Can people give machines free will

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Free Will - An Illusion?

Author:Goller Hans
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Published in:Voices of the time 221, September 2003, issue 2.
Date:2003-05-22

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In everyday life we ​​believe in the power of will. We distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions and hold people responsible for what they do. We call an action free if it comes from within and is done on purpose. We experience that we can determine for ourselves whether and when we act. The idea of ​​free will is also a natural basis of our coexistence and our legal system. But science exposes some things that we take for granted in everyday life to be illusions.

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Nicolaus Copernicus discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. Charles Darwin made us aware of our animal origins. After the "cosmological" and the "biological" offense, we humans at least had the consolation of at least being the master of our own house. But then Sigmund Freud brought us the "psychological" hurt, which hit us more sensitively than the other two. For, according to Freud, we are not even masters of our own house, but only servants of the instincts that dominate us. And now, says Hans Flohr, we are facing a fourth offense with far more devastating consequences for our traditional self-image than any previous humiliation by science: the reductionist explanation of the spirit.

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According to her, the mind is nothing but the brain. For the molecular biologist Francis Crick, we are nothing more than a "bunch of neurons". Is the experience of freedom just a waste product of neural processes, similar to the sound of a steam whistle, which has no influence on the functioning of the steam engine? According to the Bremen brain researcher Gerhard Roth, we are neither free in what we want nor in what we do. From a neurobiological point of view, there is no free will at all. Roth is (like Freud) convinced that neither reason and understanding nor the ego determine our actions, but the unconscious. Our wanting, thinking and acting are largely controlled by limbic brain structures that basically work unconsciously. We experience ourselves as the author of our actions and have the feeling that we could have acted differently, but that is an illusion.

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In fact, the neurobiologist Benjamin Libet discovered that test subjects only become aware of the decision to raise their hands after their brain has already started preparing the movement. The voluntary decision is preceded by a readiness potential of an average of 350 milliseconds. The conscious willing cannot be the cause of the neural activity, because it only occurs after the stand-by potential has been built up and never simultaneously with it. Some authors draw the conclusion from this finding: We don't do what we want, we want what we do. For the brain researcher Michael Gazzaniga, we are the last to find out what our brain is up to. But according to Libet, our will is not quite so powerless after all. Because there are 200 milliseconds between becoming aware of the decision and the execution of the movement itself, and during this time the will can intervene and decide whether to carry out the movement or not. The will is not able to initiate the neural activity, but it can stop the activity once it has started. The will is therefore not an initiator, but a censor. Libet shows that readiness potential does not always lead to action, because it can also occur in the absence of any action.

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Our experience and behavior depend on a functioning brain. In this respect, all arguments for and against free will ultimately have their origins in brain processes. This also applies to the opinion that free will is an illusion. Brain processes obey physiological, physical and chemical laws and are therefore determined. Mind and consciousness fit into the natural occurrences. Is our experience of being able to decide and act freely compatible with the idea that we, as decisive, are part of the world of causes and effects?

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Well, as the philosopher Peter Bieri emphasizes in his book "The Craft of Freedom", it is neither about defending the freedom of will against all conditionality and showing that it exists, nor about bravely embracing comprehensive conditionality Eye to see and say goodbye to the illusion of free will. Rather, we need to understand how freedom and bondage differ in the context of universal conditionality. Freedom and bondage only exist within manifold conditions. What we want depends on what the world has to offer, external circumstances, our character and our personal experiences. It is a fundamental mistake to relate the difference between freedom and bondage of will to the difference between unconditionality and conditionality. An unconditional will does not correspond to our experience of freedom. Of course there is free will, so Bieri, you just have to look for it in the right place.

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Many neuroscientists ignore the fact that thinking, feeling and willing are only given to us directly from the perspective of experience and that even experiences of freedom are not an externally observable property of the brain. In the pure observer's perspective of a scientific description, they do not appear at all. The two perspectives cannot be reduced to one another, because neither excludes the other. Our knowledge of the brain is incomplete. We have not the slightest idea how the experience of free will emerges from objectively describable brain processes. Suppose we knew everything there was to know about a person's brain from a neurobiological point of view: How much would we know about the experience of that person's freedom?

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