“Consciousness” and Free Will Just Silly Pop, Cultural Myths – Again

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Here is a good, extended set of comments by the physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, responding to comments on her post on the fact of no free will. Note she shuts down the comments in frustration with the devolution to stupidity – human nature “wins”, really loses, again.  All below is quotes from her.

“You can record objective information about a system be it a brain, the weather or a computer program. But you cannot extract knowledge of subjective experience from objective data.  The easiest thing to do is reject consciousness itself as nonsense that has no explanatory power nor theoretical mechanism

“Experience is a somewhat different issue than consciousness. I’ve been thinking about this recently, but it’s a longer story, so maybe just let me say this. How do you know that the human “experience” of something is different from the experience a robot would have. What do you even mean by “robot”. Do you distinguish between robots and humans by the material they are made of?

Any “experience” is merely one particular reaction to some stimulus. A lot of the confusion about subjective experience (all this talk about qualia and so on) comes from mixing up the reaction to the stimulus (in person number A) with the reaction to the stimulus of watching the reaction (in person number B), which arguably isn’t the same thing.

Sure, if you could record some “experience” you could look at the pattern and then detect this experience in your test subject if it occurs again. I don’t know why you think this can’t be done. In fact this is pretty much what a lot of experiments do these days if they record people’s brain activity in response to some stimulus. Or if they just ask people what they “experience” if you poke some part of the brain (as is often done in brain surgery).

Let me put it this way. “You” are some subsystem of the universe. If disabling this subsystem from executing a function it is programmed to perform removes a problem, then I would call this subsystem “responsible” for having caused the problem.

The question what consciousness is doesn’t play any role for this argument. If you bring in consciousness, you only get more ways to lose free will (because you might make decisions “unconsciously” without being aware of it), but you can never get back something that wasn’t there to begin with.

This is entirely correct, which is why I am formulating this so carefully. I am not saying free will doesn’t exist. I am just saying that according to our best present knowledge it doesn’t exist. This also means though that if you want to insist it does exist, the proof is on you to show how it can be compatible with the laws of nature that we know already.

I don’t have to define what free will is to demonstrate it doesn’t exist. I merely have to demonstrate that at least one necessary assumption for free will cannot be fulfilled.

All that matters for the issue of determinism is whether there is a well-defined initial value problem and a Hamiltonian evolution. For all we know this is the case for all existing theories.

“Experience is a somewhat different issue than consciousness.”

No I don’t think it is a different issue. Consciousness is composed of experiences. Without the “qualia” that compose the fabric of consciousness there is nothing to be conscious of. We experience the very process of our thoughts and that is what leads to (The illusion of?) free will. Without the consciousness of the redness of red, the beauty of music or the calculations and planning of our next chess move the idea of free will just dissolves.

For example our brains do an automatic calculation to tell out hearts how fast to beat. We are not aware of that calculation and so we do not attribute free will to the result. But if I am playing chess I experience that calculation and it feels like planning. Thus it feels like I have a choice on what move to make. One calculation may not be more complex or involve more “planning” than the other and in a deterministic universe they are indistinguishable.

“How do you know that the human “experience” of something is different from the experience a robot would have. What do you even mean by “robot”. Do you distinguish between robots and humans by the material they are made of?”

Yeah the problem is that I cannot distinguish robots from humans. Worse I cannot distinguish between humans and a natural process like the weather. Does the weather have experiences? I don’t know. The best I can say is that it seems to make no difference if it has experiences or not. I cannot say if a robot has experiences or not. The best I can say is that it’s experiences is no part of understanding how the robot works. It cannot matter if it has experiences.

But I can say that I do have experiences. Does it matter in understanding how I work? Maybe not but if the experience of qualia make no observable difference then how can I talk about them?

“Any “experience” is merely one particular reaction to some stimulus.”

What do you mean “reaction”? If I drop a shoe it falls. It does not as far as I know “want” to fall. That is just how physics causes it to react. If I stub my toe I react to limit the damage. It is reasonable for a brain evolved to survive to react that way. But I also feel pain. That fact is neither derivable from physical theory nor necessary for the physical reaction.

“A lot of the confusion about subjective experience (all this talk about qualia and so on) comes from mixing up the reaction to the stimulus (in person number A) with the reaction to the stimulus of watching the reaction (in person number B), which arguably isn’t the same thing.”

No the problem is subjectively I experience things even if you don’t. That fact seems neither necessary nor explainable. The mystery exists in my head and does not involve external people “A” and “B”.

Experience is some state of the human brain. With a suitable device, you can measure this state. If you measure this state, of course you (the one doing the measurement) do not have yourself, subjectively, the same experience. But you can very well say that it is a state of the brain, consequently the brain is, subjectively, having this experience.

I don’t know what it is even supposed to mean that something ‘experiences qualia’. There isn’t any such thing as ‘qualia’. There are states of your brain. Some of these you call ‘experience’. If we’d know more about consciousness, we might be able to tell which these states are. We don’t know yet, but one day we probably will.

If you still think that there are processes which are “intentional but unpredictable” and compatible with the currently known laws of nature, then you didn’t understand what I explained. The only unpredictable processes we know are random. And these aren’t intentional qua definition. If you could influence them they wouldn’t be random.

If a process is deterministic, the outcome is already fixed by the initial conditions at an earlier time, consequently it isn’t “free”. If it is random, there is no agency to it, consequently there is no “will”. In neither case do you have something like “free will” unless you want to use this word in a meaningless manner. These are the only two options we know of.

To have free will your actions should not already have been determined by a state (of the universe, if you wish) at an earlier time because then your action is not “free”. Neither should your actions be random because then you don’t have agency and no “will”. To have free will in a meaningful way you need to come up with a law that avoids both types of constraints.

You can measure objective states of the brain and correlate them with objective claims of subjective experience. But you cannot verify those claims of experience. For example there is a neurological condition that causes blindness yet the person is totally unaware that they are blind. They are honestly making claims about of their subjective experience that is simply not true.

I do not know that you are conscious. All that I can do is make objective observations of your brain state and note that they correlate with my brain states. But any such correlation cannot explain the causality. As far as causality goes it might as well be magic.

All programming is or ever can be is establishing complex patterns of symbolic stand ins.

Yes there are objective states of the brain. Once you know those states and know how a current state causes the next state then it seems like you know all that can be known in principle. Like a computer program one state leads to the next. Knowledge of what is or isn’t conscious is not needed or even helpful here. It would seem that there is nothing more that needs explaining.

No, consciousness and experience is not part of the understanding of the causality of the state transitions between the brain states.

I know only one physicist who does not believe in reductionism. The reason being that there doesn’t presently exist any consistent theory that gets around reductionism.

People literally start with the assumption that free will must exist, consequently we must somehow find an argument according to which it does exist, basically discarding what is the obvious conclusion. Tell me any other explanation for why the literature focuses so one-sidedly on what I would sum up as “desperately trying to find free will”. Political correctness is the only explanation I have found for this utterly strange phenomenon. The amount of wishful thinking in the literature on the topic is stunning.

I didn’t say that they are “intellectually dishonest” – I think they’re plainly cognitively biased. I said that *for me* denying that I see what I see would amount to intellectual dishonesty.

There isn’t any such thing as “qualia”. It’s a modern version of the “élan vital”. Give me a definition “qualia” that isn’t mystical humbug…there isn’t any definition of “qualia”. My conclusion from this is simply that it doesn’t exist. If nobody can tell me what it is, what else am I supposed to conclude?

…you are assuming that there is something about experience that is not measurable…I think we all agree that free will or consciousness doesn’t play a role for the act of measurement. “

Once you understand the deterministic mechanism of the brain there is no need for conscious experience nor any room for it.

Except subjectively I do have conscious experiences.

A question from before that you never answered – does the weather have conscious experiences? How can you know? You can make objective measurements of weather phenomena but how can you use them to decide if the weather is or is not having experiences?

Ok consider my version of Searle’s Chinese room – and I really hate Searle. I can barely stand to read what the man wrote.

Say you take a dog and torture it with an electric prod. It experiences pain. It experiences so much pain that you would be breaking the law in any civilized part of the world.

Say you recorded a movie of the event. Would replaying the movie recreate the conscious experience of pain? Most people would say no.

But lets say your recording was so detailed that it preserved the state of every neuron and nerve cell on a picosecond level. Observing that recording can tell you all that can be objectively known about the brain states of the dog. But does replaying the movie recreate the conscious experience of pain? Again most people would say no.

You can record objective information about a system be it a brain, the weather or a computer program. But you cannot extract knowledge of subjective experience from objective data. The easiest thing to do is reject consciousness itself as nonsense that has no explanatory power nor theoretical mechanism. Except I am conscious of things. I have experiences.

[Then…….ah, to badd. Ed]

Since this comment section is suffering from an extraordinary influx of mostly ill-informed, impolite, and entirely superfluous submissions that clog my inbox, I am closing this comment section.

1:13 PM, January 11, 2016

New comments have been disabled for this post by a blog administrator.

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