Using neuroscience to know what you want before you know it

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You are in charge of your decisions, for the value of “you” which comprises all the subsystems of your mind including those unavailable to conscious introspection. There’s no contradiction between your mind making a decision of its own free will and something else frontrunning your mind to figure out what your decision will be - when people do that, it’s called “knowing someone really well”. In any case, such frontrunning can have only limited scope, since it’s trivial to use the underlying randomness of quantum mechanics to disable it. Use a Geiger counter with a low-level radioactive source such that clicks come slowly, and take a drink on each click. It is impossible, even in principle, for any frontrunning system to figure out how much you will drink.

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Isn’t wanting generally a waste of time?

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Take the half-life of the material, its amount, its shape (for self-shielding), the sensitivity of the Geiger tube at the material’s gamma spectrum, the distance/position of the tube from the sample. That should be enough to calculate the average number of clicks per time with fairly high reliability. Which directly translates to the amount of drink consumed.

Take the drink’s proof and the volume per click. Take the consumer’s physiological parameters that determine how fast the alcohol is metabolized. And voila, you now have a long-term equilibrium blood alcohol level.

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“High reliability” doesn’t cut it. If you like, use a source which clicks once per second or so, count clicks for a minute, and only drink if the number of clicks was even. The point is that it’s very easy to magnify quantum randomness into the macro world, so no prediction scheme can work. The future is unknowable and unpredicatble, even in principle.

That is equivalent to a coin throw, assuming click frequency high enough to eliminate the zero-induced bias. Again, highly reliable.

There is also a considerable (infinite?) range of distributions between strictly periodic and completely random.

However, our example, the radioactive decay, is about as random as it can get.

I’m not sure it helps much with free will though. Sure, it frees us from determinism, but it replaces it with random causality, which isn’t a satisfying account of what most people consider free will.

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This is a semantic issue which is interesting to dissect; “you” has a lot of semiotic depth!

When I think of “me” I do not think of “all my mind’s subsystems including those unavailable to conscious introspection”. Rather, I think of my subjective experience of existence. “I” am the seat of my perception and cognition. I am the running experience of sensation and thought located in/near my physical form.

In reference to this connotation—the sense that “you” can mean “subjectively” or “experientially you”—I think you’re wrong to equate the word with subconscious bodily functions/parts. This matters in discussion of wills because the experience of having a will is pretty subjective!

In a more macro sense, your use of the word is unobjectionable and useful. Consider the phrase: “I am sick”. It can describe at least two things. It can describe the subjective experience of a given sickness: lethargy, say, and slight depression. It can also describe the objective physical conditions of a body and brain; the species of microbes or viruses causing the sickness, the secretions causing depression and somnolence, etc.

This is hardly a frivolous nuance. If your body suddenly stopped making lymphocytes, there are at least two ways in which “you are sick” might be taken, and those different connotations would have different and consequential effects in your life. But regardless of any communication, the subjective experiential you would always be a victim of the objective physical you’s condition. In so many words, the mind is slaved to the body, not synonymous or coterminous with it.

(note: my subjective/objective distinction is not meant to imply that the sensorium or “mind” is at bottom nonphysical; it may or may not be, but I don’t know if that can be proven. personally I’m a pretty strong physicalist but I try not to be dogmatic about consciousness).

As to free will specifically: I don’t think it’s a compelling idea. I can tentatively accept the existence of the will as the subjective experience of wanting to do or think any particular thing. My initial question to people who want to assert the existence of free will, though, is this: free from what? In what sense? How is the will free?

Also: as robulus noted above, randomness doesn’t evince freedom of will as far as I can discern (neither chaotic events sufficiently obscured from initial conditions nor truly random quantum phenomena). I don’t see how being governed by invisible die-rolls is “freedom”.


great new quantum drinking game invented. Researches predict it will get you very drunk.


1: I see an ad for Pepsi
2: I want a Pepsi

Pepsi knew what I wanted before I did. It’s mind control!

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I see the word Pepsi, I want a coke.

You know nothing, Pepsi!


I am a physicalist, so I know that true randomness plus sensitive dependence on initial conditions is the best you can do. Your wIll is free in the sense that there is no outside entity controlling your behavior and it is impossible (as I said earlier) to predict your behavior into the future.

Whether “I” likes it or not, the mind is an emergent property of the underlying subsystems of the brain and body, many of which are not available for introspection because that capability never evolved. Those subsystems are the source of the urges, feelings, and emotions that “I” is aware of.

I find it astonishing how the banishment of determinism from physics seems to have so little affected arguments about free will. In the old physics, determinism was a given - the universe had a current state, and the laws of physics determined exactly how that state would evolve into the future. In such a regime, free will doesn’t mean anything, since the future is fully determined. But that physics was wrong. In fact, the universe does not have a current state, and the laws of physics only give probability, not fixedness. So now when we say that we have free will, it’s a much easier sell - the mind is a self-modifying calculating engine that process inputs and stored data, and nothing can predict its behavior into the future.

I am also amused by people who claim not to believe in free will and then try to convince(!) other people of that. Or people who claim not to believe in free will and and say that therefore no one should be punished. (But I want to punish people. If they can convince me not to want that, then they can convince people not to do stuff that merits punishment.)

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Firstly: I write and think a lot about this topic because these ideas do meaningful work in the realms of governance, justice, social norms, international relations, etc.

If I’m to reduce your claim to its bare constituents, I’d say it was this:

  1. the world is physical and underpinned by quantum randomness
  2. randomness entails freedom
  3. minds are flesh
  4. minds thus inherit freedom

Is that fair? Am I misapprehending you?

Firstly, 2 seems a non-sequitur. Whether it exists or not, freedom’s emergence from randomness isn’t obvious.

Secondly, I’m unsure as to whether you really believe 3; could you be specific about that? Are minds only their physical underpinnings, or are they more than that?

On to specifics/elaboration (this is just the above in longer form and written specifically in response to your post; you don’t have to bother with it, I just want to clarify):

Your first para: the concept of “control” or “coercion” or “influence” is very important but I don’t think “freedom” adds anything useful there, and I disagree that any will is ever free from “control”. It depends on what you mean by control, of course (semantics!).

You say “there is no outside entity controlling your behavior”, but I don’t think this is the case. This (semantics!) turns on what you mean by “entity”, but are your genes not entities? Other creatures? Social norms and milieus, governments, laws, volcanoes, storm cells, etc?

I would rather say something like this: minds exist in various states of control/influence by numerous forces both knowable and unknowable, predictable and non-.

There are of course different types and degrees of control/influence (i.e. different kinds and different levels of effectiveness). For example: you are driving and see a speed limit sign, and you are behind a cop or on a lonesome stretch of road. Type: government compulsion against speeding. Degrees: high then less high.

As to prediction: if behavior’s impossible to predict, what are the experiments of Libet, Cerf et al. doing?

Second: that’s entirely agreeable but I would clarify that the subsystems you mention are not the irreducible source of urges, feelings and emotions; those are also caused by the world outside the body (that is, by the stimuli we sense). We are part of a larger system, not self-sufficient microcosms floating in voids.

Third: I find it astonishing that people see a connection between “random” and “free”.

I don’t don’t grasp how freedom emerges from randomness. I don’t grasp it whether it’s minds emerging from flesh, simple organisms from slightly-acidic seas, stars from accretion discs, or whatever from whatever else; the emergence of a thing from some other thing(s) does not evince freedom therefrom; rather the opposite, actually. It certainly entails separateness, but that is not the same as freedom.

Fourth: Perhaps you think there is incongruity evinced by a free will disbeliever trying to change minds, in the sense that change implies freedom (and ought to cause a disbeliever some cognitive dissonance). Again, as with emergence, this seems a non-sequitur to me. Liquid water getting cold and turning solid i.e. changing does not evince water’s freedom, it evinces a change. Ditto with a person changing their mind. Either the water gets sufficiently cold or does not, either a mind is presented with ideas of sufficient persuasive force or it isn’t. No freedom is evident in either instance.

I’m ambivalent about punishment. Criminology is full of horrific facts and I will not go with the flow of extant justice systems because they are manifestly unjust!

That said, I am not against punishment on principle, but I am extremely wary of the deterrent effect and I’m also strongly against vengeance and retribution, which from my PoV seem detrimentally baked into extant laws and mores. The idea that people really deeply deserve punishments (and praises ftm) in an irreducible sense powers a great deal of ill in our world. For instance, it seems to stroke the furnaces of the American prison and policing systems, which are blatantly racist and clearly a causal lineage of slavery and segregation.

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Yes, you have summarized my beliefs accurately.

I believe that the “hardware” of the mind is the brain and body, and that there is nothing else. I believe that the mind is software running on that hardware, and is an emergent property that most likely resulted from biological behavioral systems evolving to take their own reactions as well as outside input into account. (I’m not a biologist; this is just me speculating.) As one consequence, I believe that the destruction of the “hardware” results in the permanent destruction of the “software”, thus there is no “life after death”.

By “freedom of will” I mean to say that the feeling we have that “we” are in control of our actions, that we can evaluate inputs and memories and make choices, is accurate. That in fact, that what free-will opponents would call the “illusion” of free will, is not an illusion but reality. I believe that randomness contributes to the argument by removing the possibility of prediction. In classical physics, a free-will opponent could argue that the laws of physics insured that the future of the universe was pre-ordained, so that no matter how much you claimed you were making free choices, there was only one possible outcome. In modern physics, that is no longer the case. It is quite easy to import quantum randomness into the macro world (people experimenting with quantum cryptography do this regularly, for example) so that even in a gross sense, the state of the universe even slightly in the future cannot be predicted from its current state (and it doesn’t even have such a state anyway, by the Uncertainty Principle).

Now, because we have only a physical world, this is the best we can do. We have a piece of software that makes decisions based on the world it perceives and the world it remembers, and its actions cannot be predicted with certainty. It “feels” that it is making decisions because it is. Now, because the conscious mind is an emergent property of many different subsystems, not all available for introspection (just like your computer’s spellchecker can’t introspect the microcode within the CPU on which it runs), the decisions made by the mind can sometimes appear strange to its own conscious portion (“Why did I eat that whole bag of chips!”). Nevertheless, it is the mind as a whole, not just its self-aware parts, that is making free decisions, in the sense that there is no outside power (gods, or what have you) reaching into the brain and making its decisions for it.

As for outside influence, I’ll go with the spellchecker analogy again. You can install all sorts of dictionaries on your computer, even containing deliberate misspellings. But the spellchecker itself runs on the computer; it’s a piece of software that compares words in your document to words in the dictionary, and it does so autonomously. No outside agency has reached in to control how the electrons flow.

My argument about punishment is not whether it’s socially appropriate, but that I’ve heard free-will opponents claim that punishment should be done away with because there is no free will. It’s that claim that I find nonsensical. (Of course it’s horribly misused in the US and elsewhere, but that’s a separate issue.)

Anyway, if (as it seems) you do not believe in free will, I’m curious about what you think free will would look like if it existed. How would a world with free will differ from our own, which lacks it? How would you go about distinguishing an entity with free will from one without it? It sounds to me like those “zimboe” discussions in philosophy, which I find vacuous. (That is, I do not give credence to any argument that presupposes that something can have a property that cannot be physically detected, such as a “zimboe” which acts in every respect like a person but does not have a conscious mind.)


I understand your first two paragraphs and agree with your hardware/software analogy for body/mind.

You say we are “in control” of actions and later in that paragraph you say “the state of the universe even slightly in the future cannot be predicted from its current state”.

These statements are contradictory, aren’t they? Control requires that one “direct the actions or function of something” or “cause something to act or function in a certain way” (to cite Merriam-Webster).

In so many words: if everything is random, nothing is controlled. Reality is a mixture of causality and randomness but freedom doesn’t emerge from that (nor would it from pure causality or pure randomness).

My big concerns are these:

  • randomness doesn’t entail freedom, nor are they synonyms, and
  • decisions don’t reduce perfectly to individuals and nothing else

The word “free” has a huge list of connotations, and I think you’re invoking 2 from this list by Merriam-Webster (“not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being : choosing or capable of choosing for itself”).

The problem I see with this is that “its own nature and being” implies, indeed requires, other influential factors, e.g. bodies, livable environs, etc. In other words, wills are not perfectly reducible to individuals themselves, because the factors that shape nature and being stretch out beyond the arbitrary borders of the self. We aren’t jarred brains floating in voids nor are we Geiger counters; we’re humans in societies in an interlinked universe.

As to what free will would look like if it existed: I dunno, what would a square circle look like if it existed?

I don’t know what free will is, hence this whole exchange, and can’t come up with a coherent description.

I rest beside the Tumtum tree
mulling our bodies, wills and minds;
I never think to call them free
or mix and match their kinds.

Since I can’t imagine what it is, I’ll just ask if “random will” might be a better phrase than “free will” since your line of argumentation turns on quantum randomness. Would that be acceptable?

With respect to that last parenthetical sentence: have you “physically detected” freedom?

I think we would agree that “the will” exists and is, in so many words, the capacity to have and act on desires and/or the subjective experience of this capacity. Right? Do we agree on that?

From that place of mutual understanding, you’re positing an extra characteristic of will, namely that it is “free”. I don’t see it. Why, then, are you asking me to explain it? How would I explain what I don’t comprehend?

wrt punishment again: I don’t know if we should keep or do away with it. In the US, punishment can be replaced with rehab in many circumstances and can be abandoned altogether for victimless crimes.

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Yes, but this is a misunderstanding of the problem of free-will as it is classically stated.

Essentially, the problem is that given a certain situation where an agent has to make a decision, does physics allow that they could have done otherwise?

Although the problem has historically been expressed as a result of a deterministic universe, that isn’t required for free will to be in contention. All that is required is that all events are fully and sufficiently caused by antecedent events.

If that is the case, then in a sense we can say an agent could not have done otherwise.

Quantum physics may shake up the discussion a little, but in the end even if the future is indeterministic, any event is still fully caused by antecedent events, so the problem remains.

I seem to remember the preferred resolution I was taught was that it was simply a matter of semantics, and it was fair to say in some sense an agent could have done otherwise, but I always found that a weak answer. I’ve never quite been able to reconcile it.

Edit: In writing this you have got me thinking. It probably does have a bearing on the argument as I stated it, because it introduces breakpoints in causation. If causation isn’t a continuous chain then there is some sense in which all decisions could literally have gone otherwise. It just doesn’t have a bearing on moral agency.

I’ve usually only heard the problem of free will applied to moral agency, and this is why the random nature of quantum physics is rejected as an argument for free will, it has no moral implication. The few arguments for free will that I’ve encountered usually centre around a moment of decision, where all things are balanced equally, and an effort of will is required to make the decision. These are usually theological arguments.

I think of free will as mostly a semantic problem, and not terribly interesting. Causality seems to be a localized phenomenon, observable only as “events” which are arbitrarily isolated from each other. There aren’t any concrete distinctions ultimately between one event and another, their underlying nature is interdependent. But as we isolate “events”, and attribute “causes”, we can arbitrarily describe some causes as being “agents”.

If there are nonlocal hidden variables to quantum mechanics, then it is quite easy for things to be strictly deterministic, yet have this determinism remain hidden. This could suggest that the real world is actually more like metaphysics, where a nonlocal set of potential relationships “results” in a tangible localized spacetime.

This depends upon how one defines consciousness. There can be some degree of compartmentalization. For instance, I have a server which includes supervisory circuits, an auxiliary processor which can check the state of the main processor. They are in the same box, on the same board - but do we choose to define them as being the same computer, or separate?

I thought it was uncontroversial to assume that gods are a function of human thinking, and as such just as “internal” as any other human concepts. But at the same time, what people define as inside/outside is more or less arbitrary. If my hardware and software are implicit in my parents and society, then am I not only one localized instance of it? All that I seem to be has come from other equally real sources. And if biology catches up with modern physics, the matter I am composed of is in some senses “here” and in other senses “not here”. It would be impossible for me as an emergent property to know with any certainty that “I” am not a trivial process in an organism, or that my organism is not merely a part of (a) other system(s).

Of course, things seem to be demonstrably neither 100% deterministic or random. There are certain probabilities which are in varying degrees of flux. To what extent these probabilities are “freedom” seems to be a subjective appraisal of how much one affects these probabilities. But my experience is is that people only recognize themelves and their influence within a fairly narrow range of conditions.

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