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Posted by on Dec 19, 2013 in Free Will and Determinism, Philosophy, Psychology, Science | 16 comments

Explanatory scope of free will

So I have a question. I will detail the following research. For ‘free will’ to be true, it has to explain the following. Or more accurately, the following has to be fully explicable within the free will hypothesis. How does it do that?

The second question would be “What does free will predict?” Because free will, to be a robust theory, must have predictive value. The following research, for example, is fully predicted by determinism. Expected. On free will, however, at best one must ad hoc rationalise which decreases the probability of the thesis being true and valid.

Let’s start with an obvious case. Huntington’s disease is a monogenetic disorder. This means that it is expressed as a result of a single gene, which is more unusual since many disorders are polygenetic. What this means is that at some point in the sufferer’s life, their personality will utterly change. One gene. (See things like herpes simplex encephalitis and CJD for big changes with little tweaks). As Robert Sapolsky states: “Alter one gene among tens of thousands and, approximately halfway through one’s life, there occurs a dramatic transformation of personality.”

Schizophrenia has genetic drivers, but is much more complex. It seems sufferers only get this psychological issue in certain scenarios, most notably when they are immigrants who feel disconnected from the society around them (eg, say, a Korean immigrant to the US who feels different to the society in which they live). This mix of genes and environment trigger a psychological state of affairs. As I mentioned elsewhere, with regard to tumours, why see causal determinism only in cases of psychological ‘abnormality’ and not in neurotypical cases? That is special pleading.

But on to the main point. Consider the work of Stephen Suomi and his team with monkeys. He raises monkeys in their natural settings, observing every detail of their lives. He saw that monkeys began to exhibit different personalities to each other from an early age. Virtually every social behaviour was developed, practiced and perfected by 4-6 months of age. Suomi was able to combine these observations with regular blood testing of hormones and metabolites and genetic analysis.

He found among the baby monkeys that:

  • 20% displayed social anxiety (reacting to novel, mildly stressful social situations with fearful and anxious behaviour and long-lasting elevations of stress hormones).
  • 5% were overly aggressive (impulsively aggressive and inappropriately belligerent behaviour, low levels of blood metabolite related to breakdown of the neurotransmitter serotonin).
  • There were 2 different alleles (gene variants) for a protein involved in transporting serotonin (serotonin transporter 5-HTT gene) – long and short forms. The monkeys with short form showed more violence, the long form normal.
  • The outcome depended entirely on the mix of these genetic variations and environment.
  • There were two ways the monkeys could be reared: mothers (good) of peers (insecure).

The results:

  Raised with peers Raised with mothers
Short allele Aggressive Fine
Long allele Fine Fine

This tells us 2 things: good mothering gives monkeys resilience to mitigate genes; good genes give monkeys social resilience no matter what.

After the success of these studies, people naturally started looking at humans. We have pretty much the same biology after all. In 2001, for example, Caspi and team looked at genes for depression. Are there? Sort of. There are genes which predispose one to depression, bu tit depends on life environment. Looking carefully at life events and genetics (specifically serotonin regulation). They isolated one gene which both parents carry. This meant people have three combinations: short/short, short/long and long/long. Short/short predisposed people to clinical depression, BUT ONLY in combination with bad life events. Being lucky enough to live a ‘good life’ for want of a better term mitigated the genetic predisposition for depression.

Caspi looked at whether abused children themselves go on to abuse, commonly claimed (something I heard in the staff room and corrected only yesterday). This is sort of true. Some do, some don’t. Are there causal drivers? It turns out a particular predicted gene variant differentiated the children who went on to abuse from those who didn’t. It turns out if you had the gene variant and were abused, you were much more likely to abuse, rather like the table above.

The same Caspi looked at adult psychosis and smoking marijuana. Again, the same gene-environment interaction was found.

Gao et al found that poor fear conditioning at age ¾ scarily predicted criminality 20 years later.

Walter Mischel, in the famous marshmallow/cookie experiments showed that delayed fgratification ability at age 5 or 6 led to better life outcomes as adolescents and adults. Being able to put off taking one cookie now, whilst the interviewer left the room with the promise that if the one remained, the child would get 2 on their return, at the age of 5 or 6, predicted a range of outcomes for the children later in their lives. This is why quit smoking product adverts have to include the idea of having willpower. But we know that willpower is biologically conditioned, and we know this empirically. These experiments have been built upon to show the internal-external interplay more robustly analysed.

So it is not genes, necessarily, or environment, necessarily. But more often than not, a combination of the two.

In sum, as the neuroethicist Martha Farah puts it, if an antidepressant pill “can help us take everyday problems in stride, and if a stimulant can help us meet our deadlines and keep our commitments at work, then must not unflabbable temperaments and conscientious characters also be features of people’s bodies? And if so, is there anything about people that is not a feature of their bodies?”

There are tens of thousands of studies I could cite. Every single one needs to be explained on the free will hypothesis. All are explained by the determinism hypothesis. Better still, they are predicted.

Notes

Caspi et al – Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children

Caspi et al – Influence of life stress on depression: Moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene

Caspi et al – Moderation of the effect of adolescent-onset cannabis use on adult psychosis by a functional polymorphism in the COMT gene: Longitudinal evidence of gene environment interaction

Farah – Neuroethics: A Guide for the Perplexed

Gao et al – Association of Poor Childhood Fear Conditioning and Adult Crime

Mischel – the Marshmallow experiments

Sapolsky – The frontal cortex and the criminal justice system

Suomi – Risk, Resilience and Gene-Environment Interplay in Primates

  • labreuer

    1. Not everyone believes that ‘free will’ means doxastic voluntarism or the ability to be anything you want. The Christian believes that some people are created for some purposes and others, for other purposes. Consider a receptionist who is allowed great freedom to become a better and better receptionist (little red tape), but still needs to fulfill the role of receptionist. One can have freedom without it being infinite.

    2. Free will says that we can at partially transcend our limitations. Maybe it’s harder for me to not punch you when you insult me than for you to not punch me when I insult you, but all that really says is that you struggle with different things than I do. Free will says that I can understand what you describe above, and thus have more power to act against my natural inclinations.

    3. Free will would not make any sense outside of structure. It is common to talk about freedom from, while completely ignoring freedom to. I am only free to play masterpieces on the piano if I train myself and greatly limit what my fingers will do. By introducing restrictive structure to my actions, I can play beautiful music. Without such structure, you get cacophony.

    The tricky thing is, it seems like determinism can account for all of the above. It seems like determinism can account for anything, which means that it accounts for nothing. If it merely says we can get better at predicting behavior, then that’s a no-brainer. If it says that behavior will become completely predictable, on the other hand, that would be meaningful and disturbing. I’d also be deeply skeptical of such a claim, as I’m deeply skeptical of the claim that people who look different than I do are only fit to be slaves.

    • Phasespace

      It seems like determinism can account for anything, which means that it accounts for nothing.

      I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here. The universe seems to be deterministic and I think few people would dispute this except for when it comes to questions about certain human faculties, which is were the crux of the issue over free-will vs. determinism resides.

      If our minds are completely natural constructions, and wholly physical, then, of course, determinism necessarily accounts for our minds and that conclusion is trivial. Not worthless, but trivial. There would (is) still a huge amount to learn before we can say we understand how it all works, and even then, it doesn’t mean that every action a person takes would be predictable.

      The crux of the problem is not that determinism can account for the world we find around us, it is essentially 2 points:

      1) Some people really don’t like the idea (for many reasons) and therefore conclude that it must be wrong. However, the various conceptions of libertarian-style free will that are on the table all suffer from problems of coherence, at a minimum.

      2) Determinism (or more narrowly science) hasn’t adequately accounted for how something like the human mind arises completely naturally. It’s a huge question and there’s no telling if it will ever be satisfactorily answered.

      So the debate will rage on…

      • labreuer

        A statement which cannot be falsified doesn’t say anything. If compatibilist free will cannot be falsified—and I have repeatedly asked for a convincing way it could be on this blog—then it does not make any statements about reality. Hence “if everything can be explained by X, nothing is explained by X”.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          But, what if it can’t? What if the metaphysical laws of causality means that is is logically impossible for things to be a-causal – which is essentially what that would mean, for agents to be the originators of causal chains.

          Or, on the other hand, it could be falsified – if things just happened. If people did things, and when asked why they didn’t, answered “just because” or “because I chose to” and that the people asking found that even remotely acceptable as an answer!

          • Phasespace

            But, what if it can’t? What if the metaphysical laws of causality means that is is logically impossible for things to be a-causal – which is essentially what that would mean, for agents to be the originators of causal chains.

            Right, and there’s another tricky problem to this too. Would we even be able to recognize an a-causal event if we saw one? Given that our scientific theories necessarily underdetermine reality, I’m not sure we would recognize such an event even if we saw it.

            As for whether or not compatibilist free will is falsifiable, I’m the wrong person to ask. I’d need a definition of compatibilist free will that I would assent to first.

          • labreuer

            But, what if it can’t? What if the metaphysical laws of causality means that is is logically impossible for things to be a-causal – which is essentially what that would mean, for agents to be the originators of causal chains.

            I would suspect error in our definition of terms, like ‘agent’ or ‘choose’. Kind of how people who thought that wave-particle duality was a contradiction: maybe it was, because they weren’t thinking about things correctly.

            Or, on the other hand, it could be falsified – if things just happened. If people did things, and when asked why they didn’t, answered “just because” or “because I chose to” and that the people asking found that even remotely acceptable as an answer!

            This smells like a god-of-the-gaps type argument. I also don’t understand how “if things just happened” wouldn’t merely be evidence of indeterminism.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            Yes, I do not believe in the continuous ‘I’ for example.

            “This smells like a god-of-the-gaps type argument. I also don’t understand how “if things just happened” wouldn’t merely be evidence of indeterminism.”

            Well, no. I think that the Dilemma of Determinism holds. I think you can only have determinism or indeterminism, qua random. But actually, I thinks true random is nonsensical, and does not help LFW at any rate.

            As I mention often, and as many philosophers will agree, free will needs determinism to give it rational sense.

            As Baer, Kaufman and Baumeister state in Are We Free?:

            “Free will can’t really mean that at any moment a person’s
            behavior is totally unpredictable (and therefore entirely unconstrained). Such a universe would be, from psychology’s perspective at least, the same as one governed entirely by chance, which is just another way of saying it is not governed at all. For psychology to make any sense, the universe must be, to some degree at least, predictable. A psychology that doesn’t accept causes of behavior or the possibility of prediction is no psychology at all.”

          • labreuer

            Yes, I do not believe in the continuous ‘I’ for example.

            Would you elaborate on this a bit?

            I think you can only have determinism or indeterminism, qua random.

            What about the spontaneous eruption of local order (SELO)? That is patterns which cannot be derived from something outside that local area, and which are statistically improbable if they had to come from noise. SELO doesn’t seem to be determinism or indeterminism, but I could be incorrect.

            As I mention often, and as many philosophers will agree, free will needs determinism to give it rational sense.

            I agree that a good chunk of determinism is required. But not complete determinism.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      I don’t know if I’ve said this before, Lab, but you appear to be adopting the 80-20 approach which I find very problematic. You are moving the free will from the 100% influence to the 20% – but the grounding problem still remains for that 20%.

      Please see here: http://skepticink.com/tippling/2012/10/03/free-will-we-are-influenced-but-not-determined-the-80-20-approach-as-nonsense/

      • labreuer

        You did, and we even chatted a bit, although you left my last comment unanswered. That is, as it turns out, my own answer to what would falsify CFW.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          OK, sorry – will get on to it. If I EVER leave anything unanswered, just let me know. I am spinning plates just now, and things keep dropping!

          • labreuer

            Oh, no worries. If something I said really merits the extra attention, it’ll come up again in a different discussion, like it just did. :-)

  • Stephen Lawrence

    labreuer,

    “Not everyone believes that ‘free will’ means doxastic voluntarism or the ability to be anything you want. ”

    What most people believe is we could have done otherwise without anything out of our control being different. And deny that had circumstances beyond our control been appropriately
    different we would have made different choices for better or worse.

    That’s what belief in free will incompatible with determinism is.

    • labreuer

      As far as I know, it’s not possible to test this. Whether or not you could have acted differently in the past is much less of an issue compared to whether you will choose to learn from the past or repeat it. There is an interesting connection here with Yahweh’s willingness to quickly forgive the Israelites their sins if they will only change how they’re behaving (repent).

      • Stephen Lawrence

        “There is an interesting connection here with Yahweh’s willingness to quickly forgive the Israelites their sins if they will only change how they’re behaving (repent).”

        Assuming determinism which we should given what you said about whether or not they could have acted differently, they will change if that is the one thing they can do given their distant past. That depends upon Yahweh.

        • labreuer

          I disagree with the determinism analysis. You may find this comment interesting, although it is a pretty raw thought. To the extent that Yahweh can envision a plethora of possible futures and choose to actualize one of them, I believe that we can do the same. I believe what we really do is, through our choices, make certain possible futures more likely and others less likely. The combined choices of us + Yahweh is what determines how reality actually proceeds. It doesn’t make sense to me to claim that Yahweh’s choices must completely determine which possible future evolves—if we logically cannot choose, neither can he, and then nobody can be blamed.

          The alternative is to say that there is no such thing as goodness. There is only is. On determinism, why believe that reality is structured such that all people can equally thrive? If it does not happen to be structured this way, pretending it is would seem to be a way to guarantee that you will thrive less than others. I think one’s belief on this issue is chosen. I choose to hope.

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