Friday, January 25, 2013

Patricia Churchland on free will

See her article here. She too doesn't see free will as some dualistic, acausal idealism. She thinks a better frame for the notion is neural self-control, or as I've called it recently, embodied top-down causation from a "real self," as she attests. Some excerpts:

"To begin to update our ideas of free will, I suggest we first shift the debate away from the puzzling metaphysics of causal vacuums to the neurobiology of self-control.... Self-control can come in many degrees, shades, and styles. We have little direct control over autonomic functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and digestion, but vastly more control over behaviour that is organised by the cortex of the brain. Self-control is mediated by pathways in the prefrontal cortex, shaped by structures regulating emotions and drives, and it matures as the organism develops.

"Our larger prefrontal cortex probably means we have more neurons that allow us to exercise greater self control than that displayed by baboons or chimps.... This is the prefrontal cortex using cognition for impulse control.

"So is anyone ever responsible for anything? Civil life requires it be so. Very briefly, the crux of the matter is this: we are social animals and our ability to flourish depends on the behaviour of others. Biologically realistic models show how traits of cooperation and social orderliness can spread through a population; how moral virtues can be a benefit, cheating a cost and punishment of the socially dangerous a necessity.

"From an evolutionary perspective, punishment is justified by the value all individuals place on their social life, and by the limits on behaviour needed to maintain that value. The issue of competent control arises when, given a social harm, we need to determine whether punishment is appropriate. Part of cultural evolution consists in figuring out more suitable and effective ways of limiting violent or otherwise antisocial behaviour. So yes, we must hold individuals responsible for their actions.

"But what is the 'self' of self-control? What am I? In essence, the self is a construction of the brain; a real, but brain-dependent organisational network for monitoring body states, setting priorities and, within the brain itself, creating the separation between inner world and outer world. In its functionality, it is a bit like a utility on your computer, though one that has evolved to grow and develop.

"Complex brains are good at that sort of thing - creating high-level neural patterns to make sense of the world. We lack a word to describe this function, but instances abound. A simpler example is our normal three-dimensional visual perception. Here, a network of neurons in the visual cortex compares the slightly offset two-dimensional inputs it gets from each eye. The comparison is used to create an image of a three-dimensional world. Thus we literally see - and not merely infer - real depth.

"The brain constructs a range of make-sense-of-the-world neurotools; one is the future, one is the past and one is self. Does that mean my self is not real? On the contrary. It is every bit as real as the three-dimensional world we see, or the future we prepare for, or the past we remember. It is a tool tuned, in varying degrees, to the reality of brain and world."

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