Friday, April 24, 2009

Scientists zero in, but is choice a supernatural concept?

It seems scientists have pinpointed the part of the brain responsible for "self control." The article is a bit dense for the layperson, but ends with this observation:
"Imagine how much better life could be if we knew how to flex the willpower muscles in the brain and strengthen them with exercises," says Camerer.

Of course, this reminded me at once of a great article on Free Will in the New York times. Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania is quoted:
...every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. "Both are bad news for free will," he said. So if human actions can't be caused and aren't random, he said, "It must be — what — some weird magical power?"
The article immediately proceeds to investigate the various physicalist interpretations of what choice must then be. None of this is "wrong" in the sense that wherever they end up, those processes ARE happening.

But with these advances, ironically, an entirely parallel question seems ever more pressing: is our experience of choice - our insistence that we do have freewill - an experience of something outside the physical? Is choice a supernatural concept?

Think of just two common aphorisms we generally accept without controversy:
1. "No one makes you do anything" - in other words, you ARE able to overcome the environment, the sum total of inputs into your brain. You are not deterministic. Cause and effect stops when you decide to act. Human actions are not "caused."
2. "Judge someone by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin" - in other words, physical factors such as biology and genetics are irrelevant compared to the sum total of the choices we make, by our "character." This supposes that our choices, our "character" is not the inexorable result of biology, physics, environment. Neither is it random. We are each responsible for it, and to be judged by it, by the character WE develop in ourselves.

Consider the time in which we live, the pervasive language of President Obama; "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time." WE are the cause (if we so choose), not the effect. Something similar can be found at the heart of just about every political cause right and left.

Even scientists, hardly known for advocating the spiritual, constantly admonish us to change our attitudes, on everything from the environment to our economic habits. Termites and bees? They're just doing what they do. Invasive species? They spread because they are hardwired to do so. It's pointless to blame them. But not us. WE have a choice, we must act now, we can choose to stop emitting greenhouse gases, to stop our expansion and development into pristine areas, to limit our use of natural resources. All those physical forces that shaped the universe, the Sun, planet Earth, and countless species, they all seem to stop when it comes to us. With us, it's neither nature nor nurture any more. We have a choice. We can be held responsible.

So, are these avowed secularists claiming that if you get enough atoms together in the right combination (i.e. our brain) that these atoms can suddenly disregard cause and effect, or random quantum probabilities, and all the other physical laws that dictates what all the other species do, what all the other atoms in the universe do? I doubt it. So then, what is it?

And even if we accept that our thoughts and choices are constrained by physical laws and the environment around us, if we hold ANY belief that our choices are neither deterministic, nor random then again we have to ask what are they - some "weird magical power?"

And if WE have this experience, why would it only exist in us?

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