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    Learning and Memory Bias Choices But Don't Preclude Free Will

    One common definition of "free will" is that a person can decide or choose among multiple alternatives without being forced by physical laws, luck, fate, or divine will. Most of us feel that there are situations where we are in charge of our choices and no outside force compels us to make a particular choice. But it is fashionable these days for scientists to insist that free will is an illusion. In fact, they claim, without evidence, that consciousness cannot do anything. It just observes a little of what the magnificent unconscious mind does. The possibility that conscious thought programs neural circuitry escapes their biased thinking.

    People who believe that humans have no free will are hard-pressed to explain why no one is responsible for their choices and actions. What is it that compels foolish or deviant behavior? Who or what compels us to accept one moral code over any other? Who or what compels us to believe in God or to be an atheist? Who or what compels us to become a certain kind of person, with no option to "improve" itself in any self-determined way? Learning experiences may bias our choices, but we are free to reject learning that does not serve us well. Wise people do that.

    Human brains make choices consciously and unconsciously by real-time evaluation of alternatives in terms of the anticipated usefulness of previous learning from other situations. This learning occurs in the context of the learned sense of self, which begins unconsciously in the womb, as neural connections construct a map of body parts. The conscious brain is aware that it is aware of choice processing and makes decisions in light of such understanding. When a given alternative choice is not forced, the conscious mind is aware that it is not obliged to accept any one choice but is "free" to select any one of the available options. We may be creative by consciously constructing other alternatives than the ones presented. Such realization might even guide many decisions at the subconscious level. In any case, neural networks weigh the probable value of each alternative and collectively reach a "decision" by inhibiting networks that lead to less-favored alternatives. Thus, network activity underlying the preferred choice prevails and leads to a selective willed action. What governs the network activity causing the final choice is the activity in other networks, which in turn is governed by stored memories and real-time processing of the current choice contingencies.

    What usually gets left out of free-will discussions is the question of how a brain establishes stored-memory preferences and how it evaluates current contingencies. These functions surely cause things to happen, but what is the cause of the cause? Any given brain can choose within certain limits of its learning experiences and stored memory. We govern those choices by what a brain has learned about the self-interest value associated with given contingencies. Brain circuitry assigns value, and values chosen are largely optional choices. The conscious brain directs the choices that govern value formation, reinforcement, and preservation in memory.

    Now we are confronted with explaining how neural circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) representing the sense of self can have a free will. First, I reason that each person's brain has a conscious Avatar that acts as an active agent to act in the world on embodied brain's behalf, as explained more completely in my recent book. This is reminiscent of the 3rd Century idea of a homunculus, a "little person" inside the brain. A modern view is that this homunculus exists in the form of mapped circuitry within a more global workspace.

    Certain maps are created under genetic control. These include the topographic map of the body in the sensory and motor cortices. Then there is the capacity for real-time construction of maps of the body location in space that resides in circuitry of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. Other maps are created from learning experience from the near-infinite circuit capacity of association cortex. What these maps learn is stored in memory as facilitated circuit synapses and deployed "on-line" in the form of CIP representations of what was originally learned. New learning likewise exists as CIP representations in network populations. Thus, what has been learned is stored as memories that can be accessed later in decision- and choice-making.

    The conscious Avatar itself is a constellation of certain CIPs representing the conscious-agent sense of self. Certainly, by definition, the Avatar can make choices and decisions. Avatar choices can be implemented unconsciously, because Avatar circuitry is embedded in the global workspace of unconscious mind. Wakefulness releases consciousness to make its own choices and decisions. Avatar processing is neither random nor inevitable, and presumably can occur with more degrees of freedom than found in unconscious mind. Avatar processing more likely progresses via non-linear chaotic dynamics than by linear deterministic processing.

    If the conscious Avatar exists as a set of CIPs, how can something as "impersonal" and physiological as that have any kind of "will," much less free will? Consider that the "virtual you" is your Avatar. Let us recall that "will" is little more than an intent that couples bodily actions to achieve the intent. This kind of thinking does also occur in the circuitry that controls unconscious minds. These circuits automatically generate actions in response to conditions that call for a response. Such actions are stereotyped and inflexible, but not when there is conscious regulation.

    Each choice alternative is represented as circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) within a group of neurons. Each group's activity interacts with the others―and with the CIP representation of the conscious Avatar. The Avatar CIP is poised to influence activity in the alternative sub-populations and thus can help direct the final processing result.

    The Avatar must have some criteria to bias a given option. Those criteria have been learned and remembered. The Avatar CIP activity can modulate the alternative-choice representations in the context of self-awareness according to past learning and value assessments of current contingencies. The existence of bias does argue for determinism at this stage of choice making, but the bias could have been created earlier by conscious free-will reasoning and value assessments.

    While it is true that genetics and experience help program the Avatar circuitry, the Avatar does its own non-linear processing and makes choices about who to interact with and what experiences to value, promote, and allow. The Avatar can insist that it has a need to remember some lessons of experience and makes it a point to remember them. In short, the Avatar gets to help shape what it becomes.

    It seems to this Avatar that current debates about determinism and free will tend to obscure the important matters of our humanness. Free will debates distract us from a proper framing of the issues about human choices and personal responsibility.


    Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.
    Klemm, W. R. (2016). Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New York: Academic Press.

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