The Instigator
Rational_Thinker9119
Pro (for)
Losing
0 Points
The Contender
Chthonian
Con (against)
Winning
5 Points

Is conscious free will an illusion?

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Post Voting Period
The voting period for this debate has ended.
after 1 vote the winner is...
Chthonian
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 12/29/2011 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,720 times Debate No: 20109
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (0)
Votes (1)

 

Rational_Thinker9119

Pro

The basis of my premise will be neuroscience and the picture it has painted us regarding how the brain functions and its effects on consciousness. Activity in the brain's motor regions can be detected some 350 milliseconds before a person feels he has decided to move for example. This means that before you consciously made the choice to move a limb, that choice was already made biologically some time before that. This begs the question:

Could a person consciously decided to not move the limb after the neural-activity took place?

The answer frighteningly, seems to be no.

Marcus Du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and current Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science) participated in an experiment conducted by John-Dylan Haynes (Professor at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin) that attempts to find the neurological basis for decision making.

The experiment was simple, Marcus had to randomly decide and press either the "left" or "right" button he was given the options of pressing. At the same time he makes his choice, the scanner system records when he "made" the decision and when the neural-activity took place that produced the decision. John-Dylan Haynes concluded that up to 6 seconds before Marcus made up his mind, he could predict the decision he made before Marcus's conscious even "made" the decision.

"So I was conscious of making a decision to press my finger down, and you're saying that 6 seconds earlier my brain had already made that decision?" - Marcus Du Sautoy

"Exactly" - John-Dylan Haynes

An experiment like this can show that in certain regions of the brain, activity emerges before the subject actually made up his mind. This actually can tell the person running the experiment which way the person is going to decide. If you color code the activity, the blue region of the activity becomes more active when "left" is chosen, and the yellow region becomes more active when "right" is chosen. The chart showed that "left" was the choice made, and it was.

"I mean, that has got to be the most shocking experiment I think I've seen...The fact that when I become conscious of making a choice, and John can realize 6 seconds earlier what I was going to do before even I realized what I was going to do, is absolutely extra-ordinary" - Marcus Du Sautoy

So it seems all scientific evidence supports the fact that biological activities take place before your conscious realizes a choice was made. This means that once the electrical signals are fired, the choice is set in stone, you just don't realize it when your consciousness picks up on it and tricks you into believing your conscious made the decision.

A different experiment run by Benjamin Libet, involves electrodes being placed on the subjects scalp. He asks the subject to look at the hands on a digital clock and to press on either one of two keys on a keyboard when she believes her consciousness has made the choice to do so. The computer prompted her to type in the position of the clock hand when she presses the key down, this process is repeated. It turns out that that before she consciously "made" the choice to move her finger, electrical impulses of the brain already made the choice before the consciousness even had a chance to acknowledge it.

These experiments indicate to me that conscious free will is an illusion, because all conscious decision making was already predetermined by neural-activity and cannot be consciously changed after the neural-activity took place.
Chthonian

Con

I would like to thank my opponent for instigating this tantalizing topic to debate. I am looking forward to a very spirited intellectual discussion.

Since Pro has used the first round to establish his opening argument, I will do the same; and to be fair I will not rebut any of his evidence in this round, so we each have the same number of opportunities to refute our respective arguments.

My thesis

Free will is involved in the deliberate decision making process, which is not predetermined. My argument will focus on biological and philosophical evidence that humans have a conscious ability to make rational decisions, and thus our will is free to choose as it sees fit and that choice is not an illusion.

Biological basis underlying the deliberate decision making process

The brain is an amalgam of various cell types that communicate through chemical and electrical means. The cells are interconnected to other cells throughout the brain. These interconnections provide a framework for us to understanding internal and external stimulus. Further, scientists have established that the brain is compartmentalized into numerous regions, which are involved in various physiological functions that help create our perceived existence.

In humans, a region known as the prefrontal cortex is involved in higher cognitive functions (1). In particular, the frontopolar region of the prefrontal cortex appears to be elicited during planning, problem solving and reasoning tasks (2), which are all aspects of the thinking process necessary for making a deliberate decision. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that activation of the frontopolar region of the prefrontal cortex is involved in monitoring and maintaining internally generated information (e.g., frequency of neuronal firing) during reasoning tasks or tasks requiring memory (3). Thus, the frontopolar region of the prefrontal cortex is an integral component for establishing the biological basis of free will.

In addition to the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is also involved in human reasoning and the decision making process. (4). Here, it is thought that "marker signals" arising from the aforementioned region influence other brain processes overtly (i.e., consciously) and covertly (i.e., non-consciously) and is involved in bio-regulation of other brain areas. This implies that areas of the brain can fire during periods when active or conscious decisions are not being made. To further complicate matters, it has been suggested that it is not only the functions of individual brain regions that are key to understanding how we choose to decide, but also the collective connections stemming from those areas (5). Thus, this suggests that the deliberate decision making process involves an integration of multiple signals across multiple brain areas.

Philosophical foundation for free will

The philosophical foundation for free is based on the idea that there is no mind-body duality. That is to say that brain's function self-actuates to creates the mind, which is part and parcel to how we define who we are. This is evinced from the fact that damage to certain areas of the brain can alter the mind (6), so mind does not have a non-material element. Free will is further established in the theory of indeterminism (7). The indeterminism theory holds that the will is free and that deliberate choices are not determined by or predicted from an antecedent cause. A real world example of this is when someone reads our debate: they can decide to vote or not to vote; no prior cause determines this choice. If the reader does decide to vote, then he/she has to objectively weigh the evidence provided and decide if it adequately provides support for the thesis of our respective arguments; no prior cause determines this choice. Now, whether one uses the right hand over the left hand to type a response is not an aspect of free will, because it is determined by the voter's genetics and thus this decision has a predetermined cause.

Closing comments

The free will I am defending involves the capacity of rationale agents to choose a course of action among alternatives. From a biological point of view, the prefrontal cortex is actively involved in the deliberate decision making process, and thus needs to be shown irrelevant if one wish to demonstrate that that free will is an illusion. Moreover, if free will is an illusion, then the philosophical implication is that we are not conscious or in control of our decisions. Which begs the question: what makes the decisions for us? The only logical answer would be the hardwiring of the brain. But if this were true than no amount of thought can change an outcome, because the brain would have already decided for us.

References

1. http://www.sciencedirect.com...
2.http://psych.colorado.edu...
3. http://www.nature.com...
4. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org...
5. http://www.scientificamerican.com...
6. http://en.wikipedia.org...(philosophy_of_mind)
7. http://www.merriam-webster.com...
Debate Round No. 1
Rational_Thinker9119

Pro

My opponent does not seem to understand the premise of the debate, either that or my opponent's argument was based on agreeing with me on many things. We are not debating free will in general vague terms, we are debating whether the conscious has free will can make choices without any prior neural-activity determining these choices. The reason this is not plausible is because the neural-activity that goes on in the brain precedes the conscious awareness of the choice being made and anything preceding an effect must be a cause.

"A real world example of this is when someone reads our debate: they can decide to vote or not to vote; no prior cause determines this choice."

A cause is a rearrangement of matter that precedes it's effect in time. If we can label consciousness as an effect then the neurons and chemical reactions in your brain must be the cause because it precedes the effect.

If the brain activity you spoke of when regarding decision making happened at the same time as the consciousness becomes aware of it then you would have made excellent points. The problem however, is the biological activity precedes the effect, meaning the effect (consciousness) is determined by the biological activity.

There is no need to refute the "Biological basis underlying the deliberate decision making process", because my whole argument is that biological processes are what determines what the conscious perceives as decision making. I'm not too sure if this is a debate or an agreement on my opponents behalf.

Regardless of the apparent fruitlessness of philosophy in many cases, I will still address the points made.

"The philosophical foundation for free is based on the idea that there is no mind-body duality. That is to say that brain's function self-actuates to creates the mind, which is part and parcel to how we define who we are. This is evinced from the fact that damage to certain areas of the brain can alter the mind"

Once more, this is a point that should be used to defend my premise not my opponents. If the brain self-actuates to create choices for the mind/ conscious then it's clear that the brains actions determines the mind/ consciousness, meaning conscious free will is most likely illusion and is all predetermined by neural-activity.

"The indeterminism theory holds that the will is free and that deliberate choices are not determined by or predicted from an antecedent cause."

This contradicts my opponents original stance that biological processes create/ cause what we perceive the mind/ conscious to be. Not only are my opponent's arguments more in favor of my premises then his, but he seems to contradict himself many times when discussing his arguments.

"The prefrontal cortex is actively involved in the deliberate decision making process, and thus needs to be shown irrelevant if one wish to demonstrate that that free will is an illusion."

If the prefrontal cortex is what is involved in deliberate decision making, then my opponent is conceding that this activity precedes the consciousness becoming aware of it. Since a cause is a rearrangement of matter that precedes an effect in time, then my opponents points about the prefrontal cortex go against his thesis that conscious "free will is involved in the deliberate decision making process, which is not predetermined".

The prefrontal cortex would be the determining factor, making his points on inderterminism invalid.

Closing point:

Let's say you're approaching a fork in the road, and at the very last minute you decide to take the right fork. Common sense says that you made at active decision to take the right fork, a decision you made more or less a split second before you shifted your body ever so slightly in the direction of said fork. However, recent research reveals that decisions such as these have much deeper neurological roots (which my opponent conceded) so deep, in fact, that scientists can observe patterns of brain activity that allow them to predict the outcome of decisions like these long before a person is even conscious of his own decision. Thus providing a more solid foundation for saying determinism is true, rather than indeterminism.

Unless my opponent can:

a) Demonstrate that biological activity in the brain does not determine what the consciousness perceives as a conscious decision

b) Demonstrate that a cause is not a rearrangement of matter than precedes an effect

c) Demonstrate that a cause does not determine an effect

...Then the the foundations for his arguments are on shaky grounds at best.

So I think I have made it pretty clear that all evidence clearly indicates that what we know as "conscious free will" is determined by previous biological factors taking place in the brain, which my opponent seems to surprisingly agree with in many cases, making his points moot.
Chthonian

Con

I want to thank my opponent for his thoughtful comments.

Weakness of Pro's opening argument

The evidence my opponent provides in the opening argument of round 1 come from two different experiments: both measure brain activity prior to a "task". However, there are major problems with the conclusions each researcher has made based on the data collected. For example, in the Libet experiment, the researcher only measured electrical brain activity from the scalp, and they did not determine whether the shift in electrical spike activity directly caused the decision made; they only provide a statistical association, not a causal relationship. In addition, the researchers can not rule out the potential possibility that the shifts in electrical actively are related to some other physiological process that is not directly involved in the decision making process; or it could represent an unconscious urge thereby giving the subject the freedom to consciously act on them.

In the Haynes experiment, the researchers looked at blood flow through functional magnetic resonance imaging in multiple brain regions but the decision the subjects made was spontaneous and thus represents a random unconscious decision; not the deliberative conscious effort implied in free will. The fundamental flaw with the evidence Pro has provided is the assumption that all brain activity--which we aren't aware of prior to a decision--must predetermine the cause in the decision making process.

Reaffirming my position

Pro dropped my biological basis for decision making argument because he has either failed to comprehend the ramifications of the biological evidence or is misrepresenting it because he is unable to refute the position. The main points made were: 1) the primary locus of operation for making a deliberate decisions is the prefrontal cortex, which scientists have demonstrated is involved in coordinated and integrate internal events leading to conscious choices. There was absolutely no concession that these signals are predetermined to cause the decision; and 2) multiple areas of the brain are active during this process and the interconnections from multiple areas are important for understanding how deliberate decisions are made.

The former point provides support for why Libet ‘s conclusions are unsound: the electrical activity from the scalp is the wrong area to measure when trying to understanding the decision making process. The latter point provides support for why brain activity does necessarily equate to an unconscious predetermined cause for a conscious deliberate decision; brain activity is not linear. Thus, stating that any measure of brain activity prior to that task is evidence of a predetermined cause, suggests that one doesn't fully understand the complexity inherent in neural function.

My opponent has also suggested that my philosophical position on free will contradicts my points made regarding the biological basis for deliberate decisions. The reason for his confusion is that we have a similar starting point for the biological basis of free will: we both appear to agree that there is a non-material aspect to the mind, but this is where are thinking begins to diverge. The simplest way to think about my position is that evolutionary mechanisms have predetermined the sentient state in the brain. This has given us an acute awareness of ourselves, and the surroundings in which we live. This awareness has given us the freedom to make deliberate choices, which have lead to technological advancements that have developed a cultured civilization.

Closing comments

The main issue with my opponent's position is that it fails to recognize the implications of the brain's activity that creates the mind. Specifically, the brain is always on, relaying information to and from the prefrontal cortical circuits that appear to be the central hub for integrating all the signals that collectively yield consciousness. Brain activity creates the mind, it doesn't conclusively equate to a predetermined cause for a specific decision. Thus, it is incumbent on Pro to show that the brain activity he has provided as evidence actually caused the decisions made, not me. My argument is that deliberate decisions are not determined until the time they are made, and I have provided evidence in support of this position.

In the first salvo of round 2, Pro states that I don't understand the premise of the debate and I am talking too generally about free will. This is categorically untrue: one can not qualify the meaning of a concept to fit the assumption they are making about that concept. If free will is said to be an illusion and predetermined, then my opponent must show how the examples he provides meets that criteria, and how my examples fail to satisfy mine. This has not been done, thus my position is still on very solid ground.
Debate Round No. 2
Rational_Thinker9119

Pro

"in the Libet experiment, the researcher only measured electrical brain activity from the scalp, and they did not determine whether the shift in electrical spike activity directly caused the decision made"

Anything that precedes the effect is the cause, the electrical signals preceded the effect of the consciousness perceiving it made a decision. Also if you notice that every time someone is assuming they making a conscious choice, there is neural activity that precedes it every time, then it's clear that it is was cause. For example, if my arm retracts every time there is a dent in the wall then it's clear me punching the wall is causing the dents.

My opponent seems to be educated on the activity on the brain but is ignorant of it's implications, which is the whole basis of this debate. It seems he does not understand the breakthroughs in neuroscience and assumes that the consciousness is free to make choices without the brain activity preceding it.

"In the Haynes experiment, the researchers looked at blood flow through functional magnetic resonance imaging in multiple brain regions but the decision the subjects made was spontaneous and thus represents a random unconscious decision; not the deliberative conscious effort implied in free will"

First off, lets say that if he pressed one button it would save family member X, and if he pressed the other then it would save family member Y, this choice would be what my opponent is discussing regarding conscious choice making. This indicates that even if there was some serious implications behind the choice of "left" or "right", it still would have been tracked and detected 6 seconds before the conscious become aware of it.

Also, if conscious free will exists then every choice made by the conscious being should the the result from the consciousness. If you are saying that unconscious decisions are made before the consciousness believes it made the choice, then you just blew your own argument out of the water I'm afraid. My opponent concedes that it is brain activity which precedes the effect of the consciousness being aware it selected an option.

"The fundamental flaw with the evidence Pro has provided is the assumption that all brain activity--which we aren't aware of prior to a decision--must predetermine the cause in the decision making process.".

This is completely a false representation of my position, and a false representation of truth. If there are scientists examining your brain they will be aware of brain activity prior to the conscious self being aware that a choice was made. Also this brain activity doesn't determine the cause, it is the cause. If we are going to be pointing out who has the most flaws in their arguments here, I think it's safe to say that Con takes the cake.

"1) the primary locus of operation for making a deliberate decisions is the prefrontal cortex, which scientists have demonstrated is involved in coordinated and integrate internal events leading to conscious choices."

Like I said in the previous round, everything my opponent is claiming is an argument for his side is actually an argument for mine ironically. If your conscious choices are already pre-coordinated and lead up to what the consciousness experiences, this means the choice was already made by the brain activity and your consciousness just simply becomes aware of it after the fact . All my opponents facts about brain activity may sound impressive on the surface, but what is unimpressive is the complete lack of ability to accept the implications of these facts, they do not lean in his favor as far as the theme for this argument is concerned.

"The main issue with my opponent's position is that it fails to recognize the implications of the brain's activity that creates the mind"

If the brain activity dictates choices to the mind/ consciousness, then how could the consciousness have free will if it doesn't even become aware of these decisions after the brain activity takes place? Everything my opponent types, Ironically, just re-affirms my position. So while he claims his position is on solid ground, all he is doing is solidifying the foundation my arguments are standing on.

Continued case for conscious free will being determined by brain activity
____________________________________________________________

A thorough analysis of the question of whether we possess conscious "free will" requires that we take into account the process of exercising that will: that is, the neural mechanisms of decision making. Much of what we know about these mechanisms indicates that decision making is greatly influenced by implicit processes that may not even reach consciousness (as my opponent concedes).

Moreover, there exist conditions, for example certain types of brain injury or drug addiction, in which an individual can be said to have a disorder of the will. Examples such as these demonstrate that the idea of freedom of will on which our legal system is based is not supported by the neuroscience of decision making. Using the criminal law as an example, we discuss how new discoveries in neuroscience can serve as a tool for reprioritizing our society's legal intuitions in a way that leads us to a more effective and humane system.

As far as Haynes is concerned, he has actually replicated and refined his results in two studies. One uses more accurate scanning techniques to confirm the roles of the brain regions implicated in his previous work. In the other, which is yet to be published, Haynes and his team asked subjects to add or subtract two numbers from a series being presented on a screen. Deciding whether to add or subtract reflects a more complex intention than that of whether to push a button, and Haynes argues that it is a more realistic model for everyday decisions. Even in this more abstract task, the researchers detected activity many seconds before the subjects were conscious of deciding, Haynes says.

Conclusion:

Unless my opponent can:

a) Demonstrate that specific brain activity doesn't cause decision making before our consciousness becomes aware of it when all evidence presented by neuroscience states this is in fact the case

b) Demonstrate that what precedes the effect is not the cause, even though the same activity always precedes the effect

...Then he hasn't even come close to making a compelling case in the favor of conscious free will. My opponent assumes that somehow regurgitating jargon in favor of my position, somehow favors his.

"You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain." - Sam Harris (Neuroscientist)

"It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we...It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion." - Daniel Wegner (psychologist)
Chthonian

Con

I would like to thank my opponent for a stimulating debate.

General comments

My opponent has made some glaring errors during this debate that need to be raised.

1)In round 1, Pro provides experimental evidence for his position, but only superficial glosses over it, and did even cite the sources of the original material to be independently verified and critically analyzed.

2)Pro employed to two logical fallacies. The first was the "correlation proves causation" fallacy (1). My opponent is convinced that if neural activity precedes an effect, it must be the cause. Thus, he believes he doesn't have to prove this is the case. Unfortunately for him, he does. The only way to unequivocally demonstrate a cause and effect relationship is to remove or block the presumed "cause" and see if it affects the "effect". This was not done.

The second logical fallacy was the "appeal to authority" fallacy (2). This was used at the end of round 3 when my opponent quotes general opinions about free will from selective authorities, which did not even provide support for the specific evidence he has presented.

3)At the end of round 2 in his closing comments, my opponent blatantly plagiarizes Robert Gonzalez's words and concepts from an online article without properly giving credit to the author (3).

Not only do these errors greatly weaken Pro's position, they diminish his intellectual credibility.

Pro's burden of proof not met

My opponent is adamant that it is not his job to prove his claim, yet he thinks it is my job to disprove it. The burden of proof rests with him to show that his premise of a predetermined cause is the source of the effect (see above logical fallacy). I have sufficiently provided support for why his claim is weak, and he has not adequately addressed my rebuttal.

Rebuttal of new arguments raised

While it is highly irregular to raise new arguments in the last round of the debate, I will never the less address them. I will not raise any new arguments, because my opponent will not have an opportunity to provide a rebuttal.

The first issue my opponent raises is that since some brain activity involved in the decision making process doesn't reach consciousness, this in some way adds support to his position. It does not. Our brains are constantly monitoring and translating information that allow us to inherently understand the world around us as well as interpret the internal states of the body. For example, when making a deliberate decision to press a button, the brain unconsciously provides information where our hand is in relation to that button. Another example is sexual arousal: we are not conscious of the brain activity that creates the urge to mate, but it does lead us to actively pursue and make conscious decisions for whom we choose.

The second issue my opponent raises deals with the legal implication of free will. But I fail to see how this is relevant to his position that free will is an illusion. The last issue raised further expands upon Dr. Hayne's research, but Pro again does not provide a source for the original material to be independently verified and critically examined.

Concluding remarks

My argument on free will is founded on the idea that deliberate decisions are conscious choices that are not predetermined. I presented biological evidence to establish the point that there are specific areas of the brain elicited during the deliberate decision making process to offset the evidence my opponent provided from the Libet experiment. In addition, I also demonstrate that the nature of neural connectivity is quite complex and thus brain activity preceding a task does necessary mean it is the caused for how one proceeds with that task.

My philosophical position rightfully acknowledges that our minds stem from predetermined brain activity through genetically determined neural connections, but that our will to freely act is not: this is the fundamental basis of indeterminism theory. I also provided a real world application of this position that my opponent did not even attempt to address; dropping an argument is a concession of that position.

My opponent has tried--in vain--to suggest that my biological evidence provides support for his position of a "predetermined" cause for free will. But he never properly clarifies how this is so. My opponent never explained how predetermined neural activity can translate into different actions or outcomes, nor has he stated if this predetermined cause is random or fine-tuned. Pro also doesn't understand the distinction between consciousness and a conscious choice. The former provides self-awareness, which enables--not causes-- the latter: a will to freely decide from various alternate possibilities.

In the final analysis, the evidence my opponent provides is intriguing because it further demonstrates my biological point of brain complexity, but it doesn't demonstrate conclusively that free will is an illusion.

Vote Con!

References

1.http://en.wikipedia.org...
2.http://en.wikipedia.org...
3.http://io9.com...
Debate Round No. 3
No comments have been posted on this debate.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by ConservativePolitico 5 years ago
ConservativePolitico
Rational_Thinker9119ChthonianTied
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Total points awarded:05 
Reasons for voting decision: Pro didnt post sources. He used logical fallacies while failing to meet the burden of proof for the resolution.