Thursday, September 06, 2007

Free Will To Highest Bidder

I read an article in New Scientist that once again questioned whether or not humans have "Free Will."

I think the debate is again asking the wrong questions. We use undefined terms such as "free will" and "conscious" or "voluntary" actions.

If we look at the brain as a collection of independent but connected subsystems (or a society of mind as Minsky phrased it), there are structures that are responsible for different acts of reasoning and behavior. If we look at the concept of "consciousness" as being the portion that is responsible for modeling the behavior of ourselves and others (the mirror neurons and other supporting structures), then it makes sense that this model can inform the other "unconscious" structures of the brain and that actions can in fact be taken as a result of the actions of structures other than the modeling structure. In such an organization, many times the modeling structure would be informed of actions "after the fact" - and would then incorporate this new data into the model of self and others and continue to inform and influence the other "unconscious" structures.

This is consistent with the experiments of Libet. In fact, Libet's later experiments showed that once the awareness of the pending finger movement made it into consciousness, the subject could "choose" not to lift the finger - could "cancel" the command already given by another part of the brain to lift the finger. Although Libet developed a theory of Conscious Mental Field to explain this, I think a better explanation is in a way simpler.

His results are completely consistent with a model that says the motor section of the brain starts to lift the finger, and then this input is factored into the model of self (consciousness), which then can further influence the other sections of brain depending upon the "choice" of the model. (In fact, since the subjects were asked to lift a finger in the first place, it is likely that the modeling subsystem created the impetus for the Readiness Potential that was measured).

This concept of consciousness is also consistent with experiments of Haggard, and even Wegner. Haggard did some interesting experiments around how the brain perceives cause and effect, and the time allowed by the internal model between cause and effect. Wegner did some interesting stuff with our sense of "agency" where two people are moving a mouse at the same time and how at times one individual may think they are the agent of control when in fact it is the other individual - the modeler gets confused when the inputs closely resemble, but not quite fit, the expected inputs of the mirror neurons. Both are explainable by separating the modeling subsystems from the motor control subsystems, and tying "awareness" to the modeling subsystems.

All of these have been used, incorrectly, to question whether humans have "free will." I think it is a confusion of sloppy definitions, and therefore a red herring.

(Adding a huge amount of additional confusion are the religious authorities, who freak out at the very notion of a lack of free will, since this choice to be "good" or "bad" is at the heart of many religions. As I've said in previous posts, books such as Moral Minds show how this too is framing the discussion in the wrong paradigm - there is no inherent "good" or "bad", except in the context of an organization, an environment, and a goal).

I think there are still a number of mysteries unexplained by this conceptual framework. But for the scientific evidence we've been able to produce so far, it is a consistent theory of mind.

(What are the unexplained mysteries? Well, in a sense I just isolated the mystery into a smaller black box, then left the workings of the black box unexplained. The "modeling" portion(s) of the brain are well and good, supported by evidence - but how do they work? And ultimately, how does the modeling engine decide which actions will best accomplish the goals?

I don't think we need to stop here and resort to the supernatural for explanation, however. I think creating similar modeling engines using computer simulations that are driven by these neurological experiments, and experimenting with a more complex set of "goals" driving the engine, we could probably start to explain how this black box actually works. In fact, that sounds like really fun work - I wish I had the time and resources to pursue it.)

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