William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Stream: Choose to Read This Article About Research Saying You Don’t Have Free Will

Make a choice.

Make a choice.

Today’s post is at The Stream: Choose to Read This Article About Research Saying You Don’t Have Free Will.

…”Free will could all be an illusion, scientists suggest after study shows choice may just be brain tricking itself.”…

The study is “A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice” by Adam Bear and Paul Bloom, found in the journal Psychological Science

The authors have a theory “that people may systematically overestimate the role that consciousness plays in their chosen behavior.” To gauge this, they did two experiments.

In the first experiment, five white circles flashed on a screen, and 25 persons were asked to guess which of the five would turn red. After the circle changed color, people were asked (nobody checked) whether they guessed correctly or whether they didn’t have enough time to guess. The delay between when the white circles first appeared and one turned red was varied in specified increments between 0.05 and 1 second.

When the delay between color changes was 0.05 seconds, 27% said they didn’t have enough time to choose, but as the time lengthened to 1 second, only about 1% said they didn’t have time. Of those who said they did have time, at 0.05 seconds 31% said they guessed the right circle; 23% claimed to be correct when the delay was 1 second.

Since the people did not know the algorithm which picked the red circle, and assuming the pattern where the red circles appeared was not readily deducible (each person did the experiment 280 times), then we’d expect the guessing success rate to be around 20% (it would 20% exactly only by coincidence). Yet here we have people claiming success rates up to 31%. What’s happening?

People might have lied. Especially when time was short, people might have said to themselves, “I had a feeling that was the one” and they therefore gave themselves credit for their clairvoyance.

Maybe “lying” is too strong a word. Perhaps corrective perspicacious self-assuredness is better: people award themselves what they feel they deserve, especially under “unfair” conditions where the color change was fast. This theory, which is mine and not the authors’, accords with the commonsense view of human nature.

The authors discount and do not investigate lying, though, because they claim that “The incentives to lie or make weak commitments to one’s choices were the same for all delay conditions in the experiment.” This doesn’t follow because, as I mentioned, it’s at least possible some would consider shorter delays less fair. The Lying Theory also predicts honest people would claim they didn’t have enough time to answer at shorter delays, a prediction also supported by the data…

Even if the authors’ theory had some validity, it’s not as important as it sounds. Why? Who’s had this experience? You walk to the neighborhood pub to wash away the memory of reading some research paper you wish you hadn’t, and, while on the way, did not remember choosing where to place each and every step?…

Science says: You have no choice but to click here to read the rest.

Incidentally, though I don’t mention it at Stream, the B&B paper has an overly complicated statistical and utterly unnecessary model which says, in effect, we saw what we saw. This isn’t the authors’ fault. Many people build unnecessary models to say that data really is the data. The fallacy is that hypothesis tests can prove cause, which of course they cannot. Indeed, they should never be used (neither p-values nor Bayes factors).

31 Comments

  1. I had read this article a few days back and it seemed to me like what they were measuring was perception, not free will. I can’t say for sure, though. I was bored within a minute or two of choosing to read it.

  2. acricketchirps

    May 5, 2016 at 9:42 am

    When I saw there were zero comments… well, I couldn’t help myself, could I?

  3. acricketchirps

    May 5, 2016 at 9:43 am

    And, well, you know the rest.

  4. While I didn’t quite get all that, I think the authors were saying that statistically people ought to have been correct only 20 percent of the time but they judged themselves correct 35 percent of the time.

    That’s remarkable. People usually judge themselves correct 100 percent of the time (or nearly so).

    It isn’t obvious what that has to do with “free will” or even what the words mean since “free” has nuances and so does “will”.

    I think “wont” might be more amenable to choice.

    But deep inside there’s a deterministic reason why one person chooses a Nikon and the other chooses Canon, and it is somewhat linked to Windows (Nikon) vs Mac (Canon) and the whole left brain dominant (Nikon), right brain dominant (Canon) thing.

  5. Like Michael 2 I can’t see the connection between the experiment and free will. Are we to conclude that people’s brains tricked them into believing they made a guess when in fact their brains made the guess? I’m not sure what that means.

    And why do these people all assume that all we people are afraid of not being in control? Why not assume that we all want to be just along for the ride and we’re not responsible for anything? Perhaps that’s what motivates this sort of research.

  6. Why not assume that we all want to be just along for the ride and we’re not responsible for anything?

    The problem is “not responsible” shouldn’t mean “not accountable”. You remove the bad apple from the barrel. It’s not the apple’s fault that it is bad but it still must pay the consequences. Lest one think this is somehow “unfair” consider that it’s no unfairer than anything else in life. Someday something will do you in. It comes sooner for some than others. Just dumb luck. Same as it would be dumb luck to be the bad apple.

    Of course there are those who insist we are Special and being Special requires Free Will.

  7. acricketchirps

    Dang! Timing is EVERYTHING – just like in the test (probably .05 seconds)

    I had the free will NOT to go to STREAM.
    How do you associate FREE WILL with the described test?

    Maybe “lying” is too strong a word. Perhaps corrective perspicacious self-assuredness is better: people award themselves what they feel they deserve, especially under “unfair” conditions where the color change was fast. This theory, which is mine and not the authors’, accords with the commonsense view of human nature.

    The authors discount and do not investigate lying, though, because they claim that “The incentives to lie or make weak commitments to one’s choices were the same for all delay conditions in the experiment.” This doesn’t follow because, as I mentioned, it’s at least possible some would consider shorter delays less fair. The Lying Theory also predicts honest people would claim they didn’t have enough time to answer at shorter delays, a prediction also supported by the data…

    THERE IS NO INCENTIVE to answer “truthfully” when there’s no time to answer at all!
    When I saw that the “lying” occurred at the .05! second rate that IS EXACTLY where I went. Either Briggs has been channeling me, or we who believe in “Free Will” have NO Free Will to discount the experiment and we MUST reject the authors and this blatantly idiotic study!

    I agree

  8. I guess that should’ve read:

    “NO Free Will in discounting the experiment”

    (I THINK that came out in my comment)

  9. My grandfather once told me if you come to a fork in the road, take it.

  10. Briggs

    May 5, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    YOS,

    Thanks!

  11. So you’ve got 1/20th of a second to guess which of five white circles is about to turn red. I think I understand the test. If I was faced with that, I’d just guess the leftmost circle every time and be happy with the 20 percent.

    Why the leftmost? Ah, that’s where subtle influences come into the picture. As an English reader, I read left to right. I always start things on the left.

    But might I be a non-conformist? No, I am a conformist. So I start on the left.

    Why am I a conformist? I learned that good things come from conforming and bad things come from disconforming, provided of course that I have correctly associated myself with an honorable source of reward.

    I believe perfectly free will just sits there doing nothing. Something has to exist to cause behavior, a thing that exists outside the realm of “free will” which is really “no will” at all.

    When you go to the store, if you can choose chocolate versus vanilla, or vice versa, that is free will. Trying to figure out why you chose one or the other is an interesting project for graduate students in a nearly useless field of study.

    In the realm of religion, if you can choose good or evil, and then act well or poorly, you have free will; sufficient for the purpose of shifting responsibility from God to you for the consequences of your choices.

  12. Please remember that lots and lots of religious people don’t relieve believe in free will, either. It’s not just godless materialist scientists with p-values.

    Wikipedia (currently) says that “Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action.”

    But that’s not what “free will” has meant for Christians, ever. For Christians, “free will” roughly means the ability for man to do meaningful work; work that is able to cooperate with God’s plan for your salvation, and for the salvation of all souls, and indeed, for the salvation of the entire universe.

    That is obviously not the ‘modern’ view of free will that Wikipedia takes. Actually, Wikipedia’s is not a modern view of free will at all. It’s the pretty standard view of paganism. The gods, or the stars or whatever, rule our lives, cause our choices, whatever our own impression. So the ‘modern’ view of free will is really the supremely pessimistic pagan view of it, dressed up in different clothes. It’s not the stars that control your choices, silly. It’s your neurons. Everybody knows that.

    The Emperor Tiberius was said to have taken the wisdom of his times seriously, and thus to refrain from paying homage to the gods. The stars totally control our destiny, so what’s the point of reverence to the gods?

    And pagans thought that we may have to pay for those (finally indeliberate) choices, anyway. An apple can be bad and must be excluded, without any ‘choice’ on the apple’s part (thanks, DAV!).

    But the preaching of Christ crucified and the celebration of the Eucharist liberated the pagan world from the utter pessimism of the unbroken chain of Cause after Cause in which we were hopelessly encased.

    Or did it?

    As I said, lots and lots of religious people don’t believe in free will. I’m omitting Buddhists and Hindis and Taoists, etc., since I’m not sure at all what their actual views on free will are. For all I know, a Buddhist (for example) doesn’t really have a position on free will per se.

    So let’s just take Calvinists and Lutherans as examples. OK, I’m quoting non-sympathetic sources below. But that has the advantage of cutting through the miles of fudging and obfuscation that normal Calvinists and Lutherans do to both believe and get around the doctrine of Total Inability (Calvin)/Total Corruption (Luther).

    The Catholic Church’s professes that Man’s free will was weakened but not eliminated by the Fall, and therefore, that both Calvin and Luther’s positions are false. However, it is a simple historical fact that the Thomist theology so beloved by Matt does not provide an adequate account of free will within its own assumptions and methodology, as proven beyond the shadow of a doubt by the bitter and still-unresolved fights of Thomists themselves about free will, as I pointed out years ago in this very blog.

    The problem at hand was providing within the classical Thomist framework a coherent account of human freedom (and hence and crucially, of each man’s individual moral agency and responsibility), while at the same time providing a similarly coherent account of efficacious grace and Divine Providence.

    Which Thomists failed — and still have failed — to do, using their own rules, to their own satisfaction. Look it up and tell me I’m lyin’.

    Anyway, Calvinists don’t believe in free will.

    The main point at which I first questioned Calvinism was the nature of man in his sinful state. To question this point of the system is to question all of it. The last four points of Calvinism rest squarely upon the first, Total Inability. Once that dogma is removed, the entire superstructure crashes under its own weight.

    For those unfamiliar with the five points, I will here briefly define them:

    I. Total Inability. Man has sunk so far through the Fall that he is no longer capable of believing the gospel. He can no more repent and believe than a dead man can rise up and walk. This is all the result of the sin of Adam, who communicated this absolute inability, this loss of free will, to all his posterity.

    And Lutherans don’t believe in free will, either.

    Man’s free will is denied its freedom in this outlook, for man is dominated by God (or by sin) in such a way that it is God alone who acts to save him. The impotence of free will is one aspect of Luther’s mode of conceiving the total causality of God. In the process of salvation, God alone acts. He induces no internal change in the creature, and never renders man capable of acting in grace. Paradoxically, this assertion of the powerlessness of freedom leads to an exaltation of individualism. Lutheranism comes to be characterized by a building up of the individual at the expense of the Church. It involves a denial of the Church and its role in salvation as understood throughout Catholic tradition. Thus, Lutheran thought denies the power of freedom, and at the same time attributes salvation to the sole and total causality of God. His action replaces or substitutes itself for that of the creature. In the moment of justification by God, an act entirely unrelated to the Church, man receives an absolute assurance of his salvation directly from God. The individual is emancipated completely, in the Lutheran view, from all creatures in the order of salvation. Lutheranism thus appears to be a champion of individual religious liberty. This liberty can only be seen as ultimately unreal, however, if God’s creative presence and immanence to man does not really transform him from within and bestow on him healing grace – the power to act freely and well.

  13. All this seems to have come round to a discussion of free Will and Predestination, i.e. everything is pre-known and pre-determined.

    The Augustinian view (practically deterministic, and so loved by Calvin and Luther) was unofficially the authorised theological opinion for so long that it’s hard to buck an established custom.

    Poor ole Tom (Aquin.) made himself (and me) giddy running in tight circles trying to reconcile ‘Gus’s theological determinism with some accommodation to a limited free will.

    However, much to the irk of the Dominicans and other “Tomolaters”, Luis Molina’s version makes much more sense and has become (and always was among the profane “great unwashed”, I think) the subliminally accepted model for all practical purposes… except in the august towers of Tomology, of course.

    Other, essentially Materialistic, speculations shouldn’t rate a mention in a serious consideration of free will, I think.

  14. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 5, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    It’s probably worth reading this dialogue:
    https://thomism.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/interior-dialogue-on-free-will/
    followed up by this paragraph:
    https://thomism.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/ramble-on-free-will/
    since modern rewrites of ‘will’ have complexified the concept beyond usefulness. So it turns out that Descartes, Skinner, et al. were wrong. Didn’t we already know that?

  15. Oldavid, I like your comment. I guess I’m a quasi-Molinist. It seems to me to offer free choices, unlike other positions, particularly when coupled with the Many Worlds/ Many Minds interpretation of QM. Indeed (department of shameless self-promotion) I did a post on this a while back…. see
    http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2015/01/free-will-and-gods-providence-part-iv.html
    I expect lots of critical comments, which is all to the good.

  16. According to this study, some people (around 10%) will say “I meant to do that!” about things they had no control over.

    Are they scraping the bottom of the barrel yet? Do they think the observation that some people tend to say “I meant to do that!” has never been noticed before?

  17. Bob,
    While I am happy to admit that macrophysics (roughly Newtonian physics) doesn’t apply at the sub-atomic (quantum) level I do not accept that it is, therefore, an excuse to dump macrophysics and metaphysics as “irrelevant” or “unknowable”.

    All of reality (that which IS) (metaphysics, macrophysics and quantum physics) is an harmonious whole… it all comes from the same Mind.

    There cannot be something that is “true” in logic, (philosophy) physics, (philosophy) QM, (philosophy) or anything else that is “true” and is “not true”.

    Please apply the self-evident truth that “a thing that does not exist cannot cause itself to exist” to all your considerations.

  18. Straining at gnats. Did anyone just think to ask God? At any rate, the bleak outlook of Calvinists and Lutherans is why I am neither. My choices are influenced to be sure, but I choose things. Herd animals much less so.

    James 1:5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

  19. Oldavid writes “Please apply the self-evident truth that ‘a thing that does not exist cannot cause itself to exist’ to all your considerations.”

    I have a doubt that self-evidence is sufficient. Causality (as I understand it) requires a time-line, something comes before something else. But if there is no timeline, then there is no “before” and the caused could happen simultaneously with the cause. Quarks and anti-quarks come into existence spontaneously; and if there’s a cause it has not been discovered, but it might just be their nature, such that while not existing, they actually do exist but not in a detectable state. Or they are going to exist, which is a type of anticipation of existence, which is a type of existence.

    Now I choose to start my day with breakfast, and I will choose what to eat, and if there’s some deep mystery contained in all that, well, so be it.

  20. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 6, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    the caused could happen simultaneously with the cause.

    Indeed, Thomists say that this is the case; but then they had a different idea of ’cause’ — even of ‘efficient’ cause — than most moderns. What they meant by ‘prior’ or ‘before’ or ‘first’ did not always refer to time. For example, the major and minor premise are ‘prior’ to the conclusion of a syllogism, but occur simultaneously with it.

    Quarks and anti-quarks come into existence spontaneously

    Recte: “Quarks and anti-quarks come into existence spontaneously according to mathematical models.” [I think, the model merely allows for the possibility, given short-interval uncertainty, which may be why Heisenberg said that subatomic particles had potential existence, not actual existence.]

  21. Here’s another spanner to throw into the Free Will machinery. Did you know that if we have Free Will, so do particles (in QM theory)? Google the Conway-Kochen Free Will Theorem (you may hit my post on this).

  22. Briggs

    May 6, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    Bob,

    Axiom 1 of that theorem: “Fin: There is a maximum speed for propagation of information (not necessarily the speed of light). This assumption rests upon causality.”

    That maximum speed, according to induction, is infinite, i.e. instantaneous “transfer” of information. Or I’m guessing they mean something else? Does this fit with their system?

  23. Briggs, I’ll quote from my post on this:
    “3. MIN (the original third axiom was FIN, having to do with limitations of speeds of transmission because of special relativity). We’ll take two investigators A and B who are separated in space. The spin system A studies is labeled a, and the spin system B studies is labeled b; a and b are separated parts of a singlet, and each has spin quantum number S=1. Then Conway/Kochen state in axiom 3 that the choices by A and B for studying direction of spin components are independent:
    “Assume that the experiments performed by two investigators A and B are space-like separated. Then experimenter B can freely choose any one of the 33 particular directions w, and a’s response is independent of this choice. Similarly and independently, A can freely choose any one of the 40 triples x, y, z, and b’s response is independent of that choice.”
    This axiom was chosen to make the FWT stronger, and to overcome objections made to the use of the FIN axiom.”
    See
    http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2014/02/do-quantum-entities-have-free-will-and.html
    for a more extended discussion.

    I believe, from what I recall of reading the original paper (can’t find the web address at the moment) that despite the “not necessarily the speed of light”, that was the maximum. An operative maximum might have been less than that, but no tachyon’s or such.

  24. When I was in high school one of my classmates’ Dad was involved in some kind of theoretical physics. My cobber used to like to drop quirky observations on me. One such observation was “how long can they keep inventing “particles” that have no existence other than as a space filler in an equation of dubious validity?”

    The answer, I suppose, is as long as no one chooses to investigate or challenge the premises that spawned the equation.

  25. Ye Olde Statistician

    May 7, 2016 at 7:15 am

    Hence, Hawking’s observation that the presence of a term in an equation does not obligate the physical world to produce a corresponding particle.

  26. G. Rodrigues

    May 7, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    I have not read the whole paper, but in the first paragraph Conway and Kochen they write:

    “The two theories that revolutionized physics in the 20th century, relativity and quantum mechanics, are full of predictions that defy common sense. Recently, we used three such paradoxical ideas to prove “The Free Will Theorem” (strengthened here), which is the culmination of a series of theorems about quantum mechanics that began in the 1960’s. It asserts, roughly, that if indeed we humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of this valuable commodity. More precisely, if the experimenter can freely choose the directions in which to orient his apparatus in a certain measurement, then the particle’s response (to be pedantic – the universe’s response near the particle) is not determined by the entire previous history of the universe.”

    So it seems that we have the following:

    (1) Free Will is construed as “not being determined by the entire previous history of the universe”.

    (2) The theorem is then that if the history of the experimenter is not determined by the previous history of the universe, neither is the particle’s.

    I have no major problems with (1), since like St. Thomas I view Free Will as freedom from necessitation. Neither do I have major problems with (2). What I do have problems with is the inference from (2) to that if we have free will then so has a particle. For it is perfectly consistent with (2) that we have Free Will but particles do not, for while our actions are not necessitated by the previous history of the universe, those actions *do* determine the subsequent history of the the particles, entailing that their history is not necessitated by the previous history of the universe. And not only perfectly consistent, but the actual truth — grin.

    So assuming I am not missing something (and again I repeat the caveat that I have not read the whole paper), it is simply an illegitimate inference — in modal terms, it is analogous to illegitimately shifting around the possibility operator.

  27. GR, you make a nice point. I didn’t make the same inference you did. My inference about the experimenters having free will is that they would be free to choose which directions was to be measured, this choice was not predetermined. It is, I believe, the same sort of condition that’s applied in Bell’s Theorem demonstrations.

  28. G. Rodrigues

    May 7, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    @Bob Kurland:

    “My inference about the experimenters having free will is that they would be free to choose which directions was to be measured, this choice was not predetermined.”

    Yes, it is a condition in the sense that, for the original theorem, superdeterminism is a loophole that could be exploited to resist the conclusion.

    But unless I am missing something, this is the same as what I said, since being “free to choose which directions was to be measured” is equivalent to saying that the actions of the experimenter are not necessitated or determined (*) by the previous history of the universe, and thus there are real, alternative choices that the experimenter has for the course of his action.

    (*) Determined and necessitated, or their denials, may not be the same and this is actually one spot where one needs to be *very* careful. I will sweep the complications under the rug.

    More importantly, let me refine what I wrote previously as there is a mistake in it — and my apologies for it. Once again, with the caveat that I am correctly understanding the claims even without having read them in full, Conway and Kochen start with the premise:

    (P) Experimenters have a choice: what the experimenter does at t_0 is not determined by the previous history of the universe (which includes said experimenter).

    And the supposition

    (S) The experimenter chooses to do X at t_0 (e.g. configure the experimental set up in order to measure some definite observables).

    Derive the conclusion that:

    (C) The state of the particle at t_1 > t_0 is not determined the by previous history of the universe (which includes supposition (S) — this is the, possible, mistake above).

    Now (C) is more plausibly read as “having free will”, but then, and leaving aside that I view with the utmost *philosophical* suspicion any indeterminacy claims read off from QM, I would respond that, and actually contradicting what I said above, “not determined by the previous history of the universe” is not a good construal of Free Will. If it were established tomorrow that QM (or whatever follow up) entails indeterminacy, we are thereby entitled to proclaim that Free Will exists.

    As a rule of thumb, no major metaphysical claim can be established via physics alone, whether it is the existence of Free Will, whether it is the existence of God.

  29. G. Rodrigues

    May 7, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    @Bob Kurland:

    Ach, there is a typo above. Replace

    “we are thereby entitled to proclaim that Free Will exists”

    with

    “we are *not* thereby entitled to proclaim that Free Will exists”

  30. GR, I agree totally with your last paragraph.

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