The Internet is amazing. It hosts media of all kinds. Anybody can communicate with anybody. And you can find out anything you want to know. It's huge and complex but we don't need to understand how it works to know that it does. In the same way, we don't need to understand how the brain works to know that it does. Its electro-chemical machinations, while interesting, aren't necessary to understand in order to know that the brain deliberates. That's what it does.

Neuroscience can't yet explain how the brain does what it does but it has made some intriguing discoveries. One such discovery is numerous feedback mechanisms in various modules of the brain. It's this mental (intelligent) feedback that has led me to an interpretation of (the ill-named) "free will" that explains human purpose: I call it "self-determinism".

The philosophical conundrum with "free will" has always been the notion that it necessarily violates a fundamental law of nature: cause and effect (causality).That's a false dichotomy. It's not either/or. There are other possibilities. I hope to convince you that, because of intelligent feedback, self-determinism can explain our ability to manipulate events (purpose): not despite causality but, rather, because of, and in concert with, causality. The challenge is in overcoming philosophical objections. I hope, this time, my explanation succeeds.

By the way, I get the impression that some people think it's "arrogant" of me to attempt an explanation of "free will". That's ridiculous. Everybody's got an opinion. This one's mine. If that disturbs you, I suggest you look within for the reason.

Causes aren't monolithic: they're discrete. Normally, cause and effect are constantly repeated (or repeatable) with predictable results. Scientific experiments rely on this fact. Outside the quantum realm, causality is universal. You can't cite an effect without a cause. Like time, causality is unidirectional; flowing from the past, through the present, to the future. Cause comes first, then its effect: the sequence is invariable. This means effects have no influence on their causes. But with intelligent feedback, effects can have an influence on future instances of their causes if we learn from them and prepare for those future instances. If we succeed, we've altered the path causality would have otherwise taken. And that takes purpose: self-determinism.

Because of these properties of causality (unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability) intelligent feedback gives us a virtual, temporal, advantage over causality when we interact with it. With intelligent feedback we can examine events and tie their effects to their causes and deduce the preceding sequence of events. We understand consequences. But the real empowerment of self-determinism comes from our mental ability to extrapolate cause and effect into the future to manipulate anticipated events to suit our own purpose(s). That is self-determinism. We use our intelligence to prepare for -- or even control -- cause and effect. Cause and effect are not violated. But because of our preparations, we manipulate how it unfolds.

Take Amsterdam, for instance. It is below sea level. Causality would normally dictate that it be under water. But it's not. Because of our intelligent, proactive, interaction with causality, Amsterdam remains dry. Did we violate causality to accomplish this? Of course not. We intelligently used causality to accomplish it. Causality does not have purpose(s). It doesn't think. It doesn't care if Amsterdam exists or not. But we do. We served our own purposes and altered future events (causality) accordingly.

We find this easiest to do with materials and phenomena we readily understand. And what we readily understand are materials and phenomena with consistent, persistent, properties. We can reliably manipulate sand and gravel, wood and metals, air and water, elements and chemical compounds but reliably manipulating people is a different matter. I believe the difficulty boils down to the two different modes of causal response between inanimate matter and animate beings. The inanimate mode of response to causality is passive and predictable. The animate mode of response to causality is interactive and unpredictable. It's the difference between a rock and a brain. Inanimate matter is easier to manipulate because it's easier to predict. Animate beings are more difficult to predict because they're more complex and possess properties, such as intelligence, motility, respiration, digestion, etc. that inanimate matter does not.

As human beings, we interact with the external world intelligently. In other words, we interact with causality intelligently. That means we learn from it, understand it and use it for our own purposes. Feedback is the key. It empowers us by mentally rendering causality bi-directional. We learn from the past to manipulate the future. It's really just that simple. We can understand consequences and act accordingly. There's no advanced philosophy needed to explain away man-in-the-machine, mind-brain, dualism because there is none. Just simple facts that anybody can understand.

Self-determinism requires no violation of causality because it's the properties of causality (unidirectional sequence and repeatable predictability) that facilitate our intelligent interaction with it. Causality gives us a fundamental means by which to understand the world around us. The fact that we use this understanding to manipulate the world around us is empirical proof that we interact with causality intelligently and with purpose. And that means we really do make choices that serve our own purposes -- because causality has no purpose. We don't progress arbitrarily . . . we progress with purpose. That much seems transparently obvious and undeniable. You can claim it's an illusion, if you like, but you can't substantiate your claim. The fact is that, in actual practice, civilization takes "free will" for granted and pursues its goals as needed. We all act as if we have "free will". We take credit for our achievements. Everything we do presumes purpose. Nothing causality does presumes purpose. It's pretty cut-and-dry when put in the proper perspective.

So I'll ask: "How does our manipulation of the world around us NOT demonstrate purpose?" Were we really scripted, since the beginning of time, to fly jets into the Twin Towers? Are we really automatons programmed, somehow, at the moment of the Big Bang? That's what you're asking us to believe if you insist causality is necessarily violated by "free will". I say we are what we appear to be and that any assertion that self-determinism is an illusion is based on the erroneous assumption that it must violate causality. That is a false dichotomy which hastily and unnecessarily rules out other possibilities like deliberate, proactive, interaction with causality: self-determinism.

If human brains deliberate and if causality is a law of nature, then they are obviously compatible. Self-determinism explains how. Intelligent feedback extends determinism to self-determinism. It is a compatibilist explanation of what "free will" really is. It is compatible with causality and is, in fact, an extension of it: extended, primarily, by intelligent feedback.

Intelligent feedback makes us self-aware, future-aware, manipulators of events . . . and events are what causality is all about. This manipulation of events gives us a modest power over causality: the power of purpose. That is self-determinism. The only kind of "free will" we have. And the only kind we need.

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Comment by John Camilli on December 13, 2011 at 3:37am

"These laws of nature may or may not be facts but they are definitely assumptions that have stood up well to scientific investigation."

 

The principal of causality has never been scientifically investigated. It can't be. Causality must be assumed in order to establish logic, which must be assumed to establish epistemology, which must be assumed to establish empiricism, which must be assumed to establish the scientific method. No scientific test can validate causality because science is only viable if one has already assumed causality. Science could be used to invalidate causality, if its laws proved to lack self-consistency, but since science is incomplete, it cannot yet be said whether or not its body of laws is inconsistent. They certainly seems to be inconsistent in some cases (dark matter, dark energy, superpositioning, and quantum indeterminacy to name a few), but those apparent inconsistencies could be the result of lacking information. Actually, since I'm a nit-picker, science could only invalidate empiricism by demonstrating inconsistencies. Empirical inconsistencies could invalidate epistemology, epistemic inconsistencies could invalidate logic, and logical inconsistencies could invalidate causality.

 

I only mention any of this because you used causality as a certain footing for your theory of personal responsibility, but it is far from certain. But it's a moot point really because I assume causality for the sake of discussion too. I just like to caution people against feeling certain about anything. I'm not trying to be a dick. Moving on...

 

"You said that we can't "claim responsibility for our intellect's effect on future courses of actions. Learning and preparation are themselves the effects of causes, are they not?" This is the "turtles all the way down" religious thinking of infinite regression. It's a scientifically unfalsifiable approach to the question and, therefore, will not get us anywhere."

 

(continued.....)

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 12, 2011 at 11:46pm

Hi John Camilli,

I'm familiar with your relativist worldview; as you are with my self-determinism. As for not assuming "causality is an ontological fact" . . . your relativist viewpoint means there are NO ontological facts. I mean, if causality is not an ontological fact, the laws of thermodynamics are on even shakier ground. These laws of nature may or may not be facts but they are definitely assumptions that have stood up well to scientific investigation.  All laws of nature are assumptions, so I don't know if you're really making a point other than you're loyal to your relativism . . . to the point of postulating that everybody's experience of causality is an illusion. I guess that's what relativism will do for you: not only is free will an illusion -- causality is too!

You said that we can't "claim responsibility for our intellect's effect on future courses of actions. Learning and preparation are themselves the effects of causes, are they not?" This is the "turtles all the way down" religious thinking of infinite regression. It's a scientifically unfalsifiable approach to the question and, therefore, will not get us anywhere. You already know what I think of this "may the force be with you" mentality. You might as well say God did it. Rather than bank on woo, I'd rather acknowledge that the brain deliberates and that we have choices. I know, I know, that's an illusion, right? Well if the brain's deliberation is an illusion, so is our confidence that the Internet is really relaying our messages back and forth between us. Hey, everything's relative, right? But does that mean nothing is real?

I have to run, so that's all for now . . . but I'll be back later.

Comment by John Camilli on December 12, 2011 at 10:05pm

What Glen said  :-)

Comment by Frankie Dapper on December 12, 2011 at 2:13pm

What John said.

Comment by John Camilli on December 12, 2011 at 1:10pm

(continued....)

 

Your idea of self-determinism seems, to me, to be soft-determinism in your own words. While you are careful to assert that self-determinism does not violate causality, the powers you attribute to it insinuate a violation. You say: "Causality gives us a fundamental means by which to understand the world around us. The fact that we use this understanding to manipulate the world around us is empirical proof that we interact with causality intelligently and with purpose." This indicates that we are the manipulators, but causality manipulates us into being intelligent; our intelligence is an effect, which in turn causes more effects. It's not a power exclusive to us; it's just a continuation of the causal flow. You say causality does not act out of purpose, but that we do, as if our actions are the effects of some internal and isolated purpose, not simply the effects of causes. But if our actions are not simply the effects of causes, then do they arise un-caused? I think you would agree they do not; that an arm does not move without a force compeling it, nor a word issue forth without some energy being behind it. Force/ energy does not arise out of nothing. Conservation of energy.

 

It's all an unborken chain of cause-to-effect. Effects, in turn, becomes the causes of more effects, and on and on. For humans to claim responsibility for any action, we would have to be a prime cause; an un-caused causor. Essentially, we would have to be gods, capable of creating something from nothing, or nothing from something. And since you're here at the atheist nexus, I think you will agree that we are not gods.

 

The feedback loop of intelligence changes nothing. An ice crystal that repeatedly gets blown back up into a cloud receives layer after layer of ice until it changes into hail, but at no point during its morphology does it become responsible for its later state, or for when it drops, or where. It is always at the mercy of causal interraction. Even if it became aware of its situation, and was able to predict the outcome before it happened, it would not be responsible for what happened. That's what our intellect does. It predicts. When it experiences a stimuli it has felt before, it jumps to the conclusion that originally followed the stimuli. With enough repetition, it can often expect the conclusion and react prematurely, possibly bringing about a different result. But the awareness and intellect that resulted in that premature reaction were shaped by the original stimuli. They do not exist independent of it, so they are not an interruption to the causal chain; they are a part of it.

 

We are not the manipulators of causality; causality manipulates itself. One could only say that we are manipulators in the sense that we are part of the thing doing the manipulating, but since we did not cause its existence, we are not responsible for what it does. We are enslaved to what it does. A dis-heartening conclusion for some, but it is what it is.

Comment by John Camilli on December 12, 2011 at 1:07pm

Before I address your specific points, I'd like to make it clear that I do not consider any person's ideas to be "wrong" or "right." I don't think those terms are particularly useful in human considerations, as I am a relativist. That being said, my opinion is that your assertions contain some illogic.

 

Number one, we cannot simply assume that causality is an ontological fact (a fact of underlying reality). It is possible that we live in a non-causal universe, wherein each moment is unrelated to the next, and that we are merely conscious at a time when the randomness has the appearance of a causal relation (like rolling 6 dice and getting the result 1,2,3,4,5,6 in a single roll. It doesn't mean the dice are causally related, but if that were your only exposure to dice, you might think they were).

 

The principal of causality is an assumption, and one that can probably never be proved or disproved. You might think 'ok, but what are the odds that events would keep happening in a way that seems causally related year after year after year?' All I can say to that is statistics is not an intuitive subject. What seems likely or unlikely to our common sense often has no bearing on statistical situations. And even if it is very unlikely, it cannot be called impossible. Statistically, every situation that ever occurs has an infinitessimally small chance of happening, yet things do happen. Perhaps a random universe with a long streak of seemingly ordered events is one of them. Anyway, we assume causality for the sake of further discussion, because if we were to assume that each moment is unrelated to the next, there would be nowhere else to go with the discussion after that. By the time we addressed any moment, that moment would have passed and the discussion would no longer apply.

 

 

Next, I have an issue with this statement: "

But with intelligent feedback, effects can have an influence on future instances of their causes if we learn from them and prepare for those future instances. If we succeed, we've altered the path causality takes." I agree with this, but it doesn't mean we can claim responsibility for our intellect's effect on future courses of actions. Learning and preparation are themselves the effects of causes, are they not? If causality results in learning and preparation, then any effects resulting from them are caused as well, including complex results like the occupation of Amsterdam. Gravity may want to put water where Amsterdam lies, but other causal factors have so far prevented this from happening. Nothing supernatural there; just forces competing. Human action is compeled by forces just like water seeping into recesses is compeled by forces. And humans are no more responsible for their compeled actions than water is for taking the shape of its container.

 

(continued.....)

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