Free will discussion often miss a crucial point 2

Let me entertain, then explore the consequences of, one answer to the previous post‘s questions about the free will debate, which was:

Could someone else point to conditions 1,2,3,… (e.g., biochemical or neurological or unconscious) at or before time t that imply that B and C were not actual choices I could have made, that is, that I was mistaken in saying they were?  What method of finding out about the world would show this inadmissibility of choices I had pointed to?

Actually, the point is probably deeper: Could someone with this knowledge of the inadmissibility of choices B and C convey the knowledge to me in a way that would influence my (mis)understanding of the choices I faced?  And, if they could, is this a way of engaging with each other that we want to foster?

Fried et al. (2011) “report progressive neuronal recruitment over ∼1500 ms [=1.5 seconds] before subjects report making the decision to move.”  If (and that’s a big if) that research developed to the state that the firing neurons could be linked to which decision, say choice A, I was about to be able to report that I had just then made, then the neuronal firing would be “the conditions 1, 2, 3, … at or before time t that imply that B and C were not actual choices I could have made.”  The next challenge would be to convey that information, namely, that I had already decided on A, back to me within the 1.5 seconds.  If that became do-able, we would then have to see if conveying that information influenced the decision.  If not, then we would still be left with the last question: “[I]s this a way of engaging with each other that we want to foster?”

It could be argued that the short time—1.5 seconds—is not an issue.  If neurons fire before I am aware of my decision, then it’s neurons all the way back (by analogy with “turtles all the way down“).  Trace the neurons back and someone would have time to provide information that contradicts my view that I have more than one choice.  My response:  Of course there are neuronal firings that precede the final ones 1.5 seconds in advance.  (That is, I am not denying a mechanistic view of living organisms.)  I doubt, however, that firing neurons could be linked forward to which decision would later appear to being made—the computational and statistical complexity of discerning associations among masses of neurons over time is too great.

The traditional rejoinder to doubts about what future research will be able to show is to say we have to wait and see empirically, implying that my response is not a strong argument conceptually (especially given the doubters of the past who have turned out to be very wrong).  This rejoinder fails to address the computational and statistical complexity issue in general or how it plays out in specific cases, such as linking genomes to diseases and behaviors.


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