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What future is there for free will?

By Robert Ireland (China Daily) Updated: 2016-02-22 08:09

I became fascinated by the peculiarity of human behavior after reading a book about hypnotism many years ago. One anecdote described a post-hypnotic suggestion given to a hypnotized subject. The subject was told that after being awakened, his therapist would rise and look at his watch, and at that moment the subject would leap out of his chair, remove his jacket, and fling it across the room. The subject, after being awakened and having carried out the post-hypnotic suggestion, when asked why he had committed such an irrational outburst, provided a plausible, rational narrative; having no recollection of the therapist's earlier suggestion.

Our motivations are programmed by our long histories of hopes, fears, goals, expectations of others and no small amount of self-deception. This is the programming that shapes self-image and the prospects for life's success.

Free will is generally viewed as the most cherished freedom of all, yet it's a concept increasingly challenged by science.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, published in 1971, dismissed freedom and personal autonomy as impediments to social growth. He proposed the concept of "cultural engineering". Infants would learn through conditioning from direct interaction with the environment in ways that yielded rewards and promoted a healthier society.

Just over a decade later, researchers studying brain waves discovered that when people make decisions, their final choice is made even before the subject is conscious of it, through complex unconscious programming.

What future is there for free will?

Last month, neuroscientists, led by J.D. Haynes at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, offered evidence offering some small hope for free will. Test subjects played computer games. Their brain waves were interpreted by artificial intelligence to anticipate the subjects' "next play" and counter it. The research revealed that most choices are indeed programmed from past experience - but the subjects had a short interval, when they could overrule their internal programming and exercise limited free will.

What does the future hold for our imperfect human brains? Ray Kurzweil, an inventor, futurist and director of engineering at Google, argues technology does offer a solution. It's more benign than the scary robot attacks of the not-too-distant future that many are beginning to fear. Kurzweil foresees, by the end of the century, the evolution of a technological, nonbiological brain, replacing the "gray matter" of the human brain of 2016 and a trillion (sic) times smarter.

It's already starting. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, announced plans this month to develop an implantable chip, as an interface between the human brain and computers. It seems as if German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may have possessed clear sight into the future, when he declared: "I teach you the Overman! Mankind is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome mankind?" The question remains, will we still be slaves to our programming when Nietzsche's goal is realized, and will we still be human?

A 40-year-old man in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang province who claimed to be a poet who was climbing the barren mountain in search of creative inspiration, somehow became stranded on a cliff on Thursday.

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