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Friday, May 6, 2016

Am I a mindless robot?

So it seems as a new psychological study at Yale describes an experiment that demonstrates that choices are made by the brain which activates the body before we are conscious of them. The rational part of the brain then gives a rational interpretation of the act that occurred before there was any ratiocination.

I read neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (The Ethical Mind, Who's in Charge) and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), and so I am ready to accept that "free will" and even "free won't" are illusions. I have long quit using those concepts as being as useless terms for science as are gods or other supernatural entities and places. That doesn't mean, as I have continually argued, that these concepts are useless in ordinary or poetic speech.

I am prepared to accept that my behavior is influenced, shaped, and even determined by my upbringing and genetic structure, by previous choices, by my interactions with others from the day I was born and before. The habits of my mind or, if you wish, the grooves of my brain which constitute my personality or character are well established. Those who know me well can, with high probability, predict my behavior in certain situations before I am even conscious of it. The talk of willing an act freely (that is without determining restraints) is quite silly for me.

However, I do not believe that talk of "freedom" and "responsibility" and even "culpability" is silly, nor that these are useless concepts even in science. Nor do I think is personality, character, or habits of mind unchangeable or inevitable. These concepts are social constructions, useful in human interaction including friendship, governance, collaboration, education, planning, and thinking itself.

They are concepts that develop as we develop in our interactions. Freedom and responsibility are not things outside space and time. Character and personality are achievements over time in relation to specific spaces to which our organisms are responding. And they are social, collaborative achievements. None of us are totally free (the dogmatic or absolutist illusion). None of us can act without limits and restraints (the libertarian illusion). No one of us can decide the correct attitudes and values that should limit our behavior (the conservative and liberal illusion). But all of us can work together to determine these limits and restraints--progressively over time in common space, based on the vision and values we choose. And the games we decide to play with one another.

Freedom is not a state of being. It is an intention of human interactional existence. I may not be totally free; but I can and do take responsibility for my behavior and ours.

Am I a mindless robot because I do not have free will? First of all, I do have a mind, i.e. am conscious. That is, as Descartes said, beyond doubt. But what that means and how that happens I do not know--yet. I do know that I have a mind because I have a brain that integrates high informational complexity in a single organism and because I interact with many conscious living beings and especially fellow humans with symbolic consciousness.

And while I accept that I am not fully in charge of my behavior, I also accept that we are, and so am I, in charge progressively as we dispel our illusions and think constructively and creatively together. That indeed could be our human prospect. At least I hope so.