Philosophers and neuroscientists join forces to see whether science can solve the mystery of free will | Science

Philosophers have spent millennia debating whether we have free will, without reaching a conclusive answer. Neuroscientists optimistically entered the field in the 1980s, armed with tools they were confident could reveal the origin of actions in the brain. Three decades later, they have reached the same conclusion as the philosophers: Free will is complicated.

Now, a new research program spanning 17 universities and backed by more than $7 million from two private foundations hopes to break out the impasse by bringing neuroscientists and philosophers together. The collaboration, the researchers say, can help them tackle two important questions: What does it take to have free will? And whatever that is, do we have it?

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/03/philosophers-and-neuroscientists-join-forces-see-whether-science-can-solve-mystery-free

The Free Will Pill | Philosophy Now

If we found out next week that neuroscientists had conclusively demonstrated that free will does not exist and that our so-called ‘choices’ are purely the result of automatic brain functions, I think we would be right to take this news badly. But imagine further that, as we continue to develop new ways to alter human brain chemistry and so on, we found a way to design a ‘free will pill’ – something like Prozac or Adderall – which alters our brains so that we can act freely.

It turns out that some recent work on free will makes this speculation more plausible than you might think. And this brings up all sorts of bizarre questions, such as whether we can freely choose to take a free will drug; whether we should take a free will drug; and what kind of effects such a drug would have on us, individually and socially.

https://philosophynow.org/issues/130/The_Free_Will_Pill

The Lure of Luxury | Paul Bloom

Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a Prada handbag, an Armani suit, or a Rolex watch? If you really need to know the time, buy a cheap Timex or just look at your phone and send the money you have saved to Oxfam. Certain consumer behaviors seem irrational, wasteful, even evil. What drives people to possess so much more than they need?

Maybe they have good taste. In her wonderful 2003 book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel argues that our reaction to many consumer items is “immediate, perceptual, and emotional.” We want these things because of the pleasure we get from looking at and interacting with high-quality products—and there is nothing wrong with this. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life,” she writes. “They are part of it.”

Postrel is pushing back against a more cynical theory held by many sociologists, economists, and evolutionary theorists. Building from the insights of Thorstein Veblen, they argue that we buy such things as status symbols. Though we are often unaware of it and might angrily deny it, we are driven to accumulate ostentatious goods to impress others. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives this theory an adaptationist twist, arguing that the hunger for these luxury goods is a modern expression of the evolved desire to signal attractive traits—such as intelligence, ambition, and power—to entice mates: Charles Darwin’s sexual selection meets Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.

http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-lure-luxury

Our Language Affects What We See | Scientific American

Does the language you speak influence how you think? This is the question behind the famous linguistic relativity hypothesis, that the grammar or vocabulary of a language imposes on its speakers a particular way of thinking about the world. 

The strongest form of the hypothesis is that language determines thought. This version has been rejected by most scholars. A weak form is now thought to be obviously true, which is that if one language has a specific vocabulary item for a concept but another language does not, then speaking about the concept may happen more frequently or more easily. For example, if someone explained to you, an English speaker, the meaning for the German term Schadenfreude, you could recognize the concept, but you may not have used the concept as regularly as a comparable German speaker.   

Scholars are now interested in whether having a vocabulary item for a concept influences thought in domains far from language, such as visual perception. Consider the case of the "Russian blues." While English has a single word for blue, Russian has two words, goluboy for light blue and siniy for dark blue. These are considered "basic level" terms, like green and purple, since no adjective is needed to distinguish them. Lera Boroditsky and her colleagues displayed two shades of blue on a computer screen and asked Russian speakers to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the two blue colors were different from each other or the same as each other. The fastest discriminations were when the displayed colors were goluboy and siniy, rather than two shades of goluboy or two shades of siniy. The reaction time advantage for lexically distinct blue colors was strongest when the blue hues were perceptually similar.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/our-language-affects-what-we-see/

An Elephant’s Personhood on Trial | The Atlantic

Forty-seven years ago, the Asian elephant now known as Happy was one of seven calves captured—probably in Thailand, but details are hazy—and sent to the United States. She spent five years at a safari park in Florida, time that in the wild would have been spent by her mother’s side. Then she was moved to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. There Happy remains today, and since the death of an elephant companion in 2006, she has lived alone, her days alternating between a 1.15-acre yard and an indoor stall.

For a member of a species renowned for both intelligence and sociality, the setting is far from natural. In the wild, Happy would share a many-square-mile home range with a lifelong extended family, their bonds so close-knit that witnessing death produces symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder in humans. It would seem that Happy, despite the devotions of the people who care for her, is not living her best life.

In considering Happy’s circumstances and what might be done to improve them, should something more than animal-welfare laws and zoo regulations—which the Bronx Zoo has not violated, but arguably are inadequate—be invoked? Should Happy be considered, in legal terms, a person? Which is to say, an entity capable of possessing at least some rights historically reserved for humans alone—beginning with a right to be free?

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/12/happy-elephant-personhood/578818/

Is quantum physics behind your brain's ability to think? | New Scientist

MATTHEW FISHER was wary of how his peers would react to his latest project. In the end he was relieved he wasn’t laughed out of court. “They told me that this is sensible science – I’m not crazy.”

Certainly nothing in Fisher’s CV says crazy. A specialist in the quantum properties of materials, he worked at IBM and then at Microsoft’s Research Station Q developing quantum computers. He is now a professor at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California Santa Barbara. This year he won a share of the American Physical Society’s Oliver E. Buckley prize in condensed matter physics, many recipients of which have gone on to win a Nobel.

The thing was, he had broached a subject many physicists would rather simply avoid.

“Does the brain use quantum mechanics? That’s a perfectly legitimate question,” says Fisher. On one level, he is right – and the answer is yes. The brain is composed of atoms, and atoms follow the laws of quantum physics. But Fisher is really asking whether the strange properties of quantum objects – being in two places at once, seeming to instantly influence each other over distance and so on – could explain still-perplexing aspects of human cognition. And that, it turns out, is a very contentious question indeed.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830500-300-is-quantum-physics-behind-your-brains-ability-to-think/

The Emergence of First-Order Logic (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

New Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the emergence of first-order logic by William Ewald:

For anybody schooled in modern logic, first-order logic can seem an entirely natural object of study, and its discovery inevitable. It is semantically complete; it is adequate to the axiomatization of all ordinary mathematics; and Lindström’s theorem shows that it is the maximal logic satisfying the compactness and Löwenheim-Skolem properties. So it is not surprising that first-order logic has long been regarded as the “right” logic for investigations into the foundations of mathematics. It occupies the central place in modern textbooks of mathematical logic, with other systems relegated to the sidelines. The history, however, is anything but straightforward, and is certainly not a matter of a sudden discovery by a single researcher. The emergence is bound up with technical discoveries, with differing conceptions of what constitutes logic, with different programs of mathematical research, and with philosophical and conceptual reflection. So if first-order logic is “natural”, it is natural only in retrospect. The story is intricate, and at points contested; the following entry can only provide an overview.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-firstorder-emergence/

Believing without evidence is always morally wrong | Aeon Ideas

[…] What we believe is then of tremendous practical importance. False beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival. If the singer R Kelly genuinely believed the words of his song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (1996), I can guarantee you he would not be around by now.

But it is not only our own self-preservation that is at stake here. As social animals, our agency impacts on those around us, and improper believing puts our fellow humans at risk. As Clifford warns: ‘We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to …’ In short, sloppy practices of belief-formation are ethically wrong because – as social beings – when we believe something, the stakes are very high.

https://aeon.co/ideas/believing-without-evidence-is-always-morally-wrong

If elephants aren’t persons yet, could they be one day? | Aeon Essays

Have you ever stood in a field full of cows? It’s obvious that they’re aware of one another, but in a minimal kind of way. They tend to stay loosely clumped together as they graze, and they don’t deliberately knock into other members of the herd. Shouting gets their attention, but it tends to elicit a flickering inspection at most, which subsides into cud-munching indifference when they realise you represent neither a threat nor a treat. Cows don’t gauge how to respond to sights, sounds and smells by carefully studying the subtleties of one another’s reactions (which is why they can startle each other into stampeding). When you’re with a herd of cows, you’re basically alone. 

Stand or walk among a herd of elephants, however, and you’ll appreciate how different the experience is. Even the most peaceful group feels electric with communicative action. There’s continuous eye contact, touching, trunk and ear movements to which others attend and respond. Elephants engage in low-frequency vocalisation, most of which you can’t hear, but you can certainly see its effects. If you’re fidgety, for example, all the adult elephants will notice and become uneasy. Typically they take their cues from their female leader, the matriarch. When you’re with a herd of elephants, you’re not alone at all; you’re in a highly charged atmosphere, shimmering with presence and feeling. To an outside observer, elephants appear to have highly responsive minds, with their own autonomous perspectives that yield only to careful, respectful interaction.

https://aeon.co/essays/if-elephants-arent-persons-yet-could-they-be-one-day

In matters of morality, self-driving cars face a cultural obstacle course - The Globe and Mail

A self-driving car is speeding down a busy road when suddenly a group of pedestrians appears in its path. The car has a split-second to decide between two horrific options. Should it plow down the unwitting pedestrians or swerve into a concrete barrier with the likelihood that occupants in the car may be killed?

What if the pedestrian is a woman with a stroller? Does that change the moral calculus? Or what if the occupants of the car are mostly young children while the pedestrian is a single jaywalker breaking the law? Or an elderly man, possibly disoriented?

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/technology/science/article-in-matters-of-morality-self-driving-cars-face-a-cultural-obstacle/

“My-side bias” makes it difficult for us to see the logic in arguments we disagree with – Research Digest

In what feels like an increasingly polarised world, trying to convince the “other side” to see things differently often feels futile. Psychology has done a great job outlining some of the reasons why, including showing that, regardless of political leanings, most people are highly motivated to protect their existing views.

However a problem with some of this research is that it is very difficult to concoct opposing real-life arguments of equal validity, so as to make a fair comparison of people’s treatment of arguments they agree and disagree with.

To get around this problem, an elegant new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has tested people’s ability to assess the logic of formal arguments (syllogisms) structured in the exact same way, but that featured wording that either confirmed or contradicted their existing views on abortion. The results provide a striking demonstration of how our powers of reasoning are corrupted by our prior attitudes.

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/10/09/my-side-bias-makes-it-difficult-for-us-to-see-the-logic-in-arguments-we-disagree-with/

On free will: Daniel Dennett and Gregg Caruso go head to head | Aeon Essays

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?  

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

https://aeon.co/essays/on-free-will-daniel-dennett-and-gregg-caruso-go-head-to-head

Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism Is Unpopular - The Atlantic

Imagine you’re the president of a European country. You’re slated to take in 50,000 refugees from the Middle East this year. Most of them are very religious, while most of your population is very secular. You want to integrate the newcomers seamlessly, minimizing the risk of economic malaise or violence, but you have limited resources. One of your advisers tells you to invest in the refugees’ education; another says providing jobs is the key; yet another insists the most important thing is giving the youth opportunities to socialize with local kids. What do you do? 

Well, you make your best guess and hope the policy you chose works out. But it might not. Even a policy that yielded great results in another place or time may fail miserably in your particular country under its present circumstances. If that happens, you might find yourself wishing you could hit a giant reset button and run the whole experiment over again, this time choosing a different policy. But of course, you can’t experiment like that, not with real people.

You can, however, experiment like that with virtual people. And that’s exactly what the Modeling Religion Project does. An international team of computer scientists, philosophers, religion scholars, and others are collaborating to build computer models that they populate with thousands of virtual people, or “agents.” As the agents interact with each other and with shifting conditions in their artificial environment, their attributes and beliefs—levels of economic security, of education, of religiosity, and so on—can change. At the outset, the researchers program the agents to mimic the attributes and beliefs of a real country’s population using survey data from that country. They also “train” the model on a set of empirically validated social-science rules about how humans tend to interact under various pressures.

And then they experiment: Add in 50,000 newcomers, say, and invest heavily in education. How does the artificial society change? The model tells you. Don’t like it? Just hit that reset button and try a different policy.

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/07/artificial-intelligence-religion-atheism/565076/

Postmodernism vs. The Pomoid Cluster - Areo

Since I’ve been active on Twitter, I’ve had front row seats to the best intellectual slapfights no money can buy. It’s been uniquely interesting and yet frustrating. What’s hot right now in my bubble and its warzone-laden borderlands is “postmodernism.” The arguments usually start with tweets complaining about the latest social justice-related spat and using the word “postmodernism” or the phrases “postmodernist neo-Marxism” or even “cultural Marxism.” (These all mean the same thing, with slight differences in emphasis: “postmodernism” often focuses on a hostility to objectivity; “cultural Marxism” describes collectivist, conflict-based politics; “postmodern neo-Marxism” is the whole package.) Then other people criticize or mock the tweeters for not understanding what postmodernism is. Unproductive discussion results.

This bothers me for two reasons. One is erisological—this is a typical case of dysfunctional disagreement, i.e. a disagreement is fuelled by at least one party’s intentional or unintentional misunderstanding of either the other party’s position or the nature of their differences. The other is that I hate seeing arguments I’m fundamentally sympathetic to presented in a weak form.

I truly am sympathetic to those who complain about “postmodernism.” But I’ve spent too much time and effort learning to recognize disagreement patterns not to notice when “my side” is engaging in dodgy argumentation. Part of this is integrity (I hope), but another part is recognition of a tactical mistake: the sloppy use of terms like “postmodernism” or academically strange hybrids like “postmodern neo-Marxism” gives people an excuse to reject what you say. It’s good argumentation tactics to avoid making points which leave you vulnerable to criticism for trivial reasons, e.g. using a term in a way that suggests you don’t know what you’re talking about. Using technical terms in non-technical senses makes those in the know think exactly that and reject otherwise reasonable points

https://areomagazine.com/2018/06/30/postmodernism-vs-the-pomo-oid-cluster/

Psychology’s trolley problem might have a problem.

[...] For all this method’s enduring popularity, few have bothered to examine how it might relate to real-life moral judgments. Would your answers to a set of trolley hypotheticals correspond with what you’d do if, say, a deadly train were really coming down the tracks, and you really did have the means to change its course? In November 2016, though, Dries Bostyn, a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Ghent, ran what may have been the first-ever real-life version of a trolley-problem study in the lab. In place of railroad tracks and human victims, he used an electroschock machine and a colony of mice—and the question was no longer hypothetical: Would students press a button to zap a living, breathing mouse, so as to spare five other living, breathing mice from feeling pain?

“I think almost everyone within this field has considered running this experiment in real life, but for some reason no one ever got around to it,” Bostyn says. He published his own results last month: People’s thoughts about imaginary trolleys and other sacrificial hypotheticals did not predict their actions with the mice, he found.

It’s a discomfiting result, and one that seems—at least at first—to throw a boulder into the path of this research. Scientists have been using a set of cheap-and-easy mental probes (Would you hit the railroad switch?) to capture moral judgment. But if the answers to those questions don’t connect to real behavior, then where, exactly, have these trolley problems taken us?

https://slate.com/technology/2018/06/psychologys-trolley-problem-might-have-a-problem.html

Friedrich Nietzsche: The truth is terrible – TheTLS

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) pursued two main themes in his work, one now familiar, even commonplace in modernity, the other still under-appreciated, often ignored.  The familiar Nietzsche is the “existentialist”, who diagnoses the most profound cultural fact about modernity: “the death of God”, or more exactly, the collapse of the possibility of reasonable belief in God. Belief in God – in transcendent meaning or purpose, dictated by a supernatural being – is now incredible, usurped by naturalistic explanations of the evolution of species, the behaviour of matter in motion, the unconscious causes of human behaviours and attitudes, indeed, by explanations of how such a bizarre belief arose in the first place. But without God or transcendent purpose, how can we withstand the terrible truths about our existence, namely, its inevitable suffering and disappointment, followed by death and the abyss of nothingness?

Nietzsche the “existentialist” exists in tandem with an “illiberal” Nietzsche, one who sees the collapse of theism and divine teleology as tied fundamentally to the untenability of the entire moral world view of post-Christian modernity. If there is no God who deems each human to be of equal worth or possessed with an immortal soul beloved by God, then why think we all deserve equal moral consideration?  And what if, as Nietzsche argues, a morality of equality – and altruism and pity for suffering – were, in fact, an obstacle to human excellence? What if being a “moral” person makes it impossible to be Beethoven? Nietzsche’s conclusion is clear: if moral equality is an obstacle to human excellence, then so much the worse for moral equality. This is the less familiar and often shockingly anti-egalitarian Nietzsche.

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/friedrich-nietzsche-truth-terrible/

How philosophy helped one soldier on the battlefield | Aeon Essays

When I attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2002-3, the leadership training was excellent. It included discussion of the British Army’s values and the laws of armed conflict. However, I received no ethics training for the occasions when neither values nor laws would fully prepare me to make complex moral decisions in faraway fields populated by people with very different cultural norms. 

The then prime minister Tony Blair spoke at our pass-out parade just weeks after the invasion of Iraq. Dignitaries usually stop at every third or fourth person on parade to have a few words. Blair stopped at what seemed like every single officer cadet to speak, no doubt driven by good motivation, but inadvertently causing great pain for all on parade who had to stand there much longer than normal. He asked me what I would be doing in the Army. I told him I would be in intelligence. He said: ‘You will be busy.’ And he was right.

https://aeon.co/essays/how-philosophy-helped-one-soldier-on-the-battlefield

How Much Pain Should Animals Endure for Science? - The Atlantic

Each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 820,800 guinea pigs, dogs, cats, and other animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act are used in research in the United States; of those, about 71,370 are subjected to unalleviated pain. These stats don’t track the millions of mice and rats that are used in lab experiments and excluded from the animal protection law (although the rodents are covered by other federal regulations). Scientists and their institutions say they’re committed to keeping pain or distress to a minimum in lab animals where they can. But how do you know how much pain a mouse or a zebrafish feels? And who decides how much pain is too much?

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/06/how-much-pain-should-animals-endure-for-science/562268/

The relentless honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein | Ian Ground

If you ask philosophers – those in the English speaking analytic tradition anyway – who is the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, they will most likely name Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the chances are that if you ask them exactly why he was so important, they will be unable to tell you. Moreover, in their own philosophical practice it will be rare, certainly these days, that they mention him or his work. Indeed, they may very fluently introduce positions, against which Wittgenstein launched powerful arguments: the very arguments which, by general agreement, make him such an important philosopher. Contemporary philosophers don’t argue with Wittgenstein. Rather they bypass him. Wittgenstein has a deeply ambivalent status – he has authority, but not influence.

For the more general reader, Wittgenstein’s status in contemporary philosophy will be puzzling. The general view is that Wittgenstein is surely the very model of a great philosopher. The perception is that he is difficult, obscure and intense, severe and mystical, charismatic and strange, driven and tragic, with his charisma and difficulty bound up with his character and his life. Wittgenstein saw philosophy not just as a vocation, but as a way of life he had to lead. This is perhaps why writers and artists have found him an object of fascination and inspiration. He is the subject of novels, poetry, plays, painting, music, sculpture and films. In the arts and the culture generally, Wittgenstein seems to be what a philosopher ought to be.

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/ludwig-wittgenstein-honesty-ground