Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

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Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#1  Postby the_5th_ape » May 23, 2016 5:53 pm

new research suggests that our idea of 'conscience choice' might not play out like we think it does on the short-scale, and hints that free will might be nothing more than a cruel, cruel trick our brains play on us. In other words, we're not actually making decisions, we're just telling ourselves we did.

The new study was performed by neuroscientists from Yale University, and only applies to choices made over short periods of time (we're talking a few seconds here). But they found evidence that people aren't actually making split-second decisions before an action happens, even though they think they are ...

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/min ... free-will/
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#2  Postby crank » May 23, 2016 7:11 pm

This won't settle the issue, I doubt anything will. My take is it makes no difference.

Regarding the paper, I can describe something that to me is extremely interesting that should be relevant to what this paper says. About 10 years ago, I was doing a lot of crosswords, the NYTimes type, not the Brit ones. Sat on a chair with window in front of me, feet up on stool, I'd be sitting up looking at puzzles, trying to figure a word out, and when I did. I'd bend down a bit to write it in. One time I caught myself bending down and starting to write and I noticed I didn't know what the word I was going to write until I'd started to write it. At least I thought I had, it seemed kinda ridiculous, asked myself over and over if that happened. Wasn't sure. Then it happened again, and I was much more sure that is what happeened. And when the 3rd time popped up, I was sure. It wasn't often I noticed, but it was happening. I had time to bend down and start to write before I actually consciously knew the word.

Much later, I noticed something else, many occurrences of something similar to me seeing an object I couldn't identify, just some little thing like an eraser, or some gadget, cat toy, anything, and due to lighting, or it's position or angle I'm seeing it, whatever, I can't identify it, so I move closer to see what it is. As soon as it 'pops' and my brain realizes what it is, I think oh shit, that's all that is, but what I noticed is that I have already stopped moving forward and turned back to go wherever I was going before I actually knew what it was that I had identified.

Is this something any of you notice? Is it a common thing and I've just never heard anyone else mention it?
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#3  Postby zoon » May 23, 2016 10:56 pm

Like crank, I'm not clear that this is news, it's been known for many years that our brains often make decisions before we become aware of them, as stated in the Wikipedia article on the neuroscience of free will:
Wikipedia wrote:One significant finding of modern studies is that a person's brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Researchers have found delays of about half a second (discussed in sections below). With contemporary brain scanning technology, other scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice.


More generally, if our belief in free will isn't at some level an illusion, then there's a massive hole in the scientific view of the world. We still use evolved prescientific Theory of Mind guesswork in social matters because science hasn't got anywhere with understanding and predicting brains in real time; we can think of minds as essentially private and free willed because we cannot in practice predict them. It's anybody's guess what will happen to social life when neuroscience does catch up.

The link in the OP links further to a 2014 article here, which is a study into why we might have evolved the illusion of free will. It's most likely to be a key aspect of the unique human ability to cooperate effectively, it motivates us to hold people responsible for their actions and punish them appropriately when rules are broken. The abstract of the article is:
Clark et al (2014) wrote:Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief

Belief in free will is a pervasive phenomenon that has important consequences for prosocial actions and punitive judgments, but little research has investigated why free will beliefs are so widespread. Across 5 studies using experimental, survey, and archival data and multiple measures of free will belief, we tested the hypothesis that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In Study 1, participants reported greater belief in free will after considering an immoral action than a morally neutral one. Study 2 provided evidence that this effect was due to heightened punitive motivations. In a field experiment (Study 3), an ostensibly real classroom cheating incident led to increased free will beliefs, again due to heightened punitive motivations. In Study 4, reading about others’ immoral behaviors reduced the perceived merit of anti-free-will research, thus demonstrating the effect with an indirect measure of free will belief. Finally, Study 5 examined this relationship outside the laboratory and found that the real-world prevalence of immoral behavior (as measured by crime and homicide rates) predicted free will belief on a country level. Taken together, these results provide a potential explanation for the strength and prevalence of belief in free will: It is functional for holding others morally responsible and facilitates justifiably punishing harmful members of society.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#4  Postby jamest » May 23, 2016 11:21 pm

This is a load of hairy you-know-whats. Before you can talk about free will, you need to talk about the ontology of 'that' which has free will. Clearly, if we assume human consciousness to be some sort of by-product of a 'real' physical brain, then free will is off the agenda regardless. That's a no-brainer. So what's the point in spending £$£$ to prove that humans don't have free will as long as the brain is doing all of the work? FFS, these guys should be locked up for wasting valuable resources.

The issue of free will will never be proved or disproved within the research lab, squires. It's purely a philosophical issue.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#5  Postby igorfrankensteen » May 24, 2016 12:25 am

Speculative interpretations of selectively gathered "data," based on the ASSUMPTION that the mechanisms of decision making are ALREADY RECOGNIZED AND UNDERSTOOD.

That's what this is.

What was described, as chance would have it, does match my own "theory" of mind.

That we are not each a single unified entity, but rather more like organizations of multiple semi-autonomous entities, struggling to coordinate under the general conceptual leadership of a sort of "CEO."

In addition to explaining all the results cited above, it also explains quite thoroughly why I often find that I have carefully placed my coffee mug, half on, and half off my coffee table.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#6  Postby logical bob » May 24, 2016 12:50 am

jamest wrote:This is a load of hairy you-know-whats. Before you can talk about free will, you need to talk about the ontology of 'that' which has free will. Clearly, if we assume human consciousness to be some sort of by-product of a 'real' physical brain, then free will is off the agenda regardless. That's a no-brainer. So what's the point in spending £$£$ to prove that humans don't have free will as long as the brain is doing all of the work? FFS, these guys should be locked up for wasting valuable resources.

The issue of free will will never be proved or disproved within the research lab, squires. It's purely a philosophical issue.

As with the rest today's plethora of articles taken by the_5th_ape from ropey websites (this one talks about "conscience" instead of "conscious" choice), it helps to have a look at the abstract of the research paper. There's a link in the article, though the full paper is behind a pay wall.

A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice
Do people know when, or whether, they have made a conscious choice? Here, we explore the possibility that choices can seem to occur before they are actually made. In two studies, participants were asked to quickly choose from a set of options before a randomly selected option was made salient. Even when they believed that they had made their decision prior to this event, participants were significantly more likely than chance to report choosing the salient option when this option was made salient soon after the perceived time of choice. Thus, without participants’ awareness, a seemingly later event influenced choices that were experienced as occurring at an earlier time. These findings suggest that, like certain low-level perceptual experiences, the experience of choice is susceptible to “postdictive” influence and that people may systematically overestimate the role that consciousness plays in their chosen behavior.


You'll notice that once the hyperbole of low quality reporting is removed, the authors don't mention free will and talk about consciousness only in the everyday sense of holding something in one's awareness. Unlike all the torturous discussions of philosophical free will, this paper clearly and unambiguously sets out what it's talking about.

So I have to disagree James, disappearing up the rectum of ontology is really not going to help this issue - and neither are the crappy websites frequented by the_5th_ape.

crank and zoon - I agree this isn't a new idea. It seems to me very like the Libet experiment in the 70s that found people initiating physical actions up to 0.3 seconds before they became aware of making a decision.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#7  Postby jamest » May 24, 2016 1:26 am

logical bob wrote:
jamest wrote:This is a load of hairy you-know-whats. Before you can talk about free will, you need to talk about the ontology of 'that' which has free will. Clearly, if we assume human consciousness to be some sort of by-product of a 'real' physical brain, then free will is off the agenda regardless. That's a no-brainer. So what's the point in spending £$£$ to prove that humans don't have free will as long as the brain is doing all of the work? FFS, these guys should be locked up for wasting valuable resources.

The issue of free will will never be proved or disproved within the research lab, squires. It's purely a philosophical issue.

As with the rest today's plethora of articles taken by the_5th_ape from ropey websites (this one talks about "conscience" instead of "conscious" choice), it helps to have a look at the abstract of the research paper. There's a link in the article, though the full paper is behind a pay wall.

To be honest, I neither know nor care about the_5th_ape, being the messenger that he purports to be. That is, there are greater issues than he, the messenger thereof. The concept of free will being one of them. And, to be frank, I care not to review the links. The fact is that my response was related directly to the notion that free will is an illusion [based upon scientific research], and this isn't the first time that I've read such crap.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#8  Postby logical bob » May 24, 2016 1:36 am

Well, if someone posts a link for discussion but you choose not to read it then your contributions will inevitably be of limited relevance, perhaps the equivalent of spray painting PHILOSOPHY WOZ ERE across several fora. Have yourself a splendid evening.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#9  Postby jamest » May 24, 2016 1:41 am

logical bob wrote:Well, if someone posts a link for discussion but you choose not to read it then your contributions will inevitably be of limited relevance, perhaps the equivalent of spray painting PHILOSOPHY WOZ ERE across several fora. Have yourself a splendid evening.

Again, the significant and popular headline is my concern, not the source of it. I'm just here to do the hoovering-up. I apologise if the sound is keeping you awake.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#10  Postby SafeAsMilk » May 24, 2016 2:04 am

Yes yes, we know, you want to bang your drum whenever someone says "drum", even if the context is "Isn't drum banging annoying?"
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#11  Postby crank » May 24, 2016 4:28 am

Have any of you experienced anything like what I described? None of the very few I've asked has mentioned such incidences. i'm very curious about how common it is.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#12  Postby zoon » May 24, 2016 8:27 am

crank wrote:Have any of you experienced anything like what I described? None of the very few I've asked has mentioned such incidences. i'm very curious about how common it is.

Almost any learned skill, such as solving crosswords at speed, is a series of complex decisions which we are largely unaware of, it's the difference between a newbie and a smooth operator? I learnt to drive late, and I remember relaxing somewhat after an incident where I was panicking as usual over whether I needed to slow down suddenly, but then realised I had already applied the brake correctly about a second earlier; I was still in the process of becoming a normal driver. The article on neuroscience of free will mentions that a decision to shoot a red light and the veto over that decision can both happen below the level of awareness, I'm not sure what the experimental procedure is.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#13  Postby SafeAsMilk » May 24, 2016 1:51 pm

crank wrote:Have any of you experienced anything like what I described? None of the very few I've asked has mentioned such incidences. i'm very curious about how common it is.

I've never specifically noticed this sort of thing, but I've no doubt it happens.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#14  Postby felltoearth » May 24, 2016 2:03 pm

I'm not a musician but I'm guessing something like your experience is similar to playing jazz where people play off each other. A musician wouldn't ponder and decide what to play, though cognition and choice obviously is at play.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#15  Postby crank » May 24, 2016 2:15 pm

zoon wrote:
crank wrote:Have any of you experienced anything like what I described? None of the very few I've asked has mentioned such incidences. i'm very curious about how common it is.

Almost any learned skill, such as solving crosswords at speed, is a series of complex decisions which we are largely unaware of, it's the difference between a newbie and a smooth operator? I learnt to drive late, and I remember relaxing somewhat after an incident where I was panicking as usual over whether I needed to slow down suddenly, but then realised I had already applied the brake correctly about a second earlier; I was still in the process of becoming a normal driver. The article on neuroscience of free will mentions that a decision to shoot a red light and the veto over that decision can both happen below the level of awareness, I'm not sure what the experimental procedure is.

I understand about these things, I would not have put something like solving crosswords in that category, maybe that's a mistake. Most of them tend to be oriented around some habitual, physical action, though there are much more complex activities that we get habituated to than driving, which is fairly complex in itself. When I'm trying to come up with a crossword word solution, I'm actually focused on that activity, the habituation activities and how you can go on automatic and do other things that require the focus of your cognition, seem different, in that they involve a focus on something different than the habituated activity. It's possible what I was doing at the time was thinking about other things and solving the crossword automatically, I didn't notice that at the time. Plus, habituation really can't explain the examples where I am trying to identify some unknown object.

Thanks for reply, this stuff fascinates me, I think it shows how much our conscious minds are a construct of our brains, a subsidiary, limited, subservient construct, where the feeling that our conscious minds are in control is an illusion.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#16  Postby crank » May 24, 2016 2:21 pm

felltoearth wrote:I'm not a musician but I'm guessing something like your experience is similar to playing jazz where people play off each other. A musician wouldn't ponder and decide what to play, though cognition and choice obviously is at play.

That's an interesting idea. I'm no musician either, far far far from being one. Even I will instinctively do the conductor imitation thing at times, or drum out some beat with the music with my fingers or hand or foot. Music is such a weird thing, I don't think we really have a clue about what's going on there yet, do we?
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#17  Postby felltoearth » May 24, 2016 5:19 pm

"Walla Walla Bonga!" — Witticism
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#18  Postby crank » May 25, 2016 7:51 am


That's fascinating stuff. I think I can muster some minimal glimpse into the complexities involved in improvisational jazz, and it is definitely extremely impressive.

Other than this, " Improvisers are challenged with an ongoing stream of decision points, all of which require monitoring of multiple perceptual inputs and near instantaneous response generation.", the description given doesn't appear to address the communication going on between the musicians. From the way I've heard some of them talk, there is significant communication going on in some non-verbal, even non-physical way. I mean they 'talk' through the music, not by signs, words, etc. It's all opaque to me. It's also possible, a jazz musician is not going to be all that aware of, might not notice, actual physical clues that may pass between the performers, like the unconscious communications we all engage in, usually without being aware of it. This is just a bunch of idle speculation, I really don't understand any of it at pretty much any level.

All of that is definitely fascinating, but says absolutely nothing about what music is. Why it's so important universally across cultures, why we so strongly react to it the way we do, react to sounds with no obvious connection to the emotions elicited, why/how rhythm, and meter and tempo also, play such important roles and in more than music only.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#19  Postby zoon » May 25, 2016 11:04 am

A link to the journal article referenced in the OP is here, from the website of one of the researchers. It's a twist on the experiments by Libet and many others showing that we often make decisions before we are aware of having made them, in that the new experiments show that we sometimes make decisions after we think we did. The main implication is the same, however: our subjective experience of making a decision doesn't always happen at the time when the brain actually makes the decision.
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Re: Research: Our concept of free will could be an illusion

#20  Postby crank » May 27, 2016 7:52 am

David Eagleman has done a lot of work on how the timing of our perceptions is way off from what a clock says. Largely it's the brain trying to make our perceptions more coherent, like sounds matching vision, up to something like 50 ms, they will sync, think baseball or cricket bats hitting balls. Or, touch nose and foot simultaneously, they will feel simultaneous, but there is a more than noticeable delay in the nerve signals reaching the brain. You can search his name on youtube, there's a lot, I'm not sure which is a good one to find this.
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