Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Q: Is free will tenable? A: No.

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From the introduction to Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (currently $1.99):


FROM SCOTLAND, FOR MORE THAN 125 YEARS, THE GIFFORD Lectures have been dispatched into the world owing to the behest and endowment of Adam Lord Gifford, a nineteenth-century Edinburgh advocate and judge with a passion for philosophy and natural theology. Under the terms of his will he directed these lectures to be given on the topic of natural theology with the stipulation that the subject be treated “as a strictly natural science” and “without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is. . . . [T]hey may freely discuss . . . all questions about man’s conceptions of God or the Infinite, their origin, nature, and truth, whether he can have any such conceptions, whether God is under any or what limitations, and so on, as I am persuaded that nothing but good can result from free discussion.” The lectures have focused on religion, science, and philosophy. If you have truly sampled the books that have flowed from them, you will quickly discover their bone-rattling quality. Some of the greatest minds of the Western world have delivered their ideas during the course of these lectures such as William James, Niels Bohr, and Alfred North Whitehead to mention a few. Many of the long list of participants have precipitated major intellectual battles; some have spelled out the vastness of the universe or decried the failure of the secular world to provide a hopeful message about the meaning of life, while others have flat out rejected theology—natural or otherwise—as a worthwhile topic for grown-ups to spend any time thinking about. Seemingly, everything has been said, and all of it is stated with such clarity and force that when the assignment fell to me to add my own perspective, I almost withdrew.

I think I’m like everyone who has read the many books that have come from those lectures. We all feel the tug of an insatiable desire to carry on the quest to know more about the situation in which we humans find ourselves. In a way, we are stupefied by our interest because we do now know a great deal about the physical world, and most of us believe the implications of our modern knowledge, even though we sometimes have a hard time accepting wholly scientific views. Thinking about these things is what a Gifford lecture is all about, and I found myself wanting to throw in my own two cents’ worth. Though submitting my own perspective in that forum is as scary as it is heady, I do want to show that all of the spectacular advances of science still leave us an unshakeable fact. We are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined universe.

We humans are big animals, clever and smart as we can be, and we frequently use our reasoning to a fault. And yet, we wonder, is that it? Are we just a fancier and more ingenious animal snorting around for our dinner? Sure, we are vastly more complicated than a bee. Although we both have automatic responses, we humans have cognition and beliefs of all kinds, and the possession of a belief trumps all the automatic biological process and hardware, honed by evolution, that got us to this place. Possession of a belief, though a false one, drove Othello to kill his beloved wife, and Sidney Carton to declare, as he voluntarily took his friend’s place at the guillotine, that it was a far, far better thing he did than he had ever done. Humans are the last word, even though we can feel occasionally pretty inconsequential as we look up at the billions of stars and universes within which we are situated. The question still haunts us, “Are we not part of a bigger scheme of meaning?” Conventional hard-earned wisdom from science and much of philosophy would have it that life has no meaning other than what we bring to it. It’s completely up to us, even though the gnawing question always follows as to whether or not that really is the way it is.

But now, some scientists and philosophers are even suggesting that what we bring to life is not up to us. Here are some truths of modern knowledge and their awkward implications. The physiochemical brain does enable the mind in some way we don’t understand and in so doing, it follows the physical laws of the universe just like other matter. Actually, when we think about it, we wouldn’t want it any other way. For instance, we wouldn’t want our actions, such as lifting our hand to our mouth, to result in a random movement: We want that ice cream in our mouth not on our forehead. Yet, there are those who say that because our brains follow the laws of the physical world, we all, in essence, are zombies, with no volition. The common assumption among scientists is that we know who and what we are only after the fact of nervous system action. Most of us, however, are so busy, we can’t take time out to think through or be burdened by such claims, and only a few of us succumb to existential despair. We want to do our jobs, get home to our wife or husband and kids, play poker, gossip, work, have a Scotch, laugh about things, and simply live. We seemingly don’t puzzle the meaning of life most of the time. We want to live life, not think about it.

And yet, a certain belief is palpably dominant in the intellectual community, and that belief is that we live in a completely determined universe. . .

Read more by buying the book. And I don’t know about you, but I am now definitely looking for books that are collections of Gifford Lectures from one series or another.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2015 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Books, Science

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