Are we biological machines with or without free will?

I updated my facebook status yesterday saying that I was involved in a discussion about whether we are biological machines.  I say that we are.  In response, a debate ensued among the comments concerning this question that turned into a discussion about free will, moral responsibility, etc.  I thought I would share some thoughts here and see what people think.  Keep in mind that I am thinking publically here, and not trying to establish absolute certainty on this issue.  I invitediscussion.

Of course moral responsibility is based upon our choices.  The physical circumstances we find ourselves in will have to be analyzed, perceived, or attended by the brain in some way.  The question is whether how our brain reacts could have been any other way than what it does? Could that last sentence I just wrote have been expressed more or less eloquently? Could I have given the opposite opinion?

It is logically possible that a different sentence could have been written, but would it be physically possible? What sense would it make to say another thing could have happened? Would that not imply that the physical properties of my brain or its input would have to have been somehow different? What aspect of the situation would have allowed the different situation to have emerged?  What would have to be different to allow different actions? And if the same physical circumstances could have allowed a different action, does that mean that this is a hypothesis about the nature of matter to be unpredictable?

There is a sort of game being played here.  It is a game within which we have the ability to think about the alternative ways to describe the circumstances, but from the outside of the game it may be clear, perhaps to a greater perspective or some theoretical god (or some kind of third-person-omniscient point of view) that no other possibility could have been, including those specific concepts of alternatives within the minds present.   Another question would be whether such a god-like point of view exists.  I don’t think so, but I digress.

The issue of moral responsibility only makes sense within the game of this question, but outside of it the game perhaps the repercussions of our morality are also as determined as the actions being punished. Perhaps the punisment is as determined as the crime.

But we feel free!  There is a sense of being able to look at he options–turn right, left, stand still, turn around, etc–and that we analyze the possibilities and decide which to pursue.  But I am at a loss as to understand how a physical brain could have made any actions besides what it did.  Quantum uncertainty, if it plays a part in neural activity at all, seems a possible area of explanation, even if I am skeptical of it. Perhaps quantum uncertainty throws the monkey wrench into physical determinism at the level of the world around us–the nurture–meaning that given known circumstances our behavior could be predicted but the circumstances themselves are undetermined.  I don’t know.

But what does not seem legitimate, to me, is the explanation  of souls or spirits that exist within us that allow us to be more than mere biological machines. Why not? Well, if we have a soul, it is either part of our physical structure (not escaping the problem at hand) or it is non-physical, raising questions about how the non-physical and physical interact.  If they can interact, then is the non-physical really NON-physical?

It is a difficult issue.  I don’t like the thought of my choices being determined by the set of nature and nurture (even if nurture is potentially non-determined).  But I don’t know how to escape the problem.  I would like to hear comments on how others think about this (assuming you have a choice in how you will respond).

5 thoughts on “Are we biological machines with or without free will?

  1. Shaun I’ve always said you have a very, very old-fashioned way of thinking about science and philosophy. As evidence of this I cite this amusing passage:

    “If they can interact, then is the non-physical really NON-physical?”

    YES its non-physical. As a working definition of ‘physical’ I suggest “located at identifiable point(s) in space-time”. If you have another, I’d like to hear it.

    Where in time & space does mathematical truth lie? NOWHERE! Does mathematical truth interact with mathematicians at least? If you deny this that makes you some form of parallelist, and one which necessitates a designer or at least posits a ‘synchronizer’ (Ockham is rolling in his grave)

    You could of course deny that mathematics is ‘true’ in an absolute sense but then you have to invoke a whole host of ideas that are sillier even than souls or gods (most forms of determinism STRENGTHEN the flimsy case for a designer btw) . You also open the door to denials of objective truth and reality and I doubt you want that.

    Perhaps you have some other definition of ‘physical’ that you’d being willing to share. I’d also like to know what you think about the difference between scientific and metaphysical determinism and what arguments and evidence you feel could resolve this issue since the latter is clearly unfalsifiable.

  2. transcendentals, like the basic rules of logic and mathematics, don’t exist in themselves, at least not in the conventional sense. They are patterns that we conceive that describe basic facts about how real things interact.

    It’s not that we create them, it’s that we create concepts based on how things must interact based upon simple rules for how things must be. We create concepts, like the law of identity, to describe how things simply are by their nature. Thus, mathematicians interact with the universe and create a model for how those interactions work. Mathematicians are not interacting with real things out there in some metaphysical way, they are observing how existence is and giving it symbols.

    Thus, these things are objectively true, its just that they don’t have their own independent existence. Thus, they are not so much non-physical as they are a-physical; a-metaphysical, even.

    Now, I was talking about things like souls, not transcendentals. I was talking about what we are, in relation to the discussion about whether we are ‘biological machines’ or not. I was asking, because I think it is a genuine problem, we are to think of ourselves as free in some sense if we are physical and subject to physical laws. The concepts of these laws of math and logic are physical, or at least supervened upon the physical. They are symbols or concepts in the mind, which is the product of the brain.

    What is the difference between ‘scientific’ and ‘metaphysical’ determinism?

  3. “What is the difference between ’scientific’ and ‘metaphysical’ determinism?”

    Scientific determinism would follow from laws of physics of the type that say if the present state of the universe is known in sufficient detail we could predict any future state of the universe and as such it was predetermined at the start of the universe. This is what people like Laplace famously assumed. Peirce, Hadamard, and Lande showed that this is not true even for classical physics. Quantum theory adds a host of additional problems.

    Metaphysical determinism holds that the universe is deterministic even if there are no laws that would allow us to predict one instant from the next. Imagine watching a film or an episode of family guy were random unpredictable events happen that noone other than the lazy producers of the show could have known were to occur. These events were still destined to occur from the moment you started watching. extrapolate this idea to cover our universe and you have metaphysical determinism, though we need not posit a celestial producer (but it strengthens the case for one).

    As you should see the latter is completely unfalsifiable, what would it take to convince you the former, as currently formulated, is falsified?

    I don’t buy your analysis of math and logic as transcendentals, there are branches of mathematics that never touch reality, indeed some that never COULD. There are mathematical entities like the Mandelbrot set, the extent and intricacy of which could not even begin to fit in a brain or even a computer.

    Secondly you have disagreements in mathematics all the time. To what do the disputants defer if not to some externality? The idea that mathematics is an agreed upon convention has NO currency within the community that practices it and those icy logicians and philosophers that suggest otherwise have not dealt with the vast number of problems that arise if we do assume its some form of convention. I count at least a dozen.

    I know you were asking about “souls” and what not but I don’t believe in souls or God but I’m not a determinist or a materialist either. As to whether or not we are machines I would have to say no. There are clearly aspects of our bodily functioning that could fairly be described as machines but we have yet to build a robot or even a computer that exhibits the complexity of a simple microorganism. Until we do that suggesting “we” are “machines” is true in a sense so narrow that it misses those aspects of us that are important to believers in souls, gods etc.

    BTW something is either physical or it isn’t, when you use vague words & concepts like ‘a-physical’ and ‘supervenience’ these provide an unfair way out of the game since a-phyiscal is just another term for non-physical and ‘supervenience’ posits an additional Set that is isomorphic to another Set without ‘interacting’ with it. This would seem to violate Occam’s razor and was what I hinted at last post.

  4. Things like mathematics are attempts to describe things. It doesn’t imply that they are all within our understanding. I’m not saying that mathematics is agreed upon convention. I’m saying that the study of math is an ATTEMPT to make sense of reality, by use of symbolic concepts and their interrelations, in some formal way. The fact that we disagree or that there are aspects of it that we cannot fully comprehend does not stand against that.

    If a mentally retarded individual does not comprehend the concept of powers, that does not imply that powers are not a part of mathematics that is describing how actual concepts interact. It only implies that particular mind cannot grasp it. It may simply be the case that some mathematical concepts, like fractals of various kinds, simply cannot be grasped by us. I don’t know how that makes my argument problematic. It does not imply that they don’t touch reality, it implies that they cannot be fully simulated in our consciousness (maybe). Whether this will continue to be the case I cannot say.

    When mathematicians disagree, of course they defer to reality. I’ve never said otherwise. How well they can attend to that reality is another issue, which is related to the disagreements I’ll wager.

    As to determinism, thanks for the clarification. I’ll have to think about how to falsify scientific determinism. Its the problem I started out with. This metaphysical determinism seems silly and clearly unfalsifiable (unless some form of god existed and through revelation might set up a situation…but I digress). Perhaps if we could manipulate time in such a way as to watch two different runs of the same event. But this involved way too many problems to be taken seriously, such as perhaps the watching the two same events at different “times” creates a difference, or something like that. I simply do not have sufficient information to know.

    Concerning supervenience; I’m not seeing how this “posits an additional Set that is isomorphic to another Set without ‘interacting’ with it” in any other way than symbolically. They interact through our thinking about it. That is a physical relationship. If I compare two identical objects created in different places by different people, they supervene in that their physical structure creates identical images for my perception. They are not the same object. Similarly, two instances of thinking about 2+2=4 are not the same calculation, but they have the same structure and thus supervene upon the same structure. The interaction between the two is that we can think about the two times I think that 2+2=4 and compare them in my thoughts, observing that they have the same symbolic structure even if the neural pathways that thought them the two different times were, perhaps, not identical in every detail (or perhaps they were).

    The additional set created to compare them is indeed additional, but it does interact with the others.

    Your objection of our being machines seems semantic. I might agree with you if we were to parse out the terms at hand. I don’t think the fact that we have not yet built any robots (any machines of any kind) that can do all that our bodies do itself is sufficient to de-classify us from the ‘machine’ set, although it does bring up some interesting objections that could be discussed.

  5. “Your objection of our being machines seems semantic”

    That’s because it is. If by ‘machine’ you mean an object that uses energy to perform some task, as the standard dictionary definition has it, then YES of course we are machines, the prefix ‘biological’ is superfluous. But if by machine you mean explicable in terms of the laws of physics as we can with levers, pulleys, or computers I would answer NO we are clearly not machines since I don’t believe you can reduce mind to biology or biology to chemistry or chemistry to physics, although all of the rules of the lower levels obtain in the higher ones.

    I think you are using supervenience in a much looser sense than I am familiar with. I have seen at least three different usages over the years but all of them hinge on the idea that it is a dependence relation between two DIFFERENT types of facts or properties. Two different objects that produce the same image do not possess different types of properties, they possess identical optical properties with respect to the human eye. Similarly 2+2=4 and 2+2=4 have identical logical and visual form hence no supervention. We could however say that the logical content of 2+2=4 supervenes on its symbolic structure since any change to the numerals or operators changes the logical content.

    ‘I don’t know how that makes my argument problematic’

    Its problematic because its consequences are untenable and more importantly its falsified. There are infinite (thus not capable of being stored in ANY brain or even a finite universe for that matter) non-physical objects that can be OBJECTIVELY explored by mathematicians. I use ‘explored’ advisedly. Furthermore there are branches of mathematics that simply are not concerned with reality at all and mathematicians who would abhor the idea that their research had any practical application, others that are expressly concerned with the way reality is NOT (remember non-euclidean geometries were investigated long before it was known the universe was non-euclidean).

    I do realize that the particular form that mathematics takes is intimately bound up with the human animal. But that doesn’t at all imply that there are not objective externalities that correspond in some fashion to what the mathematicians are doing. Red and Blue are of course human concepts but they do correspond to different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that would exist in the universe even if we didn’t. I hold that logic and mathematics are an exploration of rules that limit the form of possible consistent universes or sets or topological spaces or algebraic fields or whatever. At some point in our history we became aware of some of the basic physical consequences of a tiny subset of these rules and our creative and observational capacities have since allowed us to go far beyond those that manifest themselves to us through physical reality but they are no less true. I also think concepts like “democracy” and Beethoven’s 5th are non-physical but they differ from math in that they are our products but I digress.

    Just to clarify something, I find it interesting that the logicians that hold essentially your view of math (e.g. Quine) are/were mostly radical behaviorists, they denied the existence of consciousness (because they realized they had to). To figure out where you stand can you give me a well-developed theory or a thinker whose materialist theory of mind hews closely to your own.

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