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With your feet in the air, and your head on the ground . . .


{Wednesday, January 18, 2006}

My friend Patrick sent me a link to this essay by Tom Wolfe:

Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died

Wolfe writes (from a somewhat quaint, 1996 perspective) about the nativist revolution in science, and how neuroimaging will inevitably lead to the "death of the soul" - a poetic expression (referencing Nietzsche's "God is dead") referring to the annihilation of our belief in the concepts of free-will and the autonomous self. I call his perspective quaint not because I think he's wrong, but because it seems so passe, and obvious. To me. Because I think I came to the same conclusion in around 1991, when I was 13 years old, and not on the basis of any proof from neuroimaging, but simply inferential reasoning from a materialist, determinist starting point. That sounds kind of like bragging, and ok, yeah, it is to some extent a point of pride. The larger point is simply that I probably have an atypical perspective; probably a reasonable approximation to 100% of people on earth believe that they "have free will" in a fundamental sense, or would if they stopped to think about it for a minute.

I think there's still obviously some confusion surrounding this issue, even at the highest levels of academe. For instance, I think nativism is almost entirely beside the point, when it comes to the question of psychological determinism; from an external perspective, "whether" your life is determined by your genes or your social interactions (the quotes meant to express my disdain for this obviously idiotic dichotomy) isn't much relevant to the question of whether it's determined. And yet, though lip service is paid universally to the falsity of this dichotomy, the debate rages on. (Some) scientists frame their results in essentially nativist terms, and portray themselves as leading a righteous army in search of truth against the enemies of political correctness and behaviorism. Others still take the other side, and persist in portraying the nativists as a band of destructive, corruptive -ists. It's all bunk.

Look, I'll break it down for you:

No, you don't fundamentally have any such thing as free will. The universe is deterministic, and materialistic, and your life is both entirely pre-determined and insignificant. But it won't do you much good to sit and dwell on it. More importantly, these truths only really hold - are only really relevant - from an external perspective. From your perspective - as you perceive the world - yes, you do have free will. Why? Because of the definition of YOU. YOU are this collection of atoms, molecules, and (at the most relevant level of analysis) neurons, and more importantly their connections & patterns of activity. So, from an external perspective, when you do something it's "because" of a certain pattern of activity in these neurons. But that pattern of activity IS YOU, so from your perspective, it's entirely reasonable to take the perspective that YOU have made a decision / executed some motor function / whatever. So if we go with this definition of "decision", yes, if YOU DECIDE to drink a bottle of robitussin and sit on the floor all day, you'll do just that (and probably feel lousy about yourself later on) and conversely if YOU DECIDE to read a book, have sex, start a business, etc, you'll do that (and feel pretty good about it, at one point or another. So, as Obi Wan Kenobi said in "Trainspotting", Choose Life.

That's what's important.

But what resonated most with me, in Wolfe's essay, was the final section, on how the skepticism that is the foundation of science may soon begin to destroy it; that science may eat itself. "When I first went into geology, we all thought that in science you create a solid layer of findings, through experiment and careful investigation, and then you add a second layer, like a second layer of bricks, all very carefully, and so on. Occasionally some adventurous scientist stacks the bricks up in towers, and these towers turn out to be insubstantial and they get torn down, and you proceed again with the careful layers. But we now realize that the very first layers aren't even resting on solid ground. They are balanced on bubbles, on concepts that are full of air, and those bubbles are being burst today, one after the other."

Now, in psychology we prefer to simply keep laying bricks on the ground, anywhere we spot a patch of bare earth, because (stretching the metaphor like laffy taffy) our bricks tend to be narrow and pointy and nearly impossible to balance anything on. So the process is simplified; we rarely even pretend to make progress. But still, the point holds, and it's something I've been reflecting upon a lot, lately. It's like I said a few entries ago, in reference to Huxley: "Truth lies in reality itself; words, measurements, statistics, publications do not add to the amount of truth in the universe; the universe just IS, and all the truth that there is, is." Science produces sparse data, and attempts to distill that down to an even sparser description of phenomona, in the form of concepts. What hope do we have, in the long run, of building a solid edifice of understanding, let alone truth, with such sparse representational building material?

Then again, what other cosmically insignificant persuit would I rather be engaged in? Right. Off to finish up an analysis and engage in some extremely unappealing (but probably necessary) academic diplomacy / politics. Or, rather, grab a coke & do nothing very productive for the next 20 minutes or so until my experimental subject arrives, since, you know, what the hell can you get done in 20 minutes? Maybe some crunches & push-ups. Because exercise feels good, god damn it.

posted by Miles 9:34 AM

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