Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pointless Free Will

There's another attempt at showing free will doesn't exist (seen via TJIC) going around:

You may think you decided to read this story -- but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it.

What if you clicked on the link less than seven seconds after seeing it?

In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.

The decision studied -- whether to hit a button with one's left or right hand -- may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise profound questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?

It looks like the experimental subjects are asked to make a decision at random, i.e., a decision made for absolutely no reason whatsoever. (I think they decided to study that based on the school of thought that holds that actions by people who have an real reason for acting, e.g., private-sector employment, are not truly free but the actions of performance artists who live on NEA grants to come up with pointless art are free.) All they have shown is that pointless decisions are not made by free will. (Take that artists!) Pointless decisions are made by looking at the brain’s random-number generator and that takes seven seconds.

The brain’s random-number generator has other faults. If you tell people to pick numbers at random, the results will have non-zero correlations instead of being truly random. The best you can do is pick pseudorandom numbers.

Of course, if you use a pseudorandom process in this case, e.g., if you’re holding a coin in your hand and push the right or left button depending on whether the coin is heads or tails, there's no way the experimenters can know if the coin is heads or tails seven seconds before you look at it.


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