Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Meaning III

It occurred to me a couple days ago ... "the meaning of life" could be answered in the same way as "the meaning of a sentence" -- i.e. whatever the author meant it to mean. the meaning of life? whatever we mean our lives to mean.

Simplistic perhaps. But liberating somehow.

Why do we passively wait to find a "meaning of life" outside ourselves. if we truly have free will (and my daily experience says I do) then the meaning of my life is whatever i want my life to mean.

This is not a theological statement. It's true with or without a God. Real question is "What do I want my life to mean?" and "how do i make it mean that?"


Unoriginal Observations said...

I definitely agree that meaning is largely what we want to make of it. We have the capacity to create worthwhile endeavors in this world, such as families, careers in fields that help others, etc. I think where that kind of breaks down is if the person desires to create something beyond this life, we don't have the capacity to create such a meaning, though we have the capacity to desire it.

sadunkal said...

I still prefer Vitavia.

My daily experience doesn't say anything that proves to me that I truly have a free will anyway. I don't really distinguish between someone who lives and someone who doesn't, when I look at it all scientifically. So as far as I'm concerned there is only one author; the nature. And nature shouldn't have a reason to care about what it "says" to itself(s). It doesn't have a single mind that builds or interprets sentences. Things just happen. Sentences just arise and disappear. Nothing remains, everything constantly changes.

That's how I think of it at least...

ungtss said...

UO: I think you're right -- when they talk about looking for the "meaning of life" they're not looking a "meaning of life" so much as a "meaning beyond life." That seems like an inevitably frustrating project somehow. Like living on an island and wanting to know what it's like to live at the bottom of the sea or in outer space. What good is that, really, until you're already there?

Sadun -- interesting point of view ... my experience tells me that although there is one nature, there are many different parts of nature, all of which are able to want, feel, and mean different things, and to mold themselves and nature with at least some degree of freedom.

Basketball, for instance. Nothing in "nature" is telling me whether to drive hard to the hole or drop a 3. It's my choice, based on my strategic choices and in response to my opponent. And if my opponent makes better choices than mine, he'll win.

I can't make choices that contradict the hard physical facts of reality (for instance, the fact that I'm white and therefore can't jump) -- but within the parameters of nature, i perceive some degree of autonomy to choose swiss or gouda on my sandwich ...

sadunkal said...

What do you think about things like these?:

Free Will & Neurology: brain activity to conscious decision

Can you watch YouTube videos from there? :)

ungtss said...

Ha! Yeah, they unblocked You Tube earlier this year thankfully:).

In my humble opinion, the data don't support the conclusion in the video. They notice that motor activity begins abour 20 milliseconds before the actual pressing of the key. But the click is not the moment of "decision." The click is the end result -- the action. The decision to click necessarily comes before the action.

The scientists have no way to determine the moment of decision. So instead, they are treating the moment of action as if it were the moment of decision, and noticing that some brain activity precedes the action. That doesn't so much impress me.

Seems to me the moment of decision is is right before the motor activity begins to run up.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there's some mysterious ghost inside of us pulling the strings on the neurons on our brain.

But I think that we have the ability to select among choices, and to create and organize our environment based on reason and desire that originate inside the organism itself -- and which the organism experiences as Choice. I can't think anything else, really -- I experience it every day and I've never seen anything to falsify it.

What about you -- what do you think?

sadunkal said...

I agree that the data presented in the video can't be considered sufficient proof for anything.

But for me the key question is this really: How can it even be possible for us to have a free will? What's the theory, what kind of mechanism can make it possible? It really seems like a supernatural concept to me. Your brain consists of atoms in the end, which should normally do nothing but obey the laws of the universe. So in order to justify the concept of free will scientifically, you have to provide a theory independent from these, which, as far as I'm concerned, leaves you with something not significantly different than "mysterious ghosts", in terms of rationality. What's your take on these points?

I can also recommend watching some Derren Brown videos to see how people's "choices" can easily be influenced by external factors and how predictable they can be.

ungtss said...

Thanks again for your thoughts ...

I don't think it's necessary to have a "theory or mechanism" to acknowledge the existence of a fact. For instance, we were able to recognize "gravity" long before we had any comprehensive theory for why objects behave as they do. In fact, we still don't really have a comprehensive theory for gravity ... just guesses that explain the facts.

But I don't let the absence of a mechanism keep me from believing what I see. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to acknowledge that gravity exists because I can't explain it.

Second, I don't think free will can be justified scientifically yet -- because we don't have the tools to test it experimentally. Of course, we don't have the tools to test determinism either, so I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that our tools are inadequate, not that either idea is wrong.

Third, I don't think that free will must necessarily be "free from atoms." That is a philosophical position called "incompatibilism" -- basically, the idea that free will and determinism are incompatible such that you cannot be both free and determined.

I am attracted to compatibilism, because I think when freedom is properly defined, it is compatible with determinism.

Freedom doesn't mean nothing in the world affects or determines your choices on an atomic level. Freedom means that you experience choice on a subjective level.

In other words, even if some unknown combination of atoms "causes" me to like grilled cheese sandwiches, I still experience the choice, daily, to choose what i want. I have no evidence or reason to believe that anything is forcing me to pick a particular sandwich. Whatever combination of molecules is "forcing" me to make a particular choice is completely unperceived by me or anybody else, and my selection of food remains unpredictable.

Now psychologists can mess with my choices -- for instance, making one sandwich moldy so I choose the other -- or making me sick on one sandwich so I choose the other the next time. But nobody is putting any chemicals in my head, or flipping any switches, to force me to choose one sandwich over the other. And that, to me, is freedom.

Even if those chemicals exist, I can't tell they're there. But choice? Choice I know is there because I experience it every day.

Anyways, that's my take on it. What do you think?

sadunkal said...

I don't have any problem with the second point. But your first point I consider irrelevant because gravity can be objectively observed, free will not so much.

But the important one is the third point. You imply that you can be "both free and determined". That is incompatible with my understanding of those two words in the physical sense. But you seem to be saying that what constitutes your "free will" is only your subjective experience anyway. In other words only the sense of choice seems to be what you consider freedom, independent from the source of the sense. Did I understand correctly?

If so, then what you're talking about is not "free will" in my understanding. It can be regarded as the illusion of it.

ungtss said...

Here's an article on compatibilism -- the idea that free will and determinism are compatible ...


Obviously there are a lot of different forms of compatibilism ... my personal leaning is to define free will as the perception of choice.

The key to compatibilism and incompatibilism is taking a hard look at what we mean by "free will" exactly.

On the observability of free will, I really think it is observed. If I ask my wife to choose going out to eat or staying home, I observe her choose. I don't know how or why she chooses, or what if anything determines the choice, but I observe a choice.

In the same way, I don't actually observe why objects fall -- nobody even knows. All we observe is objects falling at predictable rates ... and we call that phenomenon "gravity" and speculate about what might cause it. But nobody denies it happens.

Could the experience of choice be caused by chemicals? Maybe. But I still experience choice. And to me, that's what free will is.

Now the difference between perception and illusion is that illusion is demonstrably false.

But nobody has shown me how my perception of CHOOSING what I have for breakfast is an illusion, because nobody has shown me how it is determined by chemicals.

They might. In that case, I would agree it is illusion. In the meantime, though, it is my perception -- it is what I live with. And without any proof that my perception is wrong, I consider myself entitled to "trust my gut," so to speak.

Enjoying the dialogue as always my friend, and look forward to hearing more.

sadunkal said...

So if one day humans were to build robots who experience the perception of choice, would you then say that we built things with free will?

Would you concede that in that case the experience would indeed be an illusion? But then, why is your default assumption that it's not an illusion when it comes to humans? What about animals, insects, plants, bacteria? Where and how and why do you draw the line?

ungtss said...

Absolutely, I think if we created robots that perceived the ability to choose based on emotion, desire, strategy, and reason, we would have created beings with free will.

In fact, I think we humans are not much more than machines like that ... made out of carbon instead of solicon, and designed by our creator to choose and create freely.

I also think many animals perceive choice as well. Watching a dog, you can literally see them choosing and strategizing to achieve their goals at times. Bacteria? I don't know ... seems like they're primarily on automatic ... trees too. I don't see any opportunity or act of choice there ...

sadunkal said...

Very interesting. So your free will isn't necessarily truly free outside your perception. For me this kind of reduces the significance of it though. Why even care about free will if it doesn't necessarily make you more free than a machine?

And I suspect you might be alone in defining free will like that. Do you know of anyone else?

ungtss said...

I still care about free will as a perception, because we structure our lives and society around it. Believing my choices to be determined by chemicals and instincts does not help me make decisions. I have to reason to make decisions, and to reason, I have to be able to consider my choices, and select the option I prefer.

Similarly, in society, believing chemicals to be the determinants of people's behavior doesn't help me deal with people. I have to talk with them -- relate to them -- and treat them as having freedom. Even if they don't. Those chemicals are not useful to me in structuring my relationships.

And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying determinism is true -- I'm saying I don't know whether it's true, but whether or not it's true, I still have free will in every way that is significant and meaningful to the way I live and organize my life.

sadunkal said...

I understand. Interesting.

For me my former belief in a totally free will used to play a significant role in how I look at life because it defined who or what I am, added a feature that I put value on. It made my "self" something real. I was something. I.

I no longer care about that so much. Even if I were somehow convinced that I'm a soul or a spirit or whatever that may give way to a real free will, that wouldn't really change my significance I guess.

But I think whether or not we're free to make our own choices is significant when it comes to how we view the world and other humans. It doesn't make any sense to punish machines for doing "wrong" things for example. And there is also this talk about "No matter what we could've done he/she was going to do what he/she did anyway". "There is no way to change the human behavior" etc. etc.

I think knowing the truth about the free will (and perhaps accepting the probable truth in the mean time) would allow us to think more accurately about what is possible, what is rational, and what is not.

On the other hand though, Marshall Rosenberg, the guy behind the NVC thing I earlier mentioned, seems to believe in some sort of spiritual reality and emphasizes the aspect of choice and responsibility in his work. Yet he argues that human behavior is controlled by our needs and feelings. He doesn't go into it deeply enough to clarify where choice ends or begins, I find his position somewhat irrational but in the end his view is very similar to a non-believer's view of human nature. Which means that the lack of a belief in a totally free will is not necessary to acknowledge that humans aren't really all that free and that nobody should be punished for their behavior.

So yes.. hmm...

What do you think about concepts like "right", "wrong", "deserving", "punishment", "evil" etc..?

ungtss said...

I definitely agree that finding "personal value" in free will is not as significant as it seemed to me when I was younger ...

I'm not a big fan of punishment, but for a different reason -- I think it does not give enough credit to our free will. Typically, punishment is used in a pavlovian way -- like spanking a dog when it pees on the carper, so that it will associate the act with pain, and stop the pain.

But with people, I think this is shortsighted, because it fails to recognize exactly how free our will is. Humans are free to feel and to reason, and their feelings and reason drives them to action. When people make decisions that are contrary to their enlightened self-interest, it is because their feelings or reason have not been fully explored by them, understood, and evaluated.

For instance, a child who takes a toy from his sibling does so because he "wants" the toy, but also because he does not understand or care about the effect the taking has on the sibling, the effect it will have on the relationship, etc.

In punishing, we deny him the opportunity to truly come to understand what he is feeling, and to find more effective ways of acting on it. We treat him like a dog.

Similarly, if we conclude that a person commits rapes because his brain predisposes him to it, the rational decision is to lock him away, on the assumption that his actions are not driven by choices that he could conceivably change. Again, punishment does not give full credit to his ability -- and will -- to control his own behavior.