Choice and Differing

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March 24, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Welcome to our issue on free will. Did you choose to read this? I’m not asking out of mere politeness or astonishment; the question, Is conscious choice real? is right at the core of a tangle of philosophical problems around free will. If the answer is ‘yes’, you do choose, then your mind can decide what to think, and how you subsequently act, whether by speaking, or throwing a ball, or reading an editorial. That question is utterly different from the free will question that vexes theologians: Are we free if God already knows everything we’ll do? It is entirely consistent to say that we do choose, but God knows what we’re going to choose. That would mean we have free will in one core way – concerning choice – but not in another way – concerning, let’s call it, our predictability. For this issue’s theme we’re interested specifically in issues surrounding the power of choice.

There are three main positions concerning choice: libertarianism, determinism, and compatibilism. Take your pick! Libertarianism is the belief that we make deliberated choices, which, through our brains, affect the material world, and that ultimately these choices are not absolutely determined by anything beyond the mind making them. Determinism is the belief that all our choices are determined by factors beyond our conscious control. The strong position says that through the brain’s processing of responses to environmental information, one brain state automatically causes a subsequent brain state, and conscious experience itself has no influence on the physical activities of the brain or the rest of the body. Compatibilism is an attempt to combine determinism with moral responsibility (it therefore presupposes determinism). Versions vary, but the basic idea is that we simultaneously both are determined and somehow choose.

Determinism itself comes in different flavours. Hard determinism of the most absolute sort is the theory that the entire history of the universe was already fixed from its very beginning by the setting of the laws of nature and the original states of the matter in it. This is no longer tenable due to the intrinsic indeterminacy – the random behaviour – at the heart of matter that is explored in quantum physics. But physics does apparently allow a somewhat less absolute determinism – the idea that the behaviour of the world is determined by previous physical activities, but with some randomness as to what the particular outcomes will be. So a quantum determinist could defend an indeterministic determinism!

There are also softer determinisms. These say that we are very heavily influenced in our choices by factors beyond our control (and which we are often unaware of). One such soft determinism is genetic determinism, which says that who you become and what you do is inescapably influenced by your genetic make-up. In his article in this issue, psychologist Steve Taylor lists several types of soft determinism before attempting to refute them; and Graham Boyd explores one splendid example in some detail in his intriguing essay.

There is no doubt that many of these softer versions of determinism are correct, to various degrees: the interesting debate concerns to what degrees, and so to what extent we can escape, for example, the chains of our DNA. Even the most ardent libertarian agrees that there are constraints on our freedom. What makes them libertarians is their insistence that the limitations don’t deny some space for true, not physically determined, conscious choice between options.

I think there are two major problems for hard determinists (and so also for compatibilists) to address. Firstly, How do you justify your assumption that causation is only physical, not also mental? The idea that minds can’t choose is so far only an assertion by determinists, and one that’s not justified in experience (and so is not empirically sound), since all our experience of willing informs us that we do make choices, and that we do so effectively. So what sound basis exists for saying we don’t choose?

The second problem is: Why would consciousness evolve if it doesn’t do anything? On a more rigid determinism, our conscious states and our actions are the results of automatic brain activity; so our actions would be the same with just the brain activity and without the consciousness. However, consciousness is an expensive luxury, being created through specially-evolved, dedicated and energy-hungry brain areas (eg V4-V6 for colour vision). Consciousness is evidently not just a fortuitous free side-effect of other brain activity, as some determinists misrepresent it. So why evolve it?

I’m not convinced that determinists can answer either of these questions adequately. But there are major problems for the libertarian too. Choice is primarily about the mind’s content: it’s primarily the choice to think one thought – one set of mental contents – rather than another (this is true even when choosing to act). We now have irrefutable neurological reasons to believe that brains produce (or channel) consciousness. Therefore, if libertarianism is true (as I choose to believe), then any choices made by a mind must also be a choice of the brain state underpinning the mind state chosen. In other words, in choosing our mental contents, we must also choose the brain state responsible for the generation of those mental contents! So if there is free will, then there must be some way for a mind to direct the state of its brain, like a sort of local mind-over-matter. It’s difficult to see how this could happen. (I personally think that the power of will operates through our choices being indirect observations of our brain states in a quantum manner. But that’s a story for another time.)

Enjoy this investigation of this fundamental aspect of human existence. I think the question of choice boils down to the question, can we make decisions in our minds that influence the state of our brains? I suggest that we do not know precisely enough how consciousness is generated by brain activity to answer that question authoritatively, yet.

Adapted from philosophynow.

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This was an article on Philosophy.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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30 Comments


  1. MIP: HD = fixed + quantum + issues with the idea (au)
    SD = influenced by factors + genetics (taylor)

    Reply

  2. MIP: concerning choice=3 positions+limitations regarding each;
    solution=conscious generated by brain?

    Reply

  3. MIP: Choice – 3 positions, supported and refuted, Tone: Skeptic

    Reply

  4. MIP 1: (AU) Determinists=/=answer mind infl+consc.
    MIP 2: Cant answer: brain infl consc.

    Reply

  5. What is the power of choice? Is it free will as libertarian describe or those supporting determinism? Author questions both

    Reply

  6. key philosophical problem = free will = do we have the power of choice. Three main positions presented with problems associated with each of them. Although the author is prone libertarian, he thinks we still cannot really answer the question

    Reply

  7. 3 position on choice + some questions =/= answered (decision or choices made in mind influence brain? )

    Reply

  8. MIP: Determinists =/= choice = misrepresent; brian influence choice = unresolved

    Reply

  9. MIP: author=lib=skeptical of det=choice and consc happen and are prob import; we dont understand consc
    tone: nuet

    Reply

  10. There are three main positions concerning choice, all of which have their shortcomings. It is not yet known how consciousness relates to the brain.

    Reply

  11. Author is libertarian, discusses the different theories concerning choice and outcome. Has two fundamental problems with determinism but admits that libertarianism also has flaws.

    Reply

  12. To describe the theories behind decision making and free work & argue how these theories are incomplete.

    Reply

  13. Libertarianism (conscious choice)= true. AT= positive bc he is a libertarian

    Reply

  14. The author gives 3 main positions concerning choice, and they are all flawed. The relation between consciousness and brain activity is not yet known.

    Reply

  15. issues = free will, answers /=/ adequate author neg

    Reply

  16. Free will real? = 3 possible answers = libertarianism (mind), determinism (not our conscious control), and compatibilism (determinism + moral). All 3 answers = problems but the author likes libertarianism.

    Reply

  17. MIP: determinism=some randomness allowed (CW); problems=libertarianism (CW); can’t answer philosophical q (AU); don’t know brain enough (AU)

    Reply

  18. choice= 3 positions
    author = doesn’t like hard determinism, but favors libertarianism bc it includes mental aspects

    Reply

  19. Auth agrees w/ Libertarianism – choice made by mind/brain (mind state) + consciousness. He sort of disagrees with Determinism = fixed physical + no consciousness

    Reply

  20. (1) Free will = exists?
    (2) Determinism = wrong
    (3) Consciousness = important

    Reply

  21. Make decisions over mind. Libertarian vs deterministic.

    Reply

  22. MI1: 3 positions in regards to choice + we ultimately choose and are determined
    MI2: determinism = flaws + no evidence + consciousness evolves
    MI3: libertarianism = flaws + mind determines state of brain

    Reply

  23. Free will = brain states + mechanical = issue defining
    3 types of choice which all have problems to their theories

    Reply

  24. Free will= determinism + indeterminism
    3 types of choices +/-

    Reply

  25. free will real?
    lib:skeptical
    det- choice/consc.- somewhat
    brain infl. choice/consc?
    arthur we make choice indirect of brain infl.

    Reply

  26. MIP: 3 stances on free will + not enough info on consciousness; tone = neutral

    Reply

  27. MI1: hard determinism flaws: decisions = only based on physical and not mental + consciousness evolves
    MI2: libertarianism flaws: choosing mental contents = choosing brain state

    Reply

  28. MIP: free will exist? = don’t know
    Tone: neutral

    Reply

  29. The passage discusses the topic of free choice by describing three main types: libertarianism, determinism, and compatabilism.
    The author mentions the subsets of determinism and the flaws in all the 3 types of choice such as, “how do you explain consciousness?”.
    Ultimately, the author seems to believe in libertarianism but argues that there is insufficient data on the understanding of consciousness to have a definite answer.

    Reply

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