Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Chris Port Blog #267. Free Will: A Suspension of Disbelief in Our Own Ghost Stories (The Rugby Ball in the Mud, the Ghost in the Machine…)

© Chris Port, June 2011

I’m not much of a sportsman, but I vividly remember a game of rugby from my schooldays. The ball had landed in no man’s land. I was 15 and didn’t yet smoke. My lungs hadn’t given up the ghost, so I put on an impressive spurt of speed. I instinctively sprinted for the ball. Then I realized (with horror) that I was going to get there first. I only had a second’s head start. In that strange hyperspace of adrenalized thought, the physical world slowed to a Matrix bullet-time.

I thought it through. If I tried to snatch the ball up, I’d fumble it. I’d also be body slammed by a freight train of sweaty flab. There was no referee. In those days, teachers used to sneak off for a fag break and leave us to it. So I risked a rule infringement. I did a passable impersonation of a stumble and hurled myself into the mud. I grabbed the ball and formed a protective crescent around it, like a foetal claymore mine curved towards the enemy. One second later, a ruck formed over me. Everyone tried to hack-kick the ball out. Neat distinctions between ball and face were lost on studded boots. By the time somebody got the bloody thing away from me, I looked like something dug up from the Battle of the Somme.

Looking back, did I have a choice? I could have slowed down. I could have let the other player get there first. However, thinking back, I don’t think I could have done any differently. As I said, I’m not much of a sportsman. I couldn’t have cared less about the ball or the game, but something seemed to have locked in my brain. I was going to get there first because that’s what my body was doing

I recently had a lengthy conversation about life in general (and mine in particular). Life rarely ends well, but mine seems to have gained a considerable lead in the race towards dissolution. The finishing line is in sight. But, when I glance back, all the other runners seem to be preoccupied with tying up their shoelaces. I’m on my own again, hurling myself into the mud, about to be hacked to bits in another ruck. Why? Because this time that’s what my mind is doing. I seem to have no more say in the matter than that 15 year old boy had in overruling his body. It’s not the ball. It’s the momentum…

Free Will. It’s a killer. Do we have it?

Marty Gull is like a wire rope. Twisting strands give it tensile strength. But Free Will is in every strand. If Free Will pings, then the whole structure collapses…

I don’t think that human beings are deterministic because our actions don’t have clear causes. We are unable to predict the future from the past, only to make probable guesses. But is this just inadequate self-knowledge, or something more intrinsic to the human mind itself?

I posted the following request on the following Facebook pages:

“Can any neuroscientists point me in the direction of a neurophysiological rebuttal of Stearns’ point that ‘ “Voluntary” is a psychological concept and has no certain analogy in the function of the central nervous system.’ (F.R. Stearns, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Psychology, Pathopsychology and Development, Illinois, Charles C. Thomas, 1972, p.9). I’m guessing that ‘voluntary’ is just another ‘emergent property’…”

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N: Why do you want Stearn's claim rebutted and what are YOUR actual thoughts on any of this?

Me: Hi N... I don't WANT Stearn's claim rebutted. To be honest, I'm rather hoping that Stearns' point still stands and that 'voluntary' is still a neurophysiologically 'fuzzy' concept.

However, it's a quote from 1972. A lot of paradigm shifts have occurred since then, so I'm just trawling for expertise that may be available out there to update my literature review.

I'm updating some of my thinking from my old uni dissertation: Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? [See http://martygull.blogspot.com/2011/03/chris-port-blog-146-humour-in-holocaust.html]

If anyone would like to locate my reference to Stearns in context, it's in Chapter 3: ‘The Mind/Body Axis. (Is laughter created by an involuntary body or a voluntary mind?).’ [See http://martygull.blogspot.com/2011/03/chris-port-blog-148-humour-in-holocaust.html]

My underpinning agenda is that the Arts may be a natural referee between Science and 'Faith' as we’re the ultimate ‘philosophy-in-action’. It’s a big claim, but the neo-positivists are making some pretty sweeping statements too ;)

A working definition of neo-positivism...

N: You think rebutting Stearn's claim would give a working definition to neo-positivism, correct?

Please answer with YOUR thoughts and words rather than with a link, I'm much more interested in anything you might have to say for yourself than a list of websites that you have visited.

Me: I post links to spare inflicting too much wordage here. My thoughts range quite widely :)

Apart from the neo-pos link, the other links are to my own work.

In my original conclusion (free will versus determinism) I adopted a layered ‘interpersonal’ approach adapted from Roger Scruton’s work. In essence, this means deciding which analytical model is 'fit for purpose' depending on what attitudes are 'appropriate' to the human behaviour under consideration (these terms are all qualitative ‘language games’, unlike neo-positivism which adopts a more stringent quantitative approach).

I'm not so much AGAINST neo-positivism as against its occasionally indiscriminate and inappropriate blanket application (particularly in education, and even more particularly in the arts and 'faith' debates, and occasionally even in some scientific debates!).

One factor I’d like to update in my thinking is where the fuzzy line is now shaded in between neurophysiology and psychology/sociology, then translate this analogy into a menu of discursive models which are more ‘fit for purpose’.

Basically, if you’re talking about subject x, from perspectives 1, 2 or 3, here are the common routes, mistakes, confusions, overlaps and options. A sort of ‘language map’ to help people understand where the other person is coming from.

Then it gets a bit more complicated... ;)

See Epistemological Debate Map - Probability, Statistics and Bikinis (a map of my thoughts!)

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From another thread on the same topic. See The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official) Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/permalink.php?story_fbid=10150265148530155&id=8798180154&notif_t=feed_comment

E: Chris, the most basic concept of “voluntary” in the Central Nervous System is not in the psychological realm, but in its motor part. There are motor neurons from the cerebral cortex all the way down to the spinal cord. Each neuron has its axon, and several axons together form nerves that go to muscles to perform *voluntary actions* -i.e, actions commanded by the cerebral cortex in an individual who is awake and in control of his/her movements. This is described in Neuroanatomy books and in most Neurology books.

Me: Thanks for your suggestion, E…... It sent me off in a useful direction.

In the case of movement, there seems to be a general consensus among neuro-scientific commentators that ‘volition’ is a teleological concept: a neuron ‘decides’ to fire if its synaptic inputs exceed its action potential threshold; it then emits a signal which the brain ‘imagines’ as a voluntary movement; the conscious mind then has a ‘window of opportunity’ (somewhere between 150 to 200 milliseconds) to decide whether to ‘over-ride’ the signal to the muscles or not.

Discounting quantum effects (for the time being) the neuronal trigger mechanism appears to be a deterministic phenomenon and is not ‘voluntary’. The conscious mind’s over-ride mechanism appears to be voluntary - but is also a holistic process, involving the entire brain.

Under this interpretation, it seems difficult to locate the concept of ‘voluntary’ in any particular neurophysiological mechanism. If we need to consider the holistic functioning of the mind/brain interface, this seems to suggest an interface between psychology and neurophysiology depending on the type of phenomenon under investigation.

Movement is, of course, only one type of phenomenon. There are many others. To what extent can a person be said to ‘control’ their abstract thoughts?

I found this interesting article today: Physiology of Free Will by Mark Hallett, MD (2002)

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By a fortuitous coincidence, Sam Harris published a blog link on his Facebook page on the theme of Free Will just after my question:

Morality Without “Free Will” [30 May at 20:31]

I commented as follows:

This is perfect timing for something I've been brooding over for a long time now. Thanks for posting this. I need to have a long careful think about what you say. It's a fascinating and tricky area of the human condition.

Then later:

The curious teleological phenomenon of ‘intentionality’ in the mind/brain interface (with consciousness operating as a kind of ‘dead man’s switch’) seems to be only one subset in a moralistic theory of Free Will.

The ‘emergent property’ of consciousness and the ‘window of opportunity’ available to over-ride neuronal triggers (150 to 200 milliseconds) are fascinating areas of study. But they are tangential to the main debate.

Moral judgments only emerge in situations where there are moral dilemmas. There is only a dilemma if the subject has the capability and authority to compare and contrast different courses of action (or inaction). Any rational resolution of such a dilemma would need to include:

- explicit or implicit coercion (to what extent is the subject compelled by other forces or factors? e.g. “Shoot that man or I’ll shoot you”)

- a prediction of different probable outcomes;

- a prediction of different probable consequences;

- a comparison with whatever moral values happen to prevail in the given culture

We then need to factor in:

- the subject’s moral ‘intelligence’ (a very tricky concept);

- their education and training (how well qualified are they to make moral judgments, and have they been placed in circumstances beyond their capacity?);

- the ‘swamps of practice’ in applying neat rules to messy situations (what would you have done in their circumstances, which may not be the same as your circumstances?);

- any conflicts of interest (e.g. contradictory moral values, unjust or poorly-drafted laws, etc.)

Are there circumstances when, in accordance with one set of moral values, it is morally right to breach another set of moral values? (The answer, by the way, is clearly “Yes, there are”).

If you accept this line of reasoning then the whole moral debate has now shifted from individual intentions to cultural values, from individual output to collective input. This is not equivalent to a child-murderer claiming “It’s all society’s fault”, or a concentration camp guard saying “I was only following orders”. But it is the same as saying that the underlying debate is located in relativism rather than objectivism.

'The conflict, therefore, is not between actions that are free and actions that are caused: our science of human nature applies indifferently to both and denies the reality of the contrast. The conflict is between attitudes that require us to overlook causality and attitudes that require us to attend to it, and to define what we see in terms of it.' (Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: A Survey, London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, p.234).

See also: Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? Chapter 6: Conclusion. (Free will versus determinism). http://martygull.blogspot.com/2011/03/chris-port-blog-151-humour-in-holocaust.html

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After some heated response to his original blog, Sam Harris subsequently posted a follow-up blog link on his Facebook page:

Free Will (And Why You Still Don’t Have It) [01 June at 17:08]

I commented as follows:

This is a fascinating area of study. I agree that Free Will is probably an illusion. It seems difficult to isolate an Emperor 'Will' in the brain. At best we seem to have a teleological parliament with the power to retrospectively veto some of the more extreme suggestions from our motor neurons.

Having said all that, is the illusion of Free Will equivalent to Free Will if we cannot observe any difference? Skeptical thinkers have long trusted Descartes’ rational “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”) as a bedrock of certainty in a universe which plays tricks on the senses. Science, however, has shown this certainty to be profoundly wrong.

Consciousness is an ‘emergent property’ of particles and processes which are, in themselves, insentient. Physically, there is no such thing as “I”. That is not to say that “I” do not have physical mass. It is just to say that "I think therefore I am" infers too much. While 'existence' is a prerequisite for thought, identity is not. Who, or what, is "I"? Do new thoughts create new identities? Are you the same person that you were? These are clearly metaphysical questions rather than scientific ones.

Scientifically, it would be more correct to say "A thought, therefore something having it". "I" is a gestalt here rather than a singular entity. In some ways, “I” is an illusion, a biochemical bundle of sensations which combine to produce an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. The atoms of a living man and the atoms of a dead man are exactly the same. The only difference between the living and the dead is in how the parts work together. There is no ‘ghost in the machine’. There is only the machine. So, all that “I” actually refers to is the processes rather than the object.

The upshot of all this phenomenology is that, in most human experiences, it doesn't really matter. The illusion is reasonably consistent and convincing as we walk around in a kind of reversed Matrix where the physical world is 'real' but we 'aren't', so we just go along with it because that's what our brains have evolved to do. The ultimate pathetic fallacy of consciousness only becomes problematic when put to the test by society's demands for 'accountability' and 'responsibility'.

I would argue that the framing of these problems, and their resolution, is not the task of science but the task of philosophy, and that the debate is located in relativism rather than objectivism, words rather than numbers, and feelings rather than data.

'The conflict, therefore, is not between actions that are free and actions that are caused: our science of human nature applies indifferently to both and denies the reality of the contrast. The conflict is between attitudes that require us to overlook causality and attitudes that require us to attend to it, and to define what we see in terms of it.' (Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: A Survey, London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, p.234).

See also: Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? Chapter 6: Conclusion. (Free will versus determinism). http://martygull.blogspot.com/2011/03/chris-port-blog-151-humour-in-holocaust.html

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My conclusion? Stearns’ and Scrutons observations are valid and still hold. Free Will is a psychological concept, not a neurophysiological one. Deciding if, when and how to apply Free Will (or not) depends on sociological contexts, not scientific ones. Free Will is an illusion, but so is consciousness. Scientists aren’t suggesting that we walk around disbelieving in ourselves, and neither am I. Metaphysically I think we’re saying something very similar. There is no ghost in the machine. There is only the machine. But the machine is so complex that it thinks it has a ghost. The only way to exorcise this ghost is to dismantle the machine. Nature does that soon enough for us anyway, so why not just enjoy the ride?

This is an aesthetic justification for Free Will. Human beings sometimes throw themselves into the mud because they have become more than their machines. The illusion of meaning has become more real than the reality of futility. Ultimately, even scientists have to believe in some ghost stories. Even Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris go along with the illusions of love and friendship and kindness and morality.

Actually, Free Will is like Drama. We willingly suspend our disbelief to enjoy our own ghost stories. When a human being stops believing in their own ghost story, they become a mere machine. Machines have no Free Will. Ergo, if you are a human being, you have Free Will. You have chosen to suspend your disbelief in your own ghost story…

All those years ago, when I was running for that bloody rugby ball, my mind couldn’t believe what I was doing. So I just suspended my disbelief and did it anyway, because that was the game I happened to be playing at the time. Did I enjoy it? At the time, to be honest, no. As I said, I’m not a sportsman. But looking back, hell yeah. I don’t like getting kicked to bits by muddy boots, but rather that than be called a coward in the changing rooms. Maybe all those years of smoking were just my mind’s way of reminding my body not to run so bloody fast next time.

Maybe getting older is just realizing that the game is nearly up. It’s not rugby now. It’s something much more important. The game now is for the future of human minds, and this human mind in particular. That’s more important than an awkward shaped ball. So the real question is not why I’m throwing myself in the mud. The real question is why wouldn’t I throw myself in the mud? That’s the bullet-time moment in a very strange game, not of my own choosing. I hope I get the chance to look back on it :)


  1. Morality Without “Free Will” by Sam Harris
    [30 May at 20:31]

    Free Will (And Why You Still Don’t Have It) by Sam Harris
    [01 June at 17:08]

    You Do Not Choose What You Choose
    [09 June at 23:54]

  2. Total Recall fuels delusion about who we are
    The Guardian Film Blog, Tuesday 28th August 2012

    "The I is not an object"
    © Chris Port, 28th August 2012

    In truth, every human is Humean;
    a fictional Aristotelian.
    But then again, I'm a butterfly Zen,
    so I try to be Wittgensteinian.

  3. Life Without Free Will: Sam Harris

  4. Free will is an illusion, biologist says

  5. God is in the Neurons

  6. 'To some extent, we can change WHAT we think by being aware of HOW we think.'

  7. “The Neural Basis of Free Will: Criterial Causation”
    Peter Ulric Tse (MIT Press, 2013), Scientific American, 12 August 2013

    cf. Comment thread on ‘Tragedy’

    Free Will: A Suspension of Disbelief in Our Own Ghost Stories (The Rugby Ball in the Mud, the Ghost in the Machine…)


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  9. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)