April 17, 2008

Free Will and Faster Computers

Intermittent Lorenz AttractorThis week on Ethical Perspectives on the News: Who's this 'we', Dr Soon? Unconscious Action and Moral Responsibility. A quick take on the recent results showing unconscious processes preparing (and predicting) an action seconds before we become aware we do it. I argue against the claim it says something about our free will.

The first reason is that free will does not mean conscious free will - we could have free will but it could be independent of our consciousness. We are not just our conscious part but include our unconscious parts.

The second reason is that the experiment can not see anything we cannot see in ordinary life. When I chose A over B, could I have chosen differently? There is no way of actually seeing that counterfactual, since we only get one realisation at a time. We can repeat the experiment and choose differently, but that will not satisfy the people who think these variations were predetermined.

However, being of a compatibilist bent, I think it doesn't matter whether the universe is deterministic or not for free will, since free will is a phenomenon on the personal and social level, not on the fundamental physics level. I clearly can choose relatively freely in most situations, so empirically we have free will - not a perfect context-independent freedom, but the ability to make choices that are deeply unpredictable and based on complex internal states.

The real issue with the brain scanning findings is that they suggest we have surprisingly long-running actionin planning pipelines. That might be very interesting from an enhancement perspective. Imagine devices noticing likely future actions and preparing for them - if my computer loads files I need in a few seconds in the background, it will become subjectively much faster.

Posted by Anders3 at April 17, 2008 12:55 PM