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Old 04-15-2008, 06:58 AM   #1
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Goodbye Freewill, Goodbye Christianity?

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Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain. This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. "Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings." (Nature Neuroscience, April 13th 2008)

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not atwhat happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.

This unprecedented prediction of a free decision was made possible by sophisticated computer programs that were trained to recognize typical brain activity patterns preceding each of the two choices. Micropatterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex were predictive of the choices even before participants knew which option they were going to choose. The decision could not be predicted perfectly, but prediction was clearly above chance. This suggests that the decision is unconsciously prepared ahead of time but the final decision might still be reversible.

"Most researchers investigate what happens when people have to decide immediately, typically as a rapid response to an event in our environment. Here we were focusing on the more interesting decisions that are made in a more natural, self-paced manner", Haynes explains.

More than 20 years ago the American brain scientist Benjamin Libet found a brain signal, the so-called "readiness-potential" that occurred a fraction of a second before a conscious decision. Libet’s experiments were highly controversial and sparked a huge debate. Many scientists argued that if our decisions are prepared unconsciously by the brain, then our feeling of "free will" must be an illusion. In this view, it is the brain that makes the decision, not a person’s conscious mind. Libet’s experiments were particularly controversial because he found only a brief time delay between brain activity and the conscious decision.

In contrast, Haynes and colleagues now show that brain activity predicts even up to 7 seconds ahead of time how a person is going to decide. But they also warn that the study does not finally rule out free will: "Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought. But we do not know yet where the final decision is made. We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed."
mpg.de

Cracking into the processes of decision making could have some uncomfortable consequences, especially when we consider how much of our behaviour is automatic. That if I think I am doing the opposite of what I was going to do that choice was made unconsciously is unsettling; if one resorted to apathy from that would it be in a sense destiny?
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Old 04-15-2008, 08:35 AM   #2
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I think I know what we are then...



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Old 04-15-2008, 08:51 AM   #3
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Okay, I've been watching too much "Battlestar Galactica" lately (the re-imagining is terribly addictive).

Anyway, I guess it begs a couple of questions:

1) Does it mean that we are the equivalent of humanoid robots (or, yes, Cylons), where our "subconscious" is computing the next decision for our conscious mind?

2) Is the subconscious being fed instructions from a "Higher Source"?

3) Is this study more quasi-scientific crap, where the results won't be reproducible, and the refutation of the study won't get media attention?
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Old 04-15-2008, 09:40 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally posted by melon

2) Is the subconscious being fed instructions from a "Higher Source"?

3) Is this study more quasi-scientific crap, where the results won't be reproducible, and the refutation of the study won't get media attention?
It does raise some interesting scenarios..how much of what mankind (esp in the 'free' or 'developed' world) has 'decided' over the past 20 years has been a product of pure free will or a merely a by-product of what we were exposed to with the design of subliminal coercion?

And along that path, if this was discovered 20 years ago, what do you think would be more useful for the "Higher Powers" - to have several leading scientist debunk it as hogwash and claim it's not reproducible, therefore the masses will eventually forget about it all....or let us believe that there actually might be some truth to it and have us walking around with our minds opened and on the lookout for it?

Not to be a conspiracy theorist but...

<cue dramatic orchestral arrangement>

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Old 04-15-2008, 09:41 AM   #5
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Also, what the does this have to do with Christianity?
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Old 04-15-2008, 09:50 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally posted by melon
Okay, I've been watching too much "Battlestar Galactica" lately (the re-imagining is terribly addictive).

Anyway, I guess it begs a couple of questions:

1) Does it mean that we are the equivalent of humanoid robots (or, yes, Cylons), where our "subconscious" is computing the next decision for our conscious mind?

2) Is the subconscious being fed instructions from a "Higher Source"?

3) Is this study more quasi-scientific crap, where the results won't be reproducible, and the refutation of the study won't get media attention?
It seems connected to the sort of stuff Benjamin Libet did. My bullshit detector hasn't gone off, I have read about a few other related experiments in new scientist over the years and I think Sleek Geeks (an Australian science show) had a demonstration of it.

It seems that unravelling decision making can only really find an internal answer, something akin to telepathy; the input of action from an outside actor doesn't really fit with whats known about the universe very well. Decision making takes place in the brain and it is the product of evolution, it would be interesting if this sort of research bridges the gap between what we take as animal instinct versus enlightened human behaviour.

If there is a strong determinism in unconscious choice then it does lead to the conclusion that we are zombies with the illusion of free will, but that doesn't negate our consciousness or capacity for thinking and action - even though it may be playing to an unconscious tune.
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Old 04-15-2008, 09:53 AM   #7
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Originally posted by acrobatique
Also, what the does this have to do with Christianity?
Christians keep on saying that it is free will that leads to sin, that free will and bad choices are the reason for evil in the world etc. But if there is no free will then that means that a sinner doesn't have a real choice not to sin, and the possibility that evil is an artifact of this Gods plan and that just makes such an entity malevolent. It seems an area where science is pushing into the domains of religion and philosophy.
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Old 04-15-2008, 10:06 AM   #8
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There's quite a large chuck of Christians (Calvinists) who do not and have never believed in the concept of "free will"...
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Old 04-15-2008, 10:25 AM   #9
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A most valid point, but how can one deal with the idea that what we feel is wrong; is an illusion of free will self-justifying? Could we just go through life like Two-Face and base choices on chance to break free (and would that decision to follow chance be determined)? Is free will a seperate issue from determinism - are there enough uncertainties in the universe that mean that it isn't just playing out like an immense Rube Goldberg Machine?
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Old 04-15-2008, 10:34 AM   #10
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I don't know that I can answer b/c 1) I have not fully read the article and 2) my definition of "free will" is probably different than a lot of people's. I was just quickly browsing through the responses and wanted to point that out. We can't lump all Christians into the "free will" category because that's not true and is a HUGE over-simplification. To a Calvinist, the "will" is one thing, not just will in general as in wanting/willing this or that. Your "will" is I guess like your soul, not really, but that's the closest thing I can think of to make the point. It is not "free". However, anyone has the freedom to make the choices that human's make. Your will can belong to God and you can still make bad choices. There is a distinction between "freedom" and "freedom of the will/free will".

Also, I don't like good vs. evil dichotomy and have come to believe something along the lines of sin/evil as the absence of good. They are not mutually exclusive; there's a spectrum of being good or less and less good. Darkness is the absence of light; cold is the absence of heat.
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Old 04-15-2008, 10:40 AM   #11
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I can't relate because good and evil are purely emotional responses evolved for social conditioning in primates. What I take to be free will is decision making where I have deliberately and consciously chosen to take an action (be it pressing a button or choosing to use a particular word in a sentence). It doesn't seem the evidence for any extreme is out there, the eventual facts may well point somewhere in the middle.

Does a cat have free will when it pounces on a mouse?
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Old 04-15-2008, 10:41 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally posted by A_Wanderer
It seems an area where science is pushing into the domains of religion and philosophy.
Kinda like intelligent design pushing into the domain of science, except science is more close-minded.
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Old 04-15-2008, 10:48 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by A_Wanderer
I can't relate because good and evil are purely emotional responses evolved for social conditioning in primates. What I take to be free will is decision making where I have deliberately and consciously chosen to take an action (be it pressing a button or choosing to use a particular word in a sentence). It doesn't seem the evidence for any extreme is out there, the eventual facts may well point somewhere in the middle.

Does a cat have free will when it pounces on a mouse?
The Bible-study Christian response would be no, because a cat was not created in the image of God. Their will/soul is not subject to God.

My response...I'd have to think about it....

They are loaded questions because it sounds like you are answering theologically motivated questions about a theological term using a scientific/non-religious definition for the term. Your definition of "free will" is simply not how I define it from a theological point of view so I can't really answer the questions.
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Old 04-15-2008, 10:48 AM   #14
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Firstly intelligent design claims to be a scientific hypothesis not a theology, you just undercut the argument why it should be taught in public schools (promoting religious belief is unconstitutional - if the evidence did point to intelligent design the question of what the designer is would be unanswered; evolution however only requires the existence of a single self-replicating molecule with heritable variability and the mechanical process of selection will bring ecologically useful adaptions to the fore; the origin of life rests in organic chemistry not a divine spark). Secondly peer reviewed scientific studies tackling how cognition works have big implications for understanding reality and informing both philosophy and religion because the theory is grounded in objective fact and will be scrutinised from every possible angle.

The scope of science is ever expanding, domains of knowledge that were once exclusively theological and philosophical are constantly being overlapped with scientific investigation. Science can never disprove religion entirely, but it can undermine specific claims (special creation for instance). This is a similar element, and people who cling to dogma that says the opposite of what actually goes on are doomed to self-perpetuating ignorance.
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Old 04-15-2008, 11:03 AM   #15
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Originally posted by A_Wanderer
Firstly intelligent design claims to be a scientific hypothesis not a theology, you just undercut the argument why it should be taught in public schools (promoting religious belief is unconstitutional - if the evidence did point to intelligent design the question of what the designer is would be unanswered; evolution however only requires the existence of a single self-replicating molecule with heritable variability and the mechanical process of selection will bring ecologically useful adaptions to the fore; the origin of life rests in organic chemistry not a divine spark). Secondly peer reviewed scientific studies tackling how cognition works have big implications for understanding reality and informing both philosophy and religion because the theory is grounded in objective fact and will be scrutinised from every possible angle.
I don't refute either (and was taught intelligent design, evolution, Big Bang, and a few other theories...at a private school). I'm just pointing out that tackling "free will" as it is understood by religious peoples would require understanding their definition of the term and how it is used. For Calvinists, "free will" is not really understood as something that determines whether or not you sin, to what extent, etc so it's confusing for scientists to mean that and refer to it as "free will". It's like a Christian understanding a cat as a feline and a scientist actually calling a dog a cat and then trying to explain some things about a cat, when to the Christian they are describing a dog.

I personally have no need to defend theology over science because I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive, I believe that if there is a God in the Christian sense, then science is God-willed. I think scientific studies of cognition and how people make choices are very interesting and don't bother me in the slightest, but that is not really what free will is all about.
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