Harris: The Mystery of Consciousness

From Sam Harris, an overview of ideas about consciousness.

Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—all my memories are false; all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least).  This is all that is required for me (or any other conscious being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.⁠

A Buddhist Perspective On Free Will

B. Alan Wallace offers his take on the subject of Free Will (PDF).

He articulates a critical point about the age-old argument that I had been planing to make:

Normally when free will is posited somebody must have it, right? What Buddha found was a complete lack of evidence of any autonomous self that exists either among or apart from the aggregates, the components and processes of the body-mind. Nowhere in all of that mix, this nexus of causal interrelationship between the body-mind and environment, did the Buddha find any evidence for there being a separate self, something that is either to be found among the body-mind or apart from the body-mind. If there is no such independent self, then who could possibly possess a free will that operates independently of prior causes and conditions?

I think the Buddha’s finding was accurate.

This most likely concludes my posts on the topic of free will unless I find proof of an independent self.

In case it disappears, Wallace’s article is archived at natureofmind.net.

Sam Harris on Morality Without “Free Will”

An excellent argument.

In fact, the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others. Understanding this would alter our view of morality in some respects, but it wouldn’t destroy the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil.

. . .

A belief in free will underwrites both the religious notion of “sin” and our enduring commitment to retributive justice. The Supreme Court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our system of law, distinct from “a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system” (United States v. Grayson, 1978). Any scientific developments that threatened our notion of free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior in question.

Ads Implant False Memories

From The Frontal Cortex in Wired:

It turns out that vivid commercials are incredibly good at tricking the hippocampus (a center of long-term memory in the brain) into believing that the scene we just watched on television actually happened. And it happened to us.

A Class on Death

YALE PHIL 176 – Death with Professor Shelly Kagan

There is one thing I can be sure of: I am going to die. But what am I to make of that fact? This course will examine a number of issues that arise once we begin to reflect on our mortality. The possibility that death may not actually be the end is considered. Are we, in some sense, immortal? Would immortality be desirable? Also, a clearer notion of what it is to die is examined. What does it mean to say that a person has died? What kind of fact is that? And, finally, different attitudes to death are evaluated. Is death an evil? How? Why? Is suicide morally permissible? Is it rational? How should the knowledge that I am going to die affect the way I live my life?

Poor Arguments for Free Will

The New York Times article, Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice, makes arguments that are so bad, I’m surprised it got past the editors.

The author, John Tierney starts out by showing that there are proven benefits to believing in free will.

“[People] pragmatically intuit that regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it does. The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.”

Tierney expands on this and cites a number of other examples that accurately prove this irrelevant fact. The benefits of believing in an idea do not amount to evidence for its truth.

His second argument is that people have a default assumption across cultures and around the world that we do have free will.

“That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up, as experimental philosophers have discovered by querying adults in different cultures, including Hong Kong, India, Colombia and the United States. Whatever their cultural differences, people tend to reject the notion that they live in a deterministic world without free will”.

I, too, feel as though I have free will. But the related belief, no matter how broadly shared, does not constitute evidence that free will actually exists.

From Tierney’s concluding paragraph:

“Some scientists like to dismiss the intuitive belief in free will as an exercise in self-delusion — a simple-minded bit of “confabulation,” as Crick put it. But these supposed experts are deluding themselves if they think the question has been resolved. Free will hasn’t been disproved scientifically or philosophically.”

Perhaps it has not been disproved scientifically, but this is an argument from ignorance, a logical fallacy that suggests an argument must be true if it has not been proven false. It has, in fact, been philisophically proven false by Galen Strawson and others.

Tierney has suggested that we should believe in something because it’s good for us and makes intuitive sense. I think belief requires strong evidence or a solid argument for the truth of a position. Niether of  Tierney’s reasons can be considered strong or solid, and the publication of his article in the Times makes me wonder if there are any decent arguments at all for the existence of free will.

Buddhism and Neuroscience

Buddhism and The Brain, Seed Magazine:

Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing.

Searle vs. Kurzweil on A.I.

On Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines:

“I cannot recall reading a book in which there is such a huge gulf between the spectacular claims advanced and the weakness of the arguments given in their support.” — John Searle

In 1999, Mr. Searle wrote this review for the New York Review of Books. Much of it is hidden behind a pay-wall, but a pointed exchange about the review between Kurzweil and Searle is still available for free. The quote above comes from that exchange. In the time since his book and Searle’s subsequent review came out, Kurzweil may have improved his arguments, but probably not enough to overcome Searle’s objections.