, allowing us to explore ourselves in the construction of alternative futures.

"There is evidence that people who believe in free will are more pro-social. They adopt behaviour that benefits others and society as a whole, and have a greater sense of control of their future—they believe they can influence the future in positive ways. This is important. Neurocognitive free will provides a basis for understanding why they are correct.

"Neurocognitive free will ties our understanding of free will to something real. It also helps us to understand what it means. I suspect it's not what most people think. As Sartre once said, "Freedom is not a triumph." But I think neurocognitive gives some hints to how it could be. That will be a focus of future work. "


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More information: Thomas T. Hills. Neurocognitive free will, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.0510
Citation: Neurocognitive basis for free will set out for the first time (2019, July 31) retrieved 18 October 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-07-neurocognitive-basis-free.html
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Jul 31, 2019
Too many syllables for my poor little brain to willfully comprehend.

I will say this: science does not account for consciousness, in the first place. In fact, science arbitrarily excludes consciousness. Without consciousness, free-will has no meaning. The brain may exhibit signs of free will. But without consciousness, those signs are just electrical impulses, like every other aspect of experience.

Jul 31, 2019
Part 1] The weakness of this argument can be found in the following statement (from the paper): "Free will can be defined as the ability to be free from one's past and yet to simultaneously act in accordance with one's will."

The nature and source of 'the will' is not mentioned and has a pseudo religious or homunculus ring to it, that there is an 'indivisible will' interfacing with a brain whose influence it wants to be free of.

But the scientific perspective says that the source of the will is past behavioural interaction with the environment (including the familial, social, and cultural environments), so rather than being free of the past a person's will is a product of the past.
...

Jul 31, 2019
Part 2]...Making one part of a problem appear solved or simple by pushing mystery and complexity into a corner and then ignoring it is what religionists do with a concept of a simple solution to all things mysterious if we just believe in God and don't ask any silly questions about it. Contrast that with piece regarding the will, solved as long as we don't ask any silly questions about this 'will' that is supposedly free.

My question, just what IS free? Answer without using the word 'will'...

Jul 31, 2019
Professor Hills includes robots in the 'organism' category? A bit of a stretch, I would think. Robots are machines that are electronically programmed without the benefit of individual live cellular 'mechanisms' that had received their own organic programming from previous living ancestors. The key word here is "living".
But it has been evident for many years, that Robotics Scientists and Engineers have been attempting to duplicate the human form, as well as the human Mind. The form is easily duplicated, but the human Mind is too abstract and far less programmable than a robot's thinking processes.
If they continue to improve robots as 'thinking' machines, one day in the future, robots MAY realise that they were made/created by humans, and that MIGHT breed resentment, and in their newfound emotion of hatred, go about destroying the human organism.
These scientists will then have accomplished their mission -- which is to find a replacement for living organisms.

Aug 01, 2019
The nature and source of 'the will' is not mentioned and has a pseudo religious or homunculus ring to it, that there is an 'indivisible will' interfacing with a brain whose influence it wants to be free of.


The point is:

Adaptive access to unpredictability


What they're saying with so may fancy words is, the brain can "throw dice" or utilize some other random process to become unstuck and to select behavior or form information that does not depend on strict causal relations from outside of the brain.

Without that process, any reason the brain would have to do anything can be always traced to causes outside of the brain, and therefore the brain is not free. Only with an internal random coin-toss, the brain can be said to have a will independent of its surroundings.

Note however that this does not strictly solve the free will question, because that depends on whether the brain is capable of true internal randomness, or just pseudo-randomness like a computer.

Aug 01, 2019
True internal randomness would include things like radioisotopes decaying in the brain (e.g. Potassium-40) and interacting with processes that have developed to be sensitive to such small disruptions - for example by forming a chaotic oscillator out of neurons.

Pseudo-randomness would include things like getting hit in the head by a cosmic ray - it's an accident that the brain cannot harness by choice. It can't be turned on and off, so the brain is forced to act according to outside influence and therefore is not free.

One can argue that having a random noise generator in your brain doesn't constitute freedom in the sense of will, but this argument is faulty in the sense that it tries to deconstruct the brain into parts and then argue that the parts are separate of the thing that does the willing. It's like saying "My brain thinks" and forgetting that you ARE the brain, all the sub-components and parts, including the Potassium-40 atoms that keep decaying.

Aug 01, 2019
"Do human beings genuinely have free will? Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this question for centuries"

-Neither can be objective as they both rely on unresolvable concepts. They never try to resolve anything as it would put them out of a job.

The tropical human animal is inextricably bound by our desires to survive to reproduce, and to serve the tribe. This irresistable interplay between nature vs nurture, between instinct and domestication, colors and directs all opinions, all decisions, all wants and needs.

The fallacy of the blank slate was concocted by pretenders seeking to gain unfair advantage for their tribes and for themselves, as usual.

Alls fair in love and war but victory is always the objective.

Aug 02, 2019
This irresistable interplay between nature vs nurture, between instinct and domestication, colors and directs all opinions, all decisions, all wants and needs.


False. Evolution doesn't produce "robots", partly because evolution itself isn't sentient or capable of planning, but mainly because the process of evolving is stochastic: your "programming" is never perfect. Even your own survival isn't an absolute maxim.

Being a "blank slate" can sometimes benefit you in evolution by not being bound to certain behaviors. Being able to override and overwrite instinctual behavior is a survival advantage in a changing environment.

Trying to explain and predict humans by appealing to their "genetic nature" is the 20th century "you can take a tiger out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the tiger" version of evolutionary psychology that attempts to explain everything in simplistic terms for lack of deeper understanding about evolution or psychology.

Aug 02, 2019
If there's one thing about evolution, the long term success of any species depends on its ability to adapt. Any species that gets locked to a single form and behavior - a single niche - such as "tribalism", is inevitably destroyed when the environment changes.

A species that has gone through a narrow population bottleneck, and become a global species, such as humans, is either implausibly lucky to find everywhere on earth hospitable to the same formula, or actually able to act as a "blank slate" - to re-organize their social structure according to the demands of the environment.

Aug 02, 2019
Being a "blank slate" can sometimes benefit you in evolution by not being bound to certain behaviors. Being able to override and overwrite instinctual behavior is a survival advantage in a changing environment
-But according to evolutionary psychologists, we're not blank slates.

"In philosophy and psychology, the tabula rasa (Latin for "erased writing tablet") or blank slate refers to a belief that humans are born without any innate mental content. Everything they know, and everything their minds and brains are able to do, is learned from perception and experience. It isn't true."
https://rationalw...ula_rasa

It's obvious you're not familiar with either the bankrupt tabula rasa movement, a fundamental assumption of B. F. Skinner and the behaviorists, or the evolutionary psychology theories of chomsky and pinker which made it obvious that the former was all sociopolitical propaganda.

So why are you guessing?

Aug 10, 2019
-But according to evolutionary psychologists, we're not blank slates.


So? That doesn't invalidate the point.

Just because you have instincts doesn't mean you're a robot without the ability to re-direct, replace, erase or simply forget your previous programming.

The brain undergoes a tremendous amount of growth and development, and it would be very difficult to have much genetically ingrained complex information of behavior in the first place. For example, babies have many "built-in" behaviors that they simply forget after a while as the brain grows and re-structures itself according to new experience (such as the Moro reflex).

the bankrupt tabula rasa movement


That's just your own conspiracy theories. Nobody actually suggests that people are born perfectly and utterly mindless, and arguing against the point is swinging at straw-men and scarecrows that you yourself have propped up.

Aug 10, 2019
Simpler animals do simple routines, like mating calls and displays, establish pecking orders, group hierarchies etc. according to a "program" that changes very little over the generations because failure to follow the correct procedure instantly leads to failure in reproduction. If you don't give the correct secret handshake, you're out of the group.

With humans, the "correct handshake" is such a complex thing and it changes with circumstances so much that it simply cannot be pre-programmed. It has to be learned. What remains of the instinctual behaviors in humans is rather the curiosity to learn and mimic - filling up the tabula as fast as possible.

Even things we often take as fundamental behavior that comes naturally to humans, isn't. Like kissing lips. Not all cultures kiss in the same sense or reasons, and some few cultures do not kiss at all.

Aug 10, 2019
One thing to consider is that the human brain increases the number of neurons by a factor of 5 between birth and adulthood, while going through a process of synaptic pruning that destroys unnecessary connections and is central to the process of learning.

https://en.wikipe..._pruning

Basically, even if people are born "animals", by the time you're an adult your brain is completely transformed and rebuilt from what it was when you were a baby. One doesn't need to be born "tabula rasa" in order to then become re-defined through learning and sensory experience, because it isn't the same brain.

Much of the argumentation by Chomsky etc. is that there's already -organization- in the brain, for example:

No one had to teach you, nor did you have to figure out yourself, how to use the parallax of your two horizontally separated eyes for the purpose of depth perception


True, but that doesn't mean there is necessarily any particular -content- in the brain.

Aug 10, 2019
That is basically analogous to the fact that your computer has a BIOS chip, which contains about a megabyte of code that starts everything up, looks for an operating system on any attached disk device, and then hands control over to it.

After the boot-up process is done, there's no need for the BIOS code anymore, so the program is left running to perform simple background functions such as controlling the CPU fan speed.

It used to be that the BIOS code was there to provide certain common program functions and act as a go-between for the software and the hardware, which defined how the standard "PC" operated and what it would do. Operating systems and programs were programmed to call the BIOS to read the keyboard, or copy data from the floppy drive etc.

It lost the function when the operating systems grew in complexity and size and started including direct device calls for all the supported hardware. Now it no longer defines the difference between a "PC" and a "Mac".

Aug 10, 2019
Although on the point of:

No one had to teach you, nor did you have to figure out yourself, how to use the parallax of your two horizontally separated eyes for the purpose of depth perception


That isn't strictly true. There are people who have only gained or re-gained binocular vision in their adulthood, and they often lack the ability. More importantly, they often gain the ability after a while of experiencing the world in binocular vision.

I saw a documentary where this one lady had had bad strabismus, which was later corrected, and she reported sitting in front of a tree one day, and suddenly she just started to notice that the branches come in and out in 3D - a completely new experience for her.

It is definitely a thing you learn - you just learn it so rapidly that it seems like you were born with it. As soon as the baby gains enough muscle control to point their eyes in a certain direction and move their head, they've already learned it.

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