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A possible experiment with apes

Here's a gedanken experiment aimed at determining whether apes (or other animals) have free will in the sense of this article. The criterion is whether they consider the consequences of alternate actions.

The ape can move a lever either to the left or the right. The lever causes a prize to be pushed off a shelf, either to the left or the right. The goody then hits a baffle and is deflected either to the ape in control of the lever or to a rival ape. On each trial, the baffle is set by the experimenter. The whole apparatus is visible to the ape, so it can see the consequences of each choice.

The free will involves the ape having two choices and being able to determine the consequences of each choice.

There is a possibility that the ape can win without determining the consequences of the possible actions. It may just learn a rule relating the position of the baffle and the action that will get the prize. Maybe we wouldn't be able to tell whether the ape predicted the consequences or not.

We can elaborate the experiment to obviate this difficulty. Let there be a sequence of (say) six baffles that are put in a randomly selected configuration by the experimenter or his program at each trial. Each baffle deflects the prize one way or the other according to how it is set. If the ape can mentally follow the prize as it would bounce from baffle to baffle, it will succeed. However, there are 64 combinations of baffle positions. If a training set of (say) 32 combinations permits the ape to do the remaining 32 without further trial and error, it would be reasonable to conclude that the ape can predict the effects of the successive bounces.

I hope someone who works with apes will try this or a similar experiment.

Frogs are simpler than apes. Suppose a frog sees two flies and can stick out its tongue to capture one or the other. My prejudice is that the frog doesn't consider the consequences of capturing each of the two flies but reacts directly to its sensory inputs. My prejudice might be refuted by a physiological experiment.

Suppose first that frogs can taste flies, i.e. when a frog has a fly in its mouth, an area of the frog's brain becomes active in a way that depends on the kind of fly. Suppose further that when a frog sees a fly, this area becomes active, perhaps weakly, in the same way as when the frog has the fly in its mouth. We can interpret this as the frog imagining the taste of the fly that it sees. Now further suppose that when the frog sees two flies, it successively imagines their tastes and chooses one or the other in a consistent way depending on the taste. If all this were demonstrated, I would give up my prejudice that frogs don't have SDFW.

next up previous
Next: Comparison with Dennett's ideas Up: SIMPLE DETERMINISTIC FREE WILL Previous: Praise and blame
John McCarthy