The Frontal Cortex

Scott Adams on Free Will

Here is Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) weighing in on neuroscience and free will (a topic that has been heatedly discussed on this blog recently):

It seems to me that free will can be easily tested. The next time someone is getting brain surgery, just take a few minutes to perform the test. Sometimes the patient remains awake during brain surgery so he can report what functions are changing as the surgeon is poking around. So for example, when the surgeon electrically stimulates the language center of the brain, the patient might temporarily lose his ability to speak.

The test for free will would be this, for example: First the doctor locates the place in the brain where electrical stimulation causes the patient to lose speech. Then the surgeon asks the patient to keep speaking normally despite the electrical stimulation.

If the patient can speak normally despite having the speech center stimulated, then the patient has free will that can overcome the normal chain of cause and effect in the brain. If he can’t speak, then you have proven the brain is nothing but a moist and complicated machine and your life is a pointless series of miseries.

Maybe there’s a reason no one is testing for free will.

I know Adams meant this experimental proposal in jest, but it’s still worth taking a moment to disagree with it. First of all, no sane person doesn’t believe that our free will is bounded in some very significant ways. I want to fly, and be a rock star, and be as funny as Dilbert, but, as another rock star once sang, you can’t always get what you want.

Once we give up the absurd notion of perfect freedom, we realize that our freedom is a sliding scale. Our will might be bounded by all sorts of practical constraints, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (Daniel Dennett takes a similar position in his book Freedom Evolves, which argues that freedom has been steadily increasing via biological evolution.)

Now back to Adams’s thought experiment. Nobody really believes that, if your language brain areas were excised, you could miraculously keep on talking. The same is true for the visual cortex, the motor areas, and just about any other fold of the brain. Once your machine is broken, your ghost can’t save you. (Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the possibility of neural plasticity means that your machine can also sometimes fix itself.)

But all Adams’s thought experiment has proven is that our free will isn’t absolute. Because our being depends upon our material brain – this is one of our many constraints – if that brain is injured, then so are we. Our freedom has been taken from us.

My point is that we shouldn’t use these extreme examples of material causality – such as having a massive tumor in your frontal cortex, or getting your language areas cut out – to make general claims about the brain and free will. All they do is disprove a definition of freedom that nobody actually believes in. (Unless, of course, you are a Cartesian dualist, and don’t believe that that the mind has much to do with the brain.)

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 26, 2006

    First of all, no sane person doesn’t believe that our free will is bounded in some very significant ways.

    Would a sane person continue to discuss free will without defining it, after they had already been admonished for doing so?

    All they do is disprove a definition of freedom that nobody actually believes in.

    Are you going to systematically cover all the definitions you don’t believe in, or are you going to state what definition you do believe in?

  2. #2 J-Dog
    December 26, 2006

    Mr Adams’ opinions are suspect anyway.

    I seem to recall that about a year ago him and his supporters aguing vociferously in favor of Intelligent Design. IMO, this past defense of an unsurportable position taints anything else they have to say.

    At least his portrayals of Office Life are funny!

  3. #3 RPM
    December 26, 2006

    On brain tumors and free will:

    Will Provine

  4. #4 FhnuZoag
    December 26, 2006

    Are you going to systematically cover all the definitions you don’t believe in, or are you going to state what definition you do believe in?

    Meh. As far as I can tell, free will isn’t as hard to define as many other concepts in philosophy. Having free will means that the actions an individual makes are not absolutely determined by the state of the world. This is untestable, because it is impossible to distinguish between two identical states and two states in which the difference is beyond the scope and measurement, and secondly impossible to distinguish if and when the individual itself has been destroyed.

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 26, 2006

    Did he have any choice but to say that? Did I have any choice but to blog this?

    Still, it is worth pondering whether there can be an actual experiment to test the “Free Will” hypothesis. I think probably not; “Free Will” being a metaphysical/theological concept, not likely to be expressible in axiomatic scientific ways.

    One can always end up with woo-woo stuff such as Rudolf Steiner’s bottom-up theory of consciousness and free will, where he asserted that individual electrons are conscious.

    I think therefore I am conscious of being conscious. My education greatly biases me against belief that electrons have Free Will. “Okay, now I’ll choose to be a particle. Okay, NOW it’s time to be a wave. Hah! That’ll confuse the double-slit experimentalists.”

    Do non-humans have consciousness and/or free will? Again, some hard-core animal rights activists enter woo-woo-land in defining all creatures to be equally conscious. Equal under the law; that may come to pass, as it did for humans in the USA. Equal under the law does not mean equal in IQ or other ability, but sociobiology and the obviously racist rants of Nobel laureate William Shockley have proven politically unhealthy for some thinkers. One more step gets you to Fruitarian: don’t even pick a fruit from a tree, as it hurts the tree. Wait for it to drop to the ground, then eat without guilt.

    But I’m quite willing to believe that whales, dolphins, chimps, gorillas have consciousness and some subjective sense of free will. My dog, and I don’t think I’m anthropomorphising, seems to me (biased as I am) to be doing some very conscious things occasionally. Ditto talking birds, maybe counting crows. Maybe octopi and ginat squids.

    I’m quite skeptical that, say, insects have any neorological wiggle-room. They have, what, 10^6 or 10^7 neurons? Yet the current issue of Discover looks at a researcher who thinks that insects are smarter than we like to admit.

    Don’t know where to draw the line. Dilbert is conscious; I’m not sure about his pointy-headed boss.

  6. #6 boojieboy
    December 26, 2006

    Am I the only one who has realized that his supposed free-will test has already been done? Just Google ["cortical stimulation" "speech arrest"] and you’ll get a bunch of hits for papers describing exactly what the results of such a test *ARE*

    Why is it people have such poor memories for questions that have already been answered?

    Not that this proves anything about free-will, but I think someone has to point out that his thought experiment is in fact a real experiment with real results.

    /snark

  7. #7 Phil
    December 27, 2006

    Since the mind is just the brain, one merely has to decide if brains have free will, whatever it is.

  8. #8 dzd
    December 27, 2006

    Am I the only one who has realized that his supposed free-will test has already been done?

    Well, the main idea you get from reading Adams’ blog is that he is admittedly ignorant about most of the subjects he expounds on, but is also too lazy to do any research. He complains that “the media” doesn’t tell him everything he wants to know but doesn’t appear to care enough to actually educate himself on any topics.

  9. #9 dzd
    December 27, 2006

    Addendum: this also seems to be the reason why he backs ID and other such woo–all of his ID-related posts basically boil down to “you can’t prove evolution happens!” and then going “nuh-uh, you don’t know that” when presented with evidence.

  10. #10 Dan Philpott
    December 27, 2006

    Scott Adams shows his grasp of irony with this particular example.

    About 18 months ago he lost his voice. He was diagnosed with a condition called Spasmodic Dysphonia. It is apparently neurogenic in origin, has a genetic component and causes spasms of the muscles controlling the larynx which can limit and sometimes eliminate the capacity for speech. Recently he self-reported his recovery from Spasmodic Dysphonia. He reports that he is the only person ever to recover their voice after losing it to this disorder.

    He used his free will to overcome a brain dysfunction and recover his speech.

    So what say we all rethink our previous comments?

  11. #11 Caledonian
    December 27, 2006

    No, Adams used practice to overcome what we presume is a brain dysfunction. “Free will” isn’t involved at all.

    A ‘ghost’ so limited in its ability to interact with the world is conceptually indistinguishable from its nonexistence. You, Mr. Lehler, are a Romantic – and I mean that in the worst possible way.

  12. #12 jayh
    December 29, 2006

    To decide if free will exists, one needs to define a way of unambiguously distinguishing it.

    If I prefer Pepsi to Coke is that free will? or is it a product of my body chemistry? or is it a product of my childhood?

    What would distinguish actual ‘free will’ from a deterministic brain with a periodic randmize function? What is the difference between randomly making an unpredictable decision, and utilizing ‘free will’ to make an unpredictable decision?

    Adams alleged overcoming of a neurological speech problem is really no different from the success of a small group of people to overcome strokes and other brain injuries. Sometimes they are in a position to provide alternate neurons, often they are not. It has little to do with will.