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Thu Aug 2, 2012, 10:15 AM

Free Won’t

AT A RESTAURANT RECENTLY I faced many temptations: a heavy stout beer, a buttery escargot appetizer, a marbled steak, cheesecake. The neural networks in my brain that have evolved to produce the emotion of hunger for sweet and fatty foods, which in our ancestral environment were both rare and sustaining, were firing away to get me to make those selections. In competition were signals from other neural networks that have evolved to make me care about my future health, in particular how I view my body image for status among males and appeal to females and how sluggish I feel after a rich meal and the amount of exercise I will need to counter it. In the end, I ordered a light beer, salmon and a salad with vinaigrette dressing and split a mildly rich chocolate cake with my companion.

Was I free to make these choices? According to neuroscientist Sam Harris in his luminous new book Free Will (Free Press, 2012), I was not. “Free will is an illusion,” Harris writes. “Our wills are simply not of our own making.” Every step in the causal chain above is fully determined by forces and conditions not of my choosing, from my evolved taste preferences to my learned social status concerns—causal pathways laid down by my ancestors and parents, culture and society, peer groups and friends, mentors and teachers, and historical contingencies going all the way back to my birth and before.

Neuroscience supports this belief. The late physiologist Benjamin Libet noted in EEG readings of subjects engaged in a task requiring them to press a button when they felt like it that half a second before the decision was consciously made the brain’s motor cortex lit up. Research has extended the time between subcortical brain activation and conscious awareness to a full seven to 10 seconds. A new study found activity in a tiny clump of 256 neurons that enabled scientists to predict with 80 percent accuracy which choice a subject would make before the person himself knew. Very likely, just before I became consciously aware of my menu selections, part of my brain had already made those choices. “Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control,” Harris concludes. “We do not have the freedom we think we have.”

True enough. But if we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.

http://www.michaelshermer.com/2012/08/free-wont/

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Reply Free Won’t (Original post)
cleanhippie Aug 2012 OP
rrneck Aug 2012 #1
cleanhippie Aug 2012 #2
rrneck Aug 2012 #3
cleanhippie Aug 2012 #4
rrneck Aug 2012 #5

Response to cleanhippie (Original post)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 10:55 AM

1. Howzit there always seems to be

one expert or another willing to tell us that we are at the mercy of the subject of their particular area of esoteric expertise?

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Response to rrneck (Reply #1)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 11:15 AM

2. We are all experts at something.

Shermer just happens to be one in the field of neuroscience.

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Response to cleanhippie (Reply #2)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 11:38 AM

3. I was thinking about Harris.

I think he's got a PhD in Neuroscience and it reads like he's telling us we have no free will because of our biology. We should be thankful that we have such dedicated experts willing to help us understand the demands of Neuroscience. Brain chemistry truly works in mysterious ways...

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Response to rrneck (Reply #3)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 12:26 PM

4. Harris knows his stuff, too.

Have you read The Moral Landscape? Interesting read. Along the same lines as this.

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Response to cleanhippie (Reply #4)

Thu Aug 2, 2012, 12:54 PM

5. I'll check it out.

The best I've seen is Dennett's Elbow Room.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0262540428/ref=aw_d_detail?pd=1&qid=1343926126&sr=8-1

I tend to not trust people who seem to be trying to tell me what I want to hear, then follow it with a solution derived from esoteric expertise. Snake oil comes in all kinds of bottles.

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