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But basically, large groupings of neurons have emergent properties that don't exist with individual or even small groups of neurons.

Emergent properties are not free will choices.  They are simply the end result of large numbers of like 'things' all following the same simple local rules.  Neurons in the brain seem to be exactly that. 

But when you have connected groups of neurons, each neuron is part of thousands of connections, and the neurotransmitters which tell the neurons to fire can cause different effects (different neurons, even different numbers of neurons) depending on the situation.
A neurotransmitter released at a synapse can cause the propagation of the action potential to the next nerve in line. That's it.  Nothing else. It can't cause 'different effects'.  It's fire or no fire.

Furthermore, neuron paths (and highways, collections of paths) are influenced by their neighbors. 
All of which are either firing, or not firing based on thousands of other nerves also firing and not firing.   

Here's another point.  Someone arguing the same way as you (I think it was JeffPT, but I'm not sure) said that we can only be influenced by our environment, that we can't influence ourselves.
That wasn't me, but I understand that statement in a certain context.  The reason we can't influence ourselves is because we ARE ourselves.  It's not me and my brain.  My brain IS me. 

It's been documented that the decisions we make influence how nerve pathways develop. 
But the decisions we make are based on the environment we are put in, the advice we're given, the experiences we have, etc, etc.  All of which we experience through the natural processes of nerves firing or not firing from various types of receptors that tie (first and foremost) directly to our senses.   

For example, someone with anxiety issues tends to react more strongly to problems that cause anxiety and thus reinforce the nerve pathways that caused the anxiety in the first place. 
Which can be explained in terms of slightly different neural development among different people. 

I don't think anyone is arguing that our neural pathways can't be changed.  I think that's a fact we can all agree upon.  But the factors that change the pathways are all naturally occurring and due to nerve firing patterns.   

Yet, they aren't deterministically locked into acting that way.  If they consciously decide to stop letting their anxiety get the better of them, then those nerve pathways atrophy and new ones develop that don't lead to increased anxiety.
But the new pathways that develop are still nerves, right? They aren't special nerves that fire differently.  Just new nerves, with a new framework, attaching to new areas. 

I'm also not so sure that it's as simple as you make it out to be to stop letting anxiety get the better of people.  I have an 11 year old son with a touch of social anxiety and I've told him about a million times to stop being so anxious, but I think I'd be better off praying for it at this rate. I'm sure he tells himself to stop being anxious and it's not doing anything.  I highly doubt you can tell yourself to stop being anxious and have that actually work.   If it were that simple, nobody would let anxiety get the better of them.  And even if it did work, it would take a long time to change that pattern, as it's probably been strengthened heavily in the past. 

We can change what we think about in the same general manner.  Naturally, other people giving that kind of feedback helps too.  But it's wrong to say that a person is locked into what their environment imposes on them.
What we are trying to say is that every thought we have, even the thought, "I'm not going to think about this anymore", or "I'm going to think about something else right now" is based on nerves firing in the brain in a complex fashion, which were the results of previous stimulus.  And those nerves were firing due to a stimulus previous to that.  And so on, and so on. 

If I suddenly tell myself to start thinking about something else, a bunch of things come into my mind.  All of those new things that enter my mind, however, are being put there by the same mind-numbingly complex web of nerves that told me to start thinking about something else in the first place.  Could something else have popped into my mind?  If our brains are anything like all the other matter in the universe, then no, not right then.  Just like water flowing down the hill had no choice but to flow the way it did.  Now can I think something else? Yes.  But not back then.  Whatever came into my mind was the only thing that could have popped into my mind at that time, given the universe as it currently is (barring quantum fluctuation that is).  I can't prove that, but it seems reasonable given the fact from all we can tell, the entire universe is a really long chain of cause and effect.   

These pathways interfere with each other - not through randomness, but simply by being interconnected with each other.  You can't isolate a couple of neurons, point to them, and say "this neuron leads to this neuron, which is deterministic, therefore the brain is deterministic, choice is an illusion, there's no such thing as a decision, and a person's life simply progresses down one predetermined line that can only be affected by random chance". 
But the reason we do that is because everything else in the universe behaves exactly like that.  You are saying that there is something special about us that makes us able to break from what all other matter does, and that 'something special' is emergent complexity.  That doesn't work though.  There is nothing about emergent complexity that leads to the notion that we somehow have free choice.  It COULD however, lead to the possibility that we have the illusion of free choice.  See my bee example below for clarification on what I mean by that. 

That is essentially what you're arguing, and it fails once you start seriously looking at the way the brain actually works and how large groups of neurons connect to each other.
I think your understanding of emergent properties might be a bit flawed here.  As an example with bee colonies, large groups of bees appear to make intelligent decisions about where to find the best flowers, but all it is is a lot of relatively unintelligent bees following the same local rules.  There is no intelligence there.  One or 2 bees don't know shit.  A few hundred thousand give the illusion that they're making intelligent decisions, but they're not.  They just appear to be.  The nerves within our brain could be much the same.  If that is the case, then 'decision making' and 'choice' could simply be the same type of illusion that intelligence in bee colonies is. 

You can't take ten billion neurons, assign them all arbitrary values, and then say "these neurons will always add up to this combined result with these values", because neurons don't combine to begin with, they connect.  The brain is more like a spiderweb than a chain, but a spiderweb that's constantly creating more connections within itself, constantly reinforcing and weakening those connections based on what happens to it, and that can provide feedback to itself, allowing it to change based on its own actions. 
Why can't you do that jaime?  Let me ask you... Does nerve 1 do anything but fire or not fire?  Does nerve 5?  Does nerve 523,423?  What about nerve 4,532,221?  They either fire or they don't.  And what makes them fire?  Stimulus makes them fire.  That stimulus can come from anywhere, but it all starts somewhere.  The nerves react to the stimulus.  When the brain makes more connections and lets others atrophy, they are doing so because they are following simple local rules.  Something to the effect of 'If this nerve never fires, let it atrophy.  If it fires a lot, strengthen connection'.  The new connections that form also follow the same simple rules.  They also fire or they don't fire.  They atrophy and strengthen just like the rest.  It can provide feedback to itself, but how does it do that?  By firing nerves.  And what makes nerves fire? Stimulus.  It's a cycle.   

Now, are you going to tell me that any of that is incorrect?  Or that despite all of those things, that the brain is still stuck on one path and one path only, unable to make choices and go elsewhere besides what's predestined for it?

Not all of it is incorrect, but the conclusion that we have free will is probably, unfortunately wrong.  Unless you can come up with how it breaks free of the same limitations as all other matter in the universe, then it seems the more realistic choice to say we don't have free will.  High numbers of nerves and complexity doesn't lead to free choice.  It leads to the illusion of free choice, but it is still all just matter and chemicals following simple rules.  Just like high numbers and complexity doesn't lead to intelligence in bees.  It leads to the illusion that the bees are intelligent, when they are really just following simple rules. 

Again I'm going to say that I don't want this to be true.  It's not what I 'feel' is true.  But it is what I think is true based on the fact that the stuff that makes me up is the same stuff that makes up everything else in the universe.  Just because I'm more complex and arranged this way, that doesn't mean that my matter is different.  My nerves fire or they don't.  And when they do, stuff happens.  When they don't, nothing happens.  When they fire a certain way, I bring food to my mouth.  Another way and I'm typing on a computer. Another way and I'm petting a stray cat.  All the result of nerves firing, not choices made beyond what my brain says to do. 
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screwtape good post January 06, 2013, 10:14:01 AM