Determinism and choice | Paul Bloom

Some determinists would balk at this. The idea of “choosing” to stop (or choosing anything at all), they suggest, implies a mystical capacity to transcend the physical world. Many people think about choice in terms of this mystical capacity, and I agree with the determinists that they’re wrong. But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it. The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of what it means to say that people make choices, and in this regard, the notion that we are responsible for our fates remains intact.

Yes, the hard determinist position, with its dire connotations for the notion of free will, has always struck me as somewhat improbable. Doesn’t our capacity to imagine, to reflect, to conceptualise, to (attempt) to empathise of itself create continuous swirls and gaps in the causal stream?

That said, over the years I have moved further away from a strong “free will” position. Indeed the term itself should probably be set aside in discussions of this sort. It suggests a degree of freedom that ignores how heavily handicapped our choices are by genetic make-up, life experience and current circumstances.

The real question, I think, is whether we have any choice at all. Some, like Sam Harris, don’t think so. Continue reading


Neutral – in whose favor? | Uri Avnery

But were they neutral? Are they? Can they be?

My answer is: No, they couldn’t.

Not because they were dishonest. Not because they consciously served one side. Certainly not. Perish the thought!

But for a much deeper reason. They were brought up on the narrative of one side. From childhood on, they have internalized the history and the terminology of one side (ours). They couldn’t even imagine that the other side has a different narrative, with a different terminology.

In this article, Uri Avnery is asking whether the American intermediaries involved in trying to broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in recent decades have been neutral. More than that, whether they can be.

Depending on one’s own attitudes towards this conflict, his answers will either seem offensive or obvious. That’s just another example of the broader principle he’s pointing to. We all have our own set of narratives which makes true objectivity almost impossible. Not only in relation to large-scale vexed issues like this, but in every corner of our lives.

Overcoming them is exceptionally difficult, even after we become conscious of their existence and wish to make the change. Only empathy, a willingness to listen to someone else’s narrative and try to see things through their eyes offers us any chance at all.

Play-deprivation experiment | Aeon

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems.

via Children are suffering a severe deficit of play

‘The mind . . . in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’

Remarkable article about how our social experience and the way we come to frame our lives influences gene-expression.

I would’ve bet my eyeteeth that we’d get a lot of noisy results that are inconsistent from one realm to another. And at the level of individual genes that’s kind of true—there is some noise there.” But the kinds of genes that get dialed up or down in response to social experience, he said, and the gene networks and gene-expression cascades that they set off, “are surprisingly consistent—from monkeys to people, from five-year-old kids to adults, from Vancouver teenagers to 60-year-olds living in Chicago.”

The principal pathway through which this works appears to be the immune system.

Normally, a healthy immune system works by deploying what amounts to a leashed attack dog. It detects a pathogen, then sends inflammatory and other responses to destroy the invader while also activating an anti-inflammatory response—the leash—to keep the inflammation in check. The lonely Chicagoans’ immune systems, however, suggested an attack dog off leash—even though they weren’t sick. Some 78 genes that normally work together to drive inflammation were busier than usual, as if these healthy people were fighting infection. Meanwhile, 131 genes that usually cooperate to control inflammation were underactive. Continue reading

Animal Dreams

Are we alone in our self-awareness? Science long thought so but this conviction has cracked in recent decades.

In Being a Sandpiper Brendon Keim recounts his own journey from a focus on animals as types to animals as individuals:

Several months after meeting Prosek, I was walking in Jamaica Bay on a bitterly cold and cloudless day when I saw semipalmated sandpipers again, running ahead of a pounding surf that caught the afternoon sun and sprayed their retreats with prisms. As Elizabeth Bishop observed in her poem ‘Sandpiper’ (1955): ‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted,/and that every so often the world is bound to shake.’ I wondered what it would be like to be one of them, to run with the flock and feed in the surf, to experience life at their scale and society. Simply put, did they enjoy it? Were they cold? Did they remember their journeys, feel a connection to individuals with whom they’d flown, a concern for compatriots and mates?

No one who’s shared a close bond with an animal doubts their individuality so science’s blindness in this matter is a little odd. Continue reading