Saturday, November 26, 2011


Willing Determination

Massimo Pigliucci has an antidote to Jerry Coyne's crude pronouncements on "free will" and determinism:

Perhaps surprisingly, there was quite a bit of agreement among panelists on several contentious points concerning discussions of free will. Here is a partial list:

* Neuroscience cannot actually establish the truth of determinism. At best, that's an area of competence of physics.

* Libet's classical experiments have done close to zero to show that we do not make conscious decisions. Indeed, good neurobiological evidence shows that conscious deliberation plays a primary role in some of our decision making processes.

* fMRI data are interesting, but they can only indirectly provide clues to discriminate among different hypotheses concerning human volition (a much better term than the hopelessly marred "free will").

* Nobody any longer seriously defends a notion of free will that relies on dualism or, a fortiori, even more metaphysically suspect concepts like souls. (Well, okay, some theologians do, but then again, astrologers still defend the idea of cosmic influences on our personality...)

An illuminating piece by Massimo Pigliucci, as is the article by Eddy Nahmias to which he linked. Their more nuanced concept of free will seems to me to be a much better account of what we personally experience than the much cruder model dismissed by the physical scientists.

The only problem I have is that I also find the concept of a block universe appealing as an account of how we experience space and time, yet, on the face of it, there are serious implications for any notion of free will.

If there is no way to privilege one person's present over that of any other, if George Washington's 'present' was no more or less valid than mine or yours, if the only difference between them is that, for Washington, the time between us was a mysterious future whereas, for us, it is known, recorded history, does that not imply that the unknown future that lies before us is also settled history to someone living 300 years in our future?

In other words, the history of the Universe is set and was set from the beginnning, quantum indeterminacy notwithstanding.

The nice thing about it is that all those people or companion animals who are no longer with us are still 'out there' in a real sense. If we were able to travel, what is for us, back in time we would find them there exactly where we had left them. At present, we know of no way to do it but I find it a slightly comforting thought.

The down side, of course, is that it seems to leave little room for free will,
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