give your brain a workout

My friend Björn has just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, an invited article on the possible biological basis of free will.
In accordance with Björn’s commitment to openness in science, he circulated a preprint and paid to make the published version Open Access in the hope of stimulating further discussion:

The article has been through several rounds of peerreview, both informal and formal […] since august this year. Of course, the real discussion, I would hope, isn’t starting until today, when the article actually became accessible.

I read the preprint, and it made my head ache. In a good way. I’m really not qualified to say whether Björn is right or wrong or completely nuts on this issue, but he’s taken an ambitious stab at a Big Question and that’s always good. More to the point, he’s done it well and carefully and it’s worth your time to play along at home.
Do your brain a favor and give it a workout — the full article is freely available online, and if you have substantive comments to make I guarantee you that the author will be delighted.
To whet your appetite, here’s the abstract:

Until the advent of modern neuroscience, free will used to be a theological and a metaphysical concept, debated with little reference to brain function. Today, with ever increasing understanding of neurons, circuits and cognition, this concept has become outdated and any metaphysical account of free will is rightfully rejected. The consequence is not, however, that we become mindless automata responding predictably to external stimuli. On the contrary, accumulating evidence also from brains much smaller than ours points towards a general organization of brain function that incorporates flexible decision-making on the basis of complex computations negotiating internal and external processing. The adaptive value of such an organization consists of being unpredictable for competitors, prey or predators, as well as being able to explore the hidden resource deterministic automats would never find. At the same time, this organization allows all animals to respond efficiently with tried-and-tested behaviours to predictable and reliable stimuli. As has been the case so many times in the history of neuroscience, invertebrate model systems are spearheading these research efforts. This comparatively recent evidence indicates that one common ability of most if not all brains is to choose among different behavioural options even in the absence of differences in the environment and perform genuinely novel acts. Therefore, it seems a reasonable effort for any neurobiologist to join and support a rather illustrious list of scholars who are trying to wrestle the term ‘free will’ from its metaphysical ancestry. The goal is to arrive at a scientific concept of free will, starting from these recently discovered processes with a strong emphasis on the neurobiological mechanisms underlying them.

The cold equations; or, suppose I were a selfish jerk…

Zuska has chimed in on Chad’s pipeline problem post, about which I had my say below. Once again, I’m not going to address the substance of the post, except to say: I already said what I thought Chad got wrong, and to that extent I agree with Zuska; however, I also think Zuska should lay off Chad some, as much by way of realpolitik as anything else (see Rob Knop in Zuska’s comments).
Instead, I want to take up something that Lab Lemming said in comments:

At the risk of becoming an advocate for the white, male devil, what is the incentive for those of us who are white male repressors to change our wicked ways? More competition? Removal from our comfort zones? Fulfillment of somebody else’s abstract cause? Obviously disadvantaged people have an incentive to level the playing field, but why should we traditionally privileged Americans make it easier for them?

It’s an interesting point: why should I, a straight white male, actively try to undermine my many privileges? I have, and will have, no children, nor do I believe in any kind of life after death. My interest in this world stretches, at most, another hundred years or so.
Even if a level playing field meant maximally efficient use of “human capital”, such that a world without prejudice would be better even for straight white men than the world we have now, we won’t have a world without prejudice in a hundred years. Whatever steps we might make towards that goal in my lifetime will probably serve only to decrease my advantage.
Even if I had children, it might be argued that I could best provide for them not by working for a more level playing field but by making sure they got a damn good head start (which I could most easily do by maximizing my own advantage). The same could be said of my wife, for whom I could perhaps best provide by taking full advantage of the slope of the playing field, and whose own best bet might even be to work towards her material ends through me.
The same could not be said, however, for all of my female relatives and friends. These are people about whose welfare I care (for my own selfish reasons!), but for whom I cannot plausibly “provide” — even if I were filthy rich, they’re not going to want my charity. If I want them to prosper, I should do what I can to eliminate sexist obstacles in their way.
Further, even supposing I were to provide for the material wants of any female I favor, not all of most people’s goals are necessarily material. If what my wife wants is a scientific career, for instance, I cannot buy that for her; nor will she be satisfied with a position obtained through my influence. I will do best by her if I work towards a culture of science which does not disadvantage women.
(One might argue for a completely selfish viewpoint whereby I need not bother with the interests of anyone but myself. That way lies an empty, materialistic pyschopathology that I am not going to bother rebutting. My interests necessarily include those of at least a small circle of other people.)
There are at least two further objections to the idea that my best interest lies with the status quo. To the extent that a rising tide lifts all boats, I stand to benefit from social improvements that come about from a level playing field. Advocates of a free market should find this idea congenial, that having the best person in any given position regardless of sex (or race, or whatever else) will maximize the efficiency with which society utilizes the available talent. Thus the idea I put forward above, that movement towards equality will only disadvantage me, is not true: I stand to lose my unfair advantage but also to gain from improved social conditions.
Finally, and this is an idea that seems to escape the sociopathic weaselpack currently in charge of this country, there’s no guarantee that we Straight White Men can keep the upper hand we have currently got. As Rob Knop puts it in Zuska’s comments, what happens if the tables turn? You better believe we will be squealing our heads off for equal opportunity then.
So, even on the most selfish view that seems plausible to me — narrowing down my social and family circles, excluding children or any kind of afterlife and not even accounting for any value I might place on doing good or living according to principle — it is at least defensible on rational grounds for me to work against those prejudices which currently favour me. If nothing else, when the revolution comes my cries of “Comrade! We are victorious!” won’t ring quite so hollow.

(Update: apologies to Rob Knop for misspelling his name.)

meme or trope or whatever; blogosphere motto

Steve Gimbel of Philosopher’s Playground is guest blogging at the excellent Lawyers, Guns and Money. His first post is calling bullshit on the admin response to Haditha, and well worth reading for that, but I want to draw attention to this (emphasis mine):

Acting in an ethically proper sense is a two step process. Step 1: determine what is the right thing to do in the situation. Step 2: do it. In most cases step 1 is trivially easy; it is step 2 — having the moral courage to stand up and do what is right, even when it is not expedient –that is most frequently the tricky one. […]
But there are a few questions for which step 1 is not only non-trivial, it is incredibly difficult. This is where you bring out philosophers to set the table by clarifying the issue and then everyone joins in to engage in the moral side of deliberative democracy or what I like to call “civil fucking discourse”: it’s civil in that it is an open-minded, good faith attempt to find truth, but it is not civil in that it is a knock-down, drag-out, intellectual cage match where all ideas are welcome in the ring regardless of where they sit on the political/religious/ideological spectrum.

“Civil fucking discourse”. I love it. I think the blogosphere has found its motto.

mouths of babes

jebus.jpgMajikthise reports on “the cheesiest miracle in recent memory”; news stories here and here.

Scores of faithful Christians converged on Hoboken, N.J., yesterday to get a firsthand glimpse of a plaster statue of Jesus that enraptured witnesses say opened one of its eyes. […]
True believers started coming to the scene outside a Jackson St. housing project two days ago after Julio Dones began telling people that one of the eyes suddenly opened as he was cleaning the “sleeping” statue.
“I looked up, and saw the eye was open and light blue, like the sky,” said Dones, 52, who is partially blind himself […]
Dones, a 52-year-old neighborhood preacher who attends the nearby St. Francis Roman Catholic Church and maintains the shrine year-round, said he first saw the blinking after a friend alerted him to it Thursday, around 2 p.m.
He said tears flowed from the eye, and that Jesus’ head turned to the right.
“I felt a chill going up my body, the Holy Spirit coming upon me,” he said. “I … told the people to come see the great sight that just occurred. See, people don’t understand what God does. God does things in mysterious ways.”
Dones, who found the statue in the trash in Jersey City a year ago, said a woman who stopped by yesterday saw the right eye blink and began crying.

Never mind that Jesus, if there was a real Jesus, almost certainly didn’t have blue eyes; my first thought was the same one Orac had here. Compare and contrast:

“It’s an absolute miracle,” said Peggy Dyer, 41, a traffic attendant, as she gazed into the 2-foot statue’s brilliantly blue right eye. “That’s a sign: Something’s getting ready to happen.”
“I’m going to start going to church from now on because since I’ve seen this yesterday, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind,” said Tanya Vega, 27, a Hoboken masseuse.
…word that the shrine’s Sacred Heart of Jesus statue spontaneously blinked its right eye twice and kept it open — while its left eye stayed closed — sparked more excitement there than ever.
“God’s probably telling us to wake up. This is the last chance to do the right thing,” said Diane Stewart, who lives in the area. “I think … we ain’t got that much time.”

with this:

“It’s just a sculpture,” said Wanda Aldea, 14, shaking her head. “I think somebody just scraped its eyelid off.”

That’s the nation’s future and the hope of all the world speaking. Brings a tear to my atheist eye, it does.
(Yes, I elided a quote from a 13-yo believer and attributed to adults quotes that aren’t certain. Sue me. I’m not a reporter, I don’t have to be fair and balanced.)

grab bag

I have pretty much given up on keeping my bookmarks organised on a day-to-day basis; I keep a few handy reference links that I use regularly (like Merriam-Webster online) and just use Google to find anything else I want from time to time (say, a currency or temperature scale converter). Other than that, I keep a toolbar folder into which I dump all the interesting links that come my way, and every now and then I sort those links into an organised set of folders. It’s cleanup time again, so here are a couple of web goodies:
Winning greater influence for science. Daniel Yankelovich argues that there is an unspoken agreement between science and society which provides science with a “separation from involvement with goals, values, and institutions other than its own”, and that

This “social contract” has allowed science to pursue long-term fundamental questions and to build slowly on the basis of its new knowledge. Science has been able to do this even in the context of a society such as ours, which in most domains is impatient, excessively pragmatic, and thinks only in the short term. But this same social contract is responsible for the widening disparity between the sophistication of our science and the relatively primitive state of our social and political relationships.

Most scientists of my acquaintance (and I am guilty of this too) treat the gulf between the public and our “ivory towers” the same way as everyone treats the weather: we complain, but we do nothing. Yankelovich at least suggests a model for dealing with the problem.
On a related note, Eugene Goodheart’s essay Imperial Science takes on the “two cultures” view of CP Snow and his inheritors EO Wilson, Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins. I’m probably a little more sympathetic to Wilson’s side of things than Goodheart is, but the essay is a welcome thorn in the side of “sociobiology”, that misbegotten offshoot of evolutionary biology which attempts to reduce human lives to formulae and ape-behaviours.

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point

Amitai Etzioni presents an essay by David P. Barash on whether or not it is reasonable to be reasonable. It’s excellent, and you should read it.
One of the best parts is an elegant examination of something called the Wason test (after its inventor Peter Wason):

Imagine that you are confronted with four cards. Each has a letter of the alphabet on one side and a number on the other. You are also told this rule: If there is a vowel on one side, there must be an even number on the other. Your job is to determine which (if any) of the cards must be turned over in order to determine whether the rule is being followed. However, you must only turn over those cards that require turning over. Let’s say that the four cards are as follows:
T 6 E 9
Which ones should you turn over?

Got that? OK, now think about this:

You are a bartender at a nightclub where the legal drinking age is 21. Your job is to make sure that this rule is followed: People younger than 21 must not be drinking alcohol. Toward that end, you can ask individuals their age, or check what they are drinking, but you are required not to be any more intrusive than is absolutely necessary. You are confronted with four different situations, as shown below. In which case (if any) should you ask a patron his or her age, or find out what beverage is being consumed?
patron #1 Drinking Water
patron #2 Over 21
patron #3 Drinking Beer
patron #4 Under 21

For the answers, see Barash’s essay. I guess it’s old news to undergrad psych students, but I thought it was just fascinating. You can dig into the significance of the Wason test, and take another version of it, here.