September 18, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

You Are Free to Read This

The question of free will tantalizes philosophers, because the mind-brain distinction is complex.

People Can Consciously Control Mental Activity Using Brain Scans (Live Science). Neurofeedback sessions show that people can learn to alter their brain scans with conscious effort.

Is Your ‘Self’ Just an Illusion? (Live Science): Robert Lawrence Kuhn likes to pose big questions to the experts he interviews. In this article he asks if we can know whether some other mind is running simulation software on our brains. A video clip shows him interviewing philosopher John Searle,  Colin McGinn, Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett about the question. Kuhn comes close to recognizing the self-refuting argument of Dennett:

“But more to the point, what makes you so sure there has to be an answer to these questions?” he continued. “The conviction that there has to be a single right answer is a leftover from metaphysical absolutism. And we should just dismiss it.

But, sorry Dan, I can’t just dismiss it. My sense of self — my inner feeling of personal identity and unity through time — seems so real.

Am I fooling myself?

He should have asked Dennett some follow-up questions. “Did you just make an absolute statement about metaphysical absolutism? Should we dismiss your opinion, too? Is your self telling my self what my self should do? Do I have the free will to do it?”

Where do memories live? (Medical Xpress): Memory is at the heart of the mind-body problem. We know that brain cells are involved, but how can such rich qualia be stored in electrical impulses and neurotransmitters? This article showcases the difficulty of identifying physical processes behind this important part of our sense of self. In a related story, Science Daily reports that “Brain connections are more sophisticated than thought.” The story involves excitation, inhibition, and proteins. Is that all there is to memory? Then what do we do when we choose to recall certain things? Who does the searching?

Genes are not destiny: environment and education still matter when it comes to intelligence (Kate Lynch on The Conversation): Lynch opinionizes about the relative influences of nature and nurture, ending with a directive: “There is more work to be done to uncover the environmental factors associated with genes,” she says. “But we should pay close attention, as this information can be used to create a fairer education system for all.” There’s that “should” word again. Can we obey her directive if we don’t have free will, but are the products of nature and nurture? Are we free to choose to create a fairer educational system? If not, why tell us to?

How do I know I exist? (New Scientist): In a metaphysics special for the magazine, Anil Ananthaswarmy tries to persuade readers that you can’t know that you exist. Well if not, there’s no sense reading the article, because Anil isn’t sure he exists either, and neither of us can know that the other exists.

Believing in free will makes you feel more like your true self (Elizabeth Seto on The Conversation): A psychologist at Texas A&M, Seto describes the free will debate, but doesn’t take sides. Instead, she gives a pragmatic argument. Believing in free will reinforces your sense of identity. It must have worked for her, because pragmatic or not, she believes it did.

The importance of feeling like you are in charge of your life applies to significant actions like moving or getting a new job or pondering the big questions in life. But it also applies to the minor decisions we make throughout the day….

So, do you have free will? Do any of us? Remember, the question isn’t whether it exists or not, but whether you believe it does.

Standing up for beliefs in face of group opposition is worth the effort, study shows (Science Daily): Like many psychological studies, this article assumes free will. How could anyone stand up for beliefs otherwise? People are not incapable of resisting group pressure. Cardiovascular measurements supported the conclusion that “When trying to reach a goal, evaluating high resources and low demands leads to a mostly positive, invigorating experience called challenge, which corresponds with feeling confident.”

Plans, Habits, and Theory of Mind (Gershman et al, PLoS One): This paper doesn’t solve free will. It just explores the relationship between planned behavior and habitual behavior.

Human success and even survival depends on our ability to predict what others will do by guessing what they are thinking. If I accelerate, will he yield? If I propose, will she accept? If I confess, will they forgive? Psychologists call this capacity “theory of mind.” According to current theories, we solve this problem by assuming that others are rational actors. That is, we assume that others design and execute efficient plans to achieve their goals, given their knowledge. But if this view is correct, then our theory of mind is startlingly incomplete. Human action is not always a product of rational planning, and we would be mistaken to always interpret others’ behaviors as such. A wealth of evidence indicates that we often act habitually—a form of behavioral control that depends not on rational planning, but rather on a history of reinforcement. We aim to test whether the human theory of mind includes a theory of habitual action and to assess when and how it is deployed. In a series of studies, we show that human theory of mind is sensitive to factors influencing the balance between habitual and planned behavior.

So are they in the habit of writing scientific papers for PLoS One? Are they assuming their readers are rational actors? To what extent were they themselves influenced by planned behavior when they set out to write? Their study involved assessing how humans assess moral behavior of others. We as readers, then, have every right to analyze the morality of their own writing. That is, we do unless we are all zombies in a giant simulation.

You have to assume free will to do science. You have to have a moral standard to do science. All human responsibility collapses if we cannot start from positions of free moral choice by rational actors. Unless you want to completely give up on science, you have to start there. Evolutionary materialism, however, is totally incapable of justifying rationality or morality. The only position able to justify eternal morality and personal responsibility is the Judeo-Christian worldview. This is explained well by Dr. Frank Turek* in his book, Stealing from God (NavPress, 2014). Check it out, or watch the well-known Christian apologetics lecturer on YouTube explain how science needs God.

Exercise: Apply what you learn from Turek’s video or book to another entry in New Scientist‘s Metaphysics Special, “Can we ever know if God exists?” (Note: this should be an easy exercise. Graham Lawton puts out one of the most asinine cases for atheism in recent memory. The editors should have found a better philosopher to make their case.)

*Frank must know. He told the editor he reads Creation-Evolution Headlines.

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  • rockyway says:

    Lynch gives us the typical passive consumer model of education. Anyone who wants to be educated [as opposed to credentialed] can be… as an almost endless supply of books are freely available at libraries and online. Once again a utopian ideal is used to critique the concrete… with the predictable result that people aren’t appreciative of what they have.

    – No one is prevented from getting an education or vocation. (e.g. a poor, adopted kid from Harlem named Thomas Sowell… one of the wisest writers I know of.) If you depend on the State for an education you will end up woefully ignorant about a lot of issues. e.g. anything to do with Origins.

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