Free Will debate in Second Life

We had a massive debate at TPN HQ last night (until my internet access dropped out at midnight and didn’t return) about the subject of free will which was kicked off in a massive twitter debate during the day.

My central postulate was this: if every decision you have is a thought: and if a thought is an autonomous electro-chemical process in the brain: then to claim to have free will, you have to be able to explain how you create a thought outside the process of causality.

The discussion got fairly heated at one point when I (probably wrongly) threatened to eject Dave from The Global Geek Podcast if he kept interrupting me. Sorry Dave, probably harsh. Belinda says I get like that during debates.

Anyway, nobody in the room was able to explain to me how they create a thought except to say “I think them”, which, in my opinion, is a circular argument, because the next question is “how did you decide to think that thought?”.

My other suggestion was that if you are in control of your thoughts, you should be able to stop having them. I suggested everyone in the room stop thinking for ten minutes, and when everyone agreed they couldn’t do that, I asked how they could claim to be in control of the creation of thoughts if they couldn’t stop them at will also? This lead to lots of angst and “but but but” retorts, none of which held any water.

Second Life is a pretty good environment for having discussions like this with people from around the world in real time, although you still suffer from the issue of having 20 people trying to talk at once at times. We need a virtual talking stick to pass around or something. Perhaps someone should create one.

31 thoughts on “Free Will debate in Second Life

  1. Stopping thoughts…. that’s what meditation is all about. It’s about making the mind still.

    Doesn’t have to be a religious thing either. Just takes a bit of training to make it a ‘habit’.

  2. Perhaps. The point, though, is if we claim to be in control of our thoughts ALREADY – shouldn’t we be able to stop them from happening? I think it’s quite obvious that if you can’t STOP something, and you can’t explain how you make something happen, you aren’t really in control of it.

  3. I seriously think we needed to come up with an alternative method of measuring control besides having the ability to stop or end something.

    As I said last night – America has the ability to nuke the world out of existence … but it does not mean they control the world. Perhaps you might think that example is too complex a model, but the subject of the discussion is the human mind (and any metaphysical components associated with that you may or may not believe exist) – what could be more complex than that?

    Coincidentally my Internet connection also died last night and didn’t come back up … but for some reason it didn’t affect my Second Life session – just web browsing; an attempt to reboot my router and reconnect my ADSL failed – quite odd.

  4. Nat, we don’t need to be so esoteric with our examples. It’s quite simple. If you claim to be in control of your thoughts, you should be able to stop them or explain how to create them. It amuses the hell out of me that this point is so hotly contested by people. No-one has ever been able to give me a reason why that should NOT be so, and yet I continually, like last night, get people freaking out when I demonstrate that are, quite simply, NOT in control of their thoughts and actions. They just don’t seem to be able to cope emotionally with the idea.

  5. Ha thanks for the apology and yes you do get like that in debates. Interesting actually having it SL. Thought it was good. But then the thing that I thought was that it does give one person more power than another.

    Glad that you can look back and agree it was a bit harsh. Accepted.

    That aside, I thought the debate was a good one. BUT I have to ask myself what are we trying to accomplish by debating a topic that is full of more personal opinion than it is scientific fact. For which we are unlikely to resolve anytime soon. Then how is that benefiting the world or our individual world? You talk a lot about making a difference, how does that make a difference?

    Just that I come away from something like that feeling flat because it never really accomplishes anything, other than frustration and no real answers.

    Sure it might stimulate thinking and makes for good practice at honing your speaking ability and ones own confidence speaking in a group. But what else?

    No accusation just wondering what your thoughts are about what things really make a difference to things that matter.

  6. I was just thinking about something else.

    We don’t actually stop our thoughts as such (for whatever reason). At this point our brain goes into auto pilot and meanders over things at what appears to be random. That is – we are thinking about nothing in particular we are just letting our brain wander. BUT we can interupt that wandering and think about something specific. I think we choose to interrupt that randomness for specific.

    I think too that you have to separate thoughts and actions – or thoughts that lead to actions.

    Also if we are not directly responsible for our thoughts rather we “take” responsibility for them after we have thought them. Would that not throw the law courts into chaos… “Oh I am sorry Mr Magistrate but those actions were preempted by a thought that I have no control over and so I can’t be responsible for it” OR “I did not mean to embezzle the old duck it was a thought I had…. etc – you get the idea.

    I was also thinking about when you might stare off into space. At those times I can’t actually remember thinking anything at all. That might not be control as you put it – just an observation.

  7. Dave, I don’t think free will is a matter of opinion at all. I think it’s a critical matter we need to be clear about. As I said during the SL discussion, it has deep consequences, especially when it comes to religion.

    Regarding your idea that we “choose” to interrupt the random thoughts… don’t you see that this “choice” to interrupt is itself a thought and, according to your own model, random? To demonstrate free will, you have to be able to explain how to you force a thought to happen.

    As for the implications regarding the legal system, that’s a separate discussion. Let’s agree on the facts first, THEN start to think about the implications of the facts.

  8. Ok, so Cam if there is no free will, and we are not choosing our thoughts, THEN WHO IS???? It’s a question I have asked my daughter time and time again, as too myself. If I am not in charge of my thoughts, then who is?

    Quite often we can discern a voice, one we’ve heard with a statement that has been made and then, that ‘seems’ to be our thinking now… and a lot of parenting is indeed telling our children what to think. (ie. racists aren’t born they’re trained)

    Personally I have asked Jasmine to think through her thinking, observe what she has thought and why she may have taken her thoughts in that direction. Any one whom has read any Terry Pratchett will know the concept of second thought, and even third thought in the case of young Tiffany.

    Years of meditive practice, ever vigillant presence and developing a state of observance of ones thoughts are ways and means to be ‘in charge’ of ones thoughts. Although many don’t feel there is a choice, there is indeed an opportunity to question, and weilding the question, ‘where does that thought come from’ is an act of free will in my books!

    Damn I wish my SL would work on my puter… so need an upgrade! I would love to have participated.

  9. Well I don’t think that the facts are going to be proven any time soon.


    How can a choice to think be a random event? I said that our thoughts can be non focus and random or free flowing. But then we choose to employ our brain to think on a specific task. The thoughts that we have regarding a specific task imply control. Because if our thoughts were not our own or directed by an individual then nothing would ever get done.

    How do you suppose we concentrate on a specific problem if we can’t control our thoughts? None of us could hold down a job! Especially very, very focused activities like say a neuro surgeon, or a mathematician they would not be able to focus their thoughts to a problem or a task if they had no control over their thoughts.

    We choose to think, we choose not to be distracted by external stimuli, we choose to focus on a job, we choose to work at a complex problem that takes time… etc

  10. You mean the self, ego, soul, that thing from which arises our illusion of free will.

    To me it is just a narrative made up from our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and memories.

    Like a fictional character who has an existence within a novel and within the minds of those that read it, we are just fictional characters embodied within our brains and within the minds of those that perceive us.

    Thoughts arise before I even chance to perceive them. I simply cannot stop my brain from thinking, believe me I have tried, and it is impossible. All I can do is try to focus my thoughts in a particular direction. Maybe that is some form of free will but I prefer to call it just a bit of elbow room

    Does that spell it out better.

  11. yep and I agree with you Brett. A shame you weren’t in SL with us the other night, I could have used the support! πŸ™‚

    As for your focusing your thoughts, I would ask you whether or not the initial impetus to focus your thoughts isn’t ITSELF a thought and, therefore, part of the same causality?

  12. I will answer your question with a question: If we have no control over our thoughts, how do we use our brain/mind to resolve complex problems or concentrate on a task?

  13. Cameron, in answer to your question I would say that you need to look at the subconscious motivations that underlay our actions and our thoughts, namely our emotions.
    To me the brain is an emotional processor, as it is for all other species, and it is only we arrogant humans with our strong sense of introspective self importance that supposes we are different.

    To believe that you have a soul and free will is to enslave yourself to that very notion and thus deny yourself the possibility of moving beyond the genetic and memetic constraints that you live within.

  14. What’s this Cameron, do you want me to answer what you already know?

    Motivation forces that react to external and internal stimuli. I suspect that all creatures with a brain have emotions, we just have a very complex range of them based upon our genes and our environment.

  15. I’m still trying to figure out the root impetus for this “focusing” you talked about earlier. You suggested it might be some kind of control of our thoughts, but in everything you’ve written, you seem convinced that free will is a fantasy.

  16. The root impetus of my focus lays in my emotional needs and the root impetus of my emotional needs lays in my focus.
    A causal loop.

    If you think that you need some sort of man in the machine to kick things off and make them work (Mr Homunculus) then you might as well apply the same theory to the rest of the universe…God.
    No thanks.

  17. Dave, if we don’t get anywhere it’s because you’re avoiding answering my question. πŸ™‚

    Brett, you said earlier “All I can do is try to focus my thoughts in a particular direction. Maybe that is some form of free will but I prefer to call it just a bit of elbow room.” I’m just trying to figure out whether you believe in free will or not. I’m taking it that you don’t.

  18. Emotional needs are learnt are they not? and there are universal versions, (attempting to state without invoking the Nature/Nurture fraca).

    Can a person of purpose, with that kind of impetus, a drive to achieve, be it Captian Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd or Ghandi, be examples of Free Will??

  19. Dunno KC, I think most emotions come from our limbic system, the old reptilian part of the brain, and are pre-language. I’m guessing we are genetically coded to fear certain things, be attracted to certain things, be angered by certain things, etc, and they tie into Maslow.

    As for Watson (who?) and Ghandi, unless they had magic powers and were able to break the laws of physics and chemistry, I’d have to suggest that their thoughts were also 100% the subject of causality.

  20. Cameron, this is getting a bit tedious so last drinks mate.

    Ok, at one level, the every day, intuitive, common sense level, yep I do believe that I have a “sense” that I possess free will.
    Just like I have a “sense” that the flowers in my garden smell nice and I have a “sense” that the earth is flat.

    Of course, though knowledge and the application of reason I am also aware that at a deeper, non intuitive level these things are not so. The earth is round and smell is more a function of my mental processes than any quality my flowers posses.
    So the same thing goes for free will, the soul, etc, etc.

    My beliefs about reality are not the absolute bedrock beliefs that most people seem to posses. I prefer my reality to lay on far more soggy ground.
    I revel in the illusion of our shared intuitive reality, in fact I spend 99% of my life is in it, but the knowledge that it all just illusionary makes it seem that much more wondrous, and it is really quite liberating too.

    So, sorry Cameron if I haven’t answered your question fully, I am not an absolutist therefore my answers about such things will always seem vague and non committal to some.

    Cheers, and don’t forget to smell the roses πŸ˜‰

    BTW, I loved your Napoleon series and look forward to what ever you decide to do next. Except Castro.

  21. Tedious? LOL. I think it’s one of the most interesting discussions to have (apart perhaps Napoleon), but okay sir. Thanks for the detailed explanation. Sounds like we’re in agreement. And thanks for the plug on Napoleon. It’s not over yet fortunately. Castro won’t be next but I hope to do him soon. Caesar is next. Hope you enjoy that as well.

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