Archive for March 18th, 2012

The measurement trap of free will

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

I just finished reading an interesting article about free will on the Inside Nova blog.

The article details attempts to quantify free will in humans. All the examinations involved biological measurement of the brain in various states of deliberations/choice using various modern medical instruments. The search for free will seems to have taken a decidedly physiological turn which is a big problem. The first two parts of the series focuses on the medical, tangible basis of free will, or the lack of it (determinism). The first study involved measuring the cerebral centers of subjects who were instructed to bend their wrists as they chose to do. Naturally, the researchers discovered that the physical brain “lit up” as a precursor to the subsequent act of bending a wrist on the parts of the test subjects. Another study followed which essentially sought to discredit the putative “determinism”-bolstering findings of the first study. The researchers concluded that since the brain fired a response prior to the action, as observed, that free will was essentially a myth since the physical brain instructed the subjects with what to do with their wrist. The follow-up researcher did not disprove the study, but he did point out that the “readiness’ signal emitting from the brain was no more deterministic of a subject’s decision to bend the wrist than choosing to not bend the wrist.

Regardless, the scientists who seek to define free will succumb to the “measurement trap.” They seek to define free will in physiological terms and time-scaled indices of cognitive response and physical manifestation which is inaccurate. This article essentially outlines the trap people of science tumble into when trying to measure a metaphysical concept. They measure the brain’s alert system 350 milliseconds before the body reacts as measured by the subject’s quantified reactions to a racing clock they were instructed to watch. 350 milliseconds. The subjects were asked to record the time from the racing clock at the instant they decided to bend their wrist.

It’s tomfoolery. They persist through all the bells and whistles of high-tech measurement while optimistically resting the validity of the experiment at the hands of self-reported subject notes. I’m sorry, I’m not a research scientist, but even I can see the implicit flaws in such a methodology. This is a test of human neuronal lag, if anything. A test of free will? Hardly.

One thing scientists have difficulty reconciling is the concept of random.
Random is a variable that can truly bring a researcher to his knees because it is immeasurable. And I truly believe that if you’re going to attempt to recapture a calculated, physiological architecture of free will within the confines of biological reactions, you better be be resigned to random phenomena. It’s like trying to measure one’s willingness to believe in god through biological markers. Some try.

Part 3 of the report I’ve alluded to above touches on everything I’ve thought when it comes to free will as a random testament to human behavior. They cite a study in which flies were demonstrated to respond to external stimuli in the most gruesome random manner imaginable. Gruesome because it involved isolating the nervous system of the fly (removing it) in order to test its reactions to stimuli in the most physically disconnected manner possible. In the absence of a connective body, stimuli was applied to the disembodied nervous system in order to measure responses.

nervous systems were removed and isolated, this way they could not be influenced by the body or any other stimuli. When hit with the same electrical stimulus, the nervous system sometimes chooses a swimming behavior and sometimes a crawling behavior. The choice can not possibly be based on an outside stimulus, or a stimulus from inside the body since it does not have one, as the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior states, “under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, the animal behaves as it damned well pleases.” This shows that there is no “hidden” signal causing the animal–be it a leech or a fly or a human baby–to act the way that it does. There is a true element of randomness that defies the notion of perfect determinism.

In other words, the physiological reactions of the “leeches” did not depend on naturally occurring environmental sensory input. They only depended administered electrical pulses and none of the ensuing reactions proved predictable. (ie, RANDOM)

This is my contention. Free will, by it’s definition, is random.

Human nature and behavior is inherently random. Intelligence and upper level consciousness is random. The only thing we can assert faithfully is that random behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Even random behavior is shaped by some element of learned history. Man’s nature is random at its core, but simultaneously, his core is polluted by experience and environment. It is my assertion that man responds to his nature in varying degrees of learned application. The less familiar he is with the stimuli at hand, the more random his reaction and thus, more rooted in his primal reactions. The more experienced he is with a situation, the less random his behavior because his cognitive system has recent precursors with which to align actions against. In the first study, subject were simply asked to vaguely wag their hands/bend their wrists (which seems to be the ultimate arbiter of random since the stimuli originates entirely in the brain, not externally, spontaneously from non-environmentally encrypted behaviors). That is a why such random stimuli are useless in describing human behavior. You’re basically matching disparate random elements in the quest to elicit…random. If I were to see a hornet flying toward my eye, I would spontaneously duck. I would run. Is that free will or is it survival? Survival is will, and it is not free, but it is…dictated by random. Assume that all memories of my life on earth were wiped clean and I was left to stand in a field. Would I have the same reaction if the hornet flew toward my eye?

The random reaction is free will because it is a descending order of hierarchy that conglomerates in your brain and is filtered out as behavior based on previous experience predominates. A hornet flying toward me would quickly filter through my cerebral knowledge bases and ultimately quickly signal my only viable option which would be to move. That’s free will at its most extreme example. I could choose to stay and look the hornet in the eye. I could be a jackass. Any action originating from a random choice is by nature, free. You choose to die or live, suffer or prosper.

Free will is a measurement of our acclimation to survive and escape danger or discomfort.
Free will is random because in random situations, it does not choose consistently.

Free will is nature, it is not man. Free will is not what we do but how we are instructed to do it by a random force.
Free will is not free. But it is not deterministic because it is not consistent.


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